Eastercon highlights

Last weekend I was at Eastercon and I wanted to post a few highlights.

Eastercon eggs 2 Eastercon eggs 1First off, I definitely have to mention the Easter egg display the hotel put on in the reception. Absolutely spectacular. They were beautiful. I have no idea how they did the roses on some of the eggs. Every time you walked past, you’d get this waft of chocolate smell so I hope someone was allowed to eat them afterwards.

This year I was on two panels. One was on LGBT to QUILTBAG, talking about queer representation in sci-fi/fantasy and the importance of representing some of the less known aspects of the queer identity (e.g. having characters who are genderqueer, intersex, asexual, and so on). That yielded some really interesting discussions and was fun for us as a panel, and several people came up to me afterwards saying that they found it really interesting as well, which is great.

The second panel was on the Women of Star Wars, in honour of Carrie Fisher. This was fun as well, but the conversation didn’t seem to flow as much as in the first panel. It jumped around a bit, but we still had some great conversations and the people I was on the panel with were all really nice.

I attended quite a lot of sessions, including the explosive opening ceremony. My photos didn’t come out particularly well of this, but we had gerkin light bulbs, jelly baby fireworks, and exploding fire. There was a definite theme around getting food to blow up. It was put on by the Royal Institution who do these sorts of talks and science displays for kids. So if you want to get a science display set up for a school near you, check them out because it was both entertaining and informative.rope braidbraided hair

I attended a hair braiding workshop and decided that the rope braid was significantly nicer to do than a French braid. I really couldn’t get the hang of a French or Dutch braid at all. I felt like I needed three extra hands to make it work. I did get my hair braided as an example of putting it all together so I walked out of there with braids and rosettes in my hair, which was awesome.

Another panel which was awesome enough to deserve a blog post all to itself was the wheelchair martial arts demonstration by comic book artist and fight choreographer Al Davison. I have some videos of that session that I will be posting soon, so watch this space.

Guardbridge booksAs with other conventions, there was a dealers’ room, in which I spent more money than I should on books. A couple of people worth mentioning were the TTA Press, who ran the indie author table. They took some of my books and did the job of selling them over the weekend, which was really great of them. There were a few other authors who were selling their books there and I bought a few of them, so you might be seeing them reviewed on here soon. There was also a table from Guardbridge Books, who I recently signed a publishing contract with. They will soon be publishing an urban fantasy novel of mine, so keep an eye out for that.

I wore my Queen Madalena cosplay again, which earned me thirteen “nice cosplay” tokens. I don’t know if this is a high number or low, but that was all I could cope with before I had to change back into jeans. Next year, I’m going for a more practical cosplay.

All in all, it was a lot of fun. I definitely had fun participating in the panels rather than just watching them, though watching them was fun too. I went to sessions ranging from presentations on the psychology of living in space to flash fiction writing competitions. Definitely a good convention. Tiring, but good.

Cover Art Reveal: Hidden in the Signal

Hidden in the Signal cover

Those who oppose Grey’s Tower tend to end up missing or dead. Jenny’s friend Matt vanished while trying to uncover the Tower’s secrets. Jenny has promised to discover what happened to him, and she must keep those she loves from facing the same fate.

Meanwhile there is another threat looming. An alien spaceship is heading for Earth. Jenny and her allies must find a way to stop it but there may be another danger nearer to hand. Someone close to Jenny is keeping secrets – secrets that might hold the key to the spaceship’s mission, to Matt’s disappearance, and to what their enemies have planned.


Hidden in the Signal is the third book in the Codename Omega series, which follows the adventures of Jenny Harding, an ordinary girl who gets caught up in conspiracies and combat involving alien technology. The first two books Omega Rising and Traitor in the Tower are available now.

Review: The Boy in Red by E M Holloway

The Boy in Red coverThe Boy in Red (UK link, US link) is the fourth book in E M Holloway’s The Sum of Its Parts series. It’s undoubtedly my favourite in the series, but it will probably only make sense if you’ve read the other three books first. There are a lot of references to the events of the previous book and characters show up without any real introduction (even though an introduction might have been a helpful reminder in the case of characters who only played minor roles in the earlier books).

