Monthly Archives: June 2013

Pirate Cinema

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I only know of Doctorow as an author, so in this review he will be treated as such. I won’t be giving an opinion of his political or social stances, which is where other reviews of this book seem to go. Like his ideas or not, Cory has a lot of people talking and a lot trying to dissect his books for the ultimate political meaning. I find this incredible, as peoples opinion about his work change on whether they like or dislike the organisations Cory is gunning for.  I apologise if that’s what you came here to find, but as it’s a work of fiction I’ll stick to the story.

After reading and really enjoying “For The Win” two or three years ago, a story about child Labour within MMO RPG’s, I haven’t thought to go back to him until this book. There’s something about a man in a suit, with a copyright logo for a head that appealed to me.

Pirate Cinema opens with 16-year-old Trent McCauley leaving home after illegally downloading too many films and, as a result, the family’s internet is cut off and their way of life threatened. Without any money and with nowhere to go, Trent decides to run from Bradford to make a new home for himself in London. He luckily falls into the right crowd where he meets Jem Dodger, a crafty, resourceful and loveable bum, or gentleman of leisure as he calls it, and the reader is shown an optimistic take on being homeless, where they make more money an hour than I do . As enjoyable as it was to read, I don’t like the confidence I would now have if I was ever in that situation.

What Trent is passionate about is films and editing his own using his favourite actors scenes, but as a government bill threatens his ability to do so he takes every step he can to stop the law and to change the mind-set of society. As more characters are introduced and the situation turns from a small underground movement to a nationwide appeal, the story starts to lean away from what made it so good to begin with, which was surviving from day to day. Even though he and his friends are in constant danger of being arrested, or sued for copyright infringement, Trent’s worries seem to be only if his new girlfriend’s family would accept a homeless guy or what his family will say when he finally gets back in touch. Thankfully this isn’t dwelled upon.

Even with a couple of little snags in the characters I really enjoyed the story. It’s a real page turner that makes you think, not necessarily about how big film companies are ripping us off, but more about how much someone can accomplish with a bit of imagination, which this book is full of. Rather than making YA readers think about organising an uprising, I feel it’s more of a kick up the arse to see more of what’s going on in the world. As with “For The Win” I did my own research into the subject matter and have come to my own conclusion, feeling more knowledgeable in the process.

Just before starting this I signed up to a Cineworld Unlimited card and for a brief moment felt a bit  guilty about endorsing the industry Trent is trying to bring down, but as I said at the start, this is a work of fiction so I’m off to see World War Z.

Feel free to tweet me what you thought of this book or any others.

The copy of Pirate Cinema I got was published by Titan Books

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A View From The Way Down

Howell was on top

It was nothing to him because that’s where he had always been. Sharp suit, sharper wit and an arrogance that’s allowed him to forget which mug had bought the last round.

‘Howell, thought I’d find you here. What yer drinking?’

‘I’d tell you but you already know.’

The arse heavy cop took a stool and tapped the counter, sending stray peanut shells to the floor, and ordered two neat whiskey’s

‘I could use a favour from you, bud.’

Howell sighed and looked up from the bar. Craig Miles was slumped in the stool next to him, his balding skull covered in sweat which could have been the effort it took to sit down.

“People like you always do.”

“We got into a spot of bother on third, some real downers getting up in our faces…”

“You and who?” Howell interrupted

‘Huh?’ The pace had already got to Craig. This will be a long drink, Howell thought.

‘Who were you with?’

‘Oh Bennett, we were there just minding our own business when a beer can hit the roof, so I go over to these guys-’

“How many?” Howell interrupted again

‘Huh?’

‘How many Downers?’ he asked calmly

‘Oh, like three or four.’

‘Well, what was it three or four?’ Howell was just playing with him now. He was enjoying making the man feel uneasy.

‘Four, definitely four,’ Craig said taking the whiskey the bartender had just left and disposing a finger.

‘And he starts mouthing off at me, giving the old high and mighty about how it was accident and I should leave him be. Well, I said “You better fucking apologize to me cock sucker or I’ll rip your lungs out,” Craig spat finding it hard to keep his drink steady

“Jesus Christ Miles, keep a lid on.”

Howell took a slug and forced silence for a while, one of many of his social pleasures

“So what you’re saying is, he gave you the lip, and to impress the virgin patroller Bennett you got out and slapped him around a little, is that what I’m hearing, Miles?’

Miles thought about it for a moment. His face lit up as if he was going to argue but as quickly as the light bulb appeared it went out and he gave in and nodded which made his neck roll

‘How bad, Miles?’

‘He’s dead.’

Howell turned his back on the shivering lard and adjusted his hat.

‘What a state you have yourself in this time. It’s a tough one even for me, I already got you off for attempting to rape a broad even though you knocked her unconscious  before you could get your pecker out.’

Howell had to take another second before, once again, calm washed him down.

‘Same arrangement, Miles?’

Fatty nodded and quickly hopped off the stool.

‘Five-k, Howell old buddy, and you will put in a good word with the chief?’

Howell nodded.

‘Thank you. I’m really grateful, son.’

‘People like you always are, you fat shit. Now fuck off.’

Miles looked angry for a moment but then smiled. He put two fingers to his ear and muttered to himself as he left.

The bar was unusually empty for that time of night, the usual cogs on the wheel must have stayed home, seeing to the wife and kids or taking the dog for a stroll. Howell didn’t have those problems. He had a wife and all, probably waiting for his return by the lamp in the hall, just to try and catch a scent of perfume or coitus from him as he stumbled in, but Howell knew how to mask it. Howell always covered his tracks.

“Another Scotch,” he said

Howell had weaknesses which he knew very well. If a man knows his own weaknesses he can hide them without a second thought. Accentuate the positives and sweep the negatives under the rug but the problem with negatives was others would have to know of them too.

