Review of Penny Black (Ben Bracken Series) By Robert Parker written by Dan Stubbings

Today I am honoured to be hosting, and finishing the blog tour for Penny Black by Rob Parker. Thanks to Hannah Groves from Endeavour Media for inviting me.

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Book Synopsis

I’m dead, for all intents and purposes. Nobody knows I’m alive…

Ben Bracken is on the run for his life. Keeping a low profile from the agencies seeking to silence him, he finds refuge in the quiet town of Horning. Working in a boat yard and lodging with an older couple, Eric and Dot, Ben uses this time to plan. He needs to escape, and realising his only chance will reveal his whereabouts to some unsavoury characters, he plans every detail. Little does he know, even that won’t be enough…

Just before he walks away, murder strikes the quiet town. Ben cannot leave until he is sure that he has not brought any further trouble to the townsfolk. Will he be able to exact revenge? One thing is certain, there is a lot more going on in the town of Horning than meets the eye…

The Penny Black is action packed from beginning to end, keeping you guessing right the way through.

Review

Sometimes as a reader you can get lost in words. Clues become to easy to figure out and you find yourself wondering when is the next great read going to come along. Don’t get me wrong you enjoy the books helping you to unwind and discover great characters. However you are able to put them down and return later. However when you do find that book that keeps you up until dawn, and makes you so late for work that you scream at every red light its so worth it. It makes you remember why you love reading.

This is the feeling I had whilst I was reading Penny Black by Rob Parker. The moment I turned the first page I knew all my plans were cancelled. This book will make you forget to eat, sleep, and disconnect all your devices because trust me you won’t want to be interrupted. I am a huge fan of the Ben Bracken series they are must buy for me when they come out. Penny Black has elevated this series to an entirely new level. The growth of Bracken’s character and personality has enabled Rob to write several chapters of intrigue that creates a story that is fresh and new for the crime genre.

The book opens with Bracken retreating for a life in the country as he tries desperately to escape his old life. He has a new identity, working as a mechanic fixing boats on a shipyard, living with old age pensioners in their old ram-shackled boathouse, drinking beers in the local when he finishes his shift. As he tries to bury the demons of old and find solace in his new life. Unfortunately for Bracken however he is about to be drawn into a dark world that will rock his new found home to the core.

I particularly enjoyed how Rob used the setting to create a sense of atmosphere within his narrative. A backdrop shrouded in shadows that almost takes on a mind of its own. Always lurking in the background as Bracken searches its every corner treading carefully to see what he can unearth. Automatically it makes you question what is occurring behind the smiles and sense of community that the locals are trying to project. Immediately Bracken is suspicious and soon finds himself embroiled in a strange undercurrent of darkness that has been hidden in plain sight. What he thought was safe and predictable soon becomes something else. From sinister teenage gangs terrorising the neighbourhood, drugs, and a brutal murder that isn’t what it seems. Bracken is launched back into his old life with unexpected twists and encountering some faces he thought he would never see again. Everyone is a suspect with secrets to hide. Forcing Bracken to look deep inside himself to find the answers he needs.

The reason I feel this novel has given new insight into Bracken’s character that makes you want to stick by him even more is because Rob strips away the tough ex agent stereotype, and dives straight into his vulnerabilities. Some of my favourite moments within Penny Black are when Bracken is reflecting on his life choices, his regrets, and his plans for the future. Rob has given Bracken a license to be afraid, to want to move away from his troubled past and create a new life for himself. An aspect of the story that I kept returning to was the relationship between Bracken and Eric. One of the old age pensioners Bracken is staying with. Eric kind of becomes the father Bracken never had. Rob writes this relationship with a subtlety and tenderness that pulls on your heart strings, with both men hiding secrets from one another. Yet as the story progresses they come to rely on each other in times of struggle. This enables Rob to show the reader their flaws and makes for an interesting subplot as the plot develops.

The more Bracken investigates the worse the secrets become. Turning the village into a battleground, that has you on the edge of your seat to see which of your favourite characters will be left standing when all is said and done. As each secret is revealed you’re left reeling as Rob makes think you have discovered the answer only to add another twist and fool you once again. This is a testament to Rob’s story- telling ability because even though I have read all of the previous Bracken books at no point did I feel I was missing any major backstory. The story was seamless transporting you into Bracken’s mindset, and environment without missing a beat. Rob gives us emotions in spades throughout Penny Black exposing a tenderness to Bracken that has many scars but wants to heal. I’ve heard some people say that Bracken is challenging Reacher. Well for me in Penny Black Reacher’s is relegated into second place. Bravo, it’s a home run its like James Bond meets The Godfather I bloody loved it. It receives 5 stars.

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

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Interview with Roger McKnight Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am delighted to be interviewing Roger McKnight. Author of Hopeful Monsters a wonderful collection of short stories recently published by Storgy Books.

Thanks for taking the time to do this Roger I really appreciate it.

DS: 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?

