Jay’s Four Star Club 2016

Drown – Junot Diaz

Shades of Carver and Kerouac as Diaz uses beautiful language to describe ugly situations. This is often shocking, disturbing or heartbreaking, but with a daring sense of audacity running through it.

On Deadly Ground (also known as King Blood) – Simon Clark

This is one of the best created apocalyptic scenarios I have ever read, epic in both scale and execution. It cleverly juxtaposes the cosmic disaster with the personal problems and human relationships, focusing on humanity’s inevitable lapse into savagery and showing it in brutally stark detail.

Mr Mercedes – Stephen King

Utterly compelling narrative with unlikely heroes who are both likeable and believable. The pacing is excellent, moving this into the unputdownable category, with foreshadowed twists and signposted wrong-footers alike hitting the spot and the tension rarely dipping.

Bodies of Water – V.H. Leslie

Clever dual timeline narrative with tantalising drip feed of information, constructing the characters so that they feel almost cosy in their familiarity, which makes it all the more unsettling when the rug is pulled from under you. Thoughtful yet fast-paced, with fascinating information seeping through from the author’s research as well.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist – Dario Fo

This is funny, frenetically paced and with a hard hitting political message, pitching the balance just right between entertaining, satirising and sermonising, as well as repeatedly breaking down and rebuilding the fourth wall for added comedic and dramatic effect.

A Song of Stone – Iain Banks

Bleak, beautiful, and brilliant. Sumptuous prose throughout, absolutely breathtaking at times, with a highly unusual but understated second person narrative. Set against an apocalyptic backdrop, the war story retreats to show a vivid, intense, and sensuous study of the most complicated love triangle I’ve ever read about.

The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch

Judy Blume meets Jacques Cousteau as Lynch fuses a coming of age drama with the Encyclopaedia of the Sea. This is a gentle but powerful insight into small town mentality, sudden fame, love, loss and responsibility, and those feelings we feel in making the difficult transition from boy to man. That it also happens to be the most charming and emotive book about sea life you’re ever likely to read is an added bonus.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die – Marnie Riches

Riches creates a leading character who, while being brilliant, remains wholly believable and endearing, with ambitions and vulnerabilities that anyone can relate to. The story is intelligently plotted and packed with twists and red herrings, and the way two seemingly separate strands join together is ingenious.

Little Boy Blue – M.J. Arlidge

Arlidge takes an understanding and non-judgemental approach to the underground scene, and depicts it unflinchingly yet with sensitivity, never letting it detract from the crux of the story. And in a world full of predictable endings, this one bucks the trend, big style!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany

After a slowish couple of acts to get into its stride, this hits hard and consistently, with increased pacing, high emotion, intrigue, and suspense. There are nostalgic, even heartbreaking looks at previously lost favourites, and new depths being added to much-loved, and also not so loved characters.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

Rounded and compelling characters with believable virtues, drivers and flaws, an unpredictable plot full of twists and turns, and plenty of humour and heart blended in along with the adventure. At any given time it could be hilarious, harrowing, or heartbreaking, sometimes all three in quick succession.

The Fireman – Joe Hill

This tells the story and it feels the feels. The science makes sense, the characters, good and bad, are consistently authentic and compelling, and the plot is well constructed and unpredictable. And at times it’s absolutely heartrending.

Ultimatum – Simon Kernick

Fast-paced and full of action, cinematic in its scope and with a plot like a corkscrew. This is basically a big-budget summer blockbuster on paper.

Blacklands – Belinda Bauer

Incredibly bold narrative choices, one a child, one a child killer, building a taut and tense story with compelling characters that gathers pace towards a frenetic conclusion.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – Agatha Christie

Does just what you’d expect of Agatha Christie, combining an upper class comedy of manners with a brutal murder, a fiendish mystery, and the brilliant workings of Poirot’s little grey cells.

To Usher, The Dead – Gary McMahon

Provides a great variety of stories, whilst still maintaining a consistent narrative voice. Even in the shorter stories, there is surprising depth of plot and character.

