The Aldabreshin Compass series – Juliet McKenna (Spoilers)

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The Aldabreshin Archipelago consists of a number of domains (clusters of islands) which are ruled by a Warlord, who is the absolute ruler there, and who is aided and abetted by his wives – on average there are three wives in a Warlord’s household, although a young man may become a Warlord while he is still unmarried (as occurs in the final book in this quartet).

Southern Fire

In the first book of this quartet Daish Kheda, Warlord of the Daish domain, finds himself facing the worst possible foes, wildmen encouraged by magic-wielders. Such wizards are unknown in the southern reaches of the Archipelago, so far from the wizard-infested unbroken lands that lie so much closer to the northern domains. These wizard-led savages have come out of the southern ocean, where it was believed nothing existed, and Kheda, as nearest neighbour to the beset Chazen domain, finds himself compelled to find some way of fighting back against the magic. He laboriously makes his way north across the Archipelago until he reaches the domain of Shek Khul, where he learns that Khul had been forced to deal with northern magic some three years earlier (as detailed in The Swordsman’s Oath, the second book in McKenna’s first series The Tales of Einarinn). Shek Khul gives Kheda a paste that is known to inhibit the powers of wizards and advises him to locate a man named Dev, whom Khul believes to be involved with wizardry, if he is not a barbarian wizard himself. Kheda manages to locate Dev, with the aid of Rhisala, a poet from the Shek domain, who is far more than she seems. Together they persuade Dev to assist them in dealing with the southern threat to the Archipelago, but having seen off the last of the wildmen, and killed off their wizard leaders, Kheda finds himself rejected by his first wife because of his involvement with magic – to the people of the Archipelago, magic is anathema – the kind of magic practised by most wizards of Einarinn is elemental magic, and the Aldabreshin people believe it corrupts the elements, making them unreliable for the forms of divination which they practice.

Janne Daish encourages Kheda to become the Warlord of the Chazen domain, after the sudden death of Chazen Saril from food poisoning. Since Janne Daish is not a woman to be argued with when she sets her mind to something, Daish Kheda unexpectedly finds himself obliged to turn his back on his three wives and their children, in order to take up the role of Chazen Kheda instead. Little does Kheda know, however, that he has not seen the last of the wildmen and wizards of the south…

Northern Storm

For those who’ve read McKenna’s first series, The Tales of Einarinn quintet, the novels of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet take the brief background of The Swordsman’s Oath and add colour, depth, life, and history in greater measure. They also show the reader the Archipelago from a native’s point of view, instead of from an outsider’s (largely unsympathetic) point of view, and this naturally gives the reader a different perspective on many aspects of life in the Archipelago, particularly the hatred of elemental magic that is felt by the Aldabreshin. Indeed one only has to consider the chaos caused by the wizard Azazir (who is regarded as a madman even by his fellow mages) in The Thief’s Gamble, (the first book of McKenna’s first series) to understand that the disrupting influence of elemental magic on the patterns of nature would be abhorrent to the Warlords who read portents in earth, air, fire and water in order to guide the lives of themselves and their people.

The chief protagonist of the quartet is an Aldabreshin Warlord, and this book opens with Chazen Kheda (formerly Daish Kheda) still struggling to come to terms with his forced assumption of the role of Warlord of the Chazen domain after the abrupt death from food poisoning suffered by its previous Warlord, Chazen Saril, half a year ago.

Kheda is initially engaged in an attempt to round up the last of the barbarian savages who, the year before, had come from somewhere in the southern ocean to wreak havoc with a different sort of elemental magic to that used on the mainland to the north of the Archipelago. Kheda had been forced into an uneasy alliance with the unscrupulous northern mage, Dev (who had briefly appeared in The Swordsman’s Oath as an agent of the Archmage of the northern mages). Dev is now acting (with the emphasis on ‘acting’) as Kheda’s personal slave/bodyguard in order to ensure he gets paid for his assistance in getting rid of the savage wizards who had accompanied the southern invaders, and he and Kheda are visiting the pearl beds of the Chazen domain in order to assess what they will have to barter for the materials and goods that they need to continue the rebuilding of the Chazen domain.

Their plans to round up the last of the surviving savages and get back to normal life are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a dragon created from elemental magic, a beast that has never before been seen in the Archipelago. Kheda thus finds himself and his domain under threat for a second time, and once again he is forced into an uneasy, but necessary, alliance with a northern mage in order to defeat and destroy the dragon. This time, however, the mage is a woman named Velindre (a character who briefly appeared in The Warrior’s Bond, the fourth book of McKenna’s first series) whom Dev suggests may know how to deal with the dragon.

