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

Review of Juniper By Ross Jeffery Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

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

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

She decides to take it home…

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

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

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

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

Review of MageBane By Stephen Aryan Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

MAGIC IS THE ONLY WEAPON AGAINST THE GODS

A plague rages in the streets of Perizzi. Guardians rally to deal with riots while apothecarists struggle to find a cure. The cult of Akosh has been decimated but there are many survivors in the north hungry for revenge.

Elsewhere, new alliances are formed to combat a deity who feeds on pestilence and decay. Gods, Sorcerers and Battlemages must set aside the past to work together – or risk unleashing greater suffering than they can possibly imagine . .

Review

After devouring the first two books in the Age of Dread trilogy, Mage-Born and Mage-Fall. I couldn’t wait for the climax in MageBane. In my opinion Stephen Aryan is one of the most underrated writers working in the fantasy genre today. Throughout this entire trilogy Stephen’s storytelling has become effortless.

I can’t get enough of the characters. Its extremely difficult to tell you which characters I enjoyed most as they all have characteristics I either adore or detest about them with it being the final book in this trilogy. We have some returning favourites from the Age of Darkness Trilogy which is set in the same world.

My personal favourite is the Sorcerer Balfruss. The reason being is because Stephen exposes us to more of Balfruss own insecurities challenging his ideology as he is forced to go against his once trusted friend Garvey, another sorcerer and his dispels who are causing havoc across the realm. As the story develops Stephen shows us both sides of Garvey. His motivations and why he has become disillusioned with his power. Plus he gives us an interesting perspective into Balfruss as he begins to re-evaluate his own position within a world that has changed from what he knows and values. This was one of the most intriguing aspects of the trilogy because both character arcs end with satisfying conclusions and showed that even the best of friends are sometimes faced with impossible choices.

What stood out in MageBane was that none of the arcs were shortchanged. The development of the rivalry between Munroe and Akosh is sublime. This toxic mixture of revenge is played out like an orchestra in harmony with both characters fighting their inner demons in a battle for survival. I simply couldn’t get over how well Stephen fleshed out this dual character arc that made it feel fresh and original. The final showdown between them is in my opinion one of the best scenes I have ever read. The tension and emotional intelligence that shone through in that moment left me in bits.

I was also continuously fascinated with the god Vargus and his budding relationship with Danolph. The warmth and curiosity that both characters showed to one another as they roamed the forgotten places of their world, allowed the reader to dive deep into both characters bringing a much needed tenderness to the narrative, enabling you to catch your breath but still be intrigued about the role they may play in what was to come.

I could go on forever about every character viewpoint as they all left an impression upon me as multiple threads were drawn to a close. However I can’t leave this review without giving a mention to the whirlwind that is Dox. A young orphan girl who ends up sticking to Munroe like glue. Her inclusion in this trilogy has been a joy. I couldn’t get enough of her humour which at times made my belly hurt as I laughed so hard. Her attitude is to die for. A delightful blend between fierce and vulnerability that means that Munroe gets away with nothing. I loved how Stephen developed the relationship between them. If you don’t cry during some of their interactions then simply you don’t have a heart. Dox forever I love her.

One of my favourite elements of this trilogy as it progressed was Stephen wasn’t afraid to destroy his world to capture a moment of sheer heartbreak for any of his main viewpoint characters. This is wonderfully illustrated in Magebane as he brings all the threads he has been setting up in the previous two books together to devastating affect. Taking us through a wave of emotions from the heartbreak of lost to the sweet taste of revenge. This trilogy has built upon the richness of the world that was first introduced to us in the Age Of Darkness, enabling readers to explore areas we were only given glimpses of in the previous books. Answering some long standing questions about much loved characters, as well as creating some equally fascinating new ones. I can’t recommend both series enough. MageBane was fitting end if it is to be the last time Stephen writes in this world. I will miss my friends but thank you Stephen for giving them to me. This trilogy is outstanding and to me you are one of the best writers working today. Thank you for the adventure I loved every moment.

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

 

Review of Save Game by Joseph Sale Written By Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 KV Johansen Conducted by Dan Stubbings

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

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

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

DS: Lets begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Which characters do you enjoy writing and why?

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

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

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

DS: Finally, what is next for KV Johansen?

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

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

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

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

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

kv

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

https://twitter.com/KVJohansen

 

 

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

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

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Book Synopsis

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

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

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview with Roger McKnight Conducted by Dan Stubbings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Finally what is next for Roger McKnight?

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

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

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

HOPEFUL MONSTERS: Paperback & Ebook available now!

 

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

Book Synopsis 

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review of Hopeful Monsters by Roger McKnight Written by Dan Stubbings

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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.