Review: Retreats for You

I’ve spent the past week at a writer’s retreat in Devon called Retreats for You. I thought I’d post about my experiences.

The most important measure of success for the week is that I got a lot of writing done. I finished the final tweaks/cleaning of A Monster’s Kindness, wrote a synopsis, and submitted the manuscript to a publisher. I went through/edited/rewrote almost 28000 words of the second draft of the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy. I wrote about 9400 words of the first draft of the next book in the Codename Omega series. All in all, I’m extremely pleased with how productive I was over the week.

The retreat is in an old house in a small village in Devon where you’re shut off from the distractions of the outside world. There’s not much there in the village – a pub, a village shop, a handful of houses. Apparently you can go for nice walks in the countryside if the weather’s good and there are some National Trust properties within reasonable driving distance, but I (and the other writers there) spent our time shut up in the house getting on with our writing projects. Each bedroom has a writing desk, so we generally spent a good chunk of the day shut in our rooms writing. There were other places we could have gone to write – the dining room, the garden, a summer house, a studio across the garden, etc. – but the weather wasn’t great and the bedrooms afforded quiet and privacy.

The rooms didn’t have ensuite, although the owner of the retreat has plans to fit this for some of the bedrooms before the end of the year. When I was there, there were a couple of shared bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. This was fine, but the house was quite old and if I wanted to sneak to the loo in the middle of the night every floorboard in the place creaked like I was in a horror movie. I think the ensuites will be a big improvement, but everyone was reasonable about the shared bathroom so we didn’t have any issues with it and the owner made sure we had plenty of toiletries available if we wanted them.

Everyone was very friendly. The owner was a lovely lady who was nice and supportive and checked to make sure we were all happy. There were a couple of other staff who came to look after the place and cook meals who were also very nice. And the other writers were great too. There were four of us staying the week I was there – me, two other writers, and a non-writer who was there for the retreat part – but the place could hold up to six guests.

It felt very sociable as we would share evening meals together or could hang out in the living room and talk. Lunches and breakfasts were laid out buffet style, so we had the option of eating with everyone else at the table or taking the food up to our rooms and continuing to write. We spent the time talking about our projects and progress, sharing advice and tips, and have general discussions about writing and everything else. I think this was what really made the retreat. Yes, we got the quiet time to get lots of writing done, but it never felt isolated because of the shared meals.

The meals themselves were excellent. It was all home cooking with plenty of fresh vegetables, and the staff were happy to take into account allergies and preferences and other dietary requirements. I didn’t have a bad meal when I was there and there were flapjacks and cakes available. On Wednesday, the retreat opens the dining room as a tea room so we were able to get cream teas. I took mine up to my room and ate a lovely, homemade scone with jam and cream while working on my books. It was really nice.

While I’m talking about food, I need to make a special shout out to the butter. This was the greatest butter I have ever tasted in my life. It was made at a local farm and sold in the village shop, so I bought myself a roll of butter to bring home with me. The retreat deserves a full ten out of ten marks for the butter alone. I realise it may seem strange that I’m dedicating a whole paragraph of this review to butter, but I’m not kidding. This butter is amazing.

So on the whole, I had a great time at the retreat and got a load of work done. The biggest drawback of the place is the shared bathrooms, but as I said earlier, the owner has plans to put in some ensuites before the end of the year, so that issue should be resolved soon. It was a great retreat and I’m already planning on going back next year.

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Book cover Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi TaylorJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (UK link, US link) is a fun book that walks the border between science fiction and fantasy. For the most part, it feels like science fiction, with futuristic technology driving the plot, but there are hints at elements from mythology towards the end that lend it a fantasy air. It tells the story of St Mary’s, a historical research organisation with a difference. These historians actually go back in time. Technological developments allow them to go back and see what actually happened at major historical events, answer key questions, and take recordings of what they see.

The main character is Max, a historian who signs on as a trainee at the start of the book. She is surrounded by a mixture of academics, engineers, security staff, and medics, who are all disaster magnets and generally obsessed with getting a good cup of tea. It’s a lively story, told with a lot of humour and most of this humour comes from the interactions between the various characters. I did struggle sometimes to keep some of the minor characters straight, especially since they might be referred to by first name, last name, or nickname. There was a list of characters at the start of the book which served as reference and I found a big help, but it didn’t stop me from getting muddled now and then.

