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.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Whispersync Will Change Your (Book) Life

Obviously I’m a massive reader but last year I really struggled to get through many books. Instead I was watching TV shows on my commute and, as it turns out, that’s the only time I really have for reading. So I set myself a goal of reading more books this year and one of the things I’m using to achieve it is audiobooks.

The only time I’ve used audiobooks in the past was when I was a kid and I listened to Roald Dahl stories on cassette during long car journeys. I remember loving the atmosphere and getting to hear the characters was amazing to my young mind. It also meant I could get on with other important things at the same time, like playing Sonic the Hedgehog on my GameGear.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

5 Ideas to Be Inspired Every Day

Inspiration has not always been my friend. There have been times when it’s been the notable absence at the table and other times it’s been the unwelcome guest that just won’t shut up. That being said, I prefer the latter, as I find the day to day grind can get me down if I don’t have any wild ideas running through my mind. And they don’t always translate into fantastical ideas for stories but can include a new approach to a project at work, or a solution to a life problem I’ve been wrestling with unsuccessfully; inspiration is for everybody, not just creatives! But getting inspired is not a guarantee and can easily be drowned out by more immediate concerns. So here’s my list of things I’ve found that help to keep those crazy ideas flowing;

Look After Yourself

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stressed, depressed or otherwise so miserable that all ideas dry up and I end up comatose in front of a monotonous TV show (normally involving property). It’s so easy to fall into a negative cycle of not feeling inspired, being unhappy and that in turn leading to yet more struggles to be inspired. If you ever feel like this, then stop. Stop judging yourself, stop pressuring yourself and stop finding yourself wanting. Put creative work on hold and simply do something you enjoy. Easier said than done but it’s worth trying. Also, if you think you may be in a depressive cycle then the best thing you can do is what feels right for you. Everyone says you should talk to someone about it but if you’d prefer to stick forks in your eyes than I recommend Hyperbole and a Half: it’s an online blog from a few years ago and it genuinely helped me when I was in a really low mental state. The writer’s posts about depression rang a bell and helped me through and to see the funny/ridiculous side of the situation. Seriously, go buy her book; it’s awesome.

Always Be On The Lookout

Assuming you are in a reasonable mental state one of the biggest reasons you may be lacking inspiration is you’re just not seeing your environment anymore. We get so used to the lives we lead it can be easy to miss those little moments on the walk to work or on public transport that could give you your next great idea. Now, I’m not advocating eavesdropping on other people’s conversations but… actually, that’s exactly what I’m recommending. Especially for any writers out there who have to tackle dialogue; picking up the natural cadence of how others speak, their vernacular and even the content of their conversations will really help the juices flow when you want to make sure your characters don’t all sound like carbon copies of yourself.

Clean and Tidy Your Spaces

This is a pot-kettle-black thing to include because I’m rubbish at keeping my spaces tidy (at this moment I’m surrounded by a pile of notebooks and paper to my left, unopened mail to my right and receipts a plenty in front of my keyboard). But tidying your work space can really help the ideas to bloom, especially when you replace the clutter with items that you find beautiful, interesting or full of memories. And who doesn’t like a clean desk - no matter how short-lived.

Read More, Watch More and Learn

Lacking ideas of your own? Maybe you need to recharge your ideas battery. And there’s no better way to do that than to read, watch or listen to things that you didn’t create. Go pick up that book that’s been sitting at the top of your to-read pile for months and give yourself an hour or two in the week to work your way through it. Fit in an episode of that TV show you’re obsessed with, or that podcast you just can’t get out of your head. But rather than just absorb and move on, try writing out what it is you love about the thing. What do you hate about it? What would you do differently? Just analysing the mediums we consume can really help us see our way to new ideas of our own.

Make Time

All of this takes time, as any endeavour does. It needn’t take a lot of time but it needs to be scheduled into your day. Think about it; when the laundry needs done, you make time to do it. When you need to fill your empty cupboards you make the time to go to the store and buy stuff. Inspiration isn’t a chore but start treating it like one - at first you’ll struggle to come up with anything but as your brain gets in the habit of thinking a certain way, at a set time each day, the ideas will come and will even start to arrive outside of your designated “inspire me” time. Which leads to...

