ARROWS OF THE QUEEN By Mercedes Lackey

This is a long time favourite book of mine, I have read it so many times the cover is barely holding on to the pages, However it seems I have never reviewed it so here goes:

Valdemar is a small monarchy with a very varied population, one of the ethnic groups that make it up are the Holderkin, a stern patriarchal group who live on the border of the land subject to outlaws and forbidding weather. In this society Talia stands out, lively and thirsty for knowledge she dreams only of being a herald – one of the elite group who serve the Queen and keep the country functioning. 

When she flees punishment, she finds a white horse with sapphire eyes a “Heralds Companion” who carries her off to the capital to become just that. She is mystified by the experience as she had never heard of the companions choice and did not know how heralds were chosen.

This was an absorbing fantasy from the first time I read it. It is sentimental, could very easily qualify as a ‘YA’ due to the youth of the the main characters and the uncomplicated style of writing. It is nicely written, but nothing special, however I am quite ridiculously fond of it. It is something of a comfort read to me, Talia growing into her confidence and the Heralds collegium, finding friends and developing her talents, overcoming adversities… It is soothing reading with bursts of mild excitement and intrigue at times. 

This is the first of three books, the ‘Arrows trillogy” but I think it stands alone rather well, it was not until years after I had read this one that I got my hands on the next and that did not especially disturb me.

Not for everyone this book; it is sentimental and rather ‘girlie’ I know other readers who, despite liking the Lackey books in general, did not bond with Talia as they found her too bland. She is not a traditional strong female character, hers is a quite strength and she is more of an introvert. Still, I am very fond of this book.

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NINE SUMMERS; Our Mediterranean Odyssey By Rina Huber

This is a brave, lighthearted and charming story told by one of the two adventurers herself:

In the late 1980’s Dr Felix Huber was a respected surgeon in Sydney, Australia, married to Rina Huber (the author) with a grown up family and grandchildren. Then he is diagnosed with lymphoma, a treatable one, but reoccurrences were inevitable.

The couple’s response was to give up their jobs, buy a yacht and sail around the Mediterranean for the Nine Summers of the title.

The daily trials and joys and adventures and tribulations of sailing around the Mediterranean are engrossing and beautifully written. The authors voice comes through very strongly as does the relationship between Felix and Rina. I just love the notion of facing off a terminal diagnosis by doing what you had always dreamed of, so the entire voyage is inspiring in that regard.

The day to day descriptions of the sailing, the seas, the locations and the people they meet are intriguing and enjoyable. The descriptions are backed up by a useful map tracing their route and as both parties were interested in Art and History, Literature and Music, Food and Wine their descriptions of the places they visit resonated with me a great deal. Ultimately, the ending is sad; nine years is a long time to live with lymphoma and Felix dies at the end. The circumstances at the end of the story, therefore are no happy ending, but Rina’s writing makes it poignant rather than desperate and as a reader I found it a satisfying book from start to finish. 

DIRTY By Kylie Scott

Lydia is standing in the bedroom, all on her own, her wedding dress is on, her hair and makeup done, downstairs she can hear the voices of around 200 guests (none of whom she knows well) waiting for her to go down and marry Chris. It has been a whirlwind romance, Lydia has only been in town four months, but Chris has been everything that is charming in a boyfriend and fiance. Except that, Lydia has just received a txt with a video of him having hot sex with his groomsman the night before…

This was a very fun book to read. 

The theme of a bride running from a bad bridegroom straight into the arms of the ‘right’ man is maybe not original, but in ‘Dirty’ it is funny, well done with never a dull moment. Lydia’s panicked flight away from the wedding is hysterically funny in itself, but throughout the book the humour is consistent and very endearing. The leading man, Vaughan is believable, relateable and the chemistry between him and Lydia is palpable.

Both leading man and woman feel complex, real and interesting, two people trying to come to grips with the failings in their own lives as well as trying to come to terms with the attraction between them. As well as the main plot; obviously, the romance bit, we have several concurrent subplots and a very nice cast of secondary and tertiary characters to be involved in.

I loved the descriptions of the small town in which the drama unfolds, the site descriptions struck me as effortlessly visual; I can see the Dive Bar, Vaughan’s childhood home and the small town in my head as I read. Which I really enjoyed.

The sex is hot and there is plenty of it, but this is no lazy romance which relies only on the main characters to swing the story. There are a wide range of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, the failed romance and the people involved in it are treated humorously, but the others such as Vaughan’s sister, are well developed and obviously have lives of there own. The cynic in me says “Yes, and future books of their own too” but that is ok.