Velindre knows that her mentor Otrick knew how to summon an elemental dragon, but he is dead, so she is forced to seek out Azazir (who also has this ability) in order to acquire the necessary magical knowledge to create a dragon of her own. Lest anyone think this mere altruism on the part of Velindre, who knows that if her nature is revealed she will killed to save the Archipelago from her corrupting influence, it should be pointed out that Velindre is still smarting from being passed over for the post of Cloud Mistress (Otrick was Cloud Master before his death), and she hopes that mastering this magic will force Planir and the wizards on the ruling Council in Hadrumal to acknowledge that they picked the wrong mage for the job.

Western Shore

The opening chapter of the third book of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet opens with Chazen Kheda sitting with his wife, Itrac, who is about to give birth. Soon afterwards the northern mage, Velindre, arrives back in the Chazen domain bringing news to Kheda. When I first met Velindre in The Warrior’s Bond, I confess to finding her so abrasive I disliked her almost instantly, and I only slowly warmed to her during the course of that book as it became ever clearer that Velindre is very much a square peg in a round hole, and it’s not surprising that she prefers life away from the fabled wizards’ isle of Hadrumal.

I was also delighted to see Naldeth return. The last I saw of him, he was suffering badly from a very painful run-in with pirates during The Assassin’s Edge (the final book of McKenna’s first series), so it was good to see him recovered, to a certain extent, and joining Velindre, Kheda and Risala on their journey south into uncharted (for the Aldabreshin people) waters. Naldeth is certainly a more likeable mage than Dev, and far more conscientious; after his experiences with the pirates, he’s even less interested in having power over others, than many a mage. He and Velindre work well together, and their final battle at the end of the book was intense.

The four of them discover things aren’t as straight-forward down in the southern reaches as they’d hoped, and their venture does not go as easily as they’d have liked when they discover that they cannot communicate with the wildmen they find on the island there – except by demonstration of Naldeth and Velindre’s powers. The presence of both elemental dragons and mages from the far Eastern Ocean (the latter of whom Naldeth and Velindre encountered in McKenna’s first series) further complicate matters, and although matters are somewhat resolved to Kheda’s liking, there is no easy solution to a complicated situation. In the end, Naldeth remains on the island, despite his inability to communicate easily with the natives, in the hope that he can help them and ensure that they aren’t exploited by either Hadrumal’s mages nor those of the Eastern Ocean.

Eastern Tide

The Aldabreshin Archipelago continues to be plagued by dragons and its people live in terror of the coming of the dragons to their island homes. Chazen Kheda, along with the poet Risala, and the Northern mage Velindre, are chasing rumours of a water dragon, since they are the only ones who know the secrets of how to repel these fearsome beasts. In spite of the fact that they have saved hundreds of lives since the first dragon invaded the Chazen domain, they are forced to travel incognito, putting their lives at risk with their masquerade of the poet (Risala) and the zamorin scholar (Velindre disguised as a eunuch), and their slave (Kheda, who is really a Warlord).

The ever-changing political balance between the Warlords of the Archipelago is teetering dangerously as various rival factions seek to gain advantage over their neighbours and warfare is threatened. Kheda finds himself reluctantly drawn into the rivalries as his fame as a dragon-fighter become more widely known. His apparent skill in defeating dragons is a powerful political tool and various Warlords seek to bribe, seduce (via their wives), or threaten Kheda into sharing his knowledge; but the one thing Kheda cannot do is reveal the source of his apparent power over dragons because then the lives of himself and his companions will be at risk for they are tainted by forbidden magic from the Northern lands. If anyone was to uncover Velindre’s true identity as a powerful mage from the feared island of Hadrumal, they would all be killed outright.

Unfortunately for Kheda, his contact with the magic of the northern mages has caused him to have doubts about the very foundations of his people’s ancient beliefs in the reading of omens, which places his future as the Chazen Warlord in doubt, and threatens the future health and happiness of his wife Itrac Chazen and their twin baby daughters.

To add to Kheda’s woes, Velindre is forced to enlist the aid of another mage, Sirince, as they’ve discovered there are more dragons in the Archipelago than anyone had ever guessed or believed possible; two of Kheda’s former Daish wives have married out of the domain, leaving his unmarried son Daish Sirket in charge of the domain with only the support of Kheda’s timid third ex-wife – hoping that Daish Sirket will fail in his responsibilities, thereby proving that the Kheda domain is tainted by magic just as Chazen was; Orhan, the son of Kheda’s hated rival, Ulla Safar, is busy leading an uprising against his father – and he’s proposing to marry Kheda’s eldest daughter of the Daish domain, of which he was formerly the Warlord.

