Monday, 21 April 2014

My friend Nick

Sometimes, I think, we don't talk enough about friends and what they mean to us, especially those that go back a long way in our lives.
detail of school photograph, Rothwell Juniors, 1977
with Nick on the left
I met Nick Duncan in September 1976, on the first day of junior school, just after my family had moved from Corby to Rothwell.  I don't know why Mrs Reid, our teacher, sat us next to each other - I didn't know absolutely anybody - but I'm really glad she did.  We became firm friends that day and, I'm happy to say, we still are.

Our friendship has been a bit of a rollercoaster at times but none of the 'downs' were that terrible with hindsight and most of the ups form the anecdotes of my life.  After school, he joined the RAF and moved away and that was a wrench, having to get used to a long-distance friendship.  This was in the late 80s and when we got bored of writing letters, we'd send each other taped messages - at least one side of a D90, occasionally padded out with new songs that we liked.  I still have some of them, though I haven't listened to one for years (just in case the tape snaps).  To this day, I've never quite got used to the distance - he now lives in Bristol - though that phrase, when you meet up again it's like you were never away, is entirely true.

Nick is my brother-from-another-mother and as kids, we spent so much time in each others houses that you often got fed by whichever Mum was in your orbit.  I was his Best Man, he was mine, he's Dude's godfather and - thankfully - he and Alison get on brilliantly well.

He hasn't had the best of times over the past couple of years and, on occasion, our friendship has really been tested - on both sides - but he's through it now, happier than I remember him being for a while and we're already planning adventures for the summer.

Today is his birthday.  I have known him for 38 years of his 45 and I hope we're best friends for at least the same amount again!

Off on a bike ride, 1987
Barnstaple, 2009


Market Harborough 2013

Happy birthday mate!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

From little acorns...

Stephen King has been on my mind the last few weeks, with my re-reading of "Carrie" (read my review here) and my essay up at Matthew Craig's excellent #CarrieAt40 thread (which you can read here).  Following yesterday's blog post, I was having a little Facebook discussion with Ross Warren, Anthony Cowin, Andrew Murray and Alison Littlewood and we started talking about our personal top 10 favourite King books.  Then I posted this...

Here's an idea - Ross, Anthony, Andrew, Alison - how about next year, we declare it a Stephen King year. Twelve of us, we each pick one book and then blog a review/essay on it and link back to each others blog.  What do you think?

"More reviews?  Really?"
Well, they all thought it was a very good idea whilst I was wondering whether or not I could get twelve people interested enough in the project to take part.  Turns out, that wasn't something I should have worried about at all as within an hour, I'd filled all twelve spots with people who'd asked to be involved.

Ross made the suggestion of rather than hosting it on various sites, we have a dedicated blog for the reviews so I set one up and Willie Meikle gave it the perfect title "King For A Year".  I asked a few more people if they'd like to take part, yet more people came forward of their own volition and by the end of last night, I'd filled 24 spots.  As I write this now, we have 36 reviewers.

Alison later tweeted me "from little acorns..." and I'm really pleased that the idea of the blog has taken off so well.  The concept of it is very simple - you pick your favourite King book (novel, novella, whatever) and write a review of it and all of them will be posted throughout the year in 2015.

Some reviews you might agree with, some you probably won't but hopefully they'll lead the reader to some new titles they haven't tried before.

I hope you, dear blog reader, will dip in and out to see what people have to say about "the bloke who writes the scary stuff" and I hope it entertains you.  I'll remind you nearer the time when it's about to start but for the moment, the blog is up with a holding page here - http://kingreviews2015.blogspot.co.uk/

And just to whet your appetite further, here's the list of confirmed reviewers (so far):

Anthony Cowin, Stephen Bacon, Jenny Barber, Matthew Craig, Donna Bond, Mihai Adascalitei, Willie Meikle, Maura McHugh, Gary McMahon, Sarah Langan, James Everington, Selina Lock, Adele Wearing, John Llewellyn Probert, Lynda E. Rucker, Mark West, Kim Talbot Hoelzli, Jay Eales, Thana Niveau, Alison Littlewood, Phil Sloman, Steven Savile, Ray Cluley, Johnny Mains, Liz Barnsley, Jim Mcleod, James Bennett, Carole Johnstone, Andrew Murray, Cate Gardner, K. T. Davies, Ross Warren ,Sheri White, Colin F. Barnes, Simon Bestwick, Richard Chizmar


I'm looking forward to this...

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Carrie At 40

Further to my review of "Carrie" (which I blogged here), my essay on the novel has now gone live at Matthew Craig's readerdad.co.uk site as part of his Carrie At 40 celebrations.

I was pleased to be asked, pleased to be in such sterling company and very pleased that I finally got round to reading Stephen King's first published novel.

You can read my essay at Matthew's site here.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Unquiet House, by Alison Littlewood

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that 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.


Mire House is dreary, dark, cold and infested with midges. But when Emma Dean inherits it from a distant relation, she immediately feels a sense of belonging. 

It isn’t long before Charlie Mitchell, grandson of the original owner, appears claiming that he wants to seek out his family. But Emma suspects he’s more interested in the house than his long-lost relations. 
And when she starts seeing ghostly figures, Emma begins to wonder: is Charlie trying to scare her away, or are there darker secrets lurking in the corners of Mire House?

The house was built for love, but love never came to fill it.  Something else did...

