Review: How to Save the World by Tam MacNeil

How to Save the World coverHow to Save the World by Tam MacNeil (UK link, US link), not to be confused with one of the many other books with the same or similar name, is a book that walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. Monsters are rising from the sea and emerging from the forests, death gods who call to the people nearby. Anyone who hears their song is drawn to them and filled with the urge to commit suicide. A man named Cameron runs the company who produces mech – huge metal machines that can fight against these monsters. The mechs are designed to be driven by a human being, but the experience is horrifying. In this world, Alex and Sean are assassins working for Cameron, killing anyone he sends them after. They decide to escape their life by killing Cameron but when the attempt fails, Sean manages to get out and start a new life but Alex is caught and forced inside one of the mechs.

When I first started this book I had my doubts about it. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with Alex or Sean, who we see committing murders without seeming to care about it. How wrong I was. It didn’t take long for the book to start exploring their history, the way they protect each other, and their desire to have a better life than the one they’re forced to endure. Once the book got going it was very easy to have sympathy for both of them and some parts of the book were absolutely heart-wrenching. I was in tears in places.

The story deals with some very dark themes and difficult issues. There are explorations of rape, child abuse, grooming, suicide, grief, and some scenes that can only be described as torture. These issues are dealt with in a very respectful way and it really tugs on the heart-strings, but it could be a very difficult read for some people because of how real the emotion feels.

The book is definitely driven by the emotion. There is some mystery and a fair amount of action, with the characters working to, as the title says, save the world from the monsters, but really the core of the book is the emotional journey between Sean and Alex.

The relationship between the two main characters is beautifully written. We get to see their history and the background behind their interactions as well as the moments on the page. It works in a very layered way. You can genuinely feel how much they love each other. The interactions with the other characters is great too, and there were some brilliant moments where we get to see the two main characters through the eyes of characters like Mad and Rak. We spend so much of the time in this book inside their heads that it’s interesting to see what they look like from the outside.

The only criticism I have of this book is that it needed a better editor. There were a lot of typos and there were several points where a new chapter or section started with a pronoun and it took me several paragraphs to work out who was the viewpoint character for this bit. A chapter would start with “he” and I would spend a page trying to work out if this was Alex or Sean, only to find out this bit was from Rak’s point of view. I through me out of the story. It’s a shame because otherwise this was a brilliant book.

Very emotional and highly recommended, but do be aware of the fact it tackles issues of rape and abuse. Five stars.

Review: The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer

The Dark Wife - coverThe Dark Wife (UK link, US link) is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone. According to most traditional tellings of the story, Hades, the lord of the Underworld, carries off Persephone, daughter of the goddess of the harvest, to force her to be his wife. The gods attempt to rescue her, but because she’s eaten half a pomegranate while in the underworld, she has to live there for half the year, causing her mother to mourn her and thus causing winter.

This retelling has many of those same elements, but delivered with a new perspective and some significant changes. One important change is the fact that the ‘lord’ of the underworld is in fact a lady. Hades is female, and the title ‘lord’ is used by Zeus to mock her. The story also focuses on the idea from myth of Zeus being a rapist who takes what he wants. When Persephone’s lover is raped by Zeus and transformed into a plant, Persephone hates him, and ends up running away to the underworld to escape him, where she falls in love with Hades. Even the pomegranate plays a different role.

The story plays with many of the threads of ancient myths, such as the idea of the Elysium fields as a final resting place for heroes, and the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld, but with a new and refreshing take on these old ideas. I think part of the appeal of the story is the familiarity of these pieces and seeing them fit together in a new way, so I imagine that the story wouldn’t have the same appeal to people who are less familiar with the ancient Greek myths.

As it is, if you enjoy myths and want a story about immortal lesbians, then The Dark Wife is a very enjoyable story. It’s quite short and much of the focus is on the emotional journey rather than any action or adventure, but for fans of romance, I can see it being very much appreciated.

