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 March 2021

I completed 8 books in March, comprising 5 genres, for a total of 1,994 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

The Bone Ships (The Tide Child #1)
R.J. Barker
Genre: Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.
For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war.
The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.
Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

I bought this a while ago because I loved the cover, the title and the premise. Ships built of sea dragon bones! And it lived up to the promises. Firstly, the worldbuilding is sublime. The Hundred Isles, their people, their technology, the natural world, the culture, the religion and mythology, it’s all here. It feels like a real and very interesting, if often nasty, place. And this book has one of the best opening paragraphs I can remember reading for a while:

“Give me your hat.”
They are not the sort of words that you expect to start a legend, but they were the first words he ever heard her say.
She said them to him, of course.

Who is she, I thought? Who is he? What legend? And why a hat? Finding out was a lot of fun and adventure, with satisfying character development along the way. There are echoes of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Trilogy, but more a kind of homage than copying or stealing. And the ending was so satisfying that I’m happy to leave reading Book 2 for a while. But I look forward to meeting Joron and Meas and the crew of Tide Child again. And especially the gullaime. What’s a gullaime? Possibly my favourite character. Read the book and see. 😉


2. ONE FROM MY KINDLE

Writing Killer Cover Copy
Elana Johnson
Genre: Non-fiction/ Writing craft
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Writing killer cover copy is an essential skill for anyone who’s written a book, especially authors running their own self-publishing business. Combined with the cover of a book, it’s the most essential piece in an Indie author’s arsenal that can help increase conversions and sell more books.
And the best part? Authors have ultimate control over their cover copy! You can write killer cover copy that will increase your bottom line, and it’s time to stop thinking you can’t.
This short guide isn’t bogged down with stories or fluff. It lays out the essential parts of winning cover copy in easy-to-understand language with actionable steps.

I disagree with the blurb above. Yes, it is a short guide, and it isn’t “bogged down with stories,” but there is fluff galore here. Annoying fluff. The majority of this book is the writer telling the reader what she is going to do for them, and what she is going to tell them, rather than the actual telling, which takes up less than a quarter of the pages. She keeps writing things like “time to get into it!” and “Ready? Let’s go!” and then telling us more about her own background and why this book is going to be so useful. Grrr! It was just frustrating.
The tone is jokey, without being in the least clever or funny. It seemed inappropriate and amateurish.
The saving grace, and the reason this gets three stars from me instead of one, is that there is useful information in this book. Very useful information, I suspect. I made notes, and I believe they will result in me writing better blurbs for my novels.
But I have to say that, based on the style, tone, and writing level of her non-fiction, I won’t be trying any of Elana Johnson’s fiction.


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

Across the Risen Sea
Bren MacDibble
Genre: Middle Grade/ Post Climate Change Dystopian/ Adventure
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Neoma and Jag and their small community are ‘living gentle lives’ on high ground surrounded by the risen sea. When strangers from the Valley of the Sun arrive unannounced, the two friends find themselves drawn into a web of secrecy and lies that endangers their whole way of life. Soon daring, loyal, Neoma must set off on a solo mission across the risen sea, determined to rescue her best friend and find the truth that will save their village.
In a post climate change affected world, this adventure with sinkholes, crocodiles, sharks, pirates, floating cities, vertical farms and a mystery to solve poses the question of how we will all live ‘afterwards’. Will kindness and a sense of community win over selfish greed to preserve our planet – and humanity?

Two challenges met in one here, as I borrowed this Middle Grade novel from my library. I had heard of Bren MacDibble, but never read any of her books. When I saw this, I chose it based on the cover and the blurb, and the fact that this is a kind of dystopian story set in north-eastern Australia, something I hadn’t read before.
It was a quick, fast-paced, and fun read, with an unforgettable main character. Neoma doesn’t always make the wise choice, but she always makes the brave one, and usually for the sake of others. Her intentions are good, but she’s too impulsive. Which makes for a more exciting story, of course.
I loved the settings and the way that this is often like a tall tale – an unkillable pirate, a croc hitchhiking on a sailboat – rather than a strictly believable story. It’s not fantasy, or even magical realism, but it is heightened fiction.
The writing is exemplary, by the way. Neoma’s unique voice never falters, and there is nothing here that doesn’t need to be.
The ending is just a little bit too optimistic to ring completely true, at least to this adult, but perhaps that’s part of the charm. This book deserves to be better known, and I’d like to read more from Bren MacDibble.


