What I Read in May 2021

Confession time: I did not complete all my reading challenges in May. Not even close.

I started well, but gradually lost interest in reading anything, let alone the books I had on my TBR – the ones I was “supposed” to read. I struggled for a while, and then wondered why I was even trying. This was a challenge I set for myself, correct? For my own enjoyment? So why feel guilty about giving it up? In the end, I did just that, and it was a relief to give myself permission to just not read unless I felt like it. Unsurprisingly, I completed fewer books than any month this year so far. So what did I read?

I read 4 books, comprising 3 genres, for a total of 983 pages, thus meeting only one of my three general reading challenges for the month. For an explanation of my 2021 Reading Challenge, see my post here. My average rating for the month was 3.75.

Here’s a breakdown of how I did with the remaining six challenges. (Spoiler alert: not very well.)

THE CHALLENGES

  1. ONE FROM MY SHELVES

Down to Earth
Helen Dillon
Genre: Non-Fiction/ Gardening
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This one only landed on my shelves this month, via a Lifeline Book Fair, but I’m counting it.

Helen Dillon is a celebrated Irish gardener and garden writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed her breezy style, sense of humour, and non-pretentiousness. She freely admits her own gardening failures and mistakes, many of which I identified with. And in the midst of my reading slump, this was one of the few books I was interested in opening.


2. ONE FROM MY KINDLE

Murder Ahoy!
Fiona Leitch
Genre: Crime/Cosy Crime/Humour
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

I was looking forward to this one, having enjoyed Fiona Leitch’s books before. However, it was a disappointment. There is some fun to be had in the setup and main character, a crime writer employed by a cruise ship to help run a murder game, but beyond that, not much else to recommend it. My main problem, and it’s a big one, is that the solution to the murder, and the identity of the murderer, were obvious to me from the moment the crime was committed. I kept thinking there was going to be a surprising twist. But after reading to the end, I discovered that I had got everything right first go: murderer, motive, and how they did it when they seemed to have an alibi. The clues were just too obvious, and everyone, including the professional policeman on board, kept taking something at face value that no one would in real life. I don’t expect cosy crime to be fiendishly plotted, but this one fell quite a bit short. And unlike last month’s novel by Ruth Ware, in which I also guessed the solution pretty early, the prose, characterisation and atmosphere were not good enough to fill the gap.


3. ONE MIDDLE GRADE

Sadly, no. I had one picked out, but didn’t even open it. I’d still like to read it some time, so we’ll see.

FAIL



4. ONE FROM THE LIBRARY

Book Art Studio
Stacie Dolin, Amy Lapidow
Genre: Non-fiction/ Crafts
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I borrowed this because I was going to a workshop on making journals, and I thought I’d get a little inspiration. And inspiration is just what this book offers. I am fascinated by hand book binding, and there’s lots of it here, but also plenty of ideas about materials, styles and covers. It also gives instructions for several techniques, but I feel I would need to watch someone, or even better, have a session with an instructor, to really grasp how to do some of these things. However, I can imagine that if you already had some experience, this would be a great resource. And the workshop? Well, it was a huge amount of fun, but we only did the pages and a few embellishments. This Saturday, we’re doing the binding. Can’t wait to try it.


5. ONE GROUP READ OR BUDDY READ

Oh dear, I have let down my buddies on Goodreads who are working through The Expanse novels and novellas by James S.A. Corey for our Science Fiction Series of the Year.

Sorry guys.


I was supposed to read Cibola Burn (The Expanse #4) but I only got 40% through it before the slump set in. I don’t know if it’s the novel or me, because I loved the previous 3 books in the series. I do want to finish this, maybe in June. And then I’ll try to read #5!

FAIL


6. ONE THAT MEETS A RANDOM CHALLENGE

Nope. I had a challenge all ready, and a choice of 3 novels from my shelves that would meet it, but I didn’t open even one of them.

FAIL


OTHER BOOKS I READ IN MAY

The Night Hawks (Ruth Galloway #13)
Elly Griffiths
Genre: Crime/ Detective thriller
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐1/2

After loving The Stranger Diaries by the same author last month, I was excited to find this in my library. And I read it quite quickly, before the May reading slump arrived. But I didn’t enjoy it very much. Perhaps it’s my own fault. After all, this is #13 in a series, and I haven’t read any of the others. (My library doesn’t have them). For this reason, I feel compelled to give it an extra half star.

