Interview With Susie Williamson Author of Epic Fantasy Return of The Mantra Interview Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am pleased to welcome the incredibly talented Susie Williamson. Author of Return of The Mantra, one of favourite books of 2018 to my blog for another female author spotlight interview.

DS: Welcome Susie. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview

SW: No problem Dan. Thank you for having me.

DS: Lets begin I am dying to find out more. For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you first got into writing?

SW: Growing up in a village in West Yorkshire, some of my favourite childhood memories are the Saturday morning ritual of visiting the local library, and returning home with a stack of books to devour. Stories are a gift, and I started writing them as soon as I could write, mostly pages and pages of adventures that never seemed to have an ending. For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to write a book. Life took many tangents, until I finally found the inspiration, and space, to get serious. I returned from four years living in Africa and settled in Exeter. While taking walks around the river Exe, I mulled over characters and scenes, and soon my door was covered with scribbled on post-it notes. The plan was developing, the characters taking shape, and 300 words a day around various shift work saw the first draft make progress. After several drafts I began to believe I might one day have a book I wrote nestled on my bookshelf. I still live in Exeter with my partner Kate, and my writing partner, Mia the cat. And with Return of the Mantra nestled on my bookshelf, I’m working towards seeing my second book sitting next to the first.

DS: Please can you tell us a little about your writing routine if you have one?

SW: I allocate writing days. I have a tendency to analyse, overthink, and get distracted, so writing on days filled with work or too many chores doesn’t work well. Writing days involve get up, get dressed, and turn the computer on by 8am at the latest. Aside from a midday walk, I’ll stay there until 5ish. I don’t have a problem with self-motivation, and find that just making a start, writing something, anything, gets the creative juices flowing. In the early days I found these stints more difficult to maintain, and disciplined myself by writing to a word count. 300 words at the very beginning, turned into 500 words and then 1000 words. When I hit 2000 words I stopped counting. Then, when I started editing with the mantra, every word must count, I realised that progress involved reducing the word count. Ultimately we all have to find our groove for what works for us, but make a start, write something. You can’t edit a blank page!

DS: You’re quite the globetrotter. How much has your travels impacted upon your writing?

SW: Living in Africa from 1999 to 2003 greatly influenced my debut novel. From the extraordinary sights and sounds of Khartoum to South African township life, the colours of the social and geographical landscapes inspired the world building in my novel. Living and teaching among local African communities, with drumming, prayer and ritualistic chanting the norm, magical realism didn’t feel too big of a stretch. Together with extraordinary African wildlife, the concept of the book, complete with its magic system, was born. Writing Return of the Mantra became a refuge to revisit Africa and relive cherished memories. When I read extracts now, I’m reminded of life in the rural South African township; the smell of bonfires, and cowhide soaking in big barrels of water, then being dragged out to dry in the sun ready for making drums. The seemingly magical rituals of the Sangoma, and the tight bonds between members of the community as they lived with the reality of poverty and violence. I’m reminded of the lush green landscapes and incredible wildlife, and the efforts to preserve it. And then there was the contrasting Sudan, with its arid landscapes, rolling haboobs and much needed rainy seasons. I’m reminded of the old woman roasting coffee beans over hot coals in the market, of the stern Sudanese soldiers upholding curfew, and a gift I received from a Sudanese friend – a matchbox with a big emerald green beetle inside. He told me a story that day, about a game he used to play as a boy, tying string to the legs of these beetles and flying them like kites. This childhood tale is just one example of how I used realism to add depth to the characters and environment in this land of contrasts

DS: What do you think makes a perfect fantasy novel and why?

SW: Primarily, as with any novel, I look for character driven storylines. Beyond that, imaginative settings with a plausible magic system. I look for protagonists that I can root for from the first, someone I can relate to and empathise with. I look for settings that spark my imagination, plot lines and character back stories with depth, and fantastical elements that make sense, that are explained, that have logic. I look for diversity among the characters, written with sensitivity and free from stereotypes, stories that are inclusive and represent our diverse societies. I think the genre of fantasy in particular gives us great opportunities to reflect this diversity.

DS: Your main protagonist Suni is a teenager. Yet you make her endure some brutal experiences. What made you decide to write these scenes for such a young girl, and what do you feel this brings to Return of the Mantra?

SW: I aim to write with representation of diversity in mind, to attempt to reflect society. For me, this is more than looking at gender, race, etc…, but more broadly, including life experiences. In writing my debut, I thought back on my life and the lives of women and girls I’ve known, both in Africa and here in the UK. In the UK I spent five years working in a women’s refuge, supporting women and children fleeing domestic violence and abuse, as well as prostitution. Domestic violence and abuse was discussed at length with students in the Sudan, and this, as well as sexual oppression and violence was sadly prevalent in the South African township. In writing a female protagonist, as well as a number of female secondary characters, I wanted to see women and girls represented, to include real life experiences, to not shy away from the suffering experienced in real life but to also include messages of empowerment. Some of these experiences are more common than many would like to believe, are uncomfortable subjects that are often, conveniently, brushed under the carpet, meaning those who experience them are ignored. Readers look for characters they can empathise with. I wanted to include characters that people I’ve known might be able to relate to.

