Monday, 1 June 2020

The Empire Strikes Back Letraset

The Empire Strikes Back was released in the UK over 40 years ago, on 21st May 1980.  Since I was busy celebrating Dude last week (you can see the post here) and I'd already posted about the excellent film in 2014 (you can read it here), I thought I'd try something a little different.  So here we go...
Postal order required!
In 2017, as part of my Star Wars At 40 thread, I wrote (as you can read here) about the Letraset transfer sets.  Available as packs or given away as gifts with the likes of Look-In magazine and Shreddies cereal, these were background scenes of the film with action transfers to allow you to finish the picture off how you wanted it to be.

In 1980, Empire got the same treatment.

The four sets were Bespin Cloud City, Hoth Ice Planet, Space Battle and Dagobah Bog Planet and wonderfully idiosyncratic, which none of us would have minded at the time (and makes them all the more charming now).  Luke doesn't fight in his X-Wing (the space battle, as fans will be aware, is between the Millennium Falcon and Vader's Star Destroyer) while the transfer Yoda is based on the one in the Marvel comic, which owes a lot more to Joe Johnston's original design than the Stuart Freeborn puppet of the film.

Ask anyone of my generation what Letraset is and most people will quite happily tell you they made transfers.  Back in the day, if you were making a poster, booklet or student magazine and needed a professional look, you’d buy one of their sheets of type and painstakingly rub off the letters you wanted, on a pencil line you’d carefully drawn (and would equally carefully rub away, so you didn’t accidentally rub off any of the transfer either).  The result often looked wobbly but generally very good.

Founded in London in 1959 (later moving to Ashford, Kent, it's now based in Le Mans, France), Letraset introduced ‘innovative media’ for commercial artists and designers.  In 1961, they created a revolutionary dry rub-down method and, in 1964, applied this to a children’s line called Action Transfers.  During the 1970s, Letraset bought licences for the line, including The Wombles, Super Action Heroes (DC comics), Duckhams Grand Prix, Paddington Bear, Captain Scarlet, Dr Who and Space: 1999, among others.  They also, smartly, were one of the early Star Wars licencees.  Reacting quickly to the success of the film, the first Letraset transfers (with artwork by David Clark) appeared on the back of Shreddies boxes with four scenes (Capture Of The Rebel CruiserEscape From Mos EisleyBreakout At Prison Block and Escape From The Death Star), each with their own set of transfers.

Further sets were released which quickly went into second printings and John Hunt, the brand manager at the time, later said “the Star Wars sets were probably the most successful transfer set ever made.”

The company was purchased by the ColArt group in 2012.

Action Transfers (with special thanks to Tom Vinelott)

Monday, 25 May 2020

Dad... (and that exasperated tone)

In June 2014 (you can see it here), I posted a Calvin & Hobbes strip where his Dad has an amusing way of explaining certain things and revisited the situation in May 2016 (you can see it here).

Dude's 15 tomorrow and doesn't ask me many 'big' questions any more - most of his queries revolve around why I listen to the kind of music I do (he calls The Killers "your favourite emo-Goth band" so I sing him Mr Brightside acapella and give him a lovely ear-worm for the rest of the day) or if I can get him a FIFA/PS4 topup voucher from Amazon.
2020 - he's sprouting up!
I understand this, I really do but it doesn't mean I have to particularly enjoy it - I miss those days of giving him the right answer and seeing the revelation in his eyes as much as I miss giving him a weird answer and seeing his little frown that said "really?  Are you sure Dad?"

So in honour of that little boy who's now a strapping mid-teen (seriously, where the hell did that time go?), here are some musings from Calvin's Dad, which I wish I'd thought of...
and then, sometimes, he gets his own back...

Rude Dude, 2011
Happy birthday Dude, love you oodles...

Monday, 18 May 2020

Summer on a Sunny Island, by Sue Moorcroft

Regular blog readers will know I've been friends with Sue Moorcroft for a while, having met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (the group leader was of a more literary bent, so we genre writers were consigned to the back of the room, where we had great fun).  Since then she's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promise), becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller and her novel from last year, A Summer To Remember (which I wrote about here) won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020.  As well as featuring her a lot on blog (to see more, click this link), I'm also pleased to be one of her beta-readers and enjoyed her latest novel, Summer On A Sunny Island, so much it was in my Top 3 favourite reads of last year.
This summer, sparks are flying on the island of Malta…

When Rosa Hammond splits up from her partner Marcus, her Mum Dory suggests a summer in Malta. Not one to sit back and watch her daughter be unhappy, Dory introduces Rosa to Zach, in the hope that romance will bloom under the summer sun. But Rosa’s determined not to be swayed by a handsome man – she’s in Malta to work, after all.

