Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl

Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Little Witch Hazel is a tiny witch who lives in the forest, helping creatures big and small. She’s a midwife, an intrepid explorer, a hard worker and a kind friend.

In this four-season volume, Little Witch Hazel rescues an orphaned egg, goes sailing on a raft, solves the mystery of a haunted stump and makes house calls to fellow forest dwellers. But when Little Witch Hazel needs help herself, will she get it in time?

Little Witch Hazel is a beautiful ode to nature, friendship, wild things and the seasons that only Phoebe Wahl could create: an instant classic and a book that readers will pore over time and time again.

Everyone needs some kindness in their lives, including forest creatures!

In “Spring: The Orphaned Egg,” Little Witch Hazel found an abandoned egg in the forest and decided to try to hatch it herself even though it was bigger than she was! I chuckled as she figured out how to safely bring it home and keep it warm as the creature inside finished growing. This was my first glimpse of what a compassionate character Hazel was, and it made me want to get to know her better.

I was not so impressed with “Summer: The Lazy Day.” Hazel’s adventures began with her trying to run some errands and getting frustrated by her inability to finish any of them. As adorable as her day turned out to be, it bothered me a little to see a character not be able to gather berries for the winter, have her shoes repaired before autumn hit, or return library books so someone else could enjoy them next. It wasn’t like she was acting grumpy and expecting everyone else to be equally productive that day or anything like that! She simply wanted to plan ahead responsibly, and I think that’s something that should be encouraged even in lighthearted tales like this one.

There was just a little bit of spookiness in “Autumn: The Haunted Stump” when Hazel heard a scary noise and went to investigate who or what might be causing it. I enjoyed the Halloween themes of this one quite a bit, and the warm-hearted twist at the end made it all even better. As much as I want to go into more detail here, it really is best to read it without any hints about what she finds.

“Winter: The Blizzard” wrapped everything up beautifully. The themes of compassion and kindness repeated themselves for the fourth time, but now Hazel was the one who needed help after she was surprised by a terrible blizzard while walking home after a long day of doing home visits with various patients she was caring for in the forest. The plot was strong and fast-paced here, and I was eager to see how she’d get home safely when she was cold, tired, and still such a long walk away from her cozy fireplace and warm bed.

This seems like a good place to mention the fact that these stories are all connected to each other and should be read in the order they appear in this anthology.

Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest was a magical read.

Real Sugar is Hard to Find by Sim Kern

Real Sugar is Hard to Find by Sim Kern
Publisher: Android Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A collection of short stories by Sim Kern, Real Sugar is Hard to Find explores intersections of climate change, reproductive justice, queer identities, and family trauma. Whether fantasy, science fiction, or terrifyingly close-to-home, the worlds of these stories are inhabited by flawed characters whose lives are profoundly impacted by climate change and environmental degradation.

Arranged in a progression from dystopian to utopian worlds, the stories chart a path from climate despair towards resilience and revolutionary optimism. Even in the bleakest of futures, however, Kern offers reasons to hope, connect, and keep fighting for a better world.

Like Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners or Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Kern’s stories are unflinching, intimate explorations of trauma and our deepest fears, rendered irresistible through the infusion of fantastic speculative elements and a dark sense of humor.

What the world looks like generations from now depends on what we do today.

Jane developed the ability to hear the thoughts of trees in one of the first scenes of “The Listener,” and she was tormented by their suffering. The plot twists were clever and kept me guessing. At one point I literally had to suppress the urge to argue with Jane because of how shocked I was by one of her decisions. She had excellent reasons for her choices, though, and I enjoyed being surprised by them just as much as I did imagining what might happen to her and her family next.

While I deeply enjoyed this collection in general, there were some stories that I wished had been given more opportunities for development. “The End of the Nuclear Era” was one such example. It showed what happened when children were given the legal right to leave their biological families and live with other people if they so desired. I was intrigued by how such a system would work and yearned to learn more about the practicalities of it all. For example, how old would a kid need to be before they could make this choice? What made some of them stay home and others venture forth? How did they learn that such options existed in the first place? I would have happily gone with a full five-star rating if every tale was equally fleshed out.

In “What Can’t Be Undone,” a witch named Stitcher Lorra tried to fix herself and those around her who requested help with a crude form of magic that didn’t always work the way it was intended to. The world building was fascinating and made me yearn for more information about how magic worked in this universe and why so many people had unrealistic expectations of it. I also appreciated figuring out how Lorra’s deepest faults were related to her work and how far she was willing to go to correct her character. Those scenes were as thoughtful as they were realistic for her personality.

Real Sugar is Hard to Find gave me hope for the future.

