What I Read in September and October 2020

September and October were months filled with revisions and edits of my own work. Consequently I wasn’t often in the mood to face more words in my downtime (I did stream an embarrassing number of tv shows, however). I only completed six books, and two of those were on audio. My average rating was 3.8, equalling March for the lowest average of the year. I did manage a spread of genres, however, and one 5-star read. Here they are in the order I read them.

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM

(Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)

by Liu Cixin 

 Ken Liu (Translator)

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion.

GENRE: Science Fiction
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was unlike any book I’ve ever read (listened to) and I’m still not entirely sure how to rate it. There are flaws in the pacing and some in the writing (or possibly the translation), but to say it held my attention would be an understatement. I mainly listened to it while walking the dog, and on one occasion I extended our usual 4 km to 7 because I didn’t want to interrupt the story. Although the description above focuses on the coming alien invasion, most of this first book in the trilogy is centred around the humans, and I loved them all, even the ones I hated. There is mystery and intrigue both political and personal, and at times I wasn’t sure if what was being described was reality or hallucination. But it was all fascinating. I can’t say more without spoiling the plot, but I highly recommend this one.

THE FIRE IN FICTION

By Donald Maass

In The Fire in Fiction, successful literary agent and author Donald Maass shows you not only how to infuse your story with deep conviction and fiery passion, but how to do it over and over again. The book features: techniques for capturing a special time and place, creating characters whose lives matter, nailing multiple-impact plot turns, making the supernatural real, infusing issues into fiction, and more.
Story-enriching exercises at the end of every chapter to show you how to apply the practical tools just covered to your own work.

GENRE: Non-fiction/ Writing
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐

This had been sitting on my shelf for a while and I was looking forward to cracking it open and making copious notes on all Donald Maass’ wisdom. However, there is more style than substance in this writing guide, at least to my mind. Maass uses a lot of words to tell a very simple story, and includes large chunks from published novels that don’t always seem to illustrate the point he’s trying to make. The advice itself is sound, but nothing I haven’t read before. It’s not terrible, but it hasn’t earned a permanent home in my Writing Craft collection.

THE RUINS OF LACE

By Iris Anthony

The mad passion for forbidden lace has infiltrated France, pulling soldier and courtier alike into its web. For those who want the best, Flemish lace is the only choice, an exquisite perfection of thread and air. For those who want something they don’t have, Flemish lace can buy almost anything–or anyone. For Lisette, lace begins her downfall, and the only way to atone for her sins is to outwit the noble who now demands the impossible. But for Katharina, lace is her salvation. It is who she is; it is what she does. If she cannot make this stunning tempest of threads, a dreaded fate awaits. Lace may be the deliverance for which they all pray… or it may bring the ruin and imprisonment they all fear.

GENRE: Historical Fiction
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐

I loved the idea of this. I know nothing at all about historic lace making and I was hooked from the first chapter. I should warn you that there is a lot of cruelty, including to an animal, so if that’s too distressing for you, I’d advise staying clear. Otherwise, this was gripping and pulled me through, desperate to know what was going to happen. I enjoyed Katharina’s part of the story more than Lisette’s but I was all set to give this four stars. And then came the ending. I don’t know what happened. Did the author need to rush to reach a deadline? Did her publisher demand a different conclusion to the one she envisioned? I have no idea, but the ending just does not fit with what comes before. In a few pages it suddenly changes from a very human, emotional, historical drama to some kind of adventure story. It then rushes headlong to a very improbable and far too neat ending. So I had to drop my intended rating. It’s still a good read, but not as satisfying as it could have been.

ATOMIC HABITS

By James Clear

No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving–every day. James Clear, one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

GENRE: Non-ficton / Self Improvement
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

No doubt in my mind about the rating for this one. I listened to it on audio, and then went straight out and bought myself a physical copy to re-read and annotate. I learned the value of habits and systems a long time ago, so I wasn’t sure how useful this would be, but James Clear blew me away with so much material that was new to me. I know this won’t be for everyone. Either you are fascinated by the whole idea of improving your life through habits and clever psychological techniques, or the very idea of it is anathema to you. If you are the former, and you haven’t read this yet, go and get it. January 2021 would be a great time to start putting some of it into practice.

THE JEWEL BOX GARDEN

By Thomas Hobbs

The Jewel Box Garden is a luscious, full-color book that features 160 new and startling photos by renowned garden photographer David McDonald. Hobbs explains his philosophy of gardening and life, or as he puts it, “Life As We Dream It Could Be.” In his own provocative and highly original way, he encourages gardeners to tap into their creativity and invest their heart and soul in creating oases of beauty — intimate spaces where they can escape the pressures of modern life. 

GENRE: Non-ficton / Gardening
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Cooma on a cold, rainy day, and it was such a beautiful book I couldn’t resist it, even though Thomas Hobbs lives in a climate that is practically the opposite of mine. And I haven’t regretted the purchase. I read it slowly over a few days while we were camping alongside a lake, and it became a sort of therapy at a time I was feeling low. A gorgeous, uplifting book for anyone who loves to dream about creating a beautiful environment through the use of plants.

