Monday, 18 January 2021

A Bright Spot (with The Crunch)

We’re living in extraordinary times and, it seems to me, it’s even more important now to seek out and acknowledge the bright spots of humanity that exist all around us.  One of those happened to me this weekend and it all started with a post I published a year ago.
“a whole new experience in boys' papers! It's for the boy of today - packed with never-before told stories with true life features on the men who have faced the crunch in their lives.”

One of my favourite things about this blog are the retrospective essays I write.  I’m a self-confessed nostalgic and had a happy childhood I enjoy being reminded of and these posts allow me to not only research and investigate this thing I love, but they also act as a connector with other people.  I’ll explain.

In 1979, I started reading a comic called The Crunch and, at the time and ever after, I never knew anyone else who read it.  Unfortunately, in the sands of time, I’d lost my collection but managed to buy back a few random issues on ebay and looking through them brought back my childhood instantly.  So when The Crunch’s fortieth anniversary rolled around, I decided to write a retrospective (which you can read here), which led to a lovely few hours of research and absolutely no idea as to whether anyone would either connect with it or even be interested.

As it was, the post was well received (over 600 views as I write this) and the comments and emails I got after it were nicely positive, as readers a) reminisced, b) didn’t realise anyone else remembered the comic and c) loved that it took them back to being a kid.

I was more than happy.

Then, in September, a fellow called Jason left a comment, having enjoyed the post and mentioned he had a few spares.  We emailed briefly and he said he’d sort through his copies and send me some over, if I was interested.  I absolutely was (one of my favourite strips was The Mill Street Mob and none of the issues I had featured it).  He emailed again, this past Friday, to say he’d sorted them, asked for my address and - once again - refused any payment.

On Saturday morning, a large box was delivered and, confused, I opened it up to discover that Jason had sent me almost a complete run of the comic!  Astonished, I emailed him back, urging him to let me pay him for at least the postage and he replied with “they were all spares and [it’s] so nice to hear they are appreciated, that feeling of nostalgia is rare and Crunch aficionados are even rarer! Enjoy!”
I was genuinely touched because if the essay gave him a reminder to revisit a beloved old comic, then his gesture more than paid that off.  Crunch readers, clearly, are lovely people.
If you’re reading this Jason, thank you for giving me the chance to delve back into that wonderful old comic and as Crunch readers go, you're one of the best!

Monday, 11 January 2021

Novelisation Review 4: The Six Million Dollar Man: Wine, Women And War, by Mike Jahn

The fourth in an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at The Six Million Dollar Man, by Mike Jahn, adapted from my favourite childhood TV series.
Star Books 1975 (2nd printing), originally published by MCA Publishing 1972
cover scan of my copy
To dictator, oil-rich sheik or Third World revolutionary, Arlen Findletter will sell weapons of nuclear destruction.  He's even ready to deliver a complete nuclear submarine if the bidder will wait until he's stolen it.  To combat this international bandit, the US sends its most sophisticated weapon, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Steve Austin's brief: Find him; locate the arsenal; stop him before it's too late.

After a mission to steal an arms dealers catalogue in Egypt goes wrong (the safe is empty) which results in the death of his lover, Colonel Steve Austin is resentful when Oscar Goldman wants him back in the field.  He escapes from Dr Rudy Well’s bionics facility and heads for a friends Caribbean holiday home, not realising the trip is being manipulated by OSI agent Harry Donner.  On Paradise Cay, Austin meets up with an old Soviet colleague, Alexei Koslov and Katrina Volana (Undersecretary for Special External Security) and soon finds himself back on the trail of the arms dealer, Arlen Findletter, with revenge on his mind.

I should make it clear that growing up, Steve Austin was my hero - I had posters from Look-In and the TV Times on my wall, I had the figure and I made the appropriate noises when I ran anywhere or jumped.  That was back in the mid-70s and having not seen the show for years (decades, even), I revisited it a couple of years back with Day Of The Robot (which is very slow) and didn’t particularly enjoy it.  Around the time I got that DVD, I also picked up this paperback though I’ve resisted reading it until now in case it was rubbish.  Thankfully, it isn’t.  Although it’s never going to be considered great literature, it wasn’t all that bad as ‘entertaining pulp’, full credit for which must go to Mike Jahn, the Edgar-winning writer who doesn’t get his name on the cover.