Pretty Little Dead Things – Gary McMahon

Solid, well-constructed plot involving two intertwining cases and the main characters personal life, a good mix of the real world and the supernatural, compelling, believable characterisation, and excellent, sumptuous descriptive passages.

Tastes Like Fear – Sarah Hilary

Expert plotting, quality prose, unflinching grittiness, emotional depth, stunning plot twists. What I’ve come to expect from this author.

The Final Minute – Simon Kernick

Breakneck, blockbuster plotting and pacing, bold choice of anti-hero narrator, and tight writing with twists aplenty.

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The Redemption Machine

New Year’s Eve, and we all stand in line, but not for a party. Not yet, but maybe later for 90% of us. At 61 years old I’m one of the oldest people in this town, but this is the first time in my life that we’ve faced this date with genuine hope that the year ahead will be better than the one just passed.

This has not been a good year, with the ever-present poverty and shame giving way to nationwide mourning after the passing of our last king. The irony that the royal bloodline ended with the death of King William in 2066 was stark to me but lost on most people. There are few schools still standing, and those we have don’t teach history. At least, not any further back than the Civil War which started nearly 50 years ago now.

We won the war, and by “we” I mean The Rich. And lucky me, I was just old enough to fight in the last few years of it. I was only 18 when I served at the Slaughter of Salford, lauded at the time as our most noble victory, lamented nowadays as our most callous atrocity. It turned the tide of the war irrevocably in our favour, and was a key component in our ultimate triumph.

It was a pyrrhic victory. After years of fighting, and wasting all our resources to subdue or kill those less fortunate than ourselves, we ended the war poorer than our enemies had been at the start of it. We celebrated VP Day with stale bread and dirty water.

Guilt over the Civil War, and our failure to restore even the most basic levels of prosperity, have shaped both our national identity and everyday lives ever since. Countless initiatives have been tried down the years to solve these dual problems and all have failed miserably. But this latest invention promises to change our lives forever – The Redemption Machine.

Some people say it’s a product of genius, others that it’s a gift from God, while some claim that it’s just an infernal contraption which tortures indiscriminately or at the behest of the hierarchy. You don’t want to know what I think. Even I don’t want to know what I think. It’s dangerous to have opinions round here, and potentially suicidal to actually voice them.

What most people don’t know is that the machine was originally called The Decimator, but the council decided that the name had too many negative connotations. Yes, it would kill a tenth of the population, but only as part of the streamlining and self-improvement of the country as a whole. No point worrying the populace by selling it on its least appealing aspect.

It’s a magnificent and terrifying sight. A colossal mechanical beast, twenty feet high, ready to unleash its wrath. The technology behind it looks about two centuries out of date; it appears to be powered by steam and clockwork. I can see a vast, intertwining network of cogs, pulleys and pistons, but there is nothing whatsoever to indicate what might actually take place inside.

I watch the first man approach the machine. He seems to feel everybody’s eyes on him, because he looks self-consciously around as he steps in. There is a moment of complete silence. A collectively held breath. And then the screams begin. His howls of terror and agony transfix all of us stood outside, and the overwhelming sense of our own dread increases with each and every second that passes. Some in the line are shocked, but it’s just what I expected; nothing comes easily anymore, and redemption has its price. This year was always going to be the worst, anyway. On subsequent occasions we will only have twelve months of sin to purge, but today it’s our whole lives.

The screaming stops, and something amazing happens. The man re-emerges looking younger and infinitely happier than he did before he went in. He beams, waves to the onlooking crowd, and hugs the machine’s attendant in a warm and enthusiastic embrace.

The next person to go through is a young woman. I don’t know if the machine is chivalrous, but her ordeal appears to be much briefer and less extreme. However, when she comes out she doesn’t seem to appreciate this. She looks as if she feels cheated out of the transformative experience that her predecessor went through.