There are some dark moments in the book. While the tone through most of it is light, there are some dramatic events that stand in stark contrast and the emotion of these sections really works, probably because of the contrast. It makes them feel more raw and real.

On the whole, I’d say that this book is good entertainment. It’s an enjoyable read and very easy to get through. It’s a perfect holiday read for when you just want to relax with something amusing and fun. Where I think it struggles is in terms of a coherent plot. There are some plot threads that flow through the book as a whole, but there are times when the book feels more like a series of events rather than forming a solid whole. As the title suggests – it’s one thing after another. There are separate chunks of the book with their own focus and activities and I almost think it would have worked between if the author had made more of these distinctions, breaking the book into separate parts and treating each as a separate episode within the larger narrative. It did pull the plot threads together a bit at the end though, so this criticism is a fairly minor one.

I think the author assumed considerably more historic knowledge of the reader than I had. There were references to historic events which were largely explained. Some of these references I got, but others just passed me by. Someone with more of a background in history than I have would probably have enjoyed this more, as it was I could have done with a little bit more information about the things being referred to. Thankfully those that were more critical to the plot were explained, so it was mostly the off-hand comments and throwaway lines that I ended up missing.

Overall, I’d give this book four stars out of five. It’s not going on my favourites list, but I did enjoy reading it and I will look out for other books by the same author in the future.

Review: Day Hunt on the Final Oblivion

Day Hunt on the Final Oblivion cover artDay Hunt On the Final Oblivion by Meyari McFarland (UK link, US link) is set on a space station inhabited by millions of aliens of a vast array of species. A new commander arrives to take over the human habitat on the station, and the former commander takes him off to explain how things work around here. Except… they disappear. Esme Mullane ends up in charge of the investigation and the more she looks, the more suspicious everything becomes. As she digs deeper, it seems that she is facing an enemy she thought she’d left behind her.

This story is part of a series and there are references to events that have taken place in a previous book, but the important concepts are introduced as required so it’s possible to read this book without having any background knowledge of the earlier book. I think a few aspects of the book might have been clearer to me if I’d read the earlier book first, but I was able to follow this one without getting lost.

I really like Esme as a character. She’s tough, she’s dependable, she cares about saving the people around her without necessarily being nice to any of them. She has a tendency to give everyone nicknames, which actually worked really well because the story threw a bunch of characters at me and it was easier to keep straight the characters with nicknames like Bright Boy and Shiny than if I’d been bombarded with a load of names. Esme is slightly bitter and cynical, but manages to maintain a sense of humour and she will do what it takes to get the job done and that makes her a really easy character to root for.

The plot itself moves quickly. It’s action adventure with a touch of mystery thrown in. I think the mystery aspect might have had more impact on me if I’d read the earlier book because I was busy trying to figure out the way this world works as well as following the mystery.

One thing I struggled with was the names of the various races. A lot of the aliens had thoroughly unpronounceable names. Esme’s tendency towards nicknames did crop up a little bit, and one of these races was nicknamed the Fur Babies, which makes it easier to create a mental picture of them as well as giving a name I can pronounce. I would have liked it is some more of the major players in the story had nicknames for their species as well.

From the diversity angle, Esme is bisexual and there are a few other sexual identities represented, including a minor character who is in a poly marriage.

Overall, I’d give it four stars, but it’s possible I might feel more generous with stars if I came at it having read the first book in the series. It needed a better proof-reader though. There were quite a lot of typos and some threw me out of the story while I tried to figure out what was meant and that nearly dragged by assessment down to three stars.

Review: Acheiropoieta by UT Mosney

Achieropoieta coverBack in November, I wrote a review of Riptide by BC Matthews. Recently, I came across a mention of Acheiropoieta by UT Mosney (UK link, US link), described as a companion book to Riptide. Since I really enjoyed Riptide, I decided give this one a try. The two books are by different authors but set in the same universe and there are a few mentions in this book of “the British incident”, essentially referring to the events that kicked off the plot of Riptide.

Of the two books, I preferred Riptide, but given how dark that book was, I can see why some readers might prefer Acheiropoieta. Both stories deal with a relationship between a siren, sea creatures capable of bewitching humans with their voices and with a desire to eat human hearts, and a human. While Riptide explores an abusive and manipulative relationship, Acheiropoieta’s relationship is a lot more consensual, exploring the relationship between Niko and Jesse.

