What I Read in December 2020

I read 6 books in December, a pretty good total for a month that contained both my birthday and Christmas. I read in 3 genres, but mostly crime/ mystery and my average rating was exactly 4, a nice round number to end the year.

TEN LITTLE HERRINGS (Elsie and Ethelred #2)
By L.C. Tyler

Genre: Crime/ Detective/ Humour
My Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐

Last seen boarding a plane which exploded mid-flight, crime writer Ethelred is discovered, to the bafflement of his dogged literary agent Elsie Thirkettle, to be alive and currently residing in the Loire Valley. Having followed Ethelred to a run-down French hotel hosting a stamp-collectors conference chaos ensues when one guest is found fatally stabbed, soon followed by the murder of a rich Russian oligarch. 

This is the second book I’ve read in the Elsie and Ethelred series, and I didn’t find it quite as enjoyable as the first. It’s still a fun romp, though, if you can get past the constant references to Elsie’s excess weight and her love of food, especially chocolate, which began to irritate me a little I must admit. The plot is instantly forgettable, but I intend to continue with the series whenever I’m in the mood for a quick, witty read.


THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST
By Claire North

Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime. Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.” This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow. 

I absolutely loved this from start to finish. Although I was intrigued by the setup – a man who dies and then keeps getting reborn in the same place at the same time and has to live his entire life over again – I was a bit concerned that fifteen cycles of this might get a little boring. I needn’t have worried. Claire North ( a pen name of British author Catherine Webb) tells the story in a non-linear and totally engrossing fashion. The writing is excellent too, and on occasions reminded me of Dickens’ prose, although it’s far easier to read. When the Cronus Club is introduced into the mix, and we realise that Harry isn’t alone in his unusual situation, things start to become even more complex and fascinating. The whole concept of this limited kind of time travel throws up all sorts of practical and ethical dilemmas, and my brain was firing all over the place as I read. It’s not all cerebral though. There is plenty of action especially towards the end, and the ending is pretty near perfect. I felt this book could have been written especially for my enjoyment, and I intend to check out more of North / Webb’s work in 2021.


THE HUMANS
By Matt Haig

Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Our hero, Professor Andrew Martin, is dead before the book even begins. As it turns out, though, he wasn’t a very nice man–as the alien imposter who now occupies his body discovers. Sent to Earth to destroy evidence that Andrew had solved a major mathematical problem, the alien soon finds himself learning more about the professor, his family, and “the humans” than he ever expected. When he begins to fall for his own wife and son–who have no idea he’s not the real Andrew–the alien must choose between completing his mission and returning home or finding a new home right here on Earth.

This suffered a little from being read directly after The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, mainly because the quality of the writing is nowhere near as good. However, once I got past that, I did enjoy this humorous satire about the absurdity of humanity as seen from the point of view of an alien. It’s not just humour either, there are some genuinely poignant moments, especially between the alien and Andrew Martin’s son. There is some repetition, where the same joke is repeated in a slightly different form several times, and I think the book would be better if this had been pruned, but overall it’s made me interested in reading more from Matt Haig.


THE ARTIST’S WAY
By Julia Cameron

Genre: Self-help/ Creativity
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Artist’s Way is the seminal book on the subject of creativity. An international bestseller, millions of readers have found it to be an invaluable guide to living the artist’s life. Still as vital today—or perhaps even more so—than it was when it was first published one decade ago, it is a powerfully provocative and inspiring work. 

I read this back in June when I first bought it, just a quick read-through to get a handle on this 12-week course and what it entailed. At that time, I think I gave it a tentative 4 stars. Then in September I started working through it week by week. And for the first 6 weeks or so, I found it interesting and helpful. But after that, I started to see some problems, and over time they loomed larger. In the end, I only finished the 12 weeks for the sake of completing the course. The main issue I have is how self-focused it all is. It’s like no one in the world matters except you, and as a creative person, you have some sort of licence to be selfish and put your “artist child” first in every situation. But surely the crucial thing about childhood is that at some point you learn to grow up. You hopefully remain childlike in many ways, but less childish. And it seems that a lot of the attitudes Cameron advocates are pretty childish. And if like me, you think “manifesting” what you want is a lot of nonsense, you may hate this quite a bit. Having said that, many of the early exercises did help me with insights into the nature of my own creativity, and I think the Morning Pages and Artists’ Dates are something I will continue in some form. So three stars seems fair.