The people around me speculate that the machine inflicts the most pain for longest on the people who deserve the most punishment, but they in turn receive the most benefit from it. There is even some indignation at the perceived unfairness of them being thus rewarded for their misdeeds. Such talk ceases when the next man undergoes what sounds like an ordeal of unimaginable suffering, for a duration that seems never-ending. I wonder what he might have done to deserve such retribution, and am curious to see what state he’s in when he leaves the machine.

But when his cries finally come to an end, there is no sign of him. Instead, the machine’s attendant appears, addresses the crowd and announces “His body lives not, but his soul is saved. He is redeemed.”

Cheers go up all around me. I suspect they are celebrating their own increased chances of survival, rather the salvation of the soul of this presumably hitherto wicked man. We are here for redemption, but none of us want to join the ten percenters.

For the next few hours I watch a succession of people receive their penance and come out altered, or not at all. I try to count them, to keep a tally of the 10% quota and also because seeing them as numbers makes it seem less real. But inevitably, my mind wanders. It wanders back to Salford, and the faces of the children…

My turn finally comes, and as I step into the machine I just have time to think: I hope it doesn’t know about-

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The West Midlands Book Signing & 1940’s Ball! February 4th 2017!

jaywillowbay

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Don’t miss out on The West Midlands Book Signing on 4th February 2017! The following authors will be there signing books, giving out swag, raffle prizes and other cool stuff! Afterwards there’s a 1940’s ball, complete with a singer!

DATE AND TIME

Sat 4 February 2017

10:30 – 23:30 GMT

LOCATION

Casey’s, Cordingley Hall, Telford, TF2 8JS, United Kingdom

Tickets can be purchased here:  http://bit.ly/2gM5P0A

Facebook page: http://bit.ly/2husiTC

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The West Midlands Book Signing Pin-Up Calendar 2017

#charity #pinup #calendar for #telford #booksigning

The Perfect Christmas Present for Any Book Lover!

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Some of the authors attending The West Midlands Valentines Book Signing on February 4th 2017 in Telford, have come together to pose with their books and bare a little stocking top.

None of these women are models, neither are they particularly self-confident, but they have pushed their own body issues to the side and cracked on, all…

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Zombies at Christmas

Smelly Biting People

Mummy and Daddy were in such a rush that they didnt stop at the toy shop or even McDonalds. It was so unfair! Theyd been shopping all day long for cards and presents and wrapping paper for everybody except me. I would have been glad they stopped but all the people got really mean and grumpy not just my Mummy and Daddy but everybody else too. They were all scared of the smelly biting people. I cant remember what the grown ups called them, but thats what they were.

We saw one the day before and I thought it was totally wicked cool. He was dressed up as Father Christmas but Daddy said he wasnt the real Father Christmas and he had a fight with a man and he bit him and made him bleed and then a policeman came and he bit him too and the policeman had a fight with the biting man and the policeman won because he hit the biting man on the head with his big truncheon stick and he knocked him out. Mummy was scared but I think Daddy thought it was cool too and he said Its just a random nutter. They can turn up anywhere. And later on he said Its just a coinsedents when he saw on the news that some other people were doing it too and Its not worth cancelling the Christmas shopping trip for.

So we all had to go into town and it was all boring until someone said theyd seen another smelly biting person and this time it wasnt just one random nutter it was loads of them. Theyre coming! I heard somebody shout and thats when Mummy and Daddy started walking really fast and grabbing my hand and nearly dragging me along. I tried to get them to slow down when we went past the Disney shop I said You promised we could buy toys and have burgers and Mummy said I know and Im sorry but we have to get away from here as fast as we can.

Mummy and Daddy were being really mean and made me keep going for ages. I started to cry and it wasnt just me cos all around us grown ups were crying and screaming too. And then a lady suddenly shouted Oh my God! Theyre here!

Mummy always told me off whenever I said Oh my God! but she never said anything to that lady. Daddy just picked me up instead of holding my hand and started running as fast as he could and when I looked over his shoulder I could see all the smelly biting people behind us. Suddenly Daddy stopped and said something even worse than Oh my God!  Thats when I turned around and could see that they werent just behind us they were in front as well.

