Review of The Warder by Susie Williamson Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Blurb

The King has been defeated and the spirit of the Mantra has been restored, Suni has been reunited with her father and all is – not quite right. 

Wanda and his cousin Luna are living in the valley beyond the mountains: Luna is possessed and dreams of dragons while Wanda, gifted with an affinity for animals, blamed by Luna’s mother Ntombi for her condition, struggles with the curse of Orag.

Meanwhile, in the town by the sea, Suni fears for Wanda, and watches over him using her gift for dreamwalking. Many, including Suni’s father, suffer from a strange affliction and the townspeople are blaming the Mantra.

Then the strangers arrive from the sea bringing hope for the town: but in this land of gifts and curses, nothing is as it seems.

Review

This book was worth the wait and more. The Warder is the sequel to one of my favourite books of 2018. Return of the Mantra when it fell through my letterbox I turn the first cover with a glee. I wasn’t sure Susie would be able to increase the enthusiasm I had for her characters, and her world. However she left me reeling after a couple of pages as I was drawn back into this African inspired fantasy.

The story takes place ten years after the events of Return of The Mantra. This decision totally through me as I wasn’t excepting it at all. The reason it worked so well is because Susie didn’t fall into the usual trap I have seen many times in previous fantasies with large time jumps, where you can virtually see no change to the world, or the characters after they have witnessed chaotic events. In The Warder Susie made sure to show political change, rising of different and difficult viewpoints, changes in nature and the wider communities. She also made sure that her main characters underwent life changing experiences. Some of these events included: Them been shunned by their people, to others finally understanding that not everyone can be changed. In the Warder as a reader you are given the building bricks to a wider world that will make you see worldbuilding and character development in a whole new light.

The way Susie was able to expand her world without slowing down the narrative was a masterclass in worldbuilding. I adored how she was able to add lore, and take you to places that would develop unexpected importance during her story. She was able to add this texture and immersion without the usual countless pages of mindless travelling, within a few paragraphs you had everything you needed to know without having to have endless pages of notes just to remember character names. This included adding to the magic system that answered a range of questions I had from the first book, as well as adding more background to new dangers, and why certain characters struggled with one another.

This was particularly done well when it came to my favourite character from book one Wanda. Wanda becomes one of the main points of view in The Warder. He has just turned eighteen, and is struggling with his gift that developed in book one. A gift that was nurtured through his adopted brother-sister relationship with Suni. In this book however his relationship with Suni has become fractured as he struggles to come to terms with his gift. Throughout the narrative Wanda was a vehicle used to show how someone who is different can be shunned by a community. This is displayed the most in the opening chapter when he is living in a cave high above the valley completely excluded by everyone around him. The only connection he feels is with his cousin Luna. However a darkness is growing inside both of them that could change their lives forever. Luna has begun to have nightmares about dragons which Wanda’s aunt Ntombi blames on his gift, and the darkness that surrounds him. As the story progresses we see the consequences this anger from his aunt has upon both Wanda and Luna, as they fight to keep an unseen, and unknown danger at bay. The way this relationship was developed throughout was heartwarming. You truly felt Wanda’s struggles as he tries to protect himself as well as begin to discover what is truly effecting Luna. The growth and love displayed within this relationship between the cousins as everybody around them wanted to push them apart is remarkable. It helped to soften the torture Susie puts you through with Wanda as he goes in search of love and acceptance.

Another viewpoint we get to experience is Luna as she wrestles with the nightmares, and her anxieties as a power she can’t escape begins to take hold of her young mind and body. This was done superbly. As a reader Susie’s puts you at the heart of this young girl’s fears as she is pushed aside by her community, and is described as an evil upon the land. The development of her powers during the narrative is handled with a sensitivity I haven’t read in fantasy before. You can’t help but love Luna.

The other main point of view is Suni. She went through a lot of tragedies in book one including the death of her mother, being rape violently in a brothel, and reconnecting with her damaged father. As well as developing one of the best adopted sister and brother relationship in fantasy with Wanda. In The Warder we witness the recovery of Suni from these hardships.

She has found love, reconnected with the old ways that her mother taught her, and is trying to repair her distant relationship with her father. Unfortunately the demise of the king has brought unseen consequences to her homeland. A plague has infected most of the men making the unable to find happiness. Her father is one of the effected making their complex relationship become more damaged as the story develops. Aswell even though the Mantra has helped nature return to the valley most of the inhabitants don’t regard it with the respect it deserves forcing Suni into difficult scenarios. To make matters worst she can feel her relationship with Wanda declining, and she knows he is withdrawing into a place she cannot go.

The development of Suni is bittersweet at times because you are pleased she has finally found her identity, but at the same time you feel her pain for the bonds she believes she is neglecting. At times I just wanted to give her a hug, and make everything well again. That’s what I adore about Suni as a character she takes you through every emotion and Susie’s truly did amp it up to eleven in some passages as both happy and sad tears rolled down my cheeks.

This book is a charming story of lost, love, and finding yourself in the most unexpected places. It is epic fantasy with a heart that will leave you scarred, but begging for more. Plus it has dragons and who doesn’t love dragons. I can’t wait to return to this world. A highly accomplished sequel. It receives five stars. Read it you won’t be disappointed.

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 Witness X By S.E Moorhead Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Blurb 

SOME CRIMES CAN’T BE SOLVED IN ONE LIFETIME.

THE PAST. Fourteen years ago, the police caught a notorious serial killer who abducted two victims during the month of February. He was safe behind bars. Wasn’t he?

THE PRESENT. But when another body is discovered, the race is on to catch the real killer before he abducts his second victim. Neuropsychologist Kyra Sullivan fights to use a new technology that accesses the minds of the witnesses.

THE FUTURE. Will Kyra discover the person behind the murders, and if so, at what cost? And how far will she go to ensure justice is served?

