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)?

What I Read in Winter 2020 (Part 2)

July was another good reading month. Only 5 books read, but an average rating of 4.4 / 5. Here are the books in the order I read them.

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VENDETTA IN DEATH
By J.D. Robb

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is #49 of the “In Death” series by J.D. Robb, otherwise known as prolific author Nora Roberts. I’ve read every one so far, so you could call me a fan, but I’m not sure I’ve given one of them 5 stars before. This was a standout for me, in writing, characterisation and plot. What saves these books from being too formulaic is that the main characters change and evolve over time. They learn and grow, they have actual character arcs as well as solving the crimes and catching the bad guys. The protagonist Eve Dallas just gets more and more interesting, and I can only hope Robb continues writing this series far into the future.

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THE NATTER OF KNITTERS
By Debbie Young

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I went on holiday in July and this hit the spot for a short, light, fun read. It’s a mystery/romance/English village cozy, the second of Young’s novellas that accompany her Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series. She has another series set in a school, but I prefer these. Sophie Sayers works in a bookshop and is a writer, and I like her as a character. She’s a bit of a bumbling amateur sleuth, but reading the books is like wrapping yourself in a warm, cosy blanket in front of the fireplace in a whitewashed cottage with roses round the door. Recommended if you like that kind of thing.

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DOWN TO EARTH
By Monty Don

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The blurb says: “Written as he talks, this is Monty Don right beside you in the garden, challenging norms and sharing advice.”

This was literally true for me, as I listened to the audiobook, and Monty does his own narration, which is just brilliant. He’s a unique garden writer, moving from the very practical and quite blunt when he’s telling you things like how to plant potatoes or prune raspberries, to gorgeous, lyrical prose when he talks about nature, the earth and his philosophy of gardening and life. Loved, loved, loved it. I could listen to this man all day.

AN HOUR IN THE GARDEN
By Meredith Kirton

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

I bought this in a charity shop for a few dollars, so it didn’t really owe me anything, but if I’d paid full price, I would have felt a bit cheated. Ostensibly, these are projects you can do in the garden if you only have an hour. I was expecting original, creative ideas, and good, clear instructions. That’s not really what I got. The “projects” are mostly just planting things in pots. Yes, seriously, that’s it. And even then, I have enough experience with gardening to know that some of those plants are not going to survive in some of those pots because they’re the wrong size and/or/depth. And some of them need particular conditions that are not mentioned at all. Honestly, there wasn’t one thing in this book that got my creative juices flowing. Lots of pretty pictures, very little substance. But I gave it 3 stars because: 1. I’m sure it suffered in comparison with the previous book, and 2. I might have seen it differently if I was a gardening beginner, which is who it seems to be aimed at. Back to the charity shop it shall go.

A COUNTRY GARDEN
By Fiona Ogilvy

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Yes, another gardening book, but a special one to me because Fiona Ogilvy lives just outside my own town of Bathurst NSW, and I’ve visited her garden on numerous open days. So not only can I picture exactly what she’s writing about, but our climate is almost identical and our soils are similar. So it may not be a 5 star book for everyone, although it is well and engagingly-written. It’s the story of how she developed her garden over the years, her experiments, successes and failures, her favourite plants and what she’s learned over decades in the same place. It was published in 2009 and is quite hard to get now, except from her website fionaogilvy.com.au

So that’s July done and dusted. August coming soon! As always, comment if you’ve read any of these books and tell me what you thought. I’d love to hear. Happy reading!

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!

What I Read in April 2020

April started off slow as a reading month, but gathered speed by the end, for a total of 8 books, bringing my 2020 total so far to 26.

I read:

1 novel (science fiction)
4 non-fiction books
2 novellas (fantasy)
1 picture book

My average rating was 4.2, continuing this year’s theme of enjoying what I’m reading. Here are the books:

SEMIOSIS by Sue Burke

Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐1/2

I said I was hoping for Speaker For the Dead (Orson Scott Card) vibes from this novel that follows several generations of a human colony on an alien planet with sentient plants, and there were similarities at first. But in the end, I liked it, but didn’t love it. The plotting is good, and the ideas are good, and even the characters, so it took me a while to work out where it fell short for me. I think it’s just that it engaged my brain but not my heart, whereas Speaker for the Dead did both. I just wanted more. Still, 31/2 stars isn’t a bad rating. This is the first book of a duology, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue.