5. ONE GROUP READ OR BUDDY READ

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3)
James S.A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

For generations, the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt – was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.
Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

Continuing my Science Fiction Series of the Year with the Epic Fantasy Reads Group on Goodreads. (Yes, I know Science Fiction isn’t Fantasy, but they occasionally include it).
I just raced through this one. We were only supposed to read half of Abaddon’s Gate this month, along with a short story and a novella from The Expanse universe, but I couldn’t bear to stop. Whereas the first two novels basically continue the same story (and by the way, if you’re watching the tv series, please read the books, they are so much better), this one takes it in a new direction. There is less political manoeuvring and more personal and small scale stories, but it’s all great.
There is also less focus on the familiar characters, although most of them are there, and more on some new ones, and the combination worked very well for me. I especially liked Bull, Anna and Clarissa.
Some thoughtful discussions on ideas of God, and how the new discoveries might affect them, were balanced by tons of action, especially towards the end.
And the “villain” is so well-drawn. I love her arc. I suspect we won’t see her again, but I’d like to. I think there is potential for some interesting developments there.
I dropped half a star from my rating because the fighting scenes in the last few chapters dragged out too long for me, and I ended up skipping some pages, but I’m sure this is just personal taste. Other readers will probably love them.
The question now is, with the second half of this novel set down for April, can I wait until May to read #4?


6. ONE THAT MEETS A RANDOM CHALLENGE

A Very Krampy Christmas (Gretchen’s Misadventures #8)
P.A. Mason
Genre: Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

I used my own Challenge Pot again this month to draw a slip of paper with a challenge, and got “A-Z” This meant I had to use a random letter generator and then read a book whose title, or author name (first or surname) began with that letter. I got the letter “P”, not an easy one. I had no suitable titles on my TBR, but I did have an author, P.A. Mason, and her novella “A Very Krampy Christmas” which was already on my Kindle.
I have read several of Gretchen’s Misadventures before, and enjoyed them. But this one didn’t hit the spot for me. The story is fine, and the ending is touching, but the actual writing felt rushed, and often a bit clumsy. It kept pulling me up and taking me out of the story. A shame, because the series is a lot of fun, and quite heartwarming.
I recommend giving Gretchen a try, but maybe start at the beginning rather than with this one.


OTHER BOOKS I READ IN MARCH

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman
Genre: Fiction/Literary Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.
But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

This was my highlight of the month. My daughter lent it to me because she thought I’d like it, and she was so right. Despite what the final line of the description above might tend to indicate, this is not a romance. It’s far more about friendship, and especially kindness. And persisting with people who are perceived as “difficult”. And it’s all about Eleanor. She is such a great character – completely believable, and someone I felt compelled to keep reading about. I found it very hard to put this book down. For three nights I stayed up way past my planned bedtime and then had to tear myself away.
There is a secret in Eleanor’s past that has made her – at least partly – the way she is, but it’s not really a deep mystery. I think it’s pretty clear about halfway through what actually happened to her. In a mystery novel, this would be a flaw, but it’s not here. The reader guesses what Eleanor is hiding from herself, and is very keen to find out what is going to happen when Eleanor herself realises the truth.
I honestly couldn’t think of a single criticism, and I was disappointed to find that Gail Honeyman hasn’t had any other novels published yet. I hope she does, because I’ll be spending my own money on the next one.


Gods of Risk (Expanse novella)
James S.A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Drive (Expanse short story)
James S.A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

These were part of my Group Read of The Expanse. They aren’t part of the main storyline of the novels, but kind of extras, with background on the universe and some of the characters. I enjoyed Drive quite a bit, but less so Gods of Risk. It just didn’t really engage me.


With only one 5-star read, March was a bit of a disappointing reading month overall, with an average rating of only 3.8, very low for me.

And so, on to April! What was your favourite March 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 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 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 Damsel Gauntlet

The (Mis)Adventures of Gretchen, Episode 1

By P.A. Mason

Genre: Fantasy, Humour, novella

Publication Date: 5 May 2020

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ochre Dragon

(THE OPAL DREAMING CHRONICLES #1)

BY V.E. PATTON

GENRE: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Dystopian/Hope Punk

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

On three distant worlds, three women journey towards their destinies. Before they started out, all three made a choice – to forget they share a single soul.