 

Getting Into the Spirit

A few years ago, everyone was going on about the Mayan calendar and the end of days. He didn’t have time for it then, and he didn’t have time for it now. There were presents to buy, the dreaded visit from his parents to endure, and the office party coming up, where he’d finally make his move on Emma.

Anyway, these things always happened somewhere else, and were never as bad as Sky News said they would be. He remembered them making out that Foot and Mouth was the end of the world, then 9/11, 3/11 and 7/7, avian flu, swine flu and SARS. But the last time he’d checked there were still cows, pigs, birds and terrorists, and people got ill and got better, just like before. Nothing ever changed, not really. Until a routine Christmas shopping trip was disrupted first by panic buyers, and then by a legion of the undead preying upon them.

He stood and watched, frozen in shock and fear. Just a few yards away, a young mother fought to rescue her toddler from the zombies, only to find herself being dragged to the ground and torn apart by gnashing jaws. He made no move to help her; what could he do? And besides, standing motionless and open-mouthed seemed to be a good way of avoiding the zombies’ attention. They were leaving him alone, but everybody who screamed or tried to run suffered the same fate, turned into human turkeys by sheer weight of numbers and becoming Christmas dinner for the dead.

He tried to get away quickly, but the wintry ice made the ground too slippery to run. He lurched and stumbled along, seeing his reflection in a shop window and realising he looked just like the zombies. Hmm… that might work. He held his arms out in front of him and continued with his unsteady shuffling steps, adding a mournful groan for good measure. The zombies just ignored him as he staggered past, away from the carnage and towards his home. It was working! The relief flooded through him and a broad smile began to spread across his face, but he quickly suppressed it. Zombies don’t smile, even at the most wonderful time of the year.

At his ultra-slow walking pace it took him an hour to get home, and all around him he saw men, women and children overpowered, ripped open and eaten alive. He wanted to cry, scream, and run for his life, but he couldn’t do any of these things. So he met every sight, sound and smell with the same blank and vacant expression, a sick parody of a poker face, until he arrived at his front door.

He took his keys out of his jacket pocket, but the jangling noise alerted the zombies around him. There were plenty of them, and they all turned to him. Was that just hunger in their eyes, or was it…yes, it was suspicion! Of course. Zombies don’t use keys. So he just held them in front of him and stared at them as if he didn’t know what they were, before dropping them to the ground and trudging onwards. He’d have to keep up the pretence for a while longer.

He was very good at it. He managed to keep up his shambling walk and slack-jawed stare all day long, and then all through the next day, and then he lost track of time altogether. All he knew was the cold, and then the numbness, and then the hunger, but his poker face belied none of these things. He was a method actor, a secret agent, the perfect imitation of the undead. Nobody could tell him apart from the real thing.

Until one day it seemed that someone did. A woman who lingered too long in an alleyway and got herself surrounded. He was the first to reach her, and thought he saw relief in her eyes, as if he was there to rescue her. But he was still in character, and couldn’t drop the act now, so instead he clawed at her with eager fingers. The first swipe removed her heavy coat; the second shredded her flimsy blouse, and a soft breast came spilling out. He became briefly aware of some other desire he used to have, but he couldn’t afford to give himself away now. So his next touch was to pin her down and sink his teeth into her throat. He continued gnawing away until the screaming stopped, because on some level, deep down inside, it made him feel uncomfortable. But once she went quiet, he was able to enjoy the rest of his feed and slurp eagerly on her delicious blood.

That was the first time he’d eaten or drank in days, and it revitalised him so much that he had to make a conscious effort not to look happy. He was full of strength and energy now, and could walk with the zombies for as long as it took, forever if he needed to. He was that deep undercover.

He had a name once, but he could no longer remember it. He didn’t need it anymore; there was nobody left to use it. Maybe he was the last man alive. Maybe he was mankind’s last hope. Or maybe he’d already died from malnutrition, exhaustion or exposure and turned into that which he thought he was pretending to be. He preferred to think he was getting into the spirit of the season. A season that would never end.

