The Hollow Places – T Kingfisher

hollow places cover

“Nobody ever believes me when I tell them my uncle Earl owns a museum.”

Following her divorce, Kara is invited to stay in the spare room of her uncle’s business, the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy. She’s made of stronger stuff than me – or at least, grew up around the stuffed animals and all manner of oddities, to the point where they aren’t freaking her out every night. Even Kara has her limits, though, and they’re about to be tested.

When a hole is left – by a clumsy tourist, she assumes – in one of the museum’s walls, it turns out to lead to an impossible corridor, which in turn leads to an entirely otherworldly dimension. Too curious not to explore, despite their better judgement, Kara and neighbour Simon might have just made the worst mistake of their lives…

I confess I was far, far too much of a wuss to read T Kingfisher’s – the pen name for non-children’s book titles of the wonderful Ursula Vernon – previous book, The Twisted Ones, as all reports were that it was creepy as heck. I have so little tolerance for things that will keep me from sleeping these days! But UrsulaV is such a wonderful writer, and my own curiosity got the better of me. Thankfully, while extremely creepy, it wasn’t too nightmare-inducing and I found it to be deliciously appropriate for the spooky season – but then, I made well sure to only read it during the day time!

What I’ve always loved about the author’s storytelling is how down to earth it is, even as the most fantastical stuff starts to happen. Kara – or Carrot, as she’s nicknamed – is a refreshly normal heroine. She’s also slightly older, doesn’t have kids – in fact, having followed Ms Vernon on social media platforms for… urm, decades, wow… it was really cool seeing all manner of things slip into this book from her real life. Kara is a graphic designer, not illustrator, but the divorce, the age, the time spent in coffee shops, etc etc. There are also cool ‘easter eggs’ to her other work (written and artistic), such as the cane toads reference and the ‘illustration that ended up looking unintentionally phallic’, that just added an extra layer of smiles.

But you don’t have to ‘get’ any of that at all to be thoroughly transported into this story and the worlds it contains. The unnamed malevolence of the things they encounter, the shocking possibilities… it’s so vivid, so well told. And without giving too much away, it takes a direction portal fantasy doesn’t always, making those characters just all the more real.

I’d recommend reading this during daylight hours, and perhaps avoiding trees for a while, but oooh – I do recommend it!

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 3rd November 2020
Series: none
Read from 26th-30th October 2020

My rating: 10/10

The Poppy War – RF Kuang

the poppy war cover

“‘Take your clothes off.'”

Rin’s life as a war orphan, taken in by opium dealers and used as cheap labour, is far from happy. Rather than face a forced marriage, she studies – boy, does she study! – for the exams that will admit her to the elite national military academy. She shocks everyone, including herself, when she gets in.

But that’s just a beginning. Even the years of training, of new friendships and enemies, is only background to what she’ll learn about the nature of reality, about war, and about herself.

I feel a little ashamed of myself for a slight unconscious assumption that a young female author (having seen Ms Kuang in an online bookish chat) would likely write YA-ish fantasy. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that – and hey, I was very much looking forward to this book anyway! – but it is absolutely not YA. Gosh, is it dark!! Swearing, violence, war, torture – yup, dark with a vengeance!

But oh, it was also so engrossing! Rin is such a great main character. Flawed and then some, but interesting and believable and lost and strong. The world she inhabits is clearly influenced by history, but with added mysticism – who or what are these ‘gods’ that can grant such immense, terrible power?

The story starts with her not-great life with the Fang family, and her obsessive studying. It’s kind of nice to see – with the studies and the martial training later – no easy short cuts, nothing that comes a little too naturally (although she’s clever enough to have it believable). This girl slogs for what she achieves, and that’s rather good to see – even if she does take it a bit too far.

We then go on to the military school, and this falls into a familiar kind of a feel even as we’re in a very different world. But we have the schoolyard ‘mortal enemy’, the older boy who is hero-worshiped by all, teachers that hate Rin, teachers that no one takes seriously. 