In this book, Puck and his werewolf pack face a sorcerer who has heard of Puck’s reputation as the formidable “Boy in Red” (a reputation he earned based on his actions in the previous books) and decides to test his skills against him. This sorcerer casts spells that torment the pack as a sort of game to see what Puck’s reaction will be. Puck just wants to protect his pack, but the sorcerer is putting other people in danger and someone has to protect them too, even when they’re people Puck can’t stand.

On top of it all, Puck has to cope with going to school and dealing with an asshole teacher who seems determined to make Puck’s life hell. With all the magical attacks, this mundane issue could be the final straw.

I mentioned that this book is my favourite so far and that’s largely because the characters are established and have settled into their relative roles. This book jumps straight in with the plot and there is a lot of plot. The first book of this series felt as much like a murder mystery novel as a supernatural adventure and this book comes back to that. Puck has a puzzle to solve to figure out the sorcerer’s identity, to track him down and to find a way to stop him, and lot of this feels like a crime novel and the questions keep you turning the pages to find out the answers.

There’s also a lot going on in this story, with various plot threads that are all connected but that also feel strong individually, such as the conflict with Nealy. Here we have a very human conflict surfacing in the form of lawsuits and lurking, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the action, and which brings out a different set of reactions in Puck.

These events also bring out a response in Puck’s PTSD. This book, like the others in the series, deserves points for the careful handling of this difficult issue. Puck suffers from PTSD following the events of the first book and it’s clear the author put a lot of time and effort into research because Puck’s symptoms feel very real. This book explores the impact of his PTSD in a deeper way than some of the others and includes Puck starting therapy to deal with it.

There are a lot of characters in this book, with Puck front and centre as the protagonist, but with the rest of Puck’s pack, Puck’s father, a local magic-expert, others at school and their families, some teachers, the werewolf-hunters in the area, contacts Puck has from the previous book, law enforcement officers, and so on, until there are a lot of people involved. There’s a reason why I thought a bit more introduction to some of the minor characters might have been helpful because there are a lot of people involved. It can get quite complicated, but the interplay of all these different people makes the story feel very real.

Definitely my favourite so far in the series, but as I said, if you’re new to these books you should probably start off at the beginning to save yourself a lot of confusion.

Queer Reading List

I have just added a new page to this website, called Queer Reading List. This is an on-going list of sci-fi and fantasy books that I’ve read and enjoyed that feature queer characters in a significant way. I’m using the umbrella term ‘queer’ because so far these books include characters who are agender, intersex, bisexual, gay, asexual, demi-sexual and more. I hope to include more aspects of the LGBT+ identities as time goes on.

I’m only including books on this list if I’ve read and enjoyed them, but I’m always open to recommendations. If you’ve read (or written) a book that you think deserves a place on this list, leave a comment or contact me with that book recommendation. I can’t promise how quickly I’ll get to it, because my to be read pile is constantly growing, but if I enjoy it, I will add it to the list.

Check back periodically because I do intend for this list to grow over time.

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen coverRed Queen by Victoria Aveyard (UK link, US link) has a lot of the standard hallmarks of a young adult dystopian novel, but it approaches them in a way that makes the story feel new and different. It is the story of Mare Barrow, a girl from a downtrodden people who finds herself in the middle of the political intrigue and machinations of the ruling class.

The world is divided into Silvers and Reds. Those with silver blood have amazing abilities, including controlling fire, manipulating metal, or even entering people’s minds and controlling them. The reds… don’t. Without power of any description, the reds do menial labour, working as servants, factory workers, farmers, and so on to produce the necessities and the luxuries that the silvers enjoy. Reds are also sent into pointless wars as canon fodder if they can’t get a job soon enough.