In tech-ruled post-Crack Earth, where magic doesn’t officially exist, project manager Ali’s humdrum life under the crumbling Melba Dome is becoming weirder by the day. Her fingers keep glowing, a snarky dragon takes up residence in her head, and people she thought were her friends keep trying to control, kidnap or assassinate her. To top it off, she can’t figure out why her previously perfect memory is suddenly full of holes.

Meanwhile, on Heavens Gate, where magic and science have forged an uneasy alliance, research analyst Merindah is desperate to save her dying planet. What she lacks in magical ability, she more than makes up for in ambition, which comes in handy as she navigates family politics and feral deities. But when an impatient and not-so-extinct dragon begins to help her solve the puzzle of the Yarran journal, she realises her magic might not be as weak as she’d thought.

Finally, on Reverie, where magic rules unfettered, a young orphan becomes burdened with tainted magical gifts. Dee is alone, trapped in a waking nightmare. When she finally surrenders to the voices in her head, her out-of-control magic unleashes her dragon and propels her onto a path that could unravel the fabric of time and space.

Three women, three worlds – and their time is running out. Unless Ali, Merindah and Dee can reunite and unlock the secret of the Timegates in a single year, all is lost. They must each make unimaginable sacrifices to become the Key, the Gatekeeper, and the Fire who will save the Cosmos – or ignite Armageddon.

First though… they need to teach their soulmate dragons who’s in charge! 

Ochre Dragons is a stunning, genre-bending work of the imagination that effortlessly engages both mind and heart. From the almost mythological Prologue to the pulse-racing conclusion, this is a glorious, multi-faceted gem of a book.

I began reading the Ebook on my Kindle, but a third of the way through, I ordered the paperback (available from Amazon at a ridiculously low price, just saying). The story just seemed too epic, too huge in scope, to be contained within a small, flat electronic device.

For a start, we have three main characters, all women at different stages of life, but somehow connected to one another. I fell in love with Ali first. She is the elder of the three, in the same decade of life as I am, which may be the reason I took to her so early. But her life in a future dystopian Australia is so interesting, as is her personality. And when her dragon appeared, well that just put the icing on the cake. It took me a little while longer to warm to Merindah, in her world where magic and science co-exist, and perhaps gods and goddesses, too. But I was on her side by the end. And then there’s Dee, the youngest, and in some ways in the most desperate situation of them all. She has the least time time devoted to her and her world, and I’m hoping for more of her in the sequel.

As if that wasn’t enough, the world-building is extraordinary, the settings switching between science fiction and fantasy, dystopian and frankly cosmological. And then, of course, there are dragons.

This is not a simple tale, but I loved the complexity. Other things I appreciated were:

  • The lyricism of the Prologue. And yes, it is a necessary element in this novel, and yes,you must read it. Trust me.
  • The sentient towers, and the eventual reveal of why and how they are sentient.
  • The inclusion of the archetypes of maiden, mother and crone, without falling into the trap of making them only hollow symbols. instead of real, flesh-and-blood women in their own right.
  • The fact that it’s such an Australian story in many ways, and yet universal, too. Nice trick, if you can pull it off as well as Patton does here.

This novel was first published in 2018, and it seems to have been flying under the radar to some extent since then. It deserves better. Buy it, read it, and tell me I’m wrong. I dragon-dare you.

Review: BLACKBIRCH The Beginning

K.M. Allan


Genre: YA Fantasy
Release Date: 17 February 2020 (pre-orders available now)
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Welcome to Blackbirch. It’s a place no one forgets. Except for Josh Taylor.
The fatal car crash took more than 17-year-old Josh’s parents. It stole his memories and returned him to his birthplace, Blackbirch, a tourist town steeped in a history of witchcraft.
Amongst friends he’s forgotten and a life he doesn’t want, Josh is haunted by nightmares so believable he swears the girl in his dreams is real. Kallie is so captivating he ignores her blood-stained hands, but he can’t overlook the blue glow summoned to her skin.
Kallie says it’s an ancient magic they share and a secret worth hiding, because as Josh discovers, they aren’t the only gifted ones.
To restore his memories and find the true cause of the car accident, he must learn what’s real. And what secrets Blackbirch has buried in its woods.

From the very first page, this novel established a genuinely creepy and mysterious vibe that never let up, ramping to a climax that was action-packed and satisfying, and at the same time left me wanting more of these characters. Fortunately, there are several books to come in the Blackbirch series.

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