Wednesday, 25 May 2016

I Ran The World, 30 years ago

Sport Aid, supported by Band Aid and UNICEF, organised Run The World on Sunday 25th May 1986, timed to coincide with a UNICEF development conference.  It was a worldwide event where, at 3pm GMT, a total of 19.8m runners ran, jogged or walked 10km to support African famine relief charities.
Coming up the hill out of Rushton, heading for Rothwell.  Mark Guyett & I are in the centre of the picture (he's on the left).
Official events were held in 274 cities over 76 countries - 200,000 Londoners completed the course in our fair capital, 50,000 ran in Barcelona, 30,000 in Athens, 20,000 in Dublin and 10,000 in Melbourne.  The leg of it that I ran, with my friends Nick Duncan and Mark Guyett, started and ended in Desborough, going through Rushton and Rothwell on the way.  I remember that it was a warm day, I remember the happy atmosphere and camaraderie amongst us all and I especially remember the seasoned runners coming back from the finish line as we passed Montsaye School and calling out “only another mile to go” as they went.
Nick and me, in training.  As hard as it might be to believe now, those shorts were in fashion at the time.
Over $37m was raised and it apparently still holds the record as the sporting event with the most participants in history.  I’m proud to have been part of it.

As I recall, entry was contingent on you buying a t-shirt and they were iconic at the time - most of us wore them for some time afterwards.  I kept mine and tried it on recently and was chuffed to find that it fitted me!
Me, earlier this month
The t-shirt front and back

Monday, 23 May 2016

Dad.... (another exasperated tone)

Back 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.

Now that he's getting older, Dude doesn't ask me so many 'big' questions and I kind of miss that (I understand the process, we're getting older, yadda yadda, it doesn't mean I have to enjoy time whipping by though, does it?) - I miss giving him the right answer and seeing the revelation in his eyes but I also miss giving him a weird answer and that little frown he has, as if to say "really?  Are you sure Dad?"

So in honour of that little boy who is eleven (where the hell did that time go?) on Thursday, here are some more of Calvin's Dad's musing, which I wish I'd thought of...

Me & Dude, May 2006 (he'd just turned one)
Me & Dude, May 2016

Monday, 16 May 2016

Interview with James Everington

If memory serves, James & I first came into contact through our mutual friend Tim C. Taylor at Greyhart Press and my novelette The Mill (which Tim re-published in a standalone edition).  James reviewed it favourably on his blog, I wrote to thank him, he interviewed me on the Pennydreadnought blog and we went from there.  A year later, we finally met up face-to-face at Andromeda One, which was held in the Custard Building in Birmingham in September 2013.  Along with Steve Harris (who I already knew) and Phil Sloman (who I also met for the first time that day), the four of us hung out all day and had a great time, so much so that we stuck together at virtually every Con we all attended after that (even branching out for our own Crusty Exterior meets).

James is a great bloke, friendly and funny and very good company - he & I managed to eat through the giggles when we each chose the sausage fest pizza that got us so ridiculed by our table-mates at Andromeda - and he’s also an excellent writer.  From his debut collection Falling Over, to his chilling novella The Shelter (which I reviewed here) and more, I thought it was time to ask him some questions.
MW:  Thanks for sitting down with me James and good to see you again.  So, can you give us a few background details on yourself?

JE:  Good to see you too, Mark. Well, I’m a writer from Nottingham, where I’ve lived most of my life (apart from a few years in Oxford). I’m rapidly approaching my forties; I have a wife, a daughter and a black sleepy cat. I like reading (obviously), good food, nice beer, The Headington Shark, sad music, chess, and  the Oxford comma.

I mainly write dark supernatural fiction, although sometimes I take a break and write dark, non-supernatural fiction. I’m a big admirer of strangeness, ambiguity and subtlety in horror stories, and hopefully they are the kind of tales I write.
Meeting at Andromeda One (Steve Harris, James, Phil Sloman, me)
MW:  When did you start writing?  What led you to it and, also, what led you towards this dark genre of ours?

JE:  I started really when I was sixteen. We had a coursework assignment for GCSE English where you could submit a creative writing piece, and as I was a fan of Stephen King (thanks to my Dad) I wrote a horror story. I can only remember vague details, but it had a sex scene in (and at this point in my life I wasn’t following the adage of ‘write what you know’, so it was pretty bad) and I was too scared to show my teacher it. So I wrote another story. Which was also horror.

And from there I never really stopped to be honest, although it was a loooooooong time before I wrote anything I considered publishable. As for why horror, as you can see it was there from the start. My Dad let me read books from his shelves when I was relatively young–I remember reading a lot of classic science fiction like Asimov and Arthur C Clarke when I was about eleven or twelve. But something about reading Stephen King for the first time really struck a chord, and not long after that I read Ramsey Campbell for the first time, which sealed my fate really...

I don’t just read horror though, I think that’s pretty unhealthy for a writer (not to mention boring as a reader). I like to read pretty widely, it’s just I’ve realised over the years that whatever talent I have for writing is more narrowly focused than my reading tastes.

MW:  Your own brand of horror focuses more on the subtle, psychological side rather than all-out gore.  Do you prefer this style as a reader too?

JE:  Yes, that’s true. I don’t clutch my pearls at the idea of all-out gore, I can read it. I just find most of it is very boring. Lingering descriptions of bloody violence aren’t especially shocking once you’ve read a few; or rather, they’re not if that’s all the author is trying to do. It misses the point–there needs to be something else behind the gore.

Take the chest-bursting scene in Alien: that’s not shocking just because of the blood. It’s shocking because it’s a moment of realisation for the viewer: that thing has been living inside of him all this time! Violent imagery needs to be used as part of a wider whole. It should illustrate character or theme (Clive Barker would be a good example). In general I believe good writing should be trying to do two or three or ten things all at once, and I don’t find much of the stab-stab-splatter stuff does that.

MW:  Do you find your style has changed much over the years?  Has it adjusted with you becoming a father (I know that caused a shift in my own writing)?

JE:  I hope it’s developed over the years, even if that’s only a case of becoming a better. I think, like a lot of writers, there’s certain core themes and literary ideas that I’m drawn to, but in my younger days I couldn’t really express them as a I wanted. If I’d tried to write something like The Quarantined City ten years ago, I’d have fucked it up. So I think it’s been a case of refining over the years, rather than a dramatic shift.

As for fatherhood, I haven’t written a story that specifically touches on that experience as yet, but I’m sure I will at some point (even if only obliquely). It’s something that has such a big impact on all areas of your life that it’s hard to think that it won’t affect my writing too.

