Keeping watching for the good stuff

This week’s learning point, readers, was to stick to my high standards. Just in case you were wondering, I’ve never had a problem with putting books down if I’m not enjoying them. I’m actually amazed that there are people who will persist with a book they actively dislike on the basis that if they start they have to finish. Life’s too short for that, imo.

So, I’ve started a lot of books recently and then trailed off because they didn’t grip me. They weren’t actively awful which would have enabled me to make the definite decision to stop reading, they were just a bit ‘meh’. I had a couple of hours to spend reading in the week and I spent ten minutes bouncing across four books feeling that I didn’t want to spend my reading time on any of them. Disconsolately, I scanned through my kindle to see if there was anything better. I didn’t have high hopes.

Cover of Shannon Mayer's Witch's ReignWell, I should have kept the faith. I found Witch’s Reign by Shannon Mayer, which had been lurking on my kindle for several weeks. I couldn’t quite remember why I’d picked it up (she’s a new author to me), but it seemed reasonably my thing – fantasy with a kickass female protagonist.

I opened it in the hopes that it would be better than the four stories I’d already discarded – and I was gripped from the very first sentence. I want to write first lines like that: world, and stakes and character and sass all in a dozen words, brilliant stuff. The rest of the book kept up the high standard of the opening scene and I swooped through it in a day.

Now, I need to find something equally good – but at least now I have faith that if I keep looking I’m going to find it!

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Girls in books

This week’s pondering, readers, was prompted by a post on Facebook. It was a video of a mother and daughter looking through the girl’s bookshelf and removing all the gender-imbalanced books to discover what a tiny selection they were left with. They started by removing all the books that had no female characters, then the ones where the female characters didn’t speak, then ones where the females had no aspirations beyond being rescued/looking pretty (princesses, basically). They were left with, frankly, a feeble percentage.

This prompted a lively discussion between myself and Offspring (who is also female). I am aware of the bias in my own reading (which is predominantly YA fiction), in that I actively choose books by women and which feature stories in which the protagonist is female (or at least one of the protagonists is, if it’s a dual or multiple narrative). I do that chiefly because I’m female and I want characters I can identify with. I think that’s a pretty universal human urge, and exactly why it’s important to have diverse books, so EVERYONE can see themselves reflected in a variety of ways in fiction. I’m quite sure that my bookshelf would be entirely unchanged if I removed any books where women don’t appear and take an active role in the story.

I can see that there’s a problem if the books that appear most on prize-winner lists, or “must read” top tens only reflect male experience, or if the books that get the shelf space in bookshops don’t have non-male characters and focus (because, let’s face it, the problem is larger than just women/girls being underrated – anything outside white, straight, western experience tends to be an ignored rarity). But is it really a problem if you just have to look a bit harder for books to read?

While visibility undoubtedly is a problem, I feel as though this doesn’t need to be a problem because what we do have now is choice. I discussed with Offspring how she chooses her books: whether she deliberately picks up books with a female main character (not consciously – but they are about 90% of what’s on her bookshelf, so identification-with-self bias is almost certainly happening for her, too); whether she notices if women don’t appear (generally not unless I also read the book and head off into a feminist rant – but again, I think that’s because actually women/girls do feature in the books she reads). While she’s a voracious reader and is constantly in need of more books, neither of us perceives a problem in finding books that reflect her experience as a female.

Most of my reading is of ebooks, which makes matters even easier. You really can find ANYTHING on Amazon (don’t believe me? – I tripped over a new genre called Mpreg the other week – gay fiction in which one of the men becomes pregnant. My mind is still boggling). But as a result of exercising choice in my reading, I know I don’t experience problems with female representation on my bookshelves. There are always women, they always speak and do things, and any princesses are also assassins, magicians or rebel leaders as well. Given that more books exist in the English language than I’m ever going to manage to read in my lifetime, I can easily find female representation just by being selective over what I pick up.