But it just didn’t hit many of the right buttons for me. One thing it did well, like the other Griffiths book I read, was the atmosphere. It is set on the wild east coast of England, and I felt I was there for many of the scenes. Another plus was that the main character is an archaeologist, a profession I find interesting in itself.

But it is with the main character that I started to have problems early on. She is just so passive. She is the head of her department at the University, and seems well-respected in her field (not to mention that apparently she has helped solve at least 12 other crimes, yes?). And yet, she lets people insult her and walk all over her. She keeps thinking of things she “wants to say” in response to their rudeness, and they are perfectly legitimate things, and often even amusing, but she never says any of them. Not once.

Likewise, she lets a man she doesn’t like climb into her car without invitation, and then drives him to where he wants to go! I might add, he’s one of her subordinates, and not threatening in any way. I found myself asking, “Is she like this in all twelve previous novels?” Because if she is, why would anyone want to read them? She’s infuriating, and this completely spoiled the book for me.

Some of the other characters are interesting, and the plotting and solution were quite good, if not brilliant.

But as for Dr Ruth Galloway? I have no desire to meet her ever again.


So there you have it – my 4 books for the month. I met 5 challenges out of 9, so I suppose that’s a pass, but I’ve hardly covered myself in glory, have I?

As for this month (June) I’ve made a decision. I’m not going to try to catch up or even set a TBR list, except to try to get back to The Expanse.

Instead, I’m letting myself read whatever and whenever I feel like it. And then, at the end of the month, I’ll see if I’ve met any of my usual challenges. Could be fun, right? What if I just do whatever I want, and meet all 9 purely by chance? What if I somehow don’t manage to meet any? If nothing else, it should be an interesting experiment.

Is there anything you particularly want to read in June?

What I Read in April 2021

I completed 9 books in April, comprising 6 genres, for a total of 2, 463 pages, thus meeting three of my reading challenges for the month. For an explanation of my 2021 Reading Challenge, see my post here. My average rating for the month was 3.9.

Here’s a breakdown of how I did with the remaining six challenges, and what else I read.

THE CHALLENGES

  1. ONE FROM MY SHELVES

Van Gogh’s Flowers
Debra N. Mancoff
Genre: Non-Fiction/ Art
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is a beautiful book, especially if, like me, you love the work of Van Gogh. I found it in a charity shop for $3, an absolute bargain. And I enjoyed reading it, but the rating was a bit of a dilemma. The illustrations deserve 5 stars, no question. They are wonderful reproductions of so many of Van Gogh’s most gorgeous paintings. But the text was not of the same standard. It was very repetitive, as if the author only had a small number of facts and ideas about Van Gogh to convey, but had a word count to make up. So she just kept writing the same thing, sometimes as many as four times. This grew tedious. I would give the text on its own 2.5 or maybe 3 stars. And so I’ve averaged the rating and come up with 4 overall.


2. ONE FROM MY KINDLE

To Be a Queen
Annie Whitehead
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐

No doubts about the rating on this one. I have had this book sitting in my Kindle for about a year, and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t start it sooner. It is the story of Aethelflaed, known as The Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The book is set in England in the 9th – early 10th Century. Annie Whitehead is an expert on the period ( with her own blog, Casting Light upon the Shadow) and a fantastic fiction writer, a combination that seems quite rare. I loved everything about this – the character of Aethelflaed, the brilliantly-evoked settings, the action and the quieter moments. Perhaps the best historical novel I’ve ever read.


3. ONE MIDDLE GRADE

Olivia Stone and the Trouble with Trixies (The Guardians of St Giles #1)
Jeffrey E. Doherty
Genre: Middle Grade/ Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I chose this from my library because Jeffrey Doherty is an author in my local community. I hadn’t read any reviews and didn’t know what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself with this story. It centres around a boarding school guarded by stone Grotesques (don’t call them gargoyles😉) that come to life at night, and what happens when they are taken down from the rooftops and locked away. Brilliant idea and a novel I would have absolutely loved as a ten or eleven year old. The main characters of Olivia, who seems to be turning to stone herself, and the smallest Grotesque, Yip, are both endearing, and the book is action-packed from the start. Recommended for 8 to 12-year olds who like a touch of horror (not too much) with their fantasy.