It took me a beat to change pace for the later sections, as school is left rather far behind. The story picks up pace fast, but also this is where 99% of the darkness comes across. There is magic and gods and nothing as evil as people, of course.

I picked this up now as the third in the trilogy is published next month (Nov 2020), and I’m so so glad I did. It feels like a very long time since I read good high fantasy, and this is quite excellent! Onward with book 2.

Kindle: 644 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Poppy War book 1 (of 3)
Read from 19th-10th October 2020

My rating: 9/10

Pocket Therapy for Stress – Claire Michaels Wheeler

pocket therapy for stress cover

“Stress robs us of so much.”

I think it’s fair to say that we are living in ‘Interesting’ times, and that brings more than its fair share of extra stress on top of the existing pressures of modern life. Anything I could take from this little book was going to be a bonus!

Part self-help workbook, part straightforward tips and suggestions, the book is split into ten main areas. After ‘assessing your stress’, you can dip into ideas around using food (as medicine, rather than shovelling doughnuts in your mouth, alas! ;)), exercise, creativity, and reaching out to other people.

Perhaps the most important line in the whole book for me actually comes in the introduction: “stress is determined by how well you think you can cope.” I mean – wow! It’s easy enough to say that self-help books like this can’t really help when your house is on fire, but actually that line shows the entire approach: have some tools in your kit, and let them raise your confidence that whatever you face, you can cope.

Which isn’t to suggest at all that the rest of the book isn’t very worth reading! Indeed, it gives you the range of possible tools. Maybe some will work for you better than others, but give it a go. As the book says, it’s a ‘mind-body approach’, and I’d suggest that there’s as much benefit in recognising the skills you already have as there is in exploring the exercises and developing new ones.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the short and easy-to-read nature of the book does by definition skate over the surface of some topics. The food section, for instance, neglects to mention that stress can cause undereating as much as overeating, or that ‘fish oils’ and ‘lean meat’ aren’t going to be good suggestions for everyone. It also lost big marks from me by a rather one-sided viewpoint on the chapter on spirituality, imo.

Still, well worth the read, and I think if you can take anything – even a single tiny thing – that will help with the overwhelming stress of current life, then it’s very very worth it!

NetGalley eARC: 176 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1st November 2020
Series: none
Finished 18th October 2020

My rating: 7/10

Phoenix Extravagant – Yoon Ha Lee

phoenix extravagant cover

“Gyen Jebi strove to keep their hand from shaking as they dipped their brush into the paint they’d mixed from the provided pigments, a part of every artist’s training.”

I’ve been meaning to read some of Yoon Ha Lee’s work (e.g. Ninefox Gambit) for quite a while now, so when this new title appeared on Netgalley I jumped at the chance. Apparently it’s not too similar to the better-known work, but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Jebi is an artist in a fantasy version of Korea, during the occupation by the Japanese. Only in this reality the invaders won with the use of automatons, ‘robots’ brought to life with intricate symbols painted on their masks as commands. Jebi needs work and doesn’t see why they shouldn’t take money from the enemy, but things spiral out of control far quicker than they’re prepared for.

And then there’s the dragon automaton…

Despite the automatons, I’d put this in the fantasy genre, and it’s always welcome to see something that feels very different from Tolkien and elves. Like most Western readers, I don’t know much about the history used as background here, but it works so very well.

Between the themes and Jebi’s profession, this is such a visual book – I would have loved to see some of the art being discussed on the page. But, how could you portray the magical pigments that trick the eye, with such fabulous names as the ‘Phoenix Extravagant’ of the title?

I’d also have loved more of the dragon. It takes a bit less than half the book to really introduce them as a character, and they are wonderful! Jebi is a good main character – and if you think otherwise, I’m sure you’ll get your head around the non-binary pronouns quickly enough – and I really liked the Duel Master, Vei, albeit not with a huge role, but hey – dragon! 🙂 Philosopher, cat-like, curious dragon at that. Wonderful!