The only experience I had which chimed with the video was years ago now, when Offspring was tiny and her reading matter was picture books read to her. I did perceive a bias in a lot of picture books. Unnamed characters were overwhelming described as “he”. As a mother reading to a daughter who I didn’t want to grow up thinking she only belonged on the margins of life that made me very uncomfortable. Since Offspring was a bit young at that point to appreciate a polemic rant, I found a simple solution: I changed the hes to shes as I read. Woodland creatures and friends of the main characters became abruptly, overwhelmingly female, so my baby perceived females surrounding her in her fictional worlds. A blunt approach, perhaps, but one that worked for me.

So, I don’t perceive a problem for myself, and when I found it for my child I simply did what was necessary to neutralise the bias. Problem solved. And yet, that glib response troubles me. I’m a white, straight, educated female, which probably makes me the second-best represented group in fiction after straight, white males. I don’t want to suggest there isn’t a problem just because I don’t perceive it, or I’ve wrestled it into submission in my life. I’m going to keep a watch on myself now and see how easy it is to find books that reflect females who AREN’T just like me.

How about you, reader – are you aware of bias in what you read? Do you create bias deliberately? And do you have any recommendations for YA books that aren’t about straight, white protagonists?

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Read with mother…

It’s Mothering Sunday and I wanted to give a shout out to mums everywhere. I have no actual memories of reading with my mother, but I know it happened. How could I possibly love books as much as I do without early exposure to the form? Even my decision to become a writer is tied in both with books and with my mum.

Cover of Otfried Pruessler's The Robber Hotzenplotz

My favouritest ever book from my childhood. I buy a copy for all the children in my family now!

The story goes that mum was reading a story to me when I was about four. When she finished I asked if you had to pay to get your story made into a book (this was before self-publishing was any sort of a thing: books needed publishers then). She replied, No, the publisher will pay you if they want to turn your story into a book.

My jaw dropped, my mind was blown and that was the decision made for me.

I don’t remember those times sitting reading with my mother (well, I was very young), but I do remember sitting and reading with my child. Offspring is too old to be read to these days (mostly – now and then I get asked to read a chapter), but I loved those quiet, cosy times with a good book, ensuring the next generation would have a love of books and stories. Bedtime stories might just be the best part of the job of being mum.

What’s your earliest memory of reading? Does your mum feature?

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How do you find good books?

For all its much vaunted “algorithms” I hate trying to find something new to read on Amazon. If I’ve got the title, or the name of a favourite author, yep, it’s a doddle to find a good book. But if you don’t know what you want, Amazon offers a rubbish browsing experience (imo).

I end up finding most of my books through recommendations. I put a note at the end of my last newsletter asking readers what they’d recommend me to try. I only got one response, but my, it was a doozy! The Girl from Everywhere is time travel and magic, folklore and heist, friendship and coming of age, and it’s entirely gorgeous.

I’ve finished The Girl from Everywhere now, so – what do you recommended, lovely reader? Anything good you want to share?

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Do you binge?

 

Cover of Katy Haye's A Clockwork War series

Click to start reading

Excuse the shameless self-promo today, readers, but I’m wildly excited to report that not only is my series, A Clockwork War, complete, but it’s now also available as a bargain-priced boxed set.

Bingeing a series once it’s all available is apparently THE way to consume fiction these days. I feel out of step since I don’t tend to binge read books (I mean, I read constantly, natch, but jumping from one thing to another). I do tend to record TV series and watch them once they’re all out, but I think that’s a shortage of time more than a deliberate choice.

When it comes to books, however, I’ll grab them as soon as they’re out if I like them (case in point, I’m foaming at the mouth for two instalments in novella series I’m midway through that won’t be out until the end of the month, alongside a more distant yearning for the next Tides novel by Alex Lidell which doesn’t yet have a release date).

But, if you’re a binge reader (or even if you’re not!) and you like steampunk, genius heroines, gutsy heroes and dastardly antagonists, do try A Clockwork War. I had terrific fun writing about Clara, her friends and her fabulous brothers (she has five) in a world where England and Scotland remain at war in the 1840s.