Zach, meanwhile, is a magnet for trouble and is dealing with a fair few problems of his own. Neither Rosa or Zach are ready for love – but does fate have other ideas? And after a summer in paradise, will Rosa ever want to leave?

As mentioned, I read it last year to critique and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Another winner, it takes place completely in Malta (an island Sue knows well) and she captures a sense and feel of the place so well you can almost see the vistas and architecture surrounding the hero and heroine.  In fact, along with the weather and how that affects everyone, it's almost like the island becomes another character.

The leads, Rosa and Zach, are as complicated, fresh and feisty as we’ve come to expect and although the backstory is a bit more tightly packed than usual (involving Army brats and local gangs and difficult histories for our leads ), it all flows together really well.  One of the things I love about Sue's work is that the words roll past you, wrapping you effortlessly in the story and it's only when you glance up at the clock that you realise a) how long you've  been reading and b) how much the book has transported you.  With a pace that doesn't flag (at all), always believable characters and - perhaps due to the sun, sea and sand - a slightly raunchier tone than usual, this is wonderful.  A terrific novel from a writer at the top of her game, I highly recommend this.

Before we were locked down, I managed to meet up with Sue in our regular venue, The Trading Post and ask her some questions.

* * *
5 Questions With Sue Moorcroft:

MW:   An obvious question, perhaps, but why send your characters to Malta for the summer?

One of Sue's research photos, of Spinola in Malta
SM:   Malta’s my favourite country. I lived there as an army kid and it still feels like home. I love to send my characters to the island and this book justified four visits last year: with a friend, to scope out locations and take preliminary photos; alone, to write a chunk of the book in situ and do more detailed research; with my husband on our annual holiday; and with my brother, who helps with research, to tie up loose ends. In Summer on a Sunny Island Rosa, Zach, Dory and the rest are spending summer in Malta, which is something I’d love to do. In Dory, I’ve sent myself up a bit as she’s an army kid who adores Malta and can’t understand any other attitude. She was at school with Zach’s dad and his Maltese grandmother owns the apartment Dory rents, which is the unifying factor between the characters.

MW:   Zach sees himself as a ‘trouble magnet’, having been sucked into something when he young and suffering for it ever since.  What led you to this?

SM:   It’s amazing what my memory drags up and feeds to my plotty head. I was at school with a guy who got involved with vandalising an unoccupied building and was badly injured. I gave that situation to Stuart, the youngest of Zach’s friendship group and easily manipulated by self-appointed leader Fitzmo. As the rest of the group run away, Zach gets Stuart help before he bleeds out. This cast Zach as someone who fights for the underdog and his character developed from there. Both times he wanders onto the wrong side of the law he’s trying to protect Stuart from Fitzmo and later he risks everything protecting Luccio. I didn’t mean to get Zach into quite so much trouble … but he just kept trying to help people.

MW:   Rosa doesn’t get away with anything lightly either. What made you choose her character’s particular issues?

SM:   I gave Rosa a trough full of problems. Her relationship with Marcus ended, partly because he was gambling. She has trust issues around men and money as her dad was feckless. Marcus then said something on a radio interview that made her look bad and a frenemy gave it traction on social media. Because her job involved young people she felt it made things difficult at work … in short, I made it appealing for her to spend a while as her mum’s personal assistant/kitchen porter in Malta. Most of Rosa’s problems come back to money - Marcus’s gambling threatens her security and, later, the value of the home they’d shared falls through the floor, which threatens her future with Zach. I used to work in a bank and that background keeps me aware of the financial implications of my characters’ conflicts. Much of our real lives revolve around our economic situations and I notice when other authors gloss over these realities.

MW:   The backstory around Army Brats is very well handled.

SM:   Thank you but that didn’t take much research! I had a lot of fun with it, especially with Dory’s Maltese vocabulary. (People will have to read the book to understand that.) One of the sparks for the book was that in October 2018 my brothers, my sister-in-law and I attended a service kids’ reunion in Malta. We managed to convert a reunion lunch into a ten-day holiday so it wasn’t too big a stretch to convert a reunion lunch into a novel.

MW:   And finally, can you put into words exactly how it felt when you heard your name announced as the winner of the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award?

