Thursday, 10 October 2019

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is a short-ish novel of time travel, told in four parts. Originally published in Japanese, it was recently translated into English. I picked it up because the time travel aspect interested me.

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.

In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer's, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.

But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . .

This is one novel but it's divided into four parts, each focussing on a different character, albeit with a lot of overlap. The story is set almost entirely in a cafe with timeless decor that has an urban legend attached to it: time travel is possible inside the cafe. Whenever customers ask about travelling back in time, however, they are quickly put off by the very restrictive rules presented to them. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is about four people who did not let the restrictive rules stop them.

This was a very gentle and character-driven read. In each section, we get to know a particular character and their motivations for wanting to time travel. And, arguably most interestingly, their reasons for accepting the limitation of the cafe's time travel capabilities. The book was written in a nuanced but not overly-dramatic tone. Although I usually prefer plot-driven and/or drama-filled stories, I found myself keen to pick this one up again each evening.

I enjoyed Before the Coffee Gets Cold and I recommend it to anyone looking for a different sort of time travel story. I've heard it has been made into a (Japanese) movie called Cafe Funiculi Funicula and I'm interested in watching it as well, though I'm not sure how easy it will be to get my eyes on.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Picador (Japanese version first published in 2015)
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Hobgoblin Boots by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Hobgoblin Boots by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a short novella set in the world of the Mocklore chronicles. It stands alone and you do not have to have read any of the other books to pick this one up. I previously reviewed Ink Black Magic and I’ve also read Splashdance Silver, but more than a decade ago, long before this blog came into existence.

At the age of thirteen, half-hobgoblin Bounty Fenetre found herself on her own, which was fine by her. There was a cute chainmail number at the smithy's she had her eye on, once she figured out how to fix it so it bared her midriff. Then Ma Fortuna adopted her and she met Luc, her new foster brother.

Four years later, at the age of seventeen, Bounty is older and wiser, and really wants to Seek Her Fortune. She and Luc ambush a hero and steal his armor, because as everyone knows, the first step to becoming a hero is to look like one. The second step is to be recognized as a hero by the world at large, which surprisingly, isn't as hard as it sounds. Mocklore is a land where magic crashes and smashes through the landscape, exploding with abrasive sounds and colors, the ideal place for a clever half-hobgoblin fosterling and a charismatic hero-in-progress to make their names.

The story follows Bounty as she grows up (reaches her late teens) and goes off to seek her fortune. First with her adopted brother, then alone. She encounters a variety of fantasy world scenarios and experiences somewhat of a coming of age narrative.

This was a short and entertaining read. The author doesn’t shy away from mocking fantasy tropes, but without mocking the entire fantasy genre. It’s a little reminiscent of early Pratchett, or perhaps Douglas Adams, but also not quite. Roberts has a voice all her own.

I recommend this novella to fans of Roberts’ writing and particularly the Mocklore books. If you haven’t read any of that series, this is a reasonable introduction and sample.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2004, recent re-/self-published
Series: Mocklore universe, a standalone story
Format read: ePub
Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts' Patreon or possibly newsletter
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang is the fourth novella in the Tensorate series. It tells its own story, but it does contain sort of spoilers for some of the earlier novellas, especially The Descent of Monsters, I think (they have all blurred a little in my memory). I suspect some of the worldbuilding set up in earlier books helps a bit with getting your bearings in this novella, but it's not essential.

The Protector is dead.

For fifty years, the Protector ruled, reshaping her country in her image and driving her enemies to the corners of the map. For half a century the world turned around her as she built her armies, trained her Tensors, and grasped at the reins of fate itself. Now she is dead. Her followers will quiver, her enemies rejoice.

But in one tavern, deep in rebel territory, her greatest enemy drowns her sorrows. Lady Han raised a movement that sought the Protector's head, yet now she can only mourn her loss. She remembers how it all began, when the Protector was young, not yet crowned, and a desperate dancing girl dared to fall in love with her.