Yes elements of it are contrived - you can see where he had to stick to TV teleplay logic - and there are some telltale sexist elements - this was published in 1972 - but for the most part it holds together.  The paperback Steve Austin is much more brutal than the TV show version I recall (though, as mentioned above, I might have forgotten it), he kills one guard by throwing a safe at him and shoots many others.  His desire for revenge relates to a character we only see very briefly and he picks up with helicopter pilot (and fellow agent) Cynthia Holland and Katrina without too much trouble, whilst his relationship with Oscar Goldman is difficult, at best.  Koslov works well as a character, though isn’t used much but Findletter is an odd villain, mentioned a lot but infrequently seen and his big moment comes right at the end in the clumsy climax.  In a lapse of logic, having mentioned how seeing the Earth from orbit has turned Austin off the idea of nuclear weapons, it’s odd that he puts into motion events which lead to Paradise Cay being destroyed by a nuclear explosion (it’s explained away as “the crater was deadly now and would remain so for some time to come.  But years would heal it, water would fill it and some day fish would swim in it.”).  Otherwise, Austin is decently crafted, with more bionic attributes than I recall - it’s his left hand that’s bionic, he has all manner of kit hidden away in his legs and he has a CO2 powered gun in his middle finger - and a chapter gives us his backstory, including the amusing line “what took longer was what the doctors euphemistically termed Austin’s emotional adjustment.  In short, he was furious.”

Based on the teleplay by Glen A Larson for the second pilot, this is good fun, with a decent pace, nice touches of humour (“I'm sorry I had to violate your porthole!”) and decent sense of location.  It won’t be to everyone’s taste, obviously but as a good piece of pulp this reader with warm (if perhaps misguided) memories of the TV show enjoyed it.

* * *
Joseph Michael Jahn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on 4th August 1943 and studied journalism.  He spent the first decade of his career covering cultural issues then, in 1968, became the New York Times' first full-time rock journalist.  One of his first assignments was covering the Woodstock Festival.  He wrote several non-fictions books before switching to mystery/suspense fiction, eventually publishing fifty novels and film/TV adaptions, under his own name and several pen names. His first mystery novel, The Quark Maneuver, was published by Ballantine in 1977 and won an Edgar Award.  After writing the ten-novel series "Bill Donovan Mysteries", he began working on a memoir of the last century and a half of American history.

He wrote five Six Million Dollar Man books (becoming, aside from Martin Caidin, the most prolific writer of Steve Austin fiction) which are notable for combining the television series continuity with the bionic attributes of the original Cyborg novels.

* * *
Martin Caidin was born in New York City on 14th September 1927 and began writing fiction in 1957, publishing more than fifty fiction and non-fiction books as well as more than one thousand magazine articles.  Cyborg (1972) was his most famous novel and he wrote three sequels Operation Nuke, High Crystal and Cyborg IV.  He died in Tallahassee, Florida on 24th March 1997.

For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise 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, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Here's [Some] I Made Earlier...

Usually, to round off a blogging year, I do a post about my creative exploits in the past twelve months but, to be honest, I didn’t feel like doing one in 2020.  It was a bad year for all of us, though not without individual rays of sunshine and as a writer, I found it stifled me for a while.  The various lockdowns also meant all Cons and gatherings I would normally attend didn’t happen and I really did miss them and my writing family (we Zoomed but it wasn't the same).
The Early Works...
So instead, I thought I’d look back at some of my earliest creative endeavours (I was homaging Steve Austin and Star Wars back when I was 8 and 9) and here are the first four ‘novels’ I wrote (though I doubt they'd even class as novellas now).  My Dad, star that he is, dutifully read them all and gave me feedback - I’m sure he was over the moon when I started writing horror, a genre he doesn’t get on with, so he could stop being my first reader.  With their inspirations barely hidden, some wonderful cover designs (I loved Letraset!) and all bound with string, I present the ‘Early Novels of Mark West’.
Shark! (1981)
An odd combination of Jaws (naturally) and comics stories from the likes of Bullet, Crunch and Action, this features Mark West, a government salvage expert with a shark phobia whose latest job is, naturally enough, in shark infested waters.
Hadley Hall Comprehensive (1982)
A huge fan of the Robert Leeson Grange Hill novelisations, I decided to write my own, putting me and my friends into a series of adventures that were very much based in Rothwell and at Montsaye, the comprehensive I was attending at the time.  The cover is taken from a photo-story I did in 1981 (and wrote about here), featuring my Dad, me and my friend Geoff.
The Space Mercenary (1983)
It’s my take on Star Wars.