The characters are rounded and developed as people. The story is told from Persephone’s perspective, so we understand her motives and drives throughout the story, but there are a number of other characters who play important parts, including many of the gods, such as Hermes and Athena. The way the gods are portrayed compared to humans is interesting and feels genuine. The author explores how immortality would effect things like love and romance, especially when it’s between a mortal and an immortal. Despite all their powers, the characters in this story feel very human.

Four stars. One for fans of mythology.

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.

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.

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.

Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day coverEvery Day by David Levithan (US link, UK link) is the story of A, who lives each day in a different life. Each morning they wake up with a new body, a new name, and a whole new life. They must bluff their way through the day and then, the next morning, start all over again. They have no control over whose body the inhabit and no way to stop the transfer happening. Normally, they try to leave the people they inhabit exactly the same after the experience, but sometimes they make exceptions to the rule, such as when they spent the day in the body of a girl contemplating suicide.

When A meets Rhiannon, one day is enough to fall in love. A doesn’t want to leave her behind when they move into another body and so they start taking stupid risks for the chance to see her again. And now one of their hosts knows he was possessed and is desperate to find out what happened.

This was an enjoyable book and it was fun to see the different lives A briefly experiences. It gives a real variety of family situations, from an undocumented underage worker to the rich and bitchy queen of a high school. The book is really good for the diversity of people included, with A jumping between bodies of different races, different genders, and different sexualities. I loved that it showed the depressed sufferer as having serious problems with her brain chemistry that impacted A as well, rather than being dismissed as a “bad mood”. A themselves describes themselves as not really having a gender. Because they jump around each day, they don’t really feel either male or female but a bit of both.

Plot wise, most of the book is about A trying to stay with Rhiannon, but there is the threat of Nathan poking around, trying to uncover the truth. It’s more of a romance than an adventure.

I enjoyed this book. There were a couple of things that irritated me, including an event that happens near the end, so I won’t spoil it for anyone, but on the whole it was entertaining and enjoyable and kept me guessing. Four stars.

Review: Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes

Viral Nation coverViral Nation is a post-apocalyptic book with many of the standard hallmarks of a YA dystopian story. The world was ravaged by a deadly plague and now the few survivors have come together into a small number of cities. They are all reliant on a drug that keeps the virus suppressed. Without regular doses, the virus will return. In the cities, law is kept because a time portal lets the authorities know what crimes will be committed so that they can stop them before they happen.

Clover is an autistic girl who depends on her support dog Mango to help her through loud and crowded situations which are incredibly stressful to her. She is extremely intelligent and is accepted into the prestigious Academy, only to be told that Mango can’t stay with her. When she refuses to be parted from her dog, she is sent instead to be a time mariner – to travel through the portal to bring back information from the future. In her new job, she learns that the system may not be as perfect as she’s been told.

The story is told largely from the perspectives of Clover and her brother West, with occasional sections from their father’s viewpoint. Clover’s character is a real strength for this book. Her experiences and thought processes are clearly described and made understandable to non-autistic readers. The way she behaves feels completely genuine and there is a real emotional connection. That feeling of reality is also reflected in the way she is sometimes treated by other characters in the book because of her autism. There were times when I felt fury and indignation on Clover’s behalf about the unfairness of how she is treated and I wished I could leap into the pages and yell at the other characters.

On the other hand, I didn’t think the plot did justice to the strength of the main character. There were a number of plot elements that seemed really convenient. I don’t want to give spoilers, but in particular the way the time travel is handled seems to lack consistent logic and there are details that are revealed that make no sense and seem to be there only because it furthered the plot.

The book also suffered a bit for being obviously the first one in a series. There are a lot of significant plot points that go unexplained which is frustrating, but I know I do this in my own series, so I can accept this. I trust that these mysteries will be resolved in the second book of this two-part series. The second book is already out, so at least I won’t have to wait to get the answers.

This isn’t going to make it on to my favourites shelf, but it’s an enjoyable read if you like dystopias and especially if you like well-written representations of autistic characters. Three and a half stars.