Review of Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun in Your Hand By Stephen J Golds Written By Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

An aging hitman is embittered by his career choice at the point of no return. A shell-shocked soldier in World War Two finds hope through death, reflected in the eyes of his enemy. A serial killer confesses in veiled, lurching prose. A mobster unravels at the zero hour of this mortal coil. A man reevaluates existence after discovering a suicide. These are some of the twenty-nine dark, twisted, and gritty stories by Stephen J. Golds collected here for the first time — bound taut with thirty poems of loss, love, and other thoughts that haunt you after last call.

Review

Sometimes you just need a break. A break from the seven hundred page tomes, or the four hundred page crime mysteries, and pick up a lighter read. A book that keeps you engaged, but won’t leave you feeling fried for days afterwards. That is exactly what Stephen Golds new collection Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun In Your Hand provides. It is a read that immerses you from the first sentence. Yet at the same time lets you know that if you follow the writer into his cleverly constructed dark corners for a few moments you will be rewarded when you reach the end.

This collection of poems and short stories is a beautiful mashup of grit and poetic writing that carries you on an adrenaline fuelled bender that you don’t even realise you’re experiencing until you’re halfway through, and questioning what time of day it is. This collection is unique because it isn’t just short stories that cross a range of genres. But a masterclass on how to make poems carry a narrative structure. It’s wasn’t something I was excepting as I read the short stories about corrupt gangsters, staring your own death in the face, and other taboo subjects. But it worked wonderfully. As I read the lines of the poems I found myself smiling. They bought a different angle to Stephen’s writing that enabled him to explore many methods of storytelling that helped immerse the reader deeply in his themes, as well as giving us a glimpse into how he views the different levels of darkness that exist in our world.

The poems created almost a bitter sweetness between the pages. Every one leading you to the true horrors of crime. They allowed you to breathe as you went from one hard hitting story to the next. But helped maintain your interest throughout. Yet as the pages turned I found myself getting lost in the language used. Stephen in this collection isn’t afraid to faithfully describe how some of these harrowing events would occur in the shady corners of society with blood curdling accuracy. He doesn’t shy away from how these events would not only effect the individuals involved, but also the environment in which they are committed. He goes into depth on the ripples caused by tragedy on an emotional level that I haven’t seen reached by any other author this year. Even though each story is separate they all seemed to carry a universal message. That every crime leaves a scar no matter how small. The reason this collection will be in my books of the year is because Stephen makes you care about every tiny detail that he is able to smuggle into his writing. Whether that’s the ex gangster down on his luck, to a droplet of blood tarnishing the pavement as a victim falls. You feel it all, and it will leave you scarred as you close the cover.

This collection is a celebration of what I would call Dirty Noir. Every page felt as if it had been dripped into the grime of the streets. The graffitied walls, the bars drowning in their own shit, and backrooms that only a select few know exist to whisper their dirty deeds. Stephen gets down in the trenches. The ink in his pen is the blood under the fingernails of every killer mention. This book should carry a warning when you finish reading. It should say take a long hot shower because like his carefully crafted words you can’t quite wash away the stains of the street. Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun In Your Hand is a collection every crime fan should be reading. Stephen is a rising star. I can’t wait to plunge into his blacken mind again soon. It receives five stars, and is currently sitting at number six in my reads of the year. It is going to take something spectacular to change that. Congratulations Stephen. It’s a highly accomplished read.

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

Review of The English Cantos Volume 1 Hellward by James Sale Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

The English Cantos is a horror tale told in beautiful, lyrical style. Based on his near-death experience in Ward 17 of Royal Bournemouth Hospital, James Sale takes us on a journey into a contemporary vision of hell and heaven modelled on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. As Virgil guided Dante, so too Dante will guide James on this incredible journey.

Review

I admit poetry is something I usually avoid like the plague. The poetry I was force fed during my GCSE years to pass exams had put me off poetry for life. The stuffiness of it all was like a migraine that wouldn’t shift. I promised as I wrote the final sentence on my English exam that if I saw another piece of poetry in my lifetime that it would be to soon.

Yet a few months back I came across a poem called Hellward by James Sale. An epic poem that dives into the nightmare that is cancer. This poem was a light in the wilderness stripping away my previously held negative thoughts towards poetry. Gone was the pointless verses that complicated the meaning of the poem for the sake of it. Instead James took you on a journey. Every word seemed to explore cancer in a new perspective, from the pain of the diagnosis, to thoughts of how you can possibility recover from this life changing experience.

The narrative felt like your own personal conversation with James as he detailed his experience with this illness. I couldn’t help be reminded of the line ” Hello darkness my old friend I have come to talk with you again.” I know that song was detailing the loneliness of depression, but James’s narrative showed both the dark and light moments you encounter as you walk a certain path with this unrelenting creature. He didn’t shy away from the fact that it can be a lonely road. That at times it can simply come down to battling thoughts of giving in, to fighting to live with every breath you take.

As I continued reading these interlocking poems that unfolded into a narrative that left me spent. I couldn’t help but be returned to my nana’s cancer diagnosis when I was twelve. I don’t mind admitting at times I had to take a break from the narrative as I had tears in my eyes. James does an incredible job of capturing the entire experience not just from the perspective of the person with cancer, but the devastating effects it has on everyone involved. James isn’t gentle as he guides you into the unforgivable beast that is cancer, and what invisible scars it leaves in it’s wake that triggers every primal fear we have as humans about our own mortality.

As you read each individual poem you can’t help but notice the influence of Dante on James’s writing. As the narrator descends into different sections of the disease. He binds the reader to every face that cancer wears, detailing every stage of the journey as if cancer or illness is becoming different personality. To amplify it’s bone chilling horror. From vivid images of no man’s land to the calmness of a crystal blue sea we are shown how every stage manifests itself to encompass all thought, but at the same time to celebrate the small victories that emerge throughout this harrowing ordeal.

Hellward is a double edged sword. It captures both the darkness, and the light of illness. Showing every emotion that humans experience when confronted with a life changing problem. The fear, the denial, the pain, the acceptance, and the redemption that can occur once you leap the final hurdle. Hellward is more than just one person’s journey through cancer. Its for anyone who has suffered trauma no matter how small. Its unapologetic in its rawness, and that’s what kept me reading. However it isn’t all doom, and gloom at it’s heart it is a human story, displaying a spectrum of truth that we can all learn from.

It receives 5 stars. It is a must read just for the prose and rawness alone. Well done James. I never thought I would say this but you had made me enjoy poetry.

I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for a positive review. This doesn’t effect my views.

Interview with Gary Donnelly(DI Owen Sheen Series) Conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Today I am delighted to welcome Gary Donnelly author of the DI Owen Sheen Series to my blog. Thanks for joining me Gary.

GD: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: What made you decide to write crime fiction?

GD: In many ways it chose me rather than the other way round! I certainly did not set out with an express intention of writing crime or noir, but looking back it made a lot of sense for me to hang my hat there. I love reading crime fiction, and when Sheen was first forming as a character and the series was slowly taking shape, I was reading a lot of Michael Connelly (especially the Harry Bosch series), Peter Robinson’s understated and musical DCI Banks novels, Mo Hayder’s creepy tales, Ian Rankin and of course Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville’s Northern Irish crime work. So, having explained this, it probably made a lot of sense for my own novel to be (largely) a crime story.

In saying that, Blood Will Be Born set a tone for the Sheen series by also smudging those clean genre lines a bit, adding dabs of Stephen King’s supernatural eeriness, playing with romantic themes and exploring the tensions of personal issues and relationships on a wider canvas of historical, political and conspiratorial big backgrounds (my youthful love of Frederick Forsyth, Robert Lundlum and of course King and Dean Koontz).