Glamourpuss (1984)
A tale of bounty hunters (lifted from The Mantracker in Crunch comic and The Fall Guy himself) tracking down a famous model, this was directly inspired by the first The A-Team novelisation by Charles Heath, which I loved (and still do).
The Three Intrepids were written in homage to The Three Investigators, a series of books I love and continue to re-read (and have written about extensively on the blog).  Eight books make up the series, written from 1983 to 1985.

* * *
In the year itself, I had one story published, a reprint of What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking, which appeared in STORIES OF HOPE AND WONDER, a NewCon Press anthology Ian Whates put together to raise funds for NHS frontline staff (and which has contributed over £2k so far).  I wrote about it here and you can buy the e-anthology here.
I spent the year working on my third thriller novel, after starting it in December 2019.  A “simple story” with two timelines, it turned out to be a real saviour for me, a world to escape into (after a brief 5 week period where I found it difficult to write at all) and something to creatively look forward to.  Unfortunately, the timing meant a lot of over-writing and repetition so I ended up producing a 209k word first draft!  Thankfully, I’m almost finished the second draft now and it’s down to a much more manageable and realistic 110k words.

So an odd year then but, whatever 2021 decides to throw at us, I hope you and yours stay safe and healthy.

Monday, 21 December 2020

The Twelfth Annual Westies - review of the year 2020

Well it's been an odd year but here we are again, gearing up for Christmas and so it's time to indulge in the annual blog custom and remember the good books of 2020.

Once again, it's been a great reading year for me with a nice mixture of brand new novels, a few books that have languished on my TBR pile for too long, some good second-hand finds (which jumped straight to the top of the pile) along with some welcome re-reads.

As always, the top 20 places were hard fought and, I think, show a nice variety in genre and tone - if I've blogged about a book before, I've linked to it on the list.

Without further ado, I present the Twelth Annual Westies Award - “My Best Fiction Reads Of The Year” - and the top 20 looks like this:

1:   Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
2:   Into The River, by Mark Brandi
3:   At Home In The Shadows, by Gary McMahon
4:   Under The Italian Sun, by Sue Moorcroft *
5:   Christmas Wishes, by Sue Moorcroft
6:   13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough
7:   The Possession, by Michael Rutger
8:   Here We Are, by Graham Swift
9:   Memory Leak, by Richard Farren Barber **
10: Ascent To Godhood, by Jy Yang
11: The Shadow Friend, by Alex North
12: Strangers, by C. L. Taylor
13: The July Girls, by Phoebe Locke
16: The Survival Of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson
17: Tomorrow Never Dies, by Raymond Benson
18: Dead To Her, by Sarah Pinborough
19: Someone We Know, by Shari Lapena
20: Trust Me, I'm Dead, by Sherryl Clark

* This is Sue's Avon book for next summer, which I read to critique and will be published in May 2021.
** I read this to critique

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1:   Halfway To Hollywood: 1980-1988, by Michael Palin
2:   Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
3:   Face It, by Debbie Harry
4:   Wild And Crazy Guys, by Nick de Semlyen
5:   I Am C-3PO, by Anthony Daniels
6:   Captain's Log: William Shatner's Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V, by Lisabeth Shatner
7:   The Making Of Taxi Driver, by Geoffrey Macnab
8:   My Squirrel Days, by Ellie Kemper
9:   Cinefex 49, by Mark Cotta Vaz
10: The Art Of The Rise Of Skywalker, by Phil Szostak 

Stats wise, I’ve read 74 books - 41 fiction, 15 non-fiction, 12 comics/nostalgia/kids and 6 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 68 books, the breakdown is thus:

6 biography
15 horror
9 film-related
6 drama (includes romance)
16 crime/mystery
7 sci-fi
3 nostalgia
6 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

In case you’re interested, the previous awards are linked to from here:

Monday, 14 December 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Christmas Annuals (part 4)

"Christmas is coming!"
me, Christmas 1982, posing with my haul (and clearly very chuffed with the Blondie calendar).  That sign I'm holding would stay on my bedroom door well into my mid-teens... (also - The Fall Guy!)
Welcome to the fourth post (the others are here - 2017, 2018 and 2019) showcasing one of the Christmas highlights from when I was a kid (beyond the catalogues I wrote about in 2016), seeing which annual I got that particular year.  For those who don't remember them, annuals were (and still are) large size hardback books, designed for children and based on existing properties, generally comics and popular TV shows, as well as the occasional film and sport and pop round-ups.

The ones based on comics featured the same cast as the weekly editions, while the TV and film ones had comic strips, the occasional short story, fact files and interviews and - brilliantly - in the case of The Fall Guy, behind the scenes information on stunts and how they were filmed.

Published towards the end of the year, annuals are cover-dated as the following year to ensure shops don't take them off the shelves immediately after the new year (though, by then, unsold copies are often heavily reduced).  Still as popular now, though kids today don't have the choice of comics we did, the only real difference seems to be that they're skinnier (and that's not me being all nostalgically misty - my ones from the late 70s and early 80s are substantially chunkier than the ones I’ve bought for Dude over the past few years).

Here, then, is another selection of old favourites, ones I received and ones I remember my sister Tracy having.  I hope some of them inspire a warm, nostalgic trip down memory lane for you...
Mum & Dad must have got this second-hand for me - I was a big fan of the 60's Batman show with Adam West (who, for a long time, I was convinced must be related to us) but I had this much later.
One of Tracy's favourite TV shows (she would go on to work with - and compete on - horses) and just hearing the theme tune now makes me feel a slightly melancholic sense of nostalgia.
Everybody... "Underground, overground, Wombling free, the Wombles of Wimbledon, Common are we..."
The annuals post wouldn't be complete without an appearance by Rupert The Bear!
 My Dr Who...
I know this probably doesn't stand up to the modern Marvel version and yes, it's probably very silly (it's been a long time since I last saw it) but this is my Hulk.  And I still think the theme tune is hauntingly beautiful...
I remember this (or, more precisely, I remember Dan Tanna parking his terrific car in his house!) but for me, Robert Urich will always be Spenser.  I wrote about the Vega$ novelisation, by Max Franklin, which you can read here.
The first Judge Dredd standalone annual - and it's still a cracking read.
An odd - and often spooky - TV show I have fond memories of

Happy Christmas!

scans from my collection, aside from the girls titles (thanks to the Internet for those)

You can read more of my nostalgia posts here

Monday, 7 December 2020

Creature From The Black Lagoon

Creature From The Black Lagoon opened in the UK on 9th December 1954, having premiered in the USA on 12th February that year.  It was directed by Jack Arnold, produced by William Alland and written by Harry Essex & Arthur Ross (story by Maurice Zimm).  William E. Snyder was director of photography, Ted Kent was editor, Milicent Patrick created the suit and the team of Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein wrote the score.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up without ready access to the films I often read about in magazines or books and so a lot of my exposure to early horror came if I was allowed to stay up late on a Saturday night to watch one. Then, during one summer – I think it would be been 1980 or 1981 – a lot of classic B&W chillers were shown on BBC2, after tea. Finally, I got to see Lon Chaney as The Phantom, rather than just reading about him and scaring myself silly over the pictures; finally I got to witness Boris Karloff’s superb performance as Frankenstein’s monster and finally, I got to see the creature that, for me, is the highpoint of Universal horror icons.
 Assuming it was 1981, I was twelve when I first saw “Creature From The Black Lagoon” and I’ve loved it ever since.  Re-visiting it recently, on DVD this time, was a wonderful opportunity to revisit an old friend.

