To Kill a Mocking Girl – Harper Kinkaid

to kill a mocking girl cover

“Quinn Caine may have traveled all over the world, but she still thought nothing was more enchanting than springtime in Vienna, Virginia, especially driving with the windows down on Church Street.”

Quinn is newly returned to her hometown after years of volunteering abroad. As she settles into her new life repairing old books, she doesn’t know if she’s more surprised that her hellraising cousin and best friend is now a nun, or that her sleepy town has just witnessed its second brutal murder in six months…

This book and I didn’t get off to the best starts, as I found it hugely cliched – the aggressive, in-Quinn’s-face police officer hellbent on pinning the murder on her irked me immensely.

However, things did settle down and I ended up enjoying the read. The cliches don’t end, though, with an unrequited crush, school bullies who are still full-on Mean Girls, feisty canine sidekick, several nasty characters to layer on the red herrings, and – sad to say for the cosy mystery genre – a final solution that doesn’t feel entirely ‘earned’.

Still, there’s a lot to like. The inclusion of a novitiate nun as a character was rather intriguing, albeit background fare. I found it charmingly odd to have each chapter begin with a quote from a less than ‘usual’ source, including Game of Thrones, Neil Gaiman, and other quite pop-culture sources. The characters are mostly likeable, at least where they’re meant to be, and the reasons for Quinn’s involvement in the detective work don’t feel too forced.

Overall, though, it’s a bit ‘hmm’. There seemed to be a bit of meandering in the plot, and several characters, with things not wholly feeling resolved in a number of places – although, they weren’t really the point, either. What makes most sense is thinking of this as the first in a series, and I suspect some of the threads will be picked up again. So would I give Quinn another go? Actually, yes, so it can’t have been all that bad! 😉

NetGalley eARC: 352 pages / 31 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Bookbinder Mystery book 1
Read from 17th-24th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

princess of mars cover

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”

I have mixed feelings about classic sci-fi. It’s good to know the roots of your favourite genre, but it doesn’t always age so well. The Barsoom books, however, can be taken more as adventure stories that happen to be set on a fantasy version of Mars that might as well be Narnia. There’s an indulgence to stories from what seems like a simpler time, maybe a slightly patronising tone to the reading that lets you nod and play along and just enjoy the lack of complication.

John Carter is a Virginian gentleman and veteran of the American Civil War, who stumbles into a mysterious cave and wakes up on another planet. He’s promptly captured by the warmongering Tharks, the so-called ‘green men of Mars’. To say there’s a large amount of the Mary Sue to Carter would be an understatement. The lower planetary gravity gives him super strength and he easily beats many of the larger warriors, earning himself a stay of execution. He then picks up the language in about twenty minutes flat, before falling in love with a captured princess from the other of Mars’ main species, the ‘reds’.

The pace of this story is lightning. There’s little dwelling on anything, and big events happen in a sentence. That’s part of the appeal, really: it’s simple but it keeps moving so fast that if you can let go it provides a light distraction. Alas, it can also seem a little unsatisfying for the same reasons, plus the fact that you just know (the other) JC can never really lose…

Except, there’s a framing tale. Carter is telling his story – perhaps it’d be nice to think of them as an old man’s tall tales? – and not quite everything goes to plan. That’s why there are ten sequels, I suppose 😉

I’m glad I read this. It doesn’t feel like high literature, but it is one of the classics from its time, and despite its many flaws for a modern audience there’s a lot to like here. Definitely not sci-fi, but as a boys’ own kind of adventure, it’s quite fun.

As a final note, if – like me – your main knowledge of this comes from the somewhat disappointing movie, John Carter (2012), it’s clear to see both how much they had to leave out, and how much better the story is with just that bit more meat and context.

eBook: 202 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1912
Series: Barsoom book 1
Read from 12th April -10th May 2020

My rating: 7/10

The Ash-Born Boy – VE Schwab

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“Once, long ago, there was a man and a woman, and a boy, and a village full of people. And then the village burned down.”

I wasn’t wholly enamoured with The Near Witch, but this short prequel story fleshes out one of the characters to the point that I wish I’d read it first. ‘Cole’ gives a brief telling of his tragic backstory in TNW, but here we get to see how his not-so-normal life came to the end that leads him to Near.

Written just a year after TNW, the improvement in the characterisation and writing style is already apparent. Finally, I find myself caring a little about some of the players.

However, I still can’t wholly recommend this book, or say I enjoyed it. It’s well written, it’s a great little story, but I find the world that contains Near and Dale unpleasantly dark and cruel. Fear of witchcraft is one thing, but torturing a teenager – ‘cutting to the bone’, holding him down forcefully enough that his wrist is broken. No, no no – sorry, but this felt… icky. Added to the back of a book where the rapey would-be-suitor has no punishment and practically a happy ending – urgh, not for me.

So. Decent short story. If you’ve read The Near Witch this is worth dipping in to; if you plan on reading TNW you might even want to start with this to give one of the characters more oomph. But for my tastes, it’s just got a nasty streak for the sake of it that I can’t appreciate at all.

eBook: 61 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: short story prequel to The Near Witch
Read from 14th-15th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

The Near Witch – VE Schwab

near witch cover

“It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”

Lexi lives in the village of Near, on the edge of the wild moors. She’s grown up on tales of the Near Witch, and also with a great deal of freedom not usually allowed to girls. However, following the death of her beloved father, it seems that her uncle Otto is determined to force her into the mould of a respectable young woman, however much it chafes. Then there’s Tyler, a nice enough boy, but he’s assuming too much about Lexi’s future.