Keep a Notebook With You At All Times

We’ve all heard it, multiple times, but seriously - get a notebook or an app on your phone where you can write your ideas down no matter where you are or what you’re doing. I use Evernote as it syncs automatically, meaning I have access to all my crazy ideas and thoughts on my phone, my laptop and my main computer. I used to use an actual physical notebook but found it was tricky to pull the thing out my bag and surreptitiously write down my thoughts sitting in a pub with my friends or in the middle of meetings. Using my phone I just come off as being rude and uncultured rather than a special kind of crazy.

Hopefully this little list has given you some starters to work on but I’m always on the look out for more inspiration ideas. What techniques have you used to stay inspired?

Monday, 25 April 2016

Finding Balance

A very strange thing has been happening these last few months. Something that I can honestly say has never happened before; my day job and life no longer feel like two distinct, separate entities. I have, somehow, created a congruity between the two that has always eluded me.

For as long as I can remember I've always felt a division between what I do for work and my "real" life. In fact even school felt the same way, with time spent in the classroom distinct and separate from my life. That stopped for a time when I was at University but started up again as soon as I started working for a living. Every hour spent at work was an hour deprived from me, an hour where I couldn't focus on my "real" life, preventing me from the things I really wanted. It was hard and ultimately resulted in working for the weekend, for the time you do have to yourself and on your own terms.

I suspect a lot of, even most, people live like this. It's normal for there to be a distinction between "what you do" and "what you want to be". Or at least, it was normal for me - until now.

I've been doing a lot of self-inspection this year, really working out what I want from my day job, where I want it to go. That in turn led me to do the same with my own writing. And I recognised that the lack of progress in both of these zones of my life was down to me not doing two things:

    a) Planning (realistically)
    b) Pushing (myself and others to get things in motion)

So in March I got myself a Passion Planner. I'd learned about them over a year previously but had done nothing about it, putting it off and saying to myself I didn't really need something like that. I was wrong - my Passion Planner forced me to re-assess what I really wanted (something I'd done before a few years ago but hadn't moved forward with) and forced me to see what I was going to have to prioritise and what I'd have to let go of. But I did something I don't think I'd have done in earlier years; I included my day job in my Passion Planner. Suddenly I could see how my day job could help me get the skills I needed for my writing goals and how the writing could in turn help me in my day job. Suddenly the two things were not in competition, they were allies that were going to get me where I wanted to be.

I don't know if this works for everyone. Some day jobs are likely too monotonous or restrictive to offer much in the way of personal development. But I've definitely had a revelation and it's resulted in me prioritising my fiction writing by doing it before work three times a week and setting up a working backward plan for my writing projects (something I have to do in my day job as standard). It also made me include my fitness goals into my life so now I visit the gym in the morning twice a week and have a once a week session with a Personal Trainer (who happens to be my boyfriend, but still). It requires some sacrifices, like getting up earlier, staying at work later, but so far it seems to be working. But the most important part, to me, is that I no longer feel like I'm being pulled in different directions, or being forced to make a choice I don't want to make. And maybe, just maybe, this will be the year I can look back and say "this is when it started" when I look back at a writing career. Dreams are where achievements start after all.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Wait Continues

I'm not sure I'm okay. I mean, it's just so frustrating and disappointing, two emotions I do not do well. I'll grin and bear it, like always, but I... just... don't know. I don't know how much more of this I can take.

Winds of Winter will not be coming out before March.

In fact it may not be coming out for some time, as according to Mr. Martin there is "a lot still left to write. I am months away still... and that's if the writing goes well." 

I sometimes wish I hadn't started reading the damned books and had started with the TV show instead. Especially as at this point I'm going to be as clueless as everyone else come Season 6 in April, which will no doubt have spoilers for the books. Then again shoulda, coulda, woulda isn't my style so I'll go into the next season hoping they continue the trend of diverging massively from the books. And where they cross, well, at least it means I get to find out what happens. Because the more Winds of Winter is delayed (and the consequential delay to the one after it, A Dream of Spring) the more I fear a Mervyn Peak situation. If that were to happen I'm not sure how I'd handle it - to say I'm invested in The Song of Ice and Fire would be... an understatement. It just doesn't bear thinking about.