RM: I was born and raised in downstate Illinois. I worked as a teacher in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico before coming to Minnesota for grad school. I now reside in Minnesota.  I’ve always been a writer, though first as a student of journalism (whose courses I didn’t much like but learned from) and then on scholarly research projects.  I’ve always written fiction.  In recent years I’ve worked with a bit more determination at getting my fiction published. Composing stories was my dream even in childhood.

DS: Addiction and Obsession are two key themes throughout the collection. What made you decide on these themes and how did you shape your stories around them?

RM: I consider addiction, if by that is meant drug or alcohol abuse, to be a key theme only in “Rain Shadow” and “Iago.” What interested me most in those stories was not the substance abuse per se, but the mind-set that led the characters Raul and Nick down that path.

Obsession as a theme occurs during the stories, in my opinion, only in the sense that the world has been experiencing troubled times ever since Vietnam.  Most of us, as I see life around me, are eager, if not desperate, to find answers to those troubles, both world-wide and personal. In some cases, as in “Forgetting She Forgot”, they search insistently for answers to life dilemmas (resulting, in this story, from a disaster such as Desert Storm) that aren’t wholly of their own making.  If the present-day search for answers can be described as an obsession, then we’re all probably obsessed to one degree or another. Being troubled by what’s facing us is what flesh is heir to.

By the same token, one can empathize with the anxiety experienced by Jake and Al in “Basic Skills,” even though they keep their feelings under wraps below the surface.

DS: You have lived in both Europe and the US? What are the differences in cultures that interest you? Which have helped inform your writing?

RM: I’ve lived in Scandinavia and the US.  Differences do exist, no doubt about it, but they are hard to put a finger on in brief. In general, one feels more respect for human dignity in Scandinavia, on both the personal and governmental levels.

I tried to write that attitude into “Out the Window,” in which the Swedish employees and the Swedish government have every seeming reason to toss the hospital patients out in the cold, especially the ones who came to Sweden from other countries, and some Swedish employees would not be against doing so.  Yet society chose to keep, house, and protect the helpless.  In that story, Laila has a lot to teach Ewen.

As for Hopeful Monsters as a whole, reviewers tend to remark that the stories all hold out some hope in the end. That softening influence comes from my experience of Scandinavian life and culture, an attitude that’s not wholly missing in Minnesota and will be needed greatly as the state becomes increasingly multi-cultural.

DS: I adored how you drew history into your stories, to reflect how turbulent the world has been over the years. How much research did you do for each story?

RM: For some stories, much research was needed. With tales like “Iago,” “Out the Window,” “Down the River,” and “Sixteen,” I read a lot and talked with people who were there and experienced it.

For example, what happens/happened in a crack house; what was the history of institutions for the developmentally challenged in Sweden; how could the Civil War Era’s Old Slave House have existed in a free state like Illinois and why would Abraham Lincoln have visited there and dined with the illegal slave owner while blacks were held captive in the rooms above them; what was it like fleeing Somalia and coming to the US (I got that straight from a 15-year-old boy in Minnesota).

For other stories, I used my own memories from living in the US and Sweden as events happened, including hearing detailed descriptions of washing diapers by hand, as in “Speed Clean” (though I had to read up on Speed Clean washing machines, even if my own mother owned one).  Fact and fiction blend together and suggest the truth.  Research and lived experience worked in unison.

DS: Where there any moments when you were writing the stories that you thought I am maybe going to far? If so in which stories and why?

RM: In the expository sections of the stories I never made any authorial claims to the truth or any favouritism. I made a conscious effort to address vital issues without taking an authorial stance. Some of my characters do take definite stances, but throughout the stories I worked at maintaining a sense of ambiguity about the status of their attitudes.

In “Victoria” Sylvia agrees to do what she can to help Tori, but she isn’t sure if it’s the right thing to do.  She ends the story wondering if ‘good’ is always the same as ‘right’.  In “Loving Sören” Karen and Josh have definite opinions on sensitive issues, but they are willing to reserve final judgment on them while trying to figure out if they truly understand Kierkegaard or not.  “Yesterday’s Storms” brings up the debate between creationism and scientific proof.  That debate is never settled in the story; the issue ends in ambiguity. Ex: Gerome first argues for an expanding universe, but he ends up describing a closed universe.  It’s not clear what he, an astronomer who’s expected to know, does believe in, except the beauty and mystery of what’s out there.

No, I never went too far. I made an honest effort to address important issues without being polemic.

DS: Would you mind talking a small about your writing style please? As I find it extremely unique. I am curious to learn how it developed and where it first came from?

RM: I can try out some comments on my writing style, but I’m not sure exactly what to say. First of all, I didn’t know it’s unique.  If it is, that’s surely because I think in an unlikely combination of academic circumspection and straight-to-the point southern Illinois rural dialect mixed in with some Minnesota neologisms (a contrast I vaguely touched on in “Speed Clean”).

