A Book Review: Archibald Lox & The Forgotten Crypt by Darren Shan

I recently had the good fortune of recieving an advanced copy of Young Adult author Darren Shan’s latest fantasy book to review. You can find my thoughts on it below…

Archibald Lox & The Forgotten Crypt is the fourth book in YA bestseller Darren Shan’s fantasy series about a talented young locksmith who travels between Earth and an alternate universe known as the Merge by unlocking magical portals called Boreholes. To get up to speed on the series so far, check out my review of Archibald Lox Volume One (books 1 – 3) here: https://gdbastow11.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/an-overview-archibald-lox-volume-1-by-darren-shan/

As well as being the fourth book in the over-all Archibald Lox series, Archibald Lox & the Forgotten Crypt also marks the beginning of Volume Two, the second trilogy of novels to chronicle the universe-jumping escapades of Archibald (Archie to his friends) and his eclectic entourage of fantastical companions.

The enthralling themes and narrative overtones of the first three stories continue in this latest instalment as the internationally acclaimed author expands the new world he has created to spellbinding effect. He explores the complexly volatile relationship between the Merge’s two main factions. 

The Merged (people who favour peace, decency and justice) and the SubMerged (those who would prefer to have violence, intolerance and brutality as the foundations of their society). He also delves further into the tempestuous divisions of the Merge’s extensive royal family whose loyalties are split on either side of the jagged line between these two ideologies. It is against this backdrop of maniacal monarchs and otherworldly antics that this next tale begins.

In the opening chapters of the book we catch-up with Archie when he is back in the Born (otherwise known as Earth ) trying to unlock a particularly tricky Borehole in the Seven Dials area of London’s theatre district. The lock is in the shape of a woman’s face and is proving to be an intriguing challenge for our ambitious protagonist. Archie’s locksmithing potential is now so apparent that he has been taken under the wing of Winston, one of the Merge’s most renowned locksmiths.

Winston is a tremendously wise and experienced character with a haunted past that his facial scars only hint at. The knowledgeable older locksmith resides inside Big Ben and within that iconic London landmark is where Archie goes to study his craft.

Shan delves into Winston and Archie’s teacher/apprentice relationship and illustrates the genuine rapport between the two. Despite Winston’s tough exterior, he is a man of great depth and moral conviction who is proud to pass on his skills to his promising student. In the course of Archie’s studies he discovers more about his mentor’s troubled history and the evil deeds of his former apprentice. Archie also learns about a Submerged royal named Old Man Reap who cast a long and tyrannical shadow over The Merge and its people.

Shan’s gift for character development really shines through in these early sections, the Limerick-based wordsmith is often lauded for his suspenseful twists and action-packed storylines. However, his deft skill with characterisation deserves an equal quantity of plaudits. No matter how inventive the tale or imaginative the creation, whether he is writing about ancient vampires, adolescent zombies or mystically enigmatic locksmiths, Shan imbues every character with an utterly real soul which readers of all ages can relate to.  

As the pages turn the author weaves together a multifaceted tapestry of plot, gradually illuminating vitally intriguing story elements that tantalise us with glimpses into the dark past and potential future.

Throughout this tapestry there also runs a constant thread of adventure that leads Archie to a Borehole which transports him to the cold, snowy surroundings of Moscow. Whilst in Russia’s capital city, Archie is reunited with some old friends from the Merge. Inez (who guided him on his unfamiliar inter-dimensional travels in the first three instalments) King Hugo (a motorcycle-riding Merged monarch with a cool head and a noble heart) and Princess Ghita (a Merged royal who had a small but significant part to play in Volume One) to name just three, Archibald and co soon find themselves embroiled in a top secret mission to secure the safety of an infant Merged Prince whose fate depends on them.

The sequences of the book that take us from Moscow to the various corners of the Merge crackle with high-stakes excitement. Here Darren Shan successfully channels his inner John Le Carré, seamlessly blending fantasy and espionage with magically thrilling results.

Believe it or not, fantastical undercover work, face-shaped locks and regal ructions are just the tip of the iceberg as Archibald Lox & the Forgotten Crypt contains more layers than a planet-sized onion. Shan reintroduces us to memorable characters like the jovial giant, Cal and the tiny tour de force Baba Jen, as well as taking us to many vividly unique places along the way.

Shan has taken to fantasy writing as naturally as a dragon to flight. He has built an ambitiously original fantasy world populated with fully rounded characters who take us on unforgettably compelling journeys. This series is a mystical epic for a new generation of readers.

