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?

Review: The Book of Candlelight

By Ellery Adams

Genre: Crime/Cozy Mystery

Published: January 2020

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


In the new Secret, Book, and Scone Society novel from New York Times bestselling author Ellery Adams, the rain in Miracle Springs, North Carolina, has been relentless—and a flood of trouble is about to be unleashed . . .
As the owner of Miracle Books, Nora Pennington figures all the wet weather this spring is at least good for business. The local inns are packed with stranded travelers, and among them Nora finds both new customers and a new friend, the sixtysomething Sheldon, who starts helping out at the store. Since a little rain never hurt anyone, Nora rides her bike over to the flea market one sodden day and buys a bowl from Danny, a Cherokee potter. It’ll make a great present for Nora’s EMT boyfriend, but the next day, a little rain turns into a lot of rain, and the Miracle River overflows it banks. Amid the wreckage of a collapsed footbridge, Danny’s body lies within the churning water.
Nora and the sheriff both doubt the ruling of accidental drowning, and Nora decides it’s time for the Secret, Book, and Scone Society to spring into action. When another body turns up, it becomes clearer that Danny’s death can’t be blamed on a natural disaster. A crucial clue may lie within the stone walls of the Inn of Mist and Roses: a diary, over a century old and spattered with candle wax, that leads Nora and her friends through a maze of intrigue—and onto the trail of a murderer . . .

This is the third book in the series, and as I hadn’t read the previous two, I struggled for a little while separating out Nora’s female friends. But once I had, I enjoyed this thoroughly. It’s another cozy mystery with a bookshop at the centre of it, which is fast becoming one of my favourite set-ups. There was plenty of mystery here, too, in addition to the central crime, and one twist that I didn’t see coming at all, but which was very satisfying.

The Book of Candlelight is a feel-good read with enough genuine emotion to keep it from feeling superficial. If you’re a fan of cozy mysteries, I recommend it. (But maybe read the first two books first!)

I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Into the Water

By Paula Hawkins

Genre: Thriller

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help. Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind. But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped. And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

This was a difficult book to rate. In the end, I had to give it four stars because it is very well-written, structured and plotted. And yet…

CONTINUE READING

Review: The Clockwork Detective

By R.A. McCandless

Publisher: Ellysian Press

Genre: Steampunk/ Fantasy/ Murder Mystery

Released: May 2019

Rating: 3 stars ⭐⭐⭐

Can I say first, what a gorgeous cover this is? It’s what first attracted me to this novel. And then the title and blurb were very intriguing, too:

Aubrey Hartman left the Imperial battlefields with a pocketful of medals, a fearsome reputation, and a clockwork leg. The Imperium diverts her trip home to investigate the murder of a young druid in a strange town. She is ordered to not only find the killer but prevent a full-scale war with the dreaded Fae. Meanwhile, the arrival of a sinister secret policeman threatens to dig up Aubrey’s own secrets – ones that could ruin her career. It soon becomes clear that Aubrey has powerful enemies with plans to stop her before she gets started. Determined to solve the mystery, Aubrey must survive centaurs, thugs, and a monster of pure destruction.

Sounds good, right? Fae in a steampunk world and a murder mystery. I haven’t read anything from R. A. McCandless before, so I don’t know how this compares to his other two novels, which are urban fantasy. All the ingredients are here, but they just didn’t add up to a tasty enough dish for me.

CONTINUE READING

Review: Limited Wish

Impossible Times #2

Mark Lawrence

Publisher:   47 North

Edition:   Hardback, Paperback, Kindle, Audio

Release date:   28 May 2019

Rating:   4 stars

Goodreads Synopsis:

One choice. Two possible timelines. And a world hanging in the balance.

It’s the summer of 1986 and reluctant prodigy Nick Hayes is a student at Cambridge University, working with world-renowned mathematician Professor Halligan. He just wants to be a regular student, but regular isn’t really an option for a boy-genius cancer survivor who’s already dabbled in time travel.

When he crosses paths with a mysterious yet curiously familiar girl, Nick discovers that creases have appeared in the fabric of time, and that he is at the centre of the disruption. Only Nick can resolve this time paradox before the damage becomes catastrophic for both him and the future of the world. Time is running out—literally.

Wrapped up with him in this potentially apocalyptic scenario are his ex-girlfriend, Mia, and fellow student Helen. Facing the world-ending chaos of a split in time, Nick must act fast and make the choice of a lifetime—or lifetimes.

Game on.

My Thoughts:

Limited Wish is another really fun read from Mark Lawrence. Nick and his friends are back, along with two new characters: Helen, and a mysterious girl who keeps appearing and disappearing. I guessed who she was, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. There are many parallels to the previous book, One Word Kill, which is also fun. Things are similar yet different, in interesting ways.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST

Review: The Chalk Man

By C.J.Tudor

Genre: Thriller

Rating: 5 STARS

It’s been a long time since a book hooked me so quickly and so thoroughly from the first page. And I’m not sure I’ve ever given 5 stars to a straight thriller before. So there’s a recommendation for you!

The Chalk Man is the story of Eddie and his friends and is told using two timelines. In 1986 they are teenagers living in an English village, biking around together and using chalk drawings of stick figures as a kind of code for each other. Until something shocking happens. In 2016, Eddie returns to the village in response to receiving a drawing of a stick man in the mail. He soon discovers he has to figure out what really happened in the past before he can understand and survive what’s happening now.

It’s a great setup and Tudor handles it beautifully. Both timelines are fully engaging and I was on the edge of my seat more than once. The atmosphere of menace is so well done, without ever slipping over into cheap sensationalism.

CONTINUE READING THIS REVIEW

Review: The Silent Patient

Alex Michaelides

Publisher: Celadon Books

Release date: February 2019

Genre: Thriller

Rating: 3 stars

” Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain.Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.
Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought.”

So goes the blurb. And it is an intriguing premise. Will Alicia speak? Why did she shoot her husband? Why is she silent? And so on. As I said, intriguing. So I was keen to read this one. Sadly, the execution didn’t live up to the premise. It’s not a bad book, just disappointing.

Here’s the first problem I had. When people start talking about “a twist you won’t see coming” in a thriller, you can’t help but imagine all the possible twists when you start reading it yourself. And then, if you have read many thrillers, yes, you will see it coming and probably from quite a long way off too.

Continue reading “Review: The Silent Patient”

What I Read in April

April is autumn here. It’s a time to sit outside in the mellow sunshine with a book and a coffee and enjoy the turning leaves.

I read ten books in April, all fiction: eight novels and two novellas. And I didn’t abandon any of the books I started. It was a very good reading month, with ratings ranging from 3 stars to 5 stars, with an average of 4 stars for the month.

What I read (ranked from lowest to highest rated):

1. LEVERAGE IN DEATH (In Death #47) by JD Robb

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Crime Fiction, Futuristic, 3 stars

This brings me up to date with this series, but this one was a disappointment. In any long series, there will inevitably be highs and lows. It wasn’t a terrible book, but the characters seemed caricatures, each one just a set of their typical quirks and no more. The mystery wasn’t up to par, either, and the perpetrators and their motives just didn’t convince me. Still, a quick read with some fun to be had. Not recommended unless you’re already a fan and/or want to complete the series.

Continue reading “What I Read in April”