Niko is an artist, known for his gruesome religious work, including paintings of saints being martyred. For his work, he has earned the hatred of a local priest, and due to a copyright lawsuit he’s earned the hatred of a group of death metal fans, so angry letters, bricks through his windows, and death threats are a common occurrence. He takes this in stride, the prices of his paintings shooting up the more people complain about them.

For a painting of the death of Saint Sebastian, he needs to hire a model and this brings Jesse into his life. Jesse is an athletic, attractive young man interested in kinky sex, who wants a fun, no-strings-attached relationship with Niko. But the more time they spend together, the more Niko comes to care about Jesse, and to worry about him, because there’s something definitely wrong with him. Something that might come to light as Niko’s hate mail grows more gruesome.

I liked the idea behind this book and Niko was an interesting character. We get to see a lot of his background over the course of the book, but I didn’t really get inside the relationship the way I did with Riptide. The focus is on Niko’s past more than the relationship between the two of them, but even there it skimmed over a few areas. This was a very short book and I found myself wishing it was a bit longer, wishing we could have seen more of the interactions between Niko and Jesse to really get a feel for their relationship, as well as wishing for more background about certain areas. The hatred of the local priest for Niko is important to the story, but the book doesn’t really go into how that started (except that Niko has tattoos and doesn’t look the part of a religious man). There’s a friendship with Niko’s copyright lawyer that gets a single scene without being developed further. I would have enjoyed a longer book that took the time to explore these areas more, but especially to show us more of the interactions between Niko and Jesse.

There were also a couple of points where I thought the book needed another once-over by an editor. There were a handful of typos that crept into the finished manuscript, but there were also a couple of moments where the phrasing of the text left me confused as to what was going on and I had to reread those sections to try and puzzle it out, which through me out of the story. The worst of these was when a third character intrudes on Jesse and Niko and there was a reference to “the man” that I didn’t realise right away was another person and thought was referring to Jesse. Thankfully though, these moments were rare.

Overall my reaction to this book was a bit lukewarm – enjoyable enough but not going to make it onto my favourites list. I will look out for other books by this author, especially other books in this universe because, as I said, my main complaint with this book was that I wanted more out of it.

Three quick reviews

When asked what I want for Christmas or birthdays, I always give my parents a list of books so that they can pick a few items for that list to give me as presents. This means I don’t know precisely what I’m getting, but we can all be sure it will be books I’m interested in reading.

My Christmas book haul this year consisted of three books that had been recommended by others for the queer reading list: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, Peter Darling by Austin Chant, and Dreadnought by April Daniels. Rather than do a full review of each book, I figured I would do some quick summary reviews here.

In Other Lands (UK link, US link) – I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Those following my Tumblr may have noticed a number of posts commenting on this book as I was reading it. I’m still a little disappointed it didn’t end in a poly relationship between Elliot, Luke and Serene, but never mind, despite that disappointment it was a really good book. Elliot is taken through into a magical land and decides that he doesn’t want anything to do with swords and bows and horrible things like battles. He’d much rather be making peace and meeting mermaids. The problem is that Elliot, after a lifetime of being bullied and abandoned, has no experience of making friends and the abrasive nature he’s cultivated as a defence mechanism is going to drive away the people is really cares about. Elliot’s snark and sarcasm is fun to read, but because as the reader we can see his insecurities, it makes him endearing as a character even as it causes conflict with the people around him.

Peter Darling (UK link, US link) – This was a really interesting take on an old classic. It’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan, where Peter and Wendy were the same person. Peter returns to Neverland to avoid being sent to an asylum by parents who don’t understand his insistence that he’s really a boy. Returning as an adult though, he finds that the fun games of his childhood aren’t so fun anymore but Hook is still as interesting as ever. Hook, on the other hand, hasn’t really felt alive since Peter left and his return is awakening memories he’d thought were lost. It’s been a long time since I read Peter Pan, so I’m not sure how many of the ideas about Neverland were taken from the original and how many were created by Chant, but I loved the picture Chant painted of a world shaped by the imaginations of the humans who stumbled into it.