Told as a one-sided conversation in a bar, this is the kind of story that grabs you with its unique voice and is difficult to put down before it's finished. It's a shorter read than its prequels, so reading it in one sitting is quite feasible (though I took two). Once you start reading you'll be quickly treated to a first-person retelling of a life story. Our protagonist goes from peasant girl to dancing girl to the right hand of a powerful noble. Her take on her former mistress is very different to how the rest of the world saw her and, well, it's always more interesting to see how and why someone becomes something than it is to just see the end result.

This is the kind of series I want to reread all in a row one day. It's been long enough between books that I'm sure I missed some nuances. On the other hand, I had also forgotten events from earlier books, adding to some suspense/surprise when reading Ascent to Godhood. While this is a self-contained story, I feel like we are not done with the Tensorate universe yet and I am very much looking forward to reading what Yang gives us next.

I recommend this book to fans of the earlier Tensorate books, with the caveat that it's written in a different style to any of its prequels. It furthers the story of the world, however, so if you're interested in the world like I am, then I strongly recommend picking it up. If you're new to the series you can start here, but it's not the best starting point since Black Tides of Heaven and Red Threads of Fortune come chronologically earlier. That said, they do work out of order.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2019, Tor.com
Series: Tensorate book 4 of 4 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The Princess Who Flew With Dragons by Stephanie Burgis

The Princess Who Flew With Dragons by Stephanie Burgis is the third book set in the same world as The Dragon With the Chocolate Heart and The Girl With the Dragon Heart. While the three books follow each other chronologically, they all feature different protagonists, so stand alone well.

Princess Sofia of Drachenheim is sick of being used for her older sister’s political gains. At twelve years old, she’s already been a hostage to invading dragons and a promised future fiancé to a wicked fairy. Her only comfort lies in writing letters to her pen pal and best friend--Jasper, a young dragon whom she's never even met.

When Sofia's older sister sends her on a diplomatic mission to far-off Villenne, she's meant to play the part of a charming, smiling princess. But when an accident leads to her exile from the city, Sofia is free to wander as she pleases for the first time in her life. And when Jasper's food-mage sister Aventurine turns him into a human boy, Sofia thinks life can't get any better. Until… the legendary ice giants of the north attack, trying to reclaim the territory that they lost centuries ago. With the dragons and royals frozen in ice, can Sofia and Jasper save their families and kingdom?

The protagonist of this book is Princess Sofia, who was a secondary character in the second book The Girl With the Dragon Heart. The main cast from the first two books don't make much of an appearance in this one and it mainly takes place outside Drachenheim. The new setting really enriches the world, not only by adding kobolds and ice giants but by also showing what other cities look like and what they think of Drachenheim and its denizens. (The last point is something I always find fun.)

I enjoyed reading about Sofia's adventures in Villenne. Back home she'd rather stay in her room reading philosophy books than go to any official state functions. On her adventure, we got to watch Sofia go from being a girl who is always stuffing up and is perpetually burdened by the expectations of her older sister coming out of her shell. As well as visiting the university and mingling with normal people (in goblin and kobold form), she is also given the opportunity to confront her privilege in a way that wasn't possible without a literal journey. Her newfound friends were funny and entertaining to meet and I loved her relationship with Jasper, the young dragon.

If you've enjoyed the other books in this series, I definitely recommend picking up The Princess Who Flew With Dragons. I got the feeling that this might be the end of the series, but I'd be happy to read more if more books were to appear.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2019, Bloomsbury
Series: Tales from the Chocolate Heart book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga is, I believe, the debut novel of both coauthors. It's a fantasy-Victorian-era/gas-lamp fantasy novel about a princess and a "resurrectionist" who (illegally) digs up bodies to sell to doctors and medical students. Also, it has a gorgeous cover, which I urge you to zoom in on if you haven't already.