Good women and good odds, a bookie and a broad. These were his weaknesses. Howell could find both of these usually at the bottom of a bottle, which to him made the final pull even sweeter. He placed a bet or scored with a chick while feeling the burning afterglow of whisky in his throat.

A typical squeeze joined him at the bar. She was Mindy Jones. A rare breed of woman who would move quicker out of a joint then he could.

‘Howey baby,’ she purred before lighting a cigarette

Mindy was reasonably attractive to Howell but incredibly so for most. Her blond hair and blue eyes were enough to seduce any man in the room.

‘How come you don’t say hi to me first, huh? I have to wait my turn now do I, sweetie?’ She smiled at him, enjoying her game. Howell would normally bite but not tonight.

‘Put it out.’

‘What you say, darling?’

Howell wondered if he would have a conversation that evening where he didn’t have to repeat himself.

‘I said put that out.’

She looked stunned but complied.

“And when I want cunt, I’ll ask for it.’

Sometimes you just got to put a bitch in her place, he thought.

Mindy rose from the stool and slapped him hard across the face, knocking his hat to the floor and then stormed off to the other end of the room.

‘Got yourself a little trouble there, Howell? An upstanding gent as yourself should know how to talk to a lady but then you are in the habit of forgetting your debts now, aren’t you?’

Howell didn’t need to wait for his vision to clear to know who the man was. The Bookie, the Bastard Bookie.

The Bastard picked up his hat, placed it on Howell’s head and took a seat.

‘Six grand, Howell, and I hope you got a briefcase. I’ve always wanted one of those.’

Howell took his hands from his eyes and smiled.

The Bastard was also smiling.

“Now, you know I don’t have the cash and as much as I want to make you happy, I don’t have the briefcase ether. So what’s this really about? You know I’m good for it.”

“I know you were good for it, but times change. There was a time when you could take your pick of broad’s in a joint. Now the only thing you seem to be attracting is a palm across your face.”

The Bastard locked his hands together on the bar.

“Just as there was a time we could do business together and you could pay me for it when things didn’t go your way.”

Howell’s cool exterior was starting to slip.

“You fucking monkey. You really gonna come in here and start giving me shit over money? Let me tell you about a time I remember shall I, Bastard?”

The Bastard hated his name being used and Howell knew this.

If he wants to play, Howell thought, let’s fucking play.

“How old was she, old buddy? Twelve maybe thirteen? Crying rape at the top of her lungs so loud the county judge could hear. And who whispered in the right ear for you, Bastard? Me, you spineless sack of shit.”

The bastard was going red and Howell knew he had him on the ropes.

“If it wasn’t for me, it would be your turn to be raped every fucking time you went to wash your balls.”

The Bastard looked ready to kill but Howell knew he wouldn’t. He was smarter than that. Being in a bar with witnesses, not many but still enough, and hitting a cop? Howell was mentally pleading with him to throw a punch so he could bring him in. Something he had been trying to do since the debt started to get out of hand.

“Wow now, buddy boy, calm yourself down. I’m only trying to get what I’m owed,” The Bastard said as calmly as he could.

Howell straightened his hat and went back to his drink.

“Well, I don’t have it so fuck off.”

The Bastard started to howl, tears instantly streaming down his face. He laughed so hard that as he called over to the bartender he started a raspy cough that sounded dreadful.

Maybe this son of a bitch will die first, Howell thought.

“Two five fingers,” The Bastard choked out and eventually turned back to Howell.

“Ooh you are a funny little shit, I’ll give you that. You have such a chip on your shoulder and for good reason. You seem to be able to talk anything or anyone out or into the shit.”

Then bartender came with the drinks and The Bastard knocked back three of the fingers.

“But you haven’t done so well with me buddy, have you?

Howell remained silent.

“I wonder who it could have been who tipped off your lot about the bookies in the florist up on tenth? Or the one in the dry cleaning joint next door to this place huh? Was that you, Howey?”

Again Howell stayed quiet.

“Of course it fucking was,” The Bastard answered for him

“But it was lucky there was nothing there to tie me to ether of them which proves…” He stopped to knock back the rest of the glass. “That I mustn’t be as dumb as I look”

Howell looked up into his eyes and he was, for the first time in a long while, rattled but he tried not to show it in the same way a man will cover up whether or not he can win a fist fight in the feeling out process. There feeling out stage was over and Howell was starting to panic.

The Bastard went into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a brown envelope.

“Let’s see you talk your way out of that.”

Howell took a mouthful then opened the envelope and let the contents spill onto the bar. What fell out, wrapped in an elastic band, was a small stack of photographs. The image on the top was Howell inside the dry cleaners and he certainly wasn’t doing his washing. Howell slid off the elastic band and skimmed the first few pictures all of which showed him partaking in some highly illegal activity. It was enough to get him into some serious shit.

“You’re trying blackmail? Is that it? I don’t blame you I know I would if I were you.” Howell drained the rest of his glass. “But where would that leave you? I’d be in county and you would be out of pocket so let’s cut the shit and why don’t you tell me how you want me to go about paying you?”

The smile on The Bastards face returned and it wasn’t going anytime soon.

“You know how much I make in a week, Howell, so you cut the shit and stop pretending I would miss a measly six grand. Besides, you haven’t finished looking through the shots.”

Howell slowly went back to the pictures and continued through.

There was a shot of him with cards and cash in front of him, another of him stood talking with a man named Jonny Hoke, a well-known mobster, next to a roulette wheel. Then Howell moved his thumb over the last picture. It was a shot of him outside a bar, probably this bar, with his pants around his ankles and Mindy up against the wall.

