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 3)

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

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JOSEPHINE’S GARDEN
By Stephanie Parkyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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

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

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

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

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

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THE BOLD AND BRILLIANT GARDEN
By Sarah Raven

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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

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CONNECTIONS IN DEATH
By J.D. Robb

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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

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

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BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE
By Trent Dalton

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

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

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

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

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

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DEADHEAD AND BURIED
By H.Y. Hanna

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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

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

What I Read in 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”