SM:   That was AWESOME. I’ve long coveted one of those awards and now A Summer to Remember has won one! I’ve been shortlisted twice before, but that was as far as I got. The Contemporary category was one of the largest and had a shortlist of eight rather than five. Shortlisted authors arrive at the award ceremony early for photos and a champagne reception, which makes you feel loved and important. But I’ve always gone into awards thinking I won’t win and I’m usually right (although I won the Readers Best Romantic Read Award with Love & Freedom). It was a super-strong shortlist that included two topsellers, Sophie Kinsella and Carole Matthews, but my hunch was that Jules Wake would win with Notting Hill in the Snow because it’s a charming book. The awards were hosted by Jane Wenham-Jones and presented by performer and author Jenny Eclair at a posh London hotel. Its impressive function room was crammed with circular tables covered by white cloths. As each category was announced, a huge screen behind the stage showed slides of the shortlisted books and authors, then Jenny Eclair opened the envelope and announced the winner. When she said, ‘And the winner of the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020 is the lovely S …’ I actually had time to think, ‘Oh, it’s Sophie Kinsella,’ before I realised she was saying, ‘Sue Moorcroft!’ My jaw nearly hit the table. I wound my way to the stage in a daze, thinking to myself, ‘Don’t trip up the steps, don’t trip up the steps!’ I didn’t. I was quite composed as I bumped elbows with Jenny Eclair but when I went to the mic to say a few words I did choke up. A huge roomful of people all went, ‘Ahhhhhh …’ I was absolutely exultant as I carried my crystal star back to my table, and people said nice things as I floated past somewhere between Cloud Nine and Over the Moon. Then it was photos again - but this time clutching my award! I feel very, very lucky that this all happened just before Coronavirus social distancing was introduced. In comparison to the glitzy, euphoric reality, getting the news by email and the star in the post would have been a damp squib.

MW:   As always, thanks for being a great sport and answering these questions.  Already looking forward to our next meet-up at The Trading Post.

SM:   Thanks very much for inviting me back onto your blog, Mark. As always, it’s been a pleasure.

Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Sue’s uplifting novels of love and life are currently released by publishing giant HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by an array of publishers in other countries.

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Born into an army family in Germany, Sue spent much of her childhood in Cyprus and Malta but settled in Northamptonshire at the age of ten. An avid reader, she also loves Formula 1, travel, family and friends, dance exercise and yoga.

Other buying links:

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Amazon author page:

Monday, 11 May 2020

Author Self-Coaching (part 2): What Happened Next, by Sue Moorcroft

Following up from her guest post a fortnight ago (which you can read here), I'm more than happy to hand the blog over to Sue Moorcroft once again.
Sue & I at her evening event hosted by Rothwell Library in November 2019 - I wrote about it here
A couple of people have asked what happened after I struggled past the crossroads in my writing career (as I wrote about before) where I felt I was spending too much time on things that didn’t make me happy or earn money. To catch you up: I sent what I thought was a hopelessly optimistic email to Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann Literary, TV and Screen Agency, who introduced me to the fab Juliet Pickering of the same agency. Juliet had an eye out for an author of commercial fiction. I won’t pretend that you don’t need these strokes of good fortune.

I met Juliet in London for lunch and we got on well. I was transparent about what I wanted, which was a publisher who would get behind me and get my books into supermarkets. She was equally transparent that that was her job but she couldn’t issue any guarantees. She asked about ideas for future books and I gave her three. She told me which she’d feel most confident in presenting to publishers and I had that happy feeling you get when something clicks into place. It was the one I most wanted to write. It was an idea that I’d already received a green light on from my old publisher, but they’d wanted a novella. I thought the idea had enough meat for a novel.

Disappointingly, Juliet didn’t agree to represent me. She asked me to write the book first. The snag with that was by the time I’d spent a year on the book my old publisher would be expecting it. It would be … awkward. I asked if I could send Juliet the traditional three-chapters and outline instead. Would she make a decision at that point? She agreed. She told me later she’d already made up her mind to offer to represent me but wanted to go through the process in the right way.

Takeaways from this meeting: honesty and transparency on both sides. Accepting the commercial realities of publishing. Listening to what was on offer. Putting forward alternatives. Taking disappointment on the chin because, let’s face it, a writer’s life is full of it.
Sue's Avon Books output
Telling my old publishers that I was working with an agent effectively changed our relationship because they didn’t work with agents. They would continue to publish my backlist; inevitably, they’d concentrate on their front list authors.

I wrote the first few chapters of what became The Christmas Promise. I roughed out a few other things I thought would happen - more of a vision than an outline. Juliet offered to represent me and formalities were quickly concluded. Delighted, all I had to do was write the rest of the book, continuing to write short stories and run workshops for income to add to royalties from backlist titles. A note here: relaunching my career eventuated in a distinct dip in income for about two years. To have a spouse with a steady income and supportive attitude helped a lot. I also got the opportunity to convert my writing guide, Love Writing, into an online course. That helped too.