“Well,” Howell, said holding it up to towards one of not so many light bulbs over head, “I’m glad you got my best side and it looks like young Mindy is having a good time.” He looked around for her but she wasn’t there. She had already found another lowlife to go home with tonight.

“Is this for your personal collection? I never figured you had such a thing for me. I suppose you have to think of somebody to get you going.” Howell wrapped up the pictures and dropped them into The Bastards lap.

“That’s not for me, Howell. They’re for that darling wife of yours, in fact she must have got them by now. I sent a guy over with some about an hour ago and the ones she received defiantly didn’t show your best side.”

Howell felt sick. If his wife looked over those pictures his perfect suburban marriage would be over and in a time where a family man gets ahead in life, he being a single man, a disgraced single man, would be left behind.

“What the fuck do you want?” Howell spat.

The phone rang in the bar.

“I don’t believe for a second that you would send those pictures over there.”

The bartender came over.

“Call for you, Mr Howell. It’s your wife”

Howell went white as a sheet. “Put her on hold.”

The Bastard started to laugh again and reached over to slap Howell on the back. “What were you saying?”

For the first time that evening Howell noticed the jukebox. The track playing was Muddy Waters – Still a fool.

“As far as what I want goes, Howell, maybe I don’t want anything from you. Maybe all I want is to see your smug ass knocking down a peg or two, which will defiantly happen now.”

Howell saw red and reached for his gun but The Bastard had beaten him to the draw.

“Come on now, Howey. We’re all friends here,” he said with his gun pointed to Howell’s chest. “Just stand up, really fucking slowly and make your way towards the door.”

Howell did as he was told and got up from the stool and started walking. The jukebox in the corner had now, in Howell’s mind, been replaced by old muddy himself and although the guitar was playing, Muddy wasn’t strumming the chords. He had a cigarette in one hand and a frog in the other as he sang,

“I do hate to lose, I do hate to lose, Oh lord, sure ‘nough I do”

Howell reached the door and stopped as The Bastard pressed the gun into his back.

“Now get the fuck out, don’t come back and know that you don’t fuck with the Basta-”

Howell spun round and knocked the gun from his hand with his left then continued to turn while throwing a right hook. He was ready for it though and quick as a flash threw a counter left which sent Howell sprawling through the door onto the pavement. The stars cleared from his eyes just in time to see The Bastard dive on top and start raining down blows. Howell managed to sweep him, ended up on top and began to pummel. By the eighth punch the body went stiff underneath him and Howell drew his gun. He screamed as he fired two shots into The Bastards face and then threw the gun to the ground.

Apart from his quick inhales and exhales there was silence. Muddy had stopped. He stood up in a daze but stayed over the body, looking into the hole that used to be the face of the last guy to ever buy him a drink. Howell would have liked the chance to remember him.

He wiped The Bastards blood from his face and eyes and looked ahead. A group of people stood, mouths wide open staring at him. Howell staggered forward.

“What are you staring at?” he shouted as he retrieved his gun from the pool beside the body. “Don’t you know who the fuck I am?”

“I know who you are, Howell. You’re under arrest for accepting something of value to betray your legal responsibilities.” The officer looked down at the corpse. “And murder in the second degree.” The officer carried on talking but Howell wasn’t listening. Nor was he paying attention to the raised weapons trained on him by the other officers.

Fucking Craig Miles, he thought.

Craig had set him up. Howell thought about all the times he had got Craig out of the shit and that, in hindsight, maybe he probably shouldn’t have been so smug.

“Son of a bitch.” Howell raised his gun but was dead before he hit the ground.

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Flowers for Algernon

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“I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.”

This book was bought for me by a friend and colleague of mine, as an important addition to my SF Masterworks series, but I wasn’t too excited to read it. So, it remained at the bottom of my to-read pile. It wasn’t until I found out this book is really just a series of diary entries from Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded thirty-two-year-old man, that I dropped everything.

The novel starts with Charlie working as a janitor and delivery boy in a New York bakery. He often is the butt of the other workers jokes, who rejoice when he pulls a “Charlie Gordon”, but his eagerness to please overshadows the bullying and Charlie thinks they’re his friends.

“Its easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you.”

Even though it seems impossible for him to retain any information, he is still the hardest worker in his class for retarded adults and as a result Charlie is selected by a team of scientists to undergo an experimental surgery designed to boost his intelligence. He’s asked to keep a diary to explain what is happening to him and to record his feelings, so the reader is treated to the inner workings of the trial by Charlie’s progress reports. These reports at first are as legible as you would expect from a man whose I.Q is 68 but as the effects of the operation start to show and his “progris riports” start to improve Charlie’s outlook also changes towards the people he once called friends. He realises they weren’t laughing with him; they were laughing at him.

“How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.”

The irony is that Charlie is just as alone as he ever was. He was mocked for being an idiot but now he is hated for his intelligence. This takes the progress reports to bitter heights.

Algernon, a little white mouse, is the first successful subject for the operation and it makes him three times more intelligent, enabling him to solve complex puzzles. Charlie struggles to keep up with the mouse in the puzzle maze challenges, but as the effect starts to take hold, he becomes increasingly faster than little Algernon. The effects of the procedure on Algernon are, unfortunately, short-lived and Charlie is left to wonder how long it will take for his new found genius to slip away.

This book isn’t a fun read at all. It’s tragic from beginning to end but the reason why it’s one of my favourites is it feels important, it feels like your reading something incredible. The choice to make this book someone’s diary entries is fascinating and connected me with Charlie more than if it was just first person. I cannot recommend this book enough, not just to fans of SF, but to anyone. Get the tissues at the ready.

I would love to read more of this style, or books similar, so if you have any pop a comment in below or give me a tweet.