Opening with a prologue that details the formation of earth (but, really, is just an excuse to have loads of things hurtling at the camera to fully utilise the 3D experience), this moves to the present day where a geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers a fossilised hand from the Devonian (I don’t know either) period. The expedition leader, Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) takes it to his friend, Dr David Reed (Richard Carlson), an ichthyologist and the formers girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). Their financial backer, Dr Mark Williams (Richard Denning), decides to fund an expedition so they sail up the Amazon in an old steamer called Rita, captained by Lucas (Nestor Paiva).
Arriving at Maia’s camp, they discover his workers dead (we, the viewer, get to see the attack, where the Gill-Man is threatened and so fights back) and decide to stay on to look for more fossils. Reed suggests that some rock formations could have been washed downriver and Lucas tells them of the “Black Lagoon”, a paradise from which no-one has returned, at the end of the tributary they are on.  They set off, unaware the Gill-Man is watching them, as it’s spotted Kay and likes what he’s seen.

Once at the Lagoon, Reed and Williams go scuba-diving and pick up some samples and then, whilst they’re examining them, Kay goes for a swim and the Gill-Man stalks her, touching her feet with an almost gentle reverence. It then gets caught in the ships net but escapes, accidentally leaving behind a claw to reveal its existence.
After killing two of Lucas’ crew members, the Gill-Man is captured and locked in a cage on the Rita. It escapes and Reed decides that they should return to civilisation but the Gill-Man has other ideas and blocks the lagoon entrance with logs. As the crew attempt to move them, Williams is killed by the creature, who then abducts Kay to take back to his cave. Reed, Lucas and Maia follow, rescuing her and shooting the creature. He is last seen sinking slowly into the depths, presumed dead.

This is a terrifically entertaining film and I really enjoyed it. Ably directed by Jack Arnold (who made, amongst many others, It Came From Outer Space, Revenge Of The Creature, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Monster On The Campus, before moving into TV directing), this keeps up a good pace from the off, with only a couple of slower moments which mainly seem to do with the 3D experience.

The idea originated with William Alland, a close friend of Orson Welles and a member of his Mercury Theatre troupe.  While at a party at Welles’ in 1941, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about a race of mythical half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon River.  Alland wrote up notes for “The Sea Monster”, also inspired by Beauty And The Beast and Maurice Zimm expanded these into a treatment in 1952. The script, by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, keeps the scientific mumbo-jumbo to a minimum, though I could have done without the “Devonian period” and whilst it’s a fairly standard plot, the character interplay is sharp and bouncy.

The production design is terrific, with the main set being Rita in the lagoon and while we never see the whole area, you get the sense of the claustrophobia, which ramps up the suspense when the Gill-Man is on the prowl.  The above water scenes were shot at Universal City and various locations across California as well as Florida while the second unit worked underwater at Wakulla Springs in Florida.
The acting is, on the whole, pretty good with Nestor Paiva making the most of his character’s cheerful brashness to hold the screen whenever he’s on, whilst Richard Denning seems to relish his characters nastiness. Julie Adams, the beauty to the Gill-Man’s beast, is more than just decoration, holding her own even when - at times - she’s reduced to simply being the person who screams to alert the others. As for the Gill-Man himself, the two stuntmen who played him - Ben Chapman on land, in a darker suit and Ricou Browning underwater, in a lighter suit - aren’t credited in the film, which is a shame.  Chapman couldn’t sit down in the costume (and was on set for 14 hours a day) and overheated in it easily, so he often kept to the back lot lake between takes.
Mind your toes!
The underwater sequences, directed by James C Haven, are beautifully photographed, with the murky depths illuminated by shafts of sunlight that look spectacular. The film spends a good chunk of itsrunning time underwater, highlighting the differences in the worlds though some of the swim-pasts, though they probably looked great, feel like padding in 2D.

