Book Review: Falling Leaves

“None of the feelings that usually accompanied this transition materialised. I didn’t get the prickly dread at the thought of seeing my mother, or the dull sinking feeling that I was travelling back in time to a place I no longer belonged, that I was getting further and further away from my real life, my world, leaving the present and future behind, that Llangoroth was just a model made out of the past.”

Falling Leaves, by Stefan Mohamed, is a story of time travel. Not of the sort associated with Doctor Who but rather that of aging, and memory, and the pivotal moments in life that are not recognised as such until considered with the benefit of hindsight.

The story opens with a disturbing dream. Twenty-three year old Vanessa, living in London in a gone stale relationship with Stuart, wakes up crying tears of grief yet cannot recall why. She is a graduate and aspiring writer working shifts at a cinema in an attempt to pay her share of the rent. When she tries to write to calm her anxious mind, strange paragraphs flow, vivid and incoherent.

Vanessa contacts her good friend, Alice, but cannot make sense of how she is feeling. Later she has a frightening vision of herself bleeding that quickly disappears. She knows that she has to make changes to her life but baulks at the effort this would entail. She is distracted by a phone call from her beloved Aunt Pauline who is still living in their hometown in Wales. An old friend of Vanessa’s who disappeared without trace seven years ago has turned up on Pauline’s doorstep. Mark looks and dresses exactly as he did when he was sixteen.

Vanessa understands that what Pauline is telling her is impossible but also that she must see for herself this returned boy. When her boss at work will not grant her time off Vanessa quits, pushing aside the future difficulties this will create. Evading Stuart’s questions she travels to Llangoroth, her mind filled with memories of the life she lived with Mark as a teenager. The sense of loss she suffered when he disappeared all but destroyed her, and many of her other relationships.

Pauline, Vanessa and Mark struggle to make sense of the situation so seek answers to some of their questions from Mark’s father. Still traumatised from the secrets and hurt he has been harbouring, his reactions put them in peril. Mark is showing signs of infirmity and Vanessa is still suffering visions. The pair flee to the anonymity of London but in doing so put Stuart and Alice in danger.

It took me some time to connect with the voice of the protagonist. Her language and attitude are that of a contemporary, literate twenty-something year old adult, filled with anger and angst, voicing concern for the future yet often apathetic. Vanessa’s teenage self had indulged in the rave scene and drugs, largely detaching herself from family concerns. Music plays a role, something that may appeal to those with more up to date knowledge than I possess.

As the story unfolds and the tension mounts the tale becomes less about character, becoming more plot driven. It is necessary to indulge the weirder elements in order to enjoy this progression.

Once the scene had been set this became a fast moving and engaging adventure that will appeal to those who enjoyed the author’s Bitter Sixteen trilogy. The exploration of the effects interactions have on others, and of the damage caused by dogmatic beliefs added interest – serious issues are explored in a story that never appears to take itself too seriously.

The style and zest of the prose make this an entertaining, dynamic read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Random Musings: Lessons in Mind Control #StanlysGhost

I recently reviewed Stanly’s Ghost, the final installment in Stefan Mohamed’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. This is a fantasy adventure series aimed at young adults and you may read my review here. For many it will be a fun, action packed tale of intrepid if somewhat geeky heroes fighting monsters and evil overlords. They save the world, and more specifically their friends, from the power grabbing intentions of a ruling elite led by a smarmy yet dastardly megalomaniac named Freeman. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the story, what I took from it were parallels with our current reality.

One of the powers being abused by the bad guy is mind control. He and his acolytes use this not only to subdue and get their way but as an instrument of torture, a way of destroying those who attempt to thwart their plans. In the basement of their headquarters are prison cells within which superpowers may be neutralised. Freeman prefers to harness these superpowers for his own ends, but any who refuse to comply with his demands are taken down.

The hero, eighteen year old Stanly Bird, is in many ways charmingly naive. He wants above all else to do what is right. The problem is that to thwart Freeman’s plans he has to engage in similar activities. Stanly also harnesses mind control to get others to do his bidding. This is often to the good – he banishes a wife beater – but to get rid of Freeman it is suggested he will have to kill, or at least send his enemy to another realm, preferably one where he will suffer for his misdeeds. Freeman had sent Stanly to another realm in a previous book in the series, supposedly for the greater good. What is the difference?

All this set me thinking about the UK where political thinking has recently become more polarised. The last General Election (in 2015) was challenging as no parties seemed to represent ordinary people, that is, those who could not directly benefit the politicians. It was hard to choose who to vote for when all candidates talked in misleading soundbites and demonstrated blatant self-interest. A change was needed, and with the subsequent battle for the Labour Party leadership and then the vote for Brexit this was achieved. Now the country seems even more divided and discontent. The uncertainty that change brings is not being well received.