BEHIND THE EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN by Michael Bachelard

Genre: Non-fiction/ investigative journalism.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a hard read, and I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it’s a very thorough dissection of the history and influence of The Exclusive Brethren, focusing primarily on Australia, including case histories of people who have left and how that has affected them. It was shocking in parts, and heartbreaking, but I think it’s an important book, especially considering the influence this organisation has had and still has on Australian governments. A worthy read, but not a fun one.


NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

Genre: Non-fiction / Mythology
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Looking around for something I was pretty sure I’d enjoy after the Brethren book, I picked this up and wasn’t disappointed. Gaiman has a fun way with words and he tells the familiar stories about Odin, Thor, Freya, Loki and the other Norse gods in a fresh and colloquial style, with plenty of humour. The first section, the creation myths, is the driest, but once he gets into the stories, it’s pure gold. I raced through it and absolutely loved it. Highly recommended.


VALKYRIE: THE WOMEN OF THE VIKING WORLD by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir

Genre: Non-fiction/ History and Mythology/ Sociology
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

It was somehow fitting that while I was reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, I was offered an Advance Review Copy of this. It almost seemed like fate. Perhaps the Norns were at work!
This is an impressively scholarly treatise about a fascinating topic. The author begins with the same mythological sources that Gaiman’s tales are based on: the Elder (or Poetic) Edda and the Younger (or Prose) Edda. She draws from them what they have to tell us about the way the writers viewed the women of the viking age, via their portrayal of Valkyries and goddesses. Later, she mines the sagas and the archaeological evidence to give a picture of the position and lives of women of various social strata.
Much of this is necessarily speculation, as we have no writings from the point of view of the women themselves, but it’s thorough and intelligent speculation.
Parts of this book were definitely 5-star, but I’ve dropped the rating to 4 simply because there is a lot of repetition, which made some sections a bit hard to get through. But overall, it’s excellent, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this topic.

I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody

Genre: Non-fiction/ Writing craft
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I read through this very quickly without doing any of the exercises, just to get a good overview and judge if I felt it would be useful. The answer is a resounding yes! This is such a thorough analysis of story structure, plotting, character arcs, all that good stuff, and I can see myself applying it at every stage of the writing process from brainstorming through first drafts, structural revisions, editing, and writing marketing copy. It has already earned a permanent place on my shelf and I expect it to fall apart from constant use in a few years.


CHICKABELLA COUNTS TO TEN by Veronica Strachan and Cassi Strachan

Genre: Picture Book / Counting
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is so cute! Simple text, gorgeous illustrations, and Chickabella is counting backwards, which is a nice variation on all the counting up to ten books out there.
And on the final page, your child can have the fun of cleverly pointing out to you where all of Chickabella’s friends are hiding.
Definitely one for the cuddle-up-and-read-together shelf.


I received an Advance Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


TROLL HUNTER: WITCH FOR HIRE by P.A. Mason

THE DAMSEL GAUNTLET by P.A. Mason

Genre: Fantasy / Humour/ Novellas
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I read these two short novellas one after the other and it was like enjoying a couple of petit-fours (if petit-fours were funny as well as delicious).
They are the first episodes in a humorous fantasy series that I’m delighted to report is every bit as much fun as it sounds. I truly love the character of the hapless witch 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.
I now want to read all of Gretchen’s forthcoming misadventures, and it’s worth noting that there are lots of fun extras on the website http://gretchensmisadventures.com including examples of Gretchen’s execrable poetry, follow-up stories to the main episodes, and articles about the Gretchenverse.

I received an Advance Review Copy of the second novella in exchange for an honest review.


So, those were my 8 books for April. How was your reading month? What was the best book you read?

What I Read in March 2020

Hello again, lovely readers! It’s a very strange time, with all of our lives disrupted one way or another. How has it affected your reading? Are you reading more, less, or about the same? Have your genre tastes changed?