Dreadnought (UK link, US link) – A story that is equal parts coming out story and superhero adventure. Danny’s biggest concern in life is keeping her dad from figuring out she’s trans, but then the world’s most powerful superhero dies right in front of her, giving her his powers and in the same moment transforming her so she has the body she’s always wanted. Now there’s no way to hide that she’s really a girl, and she has to deal with her dad’s fury as well as coming to grips with her new powers. There’s a lot of real emotion in this story in the relationship between Danny and her dad and the book paints a painfully realistic picture of an abusive father, who doesn’t see himself as abusive because he never hits. One of the other things I like is the way Danny experiences sexist microaggresions for the first time (a boy feeling entitled to date her, a stranger on the bus telling her to smile, etc.) in a way she didn’t before her body changed. It’s an interesting way of showing how people are treated differently based on how the world perceives them. But before the dark parts of the book can drag you down too much, it provides fun in the superhero antics and Danny’s relationship with the vigilante Calamity. It’s a perfect balance of serious and light-hearted.

Review: Riptide by B C Matthews

Riptide coverRiptide by B C Matthews (UK link, US link) is a book that straddles the boundary between fantasy and horror, romance and drama. Mark, the protagonist of Riptide, is a part-siren who starts this book by luring his boyfriend into the sea and eating his heart. I was therefore surprised how quickly and how deeply I started to sympathise with Mark. The opening of the book shows him grieving and full of guilt for his boyfriend’s murder, but then he begins to grow hungry again, craving human flesh. When his friend Sam discovers his secret, Mark begs him to help, to keep him from murdering anyone else. From there, they quickly slip into an unhealthy and abusive relationship, with Sam using this secret as leverage to keep Mark under his control.

While the story is a fantasy novel, the relationship between Mark and Sam draws on a lot of patterns and behaviours of real-world abusive relationships, which makes the whole thing seem more real. Things like Sam demanded to know where Mark is at all times, making Mark depend on him, making Mark feel like he deserves the abuse, all come from a very real place and make it clear that the author has done his research on abusive relationships.

One thing I especially like about this book is that it doesn’t romanticise the abuse. Often in books that are shelved as dark fantasy romances, there are abusive patterns of behaviour that are glossed over or treated as though they’re something to aspire to. Here, the abuse is made clear for what it is. Early on in the relationship, Mark is warned off by an ex-lover of Sam’s. A friend is clearly concerned when Mark freaks out that Sam might learn of a minor incident that happened while on a night out and a character explicitly talk about the relationship as abusive. The book makes it clear through text and subtext that this relationship isn’t something that should be aspired to while still showing the emotions behind why Mark stays in a way that’s very understandable.

Even though Mark is a killer, we get to see the story from inside his head and that makes it possible to empathise with him. He is like an addict, wanting to taste human flesh again but knowing that he shouldn’t, craving the next hit and terrified of what will happen if he gives in to it. As readers, we see his struggle and sympathise with him, while Sam deliberately manipulates that struggle to inflict further harm and to make sure Mark stays locked in the cycle of abuse.

It’s probably clear that this is a book that deals with some very dark themes. If you have a history of abuse, this may be a difficult book to read. The emotions feel very raw and real. If you can deal with reading books on such a difficult subject, then it is well worth the read. The only criticism I have is that I wish the ending had been a little bit longer. I would have loved to have seen a little more about how the characters adjust to certain things that I’m not going to spoil for anyone. Other than that, it’s an engrosing and highly emotional read. Five stars.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbit coverA Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link) is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. The interesting thing to note though is that it follows a completely different set of characters. The main characters of Common Orbit, Sidra and Pepper, appear in Long Way, but only in a few places. On the flip side, the main characters from Long Way are mentioned a few times but they never actually appear in Common Orbit. This means it’s possible to read Common Orbit without having first read Long Way. If you do read the books out of order, then the events of Common Orbit will give spoilers for a single plot thread of Long Way but not the main plotline. I heartily recommend both of these books and you can tackle them in whichever order you choose.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a story about figuring out who you want to be and making a purpose for your own life – which doesn’t have to be a purpose given by an outside force. It has two plotlines interwoven. The “present” plotline is focused on Sidra, an artificial intelligence program recently, and illegally, installed in a kit designed to mimic a human being. She has to deal with her new body, the restrictions imposed on her by her programming, and the fact that getting caught would mean her death. She navigates her new existence with the help of her friends Pepper and Blue, and later a new friend Tak (not to be confused with a character of the same name in the previous book). The “past” plotline tells of Pepper’s history. She was originally Jane 23, one of a group of girls genetically engineered to work in factories, her entire life focused on the tasks she was given. At the age of 10, she had never seen the sky and had no idea that there was a world outside her factory. This plotline tells of her escape from the factory and how she grew up, learned the skills she needed to survive, and came to the place where she is first encountered in the previous book.