4. ONE FROM THE LIBRARY

Shadows in Death (In Death #51)
J. D. Robb
Genre: Crime/Mystery
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The next of the In Death series and a bit of a disappointment in the end. I was enjoying it right up to the point where it basically became a revenge fantasy. If you are supposed to be “the good guys”, it is not okay to take pleasure from physically beating up the villain after he has already been captured and neutralised. And for no one at all to call you out for it. It left a nasty taste in my mouth.


5. ONE GROUP READ OR BUDDY READ

The Churn (The Expanse #3.5)
James S.A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Continuing my Science Fiction Series of the Year with the Epic Fantasy Reads Group on Goodreads. (Yes, I know ScienceFiction isn’t Fantasy, but they occasionally include it).
This novella wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as I’d hoped. It gives some backstory for Amos, one of my favourite characters, but it is less science fiction and more a gangster tale that could be set in any city at any time. Gangster tales do not interest me in the slightest. Oh well, on to another novel next moth, hooray!


6. ONE THAT MEETS A RANDOM CHALLENGE

As you can see, I doubled up on this one. The challenge this month was to watch a Youtuber build their monthly TBR using some kind of game, and then apply the first prompt that came up to my own TBR shelf. The Youtuber was Chantel at An Intentional Life and the challenge was to choose an obscure book from my shelf – one with very few reviews on Goodreads. Even though I was already reading this one, it was the only book I could find that fit the bill – only 4 reviews! See my own review above.


OTHER BOOKS I READ IN APRIL

The Borrow a Bookshop Holiday
Kiley Dunbar
Genre: Romance
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐1/2

I was so looking forward to this – our heroine takes up the offer of a holiday that includes running a cute little bookshop in a village on the Cornish coast. What’s not to like?
It started well and I was getting a huge amount of vicarious pleasure from the whole situation, until the romance storyline kicked in. Unfortunately, it hinged on a trope I heartily dislike – the big, strong, silent man with a deep, dark secret that means he cannot commit to a relationship, but which somehow doesn’t stop him from starting one anyway, hurting our already romantically-bruised heroine for no good reason. I simply could not like the man after that, especially when the secret turned out to be quite unbelievable too.
And a romance where you don’t want the two main characters to get together in the end is bound to be a disappointment, isn’t it? Such a shame, because the writing itself is very good.
I received a free copy of this book from #Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Springtime for Murder (Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries #5)
Debbie Young
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Cosy Mystery/ Humour
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’m still enjoying the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and this is the latest. Another light-hearted cosy murder mystery with touches of humour and village characters I have become very fond of. A quick and fun read.


One by One
Ruth Ware
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/Thriller
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I love a good closed circle mystery where the characters get bumped off one by one and there is no outside help available. They irresistibly remind me of the greatest closed circle crime novel of all, Agatha Christies And then There were None. And in fact, the publicity for this novel compares Ware to Christie. So I was excited, and at first the novel lived up to the hype.
The writing, characters and setting are all very good, and continue to be so throughout the book. But it has one flaw, and it’s a big one: I guessed the identity of the murderer and how they committed the seemingly impossible first crime almost as soon as it happened. Ware is not as good as Christie in embedding her clues with subtlety. They practically shouted out to me. Admittedly, I have read a lot of crime novels. If you haven’t, your experience might be different, and the huge reveal near the end might shock, surprise and delight you.
And yet, even though this novel fell short for me, I enjoyed my time with it a great deal. So the flaw, although large, didn’t turn out to be fatal, thanks to Ware’s undeniable skill in getting the reader to keep turning the pages. And I will read more from her in the future.