Of course, a monster movie lives or dies by the quality of its “star” and this doesn’t disappoint, introducing the Gill-Man early (well, he's plastered all over the advertising!).  He even gets his own theme - some jangling horns - and the first ‘shock’ reveal of him, underwater, is still quite unnerving today.
A big element of that is the fantastic suit, though it wasn’t without its disadvantages.  The visibilty in the headpiece was poor and, at one point, Chapman bashed Julie Adams’ head as he carried her into the cave.  For his part, Browning had to hold his breath for long periods of time so all the air had left the suit before he could move. Designed by Milicent Patrick, though Bud Westmore took the credit, the creature’s facial features were based on a frog, hence the bulging jowls as it breathes. With scales and fins and hands like a wicket keepers gloves, the suit looks superb - on land or in water - and still holds up well when viewed now (as it should, costing $12,000 back then).

This was originally shown in 3D (the director's House Of Wax, made the previous year, was also in 3D), as was the craze at the time but I’ve never seen it in that format and some of the ‘special dimensional effects’ get a bit wearing when watched in 2D. But as a quibble, it’s very minor.

The film was successful enough that two sequels followed - Revenge Of The Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
Creature From The Black Lagoon is a classic, giving the genre at least two highly iconographic images -the Gill-Man himself and the wonderful underwater swimming session with the lovely Julie Adams, sparkling in her white one-piece. What makes the character stronger is that, in the end, he’s a sympathetic creature -he’s only trying to protect himself and his environment from the deadly encroachment of men.

This is a cracking film and very highly recommended.

Monday, 30 November 2020

At Home In The Shadows, by Gary McMahon

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan (though I'm getting to it a little late, it was published last year).

Black Shuck Shadows presents a collectable series of micro-collections, intended as a sampler to introduce readers to the best in classic and modern horror.In At Home in the Shadows, McMahon offers five tales of homeowner horror.

I've long been a fan of Gary McMahon (he's featured on the blog a few times and I interviewed him here, earlier this year) and bought this book last year.  As per the series design, it's a handy little paperback that somehow slipped down the side of some other books and it was only during a sort-out at the weekend that I re-discovered it and tucked in.

The twelfth in the Black Shuck Shadows series (smartly beautiful mini-collections), this gathers five short stories from the always dependable Gary McMahon, and also serves as a perfect sampler for his fiction.  All feature houses in one form or another (and our ties to them, bad as often as good) and the sense of family, mostly as bits of it wither or collapse completely.  Text Found On A Defunct Website is good fun, an estate agents description that slips in depravity without warning while The Chair and The Table feature the same character at different stages in his life, coping with family breakdown and illness.  On The Walls, my favourite of the collection, features Jill, going to clear her childhood home following the death of her mother and discovering a painting on the wall that has supernatural powers.  Dark and oppressive, its focus on mundane details - a Travelodge, an affair, rain, peeling wallpaper - just gives the story more power.  Open House rounds out the collection with a house apparently striking back.  Cold and clinical, but a good eye for detail and the hurt a family can cause itself (however unintentionally), this is powerful horror fiction and I would highly recommend it.

For more information, Gary's website can be found here
Black Shuck Books can be found online here.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Ten Favourite Covers: The Three Investigators

Regular readers of the blog will know I'm a big fan of The Three Investigators series (I wrote a Nostalgic post about them, on the 50th anniversary in 2014, which you can read here) and am an avid collector of the various editions.

Since they were published over a long period of time, the books appeared in different formats.  Format a, which was printed between 1970 and 1979, coincided with me becoming a fan but format b (printed between 1980 and 1985) were the editions in print when I started collecting and so, for various reasons, remain my favourite.  In all cases, the wonderful artwork was by Peter Archer and I thought it would be a perfect subject for my occasional Ten Favourite Covers thread.

I hope, if you were a fellow fan, you see a favourite of your own here too…
format a, printed between 1971-1980
I wrote about the book here
format b, printed 1980 (never reprinted)
I wrote about the book here
format b, printed 1982 (never reprinted)
format b, printed between 1980-1985
I wrote about the book here
format b, printed between 1981-1983
I wrote about the book here
format b, printed between 1982-1983
I wrote about the book here
format b, printed between 1981-1982
I wrote about the book here
format a, printed between 1979-1980
I wrote about the book here
format a, printed (and reprinted) in 1980
I wrote about the book here
format b, printed between 1981-1982
I wrote about the book here

In December 2014, to help celebrate the 50th anniversary, I blogged my All Time Top 10 (which you can read here).