The two plotlines come together towards the end of the book with the events of the past plotline becoming critical to the present plotline.

While there is some action, the story is primarily a character-driven one, dealing with the emotional growth of these two people, how they cope with their circumstances, and how they choose to define themselves. There is an underlying layer around the subject of exploitation, with both Sidra and Jane created for the purpose of performing task for their “owners”.

The story is very well written so that it tugs on the heartstrings and makes the reader invested in the lives of these characters who have gone through some awful things. The book deals with the after effects of those things – with characters having panic attacks and nightmares, struggling to deal with massive changes as they come out of traumatic events into somewhere safe. Even in the rich and imaginative setting, the emotional reactions of the characters feel grounded in reality.

Well worth a read and, as I said at the start, you can pick these books up in whichever order appeals to you. I found I actually liked this book better than Long Way, which surprised me because I really enjoyed that book too. Five stars. This one has been added to my favourites list.

Audio Dramas

I usually recommend and review books on this blog, but story telling can come in many forms and I wanted to talk about some audio dramas that I would recommend.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy

This is an old series, the original incarnation of this amazing collection of things. Many people are aware of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (UK link, US link), but not all of them know that there was a radio play first. The radio play and the book (and the film and the TV series and the game) start off basically the same way, but then head off in different directions, so if you’ve read the book and its sequels you will still get a new story by listening to this radio play.

My dad had the whole original series recorded on cassette tapes when I was a kid, taped from the radio as it was broadcast, but the series is now available on CD (UK link, US link) as well as places like audible. The first two “phases” of the radio play are the original drama written specifically to be heard as an audio drama, the third and fourth are adaptations of the books which don’t work quite as well because what works on a page and what works in audio format are not quite the same.

The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, rescued from Earth moments before its destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out to be an alien. What follows is a romp of humour and silliness through time and space, with the characters ending up in utterly bizarre situations. It’s completely ridiculous and amazing. If you’ve read any of Douglas Adams’ books and enjoyed them, you will love the radio play.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve talked about this before and I’ve listed the series on my queer reading list even though it’s an audio drama rather than a traditional book. The premise of the series is that Oscar Wilde wrote his book based on a real person, who didn’t die at the end but continued living on as an unaging immortal. Dorian lives on through the decades, encountering (and often fighting) supernatural creatures while just trying to have a good time.

This series is a mix of humour and horror, made up of half hour episodes. There is some ongoing story between episodes, with some recurring characters as well as some plotlines that span multiple episodes (especially in series 3) but for the most part each episode works on its own so it’s easy to dip in and out of. Some of the episodes veer more to the horror side of things, some to the comedy side, with others feeling like fantasy adventures. Even the stories that are written like horror stories still have plenty of humour in them to keep them from being too dark. This series is a lot of fun, with some great characters and a lot of depth even for a character who is largely in it for his own pleasure.

I put it on the queer reading list because Dorian, the protagonist, is either pansexual or bisexual, as well as there being a number of other queer characters who show up, including the recurring character of Simon (canonically gay) and Toby (“the love of Dorian’s life”). One story has Oscar Wilde as a character, another has a character clearly based on Alan Turing.

Juno Steel (The Penumbra Podcast)

The Penumbra Podcast produce audio dramas and make them available over the internet for free. There are some standalone stories, but most of the stories they write fall into one of two series – The Second Citadel (a fantasy series involving knights fighting monsters, including a disabled knight and a female knight both desperate to proof themselves) and Juno Steel.

The Juno Steel stories are my favourite of their work, which is why I’ve highlighted them specifically here. Juno Steel is a detective written in the style and using many of the tropes of a noir detective – but set on Mars. The stories are a lot of fun, with great humour (especially in the interactions between Juno and the thief Peter Nureyev) and an interesting plotline. Most of the stories are two parters, with each part being between 30 minutes and 50 minutes long. These two part stories tell a tale which feels complete in itself – with beginning, middle, and end – but which tie into longer plotlines that span across the series. The plots themselves are interesting and engaging, but it’s the humour that brings me back to the series.

There are some fun characters. I’ve mentioned Peter Nureyev, a thief and conman with a dry sense of humour who has amazing chemistry with Juno, but there’s also Rita, a secretary who can seem utterly stupid in some ways but then show utter genius in others. She cares for Juno deeply and will make decisions to protect him whether he likes it or not (like locking him in his apartment when he’s ill).