DYING FLAMES

By Robert Barnard

From Robert Barnard, the internationally acclaimed Diamond Dagger-winning crime writer . . .Some memories are better left buried in the past. Well-known author Graham Broadbent has managed to repress one particularly dangerous memory for many years, but a trip home to a school reunion brings back the shocking reality of a desperate youthful passion.
As Graham finds himself drawn increasingly into the turmoil surrounding this woman and her children, he must deal with deception and, ultimately, with murder. The sins of the past return to haunt the living, and the lives of those who survive will never be the same.

GENRE: Crime / Murder Mystery
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a fun murder mystery from Robert Barnard, who was an author I used to seek out in libraries and used bookstores many years ago. But I hadn’t read this title, and it’s one of his best. Great characterisation, his trademark English snarkiness, and a twisty enough mystery to hit the spot. For a while I was a bit worried that a certain trope I absolutely despise was raising its head, but Barnard came through, undercutting it masterfully, to the richly-deserved chagrin of his main character. I guessed the solution, but not long before the end, and even then I wasn’t totally sure, which is exactly as it should be.

An up and down couple of months for reading, but things changed dramatically in November, when I broke this year’s record for number of books read in a single month, and gave 5 stars to almost half of them! Stay tuned for that post soon. Until then, have you read any of these books or authors? Do you agree with my assessments? Let me know in the comments.

Blog Tour: River of Sins

I’m thrilled to be part of the blog tour for the latest instalment of the Bradecote and Catchpoll historical crime series by Sarah Hawkswood. River of Sins is the seventh novel in the series, and they just keep getting better and better.

This one begins with the brutal murder of a woman on an island in the River Severn in 1144, and Undersheriff Bradecote and Sergeant Catchpoll have their work cut out for them trying to identify and catch the killer.

The woman’s name is Ricolde, and before her death she was “the finest whore in Worcester.” But it turns out there is a lot more to her than that title would suggest, and this is a theme of the whole novel: how women are perceived, usually by men, and how that is often so much more one-dimensional than who they really are. It’s not a feminist story as such, but the female characters are so well-drawn that more than one has stayed with me for days after reading.

I am liking the pairing of the lord Bradecote and the down-to-earth local sergeant Catchpoll more and more. Apprentice Sergeant Walkelin gets more to do in this one too, on both a professional and personal level, and it’s great to see the three of them developing not just a solid working relationship, but a deeper understanding of each other.

The solution to the brutal crime seems simple at first, but of course the waters become appropriately muddied as the investigation proceeds. These novels are basically 12th Century police procedurals, and while contemporary versions of the genre aren’t really my cup of tea, the charm and fascination of the historical setting offsets that. Hawkswood seamlessly adds enough interesting and authentic detail that you feel you are in the period, without ever getting bogged down in masses of description. It’s a fine line and she walks it skilfully.

I devoured this in three sittings, and when I reached the final third I found it impossible to put down. The climactic scenes had me holding my breath more than once.

I would rate this 4.5, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hawkswood earns that final elusive star from me in the next instalment, which I will certainly be reading as soon as it appears.

Thank you to @allisonandbusby and #Netgalley for offering me an ARC of this novel in return for an honest review.

My Writing Space

I am fascinated by other people’s work spaces, maybe even a bit obsessed, especially if those people are writers. (It’s second only to my addiction to examining the bookshelves in every house I visit).

I love taking a peek and seeing whether the setup reflects my view of them or their writing. Like the romance author whose clean-lined minimalist home office, all spotless metal and white surfaces, surprised me by being pretty much the opposite of Barbara Cartland pink fluff. Or the environmental /earth-mother writer whose cluttered but completely charming corner is crammed with natural objects, family treasures and pieces of quirky art in just the way I would have pictured it.

Maybe you share my obsession? If not, you might want to skip this post. Because it’s all about my current writing space: what’s there, what’s missing, and how it all works together. I’ve done my best and most productive writing here, and I’ve spent the past year or so refining just what gets to stay and exactly where it lives. I absolutely love it. So, if you’re still with me, welcome to my little writing corner.

The location is our spare room. My husband has a desk in here too, and there’s a wardrobe and a sofa bed for guests. But this is the important bit! My very own creative space that no one touches but me.

Please ignore the walls – when they finally get finished is out of my control. Everything else, however, is just the way I like it, including the big window just out of shot to the right. When I’m sitting in my chair, I can see a section of my garden, and I feel this is essential. I plunk myself down each morning while it’s still dark out there (shout out to @6amAusWriters on Twitter!) and as I write I listen to the birds and enjoy the first light of dawn along with them.

Let’s take a closer look at the other components. Warning: I am going into the level of detail I’d love to see from other writers (obsessed, remember?) Feel free to skim if you’re more normal.