DS: How long did it take you to write the first DI Owen Sheen book Blood Will Be Born? What was the hardest obstacle when trying to complete that dreaded first draft?

GD: I started writing in a serious way after attending an online novel writing class with the City Lit, London in, I think, mid-2014, but it was only in 2015 when I made an active decision to change my job (all-consuming and never satiated up until this point) that I found the mental space to engage and really begin. At that point I also had the impetus of knowing I had downsized my professional prospects and therefore knew that I wanted a novel to show for it! Mind you, I was still working pretty much full time so it took the guts of a year (it’s feast or famine when it comes to writing for me) before I had knocked out a first draft by August 2016 (in time for my BIG 40 which was no doubt also in the mix on some level).

So Blood Will Be Born took about a year but the learning curve was steep, and that was far from the end of it. The first draft had the bones and structure of the story as it stands but it was a hefty, overweight beast of a thing that had been written with no plan or plot until about half-way (amazing to think that as I look back at the process, but that’s the truth) and then herded into shape from that point until the end. Amazingly this process worked and worked pretty well, but not, at that point, as a crime thriller. At some level I think I was aiming for something closer to Stephen King’s The Stand meets Ulysses (pass me my smoking jacket and cravat)! To use a phrase which the journalist David Roy coined while speaking to me this week, I’d created a Sheeniverse, but fun as that was, it needed to be edited, sculpted to allow the real story to emerge.

So that process, following feedback from first readers and prospective agents, took me into early 2017. It’s something they rarely teach you about in writing classes, but it is the equally essential counterpart to hacking out the first draft. By the time I was done, I knew the book was so much the better for it, and I could say with confidence where it ought to sit on a crime thriller shelf. So the hardest part? For the first draft it had to be (and probably still is) starting with a commitment that the book is on and then writing consistently, doubts and fears be damned, until that draft is finished.

DS: What I love about the series is that Belfast becomes a character in its own right. What made you decide to set the series there? And how on earth do you make it so vivid?

GD: Thank you, I am so pleased it is brought to life for you. I am always minded of that phrase that we do not live in the past but the past lives in us, when I think about this question. The Belfast of my childhood and youth is long gone and I live in London, so I rely on the sensory memories of the past and from my visits. The freshness of the air, the ever present guarantee of rain, the crispness of the light and the beauty of the encroaching countryside as well as the sometimes dreary and sinister bleakness of parts of the urban landscape. I close my office blinds and ignore the London sunshine (so abundant when I was drafting the third book, Never Ask The Dead, it was torture), and I try to see through Owen Sheen’s eyes. I also employ little tricks when needed. An online search will give me an instant image of a place, and sometimes having it dated is even better as it summons the atmosphere I want. Sheen’s Belfast also has the feel of risk and edginess and this is something I think I turn inward to find.

I left Belfast when I turned nineteen and when I arrived in Cambridge I felt like I’d been dropped into a toy town. I could walk home after a few drinks at night and my furtive glances over my shoulder were wasted, strangers asked me questions about politics and religion with genuine interest, and with no agenda attached. Which was an eyeopener. But I suppose to quote another well-used adage, you can take the boy out of Belfast, but at some level, you will never take Belfast out of the boy.

DS: In the series Northern Ireland’s dark past is ever present. I am wondering was this a conscious decision as you can truly imagine the reality of the troubles as you read?

GD: Yes, I think of it as a ghost in the works, perhaps represented most tangably by The Moley, John Fryer’s tormenting demon that he must feed with fresh blood in book one. As mentioned above, I remember many things first hand, though unlike Sheen, who was subject by the worst kind of personal trauma, my experience like so many, was more cumulative. A stone added to a sack that was carried daily and to which we had become so accustomed, the weight was not consciously felt, perhaps, until it was finally lifted. Indeed, there is also a kind of trauma from watching others become victims, the sense of the near miss, attending the funeral of a friend’s father, eating my school packed lunch in a park where soldiers were stripped, beaten and murdered. These things must have an effect. And the proof of that is there in the books.

In the same way I did not set out to write crime fiction to begin with I also did not consciously begin with a view to engaging with legacy issues, but there they are! I am proud of the Sheen series for the way in which (I hope) this has been managed and cautiously navigated. Ian McEwan wrote about the importance of empathy and imagination as the essence of our humanity after 9/11. I am sure politicians, historians and others have their part to play in coming to terms with the dark past which we all shared. As a writer I have a wonderful licence to create, challenge and explore as well as entertain.

DS: In the series Owen seems to be feeling his way back into his own forgotten past, almost as if he is an outsider looking into the shadows waiting to see what will jump out. How much of Owen’s backstory did you know before you began writing, and how much grew organically as you wrote? As I love his voice throughout.

GD: Thank you again. Sheen arrived pretty much fully formed. I knew I wanted an outsider of sorts to arrive in Belfast to start up the SHOT (Serious Historical Offences Team) and Sheen was a perfect vehicle for this. In doing so, Sheen had some built in neutrality and gave me the licence I needed to engage my home town afresh. Plus, I now know North London as well as I ever knew Belfast so I was sure I could find his voice quite easily. Then, as I introduced him, and I searched for his layers, I thought about how sweetly weighted and apt it would be that he had once lived in Belfast, but has no concrete memories of that time. It was then that I had the eureka moment.

What if Sheen is back in Belfast for more than police work? What if he wants the truth about a personal issue, something that caused his family to break and leave their home in the first place? And so it went. But this did not take long. He really did come to me when I called, wearing that God awful leather jacket and simmering with anger and secrets and questions.

DS: How much of your personality do you put into your characters? Which character would you say is most like you?

GD: This is a tough question. They are all my dark progeny! Of course the obvious answer is that Sheen is closest to me. A me reinvented and turned inside out perhaps, but I never really saw it that way. To do so risks self consciousness, having my ego conflict with his journey and that would be bad. I think by definition I bring parts of myself to every character, but it is more accurate to say that they become the expression of going beyond the parameters of myself and playing like we used to when we were children. ‘Just pretend,’ we used to say before telling our siblings and friends how we wanted to imagine the game. For me, it is very much the same and when it works it really is child’s play, the characters give me the freedom to go elsewhere. When they’re good, they are better than I could hope to be. When they are horrid, it has nothing to do with me! I just tell their story. 🙂

DS: Which 3 books do you believe everyone must read in their lifetime and why?

GD: Sheen 1, 2 and 3. Haha, not really. I don’t really count myself as well read, it has always been a bit of an insecurity for me, so great question! I’ll dodge this a bit by saying read Dickens, for the love of language and his love of everyday people. Read House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski because it is reality warping, mind blowingly original. Read Dubliners By James Joyce, as a reminder of how so much quality can be distilled into a small volume.

DS: What is your comfort read and why?

GD: I will return to my favourite Stephen King time and again. ‘Salem’s Lot and It especially. There is something about King’s ranging, landscape spanning style that is so accessible, and also so intimate that it feels like a literary warm bath, like telepathy without effort. He also writes about what matters to him and what he loves in a context that is local and parochial. Favourites from my youth and the former has at least one little homage in Sheen book 2, Killing In Your Name. I wonder if you can spot it?

DS: Is there anything in your series that you would change if so why?

GD: I always want it to be better. Better written, better paced and making better use of the past as a context and character. But, I have also learned the importance of being thankful. That I wrote the series at all, that it has been published and that so many readers actually ‘get’ it and want more.

DS: Finally, what is next for Gary Donnelly?