After I sent the novel to Juliet, the editing process began. And it was rigorous. I think I did three structural edits, influenced by comments from other people in the agency who read the book too. For anyone who thinks of editing as someone interfering or instructing, I should point out that a process like this is something likely to happen to any book in any publishing house. I think of this as writing the best book I can. I listen. I negotiate. I talk through.

Takeaways from this process: this is not for wimps. It feels like a lot of structural work yet, in the end, the changes are fairly subtle. The book is a lot better. I probably didn’t known as much as I thought I did. My agent is on my side.

When the book went out to editors we got a lot of interest, only one flat ‘no’ and some meetings to go to. As an aside, just to let you know how character building the process was, some major interest led nowhere because the editor was going on maternity leave and guess who was coming from another publishing house to cover? The one person who’d given the flat ‘no’. But I wouldn’t want an editor who wasn’t wowed by my writing, so I was philosophical.

The exciting day dawned and I turned up in London for meetings. The first was with Avon Books UK, HarperCollins. Once again, everything clicked. We got on well, we shared similar visions. Another stroke of good fortune: a slot for an author who would write a winter book and a summer book had opened up on their list, just as my agent rocked up with a winter book and a summer book! The winter book was ready and the summer book not so that played into there being a longer dip in income than might otherwise have been the case but still, outside I said to my agent, ‘I think it’s going to be Avon.’ I never wavered from that and Juliet got down to terms with them for a two-book contract.

The Christmas Promise went into production. I finished writing Just for the Holidays.  The Christmas Promise came out. Supermarkets took the paperback, although Tesco was a little late to the party and only took it for the last couple of weeks before Christmas because of the performance of the ebook.

The ebook was going crazy. It went to number one on Kindle UK for five days in the run-up to Christmas 2016. I’d sold my first short story to a national newsstand magazine in 1996 so it had taken me twenty years to be an overnight success! It’s hard to describe the joy and euphoria, the sense of disbelief. I laughed and cried. Twitter went mad with big-hearted compliments from other authors, from my agent and editor jumping in with their own cries of joy. My book had outsold every other ebook on sale in the UK. I had to pinch myself.

I won’t take you through every other rung on the ladder because I have edits to do but the milestones continue. Just for the Holidays was nominated for a Romantic Novel Award. A new contract was offered and my editor stated her next goal as to make me a Sunday Times bestseller. I laughed out loud and said, ‘Well, good luck with that!’ The very next book, The Little Village Christmas, was a Sunday Times bestseller. The Christmas Promise was a bestseller in Germany. The rights team at Blake Friedmann sold my books into translation. Each book charted in the Top Fifty, if not the Top Twenty. Avon extended the scope of my contract to include Canada and the US. A Summer to Remember won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020 and One Summer in Italy scored me my first Top 100 position in the Amazon Kindle US chart. Research has taken me to France, Italy, Malta, Sweden and Switzerland.

It’s A LOT of hard work, not just from me but from everyone at Blake Friedmann and Avon, but it’s wonderful. I set out to earn my living from writing novels and I do. Summer on a Sunny Island is my eighth book with Avon and A Christmas Wish will come out later this year. A further two books are contracted.

Takeaways: work hard … and work with the right people.

Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Sue’s novels of love and life are currently released by publishing giant HarperCollins under the Avon imprint in the UK, US and Canada and by an array of publishers in other countries.

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Born into an army family in Germany, Sue spent much of her childhood in Cyprus and Malta. An avid reader, she also loves Formula 1, travel, time spent with friends, dance exercise and yoga.

Buying links for Summer on a Sunny Island

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Amazon author page:

Monday, 4 May 2020

Happy Star Wars Day!

Regular readers of the blog will know that I'm a massive Star Wars fan and, as such, how could I resist celebrating this when it coincides with posting day?

I've written about the films (generally the original trilogy) a lot over the past eleven years or so and you can find the entries on this link, though the specific run of posts I did as part of the 40th anniversary in 2017 can be found here.

Writing these posts has been great fun, the research has often been enlightening but perhaps my favourite post is from when we went to an exhibit in London 2013 and Dude & I got to fight with lightsabers on the Tantive IV.  You can read about it here.
Dude gets me in a Force choke-hold at the London Film Museum, when it was in the old County Hall building, August 2013.  He's now almost as tall as I am.

And to further celebrate, here are some of my favourite trading cards that never fail to bring back wonderful memories of warm summer days during 1978 (as I wrote about here).

One of my favourite images (it also appeared in the photo-insert of the novel), I was slightly disappointed when I realised we only get to see this Stormtrooper and his Dewback from a distance.
Another of my favourite images
I do like Stormtroopers

Happy Star Wars Day!

