Skip to content

Rachel Hyland Posts

READING THE TBR, DAY 198: The Secret of Platform 13 (1979) by Eva Ibbotson

A hidden magical realm, a lost prince, an intrepid rescue party, a spoilt brat (who surely inspired Harry Potter’s cousin Dudley), and a ticking clock all combine to bring this adorable, hilarious story to life. I am pretty sad I didn’t read it as a kid, when I would probably have been more astounded by the bait-and-switch central to the plot, but I am no less glad to have read it now, or to recommend it to anyone who will listen. Like Which Witch? it does not pull any punches or its young intended audience — there are some particularly hideous characters in here, both human and otherwise, as well as several abductions, while the book in no way attempts to euphemise, well, anything — and, also like Which Witch?, it uses a magical landscape to explore some very real topics and feelings that might be experienced by, not only kids, but people in general. 

A treasure.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 198: The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson
GENRE: Children’s Fiction, Magic
PUBLISHED: 1979
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers
KEEP: Yep!

READING THE TBR, DAY 197: Which Which? (1979) by Eva Ibbotson

After reading Eva Ibbotson’s wholly delightful historical romance The Countess Below Stairs, I thought it was time that I explored the children’s tales for which she is so famous. Justly, as it turns out — because Which Witch? is just a whole lot of buoyant silly wonderment.

In this world, there is dark magic and there is light, and the ancient and venerable — but very good looking — dark wizard Arriman the Aweful, frustrated by the tardiness of the prophesied heir to his throne, decides to take a wife from among the worst witches in the land. Clearly, he must procreate!

Competition is joined, and hags from across the area attempt to prove themselves worthy of this most desirable of life partners. Among them is the beautiful Belladonna, whose greatest shame is that she seems to be a good witch who makes flowers bloom rather than decay, and can heal rather than curse, but she loves Arriman to distraction (for no clear reason) and so is determined to win his hand, if not his heart.

Helping her is an orphan boy, a worm and Arriman’s much-smitten assistant, while her biggest rival has a necklace made of human teeth and also there is a ghost who was formerly fond of murdering his wives on the slightest pretext, or none at all. This is a book for kids, but it doesn’t always act like one, and has no compunction about throwing in some very Dark concepts, along with all the humour and silliness, of which there is much. 

This is just a really comical, entertaining romp, not just for kids but for anyone with a bent toward sly wit and utter ridiculousness. I am now very much looking forward to diving into the other Ibbotson kids’ books I have held onto for so, so long. Can’t wait to see what wackiness I encounter next.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 197: Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson
GENRE: Children’s Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1979
TIME ON THE TBR: 15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 196: Dumb Witness (1937) by Agatha Christie

Back to my old friend Poirot, and each time continues to be a revelation. Oh, this one — an elderly lady writes to Poirot because of a nameless fear, and when he investigates, she is dead — isn’t necessarily as original as the last few have been, and the killer is a little more obvious than previously, but the method, motive and, most importantly, Poirot’s suave unmasking of the culprit never fail to amaze.

These books are fast becoming my comfort read, which means as much as I want to tackle the next one in the series immediately, I’m going to make myself wait. The series is long but, ultimately, finite, and I want to savour it for as long as possible.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 200: Dumb Witness (Hercule Poirot #16) by Agatha Christie
GENRE: Mystery, Cosy Mystery
PUBLISHED: 1937
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Vintage shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 195: Emily Fox-Seton (1901) by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Originally published as two separate books, The Making of the Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, this gorgeous antique hardcover from 1901 was an unexpected and delightful find for me, since Frances Hodgson-Burnett was one of the idols of my childhood — The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy — but for some reason it had never occurred to me, as an adult, to check what other books she might have written. It turns out, Burnett has an impressive catalogue, which eventually I will take a wander through (one of them, I bought at the same time as this, historical romance A Lady of Quality, which I will be delving into shortly), but first there is this rather cheery romance about the penurious, but well-born (of course) Emily Fox-Seton, who wins the hand and cold heart of a widowed marquis with her simple kind nature.

The early part, the Making of a Marchioness part, is by far the more enjoyable, as we see Emily eke out a respectable existence by performing the tasks of a personal assistant to various indolent matrons of London society. She is seconded into a country house party given by the commanding Lady Maria, and there she so impresses Lord Walderhurst that he slowly, and very subtly, falls for her stately spinster charms, even though there are much more youthful and beautiful candidates for his so-eligible hand.

