What I Read in March 2021

I completed 8 books in March, comprising 5 genres, for a total of 1,994 pages, thus meeting three of my reading challenges for the month. For an explanation of my 2021 Reading Challenge, see my post here.

Here’s a breakdown of how I did with the remaining six challenges, and what else I read.

THE CHALLENGES

  1. ONE FROM MY SHELVES

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

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

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

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

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


2. ONE FROM MY KINDLE

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


5. ONE GROUP READ OR BUDDY READ

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

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

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


6. ONE THAT MEETS A RANDOM CHALLENGE

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

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


OTHER BOOKS I READ IN MARCH

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

And so, on to April! What was your favourite March read?

What I Read in February 2021

I completed 6 books in February, comprising 4 genres (maybe 5 – I’ll explain later), for a total of 2,176 pages, thus meeting three of my reading challenges for the month. For an explanation of my 2021 Reading Challenge, see my post here.

Here’s a breakdown of how I did with the remaining six challenges, and what else I read.

THE CHALLENGES

  1. ONE FROM MY SHELVES

Every Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire
Genre: Fantasy/ YA Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

This was given to me as a gift, and I was keen to read it. I loved the cover, the title and the premise, which seemed like it would give rise to lots of fascinating storylines, fantasy settings, and character explorations. And for quite a while, I was delighted with this short novel. The writing was great, the characters were intriguing, the descriptions of the worlds they had come from satisfying. I was eager to find out where the story was going. But then the plot turned into a murder mystery, and it just wasn’t as gripping any more. Because to be honest, it’s not a very good murder mystery. I still went along for the ride, hoping the solution would be brilliant and redeem everything, but sadly no. But so much of this was so good that it still scraped in at four stars for me, and I intend to read at least the second book in the series, because there is a lot of potential in this setup.


2. ONE FROM MY KINDLE

Following Christ
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Genre: Non-fiction/ Christian teaching
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

You cannot have Christ if you will not serve Him. If you take Christ, you must take Him in all His qualities. You must not simply take Him as a Friend, but you must also take Him as your Master. If you are to become His disciple, you must also become His servant. 
 Spurgeon’s heartfelt writing style makes this book one that today still encourages believers to move into Christian action. He emphasizes simply moving forward, using the talents and resources you already have at your disposal, for the Lord’s service.

This book was written in the late 19th Century, and the language reflects that at times, but the concepts still feel completely relevant. As a Christian, I found encouragement, inspiration and motivation in every chapter, and it has already begun to influence my life in positive ways. Highly recommended.


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

Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow
(Nevermoor #3)
Jessica Townsend
Genre: Fantasy/ Middle Grade Fantasy
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

But a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious Unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realizes it’s up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she ever imagined. 

Two challenges met in one here, as I borrowed the latest instalment in the middle-grade Nevermoor series from my library. I enjoyed the first two Morrigan Crow stories, but this one surprised me by being so much more than I expected. Yes, it’s full of fun and wonder and imagination, and I think even more humour (at least, I laughed out loud more than once). And I’d love to visit the Gobleian Library, attend one of Frank’s soirees (the end-of-summer sunset gala sounded amazing) and sit in on a class entitled “What’s That Smell?” or “What’s That Behind You?”. But alongside all of these delights, Townsend has written a book that explores important issues such as bigotry, fear of “the other”, oppression of minorities, misinformation, revisionist history, and political corruption. And she’s done it all while giving us a page-turning adventure story with a cast of compelling and quirky characters. It’s brilliant.


5. ONE GROUP READ OR BUDDY READ

Caliban’s War
(The Expanse #2)
James A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .

The second volume of my 2021 read-along of The Expanse series with a group on Goodreads, and I think it’s even better than the first. It continues the story begun in Leviathan Wakes, and I just raced through it at breakneck speed, finding it hard to put down. In consequence, I spent several nights staying up later than I should. And it was worth it. I enjoyed meeting Holden and the gang again and learning more about them, and I loved the additional characters of Avasarala and Bobby, especially Bobby. I really hope we see a lot more of her. The action was tense and high-stakes, and the behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring was clever and fascinating. If The Expanse continues like this, it may become my favourite science fiction series of all time.