In fact, around the end I realised that I had actually read one later in this series, but this is my favourite of the two. Recommended to anyone wanting a well written, funny and easy to read lust romance.

DISCOVERING STELLA By K. M. Golland

As you can probably tell from the two stars fleeing into the distance – I did not love it…

Our leading lady, Stella is fleeing some great big horrible haunting past. In pursuit of escape she reconnects with a long lost stepbrother, leaves Melbourne and goes to stay with him in a remote, rural, drought struck small Australian town. As she is approaching town her car dies and she is ‘rescued’ by an amazingly hot mechanic – enter our leading man. Lawson seems like a nice guy, he is instantly taken with the gorgeous (and hot) young woman whose car is belching clouds of steam and it all goes on from there.

This book was one I found tedious, poorly written and immensely disappointing, I had to resort to skim reading to get through it. In fairness to the book (which, apparently, nearly everyone but me got all weak at the knees and four-stars-in-the-eyes about) I had just read a really, really good romance by a different author, the previous romance I had read might have set the bar too high on this one.

Though, honestly, I don’t think I would ever have really loved this book. It isn’t terribly written, but it is very superficial most of the time and too long for the basic plot. I enjoy reading the scenes of a book; the towns, forests, rooms and streets that make the scene real for me. This author does not really do this. When Stella comes to town we hear that the town is dry and in drought. That is about all the description we get of the town. There is a river, she walks beside it and twists her foot, that is about as much as we see of the river. The only location that gets any attempt at vivid description is a strawberry farm, late in the book but it was too little too late.

Secondary characters are lacking; there is the step brother and his – wife? girlfriend? whatever. There is the inevitable ex-girlfriend of Lawson and the inevitable guy to make him jealous of Stella. Once a secondary character is briefly sketched at first encounter though, they get no more attention. Now, we don’t necessarily need a lot of secondary characters in a romance, but 292 pages worth of Stella crushing on Lawson and Lawson telling us about his hard cock and tight balls is a bit much with no secondary characters, secondary plot or any scene description.

Oh, yes, if you don’t like swearing, you will not like this book; rural Australians swear, using ‘fuck’ as adjective, noun, subject and pronoun on occasion, Lawson is true to life in that regard. In fact I quite liked Lawson, I was impressed at the author’s ability to write a believable male character. His only major flaw is his fixation with Stella, though having met his ex-girlfriend, he obviously has a thing for batshite crazy women.

Stella now, I didn’t like. At first I did (first hundred pages, maybe) but I got sick of the crazy with no substance after a while. Stella had something bad happen to her a year and a half ago. What that ‘tewibble tewibble’ thing might be is the teaser for the first part of the novel. Her constant idiotic behaviour, whining and drama queening around however, over time reduces all sympathy for the silly little bint’s pain. When the ‘big-nasty-tewibble’ is revealed it is so…. banal that it is obvious there must be more to it. There is, but I had to read too long to get to it, so I no longer cared. Also, I have seen a lot of people deal with worse. Without being so selfish, abusive of others and annoying. No sympathy for Stella from me.

The romance was tepid and the attraction between the two unconvincing. Would I have found it more convincing if I liked Stella? Maybe, but I doubt it. The entirety of the attraction (and the book for that matter), seems to me to be “me man, you woman, you hot, lets fuck.” “Me woman, you hot man, save me from myself, lets fuck”. This is pretty harsh, I know, especially about a book that everyone else seemed to love. But that is my honest feeling about it. Sadly. I really did want to like it.

THE MERMAIDS DAUGHTER By Ann Claycomb

What if the little mermaid of the famous Hans Christian Andersen’s story had had a daughter? 

Kathleen is at a conservatory studying opera, her soprano is amazing and she is passionate about music and singling. Her whole life has revolved around it in fact. Her father is a famous composer now, but when Kathleen was a baby her young, student, single parent father took her along when he played piano to cover his tuition. She has always sung. Her girlfriend, Harry is also a talented singer at the same conservatory and from the outside Kathleen’s life looks perfect.

What few people see is all her life she has suffered from stabbing pains in her feet, as though she was walking on knives. Pains that no doctor can do anything about, but which are eased by immersion in the sea. Kathleen has never read The Little Mermaid, but there is reason to believe that whatever affects her affected her mother before her. When Kathleen and Harry go to Ireland to try and discover any family history that might help with the condition, they have no idea just what a strange family history will be revealed to them.

