Monday, 16 January 2017

Interview with Peter Mark May

I can’t remember now where Peter Mark May and I met - it might have been online, it might have been at FantasyCon - but I do know that I like him a great deal.  He’s always one of the people I look forward to meeting up with, we talk a lot online and often bounce ideas - for stories, books and other nefarious plans - off each other.  We’ve also worked together a lot - I have stories in his anthologies Alt-Dead, Fogbound From Five and Alt-Zombie (I also designed the covers for them) and he published my anthology Anatomy Of Death as well as my 2016 novella The Factory.

In late December 2016, as Alexander Arrowsmith, he published the historical crime novel Pillars Of Blood.  Set in Ancient Greece, it's the first in a proposed series and published by Endeavour Press.

I thought it’d be good fun to sit down with him and catch up.
MW:  Hi Peter, thanks for sitting down with me.  So to start, can you give us a few details about yourself?

PMM:  I’m an old git who writes stuff that he enjoys and hopes other people will like. More?  I write horror, historical crime (now) and have had one fantasy short story published. I am the owner, CEO and one-man-band in charge of Hersham Horror Books. I also help run Karoshi Books.  Something More Than Night is out now if you fancy some cosmic horror.

MW:  What led you into writing and how long have you been doing it?  When and where was your first publication?

PMM:  I’ve been writing since I was 17 and started with a vampire novel set in Surrey. I got a few rejections and then never sent anything again for years. I continued writing and after the death of my eldest brother decided life was too short to be afraid and in 2008 my first novel Demon was published.

MW:  Before Pillars of Blood, which is a crime novel, you worked extensively in the horror genre. What led you to that?

PMM:  I read some fantasy when I was young, but mainly horror - Stephen King, James Herbert, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, etc. - and it seemed to be the genre for me. They say write what you know: death and loss are old companions and writing horror has helped me face things head on. It’s part of me and always will be.

MW:  So why crime now? And how did Pillars Of Blood come about?

PMM:  Good question. I liked history at school and still do - I love ancient history and reading about people’s lives in different ages. I also love Greece as a rich, cultural place to visit and the many gods and myths it has surrounding its past which, like sci-fi, fantasy and horror, you can lose yourself in for a while.  And it's real!  The ideas for Pillars of Blood and two sequels came to me in a dream, along with the murder mystery plot. I already had some knowledge of that age and love learning more, so I set about challenging myself to see if I could write in a different genre from horror and it took four years in all.  It's the nearest thing to time travel that will happen in my life - I remember going to the Acropolis when I was twenty, thinking about how many famous sandaled feet (from Socrates to Pericles and even Byron) may have stood in the exact same spot as I.  As for crime element, adding a few gruesome deaths worked well for my new hero, as it is the story of his later life and the crimes of Athens are part of his journey. I also had a lot of encouragement from the American writer Tasha Alexander, to give historical crime writing a go and I’m glad I did.

MW:  Do you have a typical process when it comes to creating a story, are you visually orientated with ideas coming to you as images, or do they just appear to you fully formed?

PMM:  I have many methods. As I said, the titles and basic plots for the Ancient Greek novels came to me in a dream, where I woke up with a lot of it laid out before me. Dreams and nightmares (which I love having) bring me lots of story ideas as does watching TV and reading - 'oh they went that way, I would have gone this way', that kind of thing. Then there are what I call 'the long plotters'; ideas I’ve had for twenty years or more, that you suddenly find another piece of plot to dovetail into and you are away. I think my stories are very visual, gawd knows how they flow out of my brain. When writing I use plot-islands, like stepping stones to get from the start point to the ending. Some of the best parts of a story come when your brain takes you off on a detour, and you discover lost islands full of exotic writing promise.

MW:  That sounds brilliant!  So what's a typical work session like for you, are you a ‘write every day’ kind of writer?

PMM:  In a typical week I try to write for four days, sometimes five, depending on if the kids are at school or not. I like to have set minimum daily goals, with 2,000 for horror and 1,500 for historical stuff, as with the latter there can be days where you have to stop and start and research things that come up as you write.

MW:  What is your preferred genre for reading, if you have one?