With a murderer on the loose, it's up to an enlightened bodysnatcher and a rebellious princess to save the city, in this wonderfully inventive Victorian-tinged fantasy noir.

"Man of Science" Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he's framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he's forced to trust in the superstitions he's always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger's execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation. There's a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart.

This book is set in a world where the nobility (and especially royalty) has magic, technology is roughly early-Victorian, and class and poverty divides are stark. Our low-class protagonist, Roger, wants to be a surgeon, but can't afford the tuition fees. He also becomes interested in a string of murders after stumbling over an unusual dead body and wants to solve them, getting himself framed in the process. The princess Sibylla, meanwhile, was a childhood friend-then-lover of his, but is mostly consumed by her own typical problems, like a forced betrothal to her annoying cousin. Their stories don't directly intersect until quite late in the book, which I found a little disappointing. I kept waiting for a dramatic reconnection, but it was pushed back surprisingly far.

I found the start of the book a little slow. This was exacerbated by the fact that the blurb summarises a large swath of the story and I was more than half-way through the book by the time I felt like I'd caught up with the expectations the blurb had set. Also, while Roger was trying to solve the murder mystery, it wasn't so much his cleverness that helped him with the day as luck, always a disappointing plot twist.

Overall, this book was OK. It took me a while to get into it and the resolution was interesting but not executed the way I expected. There's also a spoilery thing near the end which made me raise an eyebrow for the lack of exploration given to it and was an unpleasant note to leave on. That said, the story is self-contained but the end set up a potential sequel which could be an interesting read. I would certainly consider picking it up if it comes to exist. I recommend this book to fans of gas-lamp fantasy and Victorian-ish settings. Also, corpses.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Angry Robot
Series: Not yet but maybe?
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen

The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen is a novelisation of The Bright Sessions podcast. More accurately, it’s the novelisation of one particular storyline, primarily following two of the characters. I initially thought it was going to be a sequel, but it actually goes into more depth on events from the first two (I think) seasons of the podcast.

Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”

Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb's ability is extreme empathy—he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb's life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam's feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb's feelings in a way that he can't quite understand.

Caleb's therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist—who seems to know a lot more than she lets on—and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.

In essence, this is a YA romance book, featuring two male protagonists. The speculative element is clear: one of the protagonists, Caleb, has an empathy superpower, which allows him (forces him) to sense other people’s emotions. So on the one hand, we have Caleb’s very unique view of the people around him. On the other hand, there’s Adam, who is a normal teen that happens to suffer from depression. Despite one being a it of a nerd and the other being a it of a jock, the two of them form a connection. I also want to be clear that it isn’t just through Caleb’s powers that we experience Adam’s depression. Adam has his own point of view chapters and was diagnosed long before the start of the book. It’s now just something he has to live with and, I think, a particularly good depiction of living with depression.

Since I have listened to the original podcast, I knew what was going to happen in this book. The fact that it’s a romance book cancels out the spoilery nature of being familiar with the podcast (because of how romance books work). The one thing I think might throw people who haven’t listened to the podcast is the sudden appearance of some of the other podcast characters (other than Dr Bright). They sort of fit into the story, but because Caleb and Adam weren’t directly involved in the most dramatic parts of the podcast events, they seemed very oddly tangential, despite triggering some personal issues for our protagonists. On the other hand, if you enjoy The Infinite Noise, it might be a good jumping off point for getting into The Bright Sessions podcast.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I generally recommend it to all fans of YA, particularly spec fic YA. I hope we get more novels in this universe, although I’m not sure which bits of podcast would work best. You definitely do not need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy this book and, conversely, listening to the podcast first does not in any way ruin the book.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Tor Teen
Series: Sort of? The first actual book, set in the Bright Sessions (podcast) world. I hope there'll be more books.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Reticence by Gail Carriger

Reticence by Gail Carriger is the fourth and final book in the Custard Protocol series. I believe it is also the last book (or novel, more accurately) in the entire parasol universe. (A novella or two might still be forthcoming.) It ties up all the loose ends of the Custard Protocol books and also some unexpected loose ends from the Finishing School books.