Mare Barrow is a red girl from a poor village, who steals to help her family survive. When she steals from the wrong person and gets caught, she expects to lose her hand. Instead, she gets offered a job as a servant in the palace. In a very public accident, she and the rest of the world discover that Mare has powers of her own – the ability to control electricity. Because the royal family can’t admit that anyone with red blood has power, they create a fiction that Mare is the lost heir of a silver family, and betroth her to one of the princes. Mare is suddenly trapped in a world of politics and intrigue. If she plays her part, she can keep her family and herself alive, but there is a rebellion stirring and she might be in a position to help all reds in a way she’d never imagined possible.

What I like about this book is the way that the characters all feel like people. There are a lot of different personalities mixed in, from the major characters to the minor ones, and they all have layers. A character who is cruel and vicious shows that they can be a loving parent. A character who at first seems kind and caring can find ways to rationalise brutal actions and a status quo that hurts millions of people. In the world of the silvers, there are characters you can connect with and feel sympathy for, even while they turn a blind eye to the fact that reds are being downtrodden. This focus on the people makes the book feel very real. Even in this sci-fi/fantasy setting, the reactions of the different characters to the events of the book felt very genuine.

The plot is also one that kept me hurrying through this book. It has layers and factors, with the in-fighting within the silver houses, the rebellion of the reds, and Mare just trying to keep her family and friends safe. There were twists I didn’t see coming, but afterwards I could spot the seeds that had been leading up to them.

One thing I struggled with was trying to keep track of all the different silver houses, their house colours, and their powers. Fortunately, part of the story involved Mare struggling to learn all that, so there were reminders and it became another way to connect with the protagonist.

If you enjoy YA dystopias, I definitely recommend Red Queen. It’s the first of a series and I have the second one on order and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Five stars.

Review – Murder in Absentia

Murder in Absentia coverMurder in Absentia by Assaph Mehr (UK link, US link) is a strange mixture of high fantasy, murder mystery, and historical novel, with a bit of action adventure thrown in for good measure. The protagonist, known as Felix, works as an investigator in a fantasy world inspired by ancient Rome. He has some training in magic and a reputation for discretion, so when the son of a prominant citizen is found dead under mysterious circumstances, Felix is brought in to investigate.

In many ways, the story has a lot of the hallmarks of a standard murder mystery, with a dead body, leads to follow, a number of suspects, and some red herrings. At the same time, it also has an interesting and unique approach to the fantasy elements. The Roman-inspired setting is one I’ve not come across in a fantasy world and it gave the book a sense of originality. It’s clear that the author has done a huge amount of research into the history to create a world that feels authentic and internally consistant. There is a lot of background detail in everything from the miniatudes of daily life to the bigger picture view of history, trade and government. There are occasions when it feels that there might be too much detail (with discussions between characters on the creation of a specialist fish sauce, a lot of lists of the specific foods eaten at meals, and paragraphs of exposition explaining the political history of key locations) and there were a few points in the book when I wondered if maybe the author should have toned down the background information, but the end result is a fantasy world that feels grounded in reality. You can really believe in the people, the places, and the reality of existence in such a place.

One problem with such a realistic setting, given the historical source, is the subject of slavery. This is a very sensitive topic and the author can’t avoid the fact that slavery was a fact of life in the historical period that is acting as a source for this fantasy world. It is a very difficult challenge to create a protagnist who would consider slavery a normal part of life without making that protagonist instantly dislikeable. Felix wasn’t cruel or mean to slaves, and at times treated them with the same courtesy and respect as the free citizens in the world, but it’s still difficult as a modern reader to connect to a protagonist who uses slave labour and watches brutal gladiator matches without a twinge of remorse. The situation is helped somewhat because Felix does acknowledge that slaves are very much people, with their own desires and ambitions, and on more than one occasion he contributes to coins that the slaves are saving up to buy his freedom.

The other challenge with this book was the use of Latin terms. The author makes use of Latin words in places, liberally scattered through the text. While this adds to the sense of authenticity when talking about the colleges and politics, it also proved a challenge. Many of these terms could be worked out from context, others I dredged up from my memories of GCSE Latin, but there were times when I was thrown out of the story while I tried to work out what a word meant. A bit more explanation in English to translate these terms would have been helpful.