The Stranger Diaries
Elly Griffiths
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/Thriller
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

This had a set up that rang all the right bells for me: a teacher of Creative Writing who specialises in one particular Gothic writer and one particular story of his, which we get snippets of throughout the novel alongside the main story. A book about writers and a book within a book – two of my favourite things. And I’m partial to a bit of Gothic fiction, too. So when mysterious words started appearing in the main character’s personal diary – the one no one knows about – I was there for it. And it didn’t disappoint.
I loved Griffiths’ writing style and could hardly bear to put this novel down between readings. Sometimes her description is almost lyrical, and yet the story moves fast too. As the icing on the cake, she tricked me and I didn’t guess the murderer until just before the end – exactly what I want in an amateur sleuth mystery thriller. A great way to end the month.


What was your favourite April read?

What I Read in February 2021

I completed 6 books in February, comprising 4 genres (maybe 5 – I’ll explain later), for a total of 2,176 pages, thus meeting three of my reading challenges for the month. For an explanation of my 2021 Reading Challenge, see my post here.

Here’s a breakdown of how I did with the remaining six challenges, and what else I read.

THE CHALLENGES

  1. ONE FROM MY SHELVES

Every Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire
Genre: Fantasy/ YA Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

This was given to me as a gift, and I was keen to read it. I loved the cover, the title and the premise, which seemed like it would give rise to lots of fascinating storylines, fantasy settings, and character explorations. And for quite a while, I was delighted with this short novel. The writing was great, the characters were intriguing, the descriptions of the worlds they had come from satisfying. I was eager to find out where the story was going. But then the plot turned into a murder mystery, and it just wasn’t as gripping any more. Because to be honest, it’s not a very good murder mystery. I still went along for the ride, hoping the solution would be brilliant and redeem everything, but sadly no. But so much of this was so good that it still scraped in at four stars for me, and I intend to read at least the second book in the series, because there is a lot of potential in this setup.


2. ONE FROM MY KINDLE

Following Christ
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Genre: Non-fiction/ Christian teaching
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

You cannot have Christ if you will not serve Him. If you take Christ, you must take Him in all His qualities. You must not simply take Him as a Friend, but you must also take Him as your Master. If you are to become His disciple, you must also become His servant. 
 Spurgeon’s heartfelt writing style makes this book one that today still encourages believers to move into Christian action. He emphasizes simply moving forward, using the talents and resources you already have at your disposal, for the Lord’s service.

This book was written in the late 19th Century, and the language reflects that at times, but the concepts still feel completely relevant. As a Christian, I found encouragement, inspiration and motivation in every chapter, and it has already begun to influence my life in positive ways. Highly recommended.


3. ONE MIDDLE GRADE and
4. ONE FROM THE LIBRARY

Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow
(Nevermoor #3)
Jessica Townsend
Genre: Fantasy/ Middle Grade Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

But a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious Unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realizes it’s up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she ever imagined. 

Two challenges met in one here, as I borrowed the latest instalment in the middle-grade Nevermoor series from my library. I enjoyed the first two Morrigan Crow stories, but this one surprised me by being so much more than I expected. Yes, it’s full of fun and wonder and imagination, and I think even more humour (at least, I laughed out loud more than once). And I’d love to visit the Gobleian Library, attend one of Frank’s soirees (the end-of-summer sunset gala sounded amazing) and sit in on a class entitled “What’s That Smell?” or “What’s That Behind You?”. But alongside all of these delights, Townsend has written a book that explores important issues such as bigotry, fear of “the other”, oppression of minorities, misinformation, revisionist history, and political corruption. And she’s done it all while giving us a page-turning adventure story with a cast of compelling and quirky characters. It’s brilliant.


5. ONE GROUP READ OR BUDDY READ

Caliban’s War
(The Expanse #2)
James A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .

The second volume of my 2021 read-along of The Expanse series with a group on Goodreads, and I think it’s even better than the first. It continues the story begun in Leviathan Wakes, and I just raced through it at breakneck speed, finding it hard to put down. In consequence, I spent several nights staying up later than I should. And it was worth it. I enjoyed meeting Holden and the gang again and learning more about them, and I loved the additional characters of Avasarala and Bobby, especially Bobby. I really hope we see a lot more of her. The action was tense and high-stakes, and the behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring was clever and fascinating. If The Expanse continues like this, it may become my favourite science fiction series of all time.