This is the story of how Kyra tries to save a past she cannot change and a future she cannot allow. A genre-bending thriller for readers who enjoy books by Clare North, Stephen King and John Marrs.

Review

I finished Witness X in a frenzy. I feel almost compelled to reread it just to enjoy the complexity of the plot all over again. Sarah has establish a world that is as smooth as a V8 engine. Every word specifically engineered to stir your imagination. I can’t put this book into a genre. It flows like water touching on many genres that it is impossible to contain. From deranged serial killers to high tech futuristic crime solving machines this book has something for everyone.

Don’t worry though this book isn’t another dystopian novel where the world burns. So if you’re looking for zombies, deadly viruses, or mazes full of creatures then I am sorry to disappoint you. However if you like soft sci fi concepts with some gruesome  murders then pull up a chair and find out why I couldn’t get enough of this sci-fi noir.

The book follows Kyra Sullivan a neuropsychologist who invents a  new cutting edge technology in 2035. This technology allows her to access people’s memories. To witness a scenario through their eyes. When we are introduced to her she is desperately trying to get the technology approved to be used in the criminal justice system. However she is being blocked at every turn. Plus to complex matters further the military are involved looking into ways the machine can be used for their own perverted agendas.

Unfortunately for Kyra these complications aren’t the only difficulties she has to manage  in her daily life. The constant shadow of her sister’s graphic murder looms over her. Even though her killer was arrested fifteen years ago and found guilty. Kyra can’t shake the feeling that they may of got the wrong man. Furthermore she has become the guardian of her sister’s daughter Molly. An unruly teenager who causes her stress throughout the narrative as they both struggle to process their grief. Some of their scenes are my favourite in the book. The reason being is because they are both head strong, and push eachother’s buttons creating an incredible tension throughout when they come onto the page. Making you wonder who was going to snap first. However at the same time they deeply care about eachother’s wellbeing. Sarah handled their scenes with a delicate tenderness that made you powerless against not sympathising with both characters. Unfortunately for Kyra her complicated relationship with Molly is put on the backburner when her worst fears are realised. A scenario she hoped would never happen her sister’s killer David Lomax escaping from prison. Soon she is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind. As the bodies start to pile up time is of the essence. However when evidence surfaces that Lomax was nowhere near the latest murder site. Kyra’s doubts from the original investigation take on a whole new meaning.

Kyra is forced to face her fears returning to a job that almost destroyed her, a former lover in the shape of her superior Tom Morgan which causes no end of problems as she hasn’t forgiven herself about how their relationship ended. As well as confronting her feelings about her sister’s murder and how it impacted her entire family. We are shown both her inner and external strengths. As these situations hold many painful memories for her and yet she faces them head on. Her strength is truly put to the test when Lomax is recaptured and he says he will only talk to her. As their interactions unfold we are taken into a dark mind. A mind fixed on one thing revenge. Without Kyra realising she is soon drawn into the centre of a twisted game of cat and mouse, where she is the prey and the hunter is breathing down her neck. Could Lomax truly be innocence? Has he been rotting in a cell for fifteen years for crimes he didn’t commit? Or is there something deeper that Kyra is missing? Kyra is the only one who can make sure that justice is served.

This book never stopped asking questions. There were so many times where I thought I had it all figured out, and then Sarah would throw a curve-ball. Either by putting a clue on the bodies you won’t expecting, or something I wish was used more often in this type of genre. Which is adding a chapter from the killer’s perspective. This was a massive plus point for me as it let the reader experience his motivations, and feelings as he carried out these horrific crimes. Whether the chapter focuses on his stalking of the women to reveal their routines, or written when he carries out the kill itself. Sarah takes the reader into his warped mind as effortlessly as riding a bike. She writes her villains superbly. Even though he was pure evil. In his deranged mind there was a purpose to everything he did. I looked forward to his chapters the most the closer we got to the conclusion. The reason being was because of how Sarah wrote the chapters you could almost feel him unraveling as the net closed in.

My only criticism was the relationship between Tom and Kyra. Unfortunately for me I found myself becoming frustrated with their dynamic as the story continued. I don’t know if its because I have read some other relationships that followed similar patterns recently, but I would of preferred their past relationship to be toned down. They are well fleshed out characters and had more to offer to the story than their relationship allowed. I would of preferred a more supportive angle applied to the narrative instead of them butting heads over past mistakes. This is only personal opinion and the relationship is well written.

If you’re looking for hard sci-fi with complex futuristic technology, strange alien spacecrafts, or a crime thriller where Jack Reacher would be happy to take a leading role. Then this doesn’t hit the mark. However if you want some lighter futuristic concepts with a multi-layer murder investigation that results in a mashup that reminds me of Final Cut meets City of Bones. Then this is for you. Well Done Sarah. It receives four stars on the rip-roarer scale.

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

 

 

Review of Knightmare Arcanist (Frith Chronicles Book 1) by Shami Stovall Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Magic. Sailing. A murderer among heroes.

Gravedigger Volke Savan wants nothing more than to be like his hero, the legendary magical swashbuckler, Gregory Ruma. First he needs to become an arcanist, someone capable of wielding magic, which requires bonding with a mythical creature. And he’ll take anything—a pegasus, a griffin, a ravenous hydra—maybe even a leviathan, like Ruma.

So when Volke stumbles across a knightmare, a creature made of shadow and terror, he has no reservations. But the knightmare knows a terrible secret: Ruma is a murderer out to spread corrupted magic throughout their island nation. He’s already killed a population of phoenixes and he intends to kill even more.

In order to protect his home, his adopted sister, and the girl he admires from afar, Volke will need to confront his hero, the Master Arcanist Gregory Ruma.

A fast-paced fantasy with magical creatures for those who enjoy the Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera series) by Jim Butcher, Unsouled (Cradle Series) by Will Wight, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan.