Flowers for Algernon is published by Gollancz as a SF Masterwork

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Clive Barker – Imajica

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This is what it’s like when dominions collide

First on the list of my favourite books is Imajica. Clive Barker is as big as they come in Horror fiction but isn’t as big is I think he deserves to be. There aren’t many people I can talk to about Clive’s work, unless referring to Hellraiser perhaps, so fingers crossed this will help. This book for me was a huge insight into just how far an imagination could stretch and is the bench mark for vision that I have yet to find an equal for. 

Earth is one of five dominions and once every two hundred years, when the five are aligned, a powerful magician may be able to crack the void that keeps apart the other four dominions and earth. Not everyone wants the “Reconciliation” to happen and they will go to whatever lengths to stop earth contacting the other worlds.

John Furie Zacharias, or Gentle, is a troubled artist. His eccentric lifestyle has pushed away nearly everything and this leaves him trying to come to terms with his frequent lover being with someone else. When Judith’s husband hires shape shifting assassin, Pie ‘oh’ Pah to kill her, Gentle, as he tries to stop it, becomes involved with Pie and they embark on a journey across the five dominions, from glittering cities to haunted mountains, where they must face Gentle’s fate. The journey pulls at the readers emotions  as much as the characters with twists and turns in ways you will never see coming as they realize they are more connected than first thought. Complicated as the story may seem, I never felt overwhelmed by it.

I’ve heard many different views on this book since I read it more than two years ago now and not one of them has been the same. This has to be a good thing. Even though Barker is sometimes criticised for his vivid descriptions of sex and violence, I feel he hit every note with this one and produced five worlds, populated with vivid characters and settings that stick in your mind. I have found with some of his other books that his style, in which makes this great, misses the mark to the point of boredom. I recognize how beautifully descriptive the prose is but after a few minutes I find myself back on Twitter. Imajica is not a book you can put down so easily as Clive shifts though the storytelling gears.

Trying to recommend this book to people is a struggle before you even tell them the story. Imajica definitely resembles a house brick coming in at over 1,200 pages of tiny text. Please don’t let this put you off. This is one of the best books I’ve ever had the privilege of picking up and the effort you think will be needed when starting it turns out to be well worth it. I’m hoping I can connect with some of Barker’s other work as well as I did this one, as The Great and Secret Show is the only other I’ve been blown away by. At the moment this books sits pretty in my top ten favourite novels and I can’t see it being replaced although it would be nice to find the book that does.

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Connie Willis – The Doomsday Book

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Connie Willis is an author I had heard of but never picked up. The only books I saw were American imports with poorly designed covers and, I’m sorry to say, this really put me off. I wondered why a ten-time Hugo award-winning writer didn’t have, at that time, a UK publisher. In 2011 Connie won her eleventh Hugo for Blackout/All clear which Gollancz picked up and since then has begun to publish some of her backlist in their SF Masterworks series. The Doomsday Book stood out to me and I finally took the plunge. I’m so glad I did.

In 2054, Oxford is sending historians back in time to observe history first hand. The time zones are given a rating, from one to ten, on how dangerous they can be for a time traveller. Young historian Kivrin Engle wants to visit the Middle Ages but the 14th Century has been classified a ten and her tutor, James Dunsworthy, tries to explain to explain to her the dangers of this time period –lawlessness and disease – but also how hard it would be for a 21st Century woman to blend in. None of this can deter her and she begins to learn all she can about the time. When Professor Gilchrist and the Medieval department offer her a chance to travel, without the clearance of Dunsworthy, she takes it. It’s clear that Medieval haven’t taken care and had rushed through the drop and because of this Kivrin misses Oxford 1320 and instead lands in Oxford 1348, the year of the Black Plague. Kivrin’s prep for 1320 is useless and quickly has to adapt to culture and dialogue changes without knowing why.

Dunsworthy is told “something’s wrong” by the technician Badri, as he falls extremely ill, but that is all he is able to find out. Before Dunsworthy can investigate, the rest of the team and town come down with the same sickness and it’s not long before Oxford is under quarantine.

Although Kivrin is inoculated against the plague, in 1348, she knows if she stays and helps the others she meets she will miss the net’s opening and her only chance to escape back to her own time. In 2054 Dunsworthy, who is forced into helping by housing the sick, knows he will not get back to the lab in time to open the net. This provides the backdrop for a thrilling conclusion.

There are a few aspects to the book which makes it dated, for example, in Dunsworthy’s future Oxford, Woolworths is still a thriving business but none of these hinder the story and to some degree endeared me more to Connie’s writing. I have seen a lot of bad reviews for Connie’s books in the past based on errors she makes while talking about different time periods, whether it be the future or the past. I have found these types of reviews a bit absurd as I, nor anyone I know, have been into the past or the future. Also errors on clothing or mannerisms don’t impede on the narrative or character development in my opinion which makes such observations moot.

The introduction from author Adam Roberts says to stick with it, to remember at comes good in the end but for me this book never misses a trick due to the depth of likeable characters. Even when there’s nothing going on, that pushes the story along; there is something you can get involved in. It’s this that puts this book in the five star rating. I cared about these characters in the same way Kivrin and Dunsworthy cares, by being thrown in at the deep end without the knowledge of how they would or could meet again. Kivrin is surprised by how much she becomes involved.  She knows in her time they have been long in the ground but because she experiences the way of life, she can’t help but care. The same thing happened to me. I had to care because they seem so real. Not many books can glue me to a page like this one did. This book has introduced me to a new author. My bank balance may not like it but I do

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Staircase for the Soul – Short Story by Andy James

He was truly happy. A kind of happiness he didn’t need to share for validation. He had a newly romanced air about him that would drive a hopeless cynic to insanity and walked with a smile without a sense of purpose, apart from the bacon and milk he’d been sent for. Paul took in the world around him. He pulled the shapes and smells from the surrounding space into an impenetrable bubble of thought reserved just for one. Thinking of the woman waiting for him back home, he floated.