Before the General Election many complained about the Prime Minister, Cameron. They are not happy with his successor, May. The Labour Party leader, Milliband, was widely mocked for his willingness to compromise, yet his successor, Corbyn, is disliked for his steadfastness – he is regarded by many as ineffectual. Before Brexit many complained about the waste and perceived cronyism within the EU. Now leaving it is being decried as a national disaster. Change is demanded, but only if it follows the agenda of particular groups.

“I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It’s just the EU that I loathe.”

In Stanly’s Ghost, Freeman has taken the power that Stanly’s previous actions granted him and used it to achieve a number of good things. The country is stable, infrastructure projects provide work, sustainable power sources are harnessed. There is still discontent, particularly amongst those who struggle to accept the empowered living openly and displaying their differences. Certain unempowered people would prefer to go back to when they could regard themselves as superior.

To take Freeman down would be to throw the country, and possibly the world, into the unknown. New leaders would emerge, and they may be no better. What right have Stanly and his friends to forcefully decide what is good for the wider population?

“A revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.”

One plot line in the story involves a drug that could be added to the water to quietly remove all superpowers. In one sense this would make everyone equal. Stanly argues that individuals should not have the drug foisted on them, that they should be offered a choice. Who would choose to give up their privilege? It may be commendable to wish for a better life for the downtrodden and oppressed, but few are willing to sacrifice the comforts they enjoy in order to achieve equality and the downgrade in their own lifestyle that this may bring, even when they can see that they bear a degree of culpability for other’s suffering. Think of the current attitude towards immigrants and refugees.

The superpowered in Stanly’s Ghost use mind control. In our world this is achieved through the skewed and biased dissemination of information. It is too easy to regard those who hold views that are anathema as fools. Both sides do this. The reality is a great deal more complex than many seem able to accept.

“Beware the new imperial elite: athiest, rational, convinced of their rights, prepared to trample the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and local institutions for themselves and substitute central control and governance ‘for the greater good'”

Stanly struggles with his conscience as he tries to decide what he should do. In a fast moving environment, where knowledge that may damage the standing of the powerful is witheld, it can be difficult to discern what the right decision may be. With hindsight there could be regret, but who can say with any certainty how any alternative result would have played out?

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

“Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be”

Stanly’s Ghost is published by Salt and is available to buy now.

The quotes I have used in this post are not taken from the book. They have been inserted to illustrate points of view, not necessarily my own.

Book Review: Stanly’s Ghost

“That brief, glowing time when an afternoon spent on the lawn with only a cardboard box and a stick for company was an afternoon well spent. That time which, like all times, you didn’t truly appreciate until you realised it had long passed.

But then there’s new times. And you do those.”

Stanly’s Ghost, by Stefan Mohamed, is the third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. I review the first two books here and here. In this final installment the teenage superhero, Stanly Bird, discovers that he has somehow been released from his suspended dreamstate amongst the shimmers who unleashed monsters into his world. Stanly’s awakening is abrupt and confusing, with images imprinting themselves on his memory that he cannot explain. When he returns to London he finds that time has moved on and much has changed.

Stanly’s old nemesis, Freeman, is running what is now known as Angelcorps, working with governments and heads of state to manage the roles empowered individuals can usefully play in a society still being rebuilt after the Collision. Registration and enhanced surveillance have been widely accepted, for the good of the people (of course). What actually happened, and Stanly’s role in this, have been altered in people’s memories. Alongside the myriad of superpowers now being openly wielded, the most pervasive is mind control. Stanly needs to learn quickly if he is to avoid being manipulated. His powers are particularly strong and Angelcorp will only allow him to operate in the public sphere if Freeman retains control.

Like the previous two installments in this series, the writing is witty and candid with many passing references to popular culture. Unlike his friends, Stanly has not aged so is still eighteen years old. He is impulsive, somewhat arrogant and has little understanding of the organisation he is up against. His powers have grown exponentially and he is determined to use them to help his friends. He harbours a desire to be a force for good in the world, a comic book superhero. His problem lies in deciding what good means.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting emotions and risky exposures appears another powerful individual who also wishes to influence Stanly’s behaviour. The Collision proved that alternative worlds exist and he shows Stanly that it is possible to move between them. Stanly has the power to rid his world of a dangerous megalomaniac but he fears what doing so would make him.