MW:  Let’s talk about favourites - a quick top five, with perhaps a little explanation behind each, for: short story, novel, film, album.

JE:  Okay, with the usual caveats that these would be completely different if I picked them tomorrow…

Short Stories:
1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood–a better cosmic horror story than anything Lovecraft ever wrote.
2. The Man In The Underpass by Ramsey Campbell–I could have picked no end of Campbell stories, ranging from the start of his career to the present day, but today it’s this one.
3. Furnace by Livia Llewelyn–a new favourite, a story that’s haunted me since I read it…
4. The Fly by Katherine Mansfield–creates a sense of horror and sorrow from a trivial incident.
5. Into The Wood by Robert Aickman¬–much like with Ramsey Campbell, I could have chosen lots of different Aickman stories. He was a true one off. So I picked this one to stand in for his body of work as a whole.

1. ‘The Trilogy’ (Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable) by Samuel Beckett. A descent into nothingness, laughing as we fall away.
2. We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. For me, this black comedy just edges it over her other novels, although they’re all exquisite.
3. Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. Utterly disturbing short novel about politics, power, and death by drowning.
4. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. My favourite of the classic horror novels; a true masterpiece.
5. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. A perfect example of how to write about characters in the moment.

1. Memento – “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.”
2. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian – “Found this spoon, sir.”
3. Don’t Look Now – “One of the things I love about Venice, is that it's so safe for me to walk…”
4. The Empire Strikes Back – “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.”
5. Alien –“There is a clause in the contract which specifically states any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated…”

1. Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys–madly creative and nothing like the one song of theirs everyone knows.
2. Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan–classic song after classic song after…
3. Elastica by Elastica–the sound of my long-faded teenage years.
4. In Rainbows by Radiohead–they blow me away, every time.
5. Are We There by Sharon Van Etten–probably the best singer songwriter I’ve discovered recently.

MW:  The Shelter is a novella, The Quarantined City is a novel, do you have a preferred length to write to?

JE:  Well, The Quarantined City is novel length, but its form is not that of a novel. It concerns someone hunting out a reclusive writer in the city, and he hunts for clues in the short stories he finds written by that author. So the book has a number of complete short stories embedded in (and reflective of) the novel’s narrative…

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I love short stories and can’t ever see a time when I won’t be writing them (although I’d like to do more novels and novellas too). Most of my favourite writers wrote short stories either exclusively or alongside longer works. I always just assumed that that’s what real writers did. It wasn’t until I started thinking about getting my own work published that I found out it’s accepted publishing wisdom that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. That some readers don’t like them. It’s an attitude totally alien to me; I feel that if you don’t read short stories it’s like you’re dismissing an entire art-form. Especially so for horror, where so many of the classics of the genre are shorter works.

MW:  On the subject of The Shelter, as a fan of coming-of-age tales I particularly loved it, can you tell me how that came about?

JE:  Well, although I’ve changed the characters, the first part of the story is something that actually happened: I did go with three friends across the fields behind my parents’ house to an old WW2 air raid shelter, which we forced open with tent pegs and climbed down into. (At least, we all believed it was an air raid shelter¬–I’m not sure what else it could have been, but looking back I’m not sure why such a thing would be in the middle of the countryside either.) And like you I enjoy coming of ages tales; in particular Stephen King’s The Body and IT, and Dan Simmons’s The Summer Of Night. When the boys open up the shelter it’s almost exactly in the middle of the narrative: they’re all changed by what happens, regardless of whether they dared go down or remained above.

But there’s another side to the story too; it’s not just about being young on the cusp of adulthood, but about looking back on that time of life, from the perspective of someone for whom adulthood is a daily, unromantic reality. That was mirrored in the writing of The Shelter - I wrote a version of this story when I was about seventeen. It was shit, obviously. But years later I dug out the manuscript and saw something in it salvageable. My hope in rewriting it was that it would keep its energy and the verisimilitude of youth, but I’d be able to add a mature sense of language and craft to it.

MW:  Earlier this year, Black Shuck Books published your editorial debut (alongside Dan Howarth) with the anthology The Hyde Hotel, which I was lucky enough to feature in.  What made you want to co-edit an anthology and how did you decide on the theme?

JE:  Well, as I might have alluded to, I love short stories. And I love anthologies too, the way they give you a chance to discover new authors alongside some you already know. So putting together an anthology was something I always wanted to do.

The actual theme for The Hyde Hotel simply came from staying in cheap hotels for work; by coincidence I read some great ‘weird hotel’ stories by Nicholas Royle and Hannah Kate at that time. So I wrote a blog post about hotel horror in which I wondered why no one had put together an anthology on the theme. Dan emailed me after he read the blog and said that we should do it ourselves. And thus The Hyde was born…

MW:  The Quarantined City got itself caught up in an unfortunate situation within the UK small press but generally speaking, we have a pretty good genre community here, I think.  Do you enjoy the social side of being a horror writer, the Cons and the get-togethers?

JE:  I do, very much so. As you allude to, there’s a number of unfortunate events occurred recently, but none of that will prove important in the long run. What’s important is that writers continue to write good work and that they have a route to publishing it, in whatever way they choose. And I’ve found that, ohhh, 92% of the people I’ve met at Cons are utterly supportive of that. People give you help, advice, share their contacts, come to your readings and panels. You build up your own mini-community, of people you trust, can bounce ideas off, who you can speak to when the writing is going shit (because we all have periods when the writing goes shit). Everyone has shared interests and goals, so it’s amazing how quickly you make good friends with people. Me and you being a case in point…

It helps that we all seem to love curry, too.
Writers enjoying a curry at Edge-Lit 4, 11th July 2015
(from left - Wayne Parkin, Phil Sloman, Tony Cowin, Honey Cowin (with her fabulous glowing eyes) Steve Harris, Richard Farren Barber, Terry Grimwood, John Travis, Fiona Ni Éalaighthe's ear, James, me, Steve Bacon)
MW:  Thanks for that.  So as a Nottinghamshire lad, do you find yourself using the area a lot in your work?  Do you think it’s important to have a strong handle on location?

JE:  It varies; I believe, especially in short stories, everything needs to mesh together: character, setting, theme, plot. So if the story doesn’t call for a specific location then it’s normally just set in an unnamed twenty-first century urban Britain. But sometimes the story does need to be set in a specific place; so for example my story Home Time is about a character trying to evade his past, specifically a past lived in a Nottinghamshire mining town… or ex-mining town. I grew up in such a place myself and have a very strong memory of the day they demolished the pit-heads. And given that coal-mining is basically the retrieval of a substance created in the past, it perfectly fitted the story’s themes.