MURDER ON THE MENU (The Nosey Parker Mysteries #1)
By Fiona Leitch

Genre: Crime/ Cozy Mystery
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Still spinning from the hustle and bustle of city life, Jodie ‘Nosey’ Parker is glad to be back in the Cornish village she calls home. Having quit the Met Police in search of something less dangerous, the change of pace means she can finally start her dream catering company and raise her daughter, Daisy, somewhere safer. But there’s nothing like having your first job back at home to be catering an ex-boyfriend’s wedding to remind you of just how small your village is. And when the bride, Cheryl, vanishes Jodie is drawn into the investigation, realising that life in the countryside might not be as quaint as she remembers…

I requested this as an ARC from Netgalley and One More Chapter because I liked the idea of the Cornish village setting and always enjoy seeing a protagonist changing careers and making a new life for herself. And as a summer cozy read it was just what I had hoped for. Jodie is an engaging amateur detective, and quite funny at times. I also liked that she’s in her forties and has a twelve-year-old daughter. The mystery is fun, with plenty of bodies piling up before the final solution, which was just twisty enough without being too complicated. And the secondary characters are all well-drawn and interesting. I’m looking forward to meeting them again, along with Jodie. A great start to a new series.


THE SENTINEL
By Lee Child and Andrew Child

Genre: Crime/ Thriller
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

In broad daylight Reacher spots a hapless soul walking into an ambush. “It was four against one” . . . so Reacher intervenes, with his own trademark brand of conflict resolution. The man he saves is Rusty Rutherford, an unassuming IT manager, recently fired after a cyberattack locked up the town’s data, records, information . . . and secrets. Rutherford wants to stay put, look innocent, and clear his name. Reacher is intrigued. There’s more to the story. The bad guys who jumped Rutherford are part of something serious and deadly, involving a conspiracy, a cover-up, and murder—all centered on a mousy little guy in a coffee-stained shirt who has no idea what he’s up against. Rule one: if you don’t know the trouble you’re in, keep Reacher by your side.

This was a Christmas present, and I devoured it in a single day. I had grown a bit tired of the Reacher books a few years ago, feeling the formula was wearing thin, but Lee Child’s younger brother Andrew seems to have injected some much-needed freshness into the franchise. Child (Lee) is the master of the short-sentenced, fast-paced thriller, and this just pulled me through at breakneck speed to the very satisfying ending. It is violent, and there’s not a lot of soul-searching on Reacher’s part when he kills or maims someone, but like Arnie says in the movie True Lies, they were all bad. If you can get along with this attitude, I’d recommend The Sentinel.


What I Read in November 2020

I read more books in November than I have in a long time. No doubt one of the reasons was my decision to try to improve the quality of my sleep by switching off all screens several hours before bed time instead of the usual one hour (it worked, too). With no videos or social media to entertain and inform me, I turned to reading. The other main driver was probably my determination to complete the reading challenge I set myself at the beginning of the year (you can see my post about it here). I still had four of the twelve criteria to meet, and I knocked over no less than three of them, leaving only one for December. And in the process I slowly found the passion for reading that I had somehow mislaid for most of the year.

I read eight books for an average rating of 4.3. Here they are in ascending order of how I rated them.

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

I ordered this a long time ago from the US, and when it finally arrived I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. In our changing climate, succulents seem a sensible way to go, and I find the use of them as landscape fascinating. I’m planning to turn the garden bed next to my front steps into a succulent tapestry, and I wanted inspiration, information and ideas. Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Even though it’s called Designing with Succulents, there’s not a lot of design concepts here beyond the very basic and general that would apply to any landscape. And although the front cover is gorgeous, I disliked the aesthetic of the majority of gardens illustrated inside. And while there is information about the various kinds of succulents, it’s arranged poorly, with different types of facts provided for each rather than a systematic approach. For example, it gives winter minimum temperatures for some plants but not others. A simple table would have been helpful. In the end, I don’t think it will be much use to me with my project, and I intend to pass it along.


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GENRE: Crime /Mystery
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is the 50th in the In Death series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb, and it’s a good one. It felt a bit fresher in some ways than #49, Connections in Death, and with a twistier plot, which I appreciated. Robb hasn’t lost her touch yet, and she’s apparently not stopping the series at 50 books, which is great.


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GENRE: Fantasy
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is one of the books I read for my challenge. I had to include a book written from a non-human perspective, and I was intrigued by the idea of a story told from the point of view of a bee. It was always going to be a difficult task. Bees are even less like humans than Richard Adams’ rabbits in Watership Down, and perhaps not sentient as individuals at all. Did Paull pull it off? Yes and no, but mostly yes, at least in terms of my enjoyment of the novel. For a lot of the time, I was able to accept the idea that Flora 717 was a bee living in a beehive. Some of the descriptions from her point of view are actually quite beautiful and the social hierarchy is well-imagined. But every now and then, she’d recognise some aspect of the wider world in a way that I can’t imagine a bee would do. For instance, she calls a human an old man wearing a red shirt, or talks about cars and warehouses. It’s a kind of shortcut, I suppose, to save the author from having to describe things peripheral to the narrative in terms of how a bee would see and understand them, but it threw me out of the story every time. And please ignore the blurb when it states this is a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games. It isn’t. But the story itself is terrific, full of drama and real emotion, and in the end I had a great time with it.


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GENRE: Historical Crime/ Mystery
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

You can find my full review here, but for now I’ll just repeat my final two paragraphs:

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.