DS: The relationship between Wanda and Suni are some of my favourite scenes in Return of the Mantra. They are written so beautifully. How much of the relationship did you have to plan out before you wrote it down, and how much grew organically as you went deeper into your fantasy world?

SW: In South Africa, I met a number of young children who were sadly orphaned. In a way, Wanda’s character came to represent these children. Although Wanda is not the main character in Return of the Mantra, his character was one I came to know first. He’s an orphan, yet I wanted his story to be positive; I wanted him to find people he would look upon as family. Suni’s role in caring for Wanda was established in the planning stages. From the first, this relationship was central to the overall storyline. As the story developed, their relationship strengthened, as well as their own roles developing independent of each other.

DS: Please can you tell us about your journey to being published and what made you decide to go with Stairwell Books?

SW: After a number of drafts, painstakingly combing through edits, striving to make the story as good as it could be, I began to realise that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Then came the doubts. Am I good enough? Can I write? Should I get a proper job? After scouring through a writer’s magazine I came across the writer and editor, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, offering a professional critiquing service. I dared to hit send, offering up my beloved manuscript for some objective feedback. I found this support invaluable and would definitely recommend writers to get their work critiqued professionally before sending it out. Then, with a tightened manuscript ready, I searched the Writers and Artists Handbook and came up with a list of potential publishers. The rejections came thick and fast, until I began researching companies more thoroughly and narrowing down the list of publishers. Looking into Stairwell Books, I came across a U-tube clip of Rose Drew. As well as writing and publishing, among other things, she is also a performance poet. Seeing her perform one of her poems in the clip, listening to the content, it struck me that she might like my book. And she did. Seeing Return of the Mantra with the others titles of Stairwell Books feels right. Among their selection they look for work that offers good representation and diversity, and stories that make you think.

DS: Return of the Mantra is book one of a planned trilogy is that correct? If so, what can we except in the next two books, and when are they scheduled for release?

SW: Yes, so far it’s a trilogy, but never say never to more… In books 2 and 3 expect new worlds and cultures, and storylines exploring how lands are connected. In book 2 I’m excited to see the development of Wanda’s character, in particular the impact of his past. Written as a split first person narrative, the story is predominantly told through Suni and Wanda’s differing perspectives. As for release dates, with life as in stories, the unexpected happens, and due to a recent illness there has been a delay in the writing. But progress is being made and book 2 is safely in the editing process, so I will keep you posted.

DS: Which author would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?

SW: I have a collection of Ursula Le Guin’s works which I’ve read and reread countless times. One of my favourites is the Tombs of Atuan from the Earthsea Quartet. The young priestess, Tenar, is born into servitude to the Nameless Ones, destined to live out her days in a dark underground world. When she first meets the wizard, Ged, she thinks he’s a thief. But instead of leaving him to die as she’s supposed to do, she begins to consider the world outside, and dares to question everything she’s been brought up believing. The truth turns her world upside down, forcing her to realise how she was controlled. The fact that she stepped outside, leaving everything familiar to venture into the unknown, is something that stuck with me. She was a heroine, not for brandishing swords and fighting wars, but for her strength in reclaiming her identity. Female characters that break stereotypes, unconventional heroines and heroes, are certainly motivators for my own writing.

DS: You tackle some complex themes in Return of The Mantra. Which ones were the most difficult to write, which were the easiest and why?

SW: The art of fiction is writing believable stories, characters and worlds, and fantasy is no exception. Writing scenes which portray the physical and sexual oppression of young women were the easiest in terms of believability, since I have significant work experience in this area. At the same time, they were the hardest scenes to write, since, like all character writing, they involved getting into character, seeing the experience through their perspective. This was an uncomfortable process.

DS: LGBT relationships feature heavily within the story which I adored. Why did you feel it was important to include this topic in your work?

SW: Readers look for characters they can empathise with. As a gay woman, I am no exception. LGBT people exist in all walks of life, therefore if a story with a cast of characters is to be representative of society, LGBT cannot be ignored. Over time I hope to see more LGBT in stories, in such a way that it isn’t defined as LGBT but rather as mainstream. This goes for all aspects of diversity. In the end, the more people who write, hopefully the more diversity we’ll see.

This interview was done over email. Thanks again to Susie for agreeing to do it, giving some amazing answers.

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Review of Chasing Graves(Chasing Graves Trilogy Book 1) By Ben Galley Written Dan Stubbings As Part of the Ben Galley Ultimate Blog Tour

Honoured to be part of the Ben Galley Ultimate Blog Tour. Thanks to Dave for inviting me.

Book Synopsis

Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to be its ruler is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is just the beginning.

My Review

Chasing Graves is the first book I have read by Ben. I pleased to report that it won’t be the last. Ben has created a unique world in Chasing Graves going beyond the realms of what I have encountered in the world of fantasy before. The setting of Chasing Graves is what grabbed my attention initially. Araxes. A sprawling city of dark corners, broken laws, and loose morals. Where you don’t know if every step you take is going to be your last.