The book opens with Emma, who has just lost both of her parents and inherited Mire House from an uncle - Clarence Mitchell - she never knew.  Bereft and alone, she embraces the challenge of setting up a new house, seeing it as a way to escape the past and start again.  Occasionally prone to light flights of fantasy - she remembers her Mum saying “You’re being fanciful, Emma” - she is disturbed to find an old suit and pipe in a cupboard in her bedroom, which always seem to be there, even after she’s thrown them away.  Mire House is next door to a rundown church and when she explores it, she meets Frank before going out to investigate the graveyard.  Under an old Yew tree, she finds a bench with an inscription - “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?  Matthew 27:46”  Then she hears voices and sees things in Mire House that she can’t explain and it seems as though something from the past might be reaching out to take her hand.

The book is told in four parts, with the bookends being the Emma sequences which are both set in 2013.  Part 2 - 1973 focusses on Frank Watts (the man from the church), who is 11.  Investigating Mire House, Frank meets Mr Owens, who lives there alone, sitting in the drawing room all day in his old suit, smoking a pipe as he mourns his lost wife.  Striking up an odd friendship, this is shattered when Franks friend Sam - who’s 12 and manipulative and sly - persuades him to steal something from the house, threatening Frank’s younger brother Mossy.  What happens after this is genuinely heartbreaking on several levels and I felt like I had a bit of dust in my eye.

“Part 3 - 1939 The Last Stook” is the story of Aggie, Frank’s Mum, who is 16 years old and living in the farm just up the road from Mire House.  There’s a tangible air of sadness to this section, for the doomed Mrs Hollingworth who is having Mire House built and also for Aggie’s brother and friends who are called up to the war that is just starting.  With the ‘second’ Mrs Hollingworth taking in evacuees - amongst them a very young Clarence Mitchell - Aggie begins to see a dark woman in the cemetery, under the Yew tree and this vision leads to another terrible, gut-wrenching conclusion.

The separate sections are vivid and full of life, easily standing as independent novellas and while this style works wonderfully for the book - and immerses the reader completely in the well-realised times - it’s also my one area to quibble, that we spend so long away from Emma (almost 300 pages) it takes a while to get back into her rhythm.  Having said that, part four works beautifully, setting up a painfully poignant note before moving swiftly and with complete assurance to an unexpected - and frightening - conclusion.

“The Unquiet House” is filled with writing that is assured and stylish, with barely a word wasted and long sequences take place without any dialogue, adding to the sense of unease and melancholy that the novel seems to exude.  With some nice touches - most of the dialogue is written as dialect, which is interesting - a keen sense of location and atmosphere - the house, the mire and the church are characters unto themselves - and a nicely deliberate pace that keeps you on the edge, this is told with verve by a writer spreading her wings and surely taking off for ever greater success.  Dark and spooky, with touches of humour and a knowing sense of family life and dynamics, this is an excellent novel and I highly recommend it.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Mystery Of The Screaming Clock, by Robert Arthur

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1969 and 1971), cover art by Roger Hall
A room full of clocks and they all scream…why?

A new mystery for Jupiter, Pete and Bob to unravel but they haven’t much to go on - a torn message in code, a recording of Bert Clock’s glass-shattering scream and the theft of several valuable paintings - a thin collection of clues and time is running out…

A great illustration inside Headquarters,
as Bob, Jupe and Pete try to crack Bert
Clock's riddles
Sorting through some junk that Uncle Titus has just brought in, Jupe plugs in an electric clock and it screams at him, bringing his colleagues running.  Deciding that a screaming clock is a good start to a mystery, the boys try to track down where it came from and the trail leads them to the home of Bert Clock, once a voice-actor on radio famous for his ear-piercing screams.  But Clock has gone, presumed dead, leaving his house cared for by Mrs Smith and her son Harry.  Harry's father is in prison, jailed for a theft he didn't commit and when an old adversary of the Three Investigators - not to mention a handful of ruthless criminals - enters the picture, it suddenly seems that the clock might hold clues to not only his innocence but to lost treasures too.  The boys, with Harry's help, must solve Bert Clock's riddles before time runs out!

With a fantastic opening line - “The clock screamed” - this is a great story and whilst not as sensational as other entries in the series, it is thoroughly entertaining.  Playing to Robert Arthur's strengths, this sticks resolutely close to home (following the trip to Varania in the previous book) and takes full advantage of the Junkyard, Headquarters and the sunny climes of Rocky Beach and Los Angeles.  Arthur plots a solid mystery and the boys detecting skills are showcased perfectly, though some of the clues do seem to rely heavily on chance.  Characterisation is first rate and it’s good to see Hugenay again (after “The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot” - it’s a shame he never appeared again), though his adversary Mr Jeeters is a surprisingly nasty piece of work (especially with the threats he makes to Jupiter and Bob).  As always with Arthur, there's a tinge of poignant nostalgia (in this case, the golden-era of radio plays) but that gives the story a bit more heart.  With some well written action sequences, nice interplay with the lads and two footnotes to previous cases, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read and definitely one of the better entries in the series.  Highly recommended. 


the Armada paperbacks, both with cover art by Peter Archer
left - format a, printed between 1971 and 1979 - right - format b, printed between 1980 and 1985

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Friday, 11 April 2014

Goodbye Sue Townsend, RIP

Late last night, Sue Townsend passed away at her home following a short illness.  She hailed from Leicester (sequences of the original Adrian Mole TV show were filmed there) and although I never got to meet her (I wish I had), her writing really spoke to me.  I read "The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4" in 1983, when I was thirteen - and it was brilliant, funny, sad and a work of genius (plus it had the lovely Pandora Braithwaite).

There's nothing else to say except that in 2012, as part of the Adrian Mole 30th anniversary, I re-read the original novel and it's sequel and went to an exhibition of her papers at the University of Leicester with Dude and our friend David Roberts.  And since she was a great writer, maybe that's the best memorial we can give her, to remember the joy of reading that she gave us (and think of all those people who picked up this book as the first one they chose for themselves, leading them - perhaps - to a lifetimes joy of the written word).