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Meeting old friends again

I’ve been knee-deep in a very sticky first draft for most of this week (second-book syndrome; it has been kicking my backside), so reading time has been limited. Imagine my joy on Thursday evening when I finally got to write the magical words “The End”!

Cover of Olivia Wildenstein's The MasterkeyAfter that stress and strain, I was delighted to relax with Olivia Wildenstein’s The Masterkey. I love Olivia’s writing and was thrilled to find another book in the series. I read The Masterpiecers and The Masterminds a while ago now, and I think The Masterkey, although set chronologically earlier than the others, is a new addition to the world. It’s also utterly fabulous. The Masterkey focuses on Aster, Masterpiecer Ivy’s twin sister. Aster is heartbreakingly lovely and damaged, and Josh is simply a poppet (probably don’t tell him; he might not be flattered).

I’ve mentioned before my perception that everything’s part of a series now, and yes, sometimes that’s annoying, but The Masterkey reminded me that it can be a really good thing. As a reader, when you find a world you enjoy, you want to spend more time there. I know it felt like a real treat to get back with Ivy and Aster again. So now I’ve got the opposite problem of being sad that there isn’t more to read about them – never happy us readers, are we?

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I admit it, I’m a hypocrite

This week I finished The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, my paperback, bedtime read.

Cover of Renee Ahdieh's The Wrath and the DawnIt is absolutely sumptuous; the writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever come across. It’s a retelling of Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights, but with the blood-thirsty king replaced with a more sympathetic (and gorgeous) hero.

I did enjoy it, but I’ll admit to being disappointed by the ending. As well as our heroine Shazi’s willingness to sacrifice herself, which was entirely understandable but set my feminist hackles rising, it’s very incomplete. Having just gone onto Goodreads to grab a copy of the cover, I can see that it’s very much part of a series, but I’m starting to feel exhausted by the fact that nothing these days ever finishes.

Now, I appreciate that’s hypocritical for me to say, since I’ve started writing series because they sell. But just now and then it would be nice for something to just be itself and not part of a bigger story that you must see to the end.

But having said that, I’ll get the next because I really do want to see how the story progresses…

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Do you start if you can’t finish?

Thank goodness for novellas this week, because if it weren’t for short books I’d have almost nothing to report!

Cover of Lili Zander and Rory Reynolds' Dragons ThiefI stumbled upon the entirely excellent Dragon’s Thief by Lili Zander and Rory Reynolds (I agree, I do seem to have a thing for dragons right now – is there a problem with that?). It’s a reverse harem novella (one heroine; lots of heroes) so I’m pleased to have also found an RH novel I loved. Key for me is that the heroine has a really powerful goal which kicks in right at the start of the novel and powers her all the way through.

But my talking point for this week is because Dragon’s Thief is first in a series. I would have gone straight on to the next, but it’s not out yet (although available for pre-order). That’s fine, I’ll wait. Series are so common these days that I would have thought no more about it, except that a friend on Facebook then posed the question as to whether you’d read the first in a series before more were available, or you’d wait until the whole series was out.

A surprising (to me) number said they wouldn’t start until they knew they would be able to finish the series if they liked it. Partly this seemed to be due to the habit of bingeing which we’ve all fallen into. But equally, readers wanted to be sure that the series actually came to an end – with horror stories of books that ended on cliffhangers by authors who then decided they didn’t want to write any more or publishers who gave up on their authors mid-way through a series.

Interesting to note is that the authors of Dragon’s Thief were clearly aware of this – at the bottom of the description was a note stating that it’s the first in a series, outlining the release schedule and warning readers to wait if they didn’t want to have to stop part-way through.

I don’t mind at all. Of course, if you like a book it’s good to find more in the series or by that author to move on to, but I also find anticipation is part of the enjoyment. I’ve now got two dragon-related novellas to look forward to in February, which is perfect for a woman whose main dread in life is running out of books I want to read.