At the conclusion of the fourth and final book Kheda resolves to remain a free agent rather than taking up the role of Warlord of Chazen again – fearing that he is too mired in the magic of Hadrumal’s mages to be a sound bargain to Itrac Chazen, who has already lost one husband to the taint of magic. He leaves Itrac in charge of the domain, despite the fact that such a move is wholly unprecedented, sees his daughter married to Orhan, and is free to take Risala as his lover since he does not have a wife any longer.

These is a deeply satisfying quartet of books – and I encourage you to read them, particularly if you’re looking for a less Westernised take on the epic fantasy genre (and it’s worth noting that most of the characters are people of colour).


(IMAGE CREDITS: Wyrd and Wonder Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

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(I apologise for a lack of reviews of late – real life had its teeth in me and finding time and mental energy to write reviews wasn’t easy.)

Five books for Shakespeare’s birthday

If you’re looking to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday but don’t want to read one of his plays, I can recommend 4 non-fiction and one fiction accounts of his life:

– Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson is a no-nonsense, succinct, and engaging look at the playwright’s life and work. He pours scorn on the whole Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare’s-Plays debate – which I confess pleased me mightily as I’m firmly in the camp that says he did!

– 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare by James Shapiro is a more scholarly book than Bryson’s, and as the title implies, concentrates on one specific year – 1599. Alternatively, try 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

– William Shakespeare: Very Interesting People by Peter Holland is a very short volume from Oxford University Press. It’s compact and informative.

– Fictionally, I love (and I do mean love!), Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, about a young boy who finds himself time-travelling back to 1599 and appearing in the very first production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (And yes, I admit that as a fan of time-travel tales, this story has a double appeal!) It’s aimed at younger readers, but don’t let that put you off!

Kat Wolfe Investigates – Lauren St John (Spoilers)

Kat Wolfe Investigates

After a break-in at their London home, Kat Wolfe’s veterinary-surgeon mum decides it’s time to move to the country, particularly as Dr Wolfe’s less than impressed with the bosses at her current veterinary practice. Her new job in the seemingly idyllic Bluebell Bay (where the worst crime of the last ten years was a stolen giant pumpkin) on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast comes with one condition: they have to adopt Tiny, a huge, near-wild Savannah, who initially resists Kat’s best attempts at cat whispering.

When Kat starts a pet-sitting agency to make some pocket money, her troubles begin to escalate. The owner of her first client, an Amazon parrot called Bailey, appears to have vanished from his fortified, gadget-filled cliff-top home, leaving only a half-packed suitcase, a threatening phone message, and a mysterious parcel. The only person who shares Kat’s conviction that he’s the victim of foul play is Harper Lamb, the daughter of a visiting American Palaeontology professor. A language and coding whizz, Harper spends the book laid up with two broken legs thanks to antics of her retired racehorse, the aptly-named Pocket Rocket, who becomes another of Kat’s new clients. (She brings him a friend in the shape of a semi-feral outdoor cat and teaches him to place ‘horse football’ to get him used to her, and to give him some exercise since Harper can’t ride him, and Kat’s not yet ready to do so.)

Kat also takes on dog-walking duties for retired librarian Edith (and her dog Toby), whose obnoxious son, Reg (the grower of the stolen giant pumpkin) wants to put her in a dreary ‘care home’ so he can sell her cottage and rake in the money from its sale.

Kat introduces Edith to the mysteries of the internet, and the joys of listening to audio books as her eyesight isn’t what it was, and the pair get caught up in the mystery of the Phantom of Oxford Street (an unidentified man who collapsed in Oxford Street and was whisked away by an ambulance that had false licence plates).

However, what starts out as a bit of mystery-solving holiday fun quickly turns darker and deadlier for the intrepid Wolfe and Lamb. When all the clues begin to point to the local army base, they have to try to persuade the sceptical village bobby, Sergeant Singh, to take them seriously, particularly when it looks like Kat’s estranged grandfather, the Minister of Defence, could be the intended target of a poisoner.

This book was utterly delightful. A riot and a romp, and a fast-paced mystery adventure that makes Holmes and Watson look quite pedestrian. I whizzed through this book with much laughter and joy in the antics of children and animals, and the adults caught up in their adventure.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo (Spoilers)

The Poet X

15 year old Xiomara Batista is a poet, a young woman whose blossoming body earns her unwanted attention from boys and men who think the shape of her body gives them the right to touch it, and also earns her stern lectures from her mother, who wants her daughter to be a saint and a virgin until she’s married, and whose strictly devout religious life causes Xiomara much hurt and misery, particularly as her mother automatically blames her for the unwanted attention she receives.