THE DESK

Well, it’s huge – 120cm wide and 80cm deep. We bought it second-hand for my son when he was in high school and this was his bedroom, but he left it behind and now it’s mine, baby, all mine! It’s old and shabby rather than antique, but it fits all my stuff on top and has 4 drawers that go all the way back.

THE TECHNOLOGY

My HP Pavilion laptop running Windows 10, and a second screen – an old AOC monitor we had lying around. I love having dual screens. I set up my Scrivener file on one and any relevant notes, webpages, spreadsheets etc on the other, and away I go. I also have a wireless keyboard and mouse as a result of The Great Coffee Spill of 2020 that wiped out my laptop’s built in ones. Still looking for a replacement.

THE BOOKS

So, so many books! Here’s a breakdown:

This is my Leuchtturm 1917 dotted Bullet Journal, without which I would be totally lost. It has all the non-writing things I need to remember, plus multiple lists, habit trackers and a daily log of appointments and jobs that I get to tick off once they’re done.

Here are the spiral notebooks I use in my morning routine every day: Morning Pages, Prayer and Bible Journal, and Writing ‘Treadmill’ (where I log hours, number of words, scenes and chapters completed, etc.). I used a spreadsheet for the last one for a while, but right now I’m enjoying the physical version. The other piece of paper is a list of what I want to analyse as I go through each scene of this revision.

The smaller notebooks here are ones I use for making notes for short stories, blog posts, courses I’m working through or books I’ve read, ideas for current and future novels, and so on. Yes, I am addicted to notebooks. The three tall binders contain “story bibles” for my novels – the green one for Greenhaelan, the Blue one for Skalsinger and the copper one for Charm Shaper. Inside are printouts of my character profiles, maps, timelines, information about the world and the magic system, and so on. Again, I have these things as computer files, but sometimes I prefer flipping through a binder.

IN AND OUT TRAYS

Hidden away at the back and not pictured separately because they’re boring. These are not writing related but are just for general household organisation – bills and other paperwork I need to process. I use the desk for that too.

STATIONERY STASH

Let’s be honest, this is just a small portion of my stationery stash – there’s’ a lot more in the drawers. But I use these in my journals and I just love seeing them every day. On top are pens, pencils and felt tip markers. Washi tape, scissors, glue, erasers and sharpeners live it the clear drawers underneath.

QUIRKY OBJECTS AND ORNAMENTS

None. Honestly, I tried, but they get in the way, both on the desk and in my head, and I don’t need them, not here. Everything in this space is about reading and writing and that’s the way I like it.

MESS

Again, doesn’t work for me. I have nothing against writers or artists who need messy desks to feel creative and productive and comfortable, I’m just not one of them. I’d never want to work on an empty, sterile surface, mine is pretty full as you can see, but everything has a place and goes back there when I’ve finished using it. My husband’s desk is just the opposite, covered with unstable piles of papers, books, cables, gadgets, CDs, coffee cups, and the odd piece of headwear. We share most things, and I’d give him a kidney if he needed it, but I’ll never willingly share a desk with him.

INSPIRATION BOARD

I left the best for last. Every time I gaze at this it puts a smile on my face. And it makes me feel like a real writer, even a creative artist. It’s half corkboard and half magnetic whiteboard and I rearrange and change it at times, but at the moment it contains character pictures for Skalsinger (the novel I’m working on now) on the left, and images on the right that relate directly to the story (eg the painted caravan and the soaring albatross) or just give me the right feels (the pastel chalk drawing of magpies by Shaun Tan and the beach photograph I took when we were camping). I used to use the whiteboard part for To Do lists and word counts, but this is much better. I spend a few moments with it before I settle down to write and I’m immediately in the world of my story, and happy to be there.

So that’s it, more than you ever wanted to know about my writing space. I’d love to see other bloggers do a post like this. Or just tell me in the comments: what do you love about your workspace?

What I Read in Winter 2020 (Part 3)

Here are the final 5 books I read in winter this year, with an average of 4.1 / 5, lower than the previous two months, but still very good.

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JOSEPHINE’S GARDEN
By Stephanie Parkyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was the standout book for the month, from its gorgeous cover to its historical and botanical interest, but most of all its characters.

I was always going to like this novel about the Empress Josephine and her famous gardens at Malmaison in France. I knew the bones of the story – how she acquired some of the first plants to be sent from Australia by Joseph Banks, and was the first to establish some of them in Europe. How she corresponded with learned experts (all men) of the time and how the English even allowed a ship carrying plants for her through a blockade they’d imposed on Napoleon’s fleet. But bones are one thing, and a novel is another.

Stephanie Parkyn has done a magnificent job bringing Josephine to life, along with two other women: the wife of her head gardener and the wife of Labillardiere, a real-life French botanist who disliked Josephine intensely. All these characters are well-drawn and I really felt their hopes and especially their fears. Napoleon’s France isn’t safe for anyone, including his wife, and a creeping dread permeates the novel. But so does beauty and joy.