Archibald Lox & The Forgotten Crypt will be released on 1st July 2021. You can order your copy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B093H8DPQZ?geniuslink=true

The Imp of Distraction

The Imp of Distraction:

Every writer’s plight

It appears by day

And marauds by night

Its antics unhelpful,

Its smile, too bright

The Imp of Distraction

Is frustration’s delight

The Imp of Distraction:

Every creator’s despair

It shouts in our ears

And tugs on our hair

It steals pens from hands

It leaves canvases bare

The Imp of Distraction

Drives all artists spare

The Imp of Distraction:

Every project’s blight

It causes each typo

And plot oversight

It’s naughty as Puck,

That mischievous sprite

The Imp of Distraction

What a little shite

Staying Human: #APoemADay

Throughout the month of October The Birmingham Literature Festival and their partner organisations across England have been running a magnificent project entitled #APoemADay. Since 1st October (National Poetry Day 2020) they have uploaded a reading of a different poem from Staying Human, the new anthology published by Bloodaxe Books.

Staying Human is a deeply moving and powerful collection that gives readers and in the case of this project listeners, insights into the lived experiences of international poets from all walks of life. Each poem features unique content that is personal to its individual writer whilst at the same time speaking to something profoundly relatable within all of us. It is an anthology which evokes compassion, empathy and reveals the inescapable universality of the human condition.

The daily readings released by The Birmingham Lit Fest and co are performed by an array of hugely talented creative people including Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey, writers William Gallagher, Garrie Fletcher and Alex Townley as well as Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Fatma Mohiuddin to name but a few. 

I was also asked to lend my humble Midlands tones to proceedings and recited Longing by Teresa Samuel Ibrahim. 

I feel honoured to be a part of such a poignant and far-reaching collaboration. The #APoemADay playlist is still growing and becoming more impressive with every new addition. 

Listen to the #APoemADay playlist as it expands on The Birmingham Lit Fest’s Twitter Page: https://twitter.com/BhamLitFest

Check out my reading of Longing by Teresa Samuel Ibrahim here: https://soundcloud.com/user-467684198/longing-by-teresa-samuel-ibrahim-read-by-george-bastow

Alternatively if you feel like completely immersing yourself in this beautiful project, you can find all 31 readings here: https://soundcloud.com/user-467684198/sets/bham-lit-fest-2020-staying-human-anthology

The Word Bin Podcast

 I was recently asked by writer, publisher, artist and all-round creative powerhouse Nadia Kingsley to feature on The Word Bin Podcast.

The Word Bin is a wonderfully engaging and thought-provoking daily podcast created and curated by Nadia. It invites people from all walks of life to discuss the words and phrases which they find most grating to their ears and gives them the chance to throw them in the Word Bin.

To hear which word I consigned to the linguistic rubbish dump follow this link.

https://thewordbin.podbean.com/e/the-word-bin-episode-72/

You can find out more about Nadia Kingsley and her numerous brilliant projects at:

https://fairacrepress.co.uk/about/

In a Town Near You…

In a town near you, an enlightened slug discovers the meaning of life whilst meditating in the shadow of a compost heap.

In a town near you, a police cadet chastises a fallen angel for shedding its wing-feathers on the public footpath.

In a town near you, twelve gynaecologists queue in the chip shop for an audience with the ghost of Socrates.

In a town near you, an albatross’s grandma warns it against the dangers of hard drugs ahead of its maiden flight to Bristol. 

In a town near you, the broken heart of a retired mariner slowly mends over a bowl of apple crumble.

In a town near you, Thursdays are limited to one per fortnight to save on calendar-printing costs.

In a town near you, it is frowned upon to leave axe-murderers outside charity shops unattended.

In a town near you, four in every five ducks prefer wholemeal to white bread according to a recent survey.

In a town near you, the local population is outraged by the council’s decision to ban yodelling at the bus stop.

Cabbage leaves are legal tender, banjo lessons are compulsory for all persons over the age of six and every Chinese takeaway comes with a free top hat. 

These are all merely facts of life in a town near you.

An Overview: Archibald Lox Volume 1 by Darren Shan

The bestselling Young Adult author known to the world as Darren Shan has been busy for the past few years, writing an eclectic array of novels for older readers under the pseudonym of Darren Dash. But now four years on from the conclusion of his Zom-B books Shan is back on YA territory with the first three instalments of his brand new Archibald Lox Series.

1 Archibald Lox & The Bridge between Worlds

2 Archibald Lox & The Empress of Suanpan

3 Archibald Lox & The Vote of Alignment

The release of these books (which collectively make up volume 1 of the series) not only mark Shan’s long-awaited return to teen fiction but also the beginning of his first full-blown fantasy saga.  An excitingly compelling change of pace from an author often billed as ‘The Master of YA Horror’.

