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.

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

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”