At the moment I’m writing a novella called Paupers’ Graves which will be launched at this year’s Fantasycon–it’s set in a specific Nottingham location, a cemetery where many of the poor were buried in the so-called ‘guinea graves’. On some of their tombs the lives are measured not in years but minutes. So that story again is set very specifically in Nottingham and I’ve pulled in details from the past of the city as well–the slums, the lace mills, the Goose Fair. But again, that’s all because it fits the narrative and the themes of the story. And where I’ve needed to change things to fit, I’ve felt no qualms doing so.

MW:  What’s the typical process for you in creating a story, do the ideas come from images or are you one of those lucky people who seems to get them delivered whole?

JE:  They very rarely come to me whole, and I’m not sure I’d trust one that did. For me, a story isn’t about a single idea, it’s about finding a combination of ideas that feels like more than the sum of their parts. Often I have ideas in my head for ages, and I’m trying out other ideas against them like jigsaw pieces, trying to see what fits. It’s purely subjective, it’s something I just get a feeling about.

As an example, I had a story called The Place Where It Always Rains in an anthology edited by Alex Davis titled Worms. I had the central location (the place where it does always, indeed, rain) in my thoughts for months but couldn’t think what to do with it, what plot might be set there. But when Alex asked me to write a story on the theme of worms something just clicked: worms come out in the rain. Something about those two elements felt right together; I still had no real idea of a plot but the imagery of worms drowning in rain puddles felt like something I could work from.

MW:  So what can we expect from you in the future?

JE:  I’ve got quite a lot coming out in 2016 - not through productivity, just through the vagaries of small press publishing timescales. I’ve already mentioned Paupers’ Graves and Infinity Plus will be publishing the complete The Quarantined City, so people can finally see how it ends. Then there’s a number of stories out in anthologies this year, where I’m alongside some pretty stellar company. So it’s all pretty exciting at the moment.

Then there's also my novella Trying To Be So Quiet (published today!) from Boo Books.  It's the first hardback edition anyone has done of my work so I’m pretty excited about it.

As for the longer term, who knows?

MW:  I'm sure there'll be plenty more books to come, my friend.  Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and see you at a Con soon!

Monday, 9 May 2016

Old School Horrors 4: Worms, by James Montague

The fourth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time around, I'm looking at a novel set on the east coast of England...
cover scan of my copy - Futura Publications, published in 1979
The Norfolk coast made for a perfect holiday - as long as the sun still shone.  But when the rain came, the creatures left the shadows...

Spectres from the past tortured James Hildebrand's mind.  His blackest nightmares were crowded with malevolent, coiling images of decay.  Then, suddenly, he knew the threat was real.

The dead alone could not quench their hunger.  And, for the living, the horrors that fed and multiplied in the darkness of the night became more terrible with the dawn...

James Hildebrand is in his early fifties, hen-pecked and locked into a joyless marriage with a wife who can’t stand him.  During a disastrous boating holiday on the east coast, he spots a ramshackle cottage he’d love to move into but his wife hates it.  As they walk across the marshes one day, he contrives that she falls in and drowns.  Now a murderer, he has to do everything he can to keep it quiet, whilst also worrying about the number of worms he keeps finding that might have something to do with the power plant being built on the marsh.

This was great fun, a really entertaining read that is mis-sold by both its blurb and it’s tag-line - “When the nightmares ended, the real horror began…”  Yes, it does feature killer worms (much later in the book than you’d expect), but it’s very well written in a precise style (an emulation, perhaps, of M R James?) and is more of a very dark comedy than an out-and-out monster novel.   The characters are well defined (it’s told in first person by Hildebrand), the handful of death scenes are nicely constructed, there’s a good pace and an excellent use of the atmospheric marshes and coast out of season.  As for the locations used, I loved them - starting in Potter Higham (I bought the book in nearby Great Yarmouth) and taking in Hunstanton, I found this really pleasing and mention of the Eastern Electricity Board made me smile too.  In addition, any book that features the line“The worms of hell.  They rear in pursuit of the souls of the deceased” is alright by me.

Your liking of this will depend entirely on your taste for cheesy horror, but mine was very much satisfied so for fellow fans, I’d recommend it!

I didn't realise it when I bought the novel that Montague was, in fact, the pseudonym of novelist and screenwriter Christopher Wood, who wrote my favourite Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me".

* * *
Christopher Hovelle Wood was born on 5th November 1935 in Lambeth, South London and evacuated to Norwich during the Blitz.  He read Economics and Law at Cambridge, graduated in 1960 and did his National Service in Cyprus, an experience that inspired his second novel “Terrible Hard, Says Alice” (1970), which fellow Bond novelist William Boyd favourably compared to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”.  His work for the UN in Cameroon during the 1960 plebiscite inspired two more novels, his first “Make It Happen To Me” (1969)  and “A Dove Against Death” (1983).

He married Jane Patrick in 1962 and became an account executive for Masius Wynne-Williams, a London advertising agency and used his daily commute to write.  His first two novels - serious, ‘literary’ fiction - were well reviewed but didn’t sell well so he pitched a series of erotic comic novels to Sphere and “could almost see the pound signs in my publisher’s eyes.”

The first of these, “Confessions Of A Window Cleaner” (1971), published as written “by Timothy Lea”, was a huge success and went through multiple editions.  Wood took his inspiration from tall tales he heard while working as mason’s mate and part-time postman in his teens and each novel was written in five weeks.  In a 2013 Penthouse interview, he said “they were funny then and they are funny now.  Then again, I always did like smut.”

He also created two series featuring female protagonists (again published under the characters name).  “Confessions Of A Night Nurse” (1974) kicked off nine Rosie Dixon novels (the first was made into a 1978 film, for which Wood wrote the screenplay) and “The Stewardesses” (1973) began a five book run featuring Penny Sutton.

With the success of the Confessions books, Wood quit his advertising job to write full-time and moved his family to France.  He intended to write more literary fiction but found the demands on his time were too great and decided the ‘serious writing’ would have to wait while the Confessions books were selling.

with Barbara Bach, '
Major Anya Amasova' in "The Spy Who Loved Me"
He wrote the comedy “Seven Nights In Japan” (1976) for director Lewis Gilbert who co-opted his services for his next film “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977), which had already gone through a lot of writers.  Wood later said “I just wanted to do a good job for everybody” and praised the producer Cubby Broccoli saying “everybody on the movie lived in style”.  His light approach fitted the Roger Moore characterisation of Bond perfectly (“One of the keys of writing a Bond movie,” he later said, “is to do the same thing, just differently”) and he went on to write “Moonraker” (1979), also for Gilbert.  He wasn’t a big fan of the idea though, saying “It seemed to me that we were copying Star Wars [and] I also found the idea of space slow in filmic terms.”  Since Fleming had sold only the title for “The Spy Who Loved Me”, Wood novelised his screenplay and also wrote “James Bond And Moonraker” since the film and original novel were so different.  Kingsley Amis, writing in the New Statesman, said “Mr Wood has bravely tackled his formidable task, that of turning a typical late Bond film, which must be basically facetious, into a novel after Ian Fleming, which must be basically serious. ... the descriptions are adequate and the action writing excellent.”