The second part of the book deals with the new Lady Walderhurst’s adjustment to her circumstances, her developing relationship with her husband — neither are especially ardent or even intelligent people, but that they care for each other, there can be no question — and the jealousy this marriage aroused in the breast of Lord Walderhurst’s hateful heir, who had come to think the marquisate, and attendant fortune, virtually his own, and is put out by the prospect of a usurper being born to the family. There is, of course, Peril afoot, but Emily’s kindness knows no bounds, even when she must flee for her life, and for that of her unborn child.

It’s a perfectly agreeable, if pretty forgettable, story, the former part far more so than the latter, and it also provides a window into the life of a fallen-upon-hard-times gentlewoman of early 20th-century England. Unfortunately, it also encompasses the many prejudices and so-called superiority of Empire that marred so much of that time, and mars so much of its literature, which doesn’t always make it an agreeable read.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 195: Emily Fox-Seton by Frances Hodgson-Burnett
GENRE: Women’s Fiction, Classic Fiction, Romance
PUBLISHED: 1901
TIME ON THE TBR: 10 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 194: Wolf-Speaker (1993) by Tamora Pierce

Despite having discovered that the first book in the Immortals trilogy, Wild Magic, which I recently read, was by no means the first book in the wider Tortall universe, I nevertheless was in the mood for some fairly mindless YA Fantasy today — something heroic and delightful, a tonic to cleanse my palate after the torture that was that Feist Merchant Prince book — and this jumped into my hand off the shelf. I was very quickly re-immersed in the world of Daine, our teenage animal mage, and the imminent threat to the land from a darkness beyond.

This one sees Daine and her mentor Numair caught up in a rebellion against the King, with a sideline of sentient wolves and some unexpected complexity given to the “evil” creatures who infest Tortall. The pace is speedy, for the most part, the writing engaging, and lessons are learned left and right as young Daine — still just a tween — ever-so-slowly comes of age in this magical world of wonder and, it must be said, mild terror.

Perfectly pleasant, somewhat predictable, easy, simple, fun. This was exactly the book I needed to read today, if not a book I ever really needed to read at all.

Huh. Weird.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 194: Wolf-Speaker (Immortals #2) by Tamora Pierce
GENRE: YA Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 1993
TIME ON THE TBR: ~12 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Borders.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 193: Rise of a Merchant Prince (1995) by Raymond E. Feist

So far, these Feist (occasionally in conjunction with Janny Wurts) Riftwar Cycle books — of which this is the tenth — have been pretty inoffensive High Fantasy, employing several popular tropes and an often fairly simplistic writing style, but adventuresome and intriguing enough to make me happy enough to keep reading.

This one is so, so terrible, I kind of want to quit reading this series forever — which upsets me, because I have more than ten more of these things on my TBR, and have cared for them for way too long.

The problem here is in our… er… protagonist? Anti-hero?… Roo, whom we first met in the first book of this sub-series, Shadow of a Dark Queen. Best friend of that book’s hero, Erik, he was always an aspiring businessman, but in this book he reveals him to be the most venal and vicious creep of a jerk of a main character outside of Patrick Bateman and Humbert Humbert, and I hated every moment I spent in his company.

Look, I get it. Feist was clearly trying something new here, maybe in response to people making comments like “employing several popular tropes and an often fairly simplistic writing style” about his books. But boy did he fail, and the last half of the book, in which Roo betrays his wife when he’s seduced by a (predictable) spy for the Serpent Queen — oh yeah, the invasion is still imminent, but it takes a backseat to the so-fascinating vagaries of shipping wine and dealing with the Midkaemian version of the Mob — is just awful.

If I do return to this series, it is going to take a long, long time before I can rid my mouth of the bad taste of this one.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 193: Rise of a Merchant Prince (Serpent War Saga #2) by Raymond E. Feist
GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 1995
TIME ON THE TBR: 15 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: I’d really rather not, but it’s part of a series, so…

READING THE TBR, DAY 192: X-Campus (2009) by Francesco Artibani

Another alternate Marvelverse, this one sees some of our favourite X-Men — Wolverine, Cyclops, Rogue, Angel, Storm, Iceman, Colossus and Beast among them — recruited as students at the prestigious Worthington Academy, which is under the control of the enigmatic Professor Magnus. (Yes. He’s Magneto.)

Their biology teacher is one Professor Charles Xavier, and when he and his assistant, Jean Grey, select our special few for some extra-curricular classwork, the X-Men (Jean’s proposed name: X-Boys; um, no, there are girls in the team, Jean! Ororo was instrumental in the first mission’s success! Surely X-Kids would have been a better attempt?) are born.

