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: 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.

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.

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.


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