Ben describes Araxes in all its glory from its ghostly streets to the ruling classes of the nobles that hold this ancient city in an iron grip. Ben taps into all the senses enabling the reader to create a detailed image in their mind of the history and myths that surround Araxes. This was what I enjoyed the most about the book. The reason being is because even though this is a city of magic, cutthroats, ambitious nobles, and politics that you will find in most epic fantasies. Ben uses these well-worn tropes and turns them on their head creating an interesting currency that shows a person’s status within the world he has created. Instead of it being gems, money, and land. It is copper coins and shades which are souls bound to the world after death as a final gift from the gods.

This was a great twist on the Greek myths of the ferryman and the River Nyx. Asking the question of the reader how important is your soul? These sections are written so well from the viewpoint of Caltro Basalt a thief and good for nothing cheat. After he becomes a shade himself when he is murdered on his first night in Araxes by a gang of soulstealers lead by the ruthless Boran Temsa. Caltro is the only viewpoint that is written in first person throughout a book that has several viewpoints. I loved this as it allowed me to explore Caltro’s mind as struggles to understand the reasons behind who he is, how he goes about seeking revenge, and fights for his freedom from his enforced enslavement. We hear all his frustrations, and root for him to succeed as life continues to throw obstacles in his way giving us a unique look into how precious the soul is and how even after death we suffer pain.

The other viewpoints Ben includes in this engrossing epic fantasy is the ruthless Soulstealer Boran Temsa. He was favourite character. I loved the description of him. Straight away I could feel his relentless anger, smell his poisoned sense of the world and taste his hunger to improve his social standing. He drew me in making me want to know more about the criminal underbelly in which he lives and thrives to dominate. He is played off against another wonderfully executed viewpoint the empress in waiting Sisine. She is one determined woman, who will stop at nothing to come out on top in the game of deception that is being woven at the heart of Araxes. Both viewpoints enable the reader to explore all sides of the divide that exists within both characters circles of interest and when they finally meet it is explosive.

The final viewpoint Ben gives us is Nilith. A character that is used to take us away from the intoxicating streets of Araxes. Allowing us to explore other parts of the world in which the narrative is set. I adored the hilarious conversations between Nilith and her dead husband shade that helps bring a much-needed humour to what is otherwise a grim tale. This viewpoint is executed to great effect making you follow the clues to discover what secret Nilith is truly hiding. There was at times a predictability to Nilith’s arc. Yet this didn’t affect my enjoyment or disappoint me when the reveal occurred.

Ben has been able to give some well-worn tropes a new lease of life and at the same time add his own unique stamp to the ever-growing landscape of epic fantasy. This character driven narrative does exactly what it says on the tin. It is perfectly balanced between fast paced action and well fleshed out characters that keep you coming back for more. A highly recommended dark fantasy. Well done Ben. You receive four stars.

I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review and to take part in the blog tour. This doesn’t affect my views.

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Review of God of Broken Things ( The Age Of Tyranny Book 2) by Cameron Johnston Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

An outcast magician must risk his body and mind to save the world from horrifying demons, in the heart-pounding epic fantasy sequel to The Traitor God.

Tyrant magus Edrin Walker destroyed the monster sent by the Skallgrim, but not before it laid waste to Setharis, and infested their magical elite with mind-controlling parasites. Edrin’s own Gift to seize the minds of others was cracked by the strain of battle, and he barely survives the interrogation of a captured magus. There’s no time for recovery though: a Skallgrim army is marching on the mountain passes of the Clanhold. Edrin and a coterie of villains race to stop them, but the mountains are filled with gods, daemons, magic, and his hideous past. Walker must stop at nothing to win, even if that means losing his mind. Or worse…

My Review

After finishing the explosive Traitor God. I was eager to discover how Johnston would continue the journey of the mysterious and at times mildly irritating Edrin Walker. Reeling from the truths he discovered about the Arcanum who rule Setharis and the deaths of two of his best friends in Traitor God.

We find Walker in turmoil hell bent on uncovering how many mages have been infected by the evil Scarrabus that caused the betrayal of a once trusted ally and the murder of his best friend. As the story develops Johnston peels back the layers of these soul sucking parasites giving us an in depth look into how powerful they are and the lengths they will go to accomplish their sadistic mission. I was pleased that this aspect of the narrative further developed. As I had several questions regarding the complexity of the Scarrabus. Where they originated, who is behind their involvement in the downfall of Setharis, and could they really be stopped.

Johnston provides this information in graphic detail making for a story that has you racing to keep up. What I enjoyed most about how Johnston revealed the information to the reader was that at no point did I feel as though I was been drawn in an info dump. The reveals were seamless, moving the plot forward at a neck breaking pace adding gruesome details to the already horrific image of the Scarrabus in my mind. The Scarrabus are a relentless manifestation of pure darkness in the world of Setharis and will have you reading through your fingers.

However, they are only half of the story that Edrin Walker finds himself at the centre of. Even though he pretty much saved Setharis by nearly getting himself killed. He still isn’t trusted by most of the Arcanum. Half want him dead and the others treat him as if he is a cobra waiting to strike. Plus, things are about to get worse when he is sent on a mission to help stop the invading army of Skallgrim with a bunch of mercenaries that would sooner put a knife in his back. First though he must navigate a region of snow-covered mountain passes that house some of the vilest creatures imaginable. Some Edrin though were long buried.