GD: Well, I knocked out a little stand alone during Lockdown 1 which I have just edited and I will be interested to see what may come of it. Very different from Sheen is all I can say. But Sheen is not done yet, I am working on the fourth in the series and I need to crack on and do what’s needed (refer to question 2!). I always have the nets cast though, even as I work on deck. Patience is a virtue, but from experience I know I will see the lines twitch soon. And when they do, I’ll strap into the chair once more, scary as it is, and see what I can land from the deep.

You can buy Never Ask The Dead now. Check out this link https://www.amazon.co.uk/Never-Ask-Dead-Owen-Sheen/dp/0749025476 or from all good bookstores.

Cover for the third book in the series doesn’t it look glorious.

This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Gary enough for taking the time to answer my questions. I adore the DI Owen Sheen series. Why not buy it now and find out why.

Interview with Author Joseph Sale (Writer of Dark Hilarity, Black Gate Trilogy, Save Game and many more) Interview conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Today I am honoured to interview author Joseph Sale on my blog. Thanks for taking the time Joseph.

JS: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: How did you first get into writing?

JS: I was very fortunate that my mother and father were both very passionate about literature, and so, from a very young age, I was inundated with stories. My father loved the classics, and we read them together before bed. My mother read 2000AD (Judge Dredd and Slaine in particular), and also epic fantasy novels. Words cannot express how important this was for me, growing up. One other important thing to note is that though my father was a writer, and my mother an artist, neither of them ever forced me down one path or another. For a time, I wanted to be a professional fencer, and did make the GB team before I realised that it was not satisfying for me; they fully supported this, and didn’t in any way try to coerce me into being “like them”.

I then wanted to become an actor, and spent a lot of time on stage in my teenage years, which I did thoroughly enjoy, but over time I realised that I was even more interested in the words themselves than in how I was supposed to say them, and I wanted to make little changes (except, of course, when I was performing Shakespeare, in which case I merely stood in adoration). It was after this stint of acting that I really began to sit down and seriously write. What I learned from acting I found useful as a way of getting into the heads of my characters, however. Although most of my experience was with poetry and plays, I found that novels suited my yearning to describe the imaginative settings that I conjured in my head. My first “proper” book was a novelisation of the epic Germanic poem The Nibelungelied. It’s still floating around on the web, though I don’t direct people to it these days! You can tell a sixteen-year-old wrote it

DS: Where on earth did Smiley come from? He has tormented my dreams.

JS: Haha, I’m simultaneously glad and very sorry to have caused you such grief. Smiley… where to begin? Undoubtedly, he is the most important character I have ever written. I suppose the truthful answer is that Smiley came out of the mirror. He’s me, though I didn’t immediately realise this. Craig Smiley is an anagram of Mr Cigy Sale – this is again something I only later discovered with a mixture of horror and delight. In my childhood, my friends and I often fashioned ourselves as epic heroes (you might imagine we were real toffs when I say that, but the opposite is true—we were penniless no-hope nerdy sewer boys—which is why we found the heroic comparison so hilarious). One was Achilles, one was Odysseus, and I was Cygnus, an often forgotten Trojan hero, who, upon death, transformed into a cygnet (hence where we derive the word from). My friends therefore affectionately called me “Cigy”. This was another “in joke” as I was the only one of them never to smoke.

When I was writing Gods of the Black Gate, I had been through a rough patch.  My initial focus was on creating a detective story in the style of True Detective season one. However, increasingly, my focus shifted from the detective, Caleb Rogers, to the antagonist, Craig Smiley. I realised, quite shockingly, that I sympathised more with Smiley than I did with the detective. And, I began to become aware that though I imagined him to be Texan and a soldier, two things I had never been, Craig Smiley was a ciphered version of me. There was a kind of horror and wonder in that moment. Craig represented a part of myself I’d been repressing in trying to come through my personal struggles. Craig was the part of me that really, really wanted to burn civilisation to the ground, and most importantly: who would let nothing, not even the entire universe, stand in his way. Certain life experiences had led me to feel weak and powerless. Craig Smiley was my rage against that condition. He was a mortal that even the gods of the abyss feared.

The thing about Craig Smiley is that whilst he is undoubtedly evil in many ways, he didn’t just represent my “bad side”. He represented a lot of the aspects of my personality that I liked: reckless determination, an ability with words, monomaniacal focus, self-belief of a certifiably insane degree, and so on. I couldn’t hate Craig, because he wasn’t just all my evil poured onto the page. He was something more. He was a synthesis. I think, in a way, he was my mind trying to pose a solution to the problem of my life: this is who you need to become to succeed. And, in a bizarre way, that became true. Minus the sacrifices, of course.

DS: Your new book Dark Hilarity is a deeply personal book I felt was that intended?

JS: You’re very perceptive, Dan. Thank you for reading so closely. It is a very deeply personal book and the relationship between Tara and Nicola is especially true to the reality of one enduring friendship I have had since childhood, a friendship that has defined who I am, and saved my life, in many respects. Some people were a little shocked by some of the early, distressing childhood scenes in the book, but sadly these are very true to the reality we lived growing up.

At my wedding, this same enduring friend made a speech in which he said, “Me and Joe grew up inhabiting worlds known only to us.” We both cried when he said that. I think we knew that fantasy, the worlds we shared, were the only thing that had redeemed us from a truly awful fate. In some ways, the entire book came out of that beautiful line.

DS: In my opinion Dark Hilarity is your best work to date. Your growth as a writer is incredible. How long did it take you to write? What themes or ideas do you hope people take from the text?

JS: You are too kind, Dan. I would like to thank you profusely for being such a loyal and dedicated reader all of these years. It is amazing that someone is there to see that growth, and I’m glad you feel that I’m getting better, it makes the hard work worth it!

Writing Dark Hilarity was extremely difficult. Firstly, it’s the longest individual novel (or indeed book) I’ve ever written by some way. Secondly, it is, as you observed, probably the most deeply personal thing I’ve attempted. It took most of a year to draft, and months of editing. Some scenes were painfully hard to write.

In terms of themes and ideas, I think there are three key ones: the book explores the interrelationship between escapism and depression. I am not against escapism, and as I’ve said before, fantasy and imagination saved my life. But, I also recognise that at some stage we need to confront reality, and our history books are littered with people who failed to do that. Depression is an insidious, poisonous plant that grows in the mind and cannot be easily rooted out. We all respond to depression differently, and I know my resort was often to disappear into fantasy worlds, but though it helped at first, eventually it became no different to hitting the liquor bottle: a way to numb the pain rather than confront it.

Secondly, I think the book explores addiction. There are many forms of addition, and the book touches on some obvious ones, such as substance abuse, but I think it also explores subtler addictions: addiction to escapism, addiction to misery, addiction to failure. All three principle characters (Nicola, Tara, and Jed) have addictions to triumph over.

Lastly, it explores friendship, what true friendship is, and how rare it is. I have been blessed with not just one but many incredible friendship. It is, undoubtedly, the greatest blessing of my life, to be surrounded by love that just keeps on giving and shining. 

DS: The Gods of the Black Gate trilogy has so many themes it is difficult to know where to start. What inspiration stemmed the initial idea that helped spawn in my opinion one of the best dark trilogies in the last decade?

JS: Wow, knowing how much you read, that is high praise indeed. I’m so grateful. Thank you so much Dan, those words will stay with me forever.

As I mentioned before, Gods of the Black Gate initially came out of the idea of doing a kind of homage to True Detective but set in space. However, I quickly realised that there was no way I could possibly rival Nic Pizzolato’s dialogue, or the charismatic duo of McConaughey and Harrelson. Some initial scenes for the book which did not make it into the final draft, between Caleb and Thom, were very flat indeed. So, I had to do something different. Luckily, I didn’t really have to “think” of a solution, because one was already emerging in the form of Smiley himself.

