Review: Blue Moon (Paperback)

I’ve been on a binge of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child – so much so I’ll be talking about that very soon – and picked up the so-far most current paperback, Blue Moon.

It’s worthwhile to preface why I enjoy these books – often I’ll describe them as the literary equivalent of a packet of crisps, and not a derisory comment – they’re easy to enjoy and don’t require a lot of thought to enjoy, so that makes them accessible. There’s a universality of the protagonist Jack Reacher that makes him accessible to a lot of readers – he’s rough and ready, action oriented, pragmatic but with a moral core. And the mechanism of his nomadic lifestyle, drifting across the country on a Greyhound bus allows him to pop up seemingly anywhere, just when trouble is brewing.

Which is how we begin with Blue Moon – Jack Reacher is riding a Greyhound bus as it approaches a city so unremarkable we never learn its name. He sees an old man in front of him with a bundle of cash. Someone else on the bus is eyeing up the money. The bus stops in the bad part of town. Jack Reacher saves the old man from being mugged. And we begin our descent -from being a good citizen – to bringing the bad guys to some kind of tough justice.

Blue Moon ticks off some of the aspects of my most favourite Jack Reacher books I’ve read so far – it plunges Reacher into a situation with barely any room to breathe. There’s bad guys everywhere and this leads to taut action scenes avoiding capture or discovery. In Blue Moon there’s Ukraininan and Albanian gangs controlling respective sides of town. It becomes, as the story unfolds, a very suspenseful dance to avoid being detected as Reacher unpicks both the backstory behind the Shevicks – the kind old couple who’ve hit desperate times who he helps – and the stranglehold that these gangs have on the city.

Jack Reacher books are formulaic – but that’s not a negative. Indeed, that formulaic nature is a big part of the enjoyability of this ‘literary bag of crisps’ – you know what you’re getting. Reacher arrives on the scene and trouble either erupts in front of him or his morality – righting a wrong he witnesses – leads him to discover the mystery. Blue Moon definitely adheres to the formula as Reacher slowly coaxes out the finer points of the story. It develops at a linear pace, gradually accelerating to the climax. There’s great scenes – tension, action and cunning. Reacher’s efforts to evade the detection of the gangs roaming hit-squads are tense and rewarding. His multi-layered subterfuges are quite juicy and pay off nicely. There’s some stealth and tension that reveals intricate thought behind the plot. And the final takedown at the story’s climax is quite good too – plenty of rough, street justice.

However, considering that, Blue Moon has an ugly side in that it is so gratuitiously violent.

That said violence is no stranger to the Jack Reacher books. It’s always visceral, no-holds-barred but measured in its application. One of Reacher’s traits that’s one I can relate to is that violence is a last resort, and often Reacher will warn his cocksure adversaries of their impending errors. If they choose to continue or not heed the warning, so be it.

But Blue Moon has possibly one of the highest body-counts of any of the Reacher books I’ve read so far. Indeed, Reacher, in the story, recruits a few Marine acquaintances to form some kind of rough-and-tough mercenary force that is utterly unstoppable. Sure, Jack Reacher never seems to lose, but in Blue Moon he walks over the literal piled bodies of those who crossed him. And there seems to be no comeback to that – the police are completely buttoned up to the point they’re side characters who only appear from afar.

I’d like for the stakes to be a bit higher – and for Reacher to have to work more. But for all the intricate plotting that slowly unwraps – not totally perfect, requiring some level of suspension-of-disbelief – is let down and undermined by the impotency of any judicial comeback on Reacher, and the sheer number of gangland heavies that get cut down in the crossfire. Yes, Reacher stays true to his mantra of warning those not to cross him of the consequences, and putting down those who commit immoral acts he “doesn’t like”, but the bulldozer-like approach just left me with a bit of a sour taste.

Jack Reacher is better when he’s more human, and more falliable. Yes, as our protagonist and some kind of masculine hero, we the reader know he’ll ultimately win the day. But in Blue Moon, despite some crisp, meaty scenes of tension and action, it reduces a nominally-dangerous threat – two large gangs jostling for control of the city – down to some kind of circus in how easy – and without any threat – they are disarmed and left for dead.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Blue Moon but I feel it did both the best and the worst of what I expect from my literary bag of Walkers.

If I had to pick a flavour that summed up Blue Moon, I’d say: Pickled Onion. Enjoyable but with an aftertaste that lingers that’ll leave your eyes watering.

