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 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.

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.

hm

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.

 

Review of Hopeful Monsters by Roger McKnight Written by Dan Stubbings

Why Not Pre-Order Now by Clicking This Link: https://storgy.com/2019/08/02/hopeful-monsters/

Book Synopsis

Hopeful Monsters: Profound Book of Short Stories Explores Humanity Through Lens of Minnesotans. Roger McKnight’s ‘Hopeful Monsters’ is a beautiful collection of short stories, reflecting on Minnesota people, that takes readers on a journey through pain, defeat, triumph and hope. Covering social issues including immigration, race and social injustice – McKnight showcases humanity through the periscope of one of the United States’ most unique groups of people.

Roger McKnight’s debut collection depicts individuals hampered by hardship, self-doubt, and societal indifference, who thanks to circumstance or chance find glimmers of hope in life’s more inauspicious moments. Hopeful Monsters is a fictional reflection on Minnesota’s people that explores the state’s transformation from a homogeneous northern European ethnic enclave to a multi-national American state. Love, loss, and longing cross the globe from Somalia and Sweden to Maine and Minnesota as everyday folk struggle for self-realization. Idyllic lake sides and scorching city streets provide authentic backdrops for a collection that shines a flickering light on vital global social issues. Read and expect howling winds, both literal and figurative, directed your way by a writer of immense talent.

Review

Upon opening Hopeful Monsters Roger’s voice bursts off every page like a lightening bolt begging you to listen. His voice is a road map helping us peel away the hidden meanings behind his words. It felt almost at times as if he was giving me a social commentary on our current climate. Presenting stories that focused attention on several problems throughout the world that effect everyone in one form or another.

One story that struck this point home most was a story called September Mist. A story of two people who love each other deeply but because of race and other circumstances can never truly be together. Roger’s words seem effortless as he conveys the struggle these two face to be accepted within their respected communities before they can even begin to see a future together. A line that stood out for me on this theme was “Yes, some places black folks don’t go very often-not that we can’t-we just don’t” said by Eve. One of the two main voices in the story when encountering glances from a white gentleman in a restaurant. I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the segregation of blacks in the 1950s in the US and wonder whether Roger was trying to get the reader to realise that unfortunately some of these longheld prejudices have never truly left the modern world.

A story which I have read countless times was Rain Shadow. The story centres around a group of homeless people who tackle daily battles with each other as well as their own demons. Roger explores many different problems that impact upon the group from addiction to helping draw one another back from the brink. The reason I keep coming back to it is because of its rawness. Roger presents in sixteen pages, a hollowing account of what it truly means to be homeless when all you have is your own thoughts and a few friends to keep you sane. Nothing feels overexaggerated or put in simply for dramatic affect. The scary thing is he was only scratching the surface.

Addiction is a theme that Roger revisits numerous times using different characters throughout the collection to display his message. Roger paints the corrupt forms that addiction takes in a way that I haven’t encountered previously. He uses addiction as a hook to help show the depths that a person will go to get their fix regardless of the consequences. Whether it is relationship break down, loss of their job, or their kids being taken away. Yet he does it in a way that never comes across as judgemental showing the reader that even the best person can make the wrong decision.

This truth is displayed wonderfully in a story called Iago where our character goes to the pits of society in search of what he thinks is eternal bliss. I felt this was the most powerful story in the whole collection as it demonstrates the dark horror of drugs. Exposing the reader to the wide spreading effects addiction can have on a community in a sensitive and eye-opening verse that forces you to push the boundaries on what you think you know.

What I adored most about Hopeful Monsters was the fact that Roger highlighted the plight of several vulnerable groups within his stories. He wasn’t afraid to discuss sensitive topics such as suicide, homelessness, addiction, and mental health creating an array of intriguing characters and scenarios to give a voice to the forgotten in our society.

Every story seems to be centred around some key universal themes that help to create a narrative that explores the hidden corners of the mind and society. Begging the question how much has really changed? For me Hopeful Monsters is more than a short story collection. It is a memoir of how different life choices can set a person down a path that sometimes they cannot return from. I look forward to reading more of Roger as this collection was a work of art. It receives 5 stars. A must read.

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

About the Author

roger

Roger McKnight hails from Little Egypt, a traditional farming and coal-mining
region in downstate Illinois. He studied and taught English in Chicago, Sweden,
and Puerto Rico. Swedes showed Roger the value of human fairness and gender
equity, while Puerto Ricans displayed the dignity of their island culture before the
tragedy of Hurricane Maria and the US government’s shameful post-disaster
neglect of the island’s populace. Roger relocated to Minnesota and taught Swedish and Scandinavian Studies. He now lives in the North Star State.

 

 

 

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.

em

 

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

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

Book Synopsis

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

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

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

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

My Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cg

 

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

Book Synopsis

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

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

My Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that any anything Robin Hobb wrote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Men In Black Panel with Paul E Hardisty and Luke McCallin

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

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

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

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

 

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