6. ONE THAT MEETS A RANDOM CHALLENGE

I decided to watch Book Roast’s TBRvatar Challenge for February, and use the first prompt she spun up as my Random Challenge this month. Here it is: Read a book while listening to music. Seems simple, yes? I thought so too. And I tried, I really did. I quickly realised lyrics were out, far too distracting. But surely instrumental music in the background would be fine (Understand, I NEVER listen to anything while I’m reading, or writing for that matter). But no. Honestly, it was a kind of torture. My brain was being pulled in two ways at once, and the result was intense irritation. As I had really been enjoying the book up to that point, I gave up in the end, deciding it wasn’t worth it. So, I failed one challenge this month. I suppose it will keep me humble.😉


OTHER BOOKS I READ IN FEBRUARY

Scrublands
Chris Hammer
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Amateur Detective
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

In Riversend, an isolated Australian community afflicted by an endless drought, a young priest does the unthinkable: he kills five parishioners before being taken down himself.

A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend. His assignment: to report how the townspeople are coping as the anniversary of the tragedy approaches. But as Martin meets the locals and hears their version of events, he begins to realize that the accepted explanation—a theory established through an award-winning investigation by Martin’s own newspaper—may be wrong.

Just as Martin believes he’s making headway, a shocking new crime rocks the town. As the national media flocks to the scene, Martin finds himself thrown into a whole new mystery.

There is an excellent, gripping crime novel here somewhere, but it’s overwhelmed by mountains of detailed, yet prosaic, description. I listened on audiobook, and at least if I’d been reading a print version I could have skipped all the tedious and repetitive stuff, and maybe had a more enjoyable experience. As it was, I remember one morning when I was out on a walk. Fifteen minutes had passed, and literally nothing had happened in the story except the main character walking down the street and noting the minutiae of buildings, shop window contents, public notices, sign posts, fences, etc etc. Oh, and how hot and dry it was. He noticed this throughout the novel, over and over again. And this isn’t the only issue. There are far too many plot lines, too many different crimes and motives. It’s as though the author, a former journalist, having been finally set free from the sub-editor’s strict control, exploded out in all directions, trying to include everything he’d ever wanted to write about in just one novel. There are redeeming qualities, as I said. A memorable scene where a house burns down during a bushfire is just brilliant in every way, and actually overshadows the later scenes that are supposed to be the climax. The central mystery is a fascinating one, and the solution not bad at all, if only everything else had been cleared out of the way to let it shine.


C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement
Kel Richards
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Whodunnit/ Christian apologetics
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A detective novel by Kel Richards where the sleuth is C.S. Lewis, the beloved author of The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis (known to all his friends as ‘Jack’), his brother Major Warren Lewis (known as ‘Warnie’) and one of Jack’s students, Tom Morris, are on holiday in the English countryside. When they go to the bank they unwittingly enter a crime scene – a murder has just been committed in the vault. The three out-of-towners become suspects and must conduct their own investigation to clear their names. 

This is a very strange hybrid of two genres: a Golden Age Detective Mystery, interspersed with philosophical discussions on religion. The mystery is fine, although the solution is not particularly brilliant, and occurred to me pretty early on. But I enjoyed it nevertheless. I enjoyed the discussions too, as the brilliant C.S. Lewis is challenged by his young friend to defend how an intelligent, rational man like him could ever have embraced something as “irrational” as the Christian faith. Lewis comes out on top, of course, using pure logic to demolish every objection. But I have to say the two strands of the novel aren’t woven together particularly well. Still, there’s something to say for such an original and unique blend, and I had a good time with it.


I have to say that February was a ripper of a reading month, with an average rating of 4.3. And so, on to March! What was your favourite February read?

What I Read in January 2021

What a great start to the year I had, reading-wise, in January! I read 7 books, for an average of 4.2 stars. And 3 5-star reads! Admittedly, the first book I picked up just wasn’t for me, but it was all upwards from then on. And I met my monthly goals of reading from my bookshelf, my Kindle and my library, reading one Middle Grade novel, one buddy read, at least 3 genres, and a total of at least 1500 pages.


