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 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 September and October 2020

September and October were months filled with revisions and edits of my own work. Consequently I wasn’t often in the mood to face more words in my downtime (I did stream an embarrassing number of tv shows, however). I only completed six books, and two of those were on audio. My average rating was 3.8, equalling March for the lowest average of the year. I did manage a spread of genres, however, and one 5-star read. Here they are in the order I read them.

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM

(Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)

by Liu Cixin 

 Ken Liu (Translator)

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion.

GENRE: Science Fiction
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was unlike any book I’ve ever read (listened to) and I’m still not entirely sure how to rate it. There are flaws in the pacing and some in the writing (or possibly the translation), but to say it held my attention would be an understatement. I mainly listened to it while walking the dog, and on one occasion I extended our usual 4 km to 7 because I didn’t want to interrupt the story. Although the description above focuses on the coming alien invasion, most of this first book in the trilogy is centred around the humans, and I loved them all, even the ones I hated. There is mystery and intrigue both political and personal, and at times I wasn’t sure if what was being described was reality or hallucination. But it was all fascinating. I can’t say more without spoiling the plot, but I highly recommend this one.

THE FIRE IN FICTION

By Donald Maass

In The Fire in Fiction, successful literary agent and author Donald Maass shows you not only how to infuse your story with deep conviction and fiery passion, but how to do it over and over again. The book features: techniques for capturing a special time and place, creating characters whose lives matter, nailing multiple-impact plot turns, making the supernatural real, infusing issues into fiction, and more.
Story-enriching exercises at the end of every chapter to show you how to apply the practical tools just covered to your own work.

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

This had been sitting on my shelf for a while and I was looking forward to cracking it open and making copious notes on all Donald Maass’ wisdom. However, there is more style than substance in this writing guide, at least to my mind. Maass uses a lot of words to tell a very simple story, and includes large chunks from published novels that don’t always seem to illustrate the point he’s trying to make. The advice itself is sound, but nothing I haven’t read before. It’s not terrible, but it hasn’t earned a permanent home in my Writing Craft collection.

THE RUINS OF LACE

By Iris Anthony

The mad passion for forbidden lace has infiltrated France, pulling soldier and courtier alike into its web. For those who want the best, Flemish lace is the only choice, an exquisite perfection of thread and air. For those who want something they don’t have, Flemish lace can buy almost anything–or anyone. For Lisette, lace begins her downfall, and the only way to atone for her sins is to outwit the noble who now demands the impossible. But for Katharina, lace is her salvation. It is who she is; it is what she does. If she cannot make this stunning tempest of threads, a dreaded fate awaits. Lace may be the deliverance for which they all pray… or it may bring the ruin and imprisonment they all fear.

GENRE: Historical Fiction
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐

I loved the idea of this. I know nothing at all about historic lace making and I was hooked from the first chapter. I should warn you that there is a lot of cruelty, including to an animal, so if that’s too distressing for you, I’d advise staying clear. Otherwise, this was gripping and pulled me through, desperate to know what was going to happen. I enjoyed Katharina’s part of the story more than Lisette’s but I was all set to give this four stars. And then came the ending. I don’t know what happened. Did the author need to rush to reach a deadline? Did her publisher demand a different conclusion to the one she envisioned? I have no idea, but the ending just does not fit with what comes before. In a few pages it suddenly changes from a very human, emotional, historical drama to some kind of adventure story. It then rushes headlong to a very improbable and far too neat ending. So I had to drop my intended rating. It’s still a good read, but not as satisfying as it could have been.

ATOMIC HABITS

By James Clear

No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving–every day. James Clear, one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

GENRE: Non-ficton / Self Improvement
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

No doubt in my mind about the rating for this one. I listened to it on audio, and then went straight out and bought myself a physical copy to re-read and annotate. I learned the value of habits and systems a long time ago, so I wasn’t sure how useful this would be, but James Clear blew me away with so much material that was new to me. I know this won’t be for everyone. Either you are fascinated by the whole idea of improving your life through habits and clever psychological techniques, or the very idea of it is anathema to you. If you are the former, and you haven’t read this yet, go and get it. January 2021 would be a great time to start putting some of it into practice.