The story seemed to go from world building to action pretty quickly, and I was almost surprised by how fast the tale sped past. If I have one complaint, though, it’s that the ended felt quite truncating. I haven’t seen anything to suggest this is the first in a series, but if not then things do seem to end a bit abruptly.

Still. For painting really wonderful pictures in your head, this is recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-15th October 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – VE Schwab

addie larue cover

“A girl is running for her life.”

This book. Wow.

I was starting to get really concerned that it couldn’t live up to hype. I follow V on social media, and every time she told us that she’d poured her heart out into it I was equally desperate to finally read the book and terrified that I wouldn’t love it. Well, dear reader, love it I did.

So much, in fact, that I put it down at the 90% mark and took three days – THREE DAYS – to pick it back up again. I don’t do this, I really don’t, but I  didn’t want to face the end (in case it disappointed – it did not), and I wasn’t willing to read it when I was tired or only had five minutes. Finally I had a half hour to focus and… wow.

There. I have – I hope – conveyed how much I *loved* this freakin’ book!! 🙂

Adeline LaRue was born in 17th Century rural France. She wants a life full of small joys, of drawing and freedom to roam. So when it is announced that she is to marry an older widower and look after his children, she ends up making a pact with a devil for that freedom. He grants her eternal life and youth, but with a twist: no one will ever remember her.

And so Addie spends 300 years unable to be much more than a ghost. As soon as she is out of eyeline everyone forgets her instantly. It means being thrown out of rooms she has paid for, having to steal to survive as jobs are impossible. And of course the worst: never being able to have more than a day’s relationship. Until…

Well, I’ll leave that to the reader to discover. I had feared the hype was too high, but it was not: this book, this story, is amazing and so well told. We flit back and forth between Addie’s ‘now’ and flashbacks to her past, both her normal life and then the dance with her devil through the centuries

I maybe took a little while to settle in. I wished V had chosen any name but ‘Adeline’ (it reminded me too much of a movie with a few parallels) and if there was one thing I didn’t like it was the discomfort of that ‘duties of a woman’, which was the point. But the words are so well strung together, the pictures start to form so well, and it was impossible not to get caught up in not just Addie but other characters and their lives and loves and just how it all fits together so perfectly.

And underneath, it hits so hard because these are such universal human fears being explored: that your life, your existence, will leave no mark on the world. That people don’t see you, or don’t see the real you. That you’re never ‘enough’.

Ironically, this is not a book you’re likely to ever forget. Read it now! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 560 pages / 101 chapters
First published: October 2020
Series: none
Read from 25th September – 9th October 2020

My rating: 10/10

For Letter or Worse – Vivian Conroy

for letter or worse cover

“‘Ahwawawawawa.'”

That’s… some way to open a book o.O

Things do improve significantly 😉 LOL! We’re back in the small, ex-mining town of Tundish, where Delta Douglas moved at the start of Last Pen Standing to follow her dream of running a craft store and designing her own stationary. It’s a sleepy kind of place – except when people turn up dead, of course! This time the murder is linked to one of the town’s wealthy residents, a former model and her interior designer husband.

The story ticks all of the cosy mystery ‘tropes’, but in a very well written and well balanced way compared to many. Yes, we have a hint of romance – but it feels nicely ‘real’ and down to earth. The police chief is of course unsympathetic, but it doesn’t come across as wilful negligence. And the characters are drawn into the mystery quite naturally.

For me the best bit is that the mystery was well formed. It’s not quite Agatha, but nor was it too obvious or too deus ex machina. The suspects and red herrings lined up nicely.

This was a really great example of a nice, gentle cosy mystery – ticked all the right boxes and was a lovely wee read. I’ll be back for the third installment!

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Stationary Shop mystery book 2
Read from 21st-30th September 2020

My rating: 8/10

Flex Your Mind – Rachel Bonkink

flex your mind cover

“Leaving ancient texts like the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Hatha Pradipika nicely where they are in history, as they are outside the scope of this book, I pick up with Patanjali, an intellectual and ascetic who lived in ancient India around 200 BCE.”