Issues are explored with the lightest of touches whilst following Stanly as he flies around London, throwing large objects whilst reading people’s minds and using the force, or whatever it should be called in this tale. The narrative is funny and quick, poignant and honest in its depiction of a teenager trying to retain some control over his life when most of the time he hasn’t a clue what exactly he wants to do or to be.

After the epic battles and revelations I wondered how the author could create a saisfying denouement. He does so with aplomb. There may be no easy answers to the massive questions, nor to those Stanly struggles with on a personal level, but the final page is a perfect fit with all that has gone before.

An adrenaline inducing adventure that never takes itself too seriously. The writing flows and the action is fist-pumpingly good. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers. Always fun and entertaining, yet it is the originality and depth that truly impressed me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Book Review: Ace of Spiders


Ace of Spiders, by Stefan Mohamed, is the second book in a planned YA fantasy trilogy which began with Bitter Sixteen. Since I read that first book last month I have been eagerly waiting for this installment. It did not disappoint.

The protagonist, Stanly Bird, is now eighteen years old. He has remained in London and continues to work at Skank’s comic book store. He is also bored. After fighting the child abducting monster his life has returned to that of a normal, geeky teenager. With his powers continuing to grow he feels wasted on normalcy. The empowered friends with whom he lodges disagree. They believe that if their superpowers were revealed to the public they would be endangered, that the authorities would wish to use them for their own ends. Their run in with the secretive Angel Group confirmed their worst fears and they want nothing to do with that way of life so choose to lie low.

When a contract killer attempts to murder Stanly his friends demand that he remains indoors until they can uncover who was behind the attack. Stanly is unwilling to comply. He sneaks out at night, flying around the city and beyond. Just as it looks as though his friends may be losing patience with him more sinister developments demand all of their attentions. The Angel Group has returned to their radars and this may not be the only monster that the empowered are required to fight.

As with the first in the series the appeal of this book is the humour and wit of the writing. Stanly Bird is not the brightest bulb in the box, although his powers are undoubtedly impressive and great fun to consider. He is all the more likeable because of his flaws. His temper and tendency to daydream add to the authenticity, his awkwardness invites empathy.

Brought up alongside computer games, who wouldn’t dream of fighting the baddies if given the power of flight and telekinesis? The problem for Stanly and his friends is working out who the baddies are and what a handful of individuals can actually achieve, especially when the rest of London wishes to be left alone to go about their everyday lives.

The plot twists and turns as monsters rise from the depths, motivations within the Angel Group are revealed, and increasing numbers of empowered people are discovered. When the lives of those he loves are threatened Stanly must decide how far he is willing to go, if he is willing to kill more than just the monsters.

The denouement was a roller coaster of battles, destruction, switching allegiances and the awesomeness of mind control. The author has created a hero with powers a reader can only dream about, and then demonstrates how difficult it would be to live with them. He also has fun showing some of what could be done.

A rollicking good ride that I flew through and now desire more. This is impressive, entertaining, addictive stuff.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Bitter Sixteen

bitter sixteen

Bitter Sixteen, by Stefan Mohamed, is the first book in a proposed fantasy trilogy for young adults. It introduces the reader to Stanly Bird, a cynical schoolboy who discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has gained the powers of flight and telekinesis. As his closest companion is a talking beagle this is daunting but not as surprising as it might have been for someone else.

Stanly is a perceptively written, introspective teenager, a loner who has cultivated a brooding, mysterious persona that enables him to keep his peers at bay. His parents worry about his lack of friends but Stanly believes that they have enough problems of their own and has little patience with such concerns.

Having grown up alongside the fictional worlds of superheroes and computer games Stanly questions how he should use his new and burgeoning abilities. Living in a remote Welsh town there seems little scope for saving the world. He is also aware that it would be dangerous to let others know of his powers. He has no wish to be studied for scientific purposes or forced to fight for those with an agenda of their own.

Just as it seems that Stanly’s personal life may be looking up he is forced to flee to London where he discovers that he is not the only person with superpowers. He also discovers that his abilities are not as secret as he had believed. Thanks to his new friends he finds work in a comic book store. He battles monsters, both human and supernatural. He must also circumvent the adults who see him as a bad influence on his girl.

What sets this book apart from others in the genre is the quality and style of the writing. Stanly is a fabulous creation and is presented with such wit and humour that his exploits are a joy to read. Having superpowers is weird, dangerous but also fun, especially the flying bit.

Although written for young adults I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, proving once again that a good book is for any reader. The denouement was poignant but fitting; the story is concluded but I am so glad that there is a second book in this series due soon. Stanly Bird is not a character I wish to say goodbye to yet.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.