His friends only meant well when they told him not move so fast and,  when he thought about the situation logically, he agreed. Only, love isn’t logical. It was her face, the face of a new world in which he wished to belong. That’s the last thing that eased through his mind as he and the car collided. He was hopeless to avoid it as he floated into the oncoming Sunday traffic. Not seeing the Ford estate until it was too late. The combination of bonnet, window and eventually concrete pulled him into the darkness.

Arrival

No bright light, he thought as he lay, too afraid to open his eyes. He didn’t want to see what happened to his body. He was sure it wouldn’t be pretty, people running around the mangled mess on the floor and falling over themselves to ring an ambulance. He couldn’t understand why people swarmed to see an accident.

In reality, Paul was deserted by the driver as soon as his head hit the pavement and was only found twenty minutes later by an old man walking his dog. He opened his eyes into darkness and raised his hand to his face. He couldn’t see anything.  There was no pain but the feeling remained when he rubbed his hands together. That’s when a light appeared and flowed over his skin with a warmth he felt inside, not out. His eyes adjusted and the moving staircase revealed itself.

The escalator came into Paul’s view, stretching into the air from an unseen source with an unseen destination. All he could hear was a low hum he had come to associate with this sort of machine and all he could see were the stairs. He knew it was solid ground beneath his feet but it was an empty darkness that could have spread infinitely or been confined to a centimetre below him. There was air as he was breathing , and light from somewhere otherwise he wouldn’t be able to see the escalator at all. There had to be some grasp on reality but reason and logic were failing to hold on. He thought of the estate that had hit him and of the woman he was now certain he had left behind. He was grateful for the swift departure but he would have taken all the pain that anything could have thrown at him for one last glance.  Paul stood at the foot of the stirring steps and looked for the end.

“Hello?” he shouted towards the summit, surprised to hear his voice. “Is this it?”

Paul waited for an answer from the seemingly never-ending stairs and quickly received one.

“Maybe not.”

Before he had chance to spin around, Paul was pushed aside by a much larger man with a guitar slung over his back. He had a well-worn suit and face to match, stories etched all over his dark skin.

“Sorry about that buddy, but I’ve got a date with fate. I’m guessing you do too, so hop on”

Stunned to have seen another person, Paul jogged up to meet the scruffy man sitting on the edge of a step with a smirk.

“I take it this is your first time then?”

Trust in this place seemed a moot point but Paul still thought he should tread carefully and took his time to answer.

“You could say that,” he eventually croaked.

The man’s grin widened.

“Thought so, you look like you’ve shit a brick.” He stood up and held out his right hand.

“Jonny B, you get what you see. Nice to meet you.”

“Paul,” he replied, taking his hand. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know what it’s really called but to me it’s a staircase for the soul. A kinda beg-ulator. Where folks who died before their time can come and beg for it back.” Jonny B looked over the side and then glanced down the steps as a young woman wearing a white scarf around her head and a dirty looking maids uniform stepped tentatively on.

“A bit of skirt down there and I’m sat here with you.” He sighed and winked at Paul which made him follow his line of sight. “I get all the luck.”

To Paul she looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel and, even at their height, he could tell she was crying. He, as strange as the situation was, had Jonny B to keep his mind off the gravity of what was happening. He hadn’t been allowed to settle and take it all in. The woman slowly rising didn’t have that luxury. She was alone with no way of knowing what was happening but Paul knew he wouldn’t be the one to help her.

“Look funny to you?” Jonny said and pointed. “That girl?”

“She looks like she’s just walked right off a period drama.”

Jonny looked sickened and placed his hands behind his head.

“How could you tell that from here? Man, must be her time of the month.”

Paul shook his head and laughed at Jonny’s confused expression. “Never mind”

The musician ignored Paul’s giggles and looked back down at the woman.

“With a dress like that she’s not of my time. That’s the beauty of this thing, there is no time. She looks like that because that’s the way they dress where she’s from. Hell, last time I was here I met a guy who said he could jump back and forward through time because in the year 2467 they have found a way to do it. The fool was wearing next to nothing.” Jonny put his hand around the front of his dirty jeans and readjusted.

“The damn thing looked starved of air.” He sat back and looked up into the darkness above their heads.

“That’s not a future I wanna feel.”

“How did he end up here?”

“He said a Dino stepped on him and he needed to go back because he was the only one who knew how to get him and his group back to their time.” He smirked and lent back on the step. “All those brains and he didn’t think to share them.”

Jonny put his guitar on the step above his head and stretched out in the space he had.

“How did you get here then, Paulie?” He gave him a once over.  “Plane crash?”

“No, I was hit by a car.” Paul didn’t know why the conversation was flowing so freely. He thought it must have been the lack of time to process what was happening. He looked back over his shoulder, the woman was still crying. “How did you get here?”

“Drugs baby,” Jonny said, surprisingly optimistic. “Same as last time.”

Paul raised his right hand and began to clap one-handed. “Wow.”

Jonny looked hurt and threw his arms in the air as if performing to a crowd. Something Paul doubted he did very often.

“It’s not like you get a slap on the wrist and they let you go, buddy. This is some serious shit. You don’t pass your interview it’s game over, and they don’t give you the courtesy to remember it if you do. I only remember being here now I’m back.”

Jonny ran his hand over the neck of his guitar.

“You come through with the only thing that could save you, a token, a way of improving mankind by a future action. I got my guitar. I’m gonna bring people together with my music. But the scene has got me twice now.” He raised his arms again in that theatrical manner.