Although my practise has been interrupted in recent times, I’ve been a fan of yoga for many years. Like most Westerners, when I say ‘yoga’ I mean the physical exercise, the poses and stretches. But I’ve always known that there is a wider, more encompassing aspect that doesn’t so much veer as smash headlong into the spiritual side of things.

This book is a fairly gentle, not too preachy walk through the philosophy of yoga, one take – as she says herself – on explaining some of the theory. I wouldn’t say it manages to completely stay away from the whole ‘new agey’ tone that so many dislike, but it was warm and open enough that I found it very readable regardless.

For background, btw, I am not a fan of preaching to others. I look at all these kinds of philosophies as ‘self-help’ and a way of understanding the self that doesn’t necessarily required outside beliefs. This book managed quite well not to tread on that viewpoint, while at the same time shouldn’t (!) offend anyone who does follow a religion.

So, the book is split into ten chapters, each tackling one of the Principles of Yoga, designed to ‘bring peace of mind and an easier way to deal with the challenges of modern life’. They are ancient philosophies, and the strength of this book is the translation into modern speech and lifestyles – all very well having a set of guidelines for hermits and mystics, but the rest of us still have things to do in the real world!

The Principles themselves are non unfamiliar. Non-violence, truthfulness, non-attachment, self-discipline and more. Yes, at times – particularly as the book progresses – I did have a vague sense of dipping more into spirituality, but for the main it’s a pretty good explanation of what, for example, ‘non-stealing’ actually means: not just the obvious, but it could also include not ‘stealing’ your own rest and ability to have a happy focused day by doom-scrolling on social media into the early hours.

I enjoyed the book. As I say, it’s still a little on the ‘new age’ side, but that’s hardly surprising and the amount of common sense along with it keeps everything very readable. However simply things are explained, though, these are not going to be easy ways to change your life – as much as I can see the appeal. But, as something to dip in and out of, to revisit on occasion, as part of an effort to a ‘cleaner mind’, then yes.

NetGalley eARC: 147 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 28th June – 20th September 2020

My rating: 7/10

Little Bookshop of Murder – Maggie Blackburn

little bookshop of murder cover

“Summer Merriweather slipped off her flip-flops, allowing the sand’s warmth to comfort the bottom of her feet like it had thousands of times before.”

I’m a sucker for stories about books and bookshops, and there’s something lovely about a good cosy mystery when you need some non-mentally-taxing reading. Alas, while not dreadful by any means, I wouldn’t really go so far as to call this a great example of the genre.

Summer has returned home for her mother’s funeral. Her life has been too full of drama of late, after a video goes viral of her freaking out while teaching a class – although to be fair, I’d also be freaking out if the neighbouring lab’s arachnid collection came wandering in, so the whole might-be-fired thing seems kind of OTT. Hmm.

Anyway, she now has more on her mind, after her very healthy mom suffers a fatal heart attack. When several threatening letters are discovered, however, everyone – apart from the obligatory doubting police – starts to wonder if it wasn’t natural causes after all.

All of the usual elements to a cosy mystery are here, really, with the exception of a budding romance – much to my relief, I should add. Mourning a parent is not the best headspace to have a character start down that path! But we have a murder, a good reason for Summer to be investigating, and a group of friends of all ages to help out.

So far so good, and yet… there’s just something about the way it’s all put together here that really didn’t grab me. The first chapters are quite downbeat and repetitive with Summer’s shock over the death and all of that kind of thing. Several elements throughout seem to serve very little purpose – the whole spiders thing, for instance, is so overplayed I was dreading a huge icky scene but I can reassure my fellow arachnophobes that there’s just one ‘thing I read in a book’ scene and otherwise I wasn’t too freaked out!

Far less forgivable, however, is the sheer obviousness of the whodunnit, and the obtuseness required from the characters to not have them stumble onto the right answer almost immediately – it’s almost hard work for them to dance around it so many times!