The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, aged 13 ¾
Starting in 1981, this follows Adrian Mole from being the eponymous age to his fifteenth birthday, detailing every incident in his life over that period.

I first read this in 1983 (making me the same age as Mole - in the book, he mentions that his father is 41 making me 2 years older as I re-read it) and it’s just as bright, inventive and funny today as I remember it being back then.  From his complete self-absorption - he faithfully reports on his parents marriage breakdown, without realising what’s going on - to his obsession with spots, from his trying friendships to first love with the enigmatic and beautiful Pandora Braithwaite, this is as accurate a portrayal of a teenaged boy as I can remember reading (I’ve kept a diary since 1981 and sometimes Adrian’s entries could have been lifted my mine).

Funny, poignant and never less than readable, this is highly recommended.

The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole
Picking up the day after “The Secret Diary” ended, this volume contains plenty of turmoil in Adrian’s life - his mum and Stick Insect are both pregnant, which leads to the break-up of his parents marriage, there’s paternity issues on his sister Rosie (rat fink Lucas maintains she is his), his relationship with Pandora hits the rocks and he briefly ends up in Baz’s street gang, before running away to Manchester.

Slightly darker in tone than the first volume - the Falklands War is dealt with well - Adrian’s typical self-absorption means that it’s up to the reader to put together what’s happening and that helps the story well.

Still a lot of fun - with the added bonus to me that there are several references to my locale, namely on a Skegness holiday, their friend comes from Corby and one of Adrian’s letters is delayed when the mail train gets derailed in Kettering - this is a cracking read and very much recommended.

The following photo's were taken by David and myself at the University of Leicester, 27th October 2012.
originally called Nigel Mole
Wonderful artwork
Introducing a new audience...


RIP, Sue Townsend, you will be missed.


source - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-26982680

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Dude and those little moments...

I think it’s fairly obvious to most people who know me that I love fatherhood - Dude & I have a great relationship and I treasure it deeply.  He’s nine this year and I don’t know where the time’s gone, to be honest, but he’s managed to grow up to become a sharp, funny, caring, adventurous kid.

Some things are lifted straight from me & Alison - in his own words, he’s an “80s kid” when it comes to music (a teacher at his school played “Living On A Prayer” during a music lesson and he was the only one who knew the words) - but he has clearly defined tastes of his own and it’s intriguing to see what he likes and dislikes.

One thing that hasn’t changed is our shared love of adventures, from the train-chasing of a few years back, to the bike rides and exploring now.  Last night, I got home late from work and needed to get a new bicycle pedal but he looked crestfallen when I said we might not be able to go for a bike ride.  So we raced to Kettering, were in and out of Halfords in record time and managed to get on our ride (even if it was slightly abridged).  When we got home, as twilight was gathering, he wanted to play football so we had a kickabout in the garden (we call our variation of the beautiful game "Dudeball" because it has - shall we say - fairly elastic rules).

I stood on the patio and watched him as night came in and the ball got harder and harder to see.  Most of the time we were laughing but occasionally he’d ask me to show him something - to improve his headers, or watch his high kicks - and I looked at him and realised this was one of those moments.

You know those moments - we all get them - the ones where, when you look back, they take on a significance out of proportion with what you’re actually seeing.  I was watching an eight year old kid trying to kick his football as high as he could and laughing when it disappeared past my outstretched fingers and over next doors fence.  That was the reality but I was also watching an eight year old boy, playing with simple delight and making his mid-forties Dad feel vibrant and alive and young-at-heart.

I love being a Dad and I love my Dude, though I do often wish that time would slow down, even if just a little bit...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Carrie, by Stephen King

As astonishing as it might sound, Saturday 5th April marked the 40th anniversary of "Carrie" being published.  For various reasons, it was one of King's novels that I'd never got round to reading so when I was approached by Matthew Craig (http://readerdad.co.uk) to take part in his Carrie At 40 celebrations, I decided now was as good a time as any.

My article on the book will appear on Matthew's site on Wednesday 16th April (don't worry, I'll remind you...), but in the meantime, to celebrate the occasion, here's my review of Stephen King's debut published novel.

N.E.L. paperback (1986 edition)
“Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.”

“Carrie” is a deceptively simple novel, told in an epistolary format that takes in accounts from academic textbooks, a commision report and Sue Snell’s autobigraphy (“My Name Is Sue Snell”, published in 1986) and set in the then near-future of 1979 (though I couldn’t work out why).  There are no chapter breaks but the book is broken into three parts.

Part 1 – Blood Sport opens on Carrietta White, who has lived her life abused not only at home (by her unstable, religious zealot mother Margaret) but also by virtually everyone she comes into contact with, from classmates, to passers-by and teachers.  Carrie is 16 and, to everyone’s disbelief, is experiencing her first period, which terrifies her.  Not quite understanding why, her classmates taunt and jeer at her, throwing tampons and sanitary towels at her (“Plug it up, plug it up!”) to cover their own disgust.  Her teacher, Miss Desjardins (perhaps the most sympathetic adult in the book), tries to help but Carrie is sent home where her mother beats her, locking her away to pray for forgiveness.  But the start of menstruation seems to have also unlocked a latent talent in Carrie (which she has been able to harness, briefly, in the past) for Telekinesis.  As her classmates are put into detention, one of them - a bully called Chris Hargensen - plots revenge and the course of the story is set in that one moment, with everything afterwards leading inexorably to destruction.