THE JEWEL BOX GARDEN

By Thomas Hobbs

The Jewel Box Garden is a luscious, full-color book that features 160 new and startling photos by renowned garden photographer David McDonald. Hobbs explains his philosophy of gardening and life, or as he puts it, “Life As We Dream It Could Be.” In his own provocative and highly original way, he encourages gardeners to tap into their creativity and invest their heart and soul in creating oases of beauty — intimate spaces where they can escape the pressures of modern life. 

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

I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Cooma on a cold, rainy day, and it was such a beautiful book I couldn’t resist it, even though Thomas Hobbs lives in a climate that is practically the opposite of mine. And I haven’t regretted the purchase. I read it slowly over a few days while we were camping alongside a lake, and it became a sort of therapy at a time I was feeling low. A gorgeous, uplifting book for anyone who loves to dream about creating a beautiful environment through the use of plants.

DYING FLAMES

By Robert Barnard

From Robert Barnard, the internationally acclaimed Diamond Dagger-winning crime writer . . .Some memories are better left buried in the past. Well-known author Graham Broadbent has managed to repress one particularly dangerous memory for many years, but a trip home to a school reunion brings back the shocking reality of a desperate youthful passion.
As Graham finds himself drawn increasingly into the turmoil surrounding this woman and her children, he must deal with deception and, ultimately, with murder. The sins of the past return to haunt the living, and the lives of those who survive will never be the same.

GENRE: Crime / Murder Mystery
MY RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a fun murder mystery from Robert Barnard, who was an author I used to seek out in libraries and used bookstores many years ago. But I hadn’t read this title, and it’s one of his best. Great characterisation, his trademark English snarkiness, and a twisty enough mystery to hit the spot. For a while I was a bit worried that a certain trope I absolutely despise was raising its head, but Barnard came through, undercutting it masterfully, to the richly-deserved chagrin of his main character. I guessed the solution, but not long before the end, and even then I wasn’t totally sure, which is exactly as it should be.

An up and down couple of months for reading, but things changed dramatically in November, when I broke this year’s record for number of books read in a single month, and gave 5 stars to almost half of them! Stay tuned for that post soon. Until then, have you read any of these books or authors? Do you agree with my assessments? Let me know in the comments.

What I Read in Winter 2020 (Part 3)

Here are the final 5 books I read in winter this year, with an average of 4.1 / 5, lower than the previous two months, but still very good.

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JOSEPHINE’S GARDEN
By Stephanie Parkyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was the standout book for the month, from its gorgeous cover to its historical and botanical interest, but most of all its characters.

I was always going to like this novel about the Empress Josephine and her famous gardens at Malmaison in France. I knew the bones of the story – how she acquired some of the first plants to be sent from Australia by Joseph Banks, and was the first to establish some of them in Europe. How she corresponded with learned experts (all men) of the time and how the English even allowed a ship carrying plants for her through a blockade they’d imposed on Napoleon’s fleet. But bones are one thing, and a novel is another.

Stephanie Parkyn has done a magnificent job bringing Josephine to life, along with two other women: the wife of her head gardener and the wife of Labillardiere, a real-life French botanist who disliked Josephine intensely. All these characters are well-drawn and I really felt their hopes and especially their fears. Napoleon’s France isn’t safe for anyone, including his wife, and a creeping dread permeates the novel. But so does beauty and joy.

I was pleased that Josephine isn’t painted as some sort of perfect heroine. She’s very flawed, some might even say shallow, but you understand exactly why she does what she does, and feel real sympathy for her plight, especially as her options narrow and she becomes more desperate. As a woman, I am so glad I am alive now rather than in 18th century France!

A triumph that makes me want to get my hands on everything Parkyn writes. And like all the best historical novels, it sent me down several Google rabbit holes searching for the facts behind the story. Bonus!

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THE BOLD AND BRILLIANT GARDEN
By Sarah Raven

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A re-read that gets 4 stars mostly on the strength of its bold, brilliant and inspirational pictures. It’s a pure joy to thumb through. But the text has lots of interesting things to say too. Sarah Raven lives in a cool, rainy area of England, so many of her actual plant choices just wouldn’t work for me, but there are appropriate replacements that give similar effects. Her colour and design aesthetic appeal enormously to me and my own gardens have become more intensely coloured mainly due to this book.

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CONNECTIONS IN DEATH
By J.D. Robb

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Another of the ‘In Death’ series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb. This is #48 and I read it out of order with #49 (discussed in Part 1) because I had to wait for it to come back to my library. Unfortunately, it wasn’t another 5-star, but a solid 4.