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Learning about Loss

“You’re gonna learn about loss,” growled Robert De Niro in my favourite role of his (yes, even Travis Bickle), playing Max Cady in Cape Fear. Now, a quarter of century later, and even longer since Robert Mitchum may have spoken the line (I dunno), the lesson has reached me.

 

It being the last day of Nanowrimo, this should have been my triumphant announcement, 50,000 words in a month, yay me! But no, not this year. I’ve been Nanoing since 2011, and always book the 30th off for last day finishing – they must think I’m half Scottish at work, because I’m never there on St. Andrew’s Day. And in those years, the only previous non-win was in 2014 when the kitchen was being re-fitted, and I had very little time to myself. No such excuses this year.

Instead, my lack of success was on, or rather in, my own head, as I lapsed into the nasty habit of wallowing in an unhappiness that was largely of my own making. Nevertheless, I stayed in the game for the first half of the month, behind the rate but not insurmountably so, but when it came down to a choice between going all in or giving up, I froze and ended up choosing the latter by default.

And anyway, it’s only Nanowrimo, and not my first time not winning, certainly not enough to learn about loss. So what else have I lost? Well my stiff upper lip for one. After growing up driven by not wanting to show weakness or admit vulnerability, I have lived with untreated depression for all my adult life. That’s now changed: at the start of the month I had my first mental health GP appointment, and at the end of the month I had my first appointment with the iTalk counselling service. That’s actually a gain rather than a loss, but a heavy loss came with it, thanks to my stupidly walking away from that GP appointment without a prescription of anti-depressants. Knowing I needed treatment on two levels, but not yet receiving either, affected me badly and I sank to a pretty low place. Much worse, I was petty and selfish while I was down there, and managed to completely alienate one of my closest online friends. That’s some loss to learn about, right there.

Another friend stepped up, which I will be eternally grateful for, but the cruellest irony is that she herself has now suffered a terrible loss and bereavement of her own. Apart from the heartbreak and the unfairness of it all, it makes me see my little problems in a new light. I’ve lost a writing challenge and a couple of Facebook accounts, but that’s all really. So as much as I’ve learned about loss, I’ve learned about perspective. Now let’s hope I can use the lesson wisely.

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Yes, it’s Somewhat Political

Okay, so I can’t really ignore The Thing That Happened. Nor do I want to go on about it too much. To some, I’m a lily livered bleeding heart who’s ‘butthurt’ at the result; to others I’m the white male enemy who made this happen.

So I’m going to comment as a writer and stick to the creative impact on this seeming global shift to the right. It’s a pisser for me personally, and for many authors of dystopia, as the bleak reality threatens to overtake the worst future we can imagine.

Ever since early spring I’ve been pitching a prospective PhD project on dystopian fiction, twinned with a dissertation on whether it could come true, theorising that right wing politics had already set the wheels in motion. Honestly dear reader, this was a bold assertion in those innocent pre-Brexit, ‘Trump has no chance’ days, but now that the motion of those right wing wheels is so terrifyingly fast, either I have the easiest doctorate ever, or my research is invalid and worthless. And in this era of diminished optimism, I’m seeing the latter as the more likely.

I have previously written on the subject of a reactionary American uprising, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Moreover; I had it down as a result of the apocalypse, not the cause of it. The two sequels to my painstakingly still being rewritten zombie novel The Dead Shall Feed depict an America overthrown by an opportunistic militia in the aftermath of the chaos.

Some five years ago, in making The Blood Shall Spill my Nanowrimo debut, I wrote:

“At first it was just a bunch of rich people protecting their own interests, but then it spiralled out of control, got taken over and turned into this unholy alliance of bigots and haters. The Republicans, the Christian Right, the National Rifle Association, the Ku Klux Klan, the Pro Lifers, the God Hates Faggers, the Holocaust Deniers, the Captains of Industry, the bankers, the oil men, the rednecks, they all got together and formed this Axis of Hatred. They came in the night to take away all the foreigners, then all the blacks, the Jews, the Hispanics, the Asians, the gays, the disabled, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the socialists, anybody whose politics they didn’t like.”