As you can tell by the ending of the first book, I didn’t really imagine I would write anything further about those characters. However, years later, I had a dream in which I was Smiley… I lay in a field of multicoloured grass. Slowly, I got to my feet. There was an alien wind blowing. A small hill rose. I walked through the hill and suddenly found myself looking down on a phantasmagorical city. A realisation pieced by heart with the keenness of an arrow that this city was real, I wasn’t dreaming, I was walking in another world; and in this world I was him. Then I started awake.

The dream shook me, and over the next few days, I began to reflect on it. One of the strangest things is that Smiley had been different. He’d matured, healed slightly. The old Smiley had died, but now he was living again as something else. I realised that there was another story to be told, one that was even more focused on Smiley, and this was a fantasy epic, not a detective serial. This dream, and its accompanying revelations, became the basis for Beyond The Black Gate.

Each iteration of the Black Gate trilogy took me in a new direction; and introduced new themes. However, it was clear that there were emerging patterns to the themes, that they were organically growing out of what came before. The Black Gate trilogy in many ways reflects my personal development, from a hateful wretch who would blow up the world rather than admit he was wrong, to someone humbled and humanised—a man for the first time in his life. Some people have even read this as an evolutionary metaphor: the primal and ape-like brutality of book one giving way to a journey toward primitive civilisation in book two, and finally to true “humanity” in book three. If I had to name one ultimate and overarching theme for the series, however, it would be redemption, not evolution. I’m glad people see different things in it, however, and their reading is likely more valid than my own, in many ways.

Of course, it was never planned as a trilogy, and I almost didn’t write the last book. In fact, I can honestly say that without Christa Wojciechowski and Steve Stred’s encouragement, I might never have attempted it. With the final book, Return To The Black Gate, many times people told me not to do what I was doing: the plot sounded ridiculous, mixing the two multiverses I’d created was a mistake, there was simply no way Beyond could be continued. These doubts were like the vulture that daily savages Prometheus, punishment for his audacity in stealing fire for humankind. I pushed through them, and I will be forever proud of what I produced as a result. And, to be fair, many of the doubters admitted they were wrong, subsequently.

DS: You write both novels and short stories. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

JS: I write far fewer short stories than novels, which is quite funny! However, I often find that the ideas which come to me generally tend towards more expansive themes and concepts. My strength is in the “long game”. I think I’ve come to view myself as a writer who rewards patience. I’m of course working on improving my books and making them compelling from word one to the final page, but if you look at my earlier work, many people commented that those books are slightly hard work but worth the effort in the end. I’m quite happy with that, if I’m honest. I’d rather be that way around than gripping from the start but with a disappointing finale. I maintain that the ending to any story is it’s most important part.

Short stories are great for capturing a “moment in time”. They are a deep plunge into a particular feeling. They leave lots to the imagination, which is both their strength but also their weakness. I probably write fewer short stories because I am not as big a fan of reading them. There are some writers out there who write masterful short stories, stories that can take you on an immense journey in just a few thousand words; that is one of the most tremendously skillful things a writer can ever do and I freely admit that I feel I’ve rarely, if at all, ever achieved that level with a short story. However, on the flip side, I often find many writers use short stories as a veil to hide the fact they do not have an ending or answers in mind.

Novels are hard to write, there’s no question. They are marathons, not sprints. They require you to occupy one frame of mind for an extended period of time. When I wrote Return To The Black Gate, I had a piece of music, “Dream 3” by Max Richter, playing over and over again on repeat for months, hypnotising myself into the right frame of mind to tackle such an emotionally heavy story. However, novels are also easier than short stories in some ways because they allow you space and time to work with. I am not a great artist, though I do paint and sketch, and I guess one comparison would be the difference between having a 4’ by 3’ canvas versus an A4 sheet of paper. No doubt that you can do a lot with an A4, but the 4’ by 3’ gives you a lot more room!

DS: Which 3 books do you think everybody should read in their lifetime and why?

JS: Now you’re asking very hard questions, Dan! This is a tricky one. Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism is probably one of my favourite novels of all time, perhaps even one of the greatest novels ever written. The ending harrows and releases me. I should say that My Best Friend’s Exorcism was definitely an inspiration point for Dark Hilarity. The way Hendrix handled the friendship between Abby and Gretchen gave me heart and courage to tackle my own portrayal of a deep friendship. Masterful, human, and unbelievably well-written— this is a book everyone, even those who don’t normally read horror, should read before they die.

The Lord of the Rings has to be on there too. I mean, there will always be people out there who hate on it, who say it’s just silly fantasy, or who say it’s not well written (the Michael Moorcock brigade) but we all know it’s more than that. It’s one of the most profound stories about addiction and friendship ever written. It never fails to reduce me to sobbing. “I can’t carry it for you, Mr Frodo. But I can carry you.” Was a more heroic line ever written? Possibly not.

Lastly, every single person on Planet Earth should read the Sick trilogyby Christa Wojciechowski. Christa is one of my favourite writers of all time. She is one of the greatest writers alive today; a Gothic master reborn in our modern age. Her prose will shake you to the very root and rewire your brain. She has not yet received the credit she deserves for the power of her storytelling and prose, but I think it’s coming.

DS: What does a typical writing day look like for you and how would you describe your writing process?

JS: Recently, my writing process has changed quite a bit. At the moment, I’m actually writing by hand, luddite as that sounds! But I’m finding it very rewarding. I type up what I’ve written after I finish a chapter and then I correct it. This is a very slow process but it is producing a higher quality result, I think. I used to write in the mornings, but that has changed too, and I generally do other work: editing for my wonderful clients, administrative tasks, etc, in the morning, and then I tackle personal creative projects in the afternoon.

In terms of talking about my writing more broadly, I used to be a very meticulous planner, hence why I outlined the Five Act Structure, but now I think that I write in a slightly more “pantser” way, though I prefer to think of it as allowing the subconscious mind to populate the page with ideas. Really good writing can’t be forced. Stephen King once wrote that “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work” and he is right in one sense, but he is also wrong, in that writers do need space and down-time to generate their best ideas. Real writing doesn’t come from the intellectual “head”, it comes from somewhere deeper. The universe itself operates on this principle. Lightyears of dead and meaningless matter all serve as the necessary emptiness to produce the single fertile pinprick of Planet Earth and human life. The greatest inspiration comes from the void, when we’re listening to the internal voice, not allowing it to be drowned out by the endless chatter of modern life.

DS: Who are your influences in your writing?

JS: Tolkien has to be mentioned. Of course, he has influenced so many fantasy authors, but I think more than anything it isn’t Tolkien’s worlds that have influenced me but his writing style. I am more drawn to dark and Lovecraftian worlds that the high fantasy landscapes of Middle Earth, if truth be told, but Tolkien’s way of writing, in turn influenced by the oral poetry of the Anglo Saxons, as well as the Nordic and Germanic epics, is simply sublime to me. There is poetry and meter in virtually every line. Also, The Lord of the Rings is another book about transcendental friendship. There are more than a few parallels between Tara and Nicola and Frodo and Sam.

I’be already mentioned that Grady Hendrix was a huge influence on Dark Hilarity, but another would be China Mieville. You were one of the first people to compare me to China Mieville, Dan, long before I read any of his work, and now I have fallen in love with him, particularly his Bas Lag series, such as The Scar and Perdido Street Station. So, you once again have proved prescient! Mieville’s worldbuilding heavily influenced the scope of Dark Hilarity’s world: Dae’eshta.

I’m also hugely influenced by Clive Barker. I regard him as one of the most powerful and fertile writers of the age; the way he combines horror and fantasy into startling visions is simply awe-inspiring. His prose is spellbinding. And I think he has one of the most vivid imaginations of any writer, living or dead.