From a plot perspective, the book is a nicely constructed murder mystery, with Felix travelling around to investigate, following leads, and gaining new information as the book progresses, providing more clues. The story is definitely a murder mystery first and foremost, and it was the mystery that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened.

I didn’t really connect with Felix as a character, so this isn’t going to make my favourites list, but if mysteries and complex worlds, give this one a try. Three and a half stars.


This post is part of Mystery Thriller Week. Find more book reviews along with trailers, interviews, prizes and more.

Review: Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall

Writing Fight Scenes coverWriting Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall (UK link, US link) is a great resource for writers of action stories. It includes both information on getting the details of a fight correct as well as advice for crafting an action scene in a story. Its subject matter is varied, with a lot of time spent on the use of historical weapons and hand to hand combat, but with pages also devoted to guns, sea battles, and even magical fights. The only types of fights I can think of that aren’t covered are spaceship battles and aerial dogfights. Everything else has a place somewhere in the pages.

The information given is clear and concise, making it a straight-forward read, which is always an advantage in a factual book. I read it straight through, but the way it’s organised means you could easily jump to a particular chapter if you wanted advice on, for example, how your werewolf protagonist would fight in their animal form (yes, animal fights are covered too). It’s obvious the author has put a lot of planning and research into this book and it pays off.

One thing I liked was the way the author addressed the fact that writing a story is not always realistic. Some genres demand vivid realism, but others want action to be light and fun. The book goes into the different approaches that can be taken, and when either is appropriate (e.g. don’t write gruesome, traumatising realism in a children’s adventure book) as well as how to blend the approaches for a middle ground between drama and reality. This sort of detail is what makes this a book about writing rather than just a book about fighting.

The one thing that annoyed me while I was reading though was that it felt like I was only getting half of the content. The book is filled with links out to YouTube videos to show demonstrations of weaponry in use, or examples of fight scenes from movies. This would have been fantastic if this content were given as an online course – the combination of text and video content would work really well – but I first read this book while I was sitting on a plane with my kindle in flight mode. I couldn’t jump out to YouTube every couple of pages to watch a video. In several places, it felt like I was missing out on important information because I couldn’t watch the videos. I understand that author wanting to include extra resources, but I would have preferred it if the text of the book had included more descriptions of what the videos showed so that those readers who couldn’t have internet access could still get the same experience.

The same applies to images. There were several points where I thought diagrams or pictures would have been useful, such as when explaining the differences between various sorts of polearms. In a few places there were links out to pictures on the internet but, as with the videos, I couldn’t take advantage of these when I was first reading the book. The book could definitely have been improved by bringing these images into the pages.

I do think this book is a thorough and comprehensive guide to writing fights, definitely useful to anyone who wants to learn to write thrillers or other action-heavy stories. Definitely read it when you have an internet connection though if you want to get the full advantage out of it.


This post is part of Mystery Thriller Week. Find more book reviews along with trailers, interviews, prizes and more.

4thewords

Are you the sort of person who gets motivated because of games that offer simple rewards for achieving small goals? For example, are you encouraged to get up off the sofa and go for a short walk because you don’t want to lose your Pokemon Go streak? If you find these sort of games work for you, and you’re a writer struggling to hit your word count, I would like to recommend http://4thewords.com.

4thewords word count screenshot This is a web-based game that lets you fight monsters by writing.

When you sign up, you are introduced to a fantasy world location and assigned quests to complete. These quests usually involve collecting enough of a certain item, but there are some that involve fighting a specific boss monster or maintaining a streak of number of days in a row you’ve written.

When you choose to fight a monster, the game starts a timer. The timer could be for as short as 30 minutes, or you could get several hours for the tougher monsters. You also get a word count to achieve. You can create files and write in them using a basic word processor page on the site which saves your work every few seconds and keeps an updated view of your word count. You can also see the status of your battle – how much time you have left and how many words you have left to write. As you write more words, the progress bar moves up until you reach the target. Then you get your “reward”. The game offers you reward items that you can use to complete quests or give you bonuses to your battles. 4thewords battle screenshot

As well as competing with the fictional monsters, you can compete with other users on the site. The site has leaderboards that let you see how other users are doing in terms of their total word counts, the number of battles they’ve won, and the length of their writing streak. You can see how you stack up against other players and try to climb to the top of these leaderboards.