6. ONE THAT MEETS A RANDOM CHALLENGE

I decided to watch Book Roast’s TBRvatar Challenge for February, and use the first prompt she spun up as my Random Challenge this month. Here it is: Read a book while listening to music. Seems simple, yes? I thought so too. And I tried, I really did. I quickly realised lyrics were out, far too distracting. But surely instrumental music in the background would be fine (Understand, I NEVER listen to anything while I’m reading, or writing for that matter). But no. Honestly, it was a kind of torture. My brain was being pulled in two ways at once, and the result was intense irritation. As I had really been enjoying the book up to that point, I gave up in the end, deciding it wasn’t worth it. So, I failed one challenge this month. I suppose it will keep me humble.😉


OTHER BOOKS I READ IN FEBRUARY

Scrublands
Chris Hammer
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Amateur Detective
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

In Riversend, an isolated Australian community afflicted by an endless drought, a young priest does the unthinkable: he kills five parishioners before being taken down himself.

A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend. His assignment: to report how the townspeople are coping as the anniversary of the tragedy approaches. But as Martin meets the locals and hears their version of events, he begins to realize that the accepted explanation—a theory established through an award-winning investigation by Martin’s own newspaper—may be wrong.

Just as Martin believes he’s making headway, a shocking new crime rocks the town. As the national media flocks to the scene, Martin finds himself thrown into a whole new mystery.

There is an excellent, gripping crime novel here somewhere, but it’s overwhelmed by mountains of detailed, yet prosaic, description. I listened on audiobook, and at least if I’d been reading a print version I could have skipped all the tedious and repetitive stuff, and maybe had a more enjoyable experience. As it was, I remember one morning when I was out on a walk. Fifteen minutes had passed, and literally nothing had happened in the story except the main character walking down the street and noting the minutiae of buildings, shop window contents, public notices, sign posts, fences, etc etc. Oh, and how hot and dry it was. He noticed this throughout the novel, over and over again. And this isn’t the only issue. There are far too many plot lines, too many different crimes and motives. It’s as though the author, a former journalist, having been finally set free from the sub-editor’s strict control, exploded out in all directions, trying to include everything he’d ever wanted to write about in just one novel. There are redeeming qualities, as I said. A memorable scene where a house burns down during a bushfire is just brilliant in every way, and actually overshadows the later scenes that are supposed to be the climax. The central mystery is a fascinating one, and the solution not bad at all, if only everything else had been cleared out of the way to let it shine.


C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement
Kel Richards
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Whodunnit/ Christian apologetics
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A detective novel by Kel Richards where the sleuth is C.S. Lewis, the beloved author of The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis (known to all his friends as ‘Jack’), his brother Major Warren Lewis (known as ‘Warnie’) and one of Jack’s students, Tom Morris, are on holiday in the English countryside. When they go to the bank they unwittingly enter a crime scene – a murder has just been committed in the vault. The three out-of-towners become suspects and must conduct their own investigation to clear their names. 

This is a very strange hybrid of two genres: a Golden Age Detective Mystery, interspersed with philosophical discussions on religion. The mystery is fine, although the solution is not particularly brilliant, and occurred to me pretty early on. But I enjoyed it nevertheless. I enjoyed the discussions too, as the brilliant C.S. Lewis is challenged by his young friend to defend how an intelligent, rational man like him could ever have embraced something as “irrational” as the Christian faith. Lewis comes out on top, of course, using pure logic to demolish every objection. But I have to say the two strands of the novel aren’t woven together particularly well. Still, there’s something to say for such an original and unique blend, and I had a good time with it.


I have to say that February was a ripper of a reading month, with an average rating of 4.3. And so, on to March! What was your favourite February read?