Review

Today I am honoured to be part of the Knightmare Arcanist blog tour. Thanks to Dave for the invite.

I have to admit that YA fantasy isn’t something I normally read. The book itself begins on a small island filled with magical and mythical creatures that bond themselves to a select few. This enables the chosen ones to access their powers, and yield magic turning these individuals into Arcanists. This position is highly regarded within the fantasy society created within the book.

From the beginning of the book readers are shown the different class systems that exist upon the island. Unfortunately our main protagonist Volke falls into one of the lowest. A gravedigger. Smelling of the dead and covered in dirt he longs for a better life. He is also orphan who has been disowned by most of island’s population due to his parents shady past. We first meet him on a hillside overlooking the crystal blue sea digging a grave. He starts talking about how he will become an arcanist with his adopted sister Illia who herself has a dark past. How he will become a hero proving that he is not his father’s son. As I read this opening scene I was worried that this story was going down the same pathways as other YA that Volke would rise from his low status and bond with a phoenix fulfilling some untold destiny.

Phoenixes are one of the main mythical creatures used throughout the story. The main impact phoenixes have upon the island is every ten years several of them in a large ceremony select who they will give their magic too. However only those of privilege, and knowledge are allowed to enter the contest to try to win the phoniexes favour and yield their magic. The author does a wonderful job of showing this elite system without suffocating readers with info dumps. I couldn’t help but notice as I continued reading this system that it very much reflected our own world, where only a select few are given equal opportunities to succeed. This creates a major barrier for Volke to outcome. Unfortunately for Volke it all ends in humiliation. This twist was a nice change from the author on the usual story-line making you wonder how was it going to play out.

Volke on the other hand isn’t defeated. He will do anything to achieve his goal even if it means binding himself to a Knightmare. A dark and deceitful creature of terror and shadow. Leading him down a path that could destroy everyone’s existence. Because the Knightmare which he has bonded himself to, holds a secret that will put Volke in direct confrontation with his island’s founder Gregory Ruma.

This book has a lot of elements that draw you in. Mythical creatures different from the ones that you usually experience within the fantasy genre. An intriguing magic system that is subtlety woven into the narrative without the need for major info dumps which is always a major plus in any fantasy. These are the positive points of the book.

Unfortunately there were certain aspects I couldn’t engage with. Some of the characters were to one dimensional. What I mean by that is their actions were predictable. Too often falling into the well known troupes of YA that made me move away from the genre as I widen my reading tastes. Characters were to perfect. They didn’t reflect in my opinion how humans or creatures would behave in any walk of life. We all have flaws, insecurities, and bias that make us who we are. Informing our actions either good or bad. At times scenes seemed to easily resoluted with characters trusting one another far to easily. Unfortunately this made the scenes become unbelievable, and left them wide open for betrayal.

This book has a fast paced narrative with a well thought out magic system. This holds your interest during the narrative as you want to find out more. The book is great for helping clean the palate if you have been feasting on tomes of fantasy throughout lockdown. However if your looking for a complex plot, and characters with shades of grey in their personalities then this isn’t for you. A solid YA fantasy with interesting concepts. It receives 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of the book to be part of the blog tour. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

 

Review of Far From The Tree By Rob Parker Written By Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

Twenty-seven bodies, vacuum-packed, buried in a woodland trench. Some have been there for years, some for just days.

When DI Brendan Foley recognises one of the Warrington 27, he knows this case is about to shake his world.

Detective Sergeant Iona Madison is a skilled boxer and a vital support for Foley. Theirs is a newly established police force, and loyalties are about to be tested to the extreme.

Pressure mounts as news of the mass grave is plastered over the news. Brendan knows they can’t crack this case alone, but he’s not letting a rival force take over.

Their investigations lead them into the murky underworlds of Manchester and Liverpool, where one more murder means little to drug-dealing gangs, desperate to control their power bases.

But as Madison steps into the ring for the fight of her life, the criminals come to them. It’s no coincidence that the corpses have been buried in Foley’s hometown. The question is, why?

The first in a gripping new crime series, Far from the Tree is perfect for fans of Clare Mackintosh, Ian Rankin and Line of Duty.

Review

Today I am honoured to be part of the Far From The Tree blog tour. Thanks to Amber for the invite.

I need to be careful that this review doesn’t turn into a gush fest of how extraordinary this book is. I am an avid reader of Rob’s Ben Bracken series which if you haven’t yet sampled. One where have you been. Two get on it because in my opinion it’s better than Jack Reacher. I will go to my grave saying that.

Therefore when I was kindly sent an advance copy of the first book in Rob’s new trilogy. It was fair to say that I had high exceptions. However what Mr Parker has produced blew my exceptions out of the water. It was like merging a nuclear bomb with napalm and setting it alight. This series has took off like a rocket and shows no signs of slowing down.

I mean the synopsis alone grabbed my immediate attention. Twenty seven bodies found in a swallow woodland trench in rural Warrington, all wrapped in plastic like discarded mummies. If that doesn’t make you want to flip open the front cover and drive straight in well I think you need to stop reading crime fiction.

When the investigation becomes personal after the discovery of DI Brendan Foley’s nephew Connor as one of the twenty seven victims. He stops nothing to bring the killer to justice. Setting off a chain of events that could have devastating consequences for both his family, and his position as an inspector within the force. As the plot develops he finds himself faced with multiple conflicts as secrets within his family, and the criminal underworld of Warrington rise to the surface. As his team go deeper into the murky waters of this horrendous crime. It begins to grow branches like a tree going in so many different directions they don’t know which way is up. All their emotions and personal ties are tested to the limit especially Brendan’s as he fights to maintain his involvement in the case.