Bookish and proper Percival Tunstell finds himself out of his depth when floating cities, spirited plumbing, and soggy biscuits collide in this delightful conclusion the Custard Protocol series.

Percival Tunstell loves that his sister and friends are building themselves a family of misfits aboard their airship, the Spotted Custard. Of course, he'd never admit that he belongs among them.

Percy has always been on the outside - dispassionate, aloof, and hatless.

But accidental spies, a trip to Japan, and one smart and beautiful doctor may have him renegotiating his whole philosophy on life. Except hats.

He's done with hats. Thank you very much.

This was, as per usual for Carriger’s books, a fun read. It’s structured in the romance style of having alternating points of view from the two leads who are obviously going to end up together. Any tension that exists is more from “when” and “how” rather than “if”. So we have half-ish of the story from Percy’s point of view — a well-known character from the series, though I think this is the first time we see inside his head — and half-ish of the story from the point of view of Arsenic, a new character. The book is generally cute and charming with both characters having entertaining quirks which mesh well together.

The slightly odd thing about this book is that a lot of major events happen to other characters (like Rue, who was the protagonist of the first two Custard Protocol books) and are somewhat backgrounded by the Percy- and Arsenic-centred narration. I suppose it works as an epilogue for those characters and it makes sense when considering that those events are not the main plot of this book. But it was sort of odd? And as a consequence the destination that the main plot takes place in — Japan, as noted in the blurb and as can be guessed from the cover — isn't reached until about halfway through the book. The story that takes place there was adequately entertaining, but sort of brief. There wasn't as much space for interacting with a variety of locals as there was in the earlier books (or am I thinking about the Soulless books, rather than the Custard books?)

Anyway, that aside I enjoyed Reticence and I definitely recommend it to fans of Gail Carriger. It probably stands alone a bit more than the earlier books in the series (although definitely contains spoilers for the earlier books). I recommend reading them in order, but I don't think it's absolutely essential in this case, especially if you are generally already familiar with the world. I am a bit sad that there aren't any more books to look forward to, but I see how this series has run its course. I would not be averse to reading more books set in the same universe, but aside from a novella or two I am not expecting any more.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2019, Self-published (outside of North America)
Series: Custard Protocol book 4 of 4
Format read: ePub
Source: Bought from Kobo store

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Winter's Tale by Nike Sulway and Shauna O’Meara

Winter’s Tale by Nike Sulway and illustrated by Shauna O’Meara is an illustrated children’s book; a short novel with pictures, rather than a full-blown picture book. It is currently being Kickstarted by Twelfth Planet Press, making this one of my timeliest reviews ever. This book drew my attention for two reasons: the colourful illustrations and the Tiptree Award-winning writer of the story.

A hare in the moon.

A town with streets that won't stay still.

Hidden worlds hide within these painted walls...

Existing within these hidden worlds, outside of them, and in a world all of their own, is a child called Winter. As a baby, Winter was found in a fruit box; ever since they have been searching for a home and a family.

With an elusive blue hare as a guide, a daring new friend, and a family with their own kind of magic, Winter might finally find a place to call home: a place to belong.

Winter’s Tale is the story of Winter, a founding who has passed through a few families by the time the story starts. Unsurprisingly, Winter doesn’t feel like they belong, especially when they have to move families again. Winter is also agender (my impression from the book was that they were intersex, though that is less clear), but their sense of not belonging stems more from the series of foster families than from this fact.

The whole story has a magical vibe to it and this is especially emphasised when Winter meets their fourth family and learns about the changing landscape their house is found in. Throughout the story Winter keeps catching glimpses of a blue hare, which apparently no one else can see, and this is linked with the magical surroundings and Winter’s quest/desire to find somewhere to belong.

