Friday, 26 August 2016

Book review: The Last Days of Jack Sparks

The Last Days of Jack Sparks
Jason Arnopp
Kindle edition, 2016

You know what I haven't read for a long time? A straight up, no holds barred horror story. No future set dystopia, no spookiness in space; just a real-world frightfest. I'm pleased to say that Jason Arnopp's latest, The Last Days of Jack Sparks, fits that bill. Weird, gore-filled and creepy throughout, if you're a fan of supernatural tales of hauntings and possessions this is well worth a read.

Set up as a book within a book, readers first meet Jack Sparks' brother. This first person introduction sets the scene; Jack Sparks was writing a book about the supernatural. Something terrible happened. What follows are the gathered writings of Mr. Sparks, with a few extra notes provided via emails, audio and video files. This opening reflects a trend through the body of this book; hint at whats to come via a narrator who is writing after the event. Tied in with this is the problem of unreliable voices, as everyone we hear from thoughout the story has their own agenda.

Before long we're in the head of Jack Sparks himself as he embarks on a mission to prove that the supernatural doesn't exist. Imagine if Richard Dawkins, Piers Morgan and Christopher Hitchens were combined into one, with a dash of Krishnan Guru-Murphy. Yes, that bad. Sparks is full of himself, entitled, selfish and unbending. But he is funny. Inevitably his dealings with the supernatural get all too real but Sparks isn't for believing any of it. Or maybe, just maybe, he's right and it's all a big hoax. Though the author gives a pretty strong indication which way it actually went, even to the end there is a lingering question mark.

Speaking of the supernatural, one massive positive is how genuinely spooky this story is. The scenes where the metaphysical shit hits the fan are not just great fun but genuinely creep-inducing. Not The Shining level of scares, but definitely enough to make your skin crawl and turn the light on before you go into a dark room. Arnopp isn't a subtle build kind of guy in the way King is but he doesn't need to be; this is a larger than life modern morality tale, with more in common with The Ring and The Evil Dead than with Aesop's fables.

My only real gripe is the main character. He's intensely dis-likable but just when I was getting sick of his bullshit he'd pull me back in with a funny or inappropriate comment. And that's kind of the point; Jack Sparks is no hero. He is not someone you'd want to have in your life. But he is compelling. And that is probably the most intriguing thing going on here. Even the most vile human being can solicit feelings of sympathy, given the right (or wrong) situation.

With plenty of contemporary references, The Last Days of Jack Sparks, is a thrilling ride from start to end. How often do you get to read something that's actually fun, that makes you smile and makes you shiver? If you too are looking around for a new horror story to try then this one is definitely worth a go.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Still trucking on

Once again life has been getting ahead of me. My plans to write and exercise more have not exactly gone to plan. But I find focusing on the plus side of things is better than dwelling on the bad, so a quick update on the last month or so:

  • I had a wonderful holiday in Tenerife; ten days and nights of sun, good food and good drink.
  • I've read some great books lately, including the final Discworld novel Terry Pratchett ever wrote. *sob*
  • I'm now working out four days in a row, with three days off between. Definitely getting stronger!
  • My writing has been slow but I've finished a couple of drafts of a time travel story. Still not sure if it's any good or not, but it continues to be a work in progress.
  • I've been getting practise in setting up a website from scratch with Wordpress.
  • I have begun to tentatively write up ideas and details of a novel that has been rumbling around in my head for over a year.

Despite feeling like I'm not achieving much I've actually been doing a lot of things. It's funny how, until you write down what you've been doing, life can feel like it's slipping by. There's probably some kernel of wisdom there. One thing I haven't been keeping up with is my Passion Planner, which was always useful in keeping me grounded and directed. I'm going to make an effort to get used to updating it again, as the weekly look backs are really useful in seeing where you've not made the best use of your time as well as what your achievements were.

I'm still hopeful I can get a story or two published this year, if I keep plugging away at the words. At the very least I hope to get a previously published short released on Kindle by 2017 and a novel largely plotted out. Of course my day job may have other ideas...

Watch this space!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

All Hail Macbeth

In an effort to escape the never ending fustercluck that is British politics, I finally got round to watching Macbeth (2015) this weekend, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. First off I have to say it astounded me; beautiful, atmospheric and experimental, it's everything I want from Shakespeare. The performances were wonderful and it was great hearing the bard's words in not-too-shabby Scottish accents (Cotillard wisely chose to not try too hard). But it did not take me away from the dire situation my country has put itself in. Rather, it only amplified it.

Macbeth is predominantly about what unfettered ambition will do to a person. It explores how an honourable man can be twisted to commit terrible deeds by the words of others. It also shows the cost of greed to those caught in its wake. Like so many Shakespeare stories, it's about the human condition. At no point are we given clean answers on whether people are inherently good and become corrupted, or whether humanity is far more evil than it is good. All of this seems particularly apt at this moment in time.

In the last few months, and particularly the last few weeks, the UK has revealed the depths of people's ambitions and how they allow that to blind them to reality or consequence. For those arguing for Remain there was a complacency and arrogance, unwilling to look hard into the issues being raised by those in long-abandoned areas of England and Wales. On the Leave side we saw half-truths and outright lies become a major part of their campaign, with little to no thought of what all the consequences could be. In the last few weeks we've seen Labour tear itself apart, with short-sighted MPs on one side and an intransigent leader on the other. The Conservatives have at least managed to sort out their leadership contest in record time but have done so in a way that will force many Conservative party members to reconsider their allegiances. For all the claims that we're leaving the EU to get away from an undemocratic system, it's impossible to ignore that we will have a Prime Minister unelected by either the party or the public.