Also, I read lots of Scandinavian literature, in which understatement and chariness of comment are common.  There’s kind of an iceberg effect in much Scandinavian lit, in which as much is left unsaid under the surface as appears above it. What one critic called “the art of the half-told tale.”  I hope my stories tell more than half, however. I try to be somewhat subtle.

DS: Who would you say were your writing influences growing up? Which writers would you encourage everyone to read and why?

RM: Steinbeck.  Hemingway.  Edwin Arlington Robinson.  Winesburg, Ohio.  Spoon River Anthology.  T. S. Eliot. Thoreau.

People should read: the Swedish novelist and dramatist Hjalmar Söderberg (1879-1941). 

Try his novel Doctor Glas.  It’s about a medical doctor, who goes about committing the perfect crime.  And his collection of stories called in English simply Short Stories.  You might have to get them through a library or very good bookstore.

For a perfectly structured drama, I suggest Miss Julie by the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg (1849-1912).  Study how the drama’s skilfully put together.

DS: Finally what is next for Roger McKnight?

RM: Another collection of short stories.  Maybe a novel.  I’m fishing around.

Thanks to Roger and Storgy Books for allowing me to do this interview. The interview was carried out over email. Thanks Roger for your insight answers to my questions.

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You can buy the book now! On the link below:

HOPEFUL MONSTERS: Paperback & Ebook available now!

 

Interview with Daniel James Author of The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas Conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: After giving his incredible debut The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas five stars, making it one of my reads of the year so far. I am delighted to welcome Daniel James to my blog for an in depth interview about his work. Welcome Dan thanks so much for doing this.

DJ: My pleasure Dan thank you for having me.

DS: Let’s get started

DS: 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?

DJ: I’m an author and journalist from Newcastle upon Tyne. I live by the sea with four cats and a collection of empty bourbon bottles. My first novel, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, was published at the end of 2018, but I have been writing seriously since I was a teenager. Becoming a published author has always been my dream. I ended up studying literature at university and went on to become a journalist on the basis that it would help refine my writing and bring me into contact with lots of different people and the stories of their lives. It did exactly that – and what began as a day job turned into a decade-long career. I was nominated for several awards, including UK Young News Writer of the Year and worked as a freelance journalist in London and overseas. I spent a few years as an investigative journalist and gained no shortage of enemies for asking difficult questions and trying to discover the truth. By the end, I was mainly working on arts and culture, having finally been allowed to gravitate towards my own interests, and got the chance to write more experimental, creative non-fiction-style interviews and features about musicians, writers and artists. Despite the relative success of my career in the media, I still consider myself to have been an ‘accidental journalist’, as my heart and mind were always set on one day becoming a published author and writing my own books.

DS: Where did the idea for Ezra Maas first develop? How did you know it was the correct idea to choose for your first novel?

DJ: It began with a phone call in the dead of night. That was my introduction to Ezra Maas. I can’t be sure of much that happened after that, but I know that’s where it started. Everything else – how I would tell Maas’s story and how I came to realise my own place in the narrative – came together very quickly after that. I knew straight away that I didn’t want to write a traditional biography – it had to be experimental, a combination of fact and fiction, drawing on different genres, different sources and different media. Walking the streets of Newcastle late at night, in the hours after the phone call, the novel presented itself in my mind, almost fully formed, as if it already existed somewhere out there in the dark, and my task was simply to bring it into this world. It was a strange experience in many ways, like a kind of possession. When Beckett was writing his trilogy of prose novels in the late 40s, he described the experience as ‘the siege in the room’ and that’s exactly how I felt. The novel was being transmitted to me – channelled through me perhaps – and I had to commit it to the page and in doing so, make it real. That’s how I knew it was the one – the idea that would become my first novel. Never before or since, had I been so excited to start writing and so driven and committed to write every day until the work was done. Even now that the book has been published, I still open it sometimes and that electricity is still there.

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

DJ: I think everyone’s perfect novel is different. Books have this incredible ability to be both universal and deeply personal. When you read a novel and you disappear into that world, it’s ‘your’ experience, just you and the world of the book. It’s spiritual. And yet, the same book can be read by thousands, perhaps millions, of people, each connecting with the text in their own unique way. Stories provide an escape from reality, but the truths they contain also help us see the world with fresh eyes and new clarity. Books don’t take us away from the real world, they help us reconnect with it by blocking out the noise. Fiction is a doorway to the truth.

DS: You have poured a lot of yourself into the narrative, so my question is where does Dan James end and Ezra Maas begin?

DJ: You could say the book is as much my autobiography as it is Ezra’s biography. It’s definitely an authentic snap-shot of my life while I was writing the book from 2011 to 2018 – or at least, as I’ve been described, ‘permanently hungover, flirting with danger, disappearing and reappearing at will’. At the same time, I feel like the more I talk about myself, the more I write about myself, the less I reveal. This is something I learned from Ezra and reference in the novel:

“Maas didn’t have to hide his secrets, he casually scattered them on the ground for all to see and watched the trees grow up around him. For in a forest of signs nothing could be seen clearly at all.”