I think about all the things we could be / if we were never told our bodies were not built for them. 

Xiomara starts a new school year and she has a new English teacher who spots her talent and gently encourages her to attend her after-school poetry club on a Tuesday – but Xiomara can’t go because she goes to Confirmation classes then (even though she’s old enough to have been confirmed at least a year ago). The Confirmation classes serve to highlight Xiomara’s difficulties with her mother’s religious beliefs, and she eventually stops going and goes to Poetry Club instead.

Trouble is always lurking in the background for Xiomara but it comes to a head when her mother spots her riding a train home with her boyfriend Aman. The pair are kissing, completely oblivious to the world around them, and Xiomara misses her stop because she’s too caught up in the kissing. When she finally makes it home, she’s confronted by her angry mother, and punished by being confined to the house unless she’s in school or at church for services or her Confirmation classes – she even has her cell phone taken away. She gets through it with the silent support of her older twin brother, Xavier, whom she usually just calls ‘Twin’, and her poetry writing.

Eventually her mother returns her cell, and Xiomara learns about an upcoming poetry slam. She’s both terrified and exhilarated at the idea of taking part, but then her relationship with her mother takes an even worse turn – on the morning of her birthday she accidentally leaves her notebook full of poems on the kitchen table, and she leaves the poetry club to find two missed calls on her cell – her mother is waiting for her at home.

Xiomara rushes home and is confronted by her mother who’s angry not only at her daughter’s disobedience and defiance (she’s been pretending to go to Confirmation classes, not having told her mother that Father Sean had suggested she hold off on continuing with them since she has so many questions about her faith), but also furious about what she’s been writing in her poems. They end up having a massive row in which Xiomara flings scraps of her poetry at her mother while her mother flings Bible verses back. It culminates in her mother setting fire to her notebook, which brings her twin brother and her father (who’s always left parenting up to his wife) rushing into the room. Xiomara suggests that her mother burn her too since the poems are inside her, and then she rushes out.

Although she and Aman had split up a while before because he hadn’t stepped in to defend her from the unwanted attentions of another boy who’d grabbed her ass in the hallway by her locker, she calls Aman and asks if she can visit him. She spends the night at his place, just the two of them as his father works nights and his mother is absent, and they spend a lot of time kissing, then eventually get undressed, but she quickly realises she’s not ready for sex yet, and Aman respects that – to her complete astonishment as she’s too used to the idea that girls ‘put out or you get out’.

Mrs Galiano has her for first period English the following morning and she knows something is wrong as she’d worried about Xiomara’s abrupt exit following the previous afternoon’s Poetry Club when she heard her mother’s voicemail. Mrs Galiano had got Xiomara’s home number from the school directory and spoke to her father, who’d said they were all worried about where Xiomara had gone. She lets Xiomara cry and tell her all about it, then tells her that she’ll have to go home and see her family, and that she needs to talk to her mother properly, and figure out a way to have a relationship with her.

Leaving at the end of the day with Aman, Xiomara finds Caridad, her best girl friend, and her twin brother, who goes to the ‘genius’ school across town (for the academically gifted) are both waiting for her, and Xiomara realises that she’s not as alone as she’d thought. And she also realises who she can ask to help her to talk to her mother without another screaming match.

She arrives home with her twin brother and Father Sean, and when her mother sees the priest, she breaks down, and Xiomara is able to hug her mother and realises that she does love her even if she thinks she hates her.

Mother and daughter go to the church on a regular basis for sessions with Father Sean, and sometimes Twin and her father go too, and her mother begins teaching Communion classes to the youngest children at the church, and that makes her happier than Xiomara can ever recall her being before.

And her parents, and Twin, and Father Sean, and Aman and her Poetry Club friends, all go along to the Slam too, and Xiomara performs one of her poems, and afterwards they go back to Xiomara’s home where they eat pizza and also rice and beans, and talk and listen to music, and her father dances with her. And Xiomara knows that she and her mother may never go and buy a Prom dress together, but at least they can have a relationship that isn’t solely about her mother’s fears that she’ll end up pregnant before she gets married.

I loved this book. I’ve never read a novel written wholly in verse before, so that was a treat, as was Xiomara’s strong, fierce, and powerful voice. I fell in love with Xiomara from the very beginning and was willing her on, wanting her to find a way to voice her feelings and questions, her fears and her experiences of being a young black woman who’s talked over, talked down to, or simply ignored at every turn.