Isla and Drew Allaway appear to have the perfect life – a strong marriage, two beautiful children and their picture-perfect home, Foxglove Farm.
But, new mum Isla is struggling.  She loves her little family but with Drew working all hours on the farm, Isla’s lonely.
When she discovers that Drew has been keeping secrets from her, Isla has to face losing the home they all love.
Can the Love Heart Lane community pull together once more to help save Foxglove Farm?  And can Isla save her home…and her marriage?

FOXGLOVE FARM
By Christie Barlow
Genre: Romance
Rating: ⭐⭐

I borrowed this from my local library, mainly because I liked the cover. I wanted a light holiday read and it sounded just the ticket. I’m a fan of English village settings in both mystery and romance genres, but I didn’t get what I wanted here, for several reasons. The writing is repetitious. The same thing is said in different ways, or even sometimes in almost the exact same words, and there is far too much “telling” and not enough “showing” when it comes to characters. And the characters just weren’t engaging to me. Not objectionable as such, just not interesting. The plot, such as it is, is a mess. I was tempted to give this one star, but as I did read it right to the end, just to see how it would be resolved, two stars seems fairer. But I won’t be picking up any other books in the series.


Sunaya’s peaceful village life is turned upside down when a simple mountain mission turns into a death-defying quest for survival.
Winter treks to summer pastures, mythical Ice-People that are scarily real, avalanches, ice falls, power plays, mysterious magic and surprising friendships – it seems not everything in life is set in stone …

THE LOST STONE OF SKY CITY
By H.M. Waugh
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

My first 5-star read of 2021! I set myself a goal of reading one Middle Grade book every month of this year, and I’m so glad I picked this one up first. Australian author H.M. Waugh has given us a main character with a distinct and engaging voice and an adventure that is by turns funny, thrilling and moving. I loved Sunaya from the beginning paragraph. Her world is fully realised, too, and the writing is terrific. I saw where this was going fairly early on (not unusual in children’s books if you’re an adult) but enjoyed the journey thoroughly, especially Sunaya’s special ability, which is beautifully evoked. In fact, I can’t think of a single negative thing to say. H.M. Waugh is currently working on a sci-fi Middle Grade novel set on a future Mars, and I can’t wait to read it.


In the third volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy the good and evil forces join battle, and we see that the triumph of good is not absolute. The Third Age of Middle-earth ends, and the age of the dominion of Men begins.

THE RETURN OF THE KING
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What can I say? It’s a masterpiece, and I’m so glad I reread The Lord of the Rings in December and January. The cover above is not the edition I read, by the way, because I was given The Illustrated Edition for Christmas. It’s gorgeous and a pure pleasure to finish my reread in this format. I also read some of the appendices, which are brilliant too.


In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS
By Pip Williams
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Literary Fiction
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

This was a hard one to rate. I loved the first half, and then lost interest for about the next quarter, to the extent that I thought I might not finish it. I’m glad I persevered, because the final quarter was just perfect.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I didn’t enjoy, and I think it mainly comes down to the character of Esme herself. As a child, she is completely satisfying, hiding beneath the sorting table, stealing the words away, observing everything. but as an adult I felt she was just too passive. She does some daring things, but they are always either because she is following other people, or they are done in secret. She feels things and forms opinions but never expresses them or acts on them. In some ways, she remains that little girl hiding among the feet of the workers in the Scriptorium, and that was frustrating. I kept waiting for her to take some agency, show some passion, and she never did. Every other character was more satisfying to me, and that’s not good when she’s the protagonist. This changes slightly near the end, but not enough – too little, too late.
And yet, every other aspect of this novel is so good. The other characters are wonderful, even the dislikeable ones. The women are particularly memorable. The plot is satisfying. The relationships pleased me enormously. The times are well-evoked. And the writing is undeniably excellent. What the book has to say about both the power and limitations of words, to express and drive culture and to hurt or to heal, is profound, and brought to mind echoes of The Yield by Tara June Winch, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And so I do recommend this novel, just be prepared for a bit of a lull halfway through.