PMM:  Still horror and always will be, but I’ve always read historical novels too, like Wilbur Smith, Christian Jacq, Tasha Alexander, Paul Doherty and Stephen E. Ambrose.

MW:  Has your style changed much over the years?

PMM:  That’s hard to answer, one hopes to get better with age at least. I know Peter and Alexander have different styles, less swearing in historical crimes is one I can think of off the top of my head.  I seem to be able to swap genre hats without thinking too much about it.

MW:  What more can you tell us about the novel, without giving everything away?

PMM:  Set in ancient Athens, Pillars of Blood is a murder mystery featuring Polydektos, who was once a great general, the pride of the Athenian people. Now, after the death of his son Socos in battle, he has fallen into a life of debauchery. While his wife Kephissa and his daughter Kyra wait at home, he spends his days at the courthouse, passing guilty verdicts on innocent men for no reason other than his own unhappiness and his nights with his two young lovers, the slave girl Gala, and his ward, seventeen year old Talaemenes, a strong and capable lad devoted to Poydektos.  After a night of drinking and debauchery, Talaemenes and Polydektos return to his family villa to find everyone inside has been slaughtered. While the slaves have been gassed, the Metics have had their throats cut, and his beautiful wife and daughter have been dismembered in their beds. Strangely, however, there is no blood at the scene, despite the massacre.  He then begins a search for the killers, a search that will have priestesses whispering in his ear, as his old friend Sokrates joins forces with Polydektos to figure out what happened to his family. But will that answer bring him peace, or open up new wounds?

MW:  Hersham Horror Books is a well regarded publisher with a lot of anthologies in their catalogue.  Do you like to read them?  What do you think is their appeal?

PMM:   I hope HHB are getting towards being well-regarded, we are still here after six years, when others have fallen by the wayside. I do love reading anthologies, to read friends and authors I admire and to find new gems and new talented writers and store them in my head for future publications. They have more of an appeal to me as a reader, I only write about one short story a year now, as I prefer to write novels.
At Sledge-Lit in Derby, November 2015, with our mutual friend, the writer Steve Byrne (who I interviewed here)
MW:  You and I both are moving away from horror in our writing, even though we have a vibrant genre community here, as far as I’m concerned.  Do you like the social side of being a writer, the Cons and gatherings?

PMM:  I never used to, I’m not very good at chit-chat and social gatherings, but I’ve been attending Cons for nine years now, so I know a lot of the people, they know me, and I’ve published half of them too which makes things easier.  Four years ago I did a reading in Edinburgh in a cinema in front of a crowd of one hundred people so if nerves kick in I remind myself of that and draw confidence from it.

MW:  So why a pseudonym?

PMM:  Two reasons. One, there is the more famous Peter May who writes crime novels, and I didn’t want any confusion between the two of us as I moved into that genre.  And two, it makes it easier to mentally swap hats when working.  Plus it's cool pretending to be someone else.

MW:   So what’s next for Peter Mark May and Alexander Arrowsmith?

PMM:  For Peter, the Hersham Horror Books boss man, it’s looking forward to getting three novellas ready for publication in the autumn. For Peter the writer, it's a waiting game sadly, on publishers to come back for subbed novels, short stories and rights reverted works and eventually getting back into a novel I got twenty-thousand-words into writing last year. For Alexander, its writing the follow up to Pillars Of Blood, which I'm fifty-thousand words into.

MW:  Thanks for your time, Pete.

PMM:  Thanks for having me.
Peter and me at Edge-Lit 5 in Derby, July 2016 (read my report here)

Peter can be contacted online at his website here and he's also on Facebook.  Alexander Arrowsmith also has his own Facebook page.

Polydektos, once a great general, has now fallen into debauchery after the death of his warrior son. When he finds the rest of his family and slaves murdered in his home, Polydektos must overcome his grief, and an accusation of guilt, to get the justice he craves.

'a thrilling portrayal of Ancient Greece' - Richard Foreman

Monday, 9 January 2017

Hersham Horror Novellas

Last year I was part of the inaugural Hersham Horror Books Primal Novella range, along with my friends Stephen Bacon, James Everington and Phil Sloman.  Peter Mark May did a great job, bringing together four very different but equally good pieces of work and I'm proud to be part of the group.
The four Novella writers (from left) - Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon, me, James Everington
Here, then, are my reviews of the novellas (not my own, of course, I've included reviews by others for that) and if you click on the title, that will take you to the Amazon page for the Kindle edition.