And then one night Lexi spies a stranger outside, a form that seems to blow away with the wind. The next morning the village discovers one of their children is missing…

I’m a huge fan of VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, but this is an earlier effort and it rather shows. It’s not bad, by any means, but there’s a little too much cliche, some repetitive language, and a pacing that just seems off – every time our main character heads home for bed the tension is wrecked.

Then there’s the main character herself. One of the things I loved about ADSoM was the strong female character, and Lexi just isn’t. I mean, she thinks she is, she has moments, but she’s rather buffeted about by events and I lost a great deal of respect when the whole ‘instalove’ obsession with a boy she’s literally just met kicks in. It really doesn’t help that she’s fighting against horrible sexism, and some male behaviour that had me wanting to throw the book across the room.

Still, it’s interesting to see how a person’s writing can grow so much. The story has some interesting elements, although it’s hard not to wonder how much more ‘oomph’ V could have injected into it if writing now.

Kindle: 320 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: none
Read from 4th-10th May 2020

My rating: 5.5/10

Firewalkers – Adrian Tchaikovsky

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“The Masserey-Van Bults were coming in all the dry way down the Ogooue Road, and, as Hotep would say, there was much rejoicing.”

In a not-so-distant future, the Earth has become a scorched hell zone. The very rich have escaped to orbiting habitats, accessed by space elevators. At the base of each, service townships (Ankara – not the Turkish capital, to save you my confusion!) have sprung up, populated by the likes of Mao. Mao is a young Firewalker – someone who will head out to the sunstruck wastes to fix the solar panels and tech that keeps the Ankara viable. It’s a deadly job, but when his other option was facing the bugs of the protein farm…

Adrian Tchaikovsky has a thing for bugs, as his previous works have shown – slight trigger warning for that, I suppose, but I loathe wriggly things and coped just fine.

In this novella, he manages to create a highly believable world, a set of intriguing characters, and switch direction at least twice. The pace is almost a little too much, but it certainly keeps the interest! I did wonder if the use of slang and dialect was going to be irritating, but very quickly I settled into it and it adds plenty of atmosphere – another way to create this world in a truncated way.

Mao pulls in a couple of skilled friends to head out to discover why the power to the township is failing. We get a sense of their lives, the new ‘world order’, and the results of a couple of hundred years of continued climate change. The timing is so coincidental: young people heading into life-threatening danger, the only way they can scrape a living, to save the privileges of the super-rich.

I won’t spoil the huge twist in direction, but it wasn’t what I was expecting! It wasn’t what the group were expecting to find in the middle of a barren desert, either…!

As I said, there’s a lot packed in to a fairly short tale. Well worth the read, and all too relevant for our times, in many ways… let’s hope we don’t head quite the same way, eh?!

NetGalley eARC: 185 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 12th May 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-12th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

Dolor’s Legs – Frances Hardinge

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“A tale told by an old woman while she washed her clothes in a spring.”

Having just finished the wonderful Deeplight, it was lovely to pick up this short story set in the same world. It’s not linked to the events in the main book, but rather a little tale from the past involving one of the hideous sea gods, Dolor the many-legged. And oh, the explanation for the name is not what you might think!

It’s a very brief story, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was anything other than ‘nice’ to read – until the sort-of twist at the end where suddenly it was a beast of a whole different colour! Much like the main book, it has a lot to say about human psychology, it just manages it in a few sentences after a bit of almost misdirecting background.

You don’t need to have read Deeplight (but it’s great, so why wouldn’t you?!), this would stand alone albeit without any context, but I think it’s meant more as a lovely bonus for those who have read and enjoyed the larger tale.

Wondering now if there’ll be more short stories, or a sequel – either would be great, based on this! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: short story
First published: 2020
Series: Deeplight
Read on 4th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

Deeplight – Frances Hardinge

deeplight cover

“They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south.”

Frances Hardinge has a wonderful skill with words, and an amazing ability to create strange new worlds. The Myriad is amazing: islands recovering from the pre-Cataclysm event, the war of the gods. And what gods! Behemoth sea creatures, capricious and cruel, living in a fearful ‘undersea’. Exposure to this strange not-water leaves people ‘marked’ with strange mutations, but people risk it to recover god remains, sold for huge sums for their amazing properties.

Orphans Hark and Jelt make their way in the world scavenging, and swindling traders come to the islands. The pair are like brothers; Hark owes his life to Jelt’s care when he might have starved as a young child. Now, however, Jelt’s recklessness is in danger of causing a rift between the two – not least when his latest scheme lands Hark in deep trouble. So when Jelt ends up in even straits, Hark’s loyalty is put to the ultimate test…

As we find out about the old gods and the islands of Myriad, the story revolves around the relationship between Hark and Jelt. It questions how much we owe our friends and family. I was screaming at how badly Hark is used and made to feel at points! A subplot mirrors the theme, between a fearsome gang leader and her deaf daughter. I was impressed with the way the disability was handled in the book, too.

Absolutely recommend this. It’s full of secrets and darkness. It’s hugely inventive. And it hits all the emotions along the way.

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 42 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 21st April – 3rd May 2020

My rating: 9/10