One final life-changing book for me was Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It’s an epic poem, so it’s not an easy read, but for lovers of fantasy, this is what I regard as the original English fantasy epic. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling that sprawls over an epic, bizarre landscape whilst also deftly weaving in an allegorical moral framework. It has some of the most incredible heroes in it, such as Britomart, who is a female knight with an enchanted lance. She sets off from her homeland ravished by the idea of a man she’s never met, whom she glimpses in a dark mirror made by a wizard. It’s Arthurian but far darker than any of the better-known incarnations of those legends. Spenser’s imagination is vast and disturbing, and his feminism is pretty astonishing, especially considering he wrote it in 1590. The monsters in this book will also give you nightmares. I regard Spenser as one of the first writers to truly bring horror and fantasy together in a compelling way.

What’s really fascinating is whilst many have mistaken Spenser’s work for an attempt to butter up the royals and the Queen (the book is, after all, inspired by and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I), something far more interesting emerges when you read between the lines: let’s just say every glorious light casts a shadow.

DS: Who were the easiest and hardest characters you have wrote and why?

JS: I’m going to cheat a bit, because Smiley was simultaneously the hardest and easiest character I’ve ever written. I joked recently in a writer’s mastermind group I’m a part of called Let’s Get Published (which is amazing, by the way, and anyone reading this should definitely consider joining if they’re serious about their writing) that, “It was a lot easier when I had Smiley around: he would just tell me what to write.” And there’s a degree of truth in that. However, sometimes Smiley would occasionally either elude me, or want to take me down paths that would completely destroy the story, and those times were when he was hardest to write. Also, writing him was tiring. He’s a manic depressive, in many ways, as I was, and so he only occupies emotional extremes: frothing rage, soul-crushing despair, galactic triumph. He has no in-betweens, no intermissions, no brake pedal. He is absolute, in every sense of the word. That’s exhausting, after a while!

DS: What advice would you give to writers?

JS: Everyone has to follow their own path, so I don’t mean to prescribe. However, here are some things that have helped me:

(1) Read a lot. Read the genre you’re writing in. Read outside the genre you’re writing in. Keep reading. So many young writers come to me for feedback on their work and it’s clear from the first two pages that they have no idea what’s out there. We can all fall prey to cliché, but when we read widely, we can broaden our awareness, and circumvent it more readily. It also means that your work will have more influences which will give it more of a unique flavour. I am influenced by everything from Japanese anime to epic poetry; everything I absorb is then transmuted into a fuel I can use for writing. The process of discovering your writer’s voice never ends and my writer’s voice has changed over the years and will continue to change. In fact, perhaps the biggest change yet of my entire literary career is about to happen with what follows Dark Hilarity… But still, the more you read, the more informed that voice will become.

(2) Write regularly. I used to advocate writing every day (and used to write daily after my twelve hour shifts at a call centre, without fail) and for some people writing every day is a good practice. Nowadays, however, roughly three times a week works well for me. If you write regularly, you begin to train your mental muscles in the same way as an athlete regularly training before a competition. You cannot expect to write at your best if you leave it months between sitting down to write. You need to be kind to yourself and warm those muscles up and practice. Of course, I understand that time (and indeed energy) is limited for many of us, but writing is worth making the time for, as it will improve every other aspect of your life. Or at least, it has for me. Writing has undoubtedly been a healing therapy. It helps me focus. It de-frags and cleanses my mind. When I stop making time to write, other things begin to fall apart.

(3) Join a writing group. This is quite important. It will give you accountability partners, but it will also give you good times sharing experience and sympathy with other like-minded writers. It generates creative frisson. I’ve mentioned it before but I highly recommend Let’s Get Published. It’s affordable, friendly, and there’s an amazingly good community there. They do weekly write-ins (which makes carving out time for writing even easier), as well as courses on the craft of writing and also the publishing process. Even if you don’t sign up for a professional and paid group like this one, I recommend any writer having some kind of writing community around them. Like I said, without the support of others, I might never have written Return To The Black Gate.

DS: Finally, what is next for Joseph Sale?

JS: I’m currently working on a new book called Virtue’s End, which is unlike any book I have previously written both in terms of style and substance; I think it will be a big surprise for some. I can’t say much more about it other than it’s fantasy and undoubtedly the most imaginatively ambitious thing I’ve ever done. I won’t say it’s my best work, because my readers get to decide that! But I’m very excited to share it with the world and see what they think.

This year I’m also going to be releasing Dead World: Desecrated Empires, which is my dark fantasy narrative role-play game; although to say it’s a “game” is to diminish just how crazy it is and all it encompasses: lore tome, bestiary, world-building toolkit, and a way of taking friends on epic, cathartic journeys, all in one! I should say that an earlier version of this game formed the logic that underpinned my novel Save Game. It’s co-written with my two awesome friends Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. For anyone who loves Dungeons & Dragons, it’s simply a must (this is very cheeky, but I honestly think it’s better, and I’m not the only person saying that). There is also going to be some non-writing related Dead World content in the works; I can’t say too much, but look out for some unusual storytelling issuing from the Mindflayer’s domain in the future!

Lastly, I’m going to be doing some pretty cool things with my Patreon, The Mind-Vault, this year. Patreon has been an awesome way for me to connect with fans, to share never-before-released content, and to show a little bit more of my personality and life; to show people what’s behind the social media veil, the real person informing the fiction. If you’re subscribed to my Patreon, you get to hear about all these awesome projects first, and sometimes participate in them! You also get a monthly dose of never-before-seen fiction and videos. There’s already more than 30,000 words of content on there and it grows month by month. If you would like to have a front row seat, and possibly become a co-conspirator, in Mindflayer’s attempt to take over the world, then the Mind-Vault is the place to be!!

I’d like to thank you profusely for taking the time to interview me, Dan. You have asked some of the most searching questions of any interview I have ever done. Thank you.

This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Joseph enough for his mind-blowing answers, and for taking the time to answer my questions. It was an absolute pleasure getting to do this. Please check out Joseph’s work today.

Review of Green Fingers By Dan Coxon Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Blurb

A series of micro-collections featuring a selection of peculiar tales from the best in horror and speculative fiction. From Black Shuck Books and Dan Coxon comes Green Fingers, the nineteenth in the Black Shuck SHADOWS series. 

Review

Green Fingers is a short story collection that captures our time perfectly. It is a collection that challenges how we should be viewing nature. From the perspectives of darkness and light, as well as beauty and decay. To examine how humans have allowed themselves to disregard the sheer power nature possesses over our every movement. It was almost as if Dan had taken a scalpel to the surface of our planet, and began cutting into it to show us how it bleeds, and how it is fighting back. At times it felt as if you were hearing the earth scream through the pages. Usually when it comes to short story collections, I find myself only enjoying a select few. However with Green Fingers I couldn’t stop reading. Every story dealt with different themes around the destructive force of nature and how us as humans should be giving it far more respect.

Dan linked the stories in a way that took you on a rollercoaster ride through the horrors nature can produce. Yet in the same breath showed you nature’s beauty in mind-numbing detail. The construction of the stories in this way enabled Dan to tap into a primal fear. A fear of the unknown. A fear of a power that is far greater than ourselves. Even when Dan was showing the reader the beauty of nature there was always this undercurrent of darkness that at any moment something beautiful could contain a deadly bite.

One story that stayed with me long after closing the book. Discussed an old couple who are isolated on a snow covered mountain in the depths of winter. At first the story seemed as if it was going down the usual routes. That is until they come across a half dead man trapped in the snow not far from their cabin. I have to say I was transfixed as this couple are made to challenge everything they think they know about the nature world after meeting this man. It seemed to capture every fear humans hold about the nature world in no more than six pages. It was utterly mind-blowing.