DS: What kind of writer would you say you are and why?

DJ: A good one, I hope.

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

DJ: Everything. All of the ideas I have in my head and all of the ideas I’ve yet to have. I wish I had more time to write all of the stories I’ve dreamed up over the years, but I’m going to have to prioritise those particular narratives – like The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas – that demand to be told. By the end, I hope to have written novels in many different genres and styles and to have created a body of work that continues to be read and enjoyed long after I’m gone. Ultimately, I just want to continue writing books that I would love to read. I did exactly that with Ezra Maas and that will remain my guiding principle when choosing which novels I’m going to write over the next few years and beyond.

DS: You use several different methods to get your message across. From interviews to journal entries. What made you decide to use these techniques to such wonderful effect?

DJI remember a story about the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s manuscript for The Third Policeman being lost to the wind after the boot of his car opened and it blew out, almost as if the story was too much for the page. I always thought of the truth about Ezra Maas in the same terms. Ezra Maas, as a subject, was too big to be contained by a single genre or format. When you’ve got a subject as complex and multi-faceted as Ezra Maas, a traditional biography was never going to cut it. Others tried going down that road and failed. I had to create something as experimental and unorthodox as Maas’s own body of work.

I also wanted readers to be able to investigate his life and death alongside me, to read through the letters, interviews, official records, newspaper clippings, emails, phone transcripts, and try to separate fact from fiction. By including authentic archival material in the book, the sections between chapters feel almost like a live ‘case file’ through which readers can play detective themselves before returning to the main narrative. You’ve then got the chapters from the Maas biography itself, covering 1950 to the present day, alternating with my hardboiled-style investigation in 2011-12, as I travelled around Europe and the US, searching for the truth about Maas’s disappearance. Finally, you have the work of my editor and the 500+ footnotes. Like the man himself, the book has many layers and many different faces.

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

DJ: I don’t really compare myself to anyone. You begin to establish your own voice and your own style, every time you write, even if you’re not aware that it’s happening. The journey to being published is about discovering that voice and acknowledging – sometimes only after your novel is out there in print – that you have a style that is yours and yours alone. You don’t necessarily get to choose your style, as much as you might aspire to write like your literary heroes – it develops naturally the more you write and the more you read. There are writers whose work I love and admire, who have definitely influenced my work, but they’re all very different, and my writing style is nothing like theirs, at least on the surface. Their influence goes much deeper, to the level of ideas. You’ve got to find your own voice and your own style just as they found theirs. I wouldn’t compare myself with my favourite writers or to anyone else. Comparisons are for readers and critics to make and I’m always interested to read different perspectives on my work. I’ve been very lucky to have had some excellent reviews from very knowledgeable readers and they’ve all had their own unique insight into the book and on my style as a writer.

In terms of my favourite writers, it’s a very long and eclectic list that I’m adding to all the time. Samuel Beckett. Raymond Chandler. Paul Auster. Thomas Pynchon. Jorge Luis Borges. James Joyce. Philip Pullman. Ross MacDonald. James Lee Burke. Cormac McCarthy. George Orwell. Philip K. Dick. Bob Dylan. Patricia Highsmith. Virginia Woolf. Kurt Vonnegut. Elena Ferrante. Joan Didion. Hunter S Thompson. Leonard Cohen. Wes Anderson. Bryan Talbot. William Burroughs. Alasdair Gray. William Hjortsberg. Marc Behm. Ted Chiang. Flann O’Brien. Stanislaw Lem. Michael Connelly. Franz Kafka. Clarice Lispector. Charles Bukowski. James M Cain. Joel and Ethan Coen. Alain Robbe-Grillet. Martin McDonagh. Edgar Allan Poe. William Goldman. Aimee Mann. David Lynch. And many, many others.

DS: How do you create your characters? 

DJ: They come from real life, from history, from the world, from the people around me, from my own mind, everywhere. I draw a lot on personal experience, but I also try to be open and receptive to the stories taking place around me. There are potential characters everywhere.

DS: What’s next for Daniel James?

DJ: Tangier maybe, during the Interzone years. Or maybe a return to Los Angeles or Paris. I have unfinished business in both cities. Tokyo would be somewhere entirely new. I don’t know where I’ll go next. All I know is that one day soon, I’ll disappear. Sometime later, I’ll be found watching the world from a cafe or a bar, with a cold drink on the table and a notebook in my hands, looking out for the next story.

I’m working on a new novel now. I’ve actually got four separate books, all at different stages, underway simultaneously (which is madness obviously) and more planned after that. I’ve had an idea for a collection of short stories too. The ideas never stop. It’s just a case of deciding the order I’m going to write them all and that’s more of an intuitive process, like divining for water. You can’t force it, but when you know, you know. It’s like being struck by lightning. You can’t miss it.

This interview was carried out by email. Thanks so much to Dan for giving up his time and producing some spellbinding 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 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.