This is a highlight of the world that Johnston has constructed. His mythology is so vivid, and complex that as you keep reading you find yourself in a weird space between fearing these gruesome beings that are hunting our crew of misfits, and at the same time wanting to know more about them to discover the thought process behind this deep ingrained mythology. This is what I enjoyed most about Johnston’s writing. He enabled the reader to go beyond the ruined city of Setharis, which is described in such vivid detail in Traitor God, that you feel as though you would be able to walk through as if it were New York or Leeds. Sampling the sounds, tastes, and smells of this city steeped in magic and mystery.

That had its place in the narrative making for a fabulous murder mystery and revenge backstory that helped set up what is to come making you want to read book 2. However, what makes God of Broken Things better than Traitor God in my opinion is it moves at a faster pace tapping into the mythology and people’s fears in ways that doesn’t stall the plot. At times in Traitor God I found myself saying do we really need to know this. Drawing my attention away from what I was enjoying about the plot. I must stress this is only personal preference Traitor God was still one of my books of 2018.

God of Broken Things got rid of those problems, creating a vicious beast that made it feel as though a Ford Fiesta had been replaced by a Ferrari. Opening our eyes to a range of interesting sections of Edrin’s world that Johnston had only given us glimpses of in Traitor God. As Edrin moves forward within these places we begin to see a clash of cultures relating to how people hold suspicions and legends to their hearts. This causes several problems for Edrin as he grapples with his control over his own magic and how far he can take it before losing himself.

God of Broken Things is a fantastic end to what has been a spellbinding series of engrossing magic systems, vile creatures that still haunt my nightmares, and side characters such as Eva and Cillian that only help to enhance your enjoyment of this brilliantly written narrative. This is Grimdark with a delicious twist and I hope more people sample this dish. It receives 4 stars.

I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

Interview with Aurealis, Ditmar and Norma K Hemming Award Winning Author Sam Hawke Conducted by Dan Stubbings

In my ongoing quest to make more people read female authors and give them the spotlight they deserve. I am delighted to welcome Sam Hawke writer of the multi award winning City Of Lies for a insightful interview into her work.

DS: Sam thankyou for agreeing to do this interview. Its pleasure to have you on my blog today.

SH: Thankyou for having me. Its great to be here.

DS: So to start us off. For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into writing?

SH:  When I took friends home for the first time as a kid, the first reaction they always had was to gape at the books. Our lounge room had ten foot floor to ceiling bookshelves on the walls, and though this was completely normal to me, it was obvious that we had more books than any of our friends had ever seen in a house before. Which is to say, I grew up in a house completely stuffed with books, with parents who always read to us and took us to the library regularly, and siblings who were big readers; books were always such a critical part of my life that the second I figured out writing them was a thing you could do, it was the thing I wanted to do.

How seriously I took the idea that I would one day be published varied over the years. I was still in primary school when I made my first effort to write a terribly derivative Enid Blyton-esque adventure novel (an upgrade from the previous attempts at stapling lots of paper together and writing Very Exciting chapter names on each one, and not much else), and in high school when I started on my first (bad) epic fantasy. I did a lot of editing for other people during my 20s and then started writing again in earnest when I was home looking after my first kid, because by then I’d figured if I didn’t do it then I never would.

DS: Wow sounds like a fantastic upbringing! Numerous poisons feature heavily within City of Lies. How much research did you do on poisons? Why did you decide to make them so important in your story?

SH: The first idea I had for City of Lies was tied very closely to poisons; Jov and Kalina came to me, more or less as they ended up, inexorably connected to their family’s job. Poisons were part and parcel of the characters, and it was a secondary step to start building a world around them that would make sense of who they were – what kind of society would have the need for a role like that? Why were poisons, rather than any other kind of violence, the attack of choice for powerful people?

I did do a lot of research on poisons, especially naturally occurring ones and poisons that were popular historically (I even had a good wander through a few poison gardens in Europe, which was a lot of fun!), but only as an influence rather than an instructional manual. I used fictional poisons rather than real ones for a couple of reasons. First, since I was writing a relatively low-magic fantasy, I wanted an opportunity to make the world feel different, and flora and fauna are a good non-supernatural way of establishing that feeling of a world not our own. Second, I wanted my readers to be in the same position as the protagonists, so if Jov didn’t know what a poison was, I didn’t want readers to be able to think, ‘oh that’s obviously arsenic’, or whatever, and solve things for him. But having said that, a lot of my fictional poisons are based loosely on real ones to help me along! I left a few clues in the names so keen eyed readers can probably spot some similarities.

DS: What do you think makes a perfect fantasy novel and why?

SH: Ha, there’s no right answer to that. What I might look for in a story might be entirely different from what you look for, or my neighbour looks for, or even a past version of myself looked for. For me it’s always about capturing that indefinable combination of characters and a world I want to spend time with, and a story that makes me feel things that linger past the closing of the book.

Well, that any anything Robin Hobb wrote.

DS: You write some unique viewpoints in City of Lies. Telling the story from the perspectives of individuals tasked with protecting their families. What challenges did these viewpoints present? What made them appeal to you?