I was pleased that Josephine isn’t painted as some sort of perfect heroine. She’s very flawed, some might even say shallow, but you understand exactly why she does what she does, and feel real sympathy for her plight, especially as her options narrow and she becomes more desperate. As a woman, I am so glad I am alive now rather than in 18th century France!

A triumph that makes me want to get my hands on everything Parkyn writes. And like all the best historical novels, it sent me down several Google rabbit holes searching for the facts behind the story. Bonus!

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THE BOLD AND BRILLIANT GARDEN
By Sarah Raven

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A re-read that gets 4 stars mostly on the strength of its bold, brilliant and inspirational pictures. It’s a pure joy to thumb through. But the text has lots of interesting things to say too. Sarah Raven lives in a cool, rainy area of England, so many of her actual plant choices just wouldn’t work for me, but there are appropriate replacements that give similar effects. Her colour and design aesthetic appeal enormously to me and my own gardens have become more intensely coloured mainly due to this book.

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CONNECTIONS IN DEATH
By J.D. Robb

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Another of the ‘In Death’ series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb. This is #48 and I read it out of order with #49 (discussed in Part 1) because I had to wait for it to come back to my library. Unfortunately, it wasn’t another 5-star, but a solid 4.

An interesting mystery, Eve Dallas and friends doing what they do best, and Robb’s smooth, easy-to-read style fully in evidence. It just didn’t have that little extra something that Vengeance in Death did.

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BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE
By Trent Dalton

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

This was highly anticipated by me, having received numerous glowing reviews and also an enthusiastic recommendation by my sister, and I was very excited to start. I began listening to the audio book in the car, but soon switched to the physical book. It just didn’t suit me as a story to drive to. And yes, reading the words on the page was much better.

It’s an amazing achievement this novel, and hard to describe. There is very realistic memoir, some of it distressing, some funny, some hair-raising. But there is also a brace of tall tales, a smidgeon of literary lyricism and a sprinkling of magical realism (or maybe not magical, I’m still not quite sure about that). That makes it sound like a mess, I know, and it isn’t that by any means, but it is surprising and I was never sure just where it was going. I don’t count that as a fault, but it took a while to get used to.

Halfway in, I was convinced this was going to be a 5-star read, but somehow it didn’t quite get there for me. It’s mainly the ending I think, and perhaps it’s just Dalton’s inexperience as a novelist, but after all the build-up throughout the novel, I wanted more (or maybe just different) and it fell a little flat for me in the last few pages.

But the characters are incredibly vivid, the voice is sure and the emotion is real.

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DEADHEAD AND BURIED
By H.Y. Hanna

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

This was quite a pleasant cozy mystery, but even more insubstantial than most, and I guessed the solution very early on, always a bit of a disappointment. I kept thinking, “It can’t be that obvious”, but it was. I chose it mainly because it has a main character who inherits a cottage garden nursery – how could I resist that – but it didn’t quite live up to my hopes. This is the first in a series, and I’ll give a later one a try to see if I like it better, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

So that’s it for Winter 2020. How was your Winter reading (or Summer if you’re in the top half of the world)?

What I Read in Winter 2020 (Part 2)

July was another good reading month. Only 5 books read, but an average rating of 4.4 / 5. Here are the books in the order I read them.

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VENDETTA IN DEATH
By J.D. Robb

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is #49 of the “In Death” series by J.D. Robb, otherwise known as prolific author Nora Roberts. I’ve read every one so far, so you could call me a fan, but I’m not sure I’ve given one of them 5 stars before. This was a standout for me, in writing, characterisation and plot. What saves these books from being too formulaic is that the main characters change and evolve over time. They learn and grow, they have actual character arcs as well as solving the crimes and catching the bad guys. The protagonist Eve Dallas just gets more and more interesting, and I can only hope Robb continues writing this series far into the future.

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THE NATTER OF KNITTERS
By Debbie Young

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I went on holiday in July and this hit the spot for a short, light, fun read. It’s a mystery/romance/English village cozy, the second of Young’s novellas that accompany her Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series. She has another series set in a school, but I prefer these. Sophie Sayers works in a bookshop and is a writer, and I like her as a character. She’s a bit of a bumbling amateur sleuth, but reading the books is like wrapping yourself in a warm, cosy blanket in front of the fireplace in a whitewashed cottage with roses round the door. Recommended if you like that kind of thing.

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DOWN TO EARTH
By Monty Don

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The blurb says: “Written as he talks, this is Monty Don right beside you in the garden, challenging norms and sharing advice.”

This was literally true for me, as I listened to the audiobook, and Monty does his own narration, which is just brilliant. He’s a unique garden writer, moving from the very practical and quite blunt when he’s telling you things like how to plant potatoes or prune raspberries, to gorgeous, lyrical prose when he talks about nature, the earth and his philosophy of gardening and life. Loved, loved, loved it. I could listen to this man all day.