I do love an alternate reality in my favourite comic land, and this one is particularly enjoyable, full of just the kind of angst you would expect from a high school-set story, but also exploring what it means to be a hero, and a mutant, in a world afraid of daring to be different. (Again: high school.) The final volume of this 4-issue series is probably the weakest, and I did not at all understand what happened with Rogue (throughout called Anna; no one has an X-name yet) and the letter in the epilogue, but in all it’s a pretty entertaining AU, especially for anyone who likes a teenage drama, which may the gods forgive me, I surely do.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 153: X-Campus by Francesco Artibani, illustrated Michele Medda and Denis Medri
GENRE: Comics, Superheroes, Marvel
PUBLISHED: 2009
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: ComicsRUs.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 191: Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder (2008) by Dave Barter

About fifteen years ago, I stunned friends and family when I announced my intention to ride a bicycle around Ireland. The reaction of almost everyone was dismaying and identical; it wasn’t “You’re going to ride a bike around Ireland?!” so much as, in great disbelief, “You’re going to ride a bike around Ireland?”

Thanks a lot, friends and family!

 That two-month trip was inspired by back-to-back readings of Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawk and French Revolutions by Tim Moore, to of my favourite travel writers. Eight years later, I hit the road again for another extended cycle tour, this one around Tasmania, which is pretty much the same size as Ireland, though significantly less populated, and would take around the same time.

A couple of years ago, I mooted the possibility of cycling around New Zealand’s North Island, and my friend Barney very kindly presented me with this book, sure I would find it an inspiring read on the journey. Unfortunately, the trip has been long-delayed, and size constraints will mean that I’ll have to leave it behind, anyway — if you have a Kindle, then travelling with hard copy books always seems a little foolish, especially when space and weight are an issue. As it happens, it would have been an excellent companion on my ride, and I think I would have very much enjoyed Dave’s cheerful, enthusiastic, thoroughly relatable company.

A collection of articles written across ten years, these breezy and often amusing anecdotes certainly struck a chord in me — especially the one where he rode Ireland from end to end. (I, however, rode its perimeter. Take that, Dave!) He examines the appeal of cycling, especially of distance cycling, and while I am not about to enter a race, or take up mountain biking, both of which are discussed in some detail in this book, I am now, having read this, inspired to repack my panniers with camping gear and protein powder, and perhaps hit the road one more time.

New Zealand, here I come. Eventually.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 191: Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder by Dave Barter
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Travel Narrative, Sports
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 190: Heartstone (2017) by Elle Katharine White

“YA Pride and Prejudice with dragons” is how this novel was described to me by the helpful young woman stacking the shelves as I browsed the bookstore, and she read her audience well, because of course I bought it immediately. And that is a quite decent description, even if the book does not, of course, reach such heights of genius in either its plotting or its prose.

Aliza Bentaine is the independent-minded daughter of Lord Merybourne, who has just contracted a dashing band of dragon riders to battle the monsters — gryphons, and the like — that ravage his land. One such is Alastair Daired, who immediately angers Aliza with his treatment of the gnome-type creatures who are her friends, and from there, it really is, well, Pride and Prejudice with dragons.

If you like either of those things, it’s a pretty good time.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 190: Heartstone by Elle Katharine White
GENRE: YA Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 2017
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Readings, Carlton.
KEEP: Probably.

READING THE TBR, DAY 189: Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922) by May Sinclair

Another Dodo Press “forgotten classic” reissue, and I… think I liked it? This 1922 novel full of pastoral England and WWI and an emerging, evolving amorality is not quite a family saga, not quite a romance, and not quite an insightful window into its time and place, but it is a little bit of all those things, and that made it pretty compelling, if not entirely satisfactory.

The Fieldings of the title are a family headed by a kindly gentlemen farmer, and we first meet them when Anna is a child who visits them in their country idyll each summer. She bonds early with the sweet-tempered Jerrold, and the two seem made for each other, but a series of tragedies — many war-related — throw many a rub thrown in the way of true love’s course, as do Jerry’s two brothers, the high-strung Colin and the way-too-good-for-everyone-in-this-book Eliot.

One thing that somewhat astonished me, toward the book’s end, was some pretty blatant sex talk, and even more blatant infidelity, which shouldn’t have shocked me (this was the 1920s!) but totally did. I guess because the earlier part of the book had been bathed in the golden age of Honour and Duty and rolling hills and the feudal spirit, I had been lulled into historical romance mode, but of course, this is a contemporary not-quite-romance, and so consequently far less idealized.

May Sinclair was a best-seller in her day, and with this outing, I can see why. Lyrical prose meets with idyllic scenery meets with scandalbroth and no little salaciousness, plus a pretty fearless depiction of the horrors of PTSD*  — these elements could easily make for a best-seller even now.

* That said, the suggestion that only “sensitive” young men would so suffer from the condition is pretty toxic, and sadly persistent. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 1989: Anne Severn and the Fieldings by May Sinclair
GENRE: General Fiction, Classic Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1922
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Yes.