Omniscience by Janine Frances

Omniscience by Janine Frances
Publisher: Green Gables Publishing
Genre: Dystopian, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 5 stars
Review by Poppy

A family seek refuge in the Australian outback as tyranny takes hold, but who can they trust?

The world is at war and an authoritarian government has taken control in Australia. A terrorist group known as Day One is attempting to destroy civilisation so humanity can start again.

Shareen Miller gets caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare when she’s detained by an Auto-Enforcer for not having the right travel permit on the way to a job interview. Shareen’s detention sets off a chain of events that lead to her five-year-old twins being taken by the government.

With her husband Daniel, grandmother Alma, and sister Layla, Shareen seizes her children and escapes from the city. On the road, she reveals a secret about her missing mother Veronica that she’s been hiding from her family for five years.

What follows is an intense journey into the harsh Australian outback where nothing is as it seems, and no one can be trusted.

As they fight for survival, Veronica’s family finally learn the truth about why she left them. The stakes couldn’t be higher as the future of humanity hangs in the balance.

I know it’s a bit cliched to say this, but honestly–this book grabbed me from the first page and just didn’t let go. And that was a big deal to me. I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut lately, where the books I’ve picked have been a little “meh”. Not bad, but just not that great or memorable. So, to finally find a book that I didn’t want to put down, one I thought about when I wasn’t reading it and couldn’t wait to get back to it? Yeah, that was huge.

The author writes her descriptions vividly, and from the first moment I could see the world I was reading about. The oppression and non-stop oversight by the government is a bit terrifying, and I rooted for Shareen and her family from the start. I also really enjoyed that this wasn’t a book about a teenager who saves the world. Because the plot revolved around adults and family, it felt a bit more real and possible, which also made it that much more terrifying.

The plot is filling with twists and turns I didn’t see coming, which isn’t typical for me. I love that I wasn’t several steps ahead of the characters in the book, and that I was basically living the story right along with them.

Truthfully, one of the better books I’ve read this year. The author has a vivid, unique and talented way of telling a story that I greatly appreciated and crafted a world and characters that felt real, and she made me care about them. I’m very glad I was able to read this book and I recommend it to any fans of the genre.

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She’s the One Who Won’t Behave by S.R. Cronin

She’s the One Who Won’t Behave by S.R. Cronin
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Historical, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Rose

Gypsum, the sixth of seven sisters, has always been a rebel. Yet no one thought she would go so far as to join the reczavy, a group living in tents on the edge of the desert and known for their sexual promiscuity and playful ways.

But as the date of the Mongols’ return draws near, Ilarians of all types must work together if they are to have any hope of surviving. And the reczavy, for all of their odd ways, do have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Well, up their sleeves whenever they are bothering to wear clothes, that is.

Gypsum is touched when her oldest sister Ryalgar comes to call, and brings an olive branch with her. Ryalgar recognizes that the reczavy have as much to lose as anyone, and as much to contribute. Will Gypsum accept a key role in the plan to stop the invasion? Of course she will.

Unfortunately, her playmates don’t all feel the same sense of urgency. Many would rather simply enjoy the time they have left. A few claim to be allergic to long term planning. And some are too busy with their own poorly-timed plans to overthrow the government Ilari already has.

Good thing needlepoint is the one traditional skill at which Gypsum has always excelled. She will need to thread a fine needle in order to coax this recalcitrant group into becoming life-saving warriors of a very different kind.

Another great installment in the Seven Troublesome Sisters series! This time we get a look at Gypsum and her life with the reczavy, a free-spirited group who are very accepting and inclusive … they appear to be a very loving group. This volume tells how they fit into the overall plan of saving their land.

I really enjoyed the special power that Gypsum has with her needlework. What a lovely talent that would be! I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll let you discover that on your own.

I’m very excited about how the seventh book is going to tie everything together. Again, no spoilers, but this book came to a very satisfying conclusion.

Give the series a try…do start at book one, though. I don’t think you’ll regret it!

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The Partner Dilemma by Jade Marshall

The Partner Dilemma by Jade Marshall
Publisher: Evernight Publishing
Genre: Erotic Romance, Contemporary, Multiple Partners, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

The world has changed since it was ravaged by disease many years ago. Fertile females have become a commodity.

Skye has been preparing for her Partner for the last two years. But nothing could have prepared her for the three men that want everything from her.

Deklan, Blaine, and Kamden have been through it all together, even war. Now they want a Partner that can make their house a home. Skye is the missing piece in their lives. And now that they have her, they will do whatever it takes to keep her.

But nothing is as simple as it seems, and sometimes the past comes back to haunt you.