I read 6 books in March, about the same as January and February. They were split between Science Fiction, Fantasy, Crime, Romance and Non-fiction. Four were paperbacks and two were Ebooks, both of which were ARCs (Advance Reader Copies). So, reading-wise, March was a pretty normal month for me. I find this a bit surprising, because it didn’t feel normal at all. Here are the books, on a background of one of my favourite roses, blooming now on an arch in my garden:

Climbing Rose ‘Fourth of July’

My average rating for March was 3.83, quite a bit lower than the past couple of months, but there were two 5-star reads in there, so it wasn’t a bad month by any means. I’ve presented the books in order from lowest rated to highest.

THE SEVENTH LINK (Village Mysteries #4) by Margaret Mayhew
GENRE: Crime/ Cozy Mystery

RATING: ⭐⭐

A retired English Colonel is pleased when an old friend invites him for the weekend, to coincide with a RAF reunion event. His fellow guests include a Lancaster bomber crew, reunited for the first time. But everything is not as it seems, and the Colonel finds himself taking on the reluctant role of sleuth once more when tragedy strikes . . . 

I borrowed this from my library on a whim, and I was enjoying it, just the kind of easy, familiar read I was in the mood for, until it abruptly ended in a way that to me is unforgivable in this genre. To be blunt, the mystery is not solved, not for certain. I mean, the reader is not told what really happened. And the amateur sleuth just kind of shrugs and goes home to his cat. No. Just no.

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
GENRE: Non-fiction/Writing

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐

A step-by-step guide on how to write and on how to manage the writer’s life. From “Getting Started,’ with “Short Assignments,” through “Shitty First Drafts,” “Character,” “Plot,” “Dialogue.” all the way from “False Starts” to “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” Lamott encourages, instructs, and inspires. She discusses “Writers Block,” “Writing Groups,” and “Publication.” Bracingly honest, she is also one of the funniest people alive.

This was a book I was looking forward to, and it was a disappointment. It’s well-written, as you’d expect from Anne Lamott, but the further I read, the more I disliked her. This is supposed to be part memoir, part writing craft book, but really, it’s all about Anne. Her insecurities, her jealousies, her fragile ego. I would not want to take one of her classes. And despite the glowing blurb, it’s not much of a guide, pretty basic advice and very repetitive. I know people love this, and if I had gotten on better with Lamott’s personality, I probably would have liked it too, hence the 3 stars. But I found nothing to identify with here.


THAT NIGHT IN PARIS (Holiday Romance #2) by Sandy Barker (ARC from Netgalley)
GENRE: Romance

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

To Cat Parsons, a European bus tour feels like a stroke of genius to dodge awkward conversations at home. But little does Cat realise that the first stop will be Paris, the city of love itself.
Joined by new friends, Cat has got two weeks, eight countries and a hell of a lot of wine ahead of her. As they discover hidden treasures and the camaraderie of life on the road, will Cat find a new way of looking at love?

I enjoyed the first book in this series, One Summer in Santorini, but this one was better. I loved the tour aspect, and the descriptions of the different places. I really want to go to Lauterbrunnen now! The romance was fine, and not as cringy as most (I’m not a huge fan of romances in general). But for me, the best part was the relationship between Cat and her “bus besties”, especially Lou. As others have said, Cat begins the trio as somewhat self-obsessed, but she fully realizes this and really grows by the end. A satisfying escapist read, full of heartfelt and touching moments, and just the kind of thing we all need right now. 

HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE (A Bradecote and Catchpoll Investigation #4) by Sarah Hawkswood (ARC from Netgalley)
GENRE: Crime/ Historical

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

January 1144. Hugh Bradecote does not want his betrothed heading off on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Edgyth at Polesworth, but the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy and his entourage of monks seem Heaven sent as escorts, right up until they are captured by a renegade who wants his forger out of the lord sheriff’s cells; a renegade who loathes the Benedictines, and kills for pleasure.