Back cover art from the format b paperbacks, by Peter Archer
Peter Archer was born in 1933 and in 1962 became part of the Collins pool of freelance and staff illustrators handling covers and internal artwork for their hardback and paperback books.  He worked on the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Three Investigators and Lone Pine Adventures, amongst many others and also contributed to Armada’s ‘Ghost Book’ series.

Primarily known later as one of the UK’s finest military painters, over the course of 40 years he was commissioned by many regiments and his work covered most major conflicts from Clive, East India Company 1757, right up to Afghanistan 2014, according to his official website.

Peter Archer passed away on 24th January 2018.  He’d been suffering with lung cancer.

My friend, Ian Regan (an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Three Investigator fan who, in addition to many other things, maintains the wonderful Cover Art Archive) was lucky enough to meet Mr Archer in 2017 and reported he was a very nice man who “found it extremely gratifying to discover that his work on children's books was still loved and adored all over the globe, almost forty years since that particular phase of his career ended. In his own words: "This is such fun!"”  Even better, Ian managed to get me Mr Archer’s autograph, in a copy of my favourite Three Investigators book.

See other Ten Favourite Cover posts here...

Ian Regan
The Three Investigator Cover Art Archive
Peter Archer Official website

Monday, 16 November 2020

Christmas Wishes, 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 thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel, Christmas Wishes, now available in paperback and as an e-book.
A sparkling Christmas read from the Sunday Times bestseller – perfect to snuggle up with this winter!

Hannah and Nico are meant to be together.

But fate is keeping them apart…

As soon as Hannah bumps into her brother Rob’s best friend Nico in Stockholm, the two rekindle a fast friendship. But Hannah has a boyfriend – and Nico has two children to look after.

When Hannah loses her beloved shop in Stockholm, though, she is forced to move back to the little village of Middledip – only to find Nico has just moved in too. Under the same snowy sky, can the childhood friends make a romance work – or are there too many obstacles standing in their way?

A heartwarming story of love, friendship, and Christmas magic, perfect for fans of Trisha Ashley and Jill Mansell.

With the pandemic still in full swing, Sue Moorcroft and I weren't able to have our regular get-together at The Trading Post (and oh, how I've missed that), but went virtual instead as we discussed her new novel.

MW:     First off, thanks for agreeing to the chat and coming back onto the blog, it’s always a treat to have a chat with you.  So, what can you tell us about the new book?

SM:     Always great to speak to you, too, Mark, even if, sadly, The Trading Post isn’t involved this time. In Christmas Wishes Hannah loses her lovely shop in Stockholm and her fink of a boyfriend becomes her ex, trying to cheat her in the process. Nico, who’s originally Swedish but lives in the UK, has to downshift with two kids to look after, an unsympathetic boss and Nico’s eating disorder aggravated by the stress. Hannah and Nico knew each other as teenagers and both find sanctuary in Middledip village. Their entwined stories takes them between cosy Middledip and snowy Sweden, influenced both by members of their lovely families and less-lovely non-family characters.

MW:    As ever, with your novels, the conflicts that drive the plot feel very real and very contemporary.  With Hannah maneuvered out of her business - and nearly swindled out of her money too - cash or the lack of it becomes a very emotive subject.  What made you choose it?

SM:     My first job out of college - my only full-time day job, to be honest - was in a bank. I worked closely with the lending team and learned how emotive money can be. Normally civilised people can be transformed when money’s at stake and Hannah’s ex, Albin, definitely falls into this category. It’s not even that he’s short of money! Maybe it’s that ‘money is power’ and he enjoys keeping Hannah dangling. I’m always interested by how businesses run, too. Small businesses become personal to their owners and it’s a deep grief when those businesses are lost or threatened.

MW:       Nico is a terrific character, who really gets put through the wringer in this.  What made you choose to have him suffer an eating disorder?

SM:     It’s usually women with eating disorders I read about and the people I know personally who admit to past eating disorders are also women. Then I heard retired Formula 1 star David Coulthard speaking about his bulimia as a teenager and how it was wrapped up in his need to be below a certain weight as an athlete. I felt conscious that I’m as guilty as anyone in assuming eating disorders to be the female preserve and so gave the issue to my hero, not my heroine. Just before the book was published Freddie Flintoff, cricket legend and now Top Gear presenter, came out about his own experiences with bulimia. The surprise with which this moving documentary was greeted made made me glad I’d decided to shine a light on the subject.