AN HOUR IN THE GARDEN
By Meredith Kirton

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

I bought this in a charity shop for a few dollars, so it didn’t really owe me anything, but if I’d paid full price, I would have felt a bit cheated. Ostensibly, these are projects you can do in the garden if you only have an hour. I was expecting original, creative ideas, and good, clear instructions. That’s not really what I got. The “projects” are mostly just planting things in pots. Yes, seriously, that’s it. And even then, I have enough experience with gardening to know that some of those plants are not going to survive in some of those pots because they’re the wrong size and/or/depth. And some of them need particular conditions that are not mentioned at all. Honestly, there wasn’t one thing in this book that got my creative juices flowing. Lots of pretty pictures, very little substance. But I gave it 3 stars because: 1. I’m sure it suffered in comparison with the previous book, and 2. I might have seen it differently if I was a gardening beginner, which is who it seems to be aimed at. Back to the charity shop it shall go.

A COUNTRY GARDEN
By Fiona Ogilvy

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Yes, another gardening book, but a special one to me because Fiona Ogilvy lives just outside my own town of Bathurst NSW, and I’ve visited her garden on numerous open days. So not only can I picture exactly what she’s writing about, but our climate is almost identical and our soils are similar. So it may not be a 5 star book for everyone, although it is well and engagingly-written. It’s the story of how she developed her garden over the years, her experiments, successes and failures, her favourite plants and what she’s learned over decades in the same place. It was published in 2009 and is quite hard to get now, except from her website fionaogilvy.com.au

So that’s July done and dusted. August coming soon! As always, comment if you’ve read any of these books and tell me what you thought. I’d love to hear. Happy reading!

What I Read in Winter 2020 (Part 1)

So, I think we can all agree that 2020 has been an unusual year to say the least. Yes? And my absence from this blog since last May (yikes!) is by no means the most remarkable thing to have happened.

So I won’t bore you with the details and excuses, but just go straight into today’s blog post, the first of many frequent and regular ones to come, I hope.

Unlike my blogging, my reading was very consistent over winter. I completed 5 books in June, 5 in July and 5 in August. My average rating was 4.2 / 5. Here are the June books in the order I read them.

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THE JEWEL GARDEN

by Monty and Sarah Don

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a re-read, so I knew I’d enjoy it, but I was interested to see if I gave it the same 4-star rating this time. And yes, I liked it just as much. It’s the true story of gardening writer and TV presenter Monty Don, his wife Sarah, and their journey towards the garden and life they have now. Their early married life together is fascinating. They started a jewellery business that boomed crazily, giving them a jet-setting celebrity lifestyle, and then went bust just as fast, leaving them practically destitute. A large part of the story is Monty writing frankly about his severe depression and how working with his hands in the soil has been part of the way he’s learned to manage it. There’s a lot about gardening but even more about people and relationships and just life really, and it’s a wonderful book.

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THE SALTMARSH MURDERS

By Gladys Mitchell

Rating: ⭐⭐

This was not so wonderful. From the “Golden Age” of detective stories, but definitely base metal for me. Mrs Bradley, the Freudian psychologist and amateur sleuth, is barely a sleuth at all and is hugely unlikeable. The portrayal of the one black character is cringeworthy even for that time and as for the depiction of domestic violence and how the woman “must like it or she’d leave” – no thanks. And the mystery was just boring. I finished it in the hope the solution would dazzle me, but no. A dud all through I’m afraid.

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A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA

By Ursula Le Guin

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Another re-read, but from more than forty years ago and again I wondered how an older me would see this story that I loved so much as a teenager. I was a bit concerned it wouldn’t stand up to my current much-more-critical reader brain. But I needn’t have worried: this was and still is a small masterpiece, the precursor to all the books about student magicians, including The Name of the Wind and Harry Potter. But it’s more lyrical, more spare and beautiful, a little gem of a story set in a land of countless tiny islands. And it still brought tears to my eyes. If you’re a fantasy fan and haven’t read this classic, go get yourself a copy. And every time you stop reading and think, “that’s a familiar trope – she stole that”, please remember: no, she didn’t steal anything. Le Guin was the first.

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THE MARTIAN

By Andy Weir

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I listened to this as an audio book and it was a big surprise to me. I liked the movie and expected the novel to be average, an enjoyable way to pass the time on a couple of long drives, but no more than that. I absolutely loved it. Wil Wheaton does a great job of the narration, and there is so much more to the book than the movie. I listened to it in 2 five-hour chunks and wasn’t bored once, or tempted to take a break. There’s a lot of technical stuff about how the astronaut character survives after being stranded on Mars and I have no idea if what he does is feasible or not, and I don’t care. It was fascinating. Every time I thought I had almost had enough of following this one character all on his own, the scene would switch to Mission Control and what was happening there. After a while I’d get a little tired of the human relationship drama back in America and bang – back I’d be with Mark Watney. Great pacing and structure and an unforgettable character.