 

Interview With Fantasy Author Shona Kinsella – A new female fantasy voice you should be reading. Interview carried by Dan Stubbings

Shona Kinsella is the author of Ashael Rising, Petra Macdonald and the Queen of the Fae. As well as monthly fantasy serial illustrated Joe Slucher. This interview was done over email. She is the first author I had the privilege of interviewing. I am honoured to have her on my blog introducing you all to her work. 

Ashael Rising Cover

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer or your works would you mind telling us a little about both please? As well as how we support your work?

SK: Hi, I’m Shona Kinsella and I’m a fantasy author. I have a few very different projects that you can read and support. I have a dark, Scottish fantasy novella out with Fox Spirit Books called Petra MacDonald and the Queen of the Fae. It doesn’t easily fit into a category of fantasy. It’s set on a small Scottish island in the modern day, but it involves travel to the realm of the Fae and uses a lot of Scottish folklore.

I also write an epic fantasy serial which is illustrated by the very talented artist Joe Slucher. Each month we release a chapter and an accompanying illustration. It tells the story of a young woman who sells her soul to a god in exchange for him saving her people but there’s a lot more to the bargain than she expected and the people around her are less than grateful for her help. You can check that out and support it at www.patreon.com/Miranyasoath

And finally (for the moment) my main work is an epic fantasy trilogy called The Vessel of KalaDene. The first novel, Ashael Rising, was published by Unbound in 2017. It’s about a stone age medicine woman who has to protect her people from soul-sucking invaders from another world. It’s about hope, and our relationships with each other and with the land we live in. It’s about doing the right thing, whatever the cost. You can buy that from Unbound or from most bookshops. The second in the series, Ashael Falling, is crowdfunding now and you can read an excerpt and pledge your support at http://www.unbound.com/books/ashael-falling

DS: Tell us about your writing process? Are you a plotter or are you a discovery writer?

SK: I am a discovery writer all the way. When I sat down to write Ashael Rising, I had one character and an image in my head and the entire trilogy rolled out from that. That’s often how it works for me, I start with a character and then I figure out what sort of world made that person and what sort of story fits them. The closest I’ve ever come to an outline is a page of bullet-points covering the main beats I want to hit with the story.

 

Petra e-cover

DS: What made you decide to go with Unbound? What freedoms has this allowed and what are some of the drawbacks?

SK: Unbound was set up by three guys who had worked in various aspects of publishing, and who felt that the industry was becoming more closed, harder for new voices to break into, harder to get published if you were trying to write something outside of the norm. They’re a publishing company and of course they want to make money, but first and foremost they want to publish books that they love. And they believe that readers should get a say in what books are made available.

I went to Unbound because I really respected their ethos. Crowdfunding with them serves two purposes – it removes a lot of the financial risk from them, allowing them to publish things which they believe are important, but which might not be a commercial success and it lets the author find their audience before the book is published. It lets reader and author connect in a way that’s really unusual and in some cases, it lets the reader play a part in the actual shaping of the book. I love that connection and think it’s really valuable to have.

Being published by Unbound let me keep a lot of creative freedom that I may not have had with a bigger publisher.

There aren’t many drawbacks, in my experience. Crowdfunding is hard but is very rewarding. I think for me the main drawback is that, as a smaller press, there’s really not much of a marketing budget, meaning that I have to do all of that myself and it’s not something I’m very good at. I do think it’s a valuable skill for me to learn though and I believe it will serve me well in the long run.

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

SK: Characters. They don’t have to be perfect or even likeable, necessarily, but they do have to be engaging and well-rounded. I think that sometimes fantasy authors get so caught up in building a world that they forget what readers really care about is people. I want to read about interesting characters doing interesting things and no matter how brilliant the world building is, if I can’t connect with the characters, I’m not likely to enjoy the book.

DS: The world in which Ashael Rising happens is extremely vivid. Where did the idea for the world come from and can we except to see more in later novels?

SK: About eleven years ago, I had a dream in which I was a warrior fairy, warring against evil magicians and all these years later, I can still remember the final image from the dream. That image was the seed of Ashael Rising. Now, there are no warrior fairies in the book and almost nothing actually bears any resemblance to the dream but that was the start. So, I had that image and Ashael when I started writing the book. I have an interest in Palaeolithic human life and I’ve read a fair amount about that time period so that’s why Ashael’s people are stone age hunter gatherers.

You can definitely expect to see more of the world – and its peoples – throughout the second and third books as Ashael’s story expands to include the rest of KalaDene. I also have some vague ideas of maybe a later stand-alone book set on KalaDene many generations later.

DS: Your book moves away from the traditional fantasy hooks of parents and loved ones dying which is something I adored about this world. What made you decide that you wanted strong and caring guardian characters for Ashael?