“All that booze, women and drugs man.” He made a kissing noise with his lips and then whistle. “I know that my seem a waste of time in some circles but what a way to waste it.”

He looked down at the step he was sitting on.

“Let’s hope third times a charm, eh?”

Paul sat on the step below and reached into his pocket. His fingers ran over something sharp but he felt no pain, even when his hand closed around it and he took it out. It looked like a piece of rock, just ordinary, one that held his life in its jagged edges.

“Is that your saviour?” Jonny began to laugh. “Wow man, you’re fucked. That might increase my chances buddy, you’re a dead cert for the drop,” he said, with an emphasis on ‘DEAD’ that made Paul feel sick.

He strummed a few chords and left Paul to ponder.

“What time are you from then?” he finally asked after taking it in.

“1970, buddy. How about you?”

“England, 2012.”

“A brit? Nice.” Hard as he tried to conceal it, Paul caught ever drop of sarcasm in his voice.

“I’m from all over the USA, constantly travelling. I can’t even remember where I was born.”

Paul thought there was more to Jonny then what came out of his mouth but also that he was looking at a dead man.

Maybe they send the dead in two by two because I can’t see this rock changing my situation, he thought.

“Plus, my folks died when I was pretty young so can’t ask them anymore, Not that you would care man, or should.” He strummed out a few more cords and continued. “Every man has his cross to bear, in life and in death.” He laughed and slapped Paul on the back.

“Or at least that’s what they tell you.”

A slight buzzing came from above and a large platform with a door came into view. That door held the answers to questions Paul didn’t think he wanted.

Keep moving or turn into the same quivering state as Jane Eyre, he thought.

As they walked over to the door, Jonny started to get a worried look and his body performed an involuntary dance.

“Just one question before we part, buddy.” He started to look frantic and his eyes grew wide. “You’re from 2002, right?”

Paul frowned and it was his turn to look at the floor. “2012, Jonny. How well do you think you’re going to do in there if you don’t listen out here?”

This made him do the nervous shuffle one more time. “Okay man, yeah 2012. I was just wondering, in your time, you ever heard of Jonny B?”

Paul turned from the musician, not able to look into his eyes. He should have said he didn’t really follow the music scene and that, if he got another chance, the world is what you make of it, but Jonny had already thrown away one second chance and he didn’t think he was going to get another.

“No”

Paul didn’t have anything else, no words of comfort. He turned back to see the realisation spread on the musicians face

“You go first, Paul,” Jonny said gravely, and he turned his back and sat down. “My stocks have just taken a dive.”

For Jonny if the dream dies, he dies, and it was written all over his face.

Paul turned and looked at the door. It was stuck out, surrounded by air, and nothing appeared to be behind it. Paul was now alone and the situation had finally caught him with his pants down. He reached out to the handle, the last moments of conversation with the musician still fresh in his mind as he turned and walked through.

Paul shut the door behind him and scanned the room. When he was sixteen, Paul had once been caught in the wood behind the school with a joint in his mouth to impress a girl, who didn’t show up. He was caught by the harlot of physical education and sent to the headmaster’s office. This was that office. Everything was exactly the same, from the pictures of past glories and star students, to the bland carpet and cream covered walls, everything apart from the figure behind the desk. The man was dressed in an extremely well-worn black suit with a white shirt and red tie. His face looked drawn with a sickly glow fighting to peer through a matted beard. Coupled with a bald head, he looked like a newly produced egg. There was no grin on his face, just a stern set of locked lips which screamed professionalism even if the rest of him looked like it was just coming off a night out that lasted longer than anyone wanted it to.

“Take a seat, Mr Hilt, and place your token of the table in front of you,” he said casually without looking up from his clipboard. “We must discuss your situation.”

Paul felt the temperature drop dramatically as he took the seat opposite. He fished out the piece of rubble and, as instructed, placed it on the table in front.

The man quickly scanned the table, one eye fixing on the small rock, and raised an eyebrow. Amusement flashed in his eyes, which Paul either missed or refused to believe, before they returned to normal as his gaze fell back upon the clipboard page.

“My name is Mr Andrews. I am the interviewer of wayward souls in all of earths past, present and future, and I will be your one chance to return.” He pushed the clipboard to one side and clicked his fingers. Out of thin air, a laminated sheet of paper materialized into Mr Andrews’s hands, making Paul start. “Just a parlour trick. Don’t worry.”

Mr Andrews cleared this throat and began to read.

“My name is Mr Andrews.” He paused just long enough to point at himself. “I am the interviewer of wayward souls in all of earths past, present and future.”

Paul frowned as was about to comment on Mr Andrews’s repetition but decided it was something he did a lot.

“And I will be your only chance of return.” For the first time thier eyes locked and a smile spread across his face. “Even then there is no guarantee.” The smile disappeared and he returned to the script.

“Mr Paul Hilt, your rights are as follows: you are allowed to state your case when, and only when, I have received your personal file. Your records will tell me how you died prematurely and the date for your ADD or Actual Date of Departure. Begging and pleading is not forbidden but is frowned upon as it’s a pointless act of emotion and will not help you in your case.” He paused to take a sip of water out of a glass that appeared, before placing it on the table.

Paul’s head was swimming but all he could do was listen to the man and try to keep a grasp of his mind. Mr Andrews’ arm pointed and performed a sweep of the room without looking up from the page.

“The room in which you are sitting represents a serious moment in your life, not too serious, but one you will be able to remember to try and express the seriousness of this situation. We at the HCNP, Human Containment and Nurture Program, take the matter of life very seriously and therefore all one world theologies and mentions of Gods or higher powers are not forbidden but are frowned upon as it is a pointless act of emotion and will not help you in your case. The candidate, insert name here, must understand their case is incredibly important and will be treated with the utmost care and attention.”