In the opening story Archibald Lox & The Bridge between Worlds we are introduced to Archie, our intrepid young protagonist whose life has been rocked by a tragic event. On the morning we meet him Archie has decided to skip school for the day and wander around his home city of London to clear his head. He is standing on a footbridge over the River Thames taking in the familiarly iconic sights of the Houses of Parliament and  the London Eye, when he sees a girl running towards the bridge with two sinister white-suited men in deadly pursuit. As the girl makes it onto the footbridge Archie notices her start pulling strange faces. Before he has time to react to her crazily contorting facial expressions, he realises that the stones at her feet are moving apart, revealing a portal beneath the surface of the bridge. The girl’s two white-suited assailants, one armed with a stiletto knife and the other with an axe, almost catch up with her but she jumps into the portal and closes it behind her. Archie is shocked and amazed by what he’s just witnessed and is equally shocked and amazed that no one else around appears to have noticed any of it. The weapon-wielding duo take their leave and Archie is free to continue his day as if nothing ever happened and live the rest of his life in uneventful bliss. But his limitlessly curious nature soon gets the better of him. As if being governed by some higher power he discovers his own way of unlocking the portal and takes a leap into the unknown.

The rest of this tale (and indeed the entire volume)  follows Archie as he embarks on a multitude of enthralling adventures in the fantastically surreal parallel universe known as The Merge. The ideally suited first person narrative allows us to experience all the sights and sounds of this new world from Archie’s perspective as he encounters the bizarre terrain, fascinating people and terrifying beasts to be found around every corner. Along his way he bumps into the girl  he saw on the bridge, a fearless, resilient and wise youngster named Inez. She’s about the same age as Archie and decides to help the well-meaning but hapless human boy navigate the multifaceted landscapes of the Merge.

We travel with the two main characters as they go from vibrantly colourful wonderlands to sparsely populated ghost villages where nightmarish Hell Jackals roam and beyond to majestically opulent cityscapes. Every chapter is packed with a mixture of surprise, action and suspense as they meet allies, face-off against enemies and adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in. Alongside the regular doses of high octane hijinks that flow through volume 1 like a river of adrenaline, Shan also uses Archie’s conversations with Inez to steadily reveal pieces of information about how the Merge works. This creative sleight of hand technique allows both Archie and we the readers to learn details about the world without slowing the pace of the plot. We find out about the Merge’s uniquely vast metamorphic geography and its connection to Earth, the divisive power-struggle amongst their Royal Family and much more.

This trilogy also contains some of arguably the most accomplished and imaginative world-building of Shan’s career to date. So many of the alternate universes to be found in contemporary fantasy/sci-fi are merely superficial constructions put in place to prop up weak plots or give writers a shorthand for epic. But in this case the work Shan has done to make sure his new universe’s geographical and societal foundations are solid is evident in every chapter. In its own way The Merge is as absorbing and comprehensive as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Every aspect of life there has been precisely thought out,  whether it’s the characters’ mushroom-exclusive diet or their playfully inventive vocabulary. Escapism at its sophisticated finest.

Many of the characters we are introduced to in the course of these three yarns are among the most vividly memorable Shan has ever created. In book one Archie makes the acquaintance of King Lloyd, a charmingly eccentric, other-worldly wise monarch with glass eyes and teeth who sports a pair of red fluffy slippers. Book two brings the protagonist into contact with the titular Empress of Suanpan, a fiercely maniacal dictator with the appearance and dress sense of a sweet old grandma and book three sees him discover the agilely artful ways of two Merge subcultures, The Mice and The Rats. Although volume 1 is separated into three instalments, the author’s signature blend of fast-flowing prose and slick, engaging storylines ensures that they all read with the fluency of one well-paced novel. There is certainly no shortage of Shan’s trademark cliff-hangers and there is quite literally a macabre undercurrent to these stories as a river of actual blood winds its way through the narrative. Not to mention a closing plot twist that will leave even the most deductive readers with their jaws on the carpet.

I believe that the Archibald Lox series has the potential to be the author’s best work since The Saga of Darren Shan, it has the magical, dream-like overtones of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and the captivating, world-hopping drama of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I can’t recommend it highly enough, perfect for fantasy fans of all ages.