An interesting mystery, Eve Dallas and friends doing what they do best, and Robb’s smooth, easy-to-read style fully in evidence. It just didn’t have that little extra something that Vengeance in Death did.

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BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE
By Trent Dalton

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

This was highly anticipated by me, having received numerous glowing reviews and also an enthusiastic recommendation by my sister, and I was very excited to start. I began listening to the audio book in the car, but soon switched to the physical book. It just didn’t suit me as a story to drive to. And yes, reading the words on the page was much better.

It’s an amazing achievement this novel, and hard to describe. There is very realistic memoir, some of it distressing, some funny, some hair-raising. But there is also a brace of tall tales, a smidgeon of literary lyricism and a sprinkling of magical realism (or maybe not magical, I’m still not quite sure about that). That makes it sound like a mess, I know, and it isn’t that by any means, but it is surprising and I was never sure just where it was going. I don’t count that as a fault, but it took a while to get used to.

Halfway in, I was convinced this was going to be a 5-star read, but somehow it didn’t quite get there for me. It’s mainly the ending I think, and perhaps it’s just Dalton’s inexperience as a novelist, but after all the build-up throughout the novel, I wanted more (or maybe just different) and it fell a little flat for me in the last few pages.

But the characters are incredibly vivid, the voice is sure and the emotion is real.

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DEADHEAD AND BURIED
By H.Y. Hanna

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

This was quite a pleasant cozy mystery, but even more insubstantial than most, and I guessed the solution very early on, always a bit of a disappointment. I kept thinking, “It can’t be that obvious”, but it was. I chose it mainly because it has a main character who inherits a cottage garden nursery – how could I resist that – but it didn’t quite live up to my hopes. This is the first in a series, and I’ll give a later one a try to see if I like it better, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

So that’s it for Winter 2020. How was your Winter reading (or Summer if you’re in the top half of the world)?

Review: Don’t Read the Comments

Eric Smith


Genre: YA Contemporary
Release Date: 20 January 2020
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Divya Sharma is a queen. Or she is when she’s playing Reclaim the Sun, the year’s hottest online game. Divya—better known as popular streaming gamer D1V—regularly leads her #AngstArmada on quests through the game’s vast and gorgeous virtual universe. But for Divya, this is more than just a game. Out in the real world, she’s trading her rising-star status for sponsorships to help her struggling single mom pay the rent.

Gaming is basically Aaron Jericho’s entire life. Much to his mother’s frustration, Aaron has zero interest in becoming a doctor like her, and spends his free time writing games for a local developer. At least he can escape into Reclaim the Sun—and with a trillion worlds to explore, disappearing should be easy. But to his surprise, he somehow ends up on the same remote planet as celebrity gamer D1V.
At home, Divya and Aaron grapple with their problems alone, but in the game, they have each other to face infinite new worlds…and the growing legion of trolls populating them. Soon the virtual harassment seeps into reality when a group called the Vox Populi begin launching real-world doxxing campaigns, threatening Aaron’s dreams and Divya’s actual life. The online trolls think they can drive her out of the game, but everything and everyone Divya cares about is on the line…

And she isn’t going down without a fight. 

It’s been a long time since a book made me want to stand up and cheer, or literally set my heart thumping, or brought tears to my eyes. This one did all three, not just once, but over and over.

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Review: The Other Half of Augusta Hope

Joanna Glen

Publisher: The Borough Press

Editions:  Hardback, paperback, Kindle, E-book, Audio Book

Release date: 13 June 2019

Rating:   5 stars

Goodreads Synopsis:

Augusta Hope has never felt like she fits in.

At six, she’s memorising the dictionary. At seven, she’s correcting her teachers. At eight, she spins the globe and picks her favourite country on the sound of its name: Burundi.

And now that she’s an adult, Augusta has no interest in the goings-on of the small town where she lives with her parents and her beloved twin sister, Julia.

When an unspeakable tragedy upends everything in Augusta’s life, she’s propelled headfirst into the unknown. She’s determined to find where she belongs – but what if her true home, and heart, are half a world away?

My thoughts:

This book. These words. You know how sometimes you finish a book and you actually want to hug it? That.

Before I began reading The Other Half of Augusta Hope, I had no inkling I was going to adore it so much.

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