Monday, 27 April 2020

Author Self-Coaching (guest post), by Sue Moorcroft

To mark the forthcoming publication of her latest novel, Summer on a Sunny Island, here's a guest post from my fine friend Sue Moorcroft.
In Summer on a Sunny Island, to be published on 30 April 2020, several of the characters stand at crossroads in their lives. From a writing point of view it provides conflict and personal goals, both of which drive the narrative. One afternoon, Rosa and Zach sit up on the roof terrace and try to coach each other into deciding what it is they want next in their lives. It’s not a spectacularly successful coaching session because although they agree they should be looking forward they look back. They wonder whether they should change and, if so, how?

A few years ago I felt at a crossroads too. I wasn’t on a Maltese roof terrace gazing out at the blue Mediterranean and drinking beer with a friend so I coached myself. It had a profound effect on my career as an author.

I’d published about nine novels and a raft of short stories, serials, courses and columns; I was a creative writing tutor and judged writing competitions. It was what’s politely referred to as ‘a portfolio career’. Translation: I would take on most paid tasks if they were connected with writing and some that were unpaid if they might prove useful to my career. This situation had come about after my husband’s career hit a bump in the road and I either had to become more fee aware or get a day job. (I often refer to this as ‘a proper job’. I shouldn’t. Writing is a proper job.)

I wasn’t in a happy place personally and felt over-stressed and underpaid. You could term it a crisis of the spirit or a pity party. Whatever, I assessed everything writing-connected under three headings, each subdivided into good or bad.
I can’t remember all the items I analysed but two things went into all three right-hand columns: being a committee member and vice chair of a writing organisation and writing a column for a Formula 1 online magazine. I was shocked to see the former in all the wrong columns but it was true that an organisation that has brought me a lot of joy and helped me professionally was also sucking up hundreds of hours each year. There was also discord, which brought anxiety. I emailed the chair, who’s one of my best friends, and said, ‘I don’t think I can be vice chair any more.’ To her huge credit, she supported my decision and had me replaced without one word of reproach, though she could easily have felt immensely let down. After that, it was comparatively easy to email the e-zine and gracefully retire from their writing staff.

I felt tonnes lighter when these two items were out of the way. I could read what I chose instead of reading writing that needed appraising for awards! I could watch Formula 1 races without making notes or worrying about the angle my column would take! I think my son encapsulated the situation perfectly when he said, ‘You took two of your greatest pleasures and made them into jobs.’

Spurred by this success I began to cut things that appeared in two of the right-hand columns. They earned me some money but not that much: appraising manuscripts and the least remunerative of my work with creative writing students. The students never made me personally unhappy but the constant flow of work that piled up if I were ill or on holiday did definitely cheese me off. Worse, it kept me from writing my own stuff and the workflow was not within my control. I also began to refuse invitations to judge writing competitions, especially when a writing group ‘forgot’ to pay me a fee that was only ever nominal, even after three polite reminders. These measures gave me significant time for my own writing without losing me much money.

Feeling a lot better, I looked at the other side of the coin. I now knew what I didn’t want - so what was it that I did want?

It was a question I found easier to answer than either Rosa or Zach did. It hadn’t really changed since the early nineties when I began to try and get published.

I wanted to earn a living from writing novels.

How could I achieve it? I needed a publisher who would get right behind me and also get my books into supermarkets.

I thought the best route there was to get a great agent, one who would love my books and be ambitious for me. And, guess what? It worked!

I emailed the late Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. I knew her slightly from writing conferences and social media. The email began, ‘I know you’re not taking anybody on but I’m going to ask you anyway.’ The short version of what happened next was that I was right - she wasn’t taking anybody on. But, happily for me, she showed my work to the wonderful Juliet Pickering at the same agency and she wanted to talk to me. We met, got on, shared visions … she was enthusiastic about my books. We began working together.

The rest, as annoying people say, is history. My self-coaching didn’t end as Rosa’s and Zach’s did, in a hot clinch interrupted by her ex-boyfriend FaceTiming her, but the results were - and still are - pretty exciting.

You can read the second part, "What Happened Next", here

A selfie from Sue, in her beloved Malta
Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Sue’s novels of love and life are currently released by publishing giant HarperCollins under the Avon imprint in the UK, US and Canada and by an array of publishers in other countries.

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Born into an army family in Germany, Sue spent much of her childhood in Cyprus and Malta. An avid reader, she also loves Formula 1, travel, time spent with friends, dance exercise and yoga.

