September’s diverse book giveaway

Every Heart a Doorway coverEvery month in 2016 I’m giving away a different science fiction or fantasy book that highlights some form of diversity (preferably more than one). September’s book is the charming Every Heart a Doorway which I have reviewed in a previous blog post.

I chose this book for its LGBTQ representation. The protagonist is asexual, and actually uses this word to describe herself which is astonishingly rare. Another major character in the book is trans. There is an incident of transphobic language from one of the other characters but this is clearly addressed by the narrative and the other characters as being unacceptable behaviour.

If you want a chance to win this book, head over to Tumblr and reblog the giveaway post before the end of September.

Review: A Rational Arrangement

A Rational Arrangement coverA Rational Arrangement by L Rowyn is a fantasy romance set in the land of Paradise, which has very rigid societal expectations. There are any number of unwritten rules about what is acceptable behaviour for men and women of different ranks. Unfortunately, Wisteria has never been good at unwritten rules. She needs things to be explicitly spelled out for her. So when a meeting is arranged between Wisteria and Lord Nikola on the understanding that they might get engaged, Wisteria turns up with a detailed document spelling out the expectations on both a business level and a personal level. That her document discusses details around procreation and the possibility of infidelity shocks both sets of parents, but Nik is intrigued and amused by her openness. He wants to know more about this woman who can be so forthright on forbidden subjects.

His growing fondness for Wisteria however does nothing to diminish his attraction to the handsome Lord Justin. Here the rules are more clear and a sexual relationship between men is considered abhorrent so the two must keep their love affair secret. Nik is not the only one drawn to Justin though – Wisteria finds herself equally attracted and wishes society would let her marry them both.

Much of this book is focused on the romance between the three characters, but there are some elements of action and suspense in the plot. It should be noted though that if you’re looking for adventure and battles in every other chapter, you might want to look elsewhere. If you like the idea of character-driven romance however, this is a great book.

I love the character of Wisteria. I found myself relating to her confusion and frustration at the illogic of many societal standards. She is an open and honest character who just wishes people would be more up front about things. Nik is also an easy character to like. He’s dedicated to trying to help people, and he just wants to do the right thing. It’s easy to understand why his people feel such loyalty to him.

The only character I didn’t particularly like was Justin, but he grew on me as the story progressed. My main problem with him was that he viewed certain groups/classes of people as inferior to him – he actually says, “I hate apologising to inferiors,” when he realises he mistreated an employee. This is probably excellent characterisation for a lord in a fantasy novel, but it made it hard for me to like him as a person. On the other hand, his loyalty towards Nik made him endearing and some of his actions towards the middle of the book won me over a little.

Some of the plot twists were so well sign-posted that I could see them coming a mile off, but they were unusual enough that I have no problem forgiving them for being obvious. With so many books full of love triangles, I was happy to read this different take on the trope.

From a representation standpoint, I thought this book did extremely well. The word “autism” is never used but Wisteria is clearly written as autistic. The way this is addressed in the book makes it clear that this isn’t an illness or a problem to be fixed, but simply a different way of being.

Nik has the ability to magically heal mental illness and this meant that issues of mental illness come up frequently in the background of the story – there is mention of a character who used to be suicidal, a character goes through trauma and suffers from what is clearly PSTD (again, the modern term is not used), while there are background characters suffering from everything from anxiety disorders to full-blown hallucinations. These are all treated in a highly respectful way.

All this is on top of Nik’s bisexuality and the issues of sexuality that are addressed.

While the book was a little predictable in places, it was highly enjoyable from start to finish. I will be on the look-out for other books by this author. Four and a half stars.

Review: Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

Nightblade by Garrett Robinson was a reasonable fantasy novel. The protagonist is the teenaged Loren who suffers abuse at the hands of her father and dreams of escape. When she comes across the wizard Xian she promises to help him if he agrees to take her with him. She runs away from home with only a few supplies and a dagger that had belonged to her parents. Unfortunately, Xian is running from the authorities and, when he abandons her, she is those same authorities want to capture her for information. Every time she tries to get away from one group of people, it seems to land her in with another dangerous group.

There were a few things that annoyed me about this book and the main one was that Loren was naively trusting. The first couple of times, this could be forgiven but she never seems to learn. She continues to trust people she’s just met or to accept as truth the words of people who’ve betrayed her before. It was frustrating that she doesn’t ever seem to grow as a character.