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MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE

By Robin Sloane

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’m a sucker for stories about books and bookstores. Add in a secret society of readers with a hidden agenda, a computer nerd and his cohort of unusually-talented friends trying to solve the mystery, and it would have been a miracle if I’d disliked this. But I had so much fun with it that I couldn’t give it any less than 5 stars. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece, but it’s one of those books that make me very glad I’m a reader.

So that’s Part 1 of my winter reads. Part 2 coming soon. Please comment if you’ve read any of these books, and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessments. Happy reading!

Review: The Safe Place

Anna Downes

Genre: Mystery / Thriller /Domestic Thriller
Release Date: July 2020
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Emily is a mess.

Emily Proudman just lost her acting agent, her job, and her apartment in one miserable day.

Emily is desperate.

Scott Denny, a successful and charismatic CEO, has a problem that neither his business acumen nor vast wealth can fix. Until he meets Emily.

Emily is perfect.

Scott offers Emily a summer job as a housekeeper on his remote, beautiful French estate. Enchanted by his lovely wife Nina, and his eccentric young daughter, Aurelia, Emily falls headlong into this oasis of wine-soaked days by the pool. But soon Emily realizes that Scott and Nina are hiding dangerous secrets, and if she doesn’t play along, the consequences could be deadly. 

This was the winner of last week’s Try a Chapter: Choosing my next Thriller. I said in that post that this isn’t the kind of thriller that throws you headlong into nonstop action. It starts gently, introducing us to Emily and then Scott, and showing us how things unfold. And the story was compelling, at least to me.

I loved the way the tense atmosphere built up bit by bit. The theme of the naive young woman drawn into a domestic situation that alternately alarms her and then reassures her that she’s just imagining things, struck echoes in my mind with gothic novels such as Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Of course, the reader knows Emily is not imagining the danger she’s in, and is internally screaming at her to get out while she still can.

There aren’t a lot of twists, but there is a reveal about two-thirds of the way through that I didn’t see coming, and from there the pace and action both sped up, making the book very hard to put down from this point on.

It was only the ending that prevented this from being a 5 star book. It just didn’t quite ring true somehow, and wasn’t as satisfying a payoff as the quality of the rest of the novel had led me to expect.

Even so, this is still a very solid 4 star novel for me. The characters are wonderfully imagined, fully fleshed out and fascinating. The writing is really good, too. The mystery kept me enthralled right to the end.

If you’re after a thrill-a-minute ride and explosive twists, this isn’t the thriller for you. But if you’re in the mood for a slow burning, atmospheric, psychological mystery, I’d encourage you to pick this one up.

I received an Advance Review Copy of this novel from Minotaur Books through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Try a Chapter: Choosing my next Thriller

I usually have several books on the go, so I can read what I feel like at any given moment. Right now, I’m reading two novels, which is sometimes enough, but they’re both Fantasy, and they’re both buddy reads, and today I feel the need for something different, something just for me. And I think I’m in the mood for a thriller.

Fortunately, with my library being shut and purchased books taking a while to arrive, there are already three thrillers waiting for my attention: a paperback on my shelf and two ARCs on the Kindle. I think it might be fun to try a chapter of each and decide which one I want to continue with. At least, it should be fun for me, and hopefully it will be a bit entertaining for you, too. Here we go.

STILLHOUSE LAKE by Rachel Caine

I bought a used copy of this at a charity book sale before I’d even heard about it. It was published in 2017, and several people have recommended it to me. The only Rachel Caine book I’ve read is the YA fantasy Ink and Bone, (#1 in The Great Library series), and I enjoyed it, but haven’t continued on. So let’s see how this author goes with an adult thriller.

Oh, looks like there’s a Prologue, so I’ll read that and also the first chapter.

Prologue: Gina Royal
“Gina never asked about the garage. That thought would keep her awake every night for years after, pulsing hot against her eyelids.” What a good opening. I already feel I’m in safe hands here.
Gina seems to be living a normal life as a wife and mother, reasonably content if not wildly exciting. But we know that’s going to change, don’t we? And yes, she pulls up outside her house to find that a drunk driver has crashed into her garage, the destruction clearly a foreshadowing of the mess her life is about to become, as the damage reveals the dead body of a young woman hanging in the space only Gina’s husband ever enters. This is a good start, made even better by the high quality of the writing, not always a given with a thriller. I’m keen to read on.

Chapter 1: Gwen Proctor
Fast forward four years, and the point of view has switched from third to first person, as we follow Gina, who has now changed her name to Gwen. She’s on a shooting range, getting certified to carry a gun. Gina is now a very different person, not just in name. She is tough, paranoid, and blames herself for not knowing what kind of monster she married. Her only aim in life now is to protect her children from anyone who wants to track the family down, and she has good reason to think they exist. This is all great stuff. The air of tension and menace Caine creates is almost palpable.


Do I want to continue?
I’m in a bit of a dilemma. I can see this is going to be a superior and deeply engaging thriller, but also very intense. Do I feel like something so full-on right now? I’m not sure. Let’s try contestant number two.

