Book Review: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s no doubt that Stephen King is a master of his craft. Skeleton Crew is a collection of short stories written over seventeen years of his life, from just before he started college, aged eighteen, through to 1983, when he was in his mid thirties.

One of the things I most look forward to reading in King’s story collections is the introduction. Skeleton Crew contains a short but good one, written in his usual style. The tale of his conversation with a friend he refers to as ‘Wyatt’ is hilarious.

Four of the stories leapt out at me as being outstanding. The Mist, Mrs Todd’s Shortcut, Nona, and The Reach. These contain all my favourite ingredients from a classic King recipe: a strong sense of place, wonderful scene-setting, nostalgia, great characters, and a swimmy, dreamy narrative.

There were a few stories I didn’t like so much, but I read them all through to the end and they usually came good in some way. One of these was The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, which I struggled with. This one had a slow start, and I couldn’t place when it was supposed to be set, due to what seemed to be a historic narrative voice. I was very near the end when I began to realise it was actually contemporary.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Anyone who enjoys a good short story with a horror twist should read this. It’s quite an old book (although not as old as me), published in 1985, but the stories themselves feel timeless.

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A Different Path – first draft completed

Last Sunday I completed the first draft of A Different Path, which I have been calling my semi-autobiographical work in progress. The short video above is me reading an extract from the final chapter.

This is the first novel I have written in a long time, and I’m very excited about it. It’s not finished yet, as it still needs to go through the editing process, but I made it through the first draft, which is a small achievement in itself.

When I say a long time, I mean a long time. It’s been twenty two years since my last novel.

If you enjoy the extract above, you can visit my Facebook page, where you’ll find lots of other video extracts from the novel.

Book Review: Friend Request

Friend Request by Laura Marshall.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Friend Request is the story of a woman who receives a Facebook friend request from a girl she used to know at school. A girl who died twenty-five years ago.

As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I loved the premise, and the sample I read through the Kindle app hooked me in within a few pages. Laura Marshall has a charming writing style that is easy to read but engaging and suspenseful at the same time.

I have tried to think of something I didn’t like about the novel, but I honestly can’t think of anything. Friend Request has the lot – a great premise, engaging prose, well-rounded characters, good scene-setting description, and a twisting, turning plot that was difficult to guess.

An accomplished debut novel that has made me eager to read more of Laura Marshall’s work. Recommended!

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Book Review: Last Orders

Last Orders by Graham Swift
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last Orders is the story of a group of men who take a short road trip from London to Margate to dispose of the ashes of their lifelong friend, Jack Dodds, stopping off at various places on the way.

The book makes extensive use of London dialect for the entire narrative, which I liked. I really felt the narrator, Ray, was speaking to me. The book leaps about from character to character, place to place, and time to time, which I enjoyed, but I will confess I had to resort to an online character list in order to keep track of who all the characters were initially.

Some scenes are beautifully descriptive, and moving, but rendered in that London dialect which gives them a unique charm and a deceptive simplicity. I can understand why this novel won the Booker Prize.

Highly recommended, but be prepared to refer to a character list. It will bring the book to life.

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A Different Path – First Draft

Stocks Reservoir, in the Forest of Bowland AONB.

If you follow my Facebook page, you’ll already know I’m working on a novel, which I’m calling A Different Path. I’ve been making excellent progress, and am on track to finish the first draft in three weeks, a little ahead of the target date I set for myself.

Since I started writing the novel at the end of May, I’ve envisaged it as a semi-autobiographical, nostalgic, coming-of-age story set in Lancashire, England.

Does that original vision still hold water?

Semi-autobiographical

I’ve been saying the work is semi-autobiographical, and that’s true for some of the scenes and events I’ve written about. However, my life hasn’t been quite as interesting as the protagonist’s. In some ways I wish it had been, but in other ways, I’m very glad it wasn’t!

In truth there’s now so much stuff in there that’s made up, I’m thinking of dropping the ‘semi-autobiographical’ label altogether.

Nostalgic

Maybe wallowing in nostalgia is a symptom of getting older, but I love it. Some of my favourite fiction works are deeply nostalgic, including Stephen King’s The Body, which was made into a film, Stand by Me, and has to be top of my list. Another is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which comes a close second.

Writing about the area in which I spent my most formative years has brought memories flooding back to me with such clarity, they could have happened yesterday. On that basis, I’d say the novel is very nostalgic.

Coming-of-age

The phrase coming-of-age means different things to different people. It’s classic definition refers to the point at which a person transitions from childhood to adulthood.

I agree with that, but I don’t believe it’s a legal milestone like the age of consent or the legal drinking age. For me, coming-of-age is more about an emotional maturing process that happens over a period of time. Mine happened when I was around twenty, and some of the scenes in the novel are real recollections from those days of youth.

Set in Lancashire

The beginning of the book is set in Lancashire, around some of the towns and villages of the Ribble Valley and Forest of Bowland AONB. I revisit them throughout, right up to the final scene at the end of the story.

Even though I moved away a long time ago, writing about these places reminded me how much love I still hold for the area. At times, I became so emotional I could barely see my computer screen through the tears.

Next steps

After the first draft I’ll be working on the edits, which will take me some time, but a good novel is made during the editing process, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to take a step back and look at the work with different eyes, identifying areas in which it can be improved.

I’ll post further updates here, and on my Facebook page.