This book made me cry, made me cheer, and made me happy to have met Xiomara, a beautiful, brave, black girl. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Passing Strange – Ellen Klages (Spoilers)

Passing Strange

While Passing Strange opens and closes in the present day with Helen Young, the last of a group of queer ‘transgressive’ women of ‘the Circle’, the bulk of this tale centres around Haskell, a bisexual artist, and Emily, a lesbian English student and singer.

This is a tragic romance with a happy-ish ending. It’s a tale of a small group of queer women doing their best to live and love the way they chose despite draconian laws and homophobic attitudes to their existence: Franny and Babs, who teaches mathematics, are married; Helen Young, a Japanese lawyer who’s only just graduated a year earlier and is in a marriage of convenience with a gay man, also earns money dancing in the Forbidden City, Chinatown. Emily’s newly arrived in San Francisco having been kicked out of Wellesley College after being found in bed with her lover, Jilly. The latter is taken to a mental asylum to be ‘cured’ of her lesbianism before being married off to the man of her parents’ choice, but Emily walks out before her own parents can arrive and take her choices from her. An English student with literary aspirations and an amazing voice, she pitches up at Mona’s where she dresses in men’s clothing – apart from the obligatory three items of women’s clothing necessary to comply with the law that said women couldn’t dress as men – and sings as ‘Spike’, a nickname earned in honour of her legendary volleyball spike.

Haskell is legally married to a man named Len, an older man who was a poet and thought he was better than everyone else. He went for a sailor nearly four years before the story opens, and Haskell believes she’ll never see him again, but after a short period of domestic and sexual bliss with Emily, he rolls into town and demands money, claiming she must be coining it in because he’s seen her Weird Menace covers everywhere. She refuses him and tries to make him sign the divorce papers she’s had drawn up. Instead he attacks her and tears up the paperwork, and Emily comes home to find Haskell huddled up on the floor, suffering from flashbacks of her childhood beatings at the hands of her mother.

The couple head over to Forbidden City, with Emily dressed as Spike in a suit her brother Ned sent to her as it no longer fits him, and Haskell dressed in a blue jumpsuit and looking more feminine than is the norm for her. After a wonderfully romantic evening, they’re about to make their way home when Len accosts them, having followed them from Haskell’s apartment building. He’s drunk and aggressive, and Emily steps in to stop him from hitting Haskell again, but when she hits him he falls off the sidewalk into the path of a passing cab and the car hits him, catapulting him into the road where he’s instantly killed.

Haskell sends Emily to change her clothes as the detectives who will be showing up won’t take kindly to finding a woman dressed as a man, even if Emily is abiding by the three garment rule. Emily goes back into the club where Helen finds her some different, women’s,  clothes to wear and Helen’s husband Eddie escorts Emily from the club until she can take public transport across town to Franny’s.

The police, unfortunately, have a good description and a police artist sketch of Emily, so she remains at Franny’s while the cops hunt high and low for her. Then Helen reveals that Len had died owing the IRS nearly $2000, and because he’d completed his tax form with the information he was married and shared a joint account with Haskell, she’s now liable for his debt.

After giving it some thought, Haskell decides the only thing she and Emily can do is use her bubbe’s (grandmother’s) secret recipe for tundérpör which will allow them to use a specific kind of magic to transfer them into a painting. She does a painting of herself and Emily, the latter wearing her ‘Spike’ outfit from the night of Len’s death, while she wears her blue jumpsuit, and with the help of Fran, Babs, Helen, and Fran’s newly evacuated great-niece, Polly, who’s an aspiring chemist, the couple arrange to have Haskell’s painting protected for as long as Fran, Babs and Helen live: Polly rigs the slender wooden glass-fronted case in which the painting will be kept with pepper along the lid’s hinges, meaning that as soon as the case is unsealed, a huge dose of pepper will be released, and the ensuing sneezing fit will ensure the painting will be destroyed as Haskell’s ‘paintings’ are actually done in pastel chalks not in oils or watercolours. Normally she treats them with a fixative, but in this instance she omits that step in order to booby-trap the picture, just in case it falls into the wrong hands.

Helen’s the last of the group still alive some 75 years after Haskell and Emily step into the painting and when she learns that she has a terminal illness (it’s not specified what), she retrieves the painting from its hiding spot, then sells it to one Martin Blake, a greedy speciality bookseller, and she uses some of the sale money to reimburse a friend of hers whom Blake had ripped off, then uses some more of it to give herself one final day of nice things, extravagantly tipping waiting staff and taxi drivers during the day, then she goes home and takes an overdose before slipping into bed and going to sleep for the last time.