SH: Fantasy is full of assassins and warriors and magicians and heroes, and I love these staples of our genre as much as anyone. But I’ve always been very interested in the characters working behind the scenes – the advisers and sidekicks and friends, the Sam Gamgees of the equation – and I also enjoy reading characters who play outside the usual gamut of professions and skillsets.

In particular, having two main characters who lack combat skills was something I wanted to explore because even though I love me a bit of cool fighting, I do think there’s a cultural over-reliance on violence as a solution in fiction. In fantasy so many problems are solved through violent conflicts. If your main characters’ best skills are ‘taking reeeeeally good tasting notes’ and ‘listening quietly’ then you can’t write the same story as if they were bad-ass ninjas. It forces you to think about different ways of telling a story.

DS: Awesome I love that answer. What kind of writer would you say you are and why?

SH: Oh, a disorganised and often reluctant one, I suppose. I love the feeling of having done the work, and I love the buzz of an idea coming together in my head (or, as often happens, solving a puzzle I left myself earlier, because Past Sam is something of a jerk) but how I feel about the actual process of writing is frequently more like something out of “The Unstrung Harp” (Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful!).

DS: What topics would you like to write about in future and why?

SH: I never plan by topic, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you until I start.

DS: Which author would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?

SH: Ha, I can’t be objective about that – I sound like me to me. You guys will have to make your own calls about who I’m like in style. In terms of influence, I’m sure I’ve taken it subconsciously from all over the place! In terms of what I wish I could do, as I said before, Robin Hobb’s books are everything to me, just… perfection. Everything you need to know about character and consequences, you can get from reading her work. When I was knuckling down and imagining an actual career in this field I also found the array of wonderful SFF writers from the 90s and 00s – people like Katharine Kerr, Kate Elliott, Melanie Rawn, Guy Gavriel Kay, Lynn Flewelling – and particularly the strong crowd coming out of Australia like Sara Douglass, Trudi Canavan, Glenda Larke, Garth Nix and Kate Forsyth, hugely influential. Strangely enough, considering I only ever wanted to write SFF, I also learned a lot about pacing, tension and unreliable narration from reading old Alastair McLean spy novels in my teens!

DS: City of Lies is book one of a planned trilogy is that correct? If so, what can we except in the next two books, and when are they scheduled for release?

SH: It will be a duology, and the sequel, Hollow Empire, is currently scheduled to come out in December 2020, if everything goes well. Knock on some wood for me, would you?

This interview was carried out over email. Thanks again to Sam for agreeing to take part. Thankyou forgiving me such thought-provoking answers.

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Venus Present: New Single Sour

Today I am pleased to be promoting the brilliant new single Sour from Leeds Synth Rock 5-Piece Venus. Hold onto your hats you’re in for a ride. After loving their first single Deranged. I am thrilled that Venus have kindly asked me to help promote their mind- blowing new track Sour. They have produced a blinder with their gut wrenching guitars and bulldozing vocals that will shake you to your core. However don’t take my word for it why not check them out for yourselves on the link below. Trust me you won’t regret it.

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A Panel That Changed My Life At Newcastle Noir 2019 Written by Dan Stubbings

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Men In Black Panel with Paul E Hardisty and Luke McCallin

Most of you who have attended festivals will know that certain panels are more crowded than others. Several reasons can contribute to this. Big names, popular books, reach of the publishers. Yet on Sunday at Newcastle Noir I took a chance I went to a panel where I didn’t know anything about the two writers that were on show. I had never read their books, never interacted with them on social media they were complete unknowns to me. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that when I emerged an hour later I would be in tears hugging one of my best friends saying what the hell just happened in there? My whole world perspective changed forever. It hasn’t left my thoughts since echoing in the background as I go through my daily routines on repeat. I have spent days trying to figure out why this panel had such a profound impact upon me. Stirring my emotions to a level I have never experienced in a public forum previously. As I left the auditorium an electricity sparked in the air people showing facial expressions that pretty much stated what I was thinking inside my head. Never have I left a panel feeling so emotionally drained passed the point of no return.

It felt as if an invisible dam of rage had burst within me flooding out in uncontrollable sobs. I slumped in my chair hidden in the darkness. My head in my hands wondering how I could have been so blind. Questioning everything I had ever been taught, experienced, and absorbed within my thirty years of life. It was like I had been asleep and finally, I was awake. Alive with new possibilities that hadn’t entered my thinking until that moment. That may sound abit dramatic but it’s how Paul and Luke made me feel opening my eyes to a world I hadn’t visualised. Asking me to challenge my own assumptions, look beyond the system I had been subjected to since birth and form my own opinions with new information.

Now to look upon Luke and Paul you would be forgiven for thinking that they are two unassuming guys. Two people you could meet in any bar in the world and happily have a drink with. Paul dressed in a black biker jacket, quietly spoken yet one of them people that then they do speak you listen. Luke reminded me of one of my old university lecturers in his shirt and jacket silently moving among the crowds taking it all in. However once they began discussing their writing, life stories, and what they were passionate about. A spell was cast over the audience enchanting everybody in attendance. All of us hanging on their every word. You could have heard a pin drop. A silent sombre entering the atmosphere not to be disturbed. As they shone light into the darkness peeling back our eyes and ears asking us all to look deeper. At no point however did you feel preached to. I felt as though I was having a pint down the pub with a long-lost friend and didn’t want to leave.

