Review of In the Company of Strangers by Awais Khan Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

In the glittering world of Pakistan’s elite, all is not what it seems…

Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status… everything except for freedom. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging…

Desperate for emotional release, she turns to a friend who introduces her to a world of glitter, glamour, covert affairs and drugs. There she meets Ali, a physically and emotionally wounded man, years younger than her.

Heady with love, she begins a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, and potentially destroy everything that Mona has ever held dear.

Review

When I first read the blurb of In the Company of Strangers. I was concerned that it would be predictable. Playing into the hands of what I have come to expect from modern day thrillers which is a part of the world gripped on the path to corruption. However I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions. This book in my opinion is a reflection of the turmoil within in our world.

Awais has written a narrative where every character regardless of their role in any scene you must pay attention to everything they say and do. The reason for this is because what could appear to be a throwaway piece of dialogue or meaningless action could in fact turn out to be a major plot point.

The layers of deception Awais weaves is outstanding plunging the reader into a world that is shrouded in mystery and harrowing imagery that leaves you breathless. He doesn’t shy away from exposing the truth around the Lahori society within Pakistan from the double standards, lack of empathy, and indulgence that occurs throughout the novel. Exposing us to a world of the rich that seems shut off from the rest of the country. One of the most important scenes that stayed with me as I continued reading this spellbinding tale was after a terrorist attack takes place killing hundreds of people. The main protagonist’s Mona elitist friends turn down the volume on the television and proceed to drink and dance as they see it as to depressing. I couldn’t help reflect that this was a major theme for Awais. Helping to show how separate the rich are in their views from the rest of their country.

The tapestry of voices Awais creates in this story of glamour, forbidden fruits, and a chaotic love that could end up tearing down everything the Lahori society values most is mind-blowing. Every character is placed in situations where they have internal struggles. Moments where they have to go against the status they have developed for themselves. This is shown best by Mona because even though she craves freedom and the thrills of her newfound love. She is constantly fighting against the ideals of the society in which she lives. A society in which for the most part relegate women into a place of discipline and having to project an image of calmness and strength. Mona’s sense of wanting to belong to both these polarised worlds has devastating consequences that ripple across the entire narrative. Infecting each character like a poison that ends in a domino affect  impacting upon all of them and how they execute their chosen paths.

Awais In the Company of Strangers has flipped story ideas on their head. Giving the reader a story that is filled with colour and a setting that is so atmospheric that you can’t help but taste, feel, hear, smell, and see everything you read. I could go on forever about this novel. It is a triumph in how to expose your readers to a part of a world that is unknown to them and make them feel part of it. Well done Awais you receive 5 stars. A cracking debut novel.

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

About the Author

AK

Awais Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan. ‘In the Company of Strangers’ is his first novel published by the Book Guild and Simon & Schuster. He is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He studied Creative Writing at Faber Academy. His work has appeared in The Aleph Review, The Missing Slate, MODE, Daily Times and The News International. He has appeared for Interviews on Voice of America, Samaa TV, City42, Maverix Media and PTV Home. He is represented by Annette Crossland (A for Authors Agency Ltd, London).

In his free time, he likes to read all types of fiction, especially historical fiction and psychological thrillers. He is hard at work on his forthcoming novels.

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!

 

Review of Dead of Night Written by Michael Stanley Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

When freelance journalist, Crystal Nguyen, heads to South Africa, she thinks she’ll be researching an article on rhino-horn smuggling for National Geographic, but within a week she’s been hunting poachers, hunted by their bosses, and then arrested in connection with a murder. And everyone is after a briefcase full of money that she doesn’t want, but can’t get rid of… Fleeing South Africa, she goes undercover in Vietnam, trying to discover the truth before she’s exposed by the local mafia. Discovering the plot behind the money is only half the battle. Now she must convince the South African authorities to take action before it’s too late, both for the rhinos and for her. She has a powerful story to tell, if she survives long enough to tell it.

Review

Dead of Night is a book the world needs. Its a crime novel with a different.  Unlike your usual crime novel where you can usually figure out who’s committed the crime towards the end. Dead of Night throws you off at every turn. Drawing you into the sea of deceit that by the time you realise you’re fully submerged the darkness has you firmly in its grasp.

The story is told mostly from the perspective of a young journalist called Crys Nguyen. Who we are first introduced to when she discovers her friend, and fellow journalist Michael Davidson has gone missing investigating the illegal trade of rhino horn in Africa for National Geographic. Desperate to find out what has happened to him she reaches out to National Geographic, and agrees to pick up where he left off. Little does she know that her decision could lead to her death moving her into a world of black market dealings, corrupt cops, and organisations with dangerous ideas. As she finds out more regarding Michael’s disappearance she is faced with choices that could define the rest of her career.

Dead of Night has it all murder, kidnappings, stolen money, and enough shady characters to make even The GoodFellas look tame. The beauty of Michael’s writing is that as he introduces more characters into the story regardless of their position in the status quo he continuously makes you think. He has the ability to make every character fall into grey areas nothing is black or white. As a reader you’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth or what their motive could be. The reason being is because even until the last page I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. Nothing was predictable which as somebody who reads alot of crime begins to notice. It was liberating to be given that thrill again of not knowing what was around the next corner. Allowing my heart to race, and my fingers to burn as I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to keep up. Every line and character had a purpose. It had me from the first line never letting up.

Another aspect I enjoyed aside from the murder mystery which was thrilling. Was the fact that through the use of a crime thriller Michael draws attention to a more damaging issue.

The backdrop of the narrative is where this book grows a life of its own. Asking us as readers to put on a different lens placing a taboo subject under the microscope. The illegal trade of Rhino horn that is ripping the heart and soul out of Africa and Vietnam. Michael does an amazing job of presenting balanced viewpoints from both sides of this unknown world explaining why it occurs, and why multiple factors are to blame for this trade continuing to flourish. I adored how Michael didn’t shy away from how poverty stricken Africa is. Explaining in detail that if the West doesn’t take some responsibility for what has driven people to became involved in these crimes then this black market will only continue to grow.

The book includes some risky material but it needs to be said to educate the public and give them an informed choice. This is why Orenda Books are my number one reads at the moment. Every book delivers a profound message stirring emotions, opening my eyes to corners of the world that I would never have being exposed to if wasn’t for these books. Dead of Night receives five stars. I loved it.

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

 

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

Book Synopsis

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

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

My Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Synopsis 

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Review of Shallow Creek from Storgy Books Written by Dan Stubbings

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Book Synopsis-

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

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

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

My Review

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

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

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

Some of my favourite stories from the volume were:

The Cherry Cactus of Corsica by Verity Holloway

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

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

I Have a Secret by Raquel Castro

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

The School Project by Richard V Hirst-

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

Cousin Grace by Jill Hand-

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

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

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

 

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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