All your work is saved as files on the site and you can group those into sections and projects – so you could have a project be a story and each file be a separate chapter. You don’t have to do all your writing in one file for a battle; you can jump between files as often as you like as you strive to reach your word count. There’s no rule saying that what you write has to be fiction. As long as you type it in their webpage, it could be anything at all. For example, I’m actually writing this blog post in 4thewords right now.

From a legal/copyright perspective, all your words are your own. The creators of the site don’t take ownership of any of it, and you can always delete files later if you want to take them off the site.

While you’re working on your writing, the files are private, but you have the option to “publish” the files, which makes them visible on the site to other users. You can go into this section and find things that other people have written available for you to read and rate.

The site is still being developed. Since I joined 10 days ago, they’ve launched a forum so you can have discussions with the other writers using the game. I’m sure there will be more features added as the game grows.

4thewords core crystals screenshotThere are just a couple of things to note. One is that there is no easy export option. I wish there was a simple way to click a button and download my writing in a Word file, but there’s not. Still, it’s not the end of the world and there’s always copy/paste. The other thing to note is that this is a paid for game. You get the first 30 days for free but after that you have to pay for “core crystals”. It costs $4 to get enough core crystals to pay for a month’s membership, but these are in game objects and you can actually get some of them for completing quests. Combine this with the fact that you can buy bundles of core crystals and get a better price for buying in bulk, it could end up being significantly cheaper than $4 if you play regularly.

The free trial doesn’t require a commitment (no one’s going to ask for your credit card number or anything), so you can try it out and see if it motivates you to write more. If it doesn’t, you’ve not lost anything. If it does, it’s up to you to decide whether you think it’s worth $4 to you.

Review – The Fallen Gatekeeper by C R Fladmark

I didn’t realise when I first started this book that it was part of a series, but it quickly became apparent. The book jumps in without any real introduction to the main characters, the world-building, or the events that led up to this point. It was very hard to figure out what was going on for the first couple of chapters because the characters would talk about things that happened in a previous book without there being any additional explanation for those readers who hadn’t read that book. It got easier after about four chapter when I’d figured out the basics of what was going on, but there were still moments throughout the book when knowledge of the previous book was just assumed. For example, a character was brought into the story who’d not been so much as mentioned in this book, and I was left with no idea who this person was. I realise it’s a delicate balance when writing a sequel as the author doesn’t want to bore readers who have read the first book, but I thought this one could have done with a little more background explanation. Still, that’s probably not an issue if you read the books in order.

The Fallen Gatekeepers is a fantasy story about other worlds inhabited by gods, and the gatekeepers, an order of warrior girls who protect the gods from Evil Ones. Junya is a teenage boy who has been caught up in this world of magic and gods. He is determined to help the gatekeepers fight the Evil Ones, but he also wants to spend more time with Shoko, a gatekeeper of great skill. When the Evil Ones start attacking Shamans, Junya and Shoko must break with tradition and come up with a new plan to fight them.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book. The plot is interesting. There were some nice twists and turns that kept me reading to figure out what might happen. The plot was cleverly constructed and was what held my attention to the end.

There are some nice underlying themes about jealousy and the desire for material things which add a layer to the book without coming across and preachy. It comes through the book in a very natural way and feels understandable in the reactions of the characters.

I liked the character of Mack, one of Junya’s friends, and there were some interesting dynamics between some of the gatekeepers who work with Shoko. There are a large of range of characters, both major and minor, who all feel like different people with their own desires and goals.

My main issue with the book was that Junya did some things that annoyed me. He frequently checks out women and girls in the early part of the book. This starts with watching Shoko getting undressed when she’s taking a bath but also includes ogling at women who work for his grandfather. There were also some sexist traditions in Shoko’s world that it would have been good to see Junya call out. When discussing what happens if a girl gets pregnant – she loses her position and her honour, but the boy who impregnated her isn’t punished – Shoko dismisses this as being because the elders know what young people are like, especially boys. This is a “boys can’t help themselves” argument that I find infuriating and it would have been nice for Junya to address it instead of letting it slide.