Sue Snell, another classmate who was involved in yelling “Plug it up!” feels terrible about the incident and asks her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom.  And this act of simple friendship and making amends, seals their fate.

Part 2 - Prom Night.  Chris and her greaser boyfriend Billy Nolan go to a local farm and kill two pigs, collecting their blood and placing it in buckets over the stage.  They rig the vote for Carrie and Tommy to win “Prom King & Queen” and as they sit on their thrones, all hell literally breaks loose.

Part 3 - Wreckage, follows the devastation that comes to the town once Carrie has left the Prom.  I won’t give away what happens but since the ending is alluded to through the course of the book, it’s safe to say that Carrie makes her feelings of injustice felt and no-one is safe.

King himself has commented that he finds the book to be "raw" and "with a surprising power to hurt and horrify” and I’d agree, it’s a harsh novel that looks at high school life with an eye for the viciousness that’s present in everyone (King was teaching at the time, so we can assume he was writing what he saw).  He paints the outsider well, the desperate need to close in on yourself as the world gathers around you, joking and taunting and life seems full of things that you don’t quite understand.

Sue Snell is essentially good and does what she does for the right reasons, though she pays the price of losing her boyfriend and his unborn child.  Tommy is a good kid, a jock with heart who isn’t actually hurt by Carrie though I found it troubling that she spent the last part of the novel thinking that he’d set her up.  The real horror, though, is in the characters of Chris and Billy.  She is very manipulative, using sex to get what she wants but in Nolan she’s finally met her match, since he’s not one of the frat boys who will roll over and do everything she wants him to.  In fact, I think he’s the real monster of the story and his casual violence is key to that.  On nights when his Mum and her latest boyfriend are arguing, he takes off cruising for stray dogs, later putting his car away with “its front bumper dripping”.

But everything, of course, centres around Carrie.  In my minds eye she looks, obviously, like Sissy Spacek but that’s not the picture King paints.  His Carrie is “a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her (wet) hair completely without colour.  She looked the part of the sacrificial goat, the constant butt” and at one point, she “looked around bovinely”.  She wants to get on with her life and fit in, she craves for normality and tries to be rebellious but nothing ever really seems to work.  Her menstruation not only brings her powers to a level she can control, it also opens the world up to her a little more, even if it’s just teasing glimpses.  She feels stronger, she takes a stand with her mother but part of the novels cruelty is that she never quite achieves what she wants to.  It changes her though and other characters, as well as the reader, sees this.  When Tommy asks her out, she seems different and he can’t quite work it out and when he goes to pick her up (in a beautifully written moment), she seems comfortable in her own body for once.

Margaret White looms over the whole book, cruelly abusive and living in fear of God in a house chock full of gruesome religious imagery.  Adding to the overall feel of unease are little throwaway moments that impact heavily, from Margaret’s actions to Billy Nolan and his dripping bumper.  There’s also a quick line about a character seeing a drunk in New York, saddled with a goitre who is leading away by the hand a little girl with a bloody nose and I found that image heartbreaking.

King is quoted as saying of the book “it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom."  As a seasoned horror reader, coming to this fresh, I would say that it’s a pretty damned good cookie.

Strikingly well written, with a wonderfully tight plot that runs like clockwork as the pieces fall into place, this is a terrific read that I wish I hadn’t waited forty years to get to.  Very highly recommended.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Three Peanuts collections, from Coronet

Following on from my post a fortnight ago for Tracy, about Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts, I thought I'd blog reviews of the three Coronet paperbacks that I've recently read.

Although Coronet wasn't the only Peanuts publisher in the UK, it's the one I most associate with them since it's the run that Tracy collected (I think at least two or three titles were published a year, if not more) and in the past few years (thanks to car boot sales, 2nd hand bookshops and ebay), I've started building my own collection too (as, in a nice touch, has Dude).

I read four or five titles a year and they're great - funny and enjoyable in their own right, but also because they bring with them a wonderful sense of nostalgia.

How Does She Do That, Charlie Brown? by Charles M. Schulz
Another excellent collection, this time selected from “You’re Weird Sir, volume 2”, it was published in 1985 (I read the 1988 Coronet edition), though the originals date back to 1981.  Featuring most of the gang, with a fairly well spread level of exposure, this is often laugh-out-loud funny and also contains several of those trademark Schulz moments of poignancy (Charlie Brown, alone in the rain, at the baseball field).  Highlights for me include trying to find Woodstock’s mum and his response to Snoopy wondering if he’s a dove, Lucy sulking in her beanbag, Snoopy as a lift operator, the Masked Marvel playing golf, Woodstock discovering Atlantis at the bottom of Snoopy’s waterdish, Lucy floating away with bubblegum, a bug sportsday in Snoopy’s waterdish, Sally worrying about school, “Dogs can do lots of things that birds can’t do!” and Linus’ splinter.  There’s also a wonderful panel, of Snoopy and Charlie Brown sitting in a beanbag, that is just perfect.  Wonderfully witty, funny and occasionally melancholic but with a really grand spirit, this is one of the better collections and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Stay With It, Snoopy, by Charles M. Schulz
A top quality collection, selected from “Summer’s Fly, Winter’s Walk, vol 3”, I have the 1981 Coronet edition though the originals appeared between 1976 and 1977.  Set in the run-up to - and just after - Christmas, this features most of the gang enjoying the season and captures the spirit of it well.  Often very funny, it also has a few splashes of the melancholy that Charlie Brown often brings to the proceedings (he wants to see Lucy at her psychiatry booth but it’s too cold for her, so he talks to her stand-in snowman instead).  The highlights for me include Snoopy and Woodstock talking about Thanksgiving (Woodstock pretends to be a dog), Snoopy and Woodstock in the snow, Sally’s letter to Father Christmas, Peppermint Patty’s book report, Snoopy’s present of a trilby from Sally (the cover image), Snoopy’s morning after Woodstock’s New Years Eve party (“I didn’t fall in love, I drank too much ginger beer and I feel thirty years older”), Snoopy’s Cheshire beagle trick (that goes wrong) and Linus meeting up with Truffles again (and the helicopter escape, with Snoopy and Woodstock).  Warmly nostalgic, pitch perfect, funny and poignant and immensely readable, this is a great collection and I highly recommend it.