Judging by the timings, Wood must have written “Worms” between the two Bond screenplays.

Christopher Wood died at his France apartment on 9th May 2015, though it wasn’t widely reported until Sir Roger Moore published the news on Twitter on 17th October, acknowledging “he wrote two of my best.”  Wood, whose marriage was dissolved, was survived by a son and daughter, another son had pre-deceased him.

Christopher Wood bibliography

Make It Happen to Me (re-issued as Kiss Off! in 1970) (1969)
Terrible Hard, Says Alice (1970)
John Adam - Samurai (1971)
John Adam In Eden (1973)
Soccer Thug (1973) (as "by Frank Clegg”)
The Further Adventures of Barry Lyndon by Himself (Wood’s name doesn't appear on the cover) (1976)
Seven Nights in Japan (novelisation of his film script, as “by John Drew”) (1976)
James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Lovely Couple (novelisation of his television script, as “by Richard Mason”) (1979)
James Bond and Moonraker (1979)
Fire Mountain (1979)
Worms (1979) (as "by James Montague")
Dead Centre (1980)
Taiwan (1981)
A Dove Against Death (1983)
Kago (1985)
Sincere Male Seeks Love and Someone to Wash His Underpants (2004)
California, Here I Am (2004)
James Bond, The Spy I Loved (memoir) (2006)

Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974)
Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975)
Seven Nights in Japan (1976)
Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976)
Confessions from a Holiday Camp (1977)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), co-written with Richard Maibaum
Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse (1978)
Moonraker (1979)
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Steal the Sky (1988), co-written with Dorothy Tristan
The Unspeakable (1996)
Eruption (1997)
Stray Bullet (1998)
Dangerous Curves (2000)

The Confessions series (by “Timothy Lea”)
Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1971)
Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1972)
Confessions from a Holiday Camp (1972)
Confessions of a Traveling Salesman (1973)
Confessions from a Hotel (1973)
Confessions from the Clink (1973)
Confessions of a Film Extra (1973)
Confessions of a Private Soldier (1974)
Confessions from the Pop Scene (1974)
Confessions from the Shop Floor (1974)
Confessions from a Health Farm (1974)
Confessions Of A Plummer's Mate (1975)
Confessions of a Long Distance Lorry Driver (1975)
Confessions of a Plumber's Mate (1975)
Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975)
Confessions of a Private Dick (1975)
Confessions from a Luxury Liner (1976)
Confessions from a Nudist Colony (1976)
Confessions of a Milkman (1976)
Confessions of an Ice Cream Man (1977)
Confessions from a Haunted House (1979)

The Rosie Dixon series (by “Rosie Dixon”)
Confessions of a Night Nurse (1974)
Confessions of a Gym Mistress (1974)
Confessions from an Escort Agency (1975)
Confessions of a Lady Courier (1975)
Confessions from a Package Tour (1975)
Confessions of a Physical W.R.A.C. (1976)
Confessions of a Baby Sitter (1976)
Confessions of a Personal Secretary (1976)
Rosie Dixon, Barmaid (1977)

The Penny Sutton series (by “Penny Sutton”)
The Stewardesses Down Under (1973)
The Stewardesses (1973)
The Jumbo Jet Girls (1974)
I'm Penny, Fly Me (1975)
Penny Sutton Supersonic (1976)

The Oliver Grape series (by “Oliver Grape”)
Onward Virgins (1974)
Crumpet Voluntary (1974)
It's a Knock-Up! (1975)

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Writer/Blogger meet-up, Birmingham, 30th April 2016

After the entertaining writers/bloggers meet-up I attended in London in April (which I wrote about here), I was looking forward to the next, once again organised by Kim Nash and held at the Bacchus bar at the Burlington Arcade in Birmingham (the venue of the first I went to).  Even better news, my good friend Sue Moorcroft would be coming along this time too.
Me and Sue outside New Street Station.  She's not wearing a top hat, that's part of  the Rotunda building behind her...
We got the 10.23 train and chatted all the way to Leicester.  Grabbing a cup of tea, we got settled on the shuttle train (a woman sitting further down the carriage answered our “which way does it go?” question without us asking) and chatted all the way to Birmingham, covering the art of writing, some family matters, FantasyCon and the schedule for her book A Christmas Promise (apparently, I’m the only person who’s heard that title and seen any kind of innuendo in it - that surely can't be right, can it?).  By the time we got to New Street station the sun had disappeared and it started to hail, so we ducked into Waterstones and she showed me some books that had similar designs to what she thought Avon would do with hers (interestingly, most of them seemed to feature a single character, in red, walking away from the viewer).  Then, braving the weather, we walked along to Bacchus which was already packed and noisy.

After getting drinks we entered the throng - Kim saw us, we said our hellos, I got my name-tag (Sue always takes her own) and we were off.  I saw Barbara Copperthwaite by the door, said hello and that I’d catch up with her later and then only saw her briefly just before we left, more’s the pity.  I also saw Rachel Gilbey to say the briefest of “hello”’s to and then didn’t see her again either.  Sue was on the far side of the room and introduced me to Lindsay Hill, who blogs as Book Boodle and we had a nice chat about writing and reviewing.  Shelley Wilson then appeared and it was lovely to see her again - we met at the first Brum gathering in January but got on so well it feels like we’ve known one another ages and today was no exception.  As time was getting on, I went to order food then chatted with Shelley and Elaina James, a writer and lyricist who has a western romance (an honest-to-goodness Western!) which is with agents at the moment.  It was nice to meet her and compare genres and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s written a western before.
Linda Hill, me, Shelley Wilson, Elaina James
The food arrived (very promptly, bearing in mind how many people were about) and I sat with Sue and Kat Black to eat (and if you like that kind of thing, I can vouch for the club sandwich).  Kat was good company and it turned out we shared a mutual friend in Adam Nevill, as he was her editor for a while.  I grabbed a quick hello with Jane Isaac and then, back in conversation, our little group was joined by Holly, who runs the Bookaholic blog and Linda Hill, of Linda’s Bookbag.