Verdict: Recommended

Writing Thoughts: Developing Healthy Writing Habits

Recently I’ve been exploring a bit more of the writing community – it’s great fun getting to know an interacting with more like-minded souls who are embarking on the writing journey.

I’ve recently subscribed to UK-based writer Benjamin T. Milnes as part of these efforts and I’ve been watching his various videos on his YouTube Channel – there’s some very good writing advice there and some great insight into his own processes. Recently he published a video about building writing habits:

This was a very good video and I’d strongly suggest you watch it in full. Certainly it got me thinking about my own writing habits and how important that is to constantly evolve but also to be aware of one’s own habits, so I think it’d be helpful to reflect on my own writing habits and some of the pertinent points from Benjamin’s excellent video.

Benjamin makes an excellent point that writing needs to be habitual, or a book will never get written. Occasional writing is almost worse than no writing at all as the speed at which one produces a work is glacial. Benjamin talks in his video about his initial draft that he was working on occasionally being one that would’ve taken years to complete. This is routinely unsatisfying as a writer for a few reasons:

  • The book takes forever to write – I feel that if you want to take writing in any way seriously you need to be somewhat productive and able to sustain writing large amounts of words in a fairly short time. Writing occasionally does very little to foster a professional attitude to writing that is necessary to be in any way a professional writer or author.

    I know this myself from my past projects: The Thaw is a book I wrote in my second year of University – so, 2016 time – and it’s only now approaching a stage where I’m ready to get it professionally edited and then start querying it. There’s been periods of months between edits – some of those times are unintentional, due to real-life stuff taking priority – but I look back in some shame at the time it’s taken me to get The Thaw done, because it has taken a long time and also, when reading the later drafts, I realise it’s a great book and I’m immensely proud of it; I just want to get it done and out there!
  • It’s easy to lose track of ideas – as one’s memory of writing a specific section wanes as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult to remember those points and having to look those up again for the details only serves to further slow the writing process down.
  • You’re unable to work on other ideas – if you’re spending so long writing one book, what good is having an idea for another if you don’t have the creative endurance to work on it? I am, myself, quite single-minded in that I don’t tend to spin more than one creative plate at a time, lest they all suffer.

So where can occasional writing come from? One aspect I’ve acutely had to deal with in the 10 years I’ve been writing “properly” is a sense of imposter syndrome. I think about writing a lot, but actually putting pen to paper, or hand to keyboard can be a terrifying prospect as I don’t feel worthy. But I know that I am – firstly, I hold a degree in Creative Writing. But more importantly once I gain that initial momentum of getting going even on a short session the flow quickly follows.

But I do have a great sense of what I type needs to be perfect first time I type it or don’t bother and that is a killer fear that results in procrastination – doing anything but writing.

What, therefore forms a “healthy writing habit”?

In the video, Benjamin starts by stating his initial writing habit was to write 500 words before doing anything else. That’s not a bad starting point for establishing writing as a routine that you do, not something you’re almost too scared of doing. However I don’t necessarily agree in totality with daily writing goals:

  • Daily writing goals leave no room for off-days – sometimes when you’re writing constantly, you can suffer from burnout.  I think writing every day results in added stress and pressure to create, which can be one of the biggest motivation-killers
  • You write anything to reach that goal – Stephen King famously, in On Writing, said that he wrote “ten pages a day”. I’m sure he also referenced getting those done before anything else in his day. While that does result in the word-count quickly accumulating, as Benjamin qualifies later in his video, it’s better to write 500-1,000 decent words a day than 4,000 absolutely terrible ones that you’ll only have to fix in editing.
  • Unattainable goals can hurt motivation – sometimes you just can’t write as much per day as you’d like, and I think that having unrealistically-high wordcount goals – Benjamin mentions in the video upwards of 7,000 words a day – not only results in churn but you set yourself up for failure if you simply can’t write that much on any given day; this sense of failure takes the enjoyment I think is key when writing to stay focussed and motivated.

I agree – forcing yourself to get in the chair and put pen to paper can be the key to setting up a healthy routine. And yes, finding a time of day that you’re most productive at helps massively too. I recall writing quite large sections of my stories at ungodly hours in the morning – that was what worked for me at the time and sometimes when the muse hits you, you have to grasp it then and there.