Overall, this was a fun read with very nice illustrations throughout. I think it would appeal to the kind of children that enjoy magical (or partly magical) stories and would work well both read to or by a child. I’m not sure I have any appropriately aged children in my life (my niece is probably a little too old by now), but if I did I would certainly buy this for them.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2019, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: No
Format read: Hardcover ARC
Source: Publisher
Disclaimer: I work with Twelfth Planet Press but was not involved in the production of this book

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman was shortlisted for the inaugural YA Hugo award, to be awarded at the World Science Fiction Convention this weekend. That was the main reason I read it. Tess of the Road is a spin-off of a YA series that I was aware of, but which didn’t grab my attention (I think, based on what I now know, this was because the marketing and cover gave the wrong impression of the book). I started all the Hugo-nominated YA books but one, and Tess of the Road was the only one that interested me enough to keep reading (though I might come back to one or two of the others later).

In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.

Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl—a subspecies of dragon—who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.

Tess is a teen in a world that expects people like her to be getting married and thinking of having babies. Because her family has fallen on hard times, she has spent the past couple of years working towards getting her twin sister a wealthy husband. Even though Tess is technically the older twin, scandalous events from her past have lead her family to pretend that honour falls on the other twin. This past and the way in which it was slowly explained throughout the book is what first grabbed my attention. What kept my attention was the world building and the interesting non-human races that feature.

As can be guessed from the title, Tess breaks free from the expectations of society and sets out on the road. She has a series of adventures, which make up the story and are tied together by a quest her (non-human) companion/childhood friend is undertaking. Throughout the book, we see Tess grow. She starts off as an alcoholic, but through walking and manual labour and a few other key events comes to confront and come to terms with her past.

As I said, I enjoyed this book, particularly the world building. It was on the long side and I felt it dragged a bit in the middle, exacerbating it’s length, however, it overall held my attention well, especially the opening chunk and the ending. The end made me think there might be a sequel, though I wasn’t sure if that would be the case until the very end. I would be interested in reading it. Also, having read this spin off, I am certainly considering going back to the original series about Seraphina, Tess’s sister, at some point. I recommend this book to fans of YA, coming of age stories and particularly the kind of YA which does not involve saving the world.

4 / 5 stars

First published: Random House, 2018
Series: Same world as the Seraphina series and the first book of a new series
Format read: eARC
Source: Hugo voter packet

Friday, 9 August 2019

Rebuilding Tomorrow and Worldcon

Things have been a little quiet around here, as you might have noticed. Chances are they are going to continue being quiet for a little while longer because I'm working on an exciting new project.

In 2016, I edited an anthology with Holly Kench called Defying Doomsday. The theme of that anthology was post/apocalyptic stories featuring disabled and chronically ill protagonists. Defying Doomsday did well, picking up several award short-listings and even winning a Ditmar for best collection. Now I am working on a follow-up anthology.

Rebuilding Tomorrow will also focus on disabled and/or chronically ill protagonists and it will still have a somewhat post-apocalyptic theme. But! Rather than focussing on survival in the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse like Defying Doomsday did, the stories in Rebuilding Tomorrow will be set a significant time after whatever apocalyptic disaster. These will be stories that show society getting back on its feet and people moving past subsistence-level existence into a new, sustainable world, even though it’s one that has been irrevocably changed by an apocalypse.

The team at Twelfth Planet Press will be running a Kickstarter for Rebuilding Tomorrow in October and the anthology itself will be out mid-2020, definitely in time to have a book party at CoNZealand, next year's World Science Fiction Convention.

And if you're planning to attend this year's Worldcon in Dublin, I will be there, spending a large portion of my time at the Twelfth Planet Press Dealer's table (booth 98). Come stop by if you're going to be in Dublin! We will of course be selling Defying Doomsday and other Twelfth Planet Press books and you can grab a nifty bookmark (as pictured on the right) or a swish Rebuilding Tomorrow ribbon for your con badge.

Will I see you there?