You're A Brave Man, Charlie Brown, by Charles M. Shulz
I hadn’t planned on reading another Peanuts book for a while but Dude finished this last night and loved it so much he suggested I read it straight away.  I’m glad I took his advice.  With selected cartoons from “You Can Do It, Charlie Brown, vol 2”, this 1970 Coronet edition (we read the 1975 seventh impression) features strips that were originally published in 1962 and 1963 and it’s a superb read.  It’s very amusing (there are a couple of Snoopy related incidents that made me laugh), there’s plenty of Charlie Brown’s melancholy to ground it and since this was written before Peppermint Patty appeared, we get other good characters, like Violet and Patty and Frieda (with her “naturally curly hair”).  The book starts at Christmas, as the kids think about the season - Lucy’s letter to Santa is amusing, her complaint that the years go by too fast echoes my own thoughts - and there’s a lovely moment (the panel is inscribed “Merry Christmas”) where Charlie Brown leaves a turkey in Snoopy’s bowl.  Highlights for me include Linus’ ‘blanket-hating’ grandma, the ethics of baseball - and supporting Charlie brown, the latch of Snoopy’s kennel breaking, Linus and the cattle business, plus what happens when he misses the honor roll, the joys of a new baseball season, Mrs Van Pelt getting a new pool table (with a tangerine coloured cloth) and Snoopy and the spider (Dude’s favourite strip in the book).
My favourite strip was Sally, being introduced to the concept of libraries by Charlie Brown - “Happiness is having your own library card!”  Wonderfully nostalgic, superbly written and drawn, funny, poignant and memorable, this is a terrific collection and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A full list of the Peanuts paperbacks from Coronet Books can be found at Goodreads on this link and my Goodreads reviews of the same can be found on this link.

The back covers
left to right - Stay With It Snoopy cost 75p in 1981 whilst How Does She Do That, Charlie Brown? cost £1.95 in 1988

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror, by M. V. Carey

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1975 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall

A harsh noise inside the darkened hall made Jupiter turn.  He could see nothing.

Something laughed.  A greenish light flickered in the library, and suddenly Jupiter found himself staring down through the doorway and into the hideous mirror.  He saw grey, matted hair, a face whiter than death, and wide, green, glittering, mocking eyes.  Jupiter froze with horror - IT WAS THE GHOST!
illustration from the Collins/Armada
editions by Roger Hall

On their way home from a buying trip with Uncle Titus, The Three Investigators see the Rolls Royce they use standing outside a grand house.  When a burglar runs out, pursued by Worthington, Pete gives chase but the criminal escapes.  The house belongs to Mrs Darnley, a grand Dame who collects mirrors and, having heard of the boys, takes them on a tour of the mansion which was built for Drakestar, a very well known magician.  Her latest acquisition, stored in the library, is the Goblin Glass, an ugly framed mirror that once belonged to a Spanish magician named Chiavo, who lived in Madrid two hundred years ago.  But now sinister laughter is heard in the library whilst the house is asleep and Mrs Darnley has seen the glowing ghost of Chiavo in the mirror.

I think this, the fourth book in the series by M. V. Carey, is a great addition and it’s one of my favourites because it buys into its premise so completely, with a ghost in a mirror, a thunderstorm and a house built for a long-dead magician.  Of course, if you don’t go in for that kind of all-or-nothing pulpy approach, your mileage may vary but who can resist a scary looking “goblin glass” which appears to be cursed by an embittered sorcerer?

The atmosphere is well handled - especially the sequences in the Darnley household with the library and the sense of mirrors -  and her use of location is very good.  In fact, the book dots around Los Angeles quite a bit - an old farmhouse, a hotel on Beverly & Sunset, a pier and warehouse at San Pedro - but still finds time for Headquarters, which Carey always deals so well with.

Although Mrs Darnley and her grandchildren Jean & Jeff get a little short-changed, there’s some great characterisation, including a prize quote from Worthington - “Master Pete prefers to avoid unnecessary vexation” - and Henry Adnerson, a bakery delivery driver, is well handled.  It was also nice to have a cameo from Dr Barrister, who appeared in ‘The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent’, though I was surprised that the calling card isn’t used (or, at least, not shown to the reader - did that happen in any of the other books?)  The ending, with Jupe using Sherlock-Holmes-level detecting skills to find a kidnapped Jeff is well handled with plenty of tension and capped by a wonderful ‘what did he see?’ moment where the kidnapper has a surprise (though the denouement following this is lumbered with overlong exposition).

With top notch writing and some nicely spooky sequences, a smart mystery and a cracking pace, this is a fun read and highly recommended.

left - Collins Hardback Second Edition (printed in 1979 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
right - Armada format A paperback (printed and reprinted in 1979 only), cover art by Peter Archer

Armada format B paperback (printed in 1981 and reprinted in 1982), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent, by M. V. Carey

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1973 and never reprinted ), cover art by Roger Hall
(note Bob's tassled waistcoat!)
The Three Investigators stole across the shadowy patio.  Jupiter held a held aside and looked into the dining room.