So what are my own personal thoughts on developing a healthy writing habit? Let’s examine the mindset I’ve thought up over time:

  • Set weekly or monthly goals to accomplish – this strikes a fine balance, I feel, between writing every day – which while good when it’s sustainable can be a drag when not – and writing occasionally, which is very unproductive. Setting a weekly goal also allows, I feel, for the intricacies of real life – it allows for “off-days” that you simply can relax on, either to cool off or let ideas percolate.
  • Work on diverse projects you can switch to as you feel able to  – While I’m a poor proponent of multitasking when writing, sometimes you get stuck on a project and if you’re being too rigid with yourself with your writing habit, that can, like so many of the other pitfalls, just crater your motivation. I like to have a few projects or goals for any specific period of time – say, editing one longer piece, working on another shorter piece or throwing together a post for my website – that I can jump to on a specific day.
  • Be mindful of letting those days-off turn into months-off – distance from a project is healthy – King once again stated in On Writing that once a draft is finished to throw it in a drawer, to take some distance from it before returning. But too often I’ve let that becomes a several-months gap, for which I’m kicking myself. But it’s about allowing yourself that period of relaxation, recharging the batteries, even being able to watch TV without feeling guilty you’re not constantly writing that helps but maintaining that momentum. It’s a fine balance of maintaining a good distance from the project to remain objective to losing sight of what it was you wanted to achieve.

With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen— if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us

Stephen King, On Writing

My personal writing habits are to set those weekly or monthly goals. For instance, I’ll aim to “do something creative” most days of the week – whether that be writing new words, editing projects, or working on a blogpost. Attempting to do a mix of writing and editing keeps both skills supple and gives a project to “switch to”, should the motivation on a given day peter out. I prefer to work during the day these days, with the window open and the sun shining – though creating a productive workspace is a topic for a future post.

Benjamin states in his video that a motivated writer achieving 7,000 words a day can have a novel done in a couple of weeks – but should they? As before, such high volumes so quickly increases dramatically the chances of “churn”.

Setting a more healthy and attainable long-term goal of 500-1,200 words I feel is ideal, especially for those new to writing longform prose. I recall cutting my teeth on that in November 2010 as part of NaNoWriMo when I wrote a book entitled The Last of the Steamers – it was a fantastic achievement to have done, and the average writing goal of 1,700 words a day to achieve 50,000 words in November is just at the upper sweet spot of what Ben – and I – consider a decent goal.

Nowadays however my timeframes are more relaxed – I recall more of King’s advice from On Writing:

The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

Stephen King, On Writing

I agree, that is the sweet spot – my first draft of The Thaw that I’m currently working on took around 4-5 months. This missed the goal set by King (and that I’d set myself) but I was still happy to have taken my time, and I’m sure that the next book I hit the ground on (I’ve plenty of ideas!) will further get me to that goal.

The most important takeaway for authors approaching this? Train yourself to be productive, and don’t fear it. But also find a healthy compromise that maintains your productivity but doesn’t result in stress. After all, each word that you write each time you can is a word you didn’t have written before!

I’d also highly recommend Benjamin T. Milnes’ YouTube channel as he’s posting some great videos on craft and his own work. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook.

Review: The Silence (Paperback)

I’m gradually learning to be a bit more adventurous with my book choices, and those efforts continue to pay dividends with The Silence.

I picked this book up not quite sure what to expect. This edition was a tie-in to a Netflix movie derived from the book that has middling reviews. I sensed something supernatural about The Silence, which may have been why it languished a little longer on my shelf than it ultimately warranted.

It’s an interesting premise: the apocalypse in The Silence is brought about not by aliens, or nuclear Armageddon, but by the unearthing in Moldova of an ancient, unknown species of reptilian creatures that have developed in the dark. Indeed, Pandora’s Box quickly opens wide and quickly these creatures, christened Vesps, begin to spread, causing havoc across Europe.

The narrative focusses on Ally and her family as they watch this disaster unfold on the news and through social media. There’s a sense of foreboding, waiting and inevitability from us, the reader, watching the Vesp menace get steadily closer to the United Kingdom. Indeed, the story unfolds over a matter of days where the world changes completely, and we follow Ally and her family, joined by Ally’s terminally-ill maternal grandfather and Ally’s father’s outdoorsman-like friends, with whom the families have coexisted in the same, small, sleepy town as the realisation sets in: to survive, the family must flee their lives as they’ve known for ever for an uncertain future far away, where safety from this unknown threat is not even assured.

So far, so good. The tension and sense of foreboding in these initial chapters is palpable, and the atmosphere – one of dread, a knowing that it’s a matter of time, and how these people cope – and don’t cope – really sends an electric tingle with every word. Indeed, scenes of panic-buying at shops in preparation for some kind of end-of-the-world scenario seemed prescient in the climate in which I write this review, with similar behaviour regarding the coronavirus pandemic the world is currently experiencing. Maybe that’s what made these brooding, dread-filled chapters resonate more – my real experience of this so recently perhaps attenuated my senses. It’s effective.