A steamy story with a scary premise!

I love a good futuristic story and this one delivered. This is a world where women, for the most part, are infertile. Why? Because of a vaccine. It’s scary. The author made that point quite well and left me a little spooked, I won’t lie.

Skye is one of the few fertile women and one paired with her three men–Deklan, Blaine, and Kamden. I liked how they took care of her and how they fell into a routine so easily. What sort of bugged me was how she’s young and knew exactly what to do with them. For a virgin, she’s advanced. I wish there had been more clumsiness or a little more fear on her part–fear of the unknown. Still, the time they share together is hot and makes for an entertaining read.

If you’re looking for something short and hot, then this might be the one for you. Beware, it’s a little spooky, but it’s all good, too.

Emperator by Miriam Newman

Emperator by Miriam Newman
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Rated: 5 stars
Review by Rose

Son of a king, grandson of a general, Sergius is a warrior without equal. It has been easy for him to be a hero when he was expected to be. When he finds himself fighting to free his grandfather’s country and the heart of a woman, he must be one because he is.

There is nothing I didn’t enjoy about this book. The author did a wonderful job engaging the senses and putting the reader right in the middle of the setting. I could hear the sounds of the battles, see the throngs of people as the characters rode through the city, feel the passion of the characters involved.

And, speaking of the characters, they were well-rounded – human beings with both positive and negative characteristics. No paper doll heros and heroines here. Ms. Newman shares them so you know what you are getting. I loved the character arc of both the main characters- to see how they grew from the beginning of the book to the end was a fun journey to be on.

I certainly hope this is not the last we’ll see of this group. I hope Ms. Newman has more stories to share. 5 stars.

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Death is a Many-Splendored Thing by David Neilsen

Death is a Many-Splendored Thing by David Neilsen
Publisher: Neilsen Books
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The world would be a lot better off if all the dead people would stop pretending they weren’t dead.

My name is Zachariah Thornwood, but everyone, even my parents, calls me Zack. A few months ago I was a normal fourteen year old kid obsessed with movies and baseball and girls. Not necessarily in that order. And now?

Now I live life with the knowledge that there are a ton of dead people running around thumbing their noses at the whole idea of the Circle of Life. They could be anyone: the postman, the Mayor, the kid bagging your groceries, or the weather woman on TV. They seem perfectly normal, act perfectly normal, live perfectly normal lives, but are, in fact, perfectly dead…

Not everything in this world is what it immediately appears to be.

Zach was an interesting and memorable main character who genuinely felt like a moody teenage boy. I’m saying that affectionally as I liked him quite a bit even when he was a little grumpy with the adults in his life who dared to ask him questions or wished to know where he was going late at night. These moments are a normal part of growing up for many teens, though, and I’m glad they were included so naturally here. He was a brave kid who enjoyed taking risks. Both of these traits served him well during his adventure.

There were some pacing issues in the beginning and the middle of the storyline. I found myself wishing for more conflict or plot twists during them. As much fun as it was to see Zach try to navigate normal activities like going to school after he learned how many dead people there were out there who were pretending to still be alive, this didn’t quite give me enough substance to work with. I think there was room for more development here, and I would have gone with a higher rating if it had been included.

Mr. Neilsen did a good job with the world building. He explained exactly what he needed to about this world in order for it to make sense for me as a reader, and the framework he set up made me yearn for more. For example, I’d love to know how the dead handle things like doctor’s appointments or going through airport security due to the many physiological differences between them and the living that can quickly become apparent with a body scan, x-ray, blood draw, or any other close attention paid to the topic. As this appears to be the beginning of a new series, I was glad to see how much space he left himself for the future as well. It will be exciting to see where he goes next.

I’d recommend Death is a Many-Splendored Thing to anyone who is in the mood for adventurous young adult fiction.

Chandelier by Michael Leon

Chandelier by Michael Leon
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Rose

CHANDELIER is the genre-bending sci-fi/fantasy-romance novel follow up of Michael Leon’s 2019 fantasy-romance book, PHANTOMS. A century has passed since the fabled Phantom ruled the Garnier Opera House. Technology has advanced, and AI has evolved beyond human knowledge. They reside in a virtual Earth, free from the ravages of an environmentally damaged Earth where humans and post-humans live under AI’s qualified governance. CHANDELIER follows one AI sentient’s journey, Benny, whose loyalty for a famous opera singer, Madame D’Arenberg, sets him on a dangerous course, entangling him in The Phantom of the Opera’s deadly web.