Utmost care? Paul thought. Not enough to deserve my name being inserted where it was meant to.

His thoughts were interrupted as Mr Andrews continued.

“The candidate also must realise, depending on which time period he or she has died in, Earth may have a situation of over-population, therefore the interview stage will be skipped and I will proceed to termination.”

Paul went white.

“If this is the case your interviewer will have already have proceeded with the termination and it will be over soon.”

Mr Andrews placed the laminated paper on the table and clicked in the air once more to produce another sheet. He cleared his throat and continued reading. “Congratulations. At your time of death, Earth’s over-population has another sixty-three years before becoming a problem to anyone, so the interviewer will hear your case.”

The interviewer took another sip of liquid, and again read from the sheet without a change in expression.

“Your token is a symbol of your worth to the human race and you are advised to explain to the best of your ability. However, in the interest of consideration for the interviewer, you must be brief.”

The laminated sheet merged into a big orange file which Mr Andrews slammed on the desk.

“Okay, now the legal technicalities are out of the way, we will proceed. First, we review your token and see if you can visualise any scenario where it would come in handy for the sake of humanity.”

The clipboard reappeared with a pen attached, and he waited for Paul to begin his defence. Paul felt cheated. A rock, in his mind, was not a token to inspire this jobs-worth to return life.

“I have no idea what this rock is for,” he said.

Mr Andrews started to skim through the file and made a gesture with his hands that said ‘keep going and tell me more’.

“All I know is I am more than this rock. I have more to offer the world than this can ever show. I have an amazing life and an amazing girlfriend who I’m planning on spending the rest of my life with and start a family, a family with an infinite number of possibilities and goals we could reach.”

Mr Andrews stopped on one of the pages near the back and he looked up at Paul with guilt, as if his professional exterior was penetrated by the desperate man’s words, but he didn’t interrupt.

“I admit I haven’t done a lot with my life on a grand scale. I’m not a rock star or sportsman, giving happiness or hope to millions, but I have given happiness to the few people I know.”

The interviewer looked increasingly agitated, shifting around in his seat and placing his hand on his face.

“And isn’t that what humanity is? Isn’t that what humanity should be, about the little guys?”

I’ve got him on the ropes, Paul thought.

“It’s the little guys that can change the world. The average Joes that can change the mood of anyone they meet with just a smile, a stranger’s smile that can be the catalyst or springboard into inspiration. I haven’t a clue what my future will bring but I know whatever the possibilities, whether they’re good or bad, I can face them head on, without fear, because I’m the guy the little guy can rely on.”

Paul slumped back into his seat. He hadn’t noticed the tears that were trying to dry on his cheeks until he took in a deep breath and felt the liquid cool. He wiped his eyes and looked up at Mr Andrews’s open mouth and face of embarrassment.

Not the reaction I was going for, Paul thought, but he would take that over his earlier stone face. The interviewer stood up and slapped his mouth lightly with one hand.

“I’m sorry, Mr Hilt. I have the wrong file, just a moment.” He spun on his heels and quickly left the room through a door Paul couldn’t see. He left him on his own, for the first time since arriving in this limbo world, and left him a broken man crying hysterically.

He began to wonder why he was even here at all. His death, it seemed, was close enough for him to taste and also close enough for him to want.

The door opened again and a flustered interviewer returned and sat down.

“Sorry about that. You were saying?”

Disbelief spread across Paul’s face and he began to scream at the man opposite him. If any realization of the situation was left, it was flowing in an instant.

“JUST FUCKING LET ME DIE!” he repeated over and over.

“I’m sorry you have not been treated with the respect you deserve. Mistakes happen and I apologise.” His voice took on a cool tone. “Can we looked at your file and continue?”

Paul shook off the latest tears and took a few long, satisfying breaths.

“Okay,” he whispered.

Slowly, the binding was removed from the correct file and Mr Andrews started thumbing the pages.

“The piece of rubble is important to your cause, Mr Hilt, so let’s have a look at your information and find out why.”

He started to take a few sheets of paper and pictures from the file and lay them out in front of him. Paul could only watch as his life was thumbed through, like a journalist pouring over images of a minor celebrity doing coke in the back of a whistle-blowing taxi.

“These look familiar to you Mr Hilt?” The interviewer said calmly, like a sergeant interviewing his suspect. He slid the photos across the table.

Paul’s past and present was placed before him. Snapshots in time of any major moment, Christmas with parents, school plays with him never the lead but still proud, and on the far right was her face, the face of a future that would never be his.

“Yes,” he said softly. “These are mine, my memories.”

Mr Andrews held more photos in his hand but put placed them back into the folder. All except one.

“How about this one?”

He slid the last one across to Paul. The photo was of the Hilton hotel. The building was alight with a huge ball of fire erupting from one side. Paul pushed the picture back and shook his head.

“Means nothing to me, defiantly not from my time. That building’s still there and intact.” Then it hit him, the pictures were past, present and future.

“No Mr Hilt, it’s not your time. Well, not yet anyway.” He took the final note from the file and scanned while talking. “The explanation for the rubble is right here. Usually a candidate knows the reason why they should be sent back into their own time, that’s what the escalators are for. They give the soul a chance to process the information. It speeds this process up a great deal,” he said, flicking a finger back and forth between them.

He stood from the desk and walked back and forth behind it with his hand on his chin in some homage to Sherlock Holmes’ style of deducing. If he wasn’t trying to work out the answer to a question he came up with, Paul may have thought the charade convincing. As it was, the interviewer looked more Frank Drebin then Holmes.

“As you were distracted by Jonny B, your soul didn’t have the chance to process that information. The Victorian lady for example, the one you saw crying, she had time to understand the reason so she has an immediate pass back to her time.”