This is a police procedural but not as you know it. Parker continues to raise the stakes throughout creating a narrative that has more threads than Twitter. He slowly drip feeds information to the reader helping to keep the plot on a knife edge. As you fight to piece together every clue that is presented to you without discarding pieces that will become vital later is virtually impossible. The red-herrings are expertly executed leading the reader away from the true darkness that waits in the shadows ready to pounce.

The sense of tension is created using numerous devices but the main one is Rob’s use of multiple viewpoints helping to give the reader the thoughts of characters and their motives throughout the narrative. One of my favourites being Iona Madison. A female detective sergeant who is part of Foley’s team, and highly respected within her profession. I looked forward to her chapters because Rob hasn’t fallen into the love interest of his protagonist troupe that you often see within crime fiction. Instead he made Madison hard as nails, gritty, determined, and able to speak her mind without fear of feeling intimidated. I warmed to her instantly, as she ticks all the boxes of what I want to see in modern female characters in any genre. I want female characters to be strong and independent to reflect the characteristics of the women I encounter in my daily life. In Madison Rob has captured this perfectly. I could go on forever about the female characters in this book as every single one brings something to the party. Creating a rich tapestry of characters to fall for. I can’t wait to see what direction Parker takes these characters in next.

Far From the Tree is a book of secrets that brings a town and a family to breaking point. We witness how one event can blow what appears to be the perfect life to shreds. In this book there is everything. Complex father and son relationships, sibling rivalry, the tenderness of friendships, and other family bounds. However as more secrets surface these ties gradually unravel. Making you wonder what are all families truly hiding. How the land lies at the end of this sinister crime nobody can predict, but when the dust settles everyone is changed forever for better or worse. Parker continues to deliver characters that stay with you long after you turn the final page. This one ripped my heart out and came back for more. I loved it.

I genuinely cannot wait for the next installment in this ground-breaking examination of the police procedural genre. It receives 5 stars. However I want to give Mr Parker an even higher compliment. It’s my book of the year so far and it’s going to take some beating. I didn’t think anything could beat Bracken as I adore that series so much. However this comes close. Congratulations Mr Parker you have produced a belter and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

About the Author

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Far From The Tree Blog Tour Banner

I received a copy of the book to be part of the blog tour. 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.

 

Singapore Killer Blog Tour- An Ash Carter Thriller Written by Murray Bailey. Review Written by Dan Stubbings

 

Today I am honoured to be part of the Singapore Killer Blog Tour. Thank you to Murray for asking me to take part.

Book Synopsis

A helicopter crash and burned bodies.
A faceless corpse.
A mysterious town.
It’s September 1953 and Carter is drawn into a dark case from which there seems no escape.
#WhoIsBlackJack

Review

Singapore Killer builds upon the elements we love from the previous installments of Ash Carter. The hardness, his eye for detail that enables him to view a crime scene differently from other people in his profession, and his get in my way and I will destroy you attitude. These aspects are intensified to levels that leave you reeling from chapter to chapter, as Murray gradually reveals a ton of secrets that won’t loosen their grip until you solve them all.

This book begins where every thriller should. By dropping the reader straight into the action. The opening chapters are like a hand grenade going off. All hell breaks loose. A helicopter has come down in the centre of dense jungle in mysterious circumstances. However all isn’t as it seems as it’s burned out carcass is investigated further things don’t add up. Two members of the crew are dead. One from a point blank range bullet to the head. Another passenger is missing leaving a set of handcuffs abandoned inside the cockpit. No record of who was on board can be traced. This situation soon brings in Ash Carter who is going through some personal issues himself. However he soon has to put them to the back of his mind, when this case quickly becomes something that could change everyone’s world as they know it forever.

As the story develops you find yourself as a reader being guided to clues, asked to make your own choices. I really enjoyed this because Murray’s writing is never predictable, and for somebody who reads alot of this genre its a joy. At no point during the narrative did I feel I knew how Ash or any of the characters were going to act. Plus when important decisions were made by characters I always felt that Murray could of taken the story in several directions, and it would still have produced a satisfying conclusion.

In Singapore Killer Murray moved away from the usual story-lines associated with this type of thriller, giving a fresh perspective to how these types of books can be written. Throughout the story I was never told how to respond to specific characters which allowed me to put together a complete picture of a character, and then Murray would blow it up in the next paragraph. This caused an intense feeling as a reader that you won’t in control during an already deeply complex narrative.

The evolution of both Ash and minor characters in the fifth chapter of this series is some of Murray’s finest writing to date. I can’t wait to sample more. The reason I was more involved in this new adventure than the previous books is because Murray deliberately places Ash in scenarios where he is unsettled. Where the right decision isn’t what it seems. As an avid reader of this genre I am finding myself been drawn away from the good guy who kicks everybody’s ass and leaves without a scratch on them. I prefer protagonists who have both darkness and light. I want characters to have both internal and external conflict. Murray wrote this beautifully in Singapore Killer with Ash. Throughout the entire narrative you witness him wrestling with both seen and unseen demons, and you never know what his next move will be.

My only criticism is that sometimes it can become over-descriptive which unintentionally causes the tension to decrease. This can be frustrating when you want Ash to maintain the head of stream that has been developed in spades. This is a small critic, and doesn’t take away the talent displayed by Murray in using a range of locations from both urban streets, to a dense humid jungle that makes your skin crawl as Ash goes deeper into his own horrors.

In conclusion this installment to the Ash Carter series is an experiment by the author to see how far he can push both Ash and his readers. This is a white knuckle ride into the very depths of what we see as the ultimate crime. I found myself needing both a break and not wanting it to let up. Ash Carter is back, and I hope he is around for along time to come. It is a wonderful mix of intriguing characters and action. Well done Murray. It receives 4 stars on the rip-roarer scale.