SK: Technically, Ashael is an orphan so I guess it kind of falls into that trope, but she does have a mother-figure in Bhearra, and she has close ties to her friends and community. I wanted to tell a story about our connections to people and places and how those connections shape us. I think that in modern life, many people feel disconnected, unrooted, and I wanted to look at a life that offered something different from that narrative. Ashael may be the chosen one, but she can’t do anything to save her people alone. All of her strength comes from knowing who she is, understanding her place in the world and being lifted up by her relationships.

DS: Mythology and religion are deeply rooted within the world. The winged ones being a favourite of mine. How much of your mythology was influenced by world mythology, and how much research did you carry out?

SK: I have always had an interest in myth and folklore and I’ve been reading versions of it for as long as I can remember so I didn’t have to carry out a great deal of research since it’s all kind of seeped into my brain over the years. So, I would say that most of KalaDene’s mythology and religion is influenced by our world but in a more subconscious way.

It was important to me that the religion be deeply rooted. I think in many fantasy books the religion that’s worked out as part of the world building is what I think of as the orthodoxy – what the church or temple, or authorities of the world have ordained. I wanted to write about the orthopraxy – the religion that people live with, the daily rituals and mutterings to the gods and the way it actually touches their lives.

DS: Ashael Rising is book one of a planned trilogy, is that correct? Without giving to much away book one ended on abit of a cliff hanger. So, what can we except in book two? No spoilers please?

SK: Yes, Ashael Rising is book one of a planned trilogy. I plan to start writing book three in April and will hopefully have it finished by the end of the year. Ashael Falling, which is book two, sees Ashael settle into her new role and begin to come up with a plan to end the threat of the Zanthar on a more permanent basis. There’s a lot of travel in book two, opening up some more of KalaDene and getting to know some of the non-human peoples a bit more. Ashael faces a lot of hard times and book two is a bit darker than the first book. We also see a bit more of Zan and learn more about the culture of the Zanthar and the stakes for them.

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

SK: Oh, that’s really tough to answer. It always feels arrogant for me to ever compare myself to other authors. My editor compared me to Raymond E Feist and Trudy Canavan in my editorial report for book one and that was a huge compliment. I feel that I’ve been influenced by Raymond E Feist as one of the earliest adult fantasy authors I read and one of my favourites over the years. Janny Wurts and LE Modesitt Jr have also influenced me. Probably many others in a less conscious way. I always look to Stephen King for how to write brilliant characters and Terry Pratchett for writing with multiple layers and George RR Martin for politics and political maneuvering.

DS: There has been an increase in female fantasy writers, and female protagonists’ novels produced in the last year. Some have been well received, and others have faced in my opinion unwarranted criticism. What do you feel has caused this increase and what more could be done to make women’s voices heard?

SK: I’m not sure if there’s been an increase in the novels published or if it’s been more of an increase in visibility. I think that there has been a huge amount of effort made by women in publishing to raise and support other female voices.

What more could be done? I don’t think that’s an easy question and I think it’s probably something that needs to be addressed at multiple levels. I think publishers need to look at their list and make sure that they’re including diverse voices – in every way, not just more female voices. We also need to hear more LGBTQ+ voices, more PoC voices, more non-western voices. But those books don’t just have to be published, they have to be marketed in such a way that the public will notice them.

I think booksellers have to look at where and how books are placed in the shops. I think readers need to push themselves to read outside their comfort zones (and I include myself as a reader in this). I think that men need to raise women’s voices and recommend books by diverse authors and about diverse protagonists. And I think we all need to be a bit less lazy when we make recommendations to others. I think we can generally assume that authors like Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin have many ways of finding readers – we should be looking to recommend authors that get less press instead of falling back on the same five names over and over again.

DS: Inclusion and representation is a much-discussed topic at the moment in the arts. Do you as a writer feel pressurised to write diverse characters or do you see it as an opportunity to improve your understanding of a culture?

SK: I don’t feel pressurised at all to write diverse characters, but it is something I challenge myself to do. I believe that we, as a species, learn empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and I want to do that as much as possible in my writing. I believe that everyone should get an opportunity to see themselves in stories, and not just as a side character.

It’s not so much that I see it as an opportunity to better understand a culture since, so far, I haven’t written anything based on a real-world culture. It’s more that I see including a variety of diverse characters in my work as an opportunity to improve my writing. I don’t want to find myself telling the same stories over and over again, which is what would happen if I didn’t write about diverse characters.

Thanks to Shona for doing the interview. It was a pleasure to have you on my blog. Why not check her out on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shona_kinsella and buy her books they are awesome.

 

 

 

Review of Return of the Mantra by Susie Williamson Written by Dan Stubbings

My Review-

I had the pleasure of meeting Susie at Fantasy Con this year in Chester and after a lovely chat about her book. I asked if I could review it for her. Suffice to say it made my Top 20 reads of 2018 finishing in thirteenth place. I cannot wait for the sequel to be released.

Considering when I was putting together my Top 20 I had read 120 books. Return of the Mantra blew me away the moment I opened it. Everything about it was fresh and new but at the same time weirdly familiar as if I had read the story before. Why I kept reading however, and didn’t throw the book against the wall after five minutes is because I loved how Susie was able to flip these familiarities on their head, and give me a whole new level of enjoyment.