We talked about current projects - neither Holly or Linda were fans of horror (to be fair, not many of the bloggers present were) but they were intrigued by Polly, especially when Shelley talked it up too (she’s already read it and enjoyed it).  It was also interesting to hear from the other side of the book fence - Linda told us she received 19 books to review this week, a figure I thought was astonishing.  She reads upwards of 160 books a year (more than double my tally) and still has a huge backlog, an issue Holly also shares.  We talked about blog activity and planning (my aim this year is one post a week, reviewers might be looking for four or five a week, which is a lot of material) and I quickly realised that to get a slot on a bookblog (as I was lucky enough to have at The Haphazardous Hippo when Neats Wilson reviewed three of my books at once) is not to be sniffed at - book-blogging is an under-appreciated art.
Me and Shelley Wilson
Shelley told me about her new project - a standalone YA fantasy - and I ran through the basic plot of the novella I’m currently working on, an old-school horror for Peter Mark May.  She liked the sound of it, which is always good to hear - I find that gatherings with writers always boost my creative drive and today was thankfully no exception.

The event was very well attended and there were a lot of people I didn’t get a chance to speak too - I stood near to one Twitter friend for a big chunk of time, but only managed to say cheerio to her - and all too soon it was time to head off.  Reluctantly we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the train station (got rained on again) and the shuttle was already at the platform.  We sat down and started talking before realising Shona Lawrence (who runs the Booky Ramblings of a Neurotic Mom blog and lives in nearby Corby) was sitting just up the carriage.  Since Sue had met her at the gathering, she joined us for the journey home.

Another excellent, well-organised get-together and - as before - I met some great people, both writers and reviewers.  Roll on the next one!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Maestra, by L S Hilton (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and really enjoyed.  This summer, I'm planning to write a dark psychological thriller and I'm reading more and more in that genre at the moment.
By day, Judith Rashleigh is a put-upon assistant at a London auction house - British Pictures

By night she's a hostess in one of the capital's unsavoury bars.

Desperate to make something of herself, Judith knows she has to play the game. She's learned to dress, speak and act in the interests of men. She's learned to be a good girl. But after uncovering a dark secret at the heart of the art world, Judith is fired and her dreams of a better life are torn apart. 

So she turns to a long-neglected friend. 

A friend that kept her chin up and back straight through every past slight. 

A friend that a good girl like her shouldn't have: Rage.

Where do you go when you've gone too far?

Judith Rashleigh, through hard work and natural intelligence rather than family connections, works at British Pictures, one of London’s most prestigious auction houses.  Unfortunately, it’s not the big break she’d hoped for, as she spends her time taking her boss’ dirty laundry to the dry cleaners and fending off advances from ageing sellers.  Heavily in debt, a chance encounter with an old school friend introduces her to work as a hostess at a club in Mayfair where she excels in the role.  Very soon, she’s off with a client to the South of France and then things start to spiral out of control.

The novel is broken into four parts (plus an epilogue) and Judith (or Lauren, as she becomes known) certainly gets about.  Set in London (part one), France and Italy (parts two and three), Paris (part four) and Venice (the epilogue), this makes excellent use of the locations and they’re well described, Paris especially (it perhaps helps that I know the area the book is set in).  For me, only the second part doesn’t work, a self-indulgent section where Judith meets an almost-autistic multi-millionaire and spends a month on his private yacht, forty one pages that could have been encapsulated in one line - “worked our way down the coast, didn’t talk much, shagged the captain and stole something that was never explained”.

Smart and assured, Judith is an observant character with a good eye for the finer things in life (art and fashion) who enjoys indulging in sensual pleasures (with men and women) and describes her clothing and accessories in detail (a trait I thought worked well).  She’s also a somewhat unreliable narrator who appears to start the book as Lauren Slaughter from Paul Theroux’s Dr Slaughter and morphs into Matty Walker from Body Heat part way through (with touches of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct) but always works the angle and tries to keep the upper hand.  In fact, I found I was rooting for her even when she was at her worst (and that happens on a couple of occasions) - apparently this is the first in a planned trilogy and it’ll be interesting to see where she goes next.

Sold as “the most shocking thriller you’ll read all year” I didn’t find it that bad at all - though I’m obviously coming at it from a horror reader viewpoint.  The sex is explicit certainly but generally good fun and the violence is brutal and unflinching but never played for gore’s sake - I can see that people might find it offensive but if they do, they shouldn’t really have picked this up in the first place.

Tightly constructed, with everything layering in nicely as the novel progresses, this has a decent pace (the second section aside).  With a sure sense of the art world, peopled with believable (if occasionally grotesque) characters and built around a strong femme fatale lead, I enjoyed this and would recommend it.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Gregory's Girl, at 35

In April 1982 I went to see Chariots Of Fire at Kettering Ohio cinema with my friend Steve and his older sister Sharon.  It must have been her choice - the film didn’t interest me then and I haven’t seen it since - but that re-issue (launched in the wake of the films success at the March Oscars) was a double-bill with a little Scottish film I’d never heard of called Gregory’s Girl.  It might have been that I was thirteen, it might have been (according to my diary at the time) that I was in love with a French girl called Murial (Montsaye Comprehensive was in the middle of a French exchange and several of my school-mates were hosting students) but I loved it - everything from Gregory’s struggles to Clare Grogan in a beret to the penguin wandering the corridors.  I’ve seen it a lot since and a few weeks back picked up the Second Sight widescreen edition and fell in love with it all over again.  Incredibly, the film was originally released in 1981, making this year it’s 35th anniversary!  And I never need an excuse to write a retrospective!
After working for small production companies - making public information and training films - for thirteen years, Bill Forsyth decided to make a feature film and wrote an outline about a shy Scots lad who falls for the female striker in his school football team.  To find his cast, he began - in 1977 - to sit in on workshops at the Glasgow Youth Theatre, which was run by a friend.  The children were suspicious at first of “the quiet bloke at the back who never said anything” but he overcame his natural shyness and began to work with them on the script.  He later said, “they didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything. But I discussed their parts with them in the same way as I came to discussing adult parts with adults and they demanded exactly the same as adult actors. It was a big lesson”

Unfortunately, the British Film Institute felt Gregory’s Girl was too commercial and declined to fund it.  Instead, Forsyth and the young actors made the (much) cheaper That Sinking Feeling (1979), about a group of unemployed teenagers who steal a lorry-load of kitchen sinks.  It cost a few thousand pounds and Forsyth felt it was his last shot - “if we hadn’t made a go of it, my plan was just to disappear.”  That Sinking Feeling turned out to be the surprise hit of the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival and allowed him to raise the funds for Gregory’s Girl, using many of the same actors.