Four novellas, all well worthy of your time.

Laudanum Nights, by Stephen Bacon
A crime/dark fantasy cross-over, set in a pseudo-Victorian city, this involves kidnapped children, sentient dolls and a mysterious fiend who never ages.  Leonard Miller is a lecturer at St Timothy’s university, who lives on Serpentine Street, part of a squalid area of Blackford known as The Abyss.  When a young child, Martha Glass, goes missing, he is initially questioned since he did private tutoring for the child.  The police then discover that he left his last university under a cloud, something (unrevealed) to do with yet more private tutoring.  Determined to find Martha - not to clear his name, but because he visits her family and sees the devastation her disappearance has caused - he sets out to investigate and quickly makes connections that lead to death in a toyshop, a mad woman in a pub and an old Gothic mansion in the marshes.  I thoroughly enjoyed this, it had great pace and a strong sense of location and atmosphere - you could almost smell the gas lamps and taste the fog.  Leonard is a sympathetic character - though we’re not entirely sure of his backstory or his relationship with the mysterious Raul who sets his investigaton on the right path - and well portrayed, brave, resourceful and, above all, determined.  The other characters are vividly sketched and there’s a nice twist about who the key villain is.  Assured, technically smart and deftly written, this is an excellent novella that I would highly recommend.

Paupers' Graves, by James Everington
In a Nottingham cemetery, hidden from the grandiose tombs of the city’s rich in a depression known as Saint Ann’s Vallley, are the old pauper’s graves.  Katherine and her team, interns Alex and Katya (who are secretly lovers), have been ordered to create an exhibit based on the lives of those unfortunates buried beneath.  But the paupers represent part of the city’s history Katherine tries to avoid, as well as part of her own and when she alters some of the histories, the dead become enraged.  Solidly told and multi-layered, this weaves between the present - the highly-strung Katherine, rich-boy Alex and poor immigrant Katya - and the past - the long-dead citizens of the city they are researching, Joseph Hewitt, Patricia Congden and Stanley Burton - effortlessly, painting the time period with rich detail that brings it to life vividly.  Equally at home in the Victorian slums as he is in the dingier areas of modern-day Nottingham, Everington builds the story patiently, comparing the cheapness of life back then with some of the extremes that austerity is creating today.  As the story rushes towards its downbeat climax, it’s as disorientating as a nightmare, a tone and atmosphere the writer sustains well.  Gripping, intelligent and bleak, this is well worth a read and I’d highly recommend it.

Becoming David, by Phil Sloman
Richard Lodge lives a very ordered life, in the house that had been his mothers.  He has a cleaner come in twice a week, prides himself on his minimalist existence and enjoys a good career as a freelance accountant.  He also kills people.  The story opens with a wonderfully shocking chapter, where Richard kills the latest man he’s lured back to the house, listening to the life ebb away with a detached air.  As normality returns, the details of his life - working for clients, complaining that his cleaner is singing too loudly, working in the wet room in the cellar where he butchers his victims - begin to come through.  Sloman has a good grasp on Richard’s character, where nothing phases him until one of his victims, the David of the title, proves just that little bit harder to get rid of.  The book has a claustrophobic feel - most of the early scenes take place in either London pubs crammed with eligible gay men or the cellar gym/disposals area of 17 Beechwood Avenue - that combines with the oppressive nature of Richard to give the narrative a tense, skewed sense of place.  When it does open up, with more characters and locations, it actually becomes more oppressive as things go from bad to worse.  The book doesn’t shy away from violence though most of it is tinged with a nice sense of black comedy - arterial blood hits a dinner place “decorating the remains of their evening meal with a human jus” and it’s easier to hide a body once you’ve broken its shins with a tyre jack - and I liked that.  Well written, with a good pace, this is a horror novella I would very much recommend.

The Factory, by Mark West
Twenty years ago at college, Martin, Paul, Jane, and Gwen were members of the GLUE Club - the Gaffney Legendary Urban Explorers - run by the charismatic Tom. Now, following his mysterious death, they agree to meet up again and undertake one final exploration to honour his name.