Then they heard the sound.  It was faint at first - a soft throbbing.  A singing sound, yet in no way was it a song.  It was high and piercing, then a low murmur.  It wavered - then burst forth in hideous gurgling waves.

The Three Investigators listened in mounting panic.

Collins Hardback Second Edition (1975-1978)
which appears to have as its spine image
Pete falling off the wall at Torrente Canyon
It appears that Jupiter Jones might have met his match in Allie Jamison, a smart and independent girl who lives in a mansion up the road from the Jones Salvage Yard.  With her parents away in Europe, she’s being looked after by her Aunt Pat, but there’s a new house guest too, the mysterious Hugo Ariel.  And when a bizarre singing noise is heard - driving away the maid - Allie hires The Three Investigators to find out just what is going on.  They quickly discover that Aunt Pat has become involved in a religious fellowship, run by the mysterious Dr Shaitan from a house on Torrente Canyon and it’s up to the boys and Allie to uncover the truth behind it all before someone gets badly hurt.

This is the second M. V. Carey entry in the series and it’s one of my very favourite stories, as the boys team up with the fiercely strong and independent Allie Jamison (who would re-appear in Carey’s “The Mystery Of Death Trap Mine”).  Allie's Aunt Pat is an odd type who’s a member of the “Fellowship of the Lower Circle”, along with Hugo Ariel.  Allie is very suspicious of him and his motives and gets the boys to investigate.  At the Jamison's home (hiding on the patio, surrounded by wisteria), they witness one of the ritual meetings, where the cult invokes the power of Belial, who appears in smoke as a serpent that sings a hideous song (and this is very well described, making for an eerie scene).

There are some great set pieces - breaking and entering the butlers flat (the first time I think Jupe deliberately breaks the law) and the bombing of the deli - but the key one is when the foursome infiltrate the cult’s mansion on Torrente Canyon. Gripping and tense, with a real sense of location and some great descriptions, this works brilliantly.  Helping the overall tone of the book is that a lot of the action takes place at twilight or after dark and there’s a real sense of adventure to it.  There are also some nice observations about why people join cults and the power of belief that are sharply written and in keeping with future Carey stories, where she touches upon real phenomenon and deals with it effectively.

Following a conversation with Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus, it transpires that Miss Osborne collects movie memorabilia - this drives her element of the plot - and she remembers Jupe from his Baby Fatso days, which doesn’t please him.  “The world’s youngest has-been,” said Pete with a smile.  In fact, there’s quite a bit of humour and Pete has a good role (often to the detriment of Bob, unfortunately), as he develops a good, protective but bickering relationship with Allie.  Worthington also has a good-sized role and proves his mettle once more and there’s clever work to involve the business card and question marks into the story (since Allie doesn’t need to see them).

Great fun, a cracking read, with well developed characterisation and a pace that never flags, this is highly recommended.

Armada format A paperback, printed between 1976 and 1980, cover art by Peter Archer.
There was no format B edition.
There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition (paperback, at least) as far as I’m aware which is a shame, since there are some set pieces that would be ably served by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Drive - cover reveal and pre-order info

As readers of this blog will know (this post has a brief excerpt), Pendragon Press are publishing my novella "Drive" and launching it at Edge-Lit 3, held at the Derby Quad, on Saturday 19 July 2014.

Things are moving forward apace and I'm pleased to be able to share the cover with you.  I'm pretty chuffed with it (though, to be fair, I designed it so it'd be a poor show if I wasn't...)


The novella now has its own page on the Pendragon Press website and is available for pre-order.  Click this link for more information.

The paperback will cost £4.99 and be limited to 100 copies.  It will also include a bonus chapter and an afterword, neither of which will be available in the ebook edition.

As ever, more details as I get them.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Bad Medicine

Last year, I saw a short film called "Ascension" (and blogged about it here) that I was thoroughly impressed with.  It was written by my old friend Dave Jeffery (the original short story appeared in "Alt-Dead", which I also had a story in) and directed by James Underhill Hart and I interviewed them both for the blog (which you can read here).

Through their Venomous Little Man production company, they're planning to make "Bad Medicine", a feature film anthology and in order to raise funds, they've set up a Kickstarter (and I've pledged to it).

This is the press release.


 A chance to be a part of the UK Independent Film Industry as a project from Birmingham-based award-winning team seeks investors


Birmingham-based film company Venomous Little Man (“VLM”) are looking for investors for their next project, as they prepare to shoot and produce their next motion picture.

With filming scheduled to start in April in and around Birmingham, “Bad Medicine” was written by award-winning author Dave Jeffery, and is the follow-up to the highly successful “Ascension”, which scooped the “Best Director” gong at the 2013 Bram Stoker Film Festival for seasoned producer James Hart.

It is no coincidence that some of the actors who worked on VLM’s previous film have not hesitated to sign up again for this next thrilling project. Based on the praise that “Ascension” received, they have all jumped at the chance to be part of what promises to be another “scarily-good” film.

Both Jeffery and Hart have enlisted a stellar cast for “Bad Medicine”, which includes Barbie Wilde (writer, actress, Scream Queen and the lady Cenobite from "Hellraiser"), Paul Zenon (TV Street Magician), Derek Melling (Ascension, Inbred, The Electrician), Laurence Saunders (Ascension, Deadtime, The Seasoning House, The Village, EastEnders, Doctors),  Tom So (Casino Royale, Sherlock, Being Human), Anthony Miles (Quizmaster, Blood and Bone China) and Mark Rathbone (Ascension, Australia, Inbred, Cradle of Fear). The brilliant Jacky Fellows (“Doreen” and “6 Seconds To Die”) has also signed., along with  Jack Bailey (“It’s OK to be Ginger”, “A la carte”, and “The Well Dressed Man”.)