This is a wonderful addition to the Phantom of the Opera pastiche-canon. It’s a sequel to the author’s previous work Phantom (see our review here), but can easily be read as a standalone. However, the reader will do themself a disservice if they don’t read them both. Any reader would definitely get a richer experience that way.

This author has a remarkable knack of drawing the reader into the story. There are many twists and turns and it was quite enjoyable to try to figure out exactly what was going on with Benny and Diva. I love the the way the author twisted the genres to bring us an amazing story.

Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva

Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat—an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories. She begins a negotiation between the US Government and a diplomatic contingent from Arenavirus, a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. If Vashti is successful, she and Arena will reach a diplomatic agreement; if not, the Arenavirus infection will continue to spread, and humans will have to race to try to find a vaccine or treatment. As she navigates the diplomatic discussions, Vashti is also trying to connect with her daughter Alma, who lives on the other side of the country in a technology-averse commune. By the time the negotiation ends, Vashti discovers that Arenavirus have learned some impressive and deadly tricks from their interactions with humans.

This tale takes the idea of having a bad day at work to an entirely new level. Humanity may go extinct if Vashti fails.

It’s rare for me to find science fiction about viruses that can communicate with humans, so I was thrilled when I discovered this short story. Intelligence in other species doesn’t have to look anything like human intelligence in order to be valid or, in some cases, dangerous. I was intrigued by the thought of how the world would look through the eyes of a creature so different from us, and Ms. Sachdeva certainly gave me a lot to think about there. Her decision to frame everything through the perspective of a person trying to communicate with the enemy was a smart one, too. There was plenty of room for character and plot development in the interactions between two such wildly different species alone, much less everything else that was happening in the storyline simultaneously.

I found myself wishing the ending had been given as much time to develop as the beginning and middle had to work with. The plot twist near the last scene was such a game changer that I was surprised to see how quickly the ending appeared from there. I’m not the sort of reader who expects everything to be wrapped up neatly, especially in a genre like science fiction that often thrives on unanswered questions, but I did find myself wondering if I’d missed something after I finished this piece. It would have been truly helpful to have a bit more information about what was happening there.

Vashti was a well-developed protagonist who had a sympathetic backstory and a likeable personality. Of course, it’s not strictly necessary for me to like a character in order to empathize with them or to be curious about what will happen to them next by any means, but it’s always delightful to get to know someone in fiction who I think I’d get along with quite well if she were a real person. She was a logical, calm individual who thought through everything carefully and had a contingency plan for all sorts of possible outcomes. I wanted to sit down with her and ask her at least a dozen questions about her work. That is a sign of memorable writing in my opinion.

Arbitrium was full of surprises.

Arcane Island by Angela Knight

Arcane Island by Angela Knight
Publisher: Changeling Press
Genre: Erotic Romance, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Moonflower

Dave Frost died in combat five years ago, but his soul survives, magically bonded to the body of his partner — a six-hundred pound tiger. Dave can conjure a human manifestation, but nobody treats him as a man anymore. Especially not women. Until he meets Ariel — his costar — while shooting a reality TV competition in the Bahamas. The show’s producers have assigned him to the beautiful witch for an onscreen showmance.

Ariel Piper’s talent is strong enough to turn the competition in their favor. Unfortunately, she also has a condition that makes using her magic agonizing. When they discover Dave’s touch kills the pain, he’s driven to help.

Their showmance soon becomes the real thing, though Dave fears she’ll dump him when the show wraps. Can Ariel convince this heroic, wounded man to trust her love — before the show comes to a lethal climax that’s not in the script?

A new world to me from a favourite author.

Angela Knight is a known author to me. I love her worlds that are always so clear and descriptive, making it easy to understand ‘the rules’. This world though was a new one to me. It is the third book in the series but is billed as a standalone. I have read it as such but am now left with a need to read the first two books in the series!

This story is based in a world where magic exists. There are witches, familiars, and Ferals. These are humans who bond with an animal, drawing on their strength. Dave is paired with Smiley when one of his teammates loses control. Dave dies of a broken neck but Smiley is not prepared to let him go. Instead, Dave’s spirit/soul/whatever you want to call it shares Smiley’s body. It usually happens the other way around as the animals don’t live as long as humans usually. This way isn’t unknown but it is rare, which leads to misunderstandings and ill-conceived notions.

Set on an island where a reality TV show is being filmed, you meet the team Dave and Ariel are on together, getting an in-depth understanding of his teammates and why they are competing. The bond between Dave and Ariel is real but Dave won’t put his weight behind it, fearing it is only short-term. Ariel has her hands full with trying to convince him her feelings won’t change and also keeping herself and her teammates alive.

This is another fantastic read by this author and one I have no hesitation in recommending.