There were a few little details that jumped out at me as I read and compromised the realism of the settings. At one point, Loren is learning to ride and is told not to sit so straight – she’s told to slouch lower. A five second google search will tell you that the advice given riders is the exact opposite. She also runs around for a long time with her bow strung. Again, a few seconds on google will tell you that wooden bows shouldn’t be kept strung. These sort of details are really minor but each one makes the story seem a little less real. It’s easier to accept wizards and magic if the rest of the world feels solid.

The story raises a number of questions as the book continues – largely around the dagger Loren carries, but also around why Xian is hiding, and the identities of several other characters. These answers are never given. I can understand leaving some mysteries for a sequel, but the book reached its ending without giving a satisfying conclusion or any answers to the most pressing questions. At least some semblance of an explanation should have been offered at the end.

It’s decent enough as a fantasy adventure, but nothing that leapt out as amazingly original. 3 stars.

Author Interview: Garrett Robinson

I interviewed Garrett Robinson about his fantasy novels. Unfortunately, I had some technical issues with the call recording so what I’m sharing here is only the first few minutes of the interview. I apologise that I’m not able to share the entire interview.

If you want to know more about Garrett’s books, you can check out his website at http://garrettrobinson.com or find his books on Amazon.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway coverEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is an original and interesting take on the classic fantasy concept of children stumbling into magical worlds. The protagonist, Nancy, has recently returned from the Halls of the Dead and she came home changed. Her parents, believing she was kidnapped, are concerned for her health and are convinced to send her to a special boarding school. To Nancy’s surprise, all the students (and some of the teachers) are people who have been on similar adventures to her, travelling to worlds of many different types. She meets students who fought goblins, danced with skeletons, or ran across rainbows. Here they can talk about their experiences and know they will be believed. But this sanctuary isn’t safe. When students start getting killed, Nancy finds herself one of the prime suspects. As a recent arrival and someone who lived among the dead, the other students are wary of her. If she is to win their trust, she must convince them that she isn’t the killer. All the while, she dreams of returning to her magical world.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a different take on a classic concept. The variety of magical worlds is hinted at and I loved the idea that there are people at this school treating the travel to these worlds like a science, trying to figure out how it all works and understand what it all means.

The characters are interesting and each feels like a genuine person with their own personality traits, desires, and opinions. The style of the story is quite simple and makes for a pretty quick read, but that simplicity adds to the magic of the world. It feels a bit like hearing a fairytale in places.

From a diversity standpoint, it does well. The protagonist is asexual and this is clearly addressed – as well as being a reason for the isolation she felt that led her to find her magical world. Her sexuality added to her character and never felt stereotyped or disrespectful. There is another character in the story who is trans, which is again treated in a respectful way by the narative (though there are incidents of transphobic language from another character).

On the whole, I highly recommend this book. It’s a simple read but well worth it. Five stars.

 

July’s Diverse Book Giveaway

The Defectives coverOver on Tumblr, I’m continuing my series of giveaways of books that showcase diversity. For July, I’m giving away The Defectives which I’ve reviewed in a previous post. This book has a disabled protagonist, multiple disabled and neurodivergent characters, as well as racially diverse characters.

If you want a chance to win this book, head over to Tumblr and reblog the giveaway post.

I’m still looking for suggestions of other books to include in this campaign, so if you’ve read a great SF&F book that features diverse characters, let me know in the comments and I’ll take a look.

Review: The Defectives

The Defectives by Burgandi RakoskaThe Defectives cover is a story that manages to be both fun and deeply emotional. It made me laugh out loud in a few places and cry in others, sometimes only pages apart.

Juniper is a teenager with telekinetic abilities, all set to go to a prestigious school for superheroes – until she is left paralysed from the waist down in a car accident. She has to figure out who she is now that her expected future has shattered. Juniper is sent to a school for kids with disabilities as well as superabilities. At first, she feels that the school is like a prison, but she finds friends who can help her learn how to move forward.

The plot of the book follows a number of standard tropes, including the gruff mentor who turns out to have a heart of gold, and the protagonist who learns she’s no less of a person now that she’s disabled. Despite the occasional cliché, The Defectives remains an interesting read, with touches of humour in places, and some very genuine emotions in others.

The author is herself in a wheelchair which helps make Juniper’s experiences have serious impact. I really felt like I understood what Juniper was going through as the narrative explored her emotional journey. There are ups and down, moments of depression and times of joy, creating quite a journey that’s rooted in something very sincere. I can imagine readers who find themselves in a similar situation getting a great deal of comfort from this character’s experiences.