Buying links for Summer on a Sunny Island

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Amazon author page:

Monday, 20 April 2020

Stories Of Hope And Wonder: For The NHS

As the country moves into another week of lockdown, the pressure on our frontline workers (across all areas) is all-encompassing so when Ian Whates (a fine friend, who not only runs the writing group I belong to - the NSFWG - but also the excellent NewCon Press) asked me if I'd like to contribute to an ebook charity anthology he'd planned, I didn't hesitate.  This was last Thursday and the anthology is here, a 695 page collection of 53 short stories from some of the best names in sci-fi, fantasy and horror writing today.

Table Of Contents

Introduction by Ian Whates
Last Contact – Stephen Baxter
Slink-Thinking – Frances Hardinge
Gossamer – Ian Whates
The Feather Dress – Lisa Tuttle
The Man Who Swallowed Himself – Chris Beckett
A Fat Man in the Bardo – Ken MacLeod
Kings of Eternity – Eric Brown
Muscadet Kiss – Michèle Roberts
Dead Space – George Mann
The Trace – Christopher Priest
Golden Wing, Silver Eye – Cat Hellisen
The Golden Nose – Neil Williamson
On Ilkley Moor – Alison Littlewood
About Helen – Tade Thompson
Iphigenia in Aulis – M.R. Carey
Just Watch Me – Lesley Glaister
The Family Football – Ian R. MacLeod
The Grave-Digger’s Tale – Simon Clark
The All-Nighter – Mark Morris
Her Seal Skin Coat – Lauren Beukes
A Conclusion – Paul Cornell
Liberty Bird – Jaine Fenn
The Ki-Anna – Gwyneth Jones
Scienceville – Gary Gibson
The Sphere – Juliet E. McKenna
An Eligible Boy – Ian McDonald
The Quick Child – Jane Rogers
Trademark Bugs: A Legal History – Adam Roberts
Working on the Ward – Tim Pears
During the Dance – Mark Lawrence
Out of the Woods – Ramsey Campbell
Trick of the Light – Tim Lebbon
Roman Games – Anne Nicholls
44: Digits – Robert Shearman
The Fox Maiden – Priya Sharma
Roads of Silver, Paths of Gold – Emmi Itäranta
All Deaths Well Intention’d – RJ Barker
Epilogue: England, Summer 1558 – Jon Courtenay Grimwood
The Christmas Repentance of the Mole Butcher of Tetbury – Aliya Whiteley
Gulliver’s Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World, Part V: A Voyage To The Island Of The Wolves – Jonathan Palmer
Barking Mad – Ian Watson
Lady with a Rose – Reggie Oliver
Missing – Blake Morrison
What We Sometimes Do, Without Thinking – Mark West
Events – Stan Nicholls
Wars of Worldcraft – Adrian Tchaikovsky
Fixer, Worker, Singer – Natalia Theodoridou
Witness – Kim Lakin-Smith
Unravel – Ren Warom
Like Clockwork – Tim Major
A Million Reasons Why – Nick Wood
The Road to the Sea – Lavie Tidhar
Ten Love Songs to Change the World – Peter F. Hamilton

As the anthology is digital and the writers have contributed their stories freely, every penny NewCon Press receives will go straight to the NHS.

All politics aside, our wonderful NHS is clearly straining at the seams at the moment.  I have three dear friends working at the frontline (my best friend of 44 years - Nick Duncan - is a fireman who's also now volunteering with the NHS) and the Roberts, David & Julia, who are nurses.  David, who helps me plot the thriller novels as we go for 8 or 9 mile walks weekly with his dog Pippa, is currently recovering from Covid-related symptoms (though hasn't been tested) and it's been frightening to see how hard it's hit him, my friend who's fit and healthy and got me into Park Running.
My personal faces of the pandemic (I daren't include a pic of Julia, she'd kill me):
(left) with Nick in Bristol, August 2019 - (right) Irchester Park Run January 2020 with David (photo by John Woods)
We're in unprecendented times and people are doing what they can - rainbows and toys in windows, making PPE, helping friends and neighbours - and most of it restores your faith in the wonder of human nature, giving us all a chance to help.

On the subject of that, I'll take a moment to point you towards the Just Giving campaign for Captain Tom Moore, the 99 year old war veteran who aimed to raise £1,000 by walking 100 laps of his garden and achieved that on Thursday 16th April.  As I write this, he's managed to raise over £26m for the NHS.

* * *
My contribution, What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking, was written in 2010 and came about directly because of Ian.  I'd just joined the writing group and he told me NewCon was planning to put together an anthology so, if I wanted to contribute, I needed to get a story to him within a week.  And I managed it.

Even better, the story was good enough he accepted it which led me to attending the launch party where Alan Moore (a rather famous writer and Northampton resident), who'd written the introduction, was in attendance.  I remember thanking him for his kind words and he shook my hand heartily and said "keep it local, boy!".