This invites comparisons to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries, and while it isn’t quite on that level for me, it was an enjoyable story with engaging characters and a solid plot. My favourite character was Christina, and I would have liked to see more of her. Hugh was a little colourless, except when he was thinking about her, when he suddenly came to life in my imagination. Catchpoll is well-realised and a nice contrast to his superior. A good read.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
GENRE: Science Fiction/ Time travel

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

This seems to be a polarising book, but I absolutely loved it: the writing, the structure, the story, the characters. It’s short, but it packs an emotional and cerebral punch. The authors don’t spoon-feed you, which I suspect is the reason some readers haven’t enjoyed this. You are dropped straight into the action with very little explanation, and off you go, figuring things out as you go along. I was hooked from the first page and remained mesmerised all the way through. I really hope this duo is planning more collaborations in the future.

LEVIATHAN WAKES (The Expanse #1) By James S.A. Corey
GENRE: Science Fiction/ Space Opera

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe. 

Why did I wait so long to read this? There’s Space Opera and then there’s SPACE OPERA, and this is close to perfection. Holden and Miller are so well-realised, their personalities and motivations so clear, it was as if I was getting to know real people rather than characters in a book. The action is perfectly paced, the settings brilliantly imagined, the ending surprising and at the same time inevitable. Have I said enough to convince you yet? If you like Science Fiction at all, I can’t imagine you won’t love this one. And there are 7 more books in the series!

So, that’s what I read in March. Have you read any of these? What did you think? And what did you read last month?

Review: Fight Write

How to write believable fight scenes

By Carla Hoch

Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books

Edition: Kindle, Paperback

Release date: 11 June 2019

Source: Netgalley digital ARC / paperback purchased by me

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


In Fight Write you’ll learn practical tips, terminology, and the science behind crafting realistic fight scenes for your fiction. Broken up into “Rounds,” trained fighter and writer Carla Hoch guides you through the many factors you’ll need to consider when developing battles and brawls.

I was only a quarter of the way through the digital ARC of this book when I went online and bought a paperback copy for myself. I already knew this was a reference book I wanted on my shelves. I imagine I’ll be dipping into it often.

CONTINUE READING

Review: The First Five Pages

By Noah Lukeman

Genre: Non-fiction, Writing

Rating: 1 star

It had to happen eventually: the first negative review on this site. Oh, I thought about being tactful and just saying something like, “this book wasn’t for me”, but those weasel words refused to come out of my fingertips onto the keyboard. So what follows is my unvarnished opinion. You have been warned.

I was quite excited when I spotted this in a secondhand book sale last month. It’s rare to find books about the craft of writing in these places. I hadn’t heard of the book, but it seemed worth spending a couple of dollars to check it out and maybe find one or two useful tips.

CONTINUE READING

Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

And Other Lessons from the Crematory

By Caitlin Doughty

3.5 STARS

This felt like two books to me: in one, Caitlin Doughty gives us stories from her time working in a crematorium. This is the reason I wanted to read the book in the first place and it was as enthralling, confronting, heartbreaking and heartwarming as I had hoped. Doughty is a good storyteller and she has some great material to work with, from the next-of-kin who want nothing to do with their loved ones’ remains and simply instruct the crematory to send them the ashes in the post, to the loving families who bring food and grave goods to be put into the coffin and even sing to the dead before the cremation. There are also some very honest and somewhat disturbing descriptions of dead bodies and how they are handled by those who work with them. This is all fascinating stuff.

However, then there is what I’m calling the second book: Doughty intersperses her crematorium anecdotes with information about death and funereal customs from other times and other places and philosophises at length about our own culture’s relationship with the dead and their mortal remains. She also gives us an eye-opening and somewhat scathing view of the modern American funeral industry. These passages kept breaking the flow of the narrative to such an extent that in the end I simply began skipping over them. It’s not that the material is inherently uninteresting or even badly written, but the two parts of this book simply don’t mesh smoothly together. I kept wanting to get away from the general and cultural and back to the specific and personal.

If Doughty had made the choice to simply write a memoir about her crematory experiences, with maybe just a word or two about how death is treated in our society and how she feels about it, I believe that could have been a 5-star book for me. As it stands, though, 3.5 stars reflects my reading experience more accurately. I would recommend this book, just be aware of its sometimes jarring dual nature.