There are some background concepts that I wish were explored more. The story is set in a world where superheroes are common, and there are mentions of a war that took place without much explanation of its history or impact. At one point, it’s revealed that all people with superabilities have to take a test to determine if they will be heroes or villains. This seemed a very strange concept which is never really explained and I can’t imagine how the test could be administered accurately – people give the answers they know are expected to get sorted into the right house on Pottermore, so of course people would choose the “nice” answers to get tested as a hero. This whole idea jarred me out of the story because it seemed very strange and my questions about it are never addressed. I thought that the whole book would have made more sense if this aspect were just edited out. None of the other points jumped out as much as the morality test but there were elements of world-building I thought could have done with deeper explanations.

Where it does extremely well however is in how it addresses subjects of disabilities and accessibility in ways that would be relevant to the real-world. There are background details mentioned here and there, such as a bell tower chiming quarter hour marks to help blind students tell the time, that show how the school is built with accessibility in mind. There are moments when the disabled students show annoyance at how reporters ask a non-disabled person to speak for them instead of asking the students themselves, or when a character compares a broken leg to a long-term disability. All these touches add to the realism of an otherwise fantastic world.

On the whole, I did enjoy this story a lot. It’s a quick read that gets right to the emotions of the situation. Despite the gaps in the world-building and the occasional predictability, it’s still a book I would recommend.

Four stars.

Author Interview: Mina Kelly

tease coverPlease start by telling us a little bit about yourself. 

Start with the hardest question, why don’t you! I’m a writer, a reader, a knitter (I’ve made actual clothes now, so I feel I can say this even if I still don’t bother with tension squares!), an adoptive Northerner, a geek and a little overwhelmed by life 🙂
Now tell us a little about your writing. 

Most of my published work is romance, erotic romance, or erotica. A lot of readers who don’t read any of the genres might assume there was a large overlap between the genres, but they are more distinct that outsiders realise. It’s not just about how much sex there is, it’s about what drives the plot and where it ends. I’m happy writing most pairings – my work ranges from f/f to m/m/m and does include the occasional m/f for variety! – though I usually come back to m/m in the end.

You have just had a new short story published. What’s this one about?never before touched by cupid
So Never Before Touched by Cupid isn’t new, exactly, but was published a few years ago by Forbidden Fiction as a standalone short, and is now being republished by them in a classical themed anthology: Timeless Lust. It’s an approach they take with a lot of their works, allowing them to offer a subscription model for readers that want it while also making stories available to purchase. Never Before is a little piece of real person fanfic, essentially, but with real people that most readers only know as vague and distant names: Horace, Virgil and Propertius. I’m a latin geek, and started shipping Virgil and Horace some years ago. I was inspired to include Propertius thanks to the introduction to a volume of his poetry that waxed lyrical about how attractive and manly he was and how the other poets would have been filled with a mix of jealous admiration and fatherly pride when he entered the scene. I was… skeptical. So I wrote out my scepticism.

How did you pick your nom de plume? 

My online handle since my teens was been Minerva Solo – Solo for Han Solo, and Minerva from a time a friend assigned our group goddesses. I didn’t want to use it for my original fiction, but I took Mina from Minerva, and Kelly from Grace Kelly, because I’d recently watched Rear Window.
inescapable

Do you have a favourite character in your stories? 
Probably Jared from Inescapable. He’s a risk taker with a strong survival instinct, someone who loves easily and lets go even more so. He’s currently a smuggler who specialises in biological material, but he’s turned his hand to a lot of things over the years, and has trouble admitting to himself that maybe he actually wants something a bit more stable, and legal, as he gets older.

How about a favourite moment? 
I don’t know that I can pick one. Jared’s escape from prison in Escapable. Toby chasing a car on foot in Flirt. Barnabas finding a naked man on the beach in Tease. Moments that change the direction of their stories or push their plots towards the conclusions.

Is there anything that’s surprised you since you got published? 
I think the speed with which the small ePress bubble burst caught me out, and not just me. Amazon took self-epublishing from a labour-intensive niche to the push of a button almost overnight, and it did strange things to the market in all directions. Competition splintered into millions of individual authors, instead of a handful of publishers, and once price stopped being dictated by retailers readers diversified in terms of what price they were willing to pay for what quality. I’ve loved working with small presses, but even the most established ones are closing down or collapsing under the weight of the competition, and I think it’s going to take some new and impressive tactics to stay ahead of the new market.

Are there any authors who particularly inspire you? 
I’m really into Courtney Milan’s historicals right now. She writes such a great, diverse range of heroes and heroines and uses them to explore pieces of history that often get overlooked in the genre. She makes me want to write one, but I’m still looking for the right plot (one which mostly plays to the historical knowledge I already have, so I don’t disappear down the research rabbit hole and forget to actually write the thing!)