Fiction often gives a better lens through which to examine these things. I'll be seeing Macbeth again at the end of August, live at the Globe Theatre, and look forward to seeing how current events once again slot into its framework. In the play no one really wins - the price paid is too steep to ever make it feel like a victory. It's a strange sort of comfort to know that things don't change that much, even over centuries. They worked it out, one way or another, and so shall we. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Day One of a New Reality

The train, normally filled with chattering commuters, was practically silent. All heads bowed in abjection, smart phone screens a glow. Fingers swipe in search of answers but only find more questions. Today is the day the United Kingdom left Europe.

Except it isn't. Yet. We're still in the EU and will be until someone decides to issue Article 50 and begin the two year process for extracting the UK from the EU, after 43 years inside it. My personal feelings are best summed up in one word: devastated. I woke up this morning in a country that I had previously suspected was becoming increasingly ignorant, intolerant, reactionary and angry; a boil fit to burst. It turns out my fears were well-founded and I am now in a country I no longer relate to or want to stay in.

I have studied and read many books, and watched many films, about countries that reached a tipping point. The journey from that initial point of falling off the edge until eventually arriving on steady ground has never been smooth and has often been catastrophic. I want to believe that my country will weather the storm and come out the better for it. Then I see the likely figureheads at the helm and I despair.

For those who voted Leave: I sincerely hope you're right. I genuinely want you to be correct in your assertions that our country will be better off outside of the EU, that it won't all collapse around our ears, that the far-right will not see a resurgence in power across Europe because of this, that my non-British/non-white friends will be fine. But I fear that you have been sold down the river with the rest of us by men more interested in their own ambitions than what's in the interest of the citizens not just of the UK but of the whole world. Time will tell.

For those who voted Remain: I feel your pain, your worry, that constant sick feeling in the pit of your gut. I feel the urge to scream "What have you done!" to 52% of the voters and to hope that they suffer as a result. But throughout the campaign the thing I noticed amongst all my fellow Remainers was a patience and tolerance for opposing views. Not across the board (there are bad nuts in every squirrel hoard) but generally we were the ones keeping calm heads and using facts and reason to make our point. That's likely why we lost. I will stay on that course now and say no to hate. Jo Cox did not die for us to succumb to those baser emotions. And in her memory I will soldier on, while carefully considering my own options.

Peace to you all.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Rejecting Hate

There are times when it's hard to hold to hope, to see the "silver-lining". On a personal front I was in Scotland on Monday for the funeral of my aunt. Next week I'll be at a funeral for a friend of my parents, whose children are like my surrogate siblings. It is feeling very much like the adults I grew up with, those giants who led the way, are one by one vanishing from my life. This is a normal and expected stage in life, but no easier for it.

Then there's current events. The horrendous slaughter of LGBTQ people in Orlando, just having normal Saturday night fun. The rise of Drumph and his vile rhetoric. The increasingly vicious and divided EU Referendum campaign here in the United Kingdom. And then, like some hideous blood smeared cherry on this cake of hate, MP Jo Cox assassinated in the street, just outside her surgery in Birstall.

We truly are living in dark times. The war in Syria, the rise of the perverted ISIS, the ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea... My history studies specialised in Nazi Germany and the Cold War. It's hard not to see the horrifying echoes.

Finding positives at times like this is a challenge. Yet we must. When my father died it seemed like there would be no light again. But one person after another, through a kind word or a gesture of compassion, showed me there is always hope. There is always goodness and decency.

I reject despair. I reject hate. There are still wonderful people in this world of ours and I believe we can all overcome the shadows around us. Because we are all one human family; we may fight, we may argue but ultimately we will come together in trying times. Or, as MP Cox said herself;

"While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."

RIP Jo Cox

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Hash Tag Am Writing

I am very much #amwriting, as the twitterverse would put it, but I realise it's been a while since I wrote about my writing. So the latest developments are:
  • I completed a new horror/fantasy short story called "The Serpent's Psyche". It went out on submission last week but was declined by the market I sent it to. Then I read it again and thought "Jesus, no wonder - this sucks." If even I can't believe in my own story then how can I expect someone else to? So it's back to the wordshop for a new draft.
  • A new science fiction short story is in the works. It is in very early draft stage but the lessons from "The Serpent's Psyche" will hopefully make this a smoother writing process (Tip: try to create a name for your story before you get to the final draft, kids - it's amazing how much the title can change the whole damn thing). And no, this particular science fiction story does not have a name... yet!
  • I re-read my previously published short story, "A Fair Price" and was pleased to find it ain't half bad. Plans are afoot to get it turned into a very short eBook...
I'm pleased with the progress I've made this year after defining goals and tracking myself against them. It all sounds very work-like but I promise it's been a lot of fun. I have rediscovered though how hellish the editing process is; to that end I bought myself "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers". It is amazing and has already helped with the rewrite process for "The Serpent's Psyche". Highly recommended if you too are struggling in a mire of words that don't seem to be any good or doing what you want them to.

Here's to further flowing narratives and engaging dialogues - hopefully my future bit of writing news will be even more exciting.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Kindle Instant Preview

Another post about Amazon - you'd think they're paying me or something... This time the news that a new widget has been launched in the US that allows a website to link to a Kindle book and offer a "Preview" option. It will allow a blogger to show an image of the book they're reviewing, for example, and then the reader of that post can press Preview to read the sample of that book, right there in the browser. And best of all for the website owner, via Amazon Associates they'll earn revenue on sales generated via that widget, with an option to buy the book at the end of the sample or to see the detail page on Amazon.

For more details check out the full story on BookMachine, which also demonstrates the widget in action. I'm also curious to see it on a mobile device and not just a computer. One thing a lot of bloggers and website owners miss is mobile-optimising their site (myself included) so I wonder how good it looks on a small screen. But overall it sounds like a great way to promote a book you like and maybe earn a little cash yourself.