Feel like taking a trip into The Merge? Book one,  Archibald Lox & the Bridge between Worlds is available for free worldwide on Amazon.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Archibald-Lox-Bridge-Between-Worlds-ebook/dp/B086LKBHD6

 

I Can’t Write Poetry

 I might be a writer, blogger, journalist and all-round word-weaving Wally from Warwickshire, but I’m no poet. I’ve written a plentiful variety of creative work in my time, from book reviews to comic scripts but despite my best efforts I’ve never mastered poetry.

“How sad,” I hear you cry. “However has George learned to cope with his poetic impotence?”

By writing a poem about it, of course…

I can’t write poetry,

I’ve simply never had the skill

To measure out my words

And count every syllable.

Its rules are too restrictive

Its formats too complex

Couplets make my head hurt

And Haikus get me vexed.

My Limericks are lacklustre

And my sonnets tend to suck

With this beautiful art form

I’ve had precisely zero luck.

I can’t write poetry

But I think reading it’s the best

If I could learn to write in rhyme

I would be far less depressed.

All my idols write in verse

From Luke Wright to Bill Shakespeare

But poems by my own fair hand

Please neither eye nor ear.

I’ve tried to be witty and clever

But it’s really much too hard

Every attempt I’ve ever made

Reads like a crappy greetings card.

I can’t write poetry

But in truth I’d rather like to,

Get it printed in collections

And recite it on the mic, too.

I dream of performing spoken word

And winning my first poetry slam,

Sharing my work with adoring crowds

And posting clips on Instagram.

I’d love to be an MC,

Shell down raves, spit fire bars

But perhaps a life of rhyme

Just isn’t written in my stars.

I can’t write poetry

It’s okay, I’m not bitter

I just haven’t got the knack.

I’ll abandon my ambitions,

Dry my eyes and turn my back.

I can’t write poetry

But can’t is can without its T

I know that there’s a poet

Dwelling deep inside of me.

I don’t believe in giving up

Failure has never been my style

I know I’ll get the hang of it

Even if it drives me wild.

I love poetry too much

To stop writing ‘til I’ve cracked it

Maybe all I really need is a

Reverse psychology tactic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Molls Like It Hot by Darren Dash

I recently had the pleasure of receiving an advanced copy of Darren Dash’s latest novel to read and review. Here are my thoughts…

Molls Like it Hot is the fifth novel by Darren Dash, the eclectic alter ego of bestselling Young Adult author Darren Shan. This latest title from the macabre maestro is a contemporary noir thriller about a London cabbie who gets dragged into the blood-soaked criminal underworld of Britain’s capital city.

The story is told from the point of view of Eyrie Brown, a wisecracking taxi driver and ex-servicemen who leads a relatively quiet life, revolving around his work and caustically comical banter sessions with his tight circle of friends. He is basically a 21st century Luddite, owning just two pieces of technology, a smartphone which he seldom uses to its full capability and a TV so old it will probably turn up on the next series of Antiques Roadshow.

One dark and rainy night Eyrie is driving his black cab through the submerged streets of London when he hears a series of gunshots. Your average cabbie would plant their foot firmly on the accelerator and head for safety but Eyrie being the unflappable streetwise bruiser he is, sticks around to see what transpires. Moments later, a smartly dressed if not slightly weather-beaten gunmen emerges from an alleyway, weapon in hand. Without a hint of fear or trepidation Eyrie offers the man a lift before her Majesty’s constabulary can put in an appearance. The shooter hops inside and the two men strike up a conversation. When Eyrie recognises the make of his passenger’s gun the man realises that Eyrie isn’t half as green as he first assumed. The sinister yet stylish gangster introduces himself as Lewis Brue, pays Eyrie handsomely for his trouble then tells him to look him up if he should ever need any work.

Eyrie takes his pocket full of readies and thinks of his encounter with the brutal Mr Brue as nothing more than an exciting anecdote to entertain his mates. But when one of the gangster’s henchmen breaks into Eyrie’s flat and invites him to a meeting with his boss, Eyrie’s curiosity gets the better of him. In the back room of a grotty North London bookie’s Lewis Brue offers the cabbie £25,000 to act as guardian and chaperone to a girl for the weekend. Eyrie is an old hand who knows better than to ask questions and being in no position to refuse a payday of this magnitude he accepts the job.

In due course a mysterious young woman named Toni Curtis arrives at Eyrie’s flat and his once simplistic existence is immediately transformed.

Molls Like it Hot is a fast-paced, cinematic unflinchingly gritty piece of modern day noir that is both sophisticated and pulpy. The story pulsates with compelling characters, ultra-violent action and the sort of gob-smacking twists which Dash is renowned for.