Blake, meanwhile, wants to take photos of the Haskell painting to post them online, but because he can’t get any good shots with the painting inside the case, he breaks the seal on it, and opens it – and promptly destroys it with a violent sneezing fit, thereby ensuring justice is served, and bringing an end to Haskell and Emily’s 75 year romance inside the picture.

I love this tale. I’ve read it three times now. It’s queer, romantic, tragic, and yet somehow, hopeful too. It’s short enough to read in the space of a couple of hours if I’m uninterrupted, and it’s compelling enough that I do want to read it that fast.

And I appreciate the fact that the tale has a happy-ish ending. It’s implied that Helen’s lived a full and busy life, even if we don’t see the specifics of that since most of the tale takes place in her past, but more than that, Haskell and Emily have 75 years together inside the world of the painting (which can be seen as an alternate dimension). Too many stories about queer women end up with at least one of them dead, and it was good to see Klages bucking that trend.

Girl Mans Up – M E Girard (Spoilers)

Girl Mans Up

16 year old Pen Oliviera causes confusion to her classmates, and disappointment to her intensely old-fashioned Portuguese parents, because she has always preferred dressing as a boy rather than a girl. She loves ‘boyish’ pursuits too – she’s a huge fan of video games, and routinely kicks the asses of her best friend Colby and his friends (and is routinely accused of cheating by Colby’s friends, because god forbid a girl be better at video games than any boy).

Pen’s not interested in dating boys, either – she’s known for a long time that she’s ‘queer’ – though it takes her some time to call herself that (and ‘Lesbian makes me think of some forty-year-old woman’). She doesn’t want to be a boy – something that she’s accused of – and makes it clear (when asked) that she’s not trans. The correct term is probably gender-fluid or non-binary – but they’re not terms which Pen herself uses.

Pen’s two closest friends are Colby and Tristan, whom she’s known since they were little kids: he’s bookish, although he enjoys playing Crypts with Pen on her older brother Johnny’s Xbox. She’s never really be friends with any girls and she tends to think of them as something quite separate from herself until two very different girls come into her life: Olivia is an ex-girlfriend of Colby’s, and she and Pen become better acquainted when Pen overhears Olivia throwing up in the school bathroom, and eventually realises that Olivia is pregnant after having underage, unprotected sex with Colby; Blake is Pen’s big crush – and is also a gamer, though she prefers The Legend of Zelda to any of the first-person-shooter games that Pen’s so fond of and good at, as well as the singer in a band. Colby sends Pen to talk to Blake while the latter’s at work in Gamer Depot, intending to make her his next girlfriend (I use the term loosely since all Colby ever wants is to get into a girl’s pants, and once they’ve had sex, he tends to lose interest in them). Blake, however, isn’t interested in Colby, and she and Pen gradually become friends, then girlfriends, although Pen doesn’t want to be called Blake’s girlfriend.

One day when Pen’s at Colby’s a little while after she starts making friends with Olivia and Blake, he takes it into his head that she should be his next girlfriend, despite knowing she’s not interested in boys. He sexually assaults her (though the assault isn’t “shown” in the text – Pen considers the details of it sometime later), and she’s so appalled by what he does that she cuts her long hair short – which enrages her mother, who cannot forgive Pen for not being her ‘princesa’ (princess).

As Pen’s friendship with Olivia strengthens – she’s the one who accompanies Olivia when she goes to get an abortion – and her relationship with Blake develops, her relationships with Colby and her parents – especially her mother – deteriorate, until eventually she gets into a big fight with both of them. Colby she physically attacks (she’s heavier than he is) on the playing field at school after his friend Garrett taunts her about having sex with Colby, and after she gets into trouble with the school – and gets a warning from the police (whom Blake had called in concern for what might happen), then when she gets home, she has a row with her mother, who insists that she should stop wearing her ‘punk druggy’ clothes (her term for Pen’s preference for men’s clothing – often her brother’s), and that she should learn how to cook and go to college to train to be a nurse – none of which interests Pen.

Pen walks out of home and moves into her brother’s new apartment – which he’d rented purposely so she could live there with him to escape her mother’s lack of understanding and poor treatment of Pen. His parents had already thrown him out once before for ‘interfering’ on Pen’s behalf.

Everything eventually gets sorted out – Pen is vaguely on speaking terms with Colby again, and she even visits her parents occasionally – but she is vastly happier living with her brother, doing her schoolwork, and working part time at Gamer Depot with Blake.