Over to you, reader. Will you start a series when it catches your eye, or do you want to have all the books lined up before you begin?

Oh, and if you’ll excuse a brief plug, this is probably the ideal moment to point out that my 4-book historical fantasy series, a clockwork war, is now complete and available to read (Kindle and KU). The series starts with The Clockwork War, which you can grab now.

A clockwork war series covers

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Being short’s a good thing, right?

Cover of Kelly St Clare's The ReprisalWell, this week was another gorgeous reading week. I went straight from Sea and Sand to another new release, The Reprisal, by Kelly St Clare. This is the finale in her The After trilogy, and I’ve been waiting impatiently since I inhaled The Return the day it came out. It’s an utter delight. The relationships between Romy and her knot moved forward in fabulous ways, there was lots of humour, and the uncertain fate of those on earth and the space soldiers was resolved highly satisfactorily. Loved it.

And then I found a new series. I’d seen mention of Sarah K Wilson’s Dragon School on social media and thought it looked good. The premise is that a disabled teenager is determined to take on the highly physical role of a dragon rider – will she manage? It’s also fantasy with (you may have guessed) dragons, so there’s lots to love for fantasy readers.

Cover of Sarah K Wilson's Dragon School: First FlightThe books themselves are being presented slightly differently. Instead of novels, they’re novellas, but as a result of their shortness they’re being released more closely together. I’m finding myself growing more and more fond of novellas as I grow older. I daresay it’s just a perception, but it makes me feel as though I’m getting more new worlds in my life. Another positive is that most of them are available in KU, so I feel like I’m working my subscription hard by reading three books where I might only have managed one before!

The first three stories in the Dragon School series are available now (First Flight, Initiate and The Dark Prince), and I loved them. They’re very episodic, so you could think of TV just as easily as books. Amel is a great character (as is Raolcan the dragon), there’s stacks going on in the background so they rattle along at a terrific pace, and the writing is actually very visual so I found it easy to “see” what was going on. I want to read the rest, and I’m delighted to report I don’t have months to wait for the next episode, since it’ll be out at the start of February.

And then just last night (when I’d run out of Dragon School stories) I discovered that there is a book 4 in CN Crawford’s Fae FBI series. I kind of thought there must be another one coming, because book 3 left so many threads unresolved, but last time I looked on Amazon there was no sign. But it’s out now, so that’s what I’ll be jumping into once I’ve written this blog post. Can’t wait!

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Loving the end of the world

This week I have got firmly back into my groove of reading (I always think I’ll have loads of time to write at holiday time, but somehow, it’s much easier when I’m back in a routine of work/school).

I was helped by already being mid-way through Megan Crewe’s brilliant Fallen World series. As mentioned last week, I moved straight on to book two, The Lives We Lost, and because that was so entirely excellent I had to put all my other waiting-for-review books on hold so I could gobble up the finale, The Worlds We Make. Fallen World book 3 by Megan CreweOh my giddy aunt, I feel like I barely breathed while I was reading that. It was so tense I was constantly on edge in case Kaelyn and her friends didn’t make it. The resolution was utterly stupendous. I recommend you read this series even more now I’ve reached the end.

Because I’m eschewing my Kindle for late-night reading-in-bed, alongside Fallen Worlds, I also read Nicholas Bowling’s Witchborn. That was fabulous (catch my review).

Sea and Sand by Alex LidellAnd then yesterday I got back into my review reading and caught up with Nile, Dominic and Prince Tamiath in Alex Lidell’s Tides series. Sea and Sand is the third in the series and it’s out – wowzers, today or tomorrow, I think. It’s another glorious fantasy and while I didn’t warm completely to new-girl Kyra, I am now YET AGAIN waiting impatiently for the next instalment. If you haven’t read these books, you should check them out IMMEDIATELY.

Phew, back to normal has never felt so good!

Check back next week to see what I’ve been reading – and please do let me know if you try out any of these books. I’d love to know what you think.

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