What I Read in January 2021

What a great start to the year I had, reading-wise, in January! I read 7 books, for an average of 4.2 stars. And 3 5-star reads! Admittedly, the first book I picked up just wasn’t for me, but it was all upwards from then on. And I met my monthly goals of reading from my bookshelf, my Kindle and my library, reading one Middle Grade novel, one buddy read, at least 3 genres, and a total of at least 1500 pages.


Isla and Drew Allaway appear to have the perfect life – a strong marriage, two beautiful children and their picture-perfect home, Foxglove Farm.
But, new mum Isla is struggling.  She loves her little family but with Drew working all hours on the farm, Isla’s lonely.
When she discovers that Drew has been keeping secrets from her, Isla has to face losing the home they all love.
Can the Love Heart Lane community pull together once more to help save Foxglove Farm?  And can Isla save her home…and her marriage?

FOXGLOVE FARM
By Christie Barlow
Genre: Romance
Rating: ⭐⭐

I borrowed this from my local library, mainly because I liked the cover. I wanted a light holiday read and it sounded just the ticket. I’m a fan of English village settings in both mystery and romance genres, but I didn’t get what I wanted here, for several reasons. The writing is repetitious. The same thing is said in different ways, or even sometimes in almost the exact same words, and there is far too much “telling” and not enough “showing” when it comes to characters. And the characters just weren’t engaging to me. Not objectionable as such, just not interesting. The plot, such as it is, is a mess. I was tempted to give this one star, but as I did read it right to the end, just to see how it would be resolved, two stars seems fairer. But I won’t be picking up any other books in the series.


Sunaya’s peaceful village life is turned upside down when a simple mountain mission turns into a death-defying quest for survival.
Winter treks to summer pastures, mythical Ice-People that are scarily real, avalanches, ice falls, power plays, mysterious magic and surprising friendships – it seems not everything in life is set in stone …

THE LOST STONE OF SKY CITY
By H.M. Waugh
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

My first 5-star read of 2021! I set myself a goal of reading one Middle Grade book every month of this year, and I’m so glad I picked this one up first. Australian author H.M. Waugh has given us a main character with a distinct and engaging voice and an adventure that is by turns funny, thrilling and moving. I loved Sunaya from the beginning paragraph. Her world is fully realised, too, and the writing is terrific. I saw where this was going fairly early on (not unusual in children’s books if you’re an adult) but enjoyed the journey thoroughly, especially Sunaya’s special ability, which is beautifully evoked. In fact, I can’t think of a single negative thing to say. H.M. Waugh is currently working on a sci-fi Middle Grade novel set on a future Mars, and I can’t wait to read it.


In the third volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy the good and evil forces join battle, and we see that the triumph of good is not absolute. The Third Age of Middle-earth ends, and the age of the dominion of Men begins.

THE RETURN OF THE KING
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What can I say? It’s a masterpiece, and I’m so glad I reread The Lord of the Rings in December and January. The cover above is not the edition I read, by the way, because I was given The Illustrated Edition for Christmas. It’s gorgeous and a pure pleasure to finish my reread in this format. I also read some of the appendices, which are brilliant too.


In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS
By Pip Williams
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Literary Fiction
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

This was a hard one to rate. I loved the first half, and then lost interest for about the next quarter, to the extent that I thought I might not finish it. I’m glad I persevered, because the final quarter was just perfect.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I didn’t enjoy, and I think it mainly comes down to the character of Esme herself. As a child, she is completely satisfying, hiding beneath the sorting table, stealing the words away, observing everything. but as an adult I felt she was just too passive. She does some daring things, but they are always either because she is following other people, or they are done in secret. She feels things and forms opinions but never expresses them or acts on them. In some ways, she remains that little girl hiding among the feet of the workers in the Scriptorium, and that was frustrating. I kept waiting for her to take some agency, show some passion, and she never did. Every other character was more satisfying to me, and that’s not good when she’s the protagonist. This changes slightly near the end, but not enough – too little, too late.
And yet, every other aspect of this novel is so good. The other characters are wonderful, even the dislikeable ones. The women are particularly memorable. The plot is satisfying. The relationships pleased me enormously. The times are well-evoked. And the writing is undeniably excellent. What the book has to say about both the power and limitations of words, to express and drive culture and to hurt or to heal, is profound, and brought to mind echoes of The Yield by Tara June Winch, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And so I do recommend this novel, just be prepared for a bit of a lull halfway through.