The story features fictionalised versions of me and Nick and an actual location, the bridge at the end of the Headlands in Kettering, from where Dude & I did used to go train chasing (I wrote about it here).  I like the story a lot and I'm proud to be included.

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The book, all 695 pages of it, is listed at the NewCon site here

Captain Tom Moore's Walk For The NHS

Monday, 13 April 2020

Glorious Beasts: A Q&A with Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon & I have known one another for a long time now and I'm a big fan of his writing.  When Peter Mark May told me he was publishing a new McMahon novella (originally scheduled to launch at Stokercon this coming weekend, before the world went into Lockdown) I was thrilled, especially since Pete tends to send me Hersham Horror books to read through before they're released.  So I read the novella and loved it, got in touch with Gary to tell him and he happily agreed to answer some questions for me.

Cable makes his living tracking down bad men. His young son, Walker, is unable to speak, but the boy notices signs and tracks that others fail to see. When they offer to help a woman whose baby was snatched in the night, they realise they might be searching the wilderness for something unlike anything they've seen before. 

When men become beasts, something ancient awakes, and things worse than death roam the land.

MW:   The novella is a tough read at times, with plenty of your trademark bleakness to it. Are you finding that kind of style easier to write as you get older or harder?

GM:   It seems to me that the older I get, the bleaker my worldview becomes. What’s changed is my acceptance of it. I no longer fight that pessimistic side of me; instead, I embrace it. I’m never purposefully trying to be “dark”. I’ve always just been the kind of guy who prefers the sad songs...

People always seem to go on about how bleak my work is, and to be honest it’s become a bit tiresome to me. I don’t think my writing is bleak. It’s sad. It’s melancholy. Shades of grey.

I personally believe there’s a lot of light in my work: a lot of heart, a lot of soul, and a lot of humanity. But a reader has to work for it. They aren’t getting it spoon-fed from me. To get to the light, they have to walk through a lot of darkness.

The world isn’t a very nice place. All people are not inherently good. Love is rarely enough to save you. Your scars won’t fade entirely.

It isn’t my job to reassure you. I’d rather deal in these harsh truths in my work than pretend the darkness doesn’t exist, or that it can be vanquished for good. All we can ever do is push it back for a while, but it always returns.

MW:   I know it’s difficult to pin a story down to a single image, but where did this come from?

GM:   I can tell you exactly which image came first, but it would be a spoiler. It’s the cruellest image in the story, the one that will hopefully make people wince when they read it.

Then I started thinking I’d like to tie in some of the mythology surrounding those big cats some people think are roaming the English countryside. The Beast of Bodmin and its ilk. I’d always wanted to use that in a story.

If I’m honest, a lot of Brexit paranoia probably found its way into the tale. We always use what’s happening around us, don’t we? It’s all meat for the beast.
With the Secret Horror Cabal (we have a sarky Messenger group) at FCon Scaborough in 2016 (see my report here) with me, Alison Littlewood, Gary Fry and Gary McMahon - sarcasm not pictured

MW:   The world is thoroughly well realised (if fleetingly described), did you do much research to get the look and feel of it?

GM:   I did no research whatsoever. I just wanted a world that was slowly winding down. Decades before, there’d been a plague that had wiped out half the population. The ones who survived abandoned a lot of modern technology and started to turn insular and feudal, fighting tribal wars. After those wars were over, beliefs began to slip back to those of medieval times. Things that were once local folklore became real. Witches. Warlocks. Mythical beasts like the big cat.

In this story, the world stopped advancing in 1974. That’s when The Plague Years began. Home computers hadn’t yet been invented. There was no internet. No mobile phones. None of that stuff.

There’s a lot of Mad Max in the setting, and The Hills Have Eyes, and The Road. Julia Leigh’s superb novel The Hunter. A book about the Sawney Bean clan I read when I was a kid. The structure was borrowed from the film Bone Tomahawk. I think it’s safe to say my story wears it’s influences on its sleeve.

MW:   Can you see yourself writing more in this world?

GM:   Oh, definitely. I’d actually like to write a series of novellas set in this world.

I’m sick of having to write mobile phones, the internet, and iPads into stories. It’s boring. I love the simplicity of this stripped back, hard-scrabble place, the characters that live in it, the limitless possibilities of telling simple stories that actually have a lot of substance behind them.
At Sledge-Lit in November 2016 (see my report here) with Gary and Stephen Bacon
MW:   The novella has a brisk style, with wonderfully clipped dialogue and tells the story quickly and precisely. Do you prefer to work in this format, the short story or the novel or does it totally depend on the tale?