Gregory’s Girl “wrote itself,” he later said as he knew which buttons to press: “young love and football”.  Designed as a calling card, a ticket to bigger films and bigger budgets, he originally planned to make it on 16mm for £29,000 but ended up shooting on 35mm for £200,000.

Although Forsyth used many of the Glasgow Youth Theatre actors, he spotted Dee Hepburn (Dorothy) dancing in a TV advert for a department store, whilst Clare Grogan (Susan) was working as a waitress at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Glasgow.  “[Bill] asked me for my phone number,” she said in interview, “but my mum had warned me about strange men, so I just said: “You know where to find me.”  I was 17, very naive, yet had incredible delusions of grandeur and glamour. I realise now how lucky I was: Bill had faith in me and was brilliant at making us all feel relaxed on set, spoonfeeding us ideas.”

John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory) was an apprentice electrician at the time and although he’d appeared in That Sinking Feeling, was surprised to get the lead.  “”Everyone was a bit in awe of Dee Hepburn,” he said in interview, “she was already a professional actor.”  After being cast, Hepburn was given six weeks of intensive football training at Partick Thistle FC.

Susan (Clare Grogan) and Gordon (John Gordon Sinclair)
“The chemistry between myself and Clare Grogan was real,” said John, “and we’ve been friends ever since.  [She] was into bands and incredibly cool, whereas I was in a combat jacket with long hair, listening to Rush.”

“When I first met Gordon,” said Clare, “I was staggered to see he was still in flares.  But Gordy, as he’ll always be to me, is the funniest person to be around.”

Forsyth took notice of how his young cast talked and acted with one another.  “Bill always had a wee notebook in his hands, watching us, writing down things we said,” said John.  “Then later, things wound up in the script and we'd think, 'Ah, that's one of our stories.'”

The setting of the film was deliberate.  “I wanted a backdrop where nothing was touched or old,” Forsyth said and the film was shot in the new town of Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, created in 1956 as a population overspill for Glasgow.  A reaction against the gritty locations of That Sinking Feeling, this was “a deliberate attempt to show a different face to Scotland.”  Gregory waits by the big clock at New Town Plaza, the Fish & Chip shop is in a small shopping arcade next to the Abronhill High School used as the school in the film and the restaurant was called Capaldi’s and owned by a member of the actor Peter Capaldi’s family.  The nurses home, from the opening scene, was the Electricity Board training centre in Seafar, which is now a Christian centre.  Abronhill High School was opened in 1978, earmarked for closure in 2012 and demolished in 2014.  Apparently, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye.
from left - Andy (Robert Buchanan), Charlie (Graham Thompson) and Gregory watch Dorothy
After the guerrilla-style filming of That Sinking FeelingGregory’s Girl was a different experience, with rigorous schedules and a bigger budget.  It didn’t affect Forsyth or his young cast too badly though, as he said in interview, “we were living the dream.  I think it worked because it didn’t patronise anyone; there was a level of honesty that you don’t normally get in teen films. It was hangdog, but very friendly.  [The cast’s] energy and enthusiasm was what carried it.”

A smitten Gregory examines Dorothy's injured knee
With the bigger canvas to work on, there were more compromises.  Forsyth found directing difficult and he “couldn’t deal with more than three people in a scene at any one time.”  It rained a lot, which changed the colour of the football pitch as they were filming and he felt like he “was killing the script, never bringing it to life” which I find odd, since it seems to buzz with life.

John later said in interview.  “Shooting was fun, it never felt like work. You knew you were getting it right because you’d see Bill’s shoulders shaking with laughter behind the camera. I had to ask him to move out of my eyeline, because it would get quite distracting.”

Three months before filming began, Clare Grogan was an innocent bystander at a fight at the Glasgow Technical college.  A broken bottle hit her and she was severely injured, suffering a prominent scar on the left side of her face.  The film producers wanted to change actress but Forsyth refused to recast and she was filmed mostly in profile.  When close-ups were required, such as at the park, make-up artists covered her scar with morticians wax.
Bill Forsyth (right) chats through a scene with Mr Menzies (Jake D'Arcy) and Dorothy (Dee Hepburn)
Gregory’s Girl is wonderfully observational - as Forsyth said in 1985, “my style is to be as unobtrusive as possible.”  As the actors play out their scenes, the camera catches little nuances and mannerisms as well as embracing the life around them.  “I was just recording their acting,” he said.  “I didn’t have any cinematic ambition. It was an attempt to make a film I thought people might want to see, and quite divorced from the films I imagined myself making.”  Forsyth heard Chic Murray, a veteran of vaudeville who plays the headmaster, playing a piano in the school gym to entertain the cast between filming his scenes.  Delighted with this, Forsyth included the scene where two pupils watch him as he plays during lunch and shoos them away with “Off you go, you small boys!”

My favourite example of this humour is the penguin, never referred to but often seen wandering the corridors.  This came from Forsyth seeing someone at Abronhill High school carrying a papier-mâché head down a corridor.  “None batted an eyelid,” he said, “a school is a place where anything can happen.”  The person in the penguin suit was Christopher Higson, son of production supervisor Paddy Higson and is his only credited role.

The film is filled with affection for its characters and quickly establishes the idea that the younger you are, the sharper you are.  From the kids at the beginning, who witness the teenagers watch the nurse undress and brush it off with “a lot of fuss about a bit of tit” to Madeline (Allison Forster) being Gregory’s mentor and the teachers in the staff room, more like giggling kids than their pupils.  Gregory’s friends are never mocked, from his best friend Steve (William Greenless), a budding pastry chef who runs a black market business selling cakes from the boys toilet whilst taking orders from the teachers to Eric (Alan Love) the photographer who sells photo’s of Dorothy from the stall next to the cakes, conducting his conversation in terms of f-stops and lenses.  And Andy (Robert Buchanan) trotting out dubious trivia (often beginning with “It’s a well known fact…”) as attempted pick-up lines, never deterred by his lack of success.

Madeline (Allison Forster) fills Gregory in on love
“I love all the role reversal,” said Clare Grogan.  Generally naïve, the boys are fascinated and mystified by the girls who appear knowing and sophisticated - from Madeline to the well-meaning group who play matchmaker as he moves from one-to-another in a sense of confusion before ending up with Gregory’s Girl.