Newly-orphaned Anne Beddingfeld is a nice English girl looking for a bit of adventure in London. She is on the platform at Hyde Park Corner tube station when a man falls onto the live track, dying instantly. A doctor examines the man, pronounces him dead, and leaves, dropping a note on his way. Anne picks up the note, which reads “17.1 22 Kilmorden Castle”.
The next day the newspapers report that a beautiful ballet dancer has been found dead — brutally strangled. A fabulous fortune in diamonds has vanished. And now, aboard the luxury liner Kilmorden Castle, mysterious strangers pillage Anne’s cabin and try to strangle her.
Anne’s journey to unravel the mystery takes her as far afield as Africa and the tension mounts with every step… and Anne finds herself struggling to unmask a faceless killer known only as ‘The Colonel’…

THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT
By Agatha Christie
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Thriller/ Romance
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (with reservations)

I want to be upfront here. The reservations mentioned above in my rating refer to the really objectionable (to a modern reader) references to race, colonialism, and the dynamics of male/female romantic relationships. They are of their time (1924), but read very badly now. I winced quite a lot listening to this. And so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Man in the Brown Suit.

But, if you can get past these aspects, it’s a hugely fun example of Agatha Christie’s occasional forays into the Daring Young Girl Having a Thrilling Adventure genre. It’s not a detective story by any means, so don’t expect anything like a Poirot or Marple book. It’s a whole lot of nonsense really, and yet delicious nonsense. Our heroine is fearless, imaginative and hugely energetic, and it’s enjoyable to watch her escapades. And the character of Sir Eustace Pedlar, revealed mainly through his amusing diary entries, is a triumph. It’s also worth noting that I listened to the Audiobook narrated by Emilia Fox, and she is excellent.


TWO GIRLS GO TO A PARTY, ONLY ONE RETURNS ALIVE
Toni, the surviving teenager, is found delirious, wandering the muddy fields. She has been drugged and it’s uncertain whether she’ll survive. She says she saw her friend Emily being dragged away from the party. But no one knows who Emily is. Meanwhile the drowned body of another girl has been found on an isolated beach. And how does this all relate to the shocking disappearance of a little girl nearly a decade ago, a crime which was never solved? The girl’s mother is putting immense pressure on the police to re-open the high-profile case.
DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans of the Fenland police are stretched to the limit as they try to bring the perpetrators of these shocking crimes to justice.
There is evidence of an illegal drinking club run by a shadowy group of men, who are grooming teenagers. And the team come across a sinister former hospital called Windrush which seems to house many dark secrets.

THEIR LOST DAUGHTERS (DI Jackman and DS Evans #2)
By Joy Ellis
Genre: Crime/ Mystery/ Police Procedural
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is exactly what I want from a police procedural: intelligent, logically structured, with interesting detectives and a complex mystery, and with a satisfying conclusion. I listened to it on Audiobook and couldn’t wait to get back to it each time, even listening at home, which I rarely do, saving audiobooks for long car trips. From the first few minutes I knew I was hooked and in good hands with plot, pacing, characterisation and writing. The setting in the fenlands of Lincolnshire is perfectly evoked and adds greatly to the atmosphere.
I guessed some of the solution but by no means everything, and I had quite a few surprises along the way. The complexity ramps up but is never confusing.
DI Jackman and DS Evans make a perfect duo, and the dynamic of the whole investigative team was a pleasant change from the workplace friction and dysfunction that so often seems to be present in police novels.
I also highly recommend Richard Armitage’s narration. He switches tones of voice and accents flawlessly for the various characters.
I didn’t realise when I started the novel that it’s the second in a series. I will be seeking out #1 and #3 as soon as possible.