THE FINDERS by Jeffrey B. Burton

This is due to be released in June, and I have it on my Kindle. I haven’t read anything by Burton before, so I’m going into it a bit blind, but I know it’s about a cadaver dog and her handler assisting the police with a homicide, and that sounds interesting to me.

Chapter 1
We’re following a woman named Christine, and wow, Burton does not want us to forget what she’s called. Even though there are no other characters here, Christine is named over and over again, where a simple “she” would do the job perfectly. Within a couple of pages, it’s starting to get really annoying. It makes the whole book seem amateurish. The viewpoint is omniscient, not my favourite, and there’s a lot of telling, not much showing. Overall, not a great start, but Christine dies at the end of the chapter, so in a way, this is really a prologue, too. I’ll go on to Chapter 2. Perhaps the writing will improve once the main character appears.

Chapter 2
We meet Chicago police officer Kippy Gimm, called out to the scene of a supposed suicide. She’s not named as often as Christine, so that’s a relief, and there is clearly a mystery here, but somehow my curiosity is not really aroused. I want to be on the spot with officer Gimm, feeling what she’s feeling, seeing what she’s seeing, but again I keep getting told instead of shown, which throws me out of the scene.

Do I want to continue?
Honestly, not right now. I will read the novel in the next few weeks, because I intend to review it, and maybe on another day I’d enjoy it more, but right now I’m just not interested. To be fair, it’s definitely suffering from being read straight after Stillhouse Lake, which sets a very high bar for the actual writing and immersion in the story. On to number three.

THE SAFE PLACE by Anna Downes

This is another ARC on my Kindle, due to be released in July. When I requested it, I read the blurb, but I’ve forgotten what it was about, so I have no preconceptions. Ah, another Prologue, so it looks like I get to read extra pages again.

Prologue: Emily
Here’s another third-person limited point of view approach, like Stillhouse Lake, and it feels comfortable. I don’t yet know who Emily is, but I get her feelings of surprise and anticipation at a sudden change in her circumstances, and I’d like to know more. A little hint of a twist at the end of the prologue tells us that things are probably not as rosy as they look. Not a hook exactly, but enough that I’m happy to keep reading.

Chapter 1: Emily
There’s no marker to tell us about time, but I’m guessing this is happening before the prologue, showing us what happened to get Emily to the point where we meet her there. She is auditioning and makes a mess of it, then gets fired from her job. We learn a lot about her and her life without ever being directly told, it’s nicely done and feels natural. Nothing very dramatic has happened by the end of the chapter, and we’re not up to the point the prologue starts yet. The threat/menace is faintly implied rather than overt.

Do I want to continue?
I do. It’s not as gripping as Stillhouse Lake, but also less stressful (at least so far) and much more what I’m in the mood for now. It’s a smooth, easy read, and for now I’m feeling quite happy to be eased gently into the action, along with Emily.

AND THE WINNER IS:

How do you choose your next read? Have you experimented with trying a chapter? How did it go?

What I Read in April 2020

April started off slow as a reading month, but gathered speed by the end, for a total of 8 books, bringing my 2020 total so far to 26.

I read:

1 novel (science fiction)
4 non-fiction books
2 novellas (fantasy)
1 picture book

My average rating was 4.2, continuing this year’s theme of enjoying what I’m reading. Here are the books:

SEMIOSIS by Sue Burke

Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐1/2

I said I was hoping for Speaker For the Dead (Orson Scott Card) vibes from this novel that follows several generations of a human colony on an alien planet with sentient plants, and there were similarities at first. But in the end, I liked it, but didn’t love it. The plotting is good, and the ideas are good, and even the characters, so it took me a while to work out where it fell short for me. I think it’s just that it engaged my brain but not my heart, whereas Speaker for the Dead did both. I just wanted more. Still, 31/2 stars isn’t a bad rating. This is the first book of a duology, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue.


BEHIND THE EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN by Michael Bachelard

Genre: Non-fiction/ investigative journalism.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a hard read, and I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it’s a very thorough dissection of the history and influence of The Exclusive Brethren, focusing primarily on Australia, including case histories of people who have left and how that has affected them. It was shocking in parts, and heartbreaking, but I think it’s an important book, especially considering the influence this organisation has had and still has on Australian governments. A worthy read, but not a fun one.


NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

Genre: Non-fiction / Mythology
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Looking around for something I was pretty sure I’d enjoy after the Brethren book, I picked this up and wasn’t disappointed. Gaiman has a fun way with words and he tells the familiar stories about Odin, Thor, Freya, Loki and the other Norse gods in a fresh and colloquial style, with plenty of humour. The first section, the creation myths, is the driest, but once he gets into the stories, it’s pure gold. I raced through it and absolutely loved it. Highly recommended.