It’s not all bad. I liked the family dynamic, and the location is a nice mental vacation spot. Quite how a tiny bookstore deals with so many regular deliveries that need six people a time to sort them, though – hmm! There’s also a subthread which feels irritatingly ‘meta’, about a Shakespeare professor getting over her snobbishness about romance and cosy mysteries, which is perhaps driving a little too hard – we’re already reading the book, we’re not the ones needing convinced (much ;)).

So… can’t really find myself recommending this. I still sort of enjoyed the daft read, but really just too many flaws and irrelevant meanderings to make it one I’d look for a follow up from.

NetGalley eARC: 258 pages / 66 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Beach Reads mystery book 1
Read from 5th-14th September 2020

My rating: 4/10

Morning Star – Pierce Brown

morning star cover

“I rise into darkness, away from the garden they watered with the blood of my friends.”

Book 2 of the Red Rising trilogy, Golden Son, ended with our hero in a sticky position. Usual warning: just by mentioning characters who have survived to book 3 might be a spoiler, so back away now if needs be!

On the verge of a massive win in his campaign to bring down the Gold society, Darrow’s unmasking leaves everything in tatters. What’s to come is about as unpleasant as it could be: capture, torture, betrayal. Can the once-Golden Son rise again, from the deepest pit?

Having followed the political machinations over the past two books, there’s a lot of pressure to bring things to a satisfying conclusion here. And mostly, I think it succeeds admirably with this less than easy task. Which isn’t to say it’s perfect. There’s sometimes too little sense of real danger, of consequences to insanely risky plots. Terrible things do happen, but sometimes the crazy plans just seem to work a bit too easily.

Which is a minorish complaint, honestly. Overall I liked the way the story continued to a satisfying conclusion. It was a pleasure to read, although perhaps a little more variety in the onslaught of fighting and bad things and quite frankly horror – but, it gets to where it needs to be, and it does it in style.

The trilogy gets a 9/10 from me, although nothing has reached the heights of that first book. Still, I’m excited to see where the next book – picking up 10 years later – finds us.

Kindle: 544 pages / 65 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Red Rising book 3
Read from 24th August – 6th September 2020

My rating: 8.5/10

Checked Out For Murder – Allison Brook

checked out for murder cover

“‘More coffee?’ I asked Dylan as I got up from the table to pour us both a refill.”

We’re back with Carrie Singleton, head of events at Clover Ridge library – which just happens to be haunted by a friendly ghost, Evelyn, only Carrie can see and hear. When a self-declared psychic comes to town, Evelyn’s knowledge of the town’s past might prove invaluable. Even more so when when of the cast of the movie being filmed in the small town is found murdered.

Carrie may have sworn to stay away from the drama after her sleuthing put in danger in Death Overdue, Read and Goneand Buried in the Stacks, but when her mother turns into the prime suspect she has no choice but to try to find the real killer.

Of all of my dabbling in the cosy mystery genre, this is one of my favourite series. Carrie is relatively sensible and comes across very well, and her relationship ‘dramas’ are kept more to the background that some in the genre. There’s something quite wholesome and healthy about her relationship with Dylan, making for a very pleasant change. Her relationship with her mother is a lot more strained, but again, there’s a sensible lack of melodrama – well, apart from the murder, the way everyone tries to involve Carrie, and of course the library ghost.

I still think the ‘haunted’ part of the series title is very underplayed, but otherwise this was a decent enough read. I like spending time with these characters, even when Brianna-nee-Linda is being a diva. But it suits me perfectly that the plot keeps focus on the mystery, with the personal aspects adding strength not overwhelming everything else.

I did find the ending just a little abrupt – I usually do with cosy mysteries, it seems – so a mark off for that. Otherwise, a sweet diversion of a read, and I’m all for that.

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Haunted Library book 4
Read from 23rd-29th August 2020

My rating: 7/10