MW:    As always with your books, the level of research is exceptional, with a lot of information transferred to the reader without the piece becoming a travelogue.  What was the research process like for this one?

SM: My British-Swedish friend, author Christina Courtenay, said, ‘If you ever want to set a winter book in Sweden we could go together and stay with Mum.’ So that’s what we did. We talked about what my areas of interest would be and she put the whole trip together, including lining up people for me to talk to about ice hockey, people who’d emigrated to Sweden, an upmarket area of Stockholm called Östermalm and Swedish education. She booked everything except for the hotel in Stockholm. I did that and booked the wrong one. As well as being bilingual and better at making bookings, she’s knowledgeable about history so was the perfect tour guide. Her mum took us to an ice hockey match and furthered my education on the game, too. On non-Swedish subjects, much of my preliminary research is now kindly conducted by my brother Trevor. I email him a list of topics I need to know about or questions I need answering and he provides me with the reading matter or answers. It saves me a lot of time! I also consulted someone at a fostering agency and an HR expert (who also happens to be my niece, author Ella Allbright/Nikki Moore) and a nursery nurse (also my niece, Ashley Panter).

MW:    Fostering plays a key part, did you learn anything surprising during your research of it?

SM:     I suppose I thought that fostered children were always placed by the state when it was impossible for their parent/s to look after them. What I hadn’t appreciated is the number of less formal arrangements there are where family members and friends step in. They take the initiative in a time of need and then social agencies get involved to make sure it’s a viable situation. When I first conceived the idea that Nico and his ex-wife, Loren, would have had created Josie between them but Nico would also later look after Maria, Loren’s child by another man, I worried the situation would seem unlikely. I hadn’t realised Nico could be considered ‘kin’ to Maria even though she was born after his marriage to her mother was over. Kids being neglected grab headlines but I’m glad I was able to write about the other side, the wonderful people who step in out of the goodness of their hearts when a child is in trouble.

MW:    As a longtime reader of your work - and I know others are too - what can you tell me about the Middledip Bibles? You refer to them in the acknowledgements and dedication of Christmas Wishes. They’re something to do with your brother, too, aren’t they?

SM:     My first book set in Middledip was published in 2010 (Starting Over) so Christmas Wishes is ten years later and I began to lose a sense of continuity for recurring characters, although each book stands alone. I’d need to know how long Gabe had lived in the village or when Carola’s husband left her and have to flip through books trying to find the information. Trevor undertook the mammoth task of rereading all the novels set or partially set in Middledip and constructing a vast spreadsheet so I can now see at a glance when Tess and Ratty had a baby or Carola met Owen. He did a similar thing with places, such as the pub or shop, but there are fewer of those. We refer to these spreadsheets as ‘The Middledip Bibles’.
NB There’s a page for my Middledip books on my website here and a map to show where everybody lives.
NB2 Not all of my books are set in Middledip, or visit it, and details of all my writing can be found here.

MW:    As always, having now read Christmas Wishes and I'm keen for more, so what’s next for you?

SM:     I’m editing Under the Italian Sun, presently scheduled for publication in May 2021. It’s set in Umbria, Italy, as One Summer in Italy is - Montelibertà. I’m not sure where the idea came from but I wanted to write about someone who became aware that there was another person with a name that seemed linked with hers. Although she’s British, my heroine’s name is Zia-Lucia Costa Chalmers and she’s been told an Italian lady called Lucia Costa was kind to her, but she’s never known who she is. When Zia-Lucia discovers two birth and death certificates for her mother Victoria Chalmers, each bearing different dates, she looks for answers. Her starting point is searching for Lucia Costa. And does she find her? Yes, she does …

Thanks for inviting me for this virtual chat, Mark. Let’s hope real meet-ups are not too far in the future!

Sue Moorcroft is an international bestselling author and has reached the #1 spot on Kindle UK. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Published by HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by other publishers around the world.

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.