A new story set in the world of The Expanse. One day, Colonel Fred Johnson will be hailed as a hero to the system. One day, he will meet a desperate man in possession of a stolen spaceship and a deadly secret and extend a hand of friendship. But long before he became the leader of the Outer Planets Alliance, Fred Johnson had a very different name. The Butcher of Anderson Station.
This is his story.

TEH BUTCHER OF ANDERSON STATION
By James A. Corey
Genre: Science Fiction/ short story
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a buddy read. I’m joining a group on Goodreads who are reading Corey’s The Expanse series this year. They began this month with Leviathan Wakes and this short story. As I’d already read Leviathan Wakes last year, I only added the short story to my TBR this month. It’s a solid story, in Corey’s typical style, that illuminates a bit of the backstory of a character from the first novel. A good taster for the rest of the buddy read.


How was your reading this month? Any 5-star books?

What I Read in December 2020

I read 6 books in December, a pretty good total for a month that contained both my birthday and Christmas. I read in 3 genres, but mostly crime/ mystery and my average rating was exactly 4, a nice round number to end the year.

TEN LITTLE HERRINGS (Elsie and Ethelred #2)
By L.C. Tyler

Genre: Crime/ Detective/ Humour
My Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐

Last seen boarding a plane which exploded mid-flight, crime writer Ethelred is discovered, to the bafflement of his dogged literary agent Elsie Thirkettle, to be alive and currently residing in the Loire Valley. Having followed Ethelred to a run-down French hotel hosting a stamp-collectors conference chaos ensues when one guest is found fatally stabbed, soon followed by the murder of a rich Russian oligarch. 

This is the second book I’ve read in the Elsie and Ethelred series, and I didn’t find it quite as enjoyable as the first. It’s still a fun romp, though, if you can get past the constant references to Elsie’s excess weight and her love of food, especially chocolate, which began to irritate me a little I must admit. The plot is instantly forgettable, but I intend to continue with the series whenever I’m in the mood for a quick, witty read.


THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST
By Claire North

Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime. Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.” This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow. 

I absolutely loved this from start to finish. Although I was intrigued by the setup – a man who dies and then keeps getting reborn in the same place at the same time and has to live his entire life over again – I was a bit concerned that fifteen cycles of this might get a little boring. I needn’t have worried. Claire North ( a pen name of British author Catherine Webb) tells the story in a non-linear and totally engrossing fashion. The writing is excellent too, and on occasions reminded me of Dickens’ prose, although it’s far easier to read. When the Cronus Club is introduced into the mix, and we realise that Harry isn’t alone in his unusual situation, things start to become even more complex and fascinating. The whole concept of this limited kind of time travel throws up all sorts of practical and ethical dilemmas, and my brain was firing all over the place as I read. It’s not all cerebral though. There is plenty of action especially towards the end, and the ending is pretty near perfect. I felt this book could have been written especially for my enjoyment, and I intend to check out more of North / Webb’s work in 2021.


THE HUMANS
By Matt Haig

Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Our hero, Professor Andrew Martin, is dead before the book even begins. As it turns out, though, he wasn’t a very nice man–as the alien imposter who now occupies his body discovers. Sent to Earth to destroy evidence that Andrew had solved a major mathematical problem, the alien soon finds himself learning more about the professor, his family, and “the humans” than he ever expected. When he begins to fall for his own wife and son–who have no idea he’s not the real Andrew–the alien must choose between completing his mission and returning home or finding a new home right here on Earth.

This suffered a little from being read directly after The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, mainly because the quality of the writing is nowhere near as good. However, once I got past that, I did enjoy this humorous satire about the absurdity of humanity as seen from the point of view of an alien. It’s not just humour either, there are some genuinely poignant moments, especially between the alien and Andrew Martin’s son. There is some repetition, where the same joke is repeated in a slightly different form several times, and I think the book would be better if this had been pruned, but overall it’s made me interested in reading more from Matt Haig.