This book has been on my radar for a while, but I didn’t get it until Friday, and then I read it in the space of only a few hours as I could hardly bear to put it down (going to work was torture!). I related to Pen a good deal – I have been wearing what are designated as men’s clothes ever since I left school (where my all-girls-school uniform gave me no choice about wearing a skirt every day) 30+ years ago, and several of my interests are what are still largely regarded as ‘masculine’: computers (and programming), the history of the two World Wars, and science fiction  and fantasy (even though SF was invented by a woman, it’s still regarded as a masculine interest). In the days when I didn’t have a knee injury, I preferred cricket and baseball to netball and rounders (the toned-down British equivalent of baseball that’s considered more ‘girly’), and I’ve never had any interest in makeup nor clothes (except as a means of staying covered up and warm), or in cooking (except as a means of providing sustenance).

I think this book is a much-needed entry into the YA ‘canon’ – particularly for girls who don’t fit the societal norms for what being a girl should be.

Boy Meets Hamster – Birdie Milano (Spoilers)

Boy Meets Hamster

I absolutely LOVED this book. It’s funny, charming, and satisfyingly real.

14 year old Dylan just wants a nice holiday with beaches for sunbathing, some cosmopolitan culture, and a holiday romance – or at least a chance to kiss a boy he likes. But his mother, whom he loves dearly but who can be a bit embarrassing at times (though possibly not as embarrassing as his dad!), gets them a terribly cheap holiday at a caravan park in Cornwall, and while Starcross Sands has won the Park of the Year award three times, he can’t see the attraction himself.

And then he does. The boy-next-door, Jayden-Lee, who’s like a living, breathing Greek God with his halo of blond hair and chiselled cheekbones. But who, it turns out, is an ableist, homophobic jerk. Dylan, with terrible optimism, believes he can make Jayden-Lee into a better person – but he really can’t! (It was really nice to see this trope given to a boy since we far too often see girls/women who are literally conditioned into accepting this is their role in life.)

To make matters worse, he’s plagued by the attentions of Nibbles, the hamster-costumed mascot of Starcross Sands, who seems to keep turning up at all the wrong moments.

Along with Kayla, his not-so-svelte best friend (who is into girls, but has never told Dylan, although she’s (initially) the only one to whom he’s out), and Jude, his smart, four year old wheelchair-using brother (Jude has cerebral palsy), Dylan struggles through his holiday, staggering from one incident to another until, eventually, he discovers that another boy, Leo, whom he meets but doesn’t see face to face during several of their encounters, is the man behind the mascot, and he finally gets his first kiss and although it’s not a crush, it’s so much better.

I loved this book. I loved it’s diversity: the gay teenage protagonist; the plus-sized best girl friend who’s not only a lesbian but has a port-wine birthmark on her face, which she eventually decides she’s no longer going to hide with makeup; the smart four year old who’s very into both Nibbles and Tinsel the train; the parents who’re happily married paramedics who behave like teenagers in love more often than Dylan’s totally comfortable with; and the gay teenage boy who’s a dancer when he’s not a hamster.

I laughed quite a lot – but sympathetically – and I even cried a little bit, but mostly I grinned a lot while reading this utterly brilliant book. Highly recommended.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in return for an honest review.

The Underwater Ballroom Society – editors Stephanie Burgis & Tiffany Trent (No spoilers)

Underwater Ballroom Society antho

This is an anthology of adult SFF short stories all of which features an underwater ballroom of one sort or another, from a 30s ballroom to a Martian hotel to a grand rock ‘n roll ball held in the heart of Faery itself.

This is an absolutely excellent collection of stories. I particularly loved Stephanie Burgis’ prequel to her novel Snowspelled: ‘Spellswept’ sees Cassandra Harwood’s (the protagonist of Snowspelled) first public demonstration of her magical powers, but mostly concentrates on Cassandra’s brother Jonathan and her sister-in-law Amy getting engaged; Y S Lee’s ‘Twelve Sisters’, is a sequel to the Grimms’ fairytale Twelve Dancing Princesses (and while it’s possible to enjoy Lee’s story without reading Grimms’ tale first as I did, I think Lee’s tale is more compelling if you’ve already read the Grimm); Tiffany Trent’s ‘Mermaids, Singing’; Shveta Thakrar’s ‘The Amethyst Deceiver’, which features people with mycelial-based ‘superpowers’ (a particularly timely tale for me following the recent series of Star Trek: Discovery!); and Iona Datt Sharma’s f/f romance ‘Penhallow Amid Passing Things’, which I wish had been vastly longer!