GM:   I find it tough to write novels these days. I think I burned myself out on the novel format a few years ago, when I committed to writing so damn many of them in a short space of time. I was also burned by poor sales. You bleed onto the page and nobody cares. It’s a harsh lesson to learn.

Glorious Beasts needed to be told in a spare fashion. The characters speak in a clipped manner because this is a hard, no-nonsense world. There’s no time for messing about with unnecessary niceties: these damaged people are all focused on survival.

I’ve always liked the novella format. I think it suits my clipped prose style. And it isn’t as daunting as writing a novel, as holding that whole world inside your head.

Novel writing, to me, feels so much like a form of madness. I’m a little scared to get back to that mindset. I will go back there, of course, but I’m not in a hurry. I’ll let it occur naturally, once I find a story that can’t be told any other way. I’m a great believer in the story dictating the form. I know there are more novel-length stories inside me, they just haven’t surfaced yet.

For more information on Gary and his writing, check out his blog here.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Five Years Of The Crusty Exterior

Another round-up post (following the Mixtape one a fortnight ago and last weeks Q&A one) as we continue in isolation and hopefully stay safe and healthy.  Out of everything, one thing I've really missed is interaction - yes, I've been online, I've spoken on the phone, I've video-messaged - but none of those compare with standing next to a good friend and having a chat.

To that end, on the fifth anniversary of our first gathering, here's a round-up of meetings with friends who mean a great deal to me (moreso now, because it seems like we might not be able to get together this year).
At the Southbank Book Market, London, April 2015 - James, Phil, Steve and me
The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.

At Edge-Lit 3 in 2014 (see my report here), we were talking about how good it was to see one another again and made plans to meet up at some point nearer to Christmas, though with Mrs Sloman and Mrs Everington giving birth as the year drew to a close, those plans were put back to 2015.  So we finally managed that first meet (organised by Phil) on April 13th 2015, starting at the Southbank Book Market and working our way through the capital's 2nd hand bookshops during the day.  It was great fun.

You can read the original post here (it's been very popular over the years, constantly in the top 5 of all-time viewed).

In Victoria Park Leicester, April 2018, with (from left), Steve Bacon, Phil, Jay Eales, John Travis, me, Linda Nagle, Steve H, Tim Jarvis and James (thanks to the nice lady walking her dog who agreed to take the picture!)
It would be three years before we managed to properly get together again (we all met up for Steve's 50th in 2017), though we'd all attended various conventions in between.  I organised this gathering in Leicester (the city has some great 2nd hand book shops and curry houses!) and our increased ranks had a cracking afternoon (incidentally, this was Linda & Steve's first date and I'm happy to say they're still going strong!).

You can read the original post here.

In Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, Nottingham, April 2019 with, from left, Wayne Parkin, Penny Jones, Simon Jones, me, Ross Warren, Phil and James
The Crusty Exterior struck back in 2019 (with even more members), meeting in Nottingham (arranged by James), where we enjoyed the local pubs and bookshops, visited the Paupers Graves, played Horror Top Trumps and had an excellent curry.

You can read the full report here.

Me, Phil and James in Covent Garden, 2015 - Phil & I are NOT goosing the Highlander
Ah, curry.  In the Tavistock Tandoori - we don't know why the waiter chose to cut most of Steve off...
In The Rise Of The Raj, Leicester 2018, with from left Phil, James, Linda, Steve, Tim, John, Steve B, me, Jay
Central Nottingham, April 2019, with Wayne, Simon, Penny, Selina, Richard, James, Phil & Jay
Phil in Nottingham 2019, taking great delight in a local brewery name...

In addition, three quarters of the founding gang were involved in the Hersham Horror Books launch at FantasyCon-by-the-sea, in Scarborough, September 2016 (I wrote about it here)

Celebrating birthdays - Steve Harris' 50th in Wolverhampton, May 2017 and my 50th in Leicester, February 2019
In the curry house at Wolverhampton with, from left, James, John, Steve, me, Phil, Steve B
Carluccio's, Leicester, with, from left, me, Sue Moorcroft, Linda, Steve, John, Steve B, James, David Roberts

We also did our own variation on the mixtape, with a compilation of our favourite horror films for Halloween 2019.  You can read the full post here.

In case you were wondering, the name of the group comes from an off-hand comment made at Edge-Lit.  We were sitting in the cafe comparing scars (or, more to the point, the worst rejection letters we'd ever received) and, following Steve's newsletter, Phil said "we're not the Inner Circle, more like The Crusty Exterior".  That made us all laugh so when he set up an FB group to organise the meeting, that's the name he chose!

Stay safe, people and here's to many more meet-ups in the future!