Junya is also obnoxious about money. He has a large amount of money thanks to the events of the previous book (he talks about millions of dollars in a stock account at one point) and he does things like throwing half a million dollars on a fancy car just because he can. Then he goes and talks about wealth inequality and how it isn’t fair that a small minority has so much money – despite being part of that small minority. If he was ever shown being generous with his money it would be fine, but these statements come across as hypocritical given his behaviour in the rest of the book. This could have been easily fixed with an aside mention of charity donations, or an extra sentence to say that he paused to give money to the homeless people he passes while walking with Shoko – instead the homeless people are mentioned and Junya just walks right by. This is especially grating given the message the books shows in other places around how desiring stuff for stuff’s sake can be damaging.

The other thing that annoyed me at times was the way other countries and cultures were portrayed using stereotypes. Japan wasn’t so bad because there were enough different Japanese (or Japanese-inspired) characters that they could have different personalities, but the way the ninjas were written or the girls wore school uniforms and so on did feel like stereotypes at times. But other countries get only a very brief mention and they come across as ridiculously stereotyped – such as the tribesmen of Africa (the land of big cats and elephants – even though this description might apply to India), or the clansmen of Scotland (the land of druids – even though this could apply to Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, etc.). In the exchange with the Scotsmen, Shoko uses a few phrases with local dialect wording and Junya talks about how she’s “talking Gaelic” even though she’s actually speaking English. The scenes in Africa and Scotland were quite short in the book, but they still grated because they felt very stereotyped.

The plot of the book and the ideas behind it were very interesting, but it was the details of how it was written that annoyed me. I feel like I’m being quite harsh in this review – I did enjoy reading the book after all. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the first book in the series before coming to this one.

If like me, you come to this book without having read this series, I’d suggest going for the first book before coming back to this one.

Three stars.

A Resolution for You

If you haven’t set New Year’s Resolutions yet, here’s a suggestion for one: write more Amazon reviews.

As an author, I can tell you that Amazon reviews are worth gold to authors. Literally, they make a huge difference to how a book sells.

It probably doesn’t matter if we’re talking about something like Game of Thrones, which currently has 3609 reviews on the UK Amazon. But the amazing On the Edge of Gone (probably the best book I read in 2016) only has 9.

7 of those 9 reviews are 5 stars, the other 2 are 4 stars, but here’s the thing: Amazon doesn’t start including books in their “recommended” lists until it has more than 10 positive reviews (positive meaning 4 or 5 stars). So this fantastic book isn’t being suggested to new readers because it doesn’t have enough reviews.

Another book with an autistic protagonist, Viral Nation, has 8 reviews on the UK Amazon.

One of my own books, Omega Rising, has 5 reviews. They’re all 5 stars, but that’s not enough to tip it over Amazon’s threshold.

Well-written reviews can help people decide whether or not to buy a book, but any review at all can count towards the total reviews and determine whether the book shows up in the “also purchased” lists and “recommended for you” sections. It’s also worth noting that reviews are counted separately on the different regional sites – so On the Edge of Gone mentioned above actually has 28 reviews on the US version of Amazon, but those don’t count towards its UK total.

So if you’ve enjoyed a book, especially a book by a new or independent author, leave a review. If you buy a book and notice that it has less than 10 reviews, make a note to come back when you’ve finished reading and give your opinion. You don’t have to write a lengthy essay. A detailed review is fantastic, but for some things, it’s quantity rather than quality that matters, so ticking 4 stars and writing “good book” is still going to be a massive help to an author. It will help get the book in front of new potential readers and mean that the authors can spend more time writing and less time wondering how they’re going to pay the rent next month.

In 2017, when you go to browse Amazon for new books, take a minute to go through your old purchases and leave a few, short reviews. Your favourite authors will love you for it.