Welcome to Night Vale

This is a podcast that went viral and became a model for podcast drama success. The series is based around the community radio of a fictional town called Night Vale and each episode has Cecil, the local radio presenter, talking about recent events, upcoming community activities, local issues, and similar. This all sounds perfectly normal for a local radio show – except that the town is strange in every conceivable way. Monsters run city hall, librarians are horrific creatures that eat stray readers, there’s a dog park no one can enter patrolled by robed figures, blood sacrifices are a part of everyday life, there’s a teenage girl whose entire body consists of a single hand, another teenager who changes shape every few minutes, angels who no one is allowed to acknowledge, an underground city beneath the bowling alley, strange lights in the sky, a glowing cloud on the school board, the list goes on an on, getting stranger with each episode.

Although many of the things that the episodes focus on could be seen as horrific, there is a lot of humour in this series. There is still the horror element (the Faceless Old Woman is incredibly creepy) but also romance between Cecil and the beautiful scientist Carlos, as well as some moments of drama (the scene where Cecil’s portrait of Carlos gets broken is heart-breaking) and some instances of excitement and triumph.

Each episode has a focus or plot, but there are also longer plot threads that flow through several episodes, as well as running gags and recurring characters, not to mention running gags and recurring characters that turn into important plotlines. There are a lot of episodes now, more than a hundred, so catching up on the back catalogue will take some time.

The show has also spawned two novels and a series of live shows that tour the world. The live shows have their own storylines so they can be listened to separately from the podcast and so that listeners of the podcast won’t be missing anything critical if they can’t attend the live shows. I’m excited to say that I have a ticket to the live show in London in October.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve just added some new items to my queer reading list – The Confessions of Dorian Gray (series 1 & 2, and series 3). I wasn’t sure about whether to list these as they are an audio drama rather than a normal book, but Amazon has them listed as audiobooks and the box sets have a record on Goodreads, so I figured they were close enough to count.

The stories are based on the premise that Oscar Wilde wrote The Portrait of Dorian Gray about an actual friend/lover of his, but that Dorian didn’t die at the end of the book and instead lived on until the modern day fighting demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural threats. Dorian’s sexuality isn’t specifically labelled but I would describe him as pansexual because he will sleep with anyone he finds attractive, whether they be man, woman, or blood-sucking vampire.

The first two seasons are a selection of stand-alone stories that take place over the course of Dorian’s long life, often jumping forward a few decades between them. The third season has a more long-term arc. The stories themselves are still episodic in nature but there are plot threats that span between them, including a romance arc between Dorian and a male character that crosses three episodes.

Dorian is written based on the hedonistic character of Oscar Wilde’s book. He gets character development over the series, but he remains in it for the pleasures of life – be they sex, drugs, alcohol, or murder. It’s very refreshing in this story how open Dorian is about his sexuality, talking about being attracted to different genders without any hesitation of qualms, but it’s hard to forget that he is also written this way to be amoral and his sexuality is part of that portrayal. It follows the trope of bisexuals/pansexuals being sex-crazed, party animals and there are times when Dorian talks about his “sins” (hopefully referring to all the murder, but vague enough that it could also be including his sexuality). Some listeners may have problems with this portrayl. However, what I think redeems the story however is that there are episodes and arcs where Dorian is shown to care for people as people. There are some stories where he falls in love and these vary. There’s a story where he falls in love with a woman, another where he falls in love with a man, and then there’s his relationship with the murdering vampire (lots of canon bloodplay kink in that pairing) who he describes as the love of his life.

The story also has minor queer characters who appear for an episode or two. One of my favourites is Simon, who has a fling with Dorian in one episode and falls in love with him only to end up jaded when Dorian doesn’t love him back and just perceived what they had as a casual thing. Simon ends up having a marriage of convenience with a lesbian so that he can get ahead in a business run by homophobes and so that she doesn’t get cut out of the will of a very wealthy but very bigotted relative. Then there’s the fact that Oscar Wilde himself is a character in the first episode. It’s clear that while Dorian is a horrible person (but a brilliant character) that’s because of who he is and not because he’s into men.

I do recommend this series as a great fun set of fantasy/horror stories. I haven’t listed seasons 4 and 5 on my reading list because I only list books I’ve read (or in this case listened to) but I have got those on order and suspect I will add those to the list once I’ve heard them.

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.