Not any of the stories within this collection preach to their reader. What has Dan has done by crafting this labyrinth of stories is plant a seed. Wanting us to dissect these stories. To enabled us to get within touching distance of what nature used to be to us as humans. Asking us to see how disconnected we have become with both the beauty and chaos of the natural world.

Green Fingers is an examination of our past. As well as what the future may hold for us and our planet if we continue to ignore the horrors that we are subjecting nature too. These stories may have links to horror, supernatural, and myths that may make you not view nature in the same way again. But one thing that was deeply clear to me upon finishing this collection was all the stories are human in more ways than one.

This is an expertly executed examination of nature’s power and how humans are nothing more than drops in the ocean. It receives 5 stars. A must read for everyone.

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

Review of Tethered by Ross Jeffery Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Tethered explores the fractured relationship of a father and son. Each story is told with unflinching and honest prose that is both hard hitting and heartrending. These stories delve into themes of toxic masculinity, love, hope, despair, domestic violence, sexuality, weakness and overcoming oppression. Tethered also asks the bigger question of ‘do we ever escape the harm our parents do to us; or do we go through life marred and influenced from our upbringing.

Review

In Tethered Ross has a produced a glorious memoir on the struggles and triumphs of fatherhood. Every story flows like a river connecting all the possible dramas and tragedies a father can suffer throughout their lifetime. As I turned the pages I smiled, cried, and laughed. The reason being is because some of the stories I was reading were reflections of my own memories with my father, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride that my father took the time to make those memories and teach me some valuable life lessons.

I laughed as Ross wonderfully examined the shift in the father and son relationship. That moment were you realise that all the arguments and disagreements that you had with your dad over the years were lessons. That your dad was right all along. I couldn’t stop giggling because I am going through this phrase of my life right now. I found myself effortlessly falling into the simplicity of Ross’s writing in presenting this daunting and complex subject. Not for a moment did his writing feel forced. I felt as if I was viewing my own life. I was constantly thinking I have had this same conversation with my dad and had the same feelings. I couldn’t help but smile.

Don’t be fooled however that this collection is all feel good moments. This collection also showed the more sinister sides of fatherhood. Ross wasn’t afraid to search the dark corners that can be hidden behind closed doors. He was able to explore both the external and internal pain for both the child and the parent. One example of this being done through the eyes of the child. Is were Ross shows their father continuously missing important sporting events, and them having to endure the smiling faces of their friends parents, the excuses from their mother as to why their father is not showing up. In turn this causes them to not be able to handle the distress caused. To the other end of the spectrum were he discusses the father’s internal struggles of trying to be the best parent possible despite the odds being stacked against them. Ross displayed both sides of the argument to traumatising effect.

Some of the stories make for uncomfortable reading at times. Forcing you realise that some of your friends, or yourself have had these experiences, and you haven’t known how to handle the emotions presented. Therefore you have hidden away or reacted with rage. The stories as they progress make you feel as if you are dissecting every interaction you ever had with your parents and friends. At times this collection is a punch to the gut. Weirdly it feels good as you dive into the weirdness of your own life.

In this collection Ross asks the reader about the many faces of parenting. Drawing on every last drop of blood, sweat, and tears to make you reflect on all of life’s lessons. Whether you’re a parent or not. This collection will teach you something to take forward into tomorrow. Through every word in this deeply personal collection Ross takes the reader on an emotional journey. Be ready to be haunted once you leave. My only critic is in some stories I would of liked more depth. As unfortunately some stories lacked the emotional pull of the others.

It receives 4 stars. An impressive examination of what it truly means to be a parent. Highly recommended.

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

 

Cover Reveal: Whispers In The Dark(Erika Piper Book 2)By Chris McDonald

Today I am honoured to be revealing the cover for book two of the electrifying Erika Piper Series Whispers in the Dark by Chris McDonald. Its a beaut. Thank you to Chris and his publisher Red Dog for asking me to do this I couldn’t be more excited.

Before the big reveal here’s something to wet your appetite.

Blurb:

Whispers in the Dark

Who will heed the call when Death comes whispering?

Small time drug dealer, Marcus Stone and DCI Clive Burston had never met until one night in August. But by the end of that night, both had been shot dead in a small bedroom in the heart of gang territory.

DI Erika Piper is called to the scene but is at a loss to explain what’s happened. How did these two even meet, let alone end up dead in what appears to be a strange murder-suicide? As Erika leads the investigation, another two bodies are found, killed in a similar fashion. One murder, one suicide. But who is controlling this macarbre puppet show?

As Erika delves deeper into the lives of the dead, the pieces begin to fit together and a number of nefarious characters crawl out of the woodwork – one of whom is almost certainly pulling the strings.

A catastrophic event and a personal miracle threaten to derail the investigation. Erika must find the strength to continue, before the whispers catch up with her too…

And now here it is what you’ve all been waiting for. You’re in for a treat!

Cover:

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How do I get my hands on it I hear you asking! See below for more details.

Interested then why not pre-order and brighten up your November. The book will be available to pre-order on Red Dog’s website (www.reddogpress.co.uk/shop) and also on Amazon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Whispers-Dark-Erika-Piper-Book-ebook/dp/B0889SP137. Publication date is 14th November 2020, and it will be available in Hardback, Paperback and Ebook versions.

Review of Juniper By Ross Jeffery Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

Juniper is the first book in Ross Jeffery’s proposed trilogy: a post-apocalyptic horror about an insane American town seemingly at the edge of reality. As Juniper suffers from scorching drought and medieval famine, the townsfolk are forced to rely on the ‘new cattle’ for food: monstrous interbred cats kept by the oppressed Janet Lehey.

But there’s a problem: Janet’s prized ginger tom, Bucky, has gone missing, flown the coop. As Janet and her deranged ex-con husband Klein intensify their search for the hulking mongrel, Betty Davis, an old woman clinging to survival on the outskirts of Juniper, discovers something large and ginger and lying half-dead by the side of the road.

She decides to take it home…

Juniper is surreal, dark, funny, and at times: excruciatingly grotesque. Buckle up for a wild ride through the dust-ridden roads of a tiny, half-forgotten American town.

Review

Juniper is a book everyone needs to read. I couldn’t stop reading Juniper because of the unique voice Ross projects onto every page. Ross is like a spider weaving a complex web of perspectives that ask the reader to look beyond his writing to find the deeper meanings in this melting pot of text. The story centres around three main characters. Each one impacting upon one another in several ways throughout the narrative. Injecting interesting arcs that maintains the readers attention throughout. All three are well fleshed out meaning that you absorb their flaws and relate to their daily struggles.

These three characters are Betty an old woman who roams the outskirts of Juniper in search of roadkill for her pot. She is rumoured to be older than Juniper itself there from the very beginning. Children believe she is a witch. She was the most interesting character. Ross described her superbly drawing you into how she survives leaving a sense of mystery around what her role is in this dead end town. Janet is a beaten woman who can feel her life slipping away as she struggles against the violence of her deadbeat husband Klein. Klein is an ex con who delights in causing havoc throughout his marriage and neighbourhood lording his power over everyone forcing them to live in fear.

I lost myself in Juniper. A town that has been forgotten by the wider world left to rot in its own misfortune. A sun scorched wasteland where the worst of society go to die. The descriptions of Juniper are so vivid that it almost becomes a character all on its own. A ravenous monster of warped creation that the unfortunate cast of characters barely survive. As I continued to read I found myself picturing Juniper in all its glory, as if I was a lone traveller on a road to redemption with no end in sight. Even though the setting is influenced by the vastness of America and its forgotten communities. I couldn’t help but begin to draw parallels with the disengaged and desolate areas of the United Kingdom that have been cast aside in the current climate.