VALKYRIE: THE WOMEN OF THE VIKING WORLD by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir

Genre: Non-fiction/ History and Mythology/ Sociology
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

It was somehow fitting that while I was reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, I was offered an Advance Review Copy of this. It almost seemed like fate. Perhaps the Norns were at work!
This is an impressively scholarly treatise about a fascinating topic. The author begins with the same mythological sources that Gaiman’s tales are based on: the Elder (or Poetic) Edda and the Younger (or Prose) Edda. She draws from them what they have to tell us about the way the writers viewed the women of the viking age, via their portrayal of Valkyries and goddesses. Later, she mines the sagas and the archaeological evidence to give a picture of the position and lives of women of various social strata.
Much of this is necessarily speculation, as we have no writings from the point of view of the women themselves, but it’s thorough and intelligent speculation.
Parts of this book were definitely 5-star, but I’ve dropped the rating to 4 simply because there is a lot of repetition, which made some sections a bit hard to get through. But overall, it’s excellent, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this topic.

I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody

Genre: Non-fiction/ Writing craft
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I read through this very quickly without doing any of the exercises, just to get a good overview and judge if I felt it would be useful. The answer is a resounding yes! This is such a thorough analysis of story structure, plotting, character arcs, all that good stuff, and I can see myself applying it at every stage of the writing process from brainstorming through first drafts, structural revisions, editing, and writing marketing copy. It has already earned a permanent place on my shelf and I expect it to fall apart from constant use in a few years.


CHICKABELLA COUNTS TO TEN by Veronica Strachan and Cassi Strachan

Genre: Picture Book / Counting
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is so cute! Simple text, gorgeous illustrations, and Chickabella is counting backwards, which is a nice variation on all the counting up to ten books out there.
And on the final page, your child can have the fun of cleverly pointing out to you where all of Chickabella’s friends are hiding.
Definitely one for the cuddle-up-and-read-together shelf.


I received an Advance Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


TROLL HUNTER: WITCH FOR HIRE by P.A. Mason

THE DAMSEL GAUNTLET by P.A. Mason

Genre: Fantasy / Humour/ Novellas
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I read these two short novellas one after the other and it was like enjoying a couple of petit-fours (if petit-fours were funny as well as delicious).
They are the first episodes in a humorous fantasy series that I’m delighted to report is every bit as much fun as it sounds. I truly love the character of the hapless witch Gretchen, who is inept at spells and potions, but not by any means naive or stupid. The secondary characters are fun, too, and P.A Mason takes the idea of a fairy tale retelling and runs with it in an original and engaging way.
I now want to read all of Gretchen’s forthcoming misadventures, and it’s worth noting that there are lots of fun extras on the website http://gretchensmisadventures.com including examples of Gretchen’s execrable poetry, follow-up stories to the main episodes, and articles about the Gretchenverse.

I received an Advance Review Copy of the second novella in exchange for an honest review.


So, those were my 8 books for April. How was your reading month? What was the best book you read?

Review: The Damsel Gauntlet

The (Mis)Adventures of Gretchen, Episode 1

By P.A. Mason

Genre: Fantasy, Humour, novella

Publication Date: 5 May 2020

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This witch needs more than a wicked sense of humor to be the hero in a quirky quest she never saw coming.

It was an ordinary afternoon at The Salt and Bog until the city guards turned up. While sipping ale among outcasts and misfits, Gretchen gets called on for an audience with the King… whether she wants one or not. Hauled back to the palace in secrecy, this ‘witch for hire’ gets an offer too good to refuse. But when she’s locked in a dungeon with bickering goblins and a smug dragon, the proposition looks shady.
A damsel is in distress. A prince is on his way. All is not as it seems.
Living from hand to mouth, Gretchen pushes aside her reservations to keep her eyes on the prize; the King’s coin. To earn it, will she be willing to take the dragon by the horns? When a ‘happily ever after’ is at stake, she must paint a heroic picture for those who are watching.
Because when this fairy tale goes down in the history books, the people behind the scenes fade into obscurity… which is exactly how Gretchen wants it.

This is the first episode in a humorous fantasy series launching next month, and I’m delighted to report that it’s every bit as much fun as it sounds. I truly love the character of Gretchen, who is inept at spells and potions, but not by any means naive or stupid. The secondary characters are fun, too, and P.A Mason takes the idea of a fairy tale retelling and runs with it in an original and engaging way.

This story reminded me irresistibly of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Witch books. The feel and the humour are delightfully similar, and while I would argue that no one can truly touch Pratchett when it comes to humorous fantasy, Gretchen can hold her head up high as a more than worthy addition to the genre. I literally giggled aloud more than once, and this is very unusual for me.

I want to read all of Gretchen’s forthcoming misadventures, and it’s worth noting that there are lots of fun extras on the website gretchensmisadventures.com including examples of Gretchen’s execrable poetry, follow-up stories to the main episodes, and articles about the Gretchenverse.

If you’re looking for a quick, original and funny read, you should check out The Damsel Gauntlet, available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.