I guess that is the power of stories when they are told properly they speak to you, stir your emotions, and get you to think beyond what you know. That is what the Men in Black Panel did for me. It has changed my whole worldview as a writer and individual. All I would like to say to Paul and Luke is thank you for making me cry for making me feel alive again. Your panel will never leave me. I think I speak for everyone who was there when I say this the tears felt good. I needed them and so did everybody else.

 

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Review of The Unauthorised Biography Of Ezra Maas by Daniel James Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

Ezra Maas is dead. The famously reclusive artist vanished without a trace seven years ago while working on his final masterpiece, but his body was never found. While the Maas Foundation prepares to announce his death, journalist Daniel James finds himself hired to write the untold story of the artist’s life. But this is no ordinary book. The deeper James delves into the myth, the more he is drawn into a nightmarish world of fractured identities and sinister doubles, where art and reality have become dangerously blurred…

Review

I will be honest when I was first asked by Dan James to review his book. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas. I was unsure whether it would keep my attention. It wasn’t what I usually like to read. However, as they say don’t judge a book by its cover. So, I agreed, I am so pleased I did as it has become my book of the year so far for 2019.

From the first page I was swept into a world of red-herrings, encrypted clues, and a life that breathed as soon as you read the first sentence. What I loved most was how Dan was able to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Immersing the reader into a world of mystery and biography writing that the great Hunter S Thompson would of been proud of. It is gonzo journalism at its finest. As the pages ran away from me. I found myself constantly questioning whether I was reading about a real person. Did Ezra Maas totally exist? If so, why hasn’t his disappearance made national headlines? Why hasn’t his family been shouting from the rooftops? What do they really have to hide? These were only a sample of the questions that formed in my mind as I devoured this book in two sittings.

Dan’s voice for a debut novel is charming making you trust him, even though there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head screaming don’t he’s lying. This is a major strength of his writing, and enables him to abuse your trust leading you down paths of drama, intrigue, and double bluffs that makes for an enjoyable thrill ride. Asking you to piece together the numerous clues he presents, and decipher the deeply layered story of the mysterious Ezra Maas. From the premature death of his brother which has a profound affect upon him, to Ezra been compared to geniuses such as Einstein and Mozart. Dan shows us both sides of Ezra. This allows Dan to have your undivided attention from the off as he takes you on a whistle stop tour of Europe and beyond. Making you sprint along the banks of the Seine in Paris to escape an unseen danger to Newcastle’s northern charm. He bares it all without reducing the quality of the plot.

This book bleeds uniqueness. I adored how it was written using many different methods to entice the reader from interview transcripts, diary entries, and James’s own personal notebook where he gives you previously unseen information on the enigma that is Ezra Maas. Including unseen photos and his last known location. These clues only help to feed your excitement further. As you get closer to your goal you begin to wonder could Ezra be an alternative personality for James. A persona he uses to escape from the struggles in his own life. This is what I mean by Dan blurring the lines of reality. Ezra feels real to me. I got lost in his world feeling as though I was talking to an old friend. It makes you wonder where does Ezra Maas end, and Dan James begin or vice versa.

This is a book that you could read countless times and it would still have you questioning your own sanity. I didn’t want it to end. Dan has captured the essence of what it truly means to be a gonzo writer exposing a character to the world that’s undeniably believable. Take a bow Mr James. You get 5 stars. I would give it more if I could. Simply incredible. Read it now it will blow your mind. Dan is the new Hunter S Thompson. I can’t wait to see what he produces next. A fresh new voice in the world of fiction.

I received a copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

Review of Shallow Creek from Storgy Books Written by Dan Stubbings

Review

After being such an avid reader of Storgy magazine. I was intrigued to discover what the crew of devilish dark minds that run the publication had in store for us from their annual short story competition. I am pleased to say they haven’t disappointed. Enabling readers to face their fears and go into a world entirely of their own making. The Storgy team challenged us to drip our toes into their eerie playground of Shallow Creek. A town with a past many hadn’t survived all we were given through the generous invite of the mysterious Mallum Colt was a character, a location, and a special item that had to be involved at some stage throughout your story.

This blank canvas of options has allowed for unique and original tales to be born. With writers constructing their haunting babies along the way. Diving far into this imaginary town in search of its hidden treasures. This collection is a masterpiece and does the world of story and imagination proud. So strap yourselves in while Uncle Dan tells you all about it.

Sometimes when I open a collection of short stories, I find myself reading out of order. This is usually due to several different reasons it maybe because a certain writer is present, and I have read their previous works and want to see if they have expanded on an existing world or character, or it could be something as simple as a title of a particular story catches my eye. However, with Shallow Creek I found myself glued from the first page to the last.

The reason why this was the case with Shallow Creek is because I experienced something that hasn’t happened since I read Interview with a Vampire for the first time. Every story ignited a fire within me that forced me to absorb every word, dissect every paragraph, and begin my own investigation into every plot twist as if I were an expert detective sent to close an unsolvable crime.