By using Juniper in this way Ross focuses our attention on several struggles that his characters face from domestic violence to homelessness. Through the characters Ross discusses a multitude of themes displaying many different abuses of power whether it is control over an individual or a community. Throughout the narrative Ross showed these abuses with a skill that allowed you to judge for yourself who truly was the hand of evil, and demonstrated the devastating impact these themes can have on a community. Ross brings these themes into the light wonderfully helping to remove the taboos. This was the main message for me from this book that we must discuss all elements of human capacity to generate conversations to change the downward spiral that we seem to be flying towards at unforgiving speed. What made Juniper different is that we are shown the situations from all perspectives from the abusers to the victims insight. Ross isn’t afraid to show the reader that his characters have many conflicting emotions that at first glance would make you believe they are doing the right thing. As this dark themed narrative progresses, Ross implodes our judgements on the disease that is humans in the western world asking us is this truly what we want future generations to inherit.

What Ross has been able to achieve in this novella is nothing short of remarkable. The character developments, multilayered meanings, and the sense of place that is created is breathtaking. A sense of place is an element of books that I need to hold my attention if I don’t engage with your setting you lose me and in Juniper the setting is breathless. For a debut book Ross has engaged my curiosity and this is only our first encounter with the dark beast that is Juniper. This book is Armageddon meets Salem’s Lot. A highly recommended read. I cannot wait to see what Ross writes next. Well done you receive 5*.

About the Author

rj 2

Ross Jeffery is a Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here @Ross1982

I received a copy of Juniper in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

Why not treat yourself to a copy by clicking on the link below

https://storyoriginapp.com/universalbooklinks/bf102188-40e1-11ea-a9d2-cf337a3bfa89

Review of Save Game by Joseph Sale Written By Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Levi Jensen is, by all accounts, a loser. He failed sixth-form, never got to university, and works at a no-future fast-food restaurant. The only thing he’s good at is gaming.

When his father starts dying of a new type of cancer, only treatable privately and at impossible expense, Levi’s one hope of saving him becomes the million-dollar cash-prize for winning the dark-fantasy video-game Fate of Ellaria.

But Levi isn’t the only one with motivations beyond money for winning. And the price of success in Fate of Ellaria might mean the destruction of what little he has left in the real world.

Save Game is a heart-breaking story of an underdog against all odds, as well as a love-letter to the beauty of video-games.

Inspired by the amazing and eclectic everyday people who inhabit the gaming world, and the pain of their real-world lives, Save Game aims to show the courage of those who feel they’ve got no place in reality.

Review

Save Game is the book Ready Player One should of been. Its a book that quite simply leaves you feeling alive with joyful glee. Save Game takes you back to them long summer days of being camped out in your bedroom not allowing even the smallest speck of light to creep through the curtains in case your mother saw you and demanded you got outside. I mean come on mam who wants fresh air when I am blowing people’s heads off. Seriously you had more chance of moving an elephant with your bare hands. You know the feeling I am talking about. I remember it well holding my breath with untold excitement to see if I had defeated the seemingly unbeatable foe.

Save Game gave me this emotion in spades wrapping me in a blanket of nostalgia that once I closed the book I felt as if I had lost an old friend. The reason I say that is because at no point did I feel as if I was reading a book. The sense of place that Joseph was able to create whenever you entered the next quest, made me believe I was a teenager once again locked in my bedroom racing along with Snake from Metal Gear Solid wanting to discover the next clue to accomplish the mission. The world that Joseph creates within this story is one of such complexity, and grandeur that as the words fell away from page to page I found myself smiling in a way that I haven’t in ages when reading a book. It almost felt like Joseph had conducted surgery on all the world’s gamers allowing him to construct an incredible mash up of all the elements that make games tick for us. Pulling influences from such classics as Crash Bandicoot and the greatest game of all time Metal Gear Solid and yes I will go to my grave defending this. As the world continued to unfold it was almost as if Joseph picked up a paintbrush and said this is what you need to know now go and explore. Due to the level of imagination used within the world. It kind of became a character itself. Helping to enhance the heartfelt moments of the story where our main protagonist Levi is faced with some decisions that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

The story is told from the perspective of Levi. A shy young man who doesn’t have much going for him to most people hes a loser. He never finished sixth form, never went to university, and is now working a dead end job. He is kind of a drifter who seems to have no purpose to his life. When his father is struck down by a cancer that seems to have no cure his life is turned upside down. However when he is offered the opportunity to utilise his gaming skills in a game that rewards him handsomely if he succeeds in defeating it Levi can’t pass it up.

What follows is a story about the lengths a person is willing to go to to save loved one. Every time Levi went back into the game I found myself willing him to succeed. You cant help but relate to him, and this is why I always find myself returning to Joseph’s work. Every character he writes makes you feel something for them. Whether it is in the moment, or later on in the narrative when he returns you to a scene you may of overlooked, and gives you all the emotions you were hoping for the first time around. I never finish a Joseph book without learning a new way of how to display an emotion to the reader and for me in Save Game he is marvellous at producing this. I loved the interactions between Levi and his father. How Joseph was able to give you insights into their complex relationship that displays love in so many different ways.

This book is an examination of the ties that bind the human condition. From love to trails of friendship, and the levels of desperation we can reach when faced with an impossible situation. This book has several layers that it is impossible to do them all justice within this review. You will just have to read for yourself to find out more. It receives 5 stars. A highly recommended read.

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

Interview with KV Johansen Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am delighted to welcome KV Johansen. Author of the Gods of Caravan Road Series for an interview on my blog.

DS: Thanks for being here KV. Its a pleasure to interview you.

KV: Thanks Dan. Its a pleasure to be here.

DS: Lets begin

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?

KV: I’m a Canadian with an academic background in Medieval Studies and English Literature. I started writing as a kid because I’d always been fascinated with language and with stories. I used to tell stories to my sisters; the natural progression was to start writing them down. They were always fantasy stories; I mostly read stories that were fantasy or had an historical setting (whether by virtue of being historical fiction, like Rosemary Sutcliff, or being stories of an earlier era, like Arthur Ransome), so fantasy seemed to be how I naturally expressed the stories I wanted to tell.

DS: Your dialogue is extremely rich. Do you plan the dialogue, or does it grow organically as you go?

KV: I don’t plan the dialogue in advance. It just flows out while I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll compose quite long bits in my head while I’m walking or driving, too, though once I get back to my computer and start writing them, they’ll shift and go in different directions as the larger story demands, but that’s not exactly planning that some particular characters are going to have a conversation that’ll do X or Y. For me, it’s important to have a good ear attuned to the way that the characters are speaking. They may use certain diction in specific situations, and another mode of speech entirely in a different circumstance or with different people. Speech seems to be part of shaping the character, when I write. I don’t consciously consider how a particular person’s way of speaking will reveal them; it seems to be a fundamental thing that happens naturally as the character grows. I suppose that goes back to this lifelong fascination with language. It’s like developing an ear for music — it’s been something in my head for so long I just do it.

DS: You have wrote stories for all ages from picture books to adult novels. What different challenges did each style of writing present? How did they make you grow as a writer?