  About the Author

Murray Bailey Books HOME

I have always enjoyed writing and, as a child, I even managed to be published in both the Times Educational Supplement as well as my local paper the Lichfield Mercury. Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to publishers knocking on my door. After studying Physics at the University of Southampton followed by Applied Mathematics at Cambridge, I entered the very different world of Consumer Credit.

Although I edited Credit Risk International for a year, contributed and edited 3 textbooks and wrote two more, my passion has always been with fiction – in particular, thriller and crime writing. Surprisingly, I discovered there is quite a large overlap between credit risk and crime writing – not least, the amount of logic, problem solving and analysis that each requires.

I have been writing as a hobby for more than 10 years and, after a lot of encouragement from my wife, finally focused on getting something published. My first book, I Dare You, is available as a paperback or Kindle version through Amazon and was followed up in 2017 by the sequel, Dare You Twice. My second work, Map of the Dead, allowed me to indulge my passion for Egyptology and will be followed up by Secrets of the Dead in 2018. Black Creek White Lies, based in Cornwall, is a stand alone written for my mother. The Ash Carter series was influenced by my father’s experiences in the Royal Military Police in 1950s Singapore. Singapore Girl is the second in the series and Singapore Boxer the third. Hopefully 2019 will see episode four.

Born in Greater Manchester, England, I have gradually moved south until I reached the beautiful Dorset coast where I now live with my wife and family. Having young children and an all-consuming passion such as writing doesn’t leave much free time, but when I do take a break I enjoy running and cycling, kayaking along the gorgeous River Stour and building sandcastles with my children. To find out more about the Ash Carter Series click on this link. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murray-Bailey/e/B01J811866?ref_=dbs_p_pbk_r00_abau_000000

Singapore Killer Blogtour v4

I received a copy of the book from the author to take part in the blog tour. 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:

wid

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 Shadow Booth Volume 4 Short Story Collection by Various Authors Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

It’s as Peter begins to wade into the tarn that he spies the strange canvas structure at the edge of the trees. It looks like an abandoned Punch & Judy booth, he thinks, but dirty and tired, stained black with mould. Ignoring the water licking cold about his ankles, he squints to read the crimson scrawl on the plank propped against it. Enter the Shadow Booth, it says, and you will never be the same again.

The Shadow Booth is an international journal of weird and eerie fiction, publishing emerging and established writers of the strange. Drawing its inspiration from the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, The Shadow Booth explores that dark, murky hinterland between mainstream horror and literary fiction.

Volume 4 includes new weird and uncanny fiction by: Gary Budden, Jay Caselberg, Tim Cooke, James Everington, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Giselle Leeb, Polis Loizou, James Machin, Andrew McDonnell, Jane Roberts, Ashley Stokes, Anna Vaught, Charles Wilkinson and Marian Womack.

Review

My annual plunge into the darkness that is the Shadow Booth was a joy. Usually I would highlight certain stories for praise. Ones that stayed with me longer than others, or had a specific quality I enjoyed. Whether that was a character, setting, or a writing style I had previously not encountered. However with this volume every story contained specific qualities which grabbed my attention leading me into the shadows of dread that had been written with both excitement and fear.

The reason that this volume cast more shadows that I wanted to visit was because the writers of each story constructed a question into their texts. Some had simply one question, where others contained many but as a reader I was captivated. I wanted to discover every answer to every question. Whether that was an internal question about myself and how I understood the world. To external questions that asked you to investigate what is being presented to you in more detail to increase your understanding further.

The writers did this in such a way that you felt as if you were being dragged down a deep dark hole kicking and screaming in protest but at the same time you wanted them to draw back the curtain and let you in. Horror troupes and supernatural troupes were simply the vehicles that they used to drive these messages home. However the reason this volume has stayed with me longer the other three, is because it went back to what I want from horror and the supernatural. It sent shivers down my spine, it made to sleep with the lights on, but most of all it made to think. I was terrified but I couldn’t stop reading. That’s what I need from these kind of stories I need to be afraid and be challenged.

Every story challenges your moral compass. The further the reader goes into the collection the more layers were revealed to them. It was almost as if they were a detective but instead of trying to solve clues to a murder it was them who were being examined. Throughout the stories this kept returning. Whether it was somebody questioning what they had witnessed because of drug use or a mother trying to come to terms with tragedy. The more the reader reads every story the more they will become invested in finding the answers but what I enjoyed most is that all these stories will give different messages to different people. Therefore you will always come back to learn more. This is a well edited collection of stories that carries with it a variety of important messages that everybody can sample and enjoy.

It receives 4 stars. A well executed read. I am happy to recommend. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review this doesn’t effect my views.

 

Guest Post: Extract from Remember Me By Amy McLellan

Today I am honoured to welcome debut novelist Amy McLellan to my blog. Amy has kindly agreed to allow me to publish the first three chapters of her incredible debut Remember Me for you all to enjoy. Thanks Amy read it now.

Chapter One

Everyone looks the same. That’s the problem with these TV series set in indeterminate olden times. The beards, the straggly hair and the dirty tunics mean it’s hard to tell one earnest plotter from the next. Even the rich ones – easily identifiable because their robes are trimmed with fur and they have morelines – look like they need a good wash. I share this observation and Joanna sighs dramatically. She hates me talking during her shows but I can’t help myself, particularly when it comes to plot holes. When you’ve actually read the books the series is based on, you become very proprietorial. As someone who’s in a book club and describes herself as an avid reader on Match.com, I’m surprised Joanna isn’t more understanding.

I pour myself another glass of wine and Joanna gives me the side-eye. I’m not supposed to drink but sometimes I must, just to feel part of the human race again. Besides, she’s drinking. She can be very insensitive sometimes.Another mud-smeared soldier walks in and whispers in a lady’s ear.

‘Who’s he?’

‘I thought you were reading.’