The beauty about this anthology is that even though it keeps a steady pace maintaining your interest throughout. You don’t feel as though you are missing any important details or discarding themes that may become significant later on. Ross, Tomek, and Tony the editors have done an incredible job of assembling this intertwined narrative that exposes us to all corners of Shallow Creek from Devil’s Gorge to the asylum. Introducing readers to a cast of charismatic characters that you hope to never meet in a dark alley by the time you finish your fingers are bleeding with excitement.

What makes this collection stand out in the never-ending sea that is the horror and supernatural genre is the themes that have been highlighted within the context of this spooky old town.

One story I couldn’t stop reading was Behind These Eyes by Alice Noel. A haunting story told through the eyes of multiple characters that centres around the illness dementia. However not all is as it seems and the story takes on a sinister twist. Alice opened an insight into the loneliness and terrifying world of dementia in a way that I haven’t encountered. Weaving threads of deception that make you question whether you ever truly know a person? By the time I finished my hands were shaking.

Arrowhead by Daniel Carpenter was another that stuck with me long after I had finished reading. Its my favourite story within the collection. For me it just has everything mysterious characters, intrigue, and that sense of mystery that allows it to transcend several dimensions of the horror genre. Told through the eyes of a dead-beat Lenny. We are taken into a world of addiction and obsession that gets under your skin. As more of the narrative was revealed you closed your eyes. I adored how Dan was able to fully submerge me into the world he had created in his mind. It was that one story that when I finished I had to reread it straight away just to revel in its mastery. Bravo Dan Bravo.

I am not going to discuss every story in the collection as I would be here all night. There is however one final gruesome tale I want you all to know about. A story called Backwards by Adrian J Walker. A murder investigation with an ending I didn’t see coming at all. To say I was afraid by what Adrian produced wouldn’t even begin to cover it. I will say this though whatever you do don’t read this one in the dark. It reminded me of a demonic cross between Jack Reacher meets the Walking Dead.

This collection has all the aspects that makes me love this genre. From creepy murder mysteries to abandoned shacks in the middle of nowhere. It has something for every reader of the weird and wonderful delving deep into the masters of collective narrative from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice. Yet at the same time creating a fresh perspective on what is achievable within the unexplored depths of the dark.

It receives five stars. Congratulations to all the writers you have constructed something totally unique. I adore Shallow Creek and hope to experience countless visits.

I received a copy from the publishers in exchange for an honest review this doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Tales from the Shadow Booth Volume 3 Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis-

Welcome to The Shadow Booth, the international journal of weird and eerie fiction.

Volume 3 is published as an ebook and a 200-page mass-market paperback.

Volume 3 contains stories by: Nick Adams, Judy Birkbeck, Raquel Castro, Armel Dagorn, Jill Hand, Richard V. Hirst, Verity Holloway, Tim Major, Annie Neugebauer, Robert Shearman, Gregory J. Wolos.

My Review

Tales from The Shadow Booth is a collection of short stories that I can’t wait to read every year. Volume 3 was no exception. Two hundred plus pages of eerie mind -bending tales that have a way of seeping underneath your skin, forcing you to consider every twist and fright long after you have turned the final page. As it says on the cover enter the Shadow Booth and you will never be the same again. I personally don’t think there could be a more accurate statement about how each volume changes you as a reader and a writer.

Dan Coxon has done an incredible job with the editing compiling a delicious blend of stories that leap off the page. They are so vivid that you feel as though you are watching a collection of movies, with each new tale adding something extra to the mix. What I enjoyed most about this dark tome was that it stayed true to the previous volumes yet at the same time added a new branch to the tree of horror and supernatural. Venturing into landscapes that explore a wide range of cultures and shed light on stories that include love, lost, violence, and the entire spectrum of humanity.

As with all collections there were stories that I enjoyed more than others. However, what I will say is that this volume makes you take your time as you sample each offering delivering a buffet of visionary delights that rival the best in the genre.

Some of my favourite stories from the volume were:

The Cherry Cactus of Corsica by Verity Holloway

It’s a story I have reread numerous times.  It’s a story of concern, experiments, and blood. It hooked me from the first paragraph. It centres around a young teacher who notices some odd behaviour being exhibited by a troubled pupil. As he digs deeper and tries to understand what could be causing it, we are drawn into a world of poisonous plants, strange professors, and beings that genuinely send a shiver down your spine. Verity has been able to create a story that taps deep into readers fears. Tales that used to keep you awake as a child. Yet present the reader with a different idea on some of the oldest beings in the arena that is horror.

I adored how she delicately pulled back the veil between our world and theirs. Making you hold your breath as every character trait and flaw was exposed in a frenzy of delicious prose that made me yearn for more. I didn’t want the story to end. I think she could early turn it into a full novel. If you read one story from this collection read this one, it will change how you view the world.

I Have a Secret by Raquel Castro

This is a hauntingly beautiful story of a boy’s changing relationship with his sick mother and neglectful father. That develops into a compelling yet worrying picture of how all family dynamics change over time. Enabling this narrative to be told from the child’s perspective adds a greater sense of vulnerability and naivety. That adheres to the theme of the volume of showing how we as humans are sometimes not aware of the damaging impact our actions have upon young minds. The supernatural element which runs parallel to the main thread within the story, only heightens the interest as you struggle to protect this child from what is about to happen next.