Aside from Paul who never left, none of them have been back to Gaffney since and the reunion is awkward, re-opening old wounds. As they begin to explore the long-abandoned Pocock Factory, it seems they might be intruding on something better left alone. As they succumb to the spirits in the darkness, it quickly becomes a battle to see who will survive the night...

"[A] skilful, gradual escalation of detail, a suggestiveness reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell."
- Gary Fry, at his website (the full review can be read here)

"There are so many elements of suspense, of dread, of sensory overload - you begin to feel the characters’ unease which soon becomes terror as you read on."
- Paula Limbaugh, Horror Novel Reviews (the full review can be read here)

"Beautifully, darkly written."
- Charlotte Bond, Gingers Nuts Of Horror (the full review can be read here)

The novellas were launched at FantasyCon-by-the-sea in Scarborough on Saturday 24th September, along with Marie O'Regan's collection.  It was a great launch (I wrote about it here), including a packed room, lots of sales and plenty of friendly faces and smiles - if only every launch could be as much fun!
Busy signing - Marie, me, James, Phil, Steve - picture by Wayne Parkin
If you decide to take a chance on any of the books, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Star Wars At 40

It is a foggy Saturday afternoon in late February 1978 (I've just turned 9) and I'm playing down the Rec with my friend Claire.  We'd been due to go and see a new film I've been raving about but the showing was sold out, so we'd come home despondant.  After a while, we hear our names being called and head out of the fog to find my Dad looking for us.  He's come to get us so we can go back into Kettering and catch the next showing of Star Wars.

We got in on that second occasion and my memories of the showing are a little hazy now but I do remember watching the Star Destroyer come over us in the opening minutes and thinking "Wow!".  I fell in love with Star Wars and cinema that day, a love I'm pleased to say is still going strong.
A poster from Look-In magazine, from issue 11, w/e 11th March 1978
On 25th May 1977, Star Wars opened on 32 screens in the USA and the response was incredible.  Within the next two days, 11 screens were added as the film broke box-office and attendance records left, right and centre.  The film was a huge success and cinema owners couldn't wait to get their hands on prints, so much so that 20th Century Fox, the distributor, was cranking out extra prints evens as they sped up plans for a broader, nationwide release of the film.  It had made $3m by the end of its first week and over $100m by the end of summer.
card 11, Topps series 1 - What were Jawas and what had they done with R2-D2?
Back then, it wasn't unusual for a film to open in the US and then have several months elapse until it reached us and such was the case with Star Wars.  It opened in London (at two cinemas, the Odeon on Leicester Square and the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road) on 27th December 1977, with the nationwide release starting on 29th January 1978.  In London, it made £117.7k in its first week, comfortably beating the previous record, held by Jaws, of £90.6k.  I already knew a lot about the film because the TV news and entertainment shows had been covering it for months and kids like me (and plenty of adults too, I'd imagine) were chomping at the bit to see it.

I began collecting the Topps trading cards during the summer (each wax packet contained seven cards - and a sticker, apparently, though I don't remember those - along with the strip of bubble-gum that quickly lost its taste), amazed and excited by images that I sometimes couldn't even properly work out.  What the hell was a Wookiee?  What were droids and how did they communicate?  What was Darth Vader, what did he sound like, why did he have the Stormtroopers with him?
I convinced my Dad that even though I was eight I was more than up to the challenge of reading the novelisation 'by George Lucas' (actually, Alan Dean Foster wrote it).  Dad believed me, bought the book and I did read it, my imagination running wild - I doubt I understood a lot of it and I certainly didn't envisage it in my head as it played out for me much later on the cinema screen, but I do remember enjoying it.
I was an avid reader of Look-In magazine and they put Star Wars on the cover for their last issue of 1977, having mentioned it several times beforehand.  In the issue published w/e 11th March 1978, Star Wars had the cover again (with a free gift of 2 Letraset transfer sets) and Harrison Ford was interviewed.  In February 1978, Marvel Comics launched Star Wars weekly (the US had seen it in 1977), with C-3PO appearing in TV ads to promote it (priced 10p and including a free cardboard X-Wing fighter!).  Marvel also published the Official Collectors Edition (apparently only in the UK) which tied Star Wars