This was an exciting, magical book! The concept is indeed magically enchanting, but it is coupled with a very realistic, down to earth attitude from the characters, which makes it even more unearthly. The writing is beautiful, almost without flaw. Enough time is given to the back history,dolled out bit by bit so that the reader is kept on the edge of their seat watching it unfold. At the same time, watching Kathleen and Harry trying to cope without our privileged knowledge makes for a very dark and really thrilling story.

One thing I truly loved and respected about this book, is the natural complexity of the situation, the elaborate construction of a plot and character dynamic in which the reader cannot see the ending. I don’t just mean that the ending can’t be predicted -though I certainly didn’t- it is more that we can’t see how it could end. We want a happy ending for the people we have become attached to, but whatis a happy ending? Happy for who? How can the tangled scenario be unraveled in any way that will not end in tragedy?

The formidable skills of the author do just that! The ending is thrilling, and kept me guessing right to the end, but I have rarely read an ending that was so very satisfying. And, just as one is morning the end of the book, not quite ready to say goodbye, but very conscious that it has reached a natural conclusion; then there is a short story ; The Mermaid at the Opera to let one down gently. It was a great addition at the end. 

This was one of the nicest novels I have accidentally encountered, with perfect plot development and beautiful literary execution. Would definitely recommend to anyone who loves opera, the ocean, retelling of fairy tales or just magic realism in general.

THE BINDING By

This book is an interesting example of light magic realism used in a otherwise realistic scenario. The book is set in a vaguely medieval setting (We have pistols and some machinery, coaches ect) but does not dedicate a lot of time to place and world building.

This novel is, essentially a YA love story with the slight twist that the romance is LGBT rather than standard. The twist to the romance, and the world, is that in this world a ‘book’ is usually made through a ‘binding’ in which a person with the right skills writes the clients memories down, after which they are totally erased from their memory.

While this was a good enough book with a gorgeous cover I was a little disappointed in it’s content and in order to explain why, I really need to do something I rarely approve of and replicate the blurb. I always think people can read it for themselves, but the blurb is the reason for my disappointment in the content: Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.

But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.

See? It is exciting isn’t it? I read this and I burned to read it; it jumped right ahead of my reading queue and I immersed myself in it…. with growing dismay…

Because that fascinating description is not really what this book is. Oh yes, it is all true but it is misleading. It makes it sound like ‘the binding’ will be a major part of the plot and it never is. You only get about a dozen pages relating to the binding. Emmett is taken as an apprentice to the trade, yes, but he knows nothing about it, is taught how to trim pages and clean the house, but not much else. We, the readers, learn nothing about Binding either, we follow Emmett about waiting… waiting… waiting for something to happen. It is obvious to us, from the get go, if not to him, that he has been Bound himself and when he finally gets to learn this we start the next part of the book.

This is back story, Emmett at home on the farm before he ‘got sick’ or was ‘apprenticed’ . There is no magic and nothing about Binding. This long section describes the scenario under which Emmett’s love story begins. There is a lot of it, and it is pretty interesting and well written. The problem here is largely that the main character is not terribly believable. Emmett is one of the least convincing boys I have ever read. Some authors can write across the gender wall some can’t. This is a ‘can’t’. From inside his head, we only know he is male because we are told so. He is also a bit dense. While he is represented as being ‘naive’ because he is a farmer, I found this annoying. Rural people are rarely dense, they usually have good social awareness (because there is little else to do, recreationaly other than socialise) and are usually pretty practiced pretty early at all things sexual (because there is so little recreation). Emmett is leadenly behind in everything.

Next, we skip forward to after Emmetts ‘master’ dies. He is dragged to the city bad things happen and we speed toward the conclusion of our love story. Here we do finally learn a bit more about Binding, but only is a social context; how it is misused by bad people ect. That is good enough. But at the end of the day, this is not a magical realism story about a world with Binding, it is a romance set in a medieval world with one slight quirk.

The cover description does it no favours. It is a good book, well set out, well written, well edited and with an unusual story to tell. By fooling the reader into believing it is something else, you have readers like myself, walking away with disappointment, which is a great shame. The three stars are well deserved, but I rather think it would be more stars without the subterfuge.

A word on the cover! The cover is rich luscious and absolutely gorgeous, it is most appropriate for a story about a Binder who makes the covers of the Bindings beautiful to represent the stories within (shame that was only briefly dealt with in the text). The image on GR does not do the subtlety of the layering of colours and gilding justice. It was worth reading just for the cover, almost.

