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 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.

Review: Fight Write

How to write believable fight scenes

By Carla Hoch

Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books

Edition: Kindle, Paperback

Release date: 11 June 2019

Source: Netgalley digital ARC / paperback purchased by me

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


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

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

CONTINUE READING

Review: The First Five Pages

By Noah Lukeman

Genre: Non-fiction, Writing

Rating: 1 star

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

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

CONTINUE READING