The School Project by Richard V Hirst-

This story gives you as a reader what you look for when you enter the supernatural and weird genre. What I mean when I say that is it makes the ordinary day to day things take on a sinister twist. The story opens with the author setting the scene an isolated school in a village that has a murky past is about to undergo an inspection from an outsider.  What appears to be your ordinary secondary school soon turns into something much darker. The story reminded me of a mashup between the Manchurian Candidate and Van Helsing. The dark undertones ripple out well beyond the narrative and make you question the origins of your own school days.

Cousin Grace by Jill Hand-

This piece of horror sinks it teeth into you as soon as you run your fingers across the first sentence, causing a sensory explosion within your mind. What appears at first to be unsolved family trauma takes on many faces, forcing the reader to doubt every word that is being fed to them. It is an expert example of how to write an unreliable narrator and opens the collection beautifully.

This volume builds on the legacy of the previous two issues. Pushing the boundaries on what the horror and supernatural community thinks belongs in their field and tastes. It receives four stars and I encourage any readers and writers of creepy disturbing stories to pick it up.

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

Review of Beyond the Black Gate by Joseph Sale Written by Dan Stubbings

Review

Gods of the Black Gate was one of my standout novels for 2018. A delicious dark abyss of murder, manipulation, and creepy that made the dark demon within my heart sing. To say I devoured it would be an understatement. I inhaled it in two sittings. I personally thought that it stood up brilliantly as a standalone. However, I did have some unanswered questions about Rogers and the man that has haunted my dreams Craig Smiley.

Therefore, I was delighted when Joseph informed me he was writing a sequel called Beyond the Black Gate and did I want a review copy. I jumped at the chance. I couldn’t wait to fall back into this oasis of dark treats that hasn’t left me since the first book.

The good news is Joseph has outdone himself. Creating a plot and world that oozes off the page in a lake of light and dark exploring character flaws, environments, and chilling dialogue in such detail that engages readers from the first page. Taking them on a mind-bending adventure that straddles multiple genres from horror, fantasy, and detective mystery. As chapters unfolded, I found myself imagining a lovechild mixed between Frankenstein and The Harry Bosch books written by Michael Connelly, as our cast of disgruntled, damaged, unwanted heroes try to understand their own views on the reality they find themselves in.

Every chapter added something interesting pulling you deeper in the abyss of madness that Joseph has created. Whether it was a new complicated character, landscape, or a peer into the minds of the multiple viewpoints Joseph utilises throughout the narrative. You couldn’t help but be enthralled as he opened windows to ideas you quite simply didn’t know were possible. Joseph has been able to go beyond the perimeters and troupes of specific genres, and engineer something that is a work of art.  I can’t wait to see what he produces next. He is fast becoming one of must-read writers I love his words.

Beyond the Black Gate opens with Rogers down on his luck sat at a bar not knowing what to do next. His nemesis the evil mastermind Craig Smiley is gone murdered by his own hand. His years of torment at the hands of Smiley finally at an end. He should feel complete. His demons extinguished, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right.

This thought takes us as a reader into world of wonders that ensnares the senses, and opens dark corners of our own minds that we never knew existed. As he brings back the demon that is Craig Smiley. This revelation scared the shit out of me. How could Joseph bring him back. What was going to be the next chapter within his demonic story? It had me both intrigued yet at the same time worried that Joseph would stray away from what makes Smiley so terrifying. I shouldn’t of been concerned. Joseph adds another layer to Smiley that makes him more manipulative and cunning than I ever thought possible as he goes on a quest through his own personal hell in search to understand why the gods betrayed him?

An element I wasn’t expecting however and was pleasantly surprised by in the evolution of Smiley was the relationship he creates with a character called Pheona. A mysterious woman that has her own story to tell. Joseph gives hints throughout about her true identify however your never quite sure if he’s telling the truth. I greatly enjoyed this subplot as I tried desperately to join up clues, as both her and Smiley hide their true natures from one another making you wonder who would be the first to strike a deadly blow. This produced an interesting dilemma, allowing for some detailed dramatic scenes which added wonderful characteristics to both individuals, making you as a reader explore this dynamic further to find out how it all ends in this ever-changing landscape of disillusions and fears that rapture the fundamentals of Smiley ideology.

As I continued to turn the pages, I couldn’t help but begin to draw comparisons with Dante, and Egyptian mythology when reading Smiley’s trek through the vivid and desolate landscape of his self-imposed hell as he is presented with his sins. These scenes are written so expertly that you feel as if you’re Smiley encountering these threats having your mind invaded with dark thoughts as you fight to become you once again.

Every character’s story from the first entry in this universe is developed with quirky and explosive consequences that drove the plot to a frightening but satisfying conclusion. I adored how Joseph showed our characters different struggles whether it was survivor’s guilt, or alcoholism. Joseph can explore these complex issues with sensitivity and the precision of an expert surgeon. Taking us into his world effortlessly, moving the goalposts of what we should except from fantasy and mystery.  This is a delicious cake of complex character development and world building that you hope never ends.

I love Joseph’s voice and how he makes shivers run down my spine with the smallest amount of description. Beyond the Black Gate is a wonderful sequel, and answered all my questions. You won’t be disappointed well-done Joseph. 4.5 Stars.