I raise my eyebrows at her but go back to my book and re-read a paragraph. It’s a froth of a love story and isn’t taking. I look back at the screen, waiting for dragons to appear, but it’s still soldier types whispering in darkened rooms. I can’t help myself.

‘Who’s that?’

‘Jesus, Sarah. Really?’

It’s not my fault if I can’t keep up with the television. I’m just trying to pay an interest but she gets so irritated, as if I’m butting into real-life conversations. I know she’d prefer it if I went upstairs and left her to watch her shows in peace but that’s not really fair on me, is it? I wonder which of them she’s got a crush on. The warrior? The earnest one? Maybe it’s the woman. It’s hard to tell with Joanna. She’s my sister but sometimes she’s a closed book.

I am just reaching for the last of the Rioja when there’s a crunch of feet on gravel and a shadow slides past the window. Joanna shakes her head with irritation. ‘What’s he doing here?’ she mutters. She blows out a heavy sigh as she extracts herself from the sofa. ‘I suppose I’ll get it, then?’ I shrug. We both know I can’t answer the door, particularly not the back door: that means it’s someone we know. I’m better with strangers but that’s not saying much. I’m not really a people person any more.

She huffs and puffs from the room and I seize my opportunity. Goodbye Westeros, hello Classic FM. Triumphant, I settle back onto the sofa, Debussy washing over me and the last of the Rioja in my glass. I lift my glass in a silent salute to the unexpected visitor. Snooze you lose, sis. But the triumph fades when she doesn’t return to chide and tut at me. I wonder what she’s up to. I strain to catch a voice. They must be whispering. Is it a date? Has she got a secret lover? I wonder if she’s been Internet dating again; she’d sworn off after the humiliation of the philandering pensioner. But she’s always so secretive. Is that why she lets me drink wine, so she can have her secret assignations behind my back? It’s not like I can tell anyone anyway.

I’m about to drain my glass when there’s a sudden crash and Joanna cries out. There’s the low rumble of a man’s voice and the scrape of chair legs against the floor. Then silence. I pause as I run through all the justifications to do nothing, imagining the embarrassment of walking in on my sister in the throes of passion with her mystery man. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve read a situation all wrong.

I stand up carefully and kick off my slippers so I can pad quietly across the carpet in my socks. The radio is still playing, and the bright jangle of the adverts provides cover as I inch open the creaking door and step, silent as a sleuth, into the hall. There, in the sudden bright light, with our gaudy coats hanging on pegs and that awful oil painting Joanna bought at the WI on the wall, my fears seem silly. I get a sudden urge to laugh as a memory bubbles to the surface: a television advert from our childhood, a grown man tiptoeing into the kitchen in his striped pyjamas to steal lemonade. Such an absurd image for my brain to hold on to when so much else has been lost.

I’m about to turn back and leave Joanna and her secret lover when she moans again. This time it’s followed by a violent crash, and she cries out, not in rapture but in fear.

I shove open the door, my temper up and as ready for a fight as I can be. I lose valuable moments surveying the horror before me. There’s broken glass on the floor, wreckage from some kind of violent struggle, and the loser, a woman in a yellow cardigan, is slumped and bound in a kitchen chair. My sister. There is blood oozing from a deep gash on her forehead and her skin is ghostly white, beaded with sweat. She looks at me with wide, terrified eyes and tries to speak but her mouth is gagged with a jay cloth. There’s a sudden footstep behind me and strong arms seize me. I scream but at once there’s an arm clamped round my neck, pressing against my windpipe. I claw uselessly at the arm as I’m propelled across the kitchen floor towards Joanna. I try to resist but he is so strong. Joanna’s eyes are wide with terror and she bucks in her chair, trying to get free.

The pressure on my throat tightens and my world compresses to a vital urgent fight for breath. My eyes swim with tears, my feet thrashing as I try to land a kick, while my hands scrabble desperately to try and loosen the relentless pressure on my neck. The panic starts to swell as it dawns on me that this pathetic scrabbling, this useless flailing, could be how I use my last moments on earth. I try to muster all my strength but the life force is leeching away from me. I am going to die. There’s a momentary release as he adjusts his position, grabbing my right wrist in a vicelike grip. I suck in a whisper of air just before he increases the pressure on my neck and with his other hand lifts my wrist so that my hand scrapes against Joanna’s cheek. My nails scratch her wet skin and her eyes meet mine. She’s trying to tell me something but her mouth is clagged with that awful rag and I can barely see now, through the tears and the darkness fogging the edges of my vision. Everything is distant, like I’m looking up at the world from the bottom of a lake. My whole being shrinks to a focal point, to an arm across my airway, to a crushed centimetre of cartilage and tissue, to a single breath. I see my death mirrored in Joanna’s horror-stricken, dilated pupils.

Just as the blackness closes in, the pressure on my throat is released and I fall to my knees, air rasping into my greedy lungs as tears stream down my face. I am alive. I put my head down, my forehead on the floor, and suck in lungfuls of air before raising my head fearfully to see who has done this to us. A tall man in a black hoody looms over me, the lower part of his face covered with one of those black fleeces that bikers wear. It’s imprinted with a realistic image of a skeleton’s jawbone, like an x-ray image of bones and teeth, adding to his menace. My insides feel like liquid; this man, I know, brings death to our house and I am the only one who can stop him. I grab a shard of broken glass, the only weapon to come to hand, and leap up to lunge at his face. But he’s quick, turning effortlessly to dodge my attack. I lunge again, my hand slick and warm with blood as the shard digs into my palm, and almost connect, dislodging the skull face mask. He laughs, a twisted hollow sound, as he swiftly grabs my wrist and turns my arm painfully behind my back. Every muscle and sinew screams, and my body buckles to try and release the pressure on my contorted arm. He jerks a knee into my gut, knocking the air from my body and I collapse to the floor.