Within the pages of this high octane yet surprisingly compact novel Dash shows off his multifarious writing gifts to exquisite effect. He crafts a brilliantly layered protagonist in the shape of Eyrie Brown, a fearless, hard-hitting badass with hidden depths that are gradually revealed throughout the narrative, giving the character a carefully defined three dimensional personality which sets him apart from your typical action hero. In Toni Curtis the author has created his most seductively psychotic female lead yet. She is a human hand grenade of danger, unpredictability and sex appeal, and God help anyone brave enough to pull her pin. Another weapon in Dash’s creative arsenal, which he puts to expert use, is a bone-dry sense of humour. Although Dash/Shan is often rightly praised for his command of the cliffhanger and hair-raising horror his subtle, pitch-perfect wit particularly in this book is equally worthy of plaudits.

A tip of the hat must also be given to all the references and homages to several timeless pieces of cinema, nestled like gemstones in amongst the broader narrative. From classics like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1947 crime drama The Devil Thumbs a Ride to a certain Billy Wilder picture. This sort of first-rate film-buffery does not go unnoticed here at Books, Films and Random Lunacy, bravo Mr Dash.

Molls Like it Hot is a pedal-to-the-metal taxi tour around Eyrie Brown’s London, taking in all the unsettling sights, crazed villains and bloodthirsty action the city has to offer. The exhilarating plot, snappy storytelling and filmic atmosphere fill the reader’s mind with vivid imagery that lends itself perfectly to adaptation.

This cracking little novel would be prime pickings for any TV or Netflix exec looking to make a hit gangland show to rival the likes of Peaky Blinders.

On the whole this new Dashing yarn is a triumph, my only quibble being I wish it could be slightly longer giving us even more thrills to enjoy but to paraphrase a famous movie quote, No book is perfect.

 

New Wellbeing for Writers Post

Greetings dear reader,

‘Tis I, your be-hatted, wheelie pal, back with a new blog post for your visual delectation. I’ve been busier than the proverbial bee over the past few months, working on the first draft of a novel and a couple of scripts for a very exciting new project.

I look forward to sharing more info about my large-scale scribblings as things progress but in the meantime in between time, please feel free to have a read of my latest WBFW post.

To Hope is a piece of prose written straight from my heart about what I believe is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. I hope you enjoy it.

Wellbeing for Writers – To Hope

Ta-ra ’til next time,

George.

Wellbeing for Writers

As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently had the pleasure of speaking on the Overcoming Obstacles: Wellbeing for Writers panel at the 2019 National Writers’ Conference. It was an honour to be a part of such a well-ran literary event and speak alongside my fellow wordsmiths Maisie Chan, Jane Roberts and our chair Louise Palfreyman. Our discussion took place in the University of Birmingham’s Bramwell Music Building and in an hour of honest and heartfelt conversation we covered some important, timely topics. 

We all shared our individual insights into our experiences of living with ill-health and a number of the creative and personal coping strategies we use to help us through. 

Maisie spoke with candid eloquence about her battles with depression, Jane conversed bravely about what she humorously refers to as her “Mixed bag of health conditions” and gave a deeply powerful reading from her piece Little Follies: Notes on Thyroid Illness & fibromyalgia. Louise discussed her struggles with M.E. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and how she stays productive by carefully choosing when to focus more on her editing work and when to concentrate on her fiction writing. I talked about how having quadriplegic cerebral palsy impacts on my life and writing, the perspective it gives me and the importance of finding humour in adversity.

Our audience at the Conference were amazingly receptive and many of them opened up about their own varied experiences throughout our talk. This level of honesty and mutual understanding transformed it from a standard panel discussion to a wide-ranging chat among a roomful of people bound together by creative comradeship and hope for a positive, more inclusive future.

My co-panellists and I were hugely inspired by our audience and are keen to keep this channel of discussion open. So with that in mind we have created wellbeingforwriters.com a blog that we hope can become an online community where people can talk, post, share info, give and receive solidarity when they need it the most.

There are already a handful of powerful and thought-provoking pieces on there from my talented collaborators, as well as a humble scribbling by yours truly. We also have a resources page where you can find a range of organisations who offer personal and writing-related support. But there is room for so much more.

If you are a writer or creative who is fighting a mental or physical health battle, if you are someone with a disability or a carer with stories and wisdom to share or if you are a person who is cooking up ideas on how to increase inclusivity in the arts and wider society, please get in touch via the contact page. We’d  love to hear from you.

Wellbeing for Writers – Inspiration for a Happier Writing Life

 With love & best wishes,

George.