There’s also a wonderful use of the summer evening.  Forsyth wanted “something that was slightly magic but isn’t corny magic, it was just human magic. It could be something like this sudden midsummer’s atmosphere that overtakes people and even the two boys that are wandering around catch it. They say, ‘There’s something in the atmosphere.’  It was just allowing every individual their eccentricity without taking it to a point where it’s just pure comedy.”
Susan and Gregory in the park
For me, the perfect highlight of this is in the park, as the summer evening winds down when Gregory and Susan talk numbers and arm dance so as not to fall off the earth.  Their characters connect and it’s a cheering moment, the camera magically tilting with them (an effect created by tying it to a piece of rope).  Later, on his doorstep, Susan says “a million and nine”.  “How come you know all the good numbers?” he asks, a quizzical tone in his voice.  Superb.

“I especially remember the scene after our date in the park,” said John later, “where there’s a shot of us walking off into the sunset. We were both in tears. It was the last day of filming. It was all over. This magical bubble we’d been in was about to burst.”

“To this day, I’ve never seen Gregory’s Girl in its entirety,” said Clare at a 30th anniversary showing of the film.  “I always have to leave at some point because I find it too much.”

Gregory’s Girl was written and directed by Bill Forsyth and produced by Clive Parsons.  The music was written by Colin Tully, Michael Coulter was the cinematographer and John Gow was editor.

The film was released in the UK on 23rd April 1981 and distributed by ITC Entertainment.  Watching it at the 1981 London Film Festival, John was “mortified, I looked terrible and gangly” and suddenly understood why Forsyth had “made me exaggerate all those stretches and lunges when he was filming me exercising”, worried his performance “ruined the film”.  Clare, whose band Altered Images had signed with CBS during production, was a bit more used to showbusiness and recognised the charm of the film and its “smart, progressive view of a girl's world”.  Even though the film got a great reception, all involved thought the fuss would soon die down.

It never did, really.  The film Forsyth called “an act of desperation - I was in my early thirties, it was a last roll of the dice” was ranked number 30 in the British Film Institute's list of the top 100 British films and  number 29 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 best high school movies.  It was nominated for three BAFTA’s - Best Newcomer (John Gordon Sinclair), Best Direction and Best Film - and won the BAFTA Best Original Screenplay, the London Critics Circle Film Award: Special Achievement and the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award (Dee Hepburn).
Dee Hepburn, John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan - at the 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, 2011
At a special 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre, John said “it was such a big part of my life, like watching my old diary.”  Clare said “It was just so pivotal in my life. Everywhere I go, all round the world, I always find myself in the company of somebody who loves it, and that is an amazing thing.”

The film was first shown on Channel 4 on 8th January 1985 and attracted 10.75 million viewers, Channel 4's third biggest audience of that year.  ITV repeated the film the following Christmas Day.

The film was released in America on 26th May 1982 by The Samuel Goldwyn Company, opening small and relying on word of mouth praise which was consistently good.  It performed well in New York and other US cities and whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster, at one point it was number 7 in the US Top Fifty.  Learning their lesson from Ken Loach’s Kes, which was withdrawn after two days because Americans couldn’t understand it, the film was re-dubbed with milder Scottish accents (with some of the original actors, thankfully - both versions are available on the US DVD).  Subtitles were originally suggested but Goldwyn’s Larry Jackson was quoted as saying “we thought it was a wholesome entertaining story with a general appeal, and we didn't want it to end up with an art house audience only.”  It’s said he loved the film the first time he saw it, though he did have a script to follow the dialogue.  Critic Richard Skorman wrote, “Unlike the film's American counterparts, Gregory’s Girl is refreshingly free of mean-spirited characters and horny young studs bemoaning their virginity.”

The success of Gregory’s Girl led to the development of the Scottish Film Production Fund, Glasgow Film Fund and other financing organisations which allowed for talents like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, 1994) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999) to get their first features made.  It was been cited as an influence on Wes Anderson and Shane Meadows and, according to Clare Grogan, is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films.

On its budget of £200,000, Gregory’s Girl went on to make £25.8m around the world and played in some London cinemas for an astonishing 75 weeks.

Watching it now in widescreen, I was delighted to find the film hadn’t really dated at all.  I was watching it as a different person, certainly, but it still spoke to me and even though some of that might have been nostalgia - from my first viewings, perhaps from my teenaged years - it was also because the film stands up well.  There is an air of youthful naivety, of course, but it’s warm and smart and the humour makes you smile.

Gregory’s Girl is a wonderful film.  If you’ve seen it before, watch it again and if you’ve never seen it, I envy you that first viewing experience.

Happy birthday Gregory, bella bella!

John Gordon Sinclair (born Gordon John Sinclair - Equity already had someone of that name registered - in Glasgow in 1962) also appeared in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and reprised his title role in Gregory’s Two Girls (1999).  He has continued to act on TV, stage and screen, appeared on the 1982 Scottish squad's World Cup song We Have a Dream and won the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1995 for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in She Loves Me.  His first novel, Seventy Times Seven was published in 2012 and he lives in Surrey with his wife and two daughters.

Clare Grogan (born Claire Patricia Grogan in Glasgow in 1962) went on to play Charlotte in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort & Joy (1984) and was Kristine Kochanski in the 1st, 2nd and 6th series of Red Dwarf.  She is perhaps better known the lead singer of 80s new wave group Altered Images, whose debut album Happy Birthday was released in 1981.  Grogan continues to act and sing, presents on BBC 6 Music and her first book, a children’s novel called Tallulah And The Teenstars was published in October 2008.  She lives in Haringay with her husband Stephen Lironi (her former bandmate) and their adopted daughter.

Dee Hepburn (born in Airdrie in 1961) won the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award for her performance as Dorothy.  After working in TV, she appeared in The Bruce (1996) with Oliver Reed but has now left showbusiness.  She lives in East Kilbride with her second husband and two children, working in business development.
Bill Forsyth, Clare Grogan, John Gordon Sinclair
Bill Forsyth (born William David Forsyth in Glasgow in 1946) started his career making short documentary films.  After the success of Gregory’s Girl (1981) he made Local Hero (1983), produced by David Puttnam and featuring Burt Lancaster and followed it up with Comfort & Joy (1984).  When Puttnam served as Columbia Studios chairman from 1986 to 1987, he picked up Housekeeping (1987) which was Forsyth’s first American film.  Following a poor critical reception to Being Human (1994), Forysth didn’t direct again until Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), which also received mixed reviews.  He hasn’t directed a film since.  Nominated for five BAFTAs, he won two (including Best Direction for Local Hero ), received the Special Achievement Award from the London Critics Circle in 1982 and Local Hero  won the 1983 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay.  He lives in Western Scotland with his partner and has two children from his first marriage.

Astonishingly, there isn't a trailer for the film on YouTube (apart from the Samuel Goldwyn version, which is mostly review quotes) so instead I'll leave you with one of my favourite moments...