“Bad Medicine” will be edited by Richard O’Connor; as the prime editor on award-winning “Ascension”, O’Connor has extensive experience in lighting and stage design and an impressive history of theatre.

VLM are looking for investors to help raise the £35,000 it will cost to fund the production of the film. Investment can start from as little as £1, although bigger outlay will understandly result in greater rewards. Every person or organisation who donates will receive something for their commitment - from a special mention on the credit list of the final movie to VIP tickets to the first screenings, or an opportunity to meet the entire cast and crew at the premiere after-party.

The film is scheduled to be launched at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema in May 2015.

The Kickstarter Brief
Anyone who remembers the classic horror anthologies such as ASYLUM, with Robert Powell and Peter Cushing, or King and Romero’s CREEPSHOW will have an idea of what VLM Productions is hoping to achieve with its next project. BAD MEDICINE is a psychological horror film that contains five stories – or segments – united by a wraparound story. The film is set in a modern day mental health unit where a therapist is holding a group therapy session. Five participants each recount their story in the hope the therapist can resolve their trauma and help them to move on. But what happens if the therapist is not what he seems and has something far more sinister in mind for his patients?

The project will be shot in five phases. The first installment, Tainted Love, is expected to shoot in late April, 2014.

Your donations will help to hire professional crew and equipment, industry standard sound, make up and FX artists to ensure that what ends up on screen is of high quality and reflective of the standards an audience expects from a film on a big screen. There will also be a heavy emphasis on practical creature FX as seen in seminal movies such as AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THE THING.


As a project, we at VLM Productions are excited at the prospect of revisiting the classic kind of storytelling that has made shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT and OUTER LIMITS such a long lasting success. We believe that quality filming making from an award winning company BAD MEDICINE will resonate with any member of the audience who wants more from their movie experience than cheap make up and violence.


For more information on how to be a part of this exciting new project, simply visit VLM’s Kickstarter project page (linked from here) or visit www.venomouslittleman.co.uk

VLM can also be found on Twitter and Facebook

For more information contact
James Hart (Director)                                                            Dave Jeffery (Writer)
Tel:         07795 556302                                                             Tel: 07817 863324

Friday, 21 March 2014

Nostalgic for my childhood - Snoopy, Charlie Brown & Peanuts

Last year, I started a thread on the blog that I called “Nostalgic for my childhood” (you can see a round-up at this link, or use the label), covering books and films and various things that I remember fondly  It’s a thread I'm continuing and this is one of those posts, though it’s nostalgic for me in a slightly more oblique way.

Tracy, me and her Snoopy
When I was growing up, Snoopy was a big part of my life since my sister, Tracy, loved him.  Through her, I read the books and watched the films and saw the toys and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed sharing something with her.  Sadly, Tracy passed away in 2003.  A few years back, I was in a second hand bookshop and picked up a couple of the Coronet Peanuts collections for a couple of quid.  Reading them again, after a break of years, was a delight - I enjoyed the artwork, the comedy and the pathos as much as if I was just discovering it for the first time, but there was also this wonderful nostalgic tinge, this nod to the past of two kids sitting in the garden, reading those Coronet paperbacks and laughing and sharing the joke.  Since then, I’ve collected a lot more and now Dude has started reading them too, which makes me feel very good.

So to that end, since today is Tracy’s birthday, I’m going to talk about Peanuts.

Charles M. (Monroe) Schulz was born in Minneapolis in 1922, an only child who liked to draw and sold a picture of his dog Spike (who ate pins and tacks) to “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” magazine in 1937.  His drawings were rejected by his high school year book though the school in question - Central High - had a five-foot tall statue of Snoopy placed in the main office sixty years later.  His mother Dena, to whom he was very close, died of cancer in 1943 and not long after, Schulz was drafted into the army where he saw active service at the end of the war.  In 1951, he married Joyce Halverson and they had four children together, as well as an adopted daughter, moving to Santa Rosa, Califorina, in 1969, where he lived and worked.  The Schulzes divorced in 1972 and in 1973 he married Jean Clyde, a union that lasted until his death.

In the 1980s, Schulz complained of a shaking in his hand that sometimes got so bad “I have to hold my wrist to draw”, which was diagnosed as an essential tremor.  In November 1999, he suffered several small strokes and it was later discovered he had colon cancer that had metastasized and as he could neither read or see clearly and was undergoing chemotherapy, he announced his retirement on December 14th 1999.  When asked if, in the final strip, Charlie Brown would finally get to kick the football, he said “Oh no!  Definitely not! I couldn't have Charlie Brown kick that football; that would be a terrible disservice to him after nearly half a century.”  However, in a later interview, he is quoted as saying “'You know, that poor, poor kid, he never even got to kick the football. What a dirty trick…”

Charles M Schulz died in his sleep on February 12th 2000 and his last Peanuts strip was published the next day.  As part of his will, he requested that no new comic strips based on the characters be drawn.  On May 27th 2000, more than 100 cartoonists paid homage to him and Peanuts by incorporating his characters into their comic strips on that date.

Although he created other strips, Schulz will be forever known for Peanuts, a name bestowed by Universal Feature Syndicate that he always disliked (in a 1987 interview, he said it was “totally ridiculous, has no meaning…or dignity”) so whenever the strips were collected, the books either had “Charlie Brown” or “Snoopy” in the title.