He stands over Joanna now, a knife in his gloved hand. I know that knife: it’s the pink one Joanna ordered from the shopping channel to cut meat. I scrabble desperately across the floor to stop him but I’m too late: his hands are so quick and the knife is so sharp. Joanna makes a low surprised gasp as blood, her blood, drips from the knife, pooling darkly on the kitchen floor. He steps back as if to admire his handiwork and I rush forward to help her. There is so much blood. It pulses through my hands, the air thick with its coppery sweetness, as I desperately try to stem the flood and piece her back together. But hands grab me and pull me backwards, away from my dying sister.

My legs flail, trying to find purchase on the floor but he’s so strong that it takes just seconds to propel me out of the kitchen and into the hall. He pushes me towards the stairs and I stumble, a bloody handprint smearing the paintwork. Joanna will be mad with me, I think, but the thought is fleeting. His boot lands in the small of my back and my legs fold beneath me like a comedy drunk. My head bounces off the bottom stair onto the parquet of the hall. He laughs as my skull lights up with an explosion of pain, then all light and sound is extinguished and I fall into the deepest black.

Chapter Two

A hammer, or is it a drill, maybe a vice, ratcheting up the pain,screw by screw. I can’t identify the tool. I can’t see anything yet. There is just pain, blinding, deafening pain. It blocks out the world, like white noise. I wish it would stop. I force open a sticky eyelid, and feel my world tilt. Dizzy and nauseous, I close my eye again. The pain is so intense I can even hear it. Definitely a hammer, it’s like a pile-driver inside my skull. It even hurts to breathe; my throat burns with every inhalation.

I try to move and the pain flares white inside my head, down my spine. The noise has stopped and I open my eyes again and wait for the world to stop spinning. I am on the floor, my body twisted uncomfortably, one arm numb, my hips screaming in protest. I scrape my fingers against the floor. Wood, not carpet. I am on the hall floor by the bottom of the stairs. Did I fall downstairs? Does Joanna know, or has she already left for work? I roll onto my side, releasing the trapped arm, which flops rubbery and useless. What has happened, why am I on the floor? Why hasn’t Joanna come to help me Adrenalin flushes through me, a surge of icy dread floods my veins: have we had another fight? I moan, crumbling into myself with guilt. I know I’ll get the blame again.

I close my eyes and try to breathe through the pain and  nausea but the hammer blows start up again, echoing round my skull. I open my eyes, blinking against the light, but the noise is relentless. It’s not just inside my head, it’s outside. Outside. I am suddenly frozen with fear, my heart thundering in my chest. Outside. I remember now, I know why I’m on the floor, I know why everything hurts. Outside is thundering at the door. He’s back.

I push myself into a sitting position, a thunderous headache pounding behind my eyes, my breath burning in my throat. He’s here, pounding at the front door. I desperately crawl towards the kitchen. I have to find Joanna, she was hurt last night. This time it’s my turn to protect her.

There’s a phone on the kitchen wall, I swipe at the long twisty cord and pull down the handset. I need to call the police but my rubbery arm is hot and uncooperative as blood finds its way back to my hand. Hot tears burn my eyes as I fumble the numbers, and then I see Joanna. She’s lying on the floor in a dark puddle, her back to me.

Broken glass cuts my hands and knees as I pick my way across to her, a prayer whispering through my veins. Please, God, please let her be OK, please, God. The puddle is sticky under my knees and she is so very still. I touch her shoulder, then press my fingertips to her face. She is cold. I jab at the telephone again, and hear a dial tone, then a distant voice. I rasp into the handset. ‘Police. Hurry, please.’

The noise outside is louder now, the house under siege. I want to lift Joanna’s head off this sticky hard floor, where her blonde curls are stiffening in the dried blood, but it’s too heavy. My fingers connect with something cold and hard and I instinctively close my fingers around it; I won’t let him hurt us again. I press myself into her, willing my life force into her cold still body, and then the front door crashes open.

Footsteps crunch over broken glass. There are voices, men,  a woman too. I hold Joanna close, whimpering with fear. It’s selfish when she is already gone but I don’t want to die, I have barely lived.

‘In here.’ It’s a man’s voice.

I flinch, every sense heightened. Footsteps scuff over the parquet and my fingers tighten on the metal. I won’t let him hurt us again.

Someone gasps. ‘Oh my god.’ A voice I think I know. ‘Get him out of here.’ I don’t recognise this one. More footsteps, the crackle of a radio. ‘Sarah? It is Sarah, isn’t it?’ The voice is gentle. A woman. I lift my head from Joanna’s hair and squint up at the voice. It’s a woman in a police uniform. Oh, thank god.

‘Is there anyone else in the house, Sarah?’ I run my tongue over my cracked lips. ‘A man attacked us.’ It hurts to talk. ‘Last night.’ The woman turns and looks behind her. There’s another police officer, a man, shoulders like a battering ram. He nods, and leaves the kitchen. I can hear him opening and closing doors, his heavy tread on the stairs, the sound of him pulling back the difficult sliding door on Joanna’s wardrobe which you have to jerk and lift off the runners to open fully.

‘Clear,’ comes a voice.

I can hear sirens in the distance. More voices outside. My head pounds and the room swims, and I vomit on the floor by my feet, the retching sending shockwaves of pain through my body.

‘OK, Sarah, we’re going to get you some help,’ says the woman, lifting her radio to her mouth. She’s young, not a line on her face, even with no make-up. She’s blond, with her roots showing through, her figure hidden under her bulky uniform, a small tattoo of angel wings just visible on the inside of her wrist. Someone retrieves the phone handset, finishes the call for me: It’s OK, we got this.