With thanks to the local bookshop for my ARC copy.

THE CHANGES TRILOGY By Peter Dickinson

The changes trilogy is a three book compendium of children’s stories written by in the 1960-1980’s. Set in England, but it is an England in which something has changed; leading to The Changes as people refer to them if they refer to them at all. A violent hatred of machines and mechanisms (even as basic a devise as a can opener or compass can end up in lynching) has swept the land, many people escaped overseas but those who remain live a very medieval style life in which cottage industries and manual labor are prominent. The world building is a bit erratic, and from book to book there are some inconsistencies which did not bother me at all, though I think other people found them more annoying than I did.

Back in the mists of time, growing up in the Middle East with very little English reading matter I came across The Weathermonger, and adored it more than I can say. Much more recently, as an adult, I was excited to find there were two more companion books to the Weathermonger and I was excited to read them all, despite trepidation, because those books you loved as a child do not always read as well when you are adult.

I need not have worried, the beautiful ,complex writing was as good now as it ever was back in the 1980’s.

I vacillated for a while on what order to read them in. I had heard that The Weathermonger was actually written first, though being chronologically last, and that I was best to read it first. The publishing information in the book seems to refute this and at last I read them in the chronological order in which they were presented in the book and that worked very well for me. As well as moving forward in time through the events, I felt that the authors writing style evolved in complexity as well. All three stories make perfectly good standalone stories also, and they are best reviewed this way.

THE DEVIL’S CHILDREN

The first, The Devil’s Children Follows the fortunes of Nicky, a child. In the first upheaval of the Changes her parents were among the people planning to flee to France and she was going with them, but became separated from them -and as she had always been told to do- went home to wait. She has waited for a month and they never came. Nicky attaches herself to a group of Sikhs who are themselves unaffected by the changes, in that they do not hate machines and have not forgotten as much as most people have. They just want to find a safe place to live, but this is difficult in a country that has returned to a feudal fear of strangers. 

In addition to the peculiar medieval social restructuring, morals and behaviours, there is also a very odd interpretation of medieval christianity in these books. This fist one, showcases all these oddities of the effect the changes have had on people. The fear of machines, the violence toward anyone using machines, the strange foggy memory loss that people affected by the changes get when they are trying to remember things from before. These issues are not addressed as comprehensively in the next two books, it is as if this is the one in which the author is exploring the concept the most. Personally, I think he did a pretty good job but there were still a lot of things that do not hold together. These inconsistencies make a lot more sense after one has read the Weathermonger – so that might be part of the reason for the suggested order of reading which starts with the end book.

This story was, to me a lot of fun, I enjoyed the dynamics of the group in which Nicky was traveling, the search for a place to live, the trials and tribulations, all were a lot of fun. I am not quite sure how old Nicky is – older than eight? Maybe ten? She is very young for her age I think, but the kids were a lot less worldly in kids books of the 70’s. I especially loved the end of the story, as it sets up subsequent books.

HEARTSEASE

Like The Devil’s Children, this book was new to me and I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Margaret and her cousin Jonathan. Their village has just stoned a ‘witch’ to death, but the children rescue him and find that he is in fact an American spy, come to the islands to try and figure out what is happening there. After saving his life the children decide to try and help him escape England and in this book, as in the next, there are strong themes about machinery (as they try and fix it) which I am much more able to like these days than I would have as a child.

THE WEATHERMONGER

The Weathermonger was a re-read for me, but just as vivid exciting and enjoyable as it had been when I read it back in the 80’s. Geoffrey was a weathermonger ; he could create weather, call storms and so forth as such he was an important and wealthy young man in the village. But he wakes up on a small island in a bay with no memory of this; he has been denounced as a witch, hit on the head and now they are trying to drown him and his kid sister Sally. They escape to France, but are sent back to England in another attempt to discover what has happened to England. The disturbance seems centered near the Welsh border. Of course, they do more than discover what it is….

All the stories seem to me to be an odd combination, because the characters are young, naive characters who behave younger than a modern child of the same age would. At the same time the stories are complex, well written and interesting, perhaps beyond the age of the characters in them. The result works well for adults who likekid’s books and I am pretty sure that anyone who wants their kid’s to read stuff with no sex, swearing ect will be well satisfied.

They are not truly dystopian, for society has not really collapsed it has just reformed, but they do explore the notions of society in a world from which technology has been erased, so they should appeal to people who favour dystopia. In any case, it is wonderful to find that books you loved as a kid are every bit as good on re-reading them as an adult.