Newly-orphaned Anne Beddingfeld is a nice English girl looking for a bit of adventure in London. She is on the platform at Hyde Park Corner tube station when a man falls onto the live track, dying instantly. A doctor examines the man, pronounces him dead, and leaves, dropping a note on his way. Anne picks up the note, which reads “17.1 22 Kilmorden Castle”.
The next day the newspapers report that a beautiful ballet dancer has been found dead — brutally strangled. A fabulous fortune in diamonds has vanished. And now, aboard the luxury liner Kilmorden Castle, mysterious strangers pillage Anne’s cabin and try to strangle her.
Anne’s journey to unravel the mystery takes her as far afield as Africa and the tension mounts with every step… and Anne finds herself struggling to unmask a faceless killer known only as ‘The Colonel’…

THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT
By Agatha Christie
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Thriller/ Romance
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (with reservations)

I want to be upfront here. The reservations mentioned above in my rating refer to the really objectionable (to a modern reader) references to race, colonialism, and the dynamics of male/female romantic relationships. They are of their time (1924), but read very badly now. I winced quite a lot listening to this. And so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Man in the Brown Suit.

But, if you can get past these aspects, it’s a hugely fun example of Agatha Christie’s occasional forays into the Daring Young Girl Having a Thrilling Adventure genre. It’s not a detective story by any means, so don’t expect anything like a Poirot or Marple book. It’s a whole lot of nonsense really, and yet delicious nonsense. Our heroine is fearless, imaginative and hugely energetic, and it’s enjoyable to watch her escapades. And the character of Sir Eustace Pedlar, revealed mainly through his amusing diary entries, is a triumph. It’s also worth noting that I listened to the Audiobook narrated by Emilia Fox, and she is excellent.


TWO GIRLS GO TO A PARTY, ONLY ONE RETURNS ALIVE
Toni, the surviving teenager, is found delirious, wandering the muddy fields. She has been drugged and it’s uncertain whether she’ll survive. She says she saw her friend Emily being dragged away from the party. But no one knows who Emily is. Meanwhile the drowned body of another girl has been found on an isolated beach. And how does this all relate to the shocking disappearance of a little girl nearly a decade ago, a crime which was never solved? The girl’s mother is putting immense pressure on the police to re-open the high-profile case.
DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans of the Fenland police are stretched to the limit as they try to bring the perpetrators of these shocking crimes to justice.
There is evidence of an illegal drinking club run by a shadowy group of men, who are grooming teenagers. And the team come across a sinister former hospital called Windrush which seems to house many dark secrets.

THEIR LOST DAUGHTERS (DI Jackman and DS Evans #2)
By Joy Ellis
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Police Procedural
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is exactly what I want from a police procedural: intelligent, logically structured, with interesting detectives and a complex mystery, and with a satisfying conclusion. I listened to it on Audiobook and couldn’t wait to get back to it each time, even listening at home, which I rarely do, saving audiobooks for long car trips. From the first few minutes I knew I was hooked and in good hands with plot, pacing, characterisation and writing. The setting in the fenlands of Lincolnshire is perfectly evoked and adds greatly to the atmosphere.
I guessed some of the solution but by no means everything, and I had quite a few surprises along the way. The complexity ramps up but is never confusing.
DI Jackman and DS Evans make a perfect duo, and the dynamic of the whole investigative team was a pleasant change from the workplace friction and dysfunction that so often seems to be present in police novels.
I also highly recommend Richard Armitage’s narration. He switches tones of voice and accents flawlessly for the various characters.
I didn’t realise when I started the novel that it’s the second in a series. I will be seeking out #1 and #3 as soon as possible.


A new story set in the world of The Expanse. One day, Colonel Fred Johnson will be hailed as a hero to the system. One day, he will meet a desperate man in possession of a stolen spaceship and a deadly secret and extend a hand of friendship. But long before he became the leader of the Outer Planets Alliance, Fred Johnson had a very different name. The Butcher of Anderson Station.
This is his story.

TEH BUTCHER OF ANDERSON STATION
By James A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction/ short story
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a buddy read. I’m joining a group on Goodreads who are reading Corey’s The Expanse series this year. They began this month with Leviathan Wakes and this short story. As I’d already read Leviathan Wakes last year, I only added the short story to my TBR this month. It’s a solid story, in Corey’s typical style, that illuminates a bit of the backstory of a character from the first novel. A good taster for the rest of the buddy read.


How was your reading this month? Any 5-star books?

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!