KV: I find that remembering being someone of that age taking in stories really helps in hitting the right voice for the audience. In a way, it’s a case of writing for yourself at whatever age or reading level you’re feeling that a particular story is for — telling that past you a story you would have wanted. If you have that memory, it’s a huge help in keeping the tone you need, in remembering what matters and what doesn’t. If you write for the very young you who would have been delighted by “Pippin splashed in that puddle, splish! splash! splosh! until she was muddy from her great big ears to her curly black tail ..” rather than for some imagined adult gatekeeper, you’ll hit the right tone, rather than sounding arch and condescending, which is a pitfall potentially lying in wait for picture book writers.

I suppose one challenge in the children’s novels was that the Torrie books, but most especially my YA series Warlocks of Talverdin, kept edging towards something older and darker as time went on, because I although I had been writing adult fantasy all along, I wasn’t having any luck finding an agent or a publisher at that point in the late nineties and early 2000’s, and the desire to be working on that more kept leaking into other things I was working on, so that I had to keep reining in the complexity — not because children or teens couldn’t deal with it, but because no Canadian publisher was going to let me have that kind of length. It wasn’t what the market in Canada wanted at that time. It drove me to writing Blackdog, to be doing the kind of thing I needed to do that wasn’t able to find full expression in Canadian YA.

I think that in writing the Torrie books in particular, I was reminded of what really mattered to me in a story, and thinking about that consciously became something I could take into my writing for adults. Torrie, more than any other of my children’s books, was me writing for myself.

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

KV: Tolkien was by far the biggest influence on me. His use of language, and the way the language shifts to suit the mood and the mode, really affected how I expected words to work. Other writers I read who were big influences on me would be Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, Eleanor Farjeon, Mary Stewart (her Merlin, not her romance-thrillers), and Alan Garner. Also, as a teen, Cherryh, McKillip, LeCarré, and Deighton.

I’d encourage everyone to read Sutcliff and Diana Wynne Jones. Sutcliff wrote historical fiction for young people, more often featuring youngish adults, not children or teens, and she took her characters through some pretty dark places in their lives. At least three of her books end with the hero’s self-sacrificial suicide or outright sacrifice, though usually she ends on a note of hope and the carrying on of light into the future, even in those. She wrote with an intense feeling of landscape and of people finding a connection with their land — the one to which they’d come, not necessarily the one in which they’d been born or grown up. She wrote about characters wounded, in body or spirit, who found a way to heal and survive and carrying something onwards into the future.

Diana Wynne Jones, on the other hand, is an author I never read as a child, though finding a blurb for The Ogre Downstairs in the back of some other book in the library (Garner, maybe) I wanted to. I never found a book by her until I was an adult researching the book I was writing on the history of children’s fantasy, which was when I bought and read them all. She was an incredible, awe-inspiring writer in her mastery of story, impossible to predict. She also wrote very complex psychology with incredible lightness of touch. It’s just there, in a way children perceive and understand without consciously thinking about it, and yet by showing these things, her books open up minds a little wider, shed a little light in dark places where you can start to see and think about things you might have been desperately needing to without anyone ever offering you the words. (I’m thinking of one of her more obscure books, The Homeward Bounders, here, and Jamie’s isolation and determination to do what needs to be done to keep his world safe. Or Christopher’s behaviour in The Lives of Christopher Chant and his growing self-awareness when he’s so close to becoming a terrible and dangerous person.) But she’s also very funny and mind-bogglingly inventive. Quite chilling, too, when she wanted to be — Time of the Ghost, for instance.

DS: Are you a plotter or discovery writer or a mixture of both? Which ever you chose what are the benefits of this, and what are the drawbacks if any?

KV: I usually start with a character in a situation and figure out the story as I go along — definitely a writer who has to discover the story along the way. That said, I’ve been trying to work it out more in advance for my next project. I work by writing until I grind to a halt, which usually mean the story has gone down the wrong path, backtracking to where it was working and then writing onwards from there again, so that by the time I get about half to two-thirds through, the first parts may have gone through  five, a dozen or more drafts. By half or two-thirds suddenly I can see everything, this synergy kicks in and its all there and I write the rest really quickly and have a quite polished final draft. However, there’s an awful lot of frustration along the way. I’ve hit twenty-five drafts for … I think it was Gods of Nabban. I’d have to look at my files to see; when I do a major ‘out of cheese error, redo from start’ thing (to steal a phrase from Pratchett) I renumber the file.

I’m not sure if trying to work out the general shape of it more in advance is really working for me or not. I still seem to have been writing and rewriting the start of the new project for endless months, with the variation that each time I do, I have to rewrite the outline as well. On the other hand, for my ‘lit’ project, a real world non-fantasy thing, I did have most of the story in my head before I started, and was able to write a sketchy outline of the structure and then sit down and write the book. It would be nice to take that approach into a fantasy novel, I think. But on the other hand, that was dealing with a clearly established world — Kingston in 2016. I didn’t need to invent it; I just had to make what already existed come alive. That exploration as I go way of writing is a huge part of how I make a world come alive in writing fantasy. I guess the approach that works for me is always going to be the metaphor of a path through the forest, or a tree growing, but I’d like to be able to bring a bit more outlining into it, to cut back on how many drafts I have to write to find my way to the end — to at least have a sketch map when I set out on the journey.

DS: Which characters do you enjoy writing and why?

KV: I  enjoy writing almost all my characters. I think maybe the two I love best to write are Ahjvar and Ghu — the way they interact and bring each other to life for me is something special, but two I particularly enjoyed in The Last Road were Yeh-Lin and Ailan. Yeh-Lin has such a zest for life; she’s been in the series since The Leopard but in The Last Road she really gets to shine, and to show what she’s made of. It was a chance to do her justice as a central figure at last, rather than as someone peripheral to Ghu’s story. Ailan is a new character; he comes in as the young, inexperienced person falling into a story where he’s surrounded by competent hero types, and he’s trying so hard to figure things out, to figure himself out, too. His story is really only just beginning at the end of the book. He’s also someone who brings a new perspective to Ahjvar, both as a point of view observing him, and as a way for me to show some of the changes that Ahjvar has gone through.

DS: Would you mind talking about your upcoming release The Last Road? The final book of the Gods of Caravan Road Series. What can we except no spoilers please?

KV: In The Last Road you can expect things to get darker. The stakes being played for may be the very existence of the gods. There’s an army of religious fanatics advancing on Marakand from out of the west, led by an incarnate god who, in contradiction to what everyone understands of the nature of the gods of the earth, is not bound to his land, and who is destroying the gods and goddesses of the lands he conquers as he comes. You’re going to find out more about the nature of the devils and the Old Great Gods and the relationship between them, and see all the non-human heroes of the previous books come together to stand against what looks like the ending of their world as they know it. You’ll meet some new mortal human characters, too, not just Ailan, whom I mentioned above, but the cowherd turned warrior Jolanan, and Nikeh, an orphan who survived the massacre of her village to be adopted as an apprentice scholar and spy by Yeh-Lin. And you’ll finally get to see what happens when Moth is pushed too far.

DS: Finally, what is next for KV Johansen?

KV: My next project is going to involve a much smaller map, not an entire continent, and a smaller cast of characters, but it will bring the same richness of character and world to its story. I’m hoping it will have a bit of the flavour of ancient legend in the background, vast forests with mysteries in the shadows, and the protagonists, not sure whether they’re the heroes or the villains of the tale, entangled in treason.

DS: Thanks so much KV for your fantastic answers I have really enjoyed interviewing you.

KV: Thanks for your wonderful questions Dan. I have loved being on your blog. Thanks for having me.

This interview was carried out over email. Thanks to KV for doing the interview providing such brilliant answers. I encourage everyone to read her work.

If you would like to learn more about KV and her books. Then why not check out these links below.

kv

K.V. Johansen
http://www.kvj.ca
http://www.pippin.ca
http://thewildforest.wordpress.com

https://twitter.com/KVJohansen