Honestly, this anthology is an excellent collection of stories and all of them are well worth your time.

I received an e-ARC of this book from one of the editors in exchange for an honest review.

Between the Blade and the Heart (Valkyrie #1) – Amanda Hocking (Spoilers)

Between the Blade and the Heart

Malin is a Valkyrie-in-training who’s being mentored by her Valkyrie mother, Marlow, whom she regards very highly, but is also frequently frustrated by as Marlow is very emotionless and stubborn. It’s a Valkyrie’s job to slay immortals, on the orders of the Vanir, as conveyed to them by the Eralim, the angelic beings who mediate between the Vanir and the Valkyrie. Immortals are ‘returned’ to the afterlife to maintain balance in the world that would otherwise become too overcrowded with both humans and immortal supernatural beings.

Malin is astonished when she discovers from the guy who breaks into her apartment, Asher Värja, that her mother recently failed to do her job, and instead of killing Tamerlane Fayette, she let him go – with the result that Tamerlane killed Asher’s Valkyrie mother. When Malin confronts Marlow about it, she learns that Marlow had decided that because he did good things, he shouldn’t die. Unfortunately, Tamerlane becomes a draugr – a far more dangerous immortal than ever before – and he visits Marlow, killing her.

Malin and Asher join forces to go after Tamerlane so they can finish the job Marlow failed to do. They team up with Malin’s roommate Oona Warren, who’s a thaumaturgy major, and Malin’s ex-girlfriend and fellow Valkyrie, Quinn Devane. Malin’s Eralim boss, Samael, sends along Atlas Malosi, one of his personal bodyguards as well, and the five of them make their way to the Gates of Kurugia, the Underworld to which the immortals slain by the Valkyrie go.

They must find their way within Kurugia – and back out again if they want to live – but that last part’s not easy since tradition has it that those who enter Kurugia do not leave, even mortal humans.

To make matters harder, Malin’s torn between her ex-girlfriend Quinn, who is still annoyed that Malin broke up with her, and her new not-quite-a-boyfriend, Asher.

And to complicate matters even further, Malin and her friends discover that Tamerlane’s working on the orders of someone even more powerful than him, his ‘Queen’, who wants to destroy all mortals.

This book was an engaging read, with interesting characters, and an equally interesting mythos, and I enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to the sequel, From the Earth to the Shadows, which is out in May. But be warned, this book ends on a cliffhanger!

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in return for an honest review.

The Salt Path – Raynor Winn

The Salt Path

The Salt Path is, for me, as profoundly moving, inspiring, and hopeful, as Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk. While Winn is not grieving for a lost family member, as Macdonald is, she nevertheless spends much of this account grieving the loss of her family home and all the meaning pertaining thereto, and also the loss of potential that comes when your husband receives a diagnosis of a severely debilitating illness.
At about the same time that Winn and her husband Moth lose a 3 years long court case that results in them having to pay the debts of a friend of Moth’s that result from his business association with said friend, Moth also receives the news that the shoulder pain from which he’s been suffering for some time is a consequence of a rare neurodegenerative disease called Corticobasal degeneration, CBD for short. (More information on this can be found here.)
Hiding in the cupboard under the stairs from the bailiffs who’ve come to take their home, Winn spots a copy of Paddy Dillon’s The South West Coastal Path, a guide to walking the 630 mile path from Minehead to South Haven Point. She has the idea that the two of them should walk the path, and with the bare minimum of preparation, the two of them walk out of their old lives and into a new life of homelessness, walking, wild camping (they can rarely afford to stay at an actual campsite en route), and the mixture of kindness and unthinking cruelty that confronts a homeless person when they encounter others who have a permanent roof over their head.
This memoir moved me to both tears and laughter (and rage at how judgemental human beings can be when encounter something outside of our comfort zone). Much of the laughter came from people regularly mistaking Moth for poet Simon Armitage – neither Winn nor Moth are aware of Armitage’s existence, so their bemusement at Moth being addressed as ‘Simon’ brought me much gentle amusement.
When I began reading The Salt Path I was fully prepared for a sad ending – a codicil recounting Moth’s death didn’t seem unlikely – but I was glad to find that my fears proved groundless. The walking and camping actually does Moth’s symptoms some good, and although he has something of a relapse over the winter months when they’re temporarily given a home, he recovers when they resume the coastal path, and this account ends with Moth preparing to go to University to take a degree, then train as a teacher, so that he can pass on the skills he’s learned in life: a more hopeful and happy ending I cannot imagine.
This was a compelling read, full of joy in Nature, courage, strength, and hope, and I recommend it highly.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.