Book Review: The Brotherhood

The Brotherhood by Jerry B. Jenkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Brotherhood is the story of Boone Drake, an ambitious rookie cop who wants to take on the Chicago underworld, facing some tough personal challenges along the way.

The first few lines of this novel grabbed me straight away. I knew it wasn’t my usual reading genre, but the opening was so slick and tight I had to keep reading. After a couple of chapters I was fully invested in the main characters and wanted to see it through.

Here in the UK, Jerry Jenkins isn’t as well-known as he is in the US, so the Christian subtext took me by surprise. I didn’t object to it, and felt it was important in the development of Boone’s character, but personally I felt there was a just a teeny bit too much. Some people might be put off by this.

Overall, I thought this was a great read, and I’m considering trying The Last Operative as my next Jenkins novel.

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Book Review: The Cement Garden

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Cement Garden is the dark story of four siblings who live together in a large house overlooked by tower blocks. First they have to deal with the death of their father, then their mother; then they do what they have to do in order to keep their family together.

The first paragraph had me hooked, and after three pages I was riveted. The plot is deceptively simple, the characters all distinct and well-developed. The first chapter and the last chapter perfectly close a loop of tension that hangs throughout, which was both satisfying and disturbing at the same time.

Scratching around to find something I didn’t like, I will say the paragraph structure was a little unusual in places, especially those involving dialogue. For example, two different people sometimes speak in the same paragraph; or one person will speak, then another person will think about what has been said. This threw me a couple of times until I got used to it.

Definitely a recommended read. I’m totally blown away by this novella, and will be reading more of McEwan’s work.

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Book Review: Needful Things

Needful Things by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Needful Things is the story of a new shop that opens in a small town in Maine, and the subsequent events that unfold around the customers and the residents of the town as the proprietor of the shop begins to do business.

The setting is Castle Rock, a place many King fans will recognise, and feel at home in. Some of the characters from King’s earlier works make a reappearance, including Ace Merrill (from The Body, a.k.a. Stand by Me), who is one of the main antagonists.

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel for a few years and had forgotten how much I enjoy his work. While I don’t care so much for monsters and spooks, I am a big fan of King’s prose. The way he imbues his characters with amazing depth, giving them wonderful quirks that bring them to life. The short but simple descriptive passages. The suspense.

It’s hard to say what I didn’t like about the book, because it’s down to my own personal taste; as an older man, I admit I now find it more tricky to suspend my disbelief in the supernatural. However, I recognise this, and therefore haven’t let my personal feelings cloud my judgement in this review.

What I loved was the characterisation, especially the main protagonist, Alan Pangborn. The way King shapes him through the course of this novel is truly masterful. I’ll remember that character and his shadow puppets for a long time, if not the rest of my life.

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Why I Write Fiction

Aberaeron beach, Wales.

Part three of a three-part series on how, what, and why I write.
(Jump to: Part One | Part Two)

So far in this series I’ve considered how I write and what I write. While both posts required a bit of thinking to pull together, this final instalment was the hardest.

When George Mallory was asked why he climbed Mount Everest in the first of three British expeditions in the early 1920s, he responded with the now legendary quote:

Because it’s there.

I prefer the updated quote by Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle:

“Why do we do these things? George Mallory said the reason he wanted to climb Everest was because it’s there.’ I don’t think so. I think Mallory was wrong. It’s not because it’s there. It’s because we’re there, and we wonder if we can do it.”

This is the main reason why I write. When I read a great novel, I’m inspired. I see the mountain the author had to climb in order to complete it. I wonder if I could do it.

Some other reasons

I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a complete list of reasons for anything. The deeper you dig, the bigger the hole, the more you’ll uncover. Therefore, what follows is a list of four more reasons that came to me when I asked myself why I write. I’ve tried to put them in order of importance.

Leaving a legacy – I never tried to have a child of my own, and sometimes feel sad that I will not leave anything behind when I die, apart from a house, a little money, and some belongings, most of which will end up on eBay, in a charity shop, or buried in landfill. People who have children are to an extent able to ‘live on’ through their offspring and leave a lasting legacy. That’s something I will never be able to do, so perhaps by writing I am trying to fill that fundamental gap in my life.

Exploring how I feel about something or someone – One of my friends used to accuse me of thinking and analysing too much. He was probably right. However, inside me there is a strong desire to ruminate over how I feel. I enjoy exploring my emotions. As humans, most of us feel them, and most can relate to the emotions of others.

Reliving the past – I recently turned fifty, and have more than half a lifetime of memories stored in my brain. As far as I know, I still have many years to look forward to, but I do like to reflect on the past and remember some of the good (and bad) things that have happened. Some of these may seem insignificant, but they are defining for me, and I try to get that across in my writing by allowing my characters to have the same experiences.

Rewriting my life – Who wouldn’t want to go back and live their life differently? I’m not a bad person, but I’ve certainly made mistakes in my life, even if they are only small ones. Maybe I regret buying something extravagant or saying something stupid when I was in a bad mood. Perhaps I wish I hadn’t written a life-changing letter, or then again, maybe I wish I had. What would have happened if I hadn’t given up with something when I did? How would my life be now if I could rectify just one little mistake? I like to explore these possibilities through my fiction.

Write for whatever reason

Some people write for money, others write to get famous. Everybody is different. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach.

Whatever makes a writer tick, that’s the reason they should be writing.