Quickly The Silence becomes a story about the journey, not the destination, but it’s less The Roadwhich I hated, and more One – a novel I adore. The journey is horrifying for various different reasons and it’s traumatic for everyone. The landscape shifts. The objective changes in the face of the facts presented on the road. Society is seen to slowly disintegrate as the journey progresses, leading to new twists.

What I liked about this was, with The Silence, along with One, and other post-apocalyptic books (The Girl With All the Gifts is a fine example) is that the story is about the journey and what it does to the characters. There is, I’ve noticed, not going to be a happy-ever-after at the story’s conclusion. The world has changed monumentally in all these stories. It’s a story of adaptation to survive, and to survive that traumatic transition from the comfortable life you and I can relate to into the horrors thrown against society and the characters we observe this through.

However, it’s not all perfect for The Silence. There’s a number of aspects and concepts I felt were good but not fully developed, which I think is a shame – they needed more time in the oven!

  • Ally decides to chronicle her experience of the Vesp invasion through a scrapbook app on her iPad, and she monitors the results of this through social media. Later in the book, as society slowly falls apart at the seams, “grey areas” without electricity develop across the country, threatening Ally’s memoir through the scourge of a dead battery, unable to be charged. This is nice but I feel it is somewhat shoehorned in as a little bit of an afterthought, with the brownouts beginning toward the last third of the book. And I don’t feel a massive affinity for Ally’s scrapbook as its knowledge being kept for posterity, and it isn’t called up on in the story in any real active way
  • One of the interesting themes is that Ally, as a protagonist, is deaf. The prose handles this pretty seamlessly – Ally “speaks”, but she signs. It’s revealed that the Vesps cannot see visually and are guided by sound. Late in the book we are introduced to a sort-of cult called The Hushed, led by a somewhat one-dimensionally ominous Reverend who want Ally to help their cause, the goals of which are unknown. We meet The Reverend for the first time at random, and he crops up in a series of increasingly-sinister vignettes until the end of the book.
  • The Vesps themselves, while having an interesting take on an origin, are essentially mindless pack animals in their hunting. I would’ve liked to have seen a more intelligent foe to contend with modern society, and I don’t think it would’ve been beyond a stretch of the suspension of disbelief from them having evolved in hidden caves to begin with.

These aren’t cardinal sins by any means – I enjoyed The Silence enough to wish that these had been done. But they’re not fatal errors or omissions by any means. The Silence is by no means a bad book – I certainly enjoyed it, but like I said before, these areas needed more time in the oven to really wring the most potential out of the story. That said, it was a punt that paid off for me and I would have no hesitation in giving it a recommendation – and I think Tim Lebbon is an author whose work I’ll be exploring more about in the future – The Silence was a vocal introduction.

Verdict: Recommended

Beating the Lockdown Tedium – Project Shoutouts

It’s the start of the Easter Holidays here in the UK, and the weather is lovely, but we can’t go out due to a national lockdown in relation to Coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean we need to all be bored – here’s a few projects of mine (and by some friends) I think may help turn the tide of lockdown boredom!

GROWING STORM

You can read my latest short story – a 12,000 word sci-fi horror piece called Growing Storm HERE – really excited to see what people make of my latest story. It’s a “spooky sci-fi sea shanty” inspired in large part by the classic novel The Day of the Triffids – with my own twist, too!

DOCTOR WHO: REVERENCE OF THE DALEKS

I released a Doctor Who fan-film in February that I, with a compendium of lovely friends, made over the last three years entitled Reverence of the Daleks. It’s recently hit 1,000 views on YouTube so I’m thrilled by the success so far. Find out more and watch the film through my website HERE!

Also I feel it’s right to shout out two other projects by good friends that I feel are worth promoting while we’re in the sharing mood:

THE PREP DIARIES

Read my good friend Chris Kenny‘s guide to preparing for his first big bodybuilding show – it’s an honest, authentic account of a personal journey and very inspirational. You can view the ebook on Amazon HERE.

STORYMECHS

Long-time Twitter friend Sam Richards has been working hard on his interactive fiction project StoryMechs and will be running a new interactive story in April to help alleviate lockdown tedium, check out all the details on Sam’s Patreon page HERE.

I hope everyone is keeping safe and well in these unknown times and give a thought to checking out these fantastic projects!