The UK quad poster of the double-bill I went to see
The US release poster
Susan and Dorothy talk about Gregory in Chemistry
Susan, Gregory and Steve (William Greenlees) in cookery class
Dorothy on the pitch
The boys at the nurses home
I hope you've enjoyed this as much as I did researching and writing it.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Star Wars The Force Awakens (book reviews)

Not that I need much of an excuse to talk about Star Wars on the blog (see here if you don't believe me), but to tie in with the DVD release of The Force Awakens, I thought I'd post a couple of reviews relating to the film.
Dude and me at Kettering Odeon, 18th December 2015
The three of us - Alison, Dude & me - went to see it on the 18th of December (I booked the tickets as soon as I was able, having been looking forward to the film since it was announced).

Alison is a Star Wars fan almost by osmosis (when the special editions were re-released in 1997, she came to see Star Wars and Jedi with me) and Dude likes the original trilogy (since he's seen it so often) and the prequels (it's his age, not me forcing him to, I'm not that awful a parent).

Dude & I loved the film (there were parts where I wanted to cheer) so he & I went back to see it again on the 9th of January.

And now it's on DVD...

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Alan Dean Foster
Set years after Return of the Jedi, this stunning new action-packed adventure rockets us back into the world of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Luke Skywalker, while introducing a host of exciting new characters. Darth Vader may have been redeemed and the Emperor vanquished, but peace can be fleeting, and evil does not easily relent. Yet the simple belief in good can still empower ordinary individuals to rise and meet the greatest challenges.

So return to that galaxy far, far away, and prepare yourself for what happens when the Force awakens. . . .

Set 30 years after the events of “Return Of The Jedi”, Luke Skywalker has vanished after a pupil of his turned to the Dark Side.  In his absence, the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire and is intent on finding him.  General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance, has learned from an old ally that there might be a clue to Luke’s whereabouts and she sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron, to retrieve it.

To set my stall from the off, I am a huge “Star Wars” fan and my first introduction to the work of Alan Dean Foster was his novelisation for the original film in 1977 though I haven’t read that for a while (but I’m tempted to go back now).  Sticking fairly close to the script (with some nice additions), Foster does a good job of dealing with all of the various locales, easing older characters back into the action (and it’s nice to see Han & Leia interact again) but also doing well with the new characters and his work with Rey on Jakku is particularly good, capturing her sense of loneliness well.  Kylo Ren also comes across more clearly here, his inner struggle well realised - and the professional jealousy he & Hux share - and Leader Snoke casts a more chilling presence too.

The novel makes good use of location, especially Starkiller Base and Foster’s a sure hand at dealing with technology, giving the reader just enough to picture the item and then treating it as though it’s been around forever.  He also does a good job with the dialogue - one of my highlights from the film was the verbal interplay between the characters and it’s captured well here, reading as funny as it did on screen.  It also has that wonderful sense, of time having passed and adventures moving into history - “Luke Skywalker?” asks Rey, “I thought he was just a myth.”  On the Falcon, Finn knows Solo as a Rebellion General but Rey knows him as a smuggler and when she mistakes the time the ship made the Kessel Run (she says fourteen), he sharply corrects her to twelve.

Foster also includes a few sequences that, although they were probably deleted from the film for timing reasons, work well.  Beyond the opening sequence with Leia, the first new part is Poe’s escape from Jakku, an adventure with Naka Iit which is good fun.  There’s a sequence with Korr Sella (an aide of Leia) who’s sent on a mission to the Hosnian system just before it’s wiped out by Starkiller (she’s in the film but we don’t find out her name) and, wonderfully, Chewie finally gets to rip someone’s arm off at Maz Katana’s place.  The last key sequence is on Starkiller, which features a speeder chase between Rey & Finn and a load of troopers which is exciting and explains why they’re so far above Han and Chewie for the final showdown with Kylo Ren.

Well written (though I got the curious sense that Foster was under-writing and certainly not creating something as lush and deep as the original novelisation), well realised and full of pace, this does the film proud and I would highly recommend it.

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Phil Szostak
Lucasfilm have long known how to produce good art books and, thankfully, this is absolutely no different.  Taking the story from the very start of the process in 2012, Szostak follows the team of Visualists working under Rick Carter - and, later, Darren Gilford, though it’s not made clear why it was necessary to bring him in - as they come up with concepts for sequences, even before the scriptwriter and director are on board.  Seeing the story - and images - evolve organically is fascinating and the artwork is exemplary.  Helping the book, for me, is a production diary that starts around the time of pre-production, a few paragraphs for every month, following the process up to post and giving out little details that help build a bigger picture.

But the art is the real star here and the beautifully reproduced images - from a varied team including Doug Chiang, Ryan Church and Eric Tiemens (who all worked on the prequels), Christian Alzmann, Chris Bonura, Andree Wallin and more - are gorgeous.  Of the hundreds of pieces on display, my favourites include “The Sunset”, Chiang’s wonderful riff on “Apocalypse Now”, Andree Wallin’s “AT-AT Idea”, Kevin Jenkins’ “Rally Site Troops View”, “Spotlight” by Kevin Jenkins (which presents the reasoning why concept art is so important as this immediately shows you the moment when Han and Ren confront one another which might not work so well with words) and “Rey Emerges” by Yanick Dusseault, which shows the scale superbly.

I read a little while back that George Lucas was disappointed at how retro some of the film looked and whilst I enjoyed seeing little things in the film - the heads-up display in the Falcon, the Brutalist aspects of the Empire - I do understand what he means and the book confirms it.  Ralph McQuarrie’s work, both used and unused, was re-examined by the Visualists and pieces were cherry-picked for the new film.  Admittedly, when I read this, all I could think was “the lucky devils!” for gaining access to the fabled Lucasfilm archives.

My one gripe would be the way that Szostak and (especially) Carter see themselves - the writer mentions Kathleen Kennedy (the producer) “reaching out” to him, rather than calling him and asking for a meeting.  Carter goes further in the pretension stakes (I’d like to believe he’s being ironic about his own abilities but I really don’t think he is) and contrasts badly with the way Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston have talked about themselves over the years plus you wouldn’t need to argue very hard that their contribution to the Star Wars universe - and, by extension, pop culture - is far greater than Carter will ever manage.

That niggle aside (easily done, just skip the Foreword), this is an excellent companion to a superb film and one I would highly recommend.

Some examples of the superb concept art
Artwork by Andree Wallin
Artwork by Doug Chiang
Artwork by Doug Chiang, which he acknowledges is a riff on "Apocalypse Now"

And just because this clip, first shown at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, gets better after you see the film, here it is...