What I read in August 2019

I read six books this month, with an average rating of 4.25, probably my highest average ever. As a reading month, August was all about quality over quantity. Here are the books, from lowest to highest rated.

MOM’S PERFECT BOYFRIEND

By Crystal Hemmingway

Genre: Romantic Comedy

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐ 1/2

A smart romantic comedy about mothers and daughters, and the hilarious consequences of a white lie. 

I received this novel as an Advanced Reader Copy through LibraryThing. I don’t read many romances, but I was in the mood for something light, fun and even a bit silly and I thought this might fit the bill.

Well, it did and it didn’t. My full review is here, but briefly, it’s a bit of a mish-mash with a lot going on, some of it quite odd and a lot of it unbelievable. But it’s original, a quick and easy read and I had fun with it, even staying up past my bedtime to finish, so 3.5 stars seems fair.


EMBERS OF WAR

By Gareth Powell

GENRE: Science Fiction

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The warship Trouble Dog was built and bred for calculating violence, yet following a brutal war, she finds herself disgusted by conflict and her role in a possible war crime. Seeking to atone, she joins an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress.When a ship goes missing in a disputed system, Trouble Dog and her new crew of misfits and loners are assigned to investigate and save whoever they can. Quickly, what appears to be a straightforward rescue mission turns into something far more dangerous.If she is to survive and save her crew, Trouble Dog is going to have to remember how to fight.

I’m a bit embarrassed that as a keen reader of sci-fi and someone partial to the occasional space opera, I had never read any of Gareth Powell’s work until now. This one seemed like a good place to start, being the first book in his current trilogy. And it was. I am completely hooked on this story and I can’t wait to read the next volume, Fleet of Knives.

So, then, why didn’t I give this book 5 stars? If I was judging it only on the plot, I would have. The concepts? Tick. And if I was rating it on how much I enjoyed the final hundred or so pages, again, yes. Such a satisfying conclusion.

Here’s the thing. The story is written in first person, from multiple points of view. No problem, but if you do this, the points of view should be distinct. This was the case with Trouble Dog and Nod, but the voices of the three human characters were just too similar to each other. They had terrific backstories that differentiated them, but their voices didn’t reflect this, which gave their narration an inauthentic feel, leaving me wanting more.

Still, a solid 4 stars and a guarantee I’ll be reading the next book very soon.


MISS MARPLE’S FINAL CASES

By Agatha Christie

GENRE: Crime/ Detective/ Short stories

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A collection of Miss Marple mysteries, plus some bonus short stories…First, the mystery man in the church with a bullet-wound…then, the riddle of a dead man’s buried treasure…the curious conduct of a caretaker after a fatal riding accident…the corpse and a tape-measure…the girl framed for theft…and the suspect accused of stabbing his wife with a dagger.

Mission Marple is over. This was the final volume, the last stories Christie ever wrote about Miss Marple, her elderly village lady sleuth. It’s been a truly enjoyable journey and I’m so glad I joined in.

This was a perfect way to complete the mission. I really like the variety of the stories, some more successful than others, of course. It was also a sort of reunion collection of many characters from the Marple novels and I had a great time meeting some of my favourites again. I devoured the whole book in one sitting. 



THE BEE FRIENDLY GARDEN

By Doug Purdie

Genre: Non-fiction/ Gardening/ Wildlife

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Bee Friendly Garden is a guide for all gardeners great and small to encouraging bees and other good bugs to your green space..

Ever since I read Kate Bradbury’s book last month, I’ve been plotting and planning ways to make my garden more wildlife-friendly. I borrowed this book from my library and thoroughly enjoyed learning all about Australian native bees: their variety, usefulness, requirements to thrive and the kinds of garden additions that will encourage them to visit my patch and to stay long-term. It’s more a reference book than one to read cover-to-cover. So, of course, I read every page.😁 The illustrations are lovely, too.

FIGHT WRITE

By Carla Hoch

Genre: Non-fiction/ Writing

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.

My full review of this very useful handbook is here. The short version is that I was only a quarter of the way through the digital ARC before I ordered a paperback copy. I’ve already referred to it twice in the last two weeks. A keeper for my Writing shelf.



WALKING ON WATER

By Madeleine L’Engle

GENRE: Non-fiction/ Essays/ Christian/ Writing

RATING: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In this classic book, Madeleine L’Engle addresses the questions, What makes art Christian? What does it mean to be a Christian artist? What is the relationship between faith and art? Through L’Engle’s beautiful and insightful essays, readers will find themselves called to what the author views as the prime tasks of an artist: to listen, to remain aware, and to respond to creation through one’s own art.

Madeleine L’Engle’s middle grade fantasy novels delighted me so much as a child and teenager. I loved her settings, her characters and the emotion she was able to convey to me as a reader. I didn’t know she was a Christian and the books aren’t overtly Christian in any way, although they are spiritual. Now that I’m an adult, a Christian myself and a fantasy writer, I was really interested in what L’Engle has to say about the connection between her faith and her writing.

And what she has to say is absolutely brilliant and inspiring. I made copious notes as I went through this small volume and I know I’ll be re-reading it. Here are just two gems:

If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.


Each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.”

But the whole book is a casket of precious stones, almost every line worth quoting.

I hope September will be able to live up to August in the reading department!

Your turn! What did you read in August? Any 5-star recommendations?

Names and Labels

I’ve taken the title of this post from one of the chapters of Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

L’Engle makes a distinction between naming something or someone, and labelling them. Naming, she says, gives us wholeness and freedom to be who we are; labelling reduces us, controls us, limits us. “If we are pigeonholed and labelled we are unnamed.”

It is a profound chapter in a thoughtful and inspiring book and it got me thinking about naming. Or, rather Naming. The capital letter is important. The first story I ever read about this kind of Naming, what you might call true Naming, was The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip, way back in the 1970s when it first came out. I absolutely adored the idea that if you know the true name of someone or something, you fully understand it. Or, to put it another way, if you fully understand it, you already know its true name. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea by the wonderful Ursula Le Guin. Written even earlier, it took the concept to a whole new level. I’ve read many other fantasy stories based around the idea of true names having power in the decades since then. Every one of them has brought me joy. Another exceptional one, of course, is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

I like to think that when God tasked Adam with naming the animals, it was this kind of naming. He Named them truly, because he saw and understood them as they really were, fully themselves, in a way none of us have ever been able to do since. Somehow I doubt he gave them labels such as pest or livestock or invasive species.

So what does all this have to do with writing? Back to L’Engle:

To write a story is an act of Naming; in reading about a protagonist I can grow along with, I myself am more Named.

As writers, if we want to truly Name our characters, we need to know them. Not just their appearance, their personality or their abilities, but their deepest hopes and fears, their strongest motivations, the values at the very heart of them. This takes time and work, as our characters slowly reveal themselves and their stories to us. But it’s essential work if we want our readers to fully engage, to “grow along with them”, as L’Engle says. And it’s deeply satisfying work, too, I might add.

The opposite of this is to simply label the people who make up our stories: the Hero, the Villain, the Love Interest, the Comic Relief. These labels are useful shorthand when we’re thinking about the broader sweep of our tales, but if we reduce our characters merely to their labels, if they’re not real, true, living, breathing, fully formed people to us, their creators, they won’t move and transport our readers, either.

A final word from L’Engle:

Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.

As a writer, I want to Name each and every one of my characters, even the minor ones, because they don’t know they’re minor. And as a reader, I want the characters whose worlds I enter to be fully Named by their creators, too, so that as I grow along with them, I too will be more Named.