What advice would you give to someone just getting started writing books?never before touched by cupid
Think about the career you want to have with them: where you want them to be available, what kind of control you want over them, how long you’re willing to keep going if no one reads them. It’s like snog, marry, avoid, except it’s art, career or hobby. You can do all three, write different books for different reasons, but remember to wear the right hat for the right book.

What are you working on at the moment?
Mostly knitting! I have various nieces and nephews on the way, so that’s taken precedence recently. My ‘to finish’ manuscripts folder at the moment includes an m/m football romance, an m/f holiday romance, and a third selkie book.

If you want to know more about Mina Kelly’s books, you can find them on her Amazon page. She also has a website at http://solelyfictional.org

Review: Improbables

Improbables coverImprobables by Jonathan Charles Bruce tells the story of Abigail, a newly qualified journalist who moves to a new town to start a job at the local paper. With her love of YA fantasy books, she can’t resist her curiosity when she takes a photo of what looks suspiciously like a werewolf. This leads her to investigate the mysterious loner who lives outside of town and draws her into a world of the supernatural, but werewolves and vampires are just the start. There’s something dark lurking near this peaceful town.

I enjoyed the book but it took me a while to reach this point. The story starts very slowly. First, we have a prologue which has no impact on the plot. We witness the birth of some of the key characters but this doesn’t add anything to the book. Then we get the exciting saga of Abigail worrying about finding a job, hunting for a job, finding a job, starting a job, trying to set a good impression at her new job… and eventually, finally, she encounters her first supernatural. Even when she meets a werewolf and vampire, the action of the plot still seems a long time coming.

These early chapters also include several moments where Abigail criticises, either in her head or in conversation with other characters, the supernatural books she supposedly loves. She describes it as hate reading at one point. These sections felt like the author reaching out of the pages to say, “My books are so much better than the usual rubbish in this genre,” while insulting the tastes of his target readers. The chapters are also intersperced with excerpts from an online forum in which a horrible man describes his acts of revenge sex on women who had scorned him in the past. These sections are unpleasant to read and it’s not until a good way through the book that it becomes apparent why they’re included. Combined with the slow start, these sections of writing almost made me put the book down more than once.

By the half-way point in the book though, I was gripped. The plot had taken off by then and I was drawn into the mystery of the source of the threat. The pace dramatically improved in the second half of the book and kept my moving forward.

I’ve spent a lot of time criticising this book, so let’s focus on some of the things I liked: I liked the character of Abigail a lot. She’s an interesting person, determined to prove herself. The fact that she’s young and trying to demonstrate her abilities in work shines through and it’s built on a very real foundation of having to prove her capabilities as a black woman in a largely white small town. Real world issues bled through into the supernatural adventure in places. She felt very real and I had a lot of sympathy with her.

The author created some unusual supernatural creatures. While the first two “improbables” encountered follow the tropes by being a werewolf and a vampire, the others show interesting novelty. I especially like Stevie – a compound creature made up of thousands of spores acting in unison.

I liked the villain of the story. Well, perhaps liked is the wrong word, since the villain is utterly horrible – but utterly horrible in a way that felt familiar and human. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I thought the way this was handled was extremely clever.

So, if you can survive the slow pace of the first half of the book, the second half makes a very enjoyable read.

Three and a half stars.

Review: The Song of Achilles

soaI didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. I wasn’t even sure I’d enjoy it. I saw a few posts on social media about how great it was and figured I’d give it a go because I do like Greek myths. But I was already familiar with the story of the Illiad. How good could a book be when I knew the major plot twists going in?

How good? Heart-breakingly good.

If you know the story of Achilles and Patroclus your heart will be breaking by about the halfway point of the book from the sheer, unstoppable tragedy of it all. Song of Achilles is a re-telling of the classic Greek myth showing the relationship between these two young men, from their early lives, through falling in love, into the battle at Troy, and all the way up to their tragic ends. It is a deeply personal story that adds depth and fills in details of backstory that the original myth skims over.

And the book did manage to keep me guessing, because I know the story of the Illiad. I knew going into this book about Achilles having a major sulk when Agamemnon stole a girl from him and I kept wondering how on earth that would make sense in the context of this book, where it’s clear Achilles only had eyes for Patroclus. I was wondering that long before she ever showed up.

The pieces from the classics fit together in new and beautiful ways.

This book is amazing. If you like Greek myths, go and buy this book. And buy a box of tissues as well because you’re going to need them. Hell, I was ready to cry for Thetis at the end and she’s horrible!

Five stars.