He remembered the woman as she stepped onto the escalator, her hands wrapped around her body, cradling her chest from the wheezing sobs.

“Why was she crying?” Paul asked, his voice weak.

“Luckily, statute four hundred and fifty seven of the candidate confidentiality bill doesn’t come into effect until next week,” he said smiling. “And I do enjoy a bit of gossip.” All the professionalism had drained from his voice. “Her token is a knife, a really big knife and the reason why she gets a free pass is, with that knife, she will save her daughter from a brutal death.” Mr Andrews sat back down and closed Paul’s file.

“She will save her two-year-old daughter from being raped and stabbed to death by the man she loves, the child’s father, by slitting his throat.”

Paul couldn’t reply and Mr Andrews seemed content in letting him think about it for a moment. Of course, it meant nothing to him, he had to deal with this sort of situation on a daily basis but seeing as though Paul was about to get his own dose of morbidity, he let him sit on it for a while.

Eventually Paul spoke. “How can she live and return to her time with that? Either you don’t pass her and she is gone or you send her back knowing that she has to kill the one she loves.” It was Paul’s turn to lean forward on the desk. “That sir, is fucked up.”

The interviewer shook his head. “The candidate never remembers being in this place, unless you return. Didn’t the musician tell you that?”

Paul couldn’t remember and he wasn’t going to try, his mind and eyes already returned back to the picture of the Hilton in flames. He didn’t answer the interviewers question and instead asked one of his own.

“How do I fit into that?” he asked, pointing to the photo. It was a question he now didn’t want answered but the inevitability was painful and his insides begged for a swift and merciful end.

Mr Andrews pulled a final sheet from the file without looking and placed it in front of him in the same precise manner as the others.

“Mr Hilt, you also get a free pass out of this place.” He sat back down on the chair, but looked ready to spring back up again.

“In six months’ time, after recovering from your unfortunate accident, you will save a lot of people. You will limit the damage of a bomb that will be detonated during a Conservative party conference. The ‘Occupy’ crowd decide to take things a little further than anyone deemed necessary or possible.” He rose from the chair and walked around the table to face his candidate, again giving Paul time to digest but noticing his face had turned even whiter, he decided to wrap it up. “If it’s any conciliation, you won’t remember a thing and you save a lot of people.”

Paul couldn’t move. He could only watch as the interviewer took a seat on the edge of the table. There was no ability to take in what was going. To Paul, his grip on the situation was weak and the grip on his stomach was too much and he vomited down the side of his chair.

“Even the soul can be sick,” Mr Andrews said with a chuckle. He raised his hands in front of him and clicked revealing an Ipad size screen with doctors rushing around a broken body. The appearance of the screen drained the laughter out of the interviewers face.

“This is you Paul. It’s a sorry sight to see, but you will recover.” He reached back behind the desk and pressed a button which made the screen, in which Paul could see himself, spark.

“Time to return, Mr Hilt. Goodbye”

Just as the defibrillators hit Paul on the screen, a worm hole opened and dragged the soul back into the darkness.

Paul opened his eyes and was instantly hit with mild flames all over his body. He could remember it all: strutting out into the street, the Ford as it came closer, and then waking up here. Paul was very happy to be alive and he took comfort.

“Paul?”

It took him a few seconds to register who the voice belonged too. One look at her smile reminded him instantly.

“Amie with the face,” Paul managed to push from the back of a sore throat.

She rushed forward and hugged her fallen man with an intensity Paul’s wounds could have done without but his soul was crying out for.

“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” she whispered, trying to hold back her tears.

Paul kissed her and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll never leave you again.”

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Stephen King – Joyland

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“You saved the little girl, but dear boy! You can’t save everyone”

As anyone who knows me will tell you, Stephen King is one of my favourite authors. I would probably buy his shopping list in hardback if he would grace us with it. So I was understandably excited to hear Joyland was being released, even though King’s major new work “Dr Sleep”, about grown up Danny Torrance from The Shining, will also be coming out later in the year. With this one, I got my King fix early.

Devin, the books narrator, is telling this story as an old man looking back on his defining moment when his childhood was lost forever. At the time the book starts he is coming to terms with the loss of his first love, Wendy Keegan, who breaks off the relationship painfully over the course of months. He is lost without her but when the opportunity comes along to work at a nearby amusement park he thinks this is the best way to take his mind off her. Joyland defiantly does this and a lot more. Devin walks in as a boy but leaves a man by being emotionally and physically tested in ways only King could come up with.

Not long after Devin joins the Joyland carnies, he is told about a horrific homicide that happens years previously, where a young girl is taken into the into the Horror House by her suspected boyfriend and is killed and dumped onto the tracks. The ghost of Linda Grey is said to be still haunting the ride. At first this is dismissed by most parties as a local legend but when Tom, a newly made friend of Dev’s, takes a ride and claims to have seen her, his interest in the case starts to take shape.

A reason why I love King’s style so much is his ability to make real, breathing people I genuinely care about. None more so than Mike, a child with a life-threatening condition called Duchene Muscular Dystrophy and his single mother Annie who Devin meets on his walks along the beach to work. These two nearly had me in tears, so much so I had to take a break from reading to hold them back.

I saw an interview with King online, where he explained why this book wasn’t being released in Ebook format. It wasn’t a slur against Ebooks, as he is a fan of them, it’s more the idea of people walking into a bookshop and connecting with it in a way the online market place will never be able to replicate.

I loved this book. It’s a tight; less than 300 page thrill ride and contains his trademark ability to place absorbing and natural characters right in the middle of a supernatural story. The supernatural never takes centre stage, it’s the people you remember and I will remember these guys for a long time.

Joyland is published by Hard Case Crime.

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