I adored the protagonist Suni a strong young girl who is forced to face the harshness of her world after the sudden death of her mother. I have to admit when I first read this I thought here we go a young girl loses her family and has to save the world.  However I was in for a pleasant surprise, as Susie doesn’t do this taking Suni’s story in a direction I completely wasn’t expecting. Suni’s character arc is one of the best I have read this year in any fantasy. Susie’s writing shows that she has given alot of thought to the direction she wants to take Suni’s character exposing a number of vulnerabilities to the reader along the way. These include her attitude towards sexuality, her struggles with abandonment, and the complex relationship she has with her absent father. As the plot develops we see these character traits become more and more dominate as Suni is tested to the extreme in a land ravaged by a brutal ruler who has enslaved his people, and in their warped minds become a god himself. This forces Suni to go in search of Mantra a forgotten god that in her mother’s eyes is the one true guardian of their world.

A character that allows us to see the abuse of innocence in this unforgiving place is Wanda an orphan boy with the power to understand animals. Suni becomes a big sister to him as they go in search of this fairy-tale. This relationship was the one that pulled on my heart strings the most. As Suni fights to protect Wanda’s innocence she is torn because at the same time she must make him understand the true nature of this world and its cruelties. This is every parents nightmare and is a clear theme throughout the book. With each parental figure making their own mistakes along the way some facing worst consequences than others.  It’s a relationship that I hope has more of a central role in the sequel as it has all the feels.

This book has everything I look for within fantasy. Strong protagonists and antagonists, an equal split of genders, diversity, and story-lines that at times reflected a modern day Africa. This is a highly satisfying read with a well developed world, and magic system I cannot wait to see how it continues. Well done Susie 5 Stars.

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

 

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About the Author- Susie Williamson

Susie grew up in the village of Scholes, Holmfirth, in West Yorkshire. She studied at the University of Sheffield and graduated with a BSc Honours in Chemistry, and a PGCE in Secondary School Science. In 1999 she travelled to the city of Omdurman in the Sudan, where she taught English as a Foreign Language. From there she moved to South Africa, where she taught Adult Basic Education and Training, primarily in a township in Kwazulu Natal.

On her return to the UK, she moved to Exeter in Devon, where her childhood passion for creative writing was reignited. Among a collection of varied jobs, including support work at a women’s refuge, she increasingly prioritised her time to write. Inspired by the landscapes of Africa, her passion for women’s equality and representation of diversity, and her love of fantasy books, she began weaving the twists and turns of her first novel.

She lives with her partner, Kate, close to the river Exe and a bike ride away from the sea. She enjoys being involved in community projects, and painting canvases to steadily fill the white-washed walls of her house. Her writing partner is her cat, Mia, who is currently assisting with two fantasy novels, sequels to Return of the Mantra.

Review of Ice Fall By Stephanie Gunn Written by Daniel Stubbings

About the Book

The Mountain on the planet of Icefall holds the mystery to a lost colony and an irresistible, fatal allure to the climbers of the universe. Maggie is determined to be the first to make the summit. Aisha, injured in a climbing incident herself, has always supported her wife, trusting Maggie would return from her adventures. But no one ever returns from the Mountain.

Review

This fast paced novella has everything a sci-fi fan could wish for. Creepy AI’s, space-travel, futuristic technologies, lost colonies, unconquered mountains and planets you cant help but want to explore.

The story is told from the viewpoint of spacecraft pilot and injured climber Aisha. A character that as the plot thickens, we discover has many secrets that as we dig deeper begin to expose some unpleasant truths about her past and future. One of them being her ongoing fight to support her wife’s ambitions of been the first climber to summit the mountain on Ice Fall. As she continues to struggle with the ongoing pain surrounding her mysterious headaches, and secrets coming from all sides we as a reader begin to wonder about what truly lurks beneath the surface of these two main characters. At times it made my skin crawl as I became more and more submersed in this vivid world of Stephanie’s creation. Hoping with every turn of the page to uncover what the mountain held.

One of the joys of Stephanie’s writing is that it makes you feel unsure and disturbed. She just has that amazing quality which every writer I like to read has, where you think she leading you down one path but then totally flips it on it’s head and makes you go what the hell. I loved it. These characters and world grab you from the moment you open the cover, and dont let go whisking away on an adventure that will make you question everything you think makes you human. When the story begins we are told that the planet us humans call earth has long been destroyed. Erased from the universe by wars, greed, and feminism meaning humans have had to colonise, and develop technologies that help them to thrive in a new environment known as Icefall.

An ice colony in the far reaches of space with a mountain nobody has conquered. Many have tried as the climb isn’t difficult, but for some reason nobody ever seems to return. Some trip never to rise, some fall asleep never to wake, and others step off the edge without so much as a scream. Making you wonder the entire time what dark secrets does it hold.