There are footsteps in the room again now. The big policeman is back, surveying the room, before his eyes come to rest on me again. ‘Come on, Sarah,’ he says, his voice gentle and coaxing, his hands spread, as if approaching a cornered animal.
‘Put the knife down.’ The woman takes a step back. She hadn’t noticed the pink knife in my hand, still half hidden by Joanna’s hair. I pull the knife out from under Joanna’s hair and release it, noticing how the wide blade is crusted with black blood. Joanna’s blood. I retch again, but nothing comes up. ‘That’s it, good girl,’ says the man, talking to me as if I’m a small child.

The sirens have stopped. There are more footsteps now, more voices. People in uniforms, some of them police, some of them paramedics, stand in the doorway and look down at me and Joanna. Their faces are impassive but I know what they’re thinking: they think I killed my sister.

Chapter Three

We never use the dining room, not since James left home. It’s become a dumping ground: two suitcases in the corner, Joanna’s exercise bike gathering dust and a pile of clothes destined for the charity shop. James used to do his revision in here, books sprawled across the dining table, his laptop glowing blue late into the night. He marked this room as his territory: his compass scored his initials into the table top, cans of Fanta bleaching the wood white. After he left, Joanna and I had stared fondly at the damage, evidence that once this house was a home where we raised a child and how different it was from our own childhoods, when a broken glass or ink-stained skirt prompted slaps, pinches and the silent treatment. I am glad the years didn’t turn us into our mother, at least not in that respect. Perhaps it’s because we have both lost so much over the years that it’s hard to be upset over little things like scratches on a table. And besides, we never used the table: we are kitchen snackers and tray eaters, the radio and television our dining companions. Once James left home, Joanna gave up worthy family dinners, or maybe it was just my company she couldn’t stand?

It’s cold in here now. We probably haven’t had the radiators on since James finished his exams. Already there’s a bloom of damp under the windowsill. I remind myself to tell Joanna, and then reality rushes in like a sucker punch to the gut that leaves me gasping for air.

A hand touches my shoulder and I flinch. It’s another person in a white suit. They are all over the house, grounded astronauts, padding around, murmuring in corners.
‘You OK?’ says the white suit. It’s a woman with shortcropped black hair and elfin face. She looks about twelve. A child playing dress-up: today, Mummy, I shall be a forensic crime scene examiner.

I nod. It’s instinctive. Don’t make a fuss, Sarah, no one wants to know your dramas. Mother’s voice. But of course, I’m not OK. Nothing will ever be OK again. There’s an ambulance parked outside, ready to take Joanna away. No blue lights. They don’t need to rush to where she’s going. There are so many people outside. A lot of police, most of them just standing around. A large white tent has been erected by the front door. It looks like the preparations for a macabre garden party, with police tape for bunting.

I look away and hug myself. It’s so cold in here. I just want to go and lie in my bed with the duvet over my head and never wake up again. An image keeps replaying in mind, my sister’s blood, slick and hot, pulsing through my useless hands, and I think I may never sleep again.

‘Sarah. Is it Sarah?’ I realise the twelve-year-old is talking to me. I nod again but I can’t recall the question. She glances away, over my shoulder and she mouths something. Now, there’s someone else with me, another woman, with blond hair this time. Have I seen her before? I’m usually good at noticing little details but I can’t seem to focus. I can hear people tramping in and out, occasionally saying things I don’t understand or opening big black carry cases with a snap that makes me jump every time.

She starts talking to me but I can’t seem to concentrate on her words: the image of Joanna’s body, her blood on my hands, replays again and again.
‘Your full name?’
‘What? Oh, Sarah Wallis.’
The woman nods at me. ‘And you live here with your sister,
Joanna Bailey?’
I nod.
‘Does anyone else live here?’
‘James.’ Then I shake my head. ‘But he left last year.’
‘Who’s James?’

‘My nephew. Joanna’s son.’ My voice breaks, a hard ball blocks my throat. What will I tell James? He’s only twenty and this is the second parent to be killed. Hot tears burn my eyes. What can I say? ‘And it was just you and your sister in the house last night?’asks the policewoman again.

I nod. ‘But then the man came to the back door.’
‘What time was that?’
I try to think. Joanna was watching her show. And I was being a bloody cow about it. I always made life so difficult for her. I couldn’t even answer the door so she could watch her show in peace. It should have been me, my blood. And it swims before my eyes again, Joanna’s blood spilling through my fingers, my fumbling hands unable to hold her together or make it stop.

The policewoman is talking again. I raise my eyes to her face and try to concentrate. ‘Is that OK with you, Sarah? We’re going to get you checked out.’ I realise they want to take me somewhere. ‘What?’ I croak, my mouth dry, my throat closing as the familiar panic starts to swell.

‘We need you to see a doctor, to make sure you’re all right.’ A doctor. I know doctors, I can do doctors. I have spent so much time in hospitals they are almost a safe place for me. Almost. My body shivers violently with cold and what I suppose is shock. They let me get a coat and my handbag and then I’m shepherded out through the battered front door, blinking in the white light. The cold air tastes of wet grass and diesel fumes. Cars have churned up the gravel and there are deep tyre treads across our scrap of front lawn.

I shiver in the cold spring air. The ambulance has gone; where have they taken Joanna? But before I can ask, I am guided into the back of a police car which quickly pulls out onto the street. The trees are in bud and there’s a confetti of pink blossom on the grass in front of the church. The rush of colour takes me by surprise: it’s the first time I’ve left the house in six weeks.

About The Author

amc

Amy is a freelance journalist and copywriter. She lives in Shropshire with her husband, fellow author Adam Hamdy, three kids, a cat and a serious caffeine habit. Remember Me is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter. https://twitter.com/AmyMcLellan2

Why not pre-order on this link.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Remember-Me-Amy-McLellan/dp/1409185141/ref=sr_1_1?crid=Z9AWLNVDIX31&keywords=remember+me+amy+mclellan&qid=1569839624&s