THE ARTIST’S WAY
By Julia Cameron

Genre: Self-help/ Creativity
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Artist’s Way is the seminal book on the subject of creativity. An international bestseller, millions of readers have found it to be an invaluable guide to living the artist’s life. Still as vital today—or perhaps even more so—than it was when it was first published one decade ago, it is a powerfully provocative and inspiring work. 

I read this back in June when I first bought it, just a quick read-through to get a handle on this 12-week course and what it entailed. At that time, I think I gave it a tentative 4 stars. Then in September I started working through it week by week. And for the first 6 weeks or so, I found it interesting and helpful. But after that, I started to see some problems, and over time they loomed larger. In the end, I only finished the 12 weeks for the sake of completing the course. The main issue I have is how self-focused it all is. It’s like no one in the world matters except you, and as a creative person, you have some sort of licence to be selfish and put your “artist child” first in every situation. But surely the crucial thing about childhood is that at some point you learn to grow up. You hopefully remain childlike in many ways, but less childish. And it seems that a lot of the attitudes Cameron advocates are pretty childish. And if like me, you think “manifesting” what you want is a lot of nonsense, you may hate this quite a bit. Having said that, many of the early exercises did help me with insights into the nature of my own creativity, and I think the Morning Pages and Artists’ Dates are something I will continue in some form. So three stars seems fair.


MURDER ON THE MENU (The Nosey Parker Mysteries #1)
By Fiona Leitch

Genre: Crime/ Cozy Mystery
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Still spinning from the hustle and bustle of city life, Jodie ‘Nosey’ Parker is glad to be back in the Cornish village she calls home. Having quit the Met Police in search of something less dangerous, the change of pace means she can finally start her dream catering company and raise her daughter, Daisy, somewhere safer. But there’s nothing like having your first job back at home to be catering an ex-boyfriend’s wedding to remind you of just how small your village is. And when the bride, Cheryl, vanishes Jodie is drawn into the investigation, realising that life in the countryside might not be as quaint as she remembers…

I requested this as an ARC from Netgalley and One More Chapter because I liked the idea of the Cornish village setting and always enjoy seeing a protagonist changing careers and making a new life for herself. And as a summer cozy read it was just what I had hoped for. Jodie is an engaging amateur detective, and quite funny at times. I also liked that she’s in her forties and has a twelve-year-old daughter. The mystery is fun, with plenty of bodies piling up before the final solution, which was just twisty enough without being too complicated. And the secondary characters are all well-drawn and interesting. I’m looking forward to meeting them again, along with Jodie. A great start to a new series.


THE SENTINEL
By Lee Child and Andrew Child

Genre: Crime/ Thriller
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

In broad daylight Reacher spots a hapless soul walking into an ambush. “It was four against one” . . . so Reacher intervenes, with his own trademark brand of conflict resolution. The man he saves is Rusty Rutherford, an unassuming IT manager, recently fired after a cyberattack locked up the town’s data, records, information . . . and secrets. Rutherford wants to stay put, look innocent, and clear his name. Reacher is intrigued. There’s more to the story. The bad guys who jumped Rutherford are part of something serious and deadly, involving a conspiracy, a cover-up, and murder—all centered on a mousy little guy in a coffee-stained shirt who has no idea what he’s up against. Rule one: if you don’t know the trouble you’re in, keep Reacher by your side.

This was a Christmas present, and I devoured it in a single day. I had grown a bit tired of the Reacher books a few years ago, feeling the formula was wearing thin, but Lee Child’s younger brother Andrew seems to have injected some much-needed freshness into the franchise. Child (Lee) is the master of the short-sentenced, fast-paced thriller, and this just pulled me through at breakneck speed to the very satisfying ending. It is violent, and there’s not a lot of soul-searching on Reacher’s part when he kills or maims someone, but like Arnie says in the movie True Lies, they were all bad. If you can get along with this attitude, I’d recommend The Sentinel.


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 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?