And written two years earlier, but for the final part of the trilogy, I wrote in the short story / first chapter of the novel The World Shall Know, set in the technologically regressed far future after the overthrow:

The Scriptures said women should be chaste and quiet, and respectful to men. They should have children and look after the home, and cook for their husbands, and never want anything more. The men should work hard; breaking the horses, building the houses and farming the land. They should be vigilant in ridding the world of the Jew, and the talking ape, and the sodomite, who were inherently evil and had brought the plague upon the world.

And maybe it’s not that bad yet, but unless something changes for the better, it feels like the direction we’re headed. And I do feel a little uncomfortable complaining about all this impinging on my works in progress, when it will have a much more direct and serious effect on the lives of so many. So as much as I try to make this blog about the craft and profession of writing, in this instance, yes, it’s somewhat political.

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BristolCon 2016

BristolCon, it’s been too long. Three years in fact, having missed the last two, and missed it badly. And to make this year’s event even more special for me, it marked my long-awaited (by me, if not the rest of the world!) debut as a panellist, discussing small presses.

Before that though, I had the ludicrously early start and the inevitably delayed train. It some ways the two and half hours away that I live is the worst possible distance: too far to be an easy journey on the day, but too close to easily justify staying at the hotel. It meant I arrived after the start of Sarah Pinborough’s kaffeeklatsch in The Snug, but sheepishly wedged myself in for an entertaining and informative talk.

I then went into a very crowded and humid Room Two, largely to scope out the venue and get into place for my panel that followed (I was pleased to find it had a microphone each, instead of the pass-the-kouchie communal one of FantasyCon). It was an interesting and lively panel, focusing on diversity, with Dev Agarwal on top form, and helped take my mind off my growing nerves.

The crowd thinned out for my panel, but I expected it with the line-up in Room One, and I wasn’t complaining. I had fellow Grimmies Sammy Smith and Joanne Hall either side of me, with Cheryl Morgan and Adrian Faulkner completing the line-up. It was nice atmosphere, and felt just like an informal chat between friends, who just happened to have microphones in front of them. Sitting alongside the very knowledgeable Cheryl Morgan was an education, and when I remembered the presence of the audience I extolled the creative freedom and family atmosphere of the small presses, and encouraged the support of Crowdfunder and Patreon campaigns to keep them going. I can’t remember what else, but the 50 minutes absolutely flew by.

I needed down time afterwards though, and found it at the Grimbold stand in the dealers’ room to enjoy seeing my name on a banner for the first time, and pick up signed books by Frances Kay, Joel Cornah and Steven Poore. Further relaxation came in the Lego Room where I took a tea break with Steven, audiobook narrator Di Croft, Jo Hall and Isha Crowe, who I’ve been wanting to meet for years after we went through Open University Creative Writing courses together and she went to the two BristolCons that I missed.

I then settled into Room One for an extended stay, starting with cookies and cake at Rob Harkess’s book launch and BristolCon favourites Juliet McKenna and eventually Gareth L Powell signing books for me, followed by Anna Smith-Spark and Dolly Garland starring in the Murderous Woman panel, Sarah Pinborough’s excellent Guest of Honour interview, and finally a panel on the practicalities of publishing which was capped by a brilliant reading from Sammy Smith.

I went back into Room 2 for one last panel before I had to get my train home, Fangorn being an engaging presence even when discussing monster poo, but I was already tiring by this time after a long day. I made my exit straight after, stopping to book my place for next year, when I might well book into the hotel, and to take the nameplate from my panel as a souvenir.

It was a great con and I’m already looking forward to the next, but I have to add a big thank you to Jo Hall, who’s stood down from organising this brilliant event after eight great years. It might not be the biggest convention out there, but it’s one the best.

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