The first strip
The Peanuts strip debuted in nine newspapers on October 2nd, 1950 in the four-panel format that would become its trademark.  Snoopy first appeared in the third strip, with what would become the main stock company of characters not appearing until later:  Schroeder in May 1951, Lucy in March 1952 (and bearing in mind the huge part she later played, it makes you wonder what happened in those early strips), Linus in September 1952, Pig Pen in July 1954, Sally in August 1959, “Peppermint” Patty in August 1966 (though her partner-in-crime Marcie wouldn’t appear until July 1971) and (most astonishing to me, considering how closely he’s associated with Snoopy), Woodstock in April 1967 (though he wasn’t named until June 1970).

Over the 50 year run, most of the characters’ ages don’t change any more than four years (Charlie Brown started as a four-year old and aged over the next two decades to settle as an eight-year-old for the remainder of the strip) and when characters are born (such as Sally), they age only until they’re small children.  Having said that, the characters aren’t defined by their ages and often discuss literature, art and music, faith, loneliness and depression, as if they were adults.

Of course, the characters are key to the strips success, with Lucy’s forthrightness, Patty’s self-confidence and Snoopy’s joie-de-vivre contrasting well with Charlie Brown’s melancholy.  In fact, for me, it’s that mixture of pure fun and occasional poignancy that keeps drawing me back to the strip.

Charlie Brown is the key character (apparently developed from some of the painful experiences of Schulz’s formative years), drawn to melancholy but also full of admirable persistence (he wants to win a baseball game, he wants to fly a kite, he wants to kick Lucy’s football  and he will keep trying until he succeeds).  He also has an unrequited crush on the “little red-headed girl”, which is just marvellous to read (and she herself was only seen once, in 1998, as a silhouette).

Snoopy as Joe Cool, with an equally cool Woodstock
Snoopy is probably the best known character and the strip began to focus more on him in the 60s, with his wildly imaginative fantasy life being given plenty of room to thrive.  From the “World War One Flying ace”, to a ‘world famous attorney’ (often representing Peppermint Patty and often losing), he was also a (somewhat failed) best-selling suspense novelist and, of course, Joe Cool.  Although the other characters seemed to wonder what he was doing at any given time, most of them generally participated in the fantasy.

At no point does an adult enter the world - the reader is made aware that they’re about, from parents to teachers, but only ever sees the children.  In the TV special, grown-ups are seen but all talk in a trombone-like special effect.

No definite location is ever given (though Linus is once shown hugging a sign that says “Pinetree Corners Population 3,260”), but several addresses seem to suggest it’s set in Minneapolis, where Schulz was born and grew up.

Shulz decided to produce all aspects of the strip himself, which lent it a unified tone, though the early artwork is different - cleaner and sleeker - than the more popularly known strips from the 60s through to the 80s.  He employed a minimalistic style, generally without too much background and his sometimes frazzled lines forced “its readers to focus on subtle nuances” (according to art critic John Carlin).

The 1960s is known as the “Golden Age” for the strip and certainly, during this period, several well known themes and characters appeared for the first time including “Peppermint” Patty and Marcie, the flying ace and Franklin (and by extension, a matter-of-fact assumption of a racially integrated school and neighbourhood).  Further social commentary came with the fact that Charlie Brown’s baseball team had three girls in it and the 1966 TV special “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars” showed him refusing sponsorship because the sponsors said the league didn’t allow girls or dogs to play.  There were also satirical barbs on occasion, over a raft of topics, with the key one focussing on childhood activities becoming so organised that they often wore down individuality.  Whilst not a violent strip, there were occasional scuffles, mainly from Lucy who often threatened to ‘slug’ someone, though it was generally the girls being mean to the boys.  Religion was another theme touched on occasionally, in both the strip and most notability the 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

The strip remained massively popular during the 1980s and 1990s (though rivalled by Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes respectively) and is reputed to have earned Schulz in excess of $1bn.  Peanuts is regarded as one of the most influential comics strips of all time, with Schulz receiving the National Cartoonist Society Humor Comic Strip Award, the Reuben Award twice (the first cartoonist to receive the honour twice), the Elzie Segar Award and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award.  The TV specials won two Peabody Awards and four Emmys and Schulz has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as a place in the William Randolph Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame. Peanuts was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on April 9, 1965, with the accompanying article praising the strip as being “the leader of a refreshing new breed that takes an unprecedented interest in the basics of life.”  In addition, the Apollo 10 lunar module was nicknamed “Snoopy” and the command module “Charlie Brown” and Snoopy is the personal safety mascot for NASA astronauts (NASA issues a Silver Snoopy award to employees that promote flight safety).

At its height, Peanuts was published daily in 2,600 papers across 75 countries and in 21 languages, with Schulz himself drawing nearly 18,000 strips over 50 years.  His routine, he once wrote, consisted of first eating a jelly donut and going through the day's mail with his secretary before sitting down to write and draw the day's strip at his studio. After coming up with an idea (which he said could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours), he would draw, which could take an hour for the dailies or three hours for Sunday strips.  Asked why he never used assistants to help produce the script, he said “it would be equivalent to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts for him.”


The final daily comic strip was published on January 3, 2000 and on February 13, 2000, the day following Schulz's death, the last ever strip was published.  It shows Charlie Brown answering the phone to someone presumably asking for Snoopy.  “No,” says Charlie Brown, “I think he’s writing.”  Snoopy is shown sitting at his typewriter, which contains a note from Schulz that reads:

Dear Friends,

I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost fifty years. It has been the fulfillment of my childhood ambition.

Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish "Peanuts" to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement.

I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy... how can I ever forget them...

— Charles M. Schulz


Fittingly, Charlie Brown was the only character to appear in both the first strip and the last.

Happy birthday, TJ!