The level of detail Stephanie goes into when describing the climbs on this fictional world is astonishing. From the equipment they use to how their breathing changes as they rise is done with breathtaking accuracy. Throughout these passages I felt as though I was Maggie and I was there to conquer this beast that lay before me this allowed me to fully submerge myself into this imaginative world, and become the character which is something I always look for. I couldn’t wait to read on. For a novella it is jam packed with ideas. However at no point did I feel short changed with every thread concluding with an unseen twist or ending I enjoyed.

My only criticism would be that sometimes you lost who was speaking in some of the dialogue. Therefore causing a drop in some of the tension that had be created. However this was a small thing in what otherwise was a well polished novella, with a unique idea and plot.  It gets 4 stars from me a highly enjoyable read. I will be recommending it to other sci-fi fans.

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About Stephanie Gunn

Stephanie Gunn is an Aurealis and Ditmar award nominated author of speculative fiction. In another life she was a research scientist. Now she spends her time writing, reviewing and reading. And buying far too many books. She lives in Perth with her family.

 

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

Review of Lancelot by Giles Kristian Written By Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

The legions of Rome are a fading memory. Enemies stalk the fringes of Britain. And Uther Pendragon is dying. Into this fractured and uncertain world the boy is cast, a refugee from fire, murder and betrayal. An outsider whose only companions are a hateful hawk and memories of the lost.

Yet he is gifted, and under the watchful eyes of Merlin and the Lady Nimue he will hone his talents and begin his journey to manhood. He will meet Guinevere, a wild, proud and beautiful girl, herself outcast because of her gift. And he will be dazzled by Arthur, a warrior who carries the hopes of a people like fire in the dark. But these are times of struggle and blood, when even friendship and love seem doomed to fail.

The gods are vanishing beyond the reach of dreams. Treachery and jealousy rule men’s hearts and the fate of Britain itself rests on a sword’s edge.
But the young renegade who left his home in Benoic with just a hunting bird and dreams of revenge is now a lord of war. He is a man loved and hated, admired and feared. A man forsaken but not forgotten. He is Lancelot.

Set in a 5th century Britain besieged by invading bands of Saxons and Franks, Irish and Picts, Giles Kristian’s epic new novel tells – in Lancelot’s own words – the story of the most revered yet reviled of all Arthur’s knights, the warrior who fought at his lord’s side – yet stole his wife. This is the story of the of one of the great figures of British myth and legend – a story ready to be re-imagined for our times.

My Review

After reading and watching countless material on the King Arthur legend. I was intrigued to see what new insight Giles Kristian would bring in his new release Lancelot. I am pleased to report that he hasn’t disappointed, breathing fresh air into a tale that is as old as the British Isles themselves.

The focus on Lancelot’s early life is what held my attention throughout this book. Giles has been able to write really interesting threads regarding Lancelot’s upbringing, and personality. Which gripped my attention in ways that I hadn’t encountered from previous works on Lancelot and Arthur.

This enabled me as a reader to reassess my previous conclusions about Lancelot, and explore his character with fresh eyes that forced me to see the man instead of the legend. I found this incredibly satisfying, and found myself becoming more emotionally invested in Lancelot as a character than I had previously when reading his legend. As the story progressed I was pleased to see Giles move away from the traditional narrative of Lancelot. His scandalous affair with Guinevere that destroyed his relationship with Arthur, and almost Camelot.

Instead Giles has chosen to examine sides of him that normally wouldn’t come into consideration. This change in narrative has allowed Giles to take us on a journey through Lancelot’s  tortured past. Giving the reader insight into his training, his relationship with his father, his time living with a certain individual called Merlin. As well as his nurturing of a hawk that he is grossly unprepared for.

Some highly emotional, and beautifully written scenes from Giles within the book occurred when Lancelot was developing his bond with the hawk. Training it to become a vicious friend who he could never be parted. Giles has a way of making even the most simple scene come to life, slowly drawing you in, making you lower your guard, before ripping apart your soul at a later date. When I finished I felt I had run five marathons back to back it is that intense.

Of course Arthur is mentioned. You couldn’t have one without the other. However even in the scenes with Arthur at no point do you get the feeling that he is the main focus. Giles keeps your mind firmly fixed on Lancelot. By creating more mystery within his character, making you wonder who truly was the man we know as Lancelot? And could he actually be real?

This enthralling book moves at a delicious pace hitting the reader with a buffet of sensory delights from vivid fight scenes, shipwrecks, and characters that burn into your soul.  You hear every clash of swords, smell the richness of the blood, taste the bitterness of the sea as it hits your lips, feel the pain and anguish that Lancelot goes through, and visualise the harshness of the land in which our characters walk.  The writing is food for the soul. It  seems to sing off the page, as you race to keep up, and discover how the boy became the legend in all his gory detail. This is a historical epic at its finest perfect for fans of Ben Kane, and Bernard Cornwell. 5 Stars.

I received a copy from the author for an honest review this doesn’t effect my views.