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GENRE: Christmas Romance
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

With December looming, I chose this to try to get myself into a Christmassy mood. It failed in that, but I absolutely loved it anyway. I’ve read and enjoyed two other romances by Sandy Barker, but this one was the best, both in terms of complexity of plot (three separate stories with three sets of protagonists set in three different parts of the world) and for sheer fun. I loved the premise from the start. Three friends swap their Christmases. Like The Holiday except even more bang for your buck!
The English village with its traditional Christmas Fair is perhaps my favourite setting, but I enjoyed Colorado and Melbourne too. I especially appreciated that the relationships, whether friends or family, don’t rely on dysfunctionality for drama and interest. Instead, we are introduced to a varied cast of characters I’d actually like to spend Christmas with.
And with three separate romantic plotlines, I found it hard not to keep reading “just one more page.” Finished it way too fast, just like a selection of delicious chocolates. Delightful, and the first romance I’ve ever awarded 5 stars.


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GENRE: Crime/ Detective/ Humour
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I bought this on Kindle because it was on special and looked like something I might enjoy. The “detective story writer as amateur detective” is a trope I never seem to tire of. Add in a snarky agent who reminded me quite a bit of Agatha Raisin and this one was pure enjoyment from start to finish. As if an Agatha Christie mystery and a Wodehouse comedy had a literary child. Possibly a middle child. Not for everyone, but I was completely charmed and I’ve already bought and started reading the next one in the series.


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GENRE: Fantasy
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Let’s be honest, this was always going to get 5 stars from me. The lyricism of Rothfuss’ writing style, the sheer ‘realness’ of the world he’s created, and this second instalment of The Kingkiller Chronicle was a book I knew I would love. And I did love it, but not every single bit. There are two sections of Kvothe’s adventures that left me cold. The first is his time spent with a certain Fae, which seemed little more than the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a 17 year old boy (which I am not now and never have been). Utterly boring and pointless, except for an incident near the end which has major and important implications later. But I could have done without the rest of the interlude. The second was the time he spent among the Ademre. There was a lot to enjoy here, but it just went on for too long and I started to lose interest. But on the whole, I appreciated Kvothe getting away from the University to see more of the world, meaning I could see it too. The worldbuilding is wonderful and the other adventures are gripping and full of interest. Even a less-than-perfect Rothfuss is so far above most of the genre, 5 stars is the only way to go. Oh, and it fulfilled another of my challenges: read a book with an emotion in the title.
I’m told Volume 3 is a disappointment, so I’ll hold off for a while and savour the memory of this one a bit longer.


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GENRE: Literary Fiction
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

And here we come to it: in some ways the most surprising book of the month. It was a bit of a rollercoaster for me, and for at least half I had no idea how I was going to rate it. So this will be quite a long review as I try to get my thoughts together.

Firstly, I read it because I had three books on reservation at my library that fulfilled another of my reading challenges: to read a book set in my state (NSW), and it was the first one to become available. It’s a bit of a cheat, because it’s set on “Massacre Plains” on the banks of the “Murrumby River”, and neither of those places exist, but the culture and language are clearly Wiradjuri, and the setting obviously somewhere in the Murray-Darling Basin, so I’m counting it.
It’s such a hard novel to pin down to a simple description or even a simple response, at least for me. It’s told from three points of view: Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi , who has written a dictionary of the language of his people so it won’t be forgotten after his death, his granddaughter August who has fled from her family and culture to the other side of the world and returns for Albert’s funeral, and Reverend Greenleaf, a white man and a German refugee, who lived in an earlier time and who we hear from only through his letters. There is so much here, told through these three very different sets of eyes and memories: history, culture, joy, conflict, injustice, pain and emotional damage, and much of it is hard to read. But it seems to me that above all this is a novel about language, and the power of language to express culture and to bring belonging and healing.
I absolutely loved Albert’s dictionary sections from the very beginning. As he ponders each word, he free-associates all that it means to him, all the memories and people it brings back to life, and invites the reader to enter into not only his personal history but the history of his people.
Reverend Greenleaf shows us some of the same history from a very different and less sympathetic perspective. And yet, for his time, he is an enlightened man, at odds with those around him because he refuses to see the “Natives” as less than human, and in fact admires them in many ways. He would still be seen as racist now, but I felt for him as someone who was trying to do the right thing as best he could, even if he fell short.
It was August who gave me the problem: I just could not connect with her. She is damaged and closed off, and we gradually learn why, but to me it didn’t make her any more likeable or accessible as a character. In some ways she is the opposite of Albert, and I struggled with her sections for a long time. And then suddenly, one day when I was reading in a coffee shop, there she was. I sat with tears in my eyes and had to close the book and leave before I completely lost it.
The final third is so brilliant, so moving, so thrilling and sad and brave and wonderful. And it’s followed by pages and pages of Wiradjuri words with English definitions. And now I want to learn them all.


Have you read any of my November books? Do you agree or disagree with my assessments? Talk to me in the comments.😊

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.

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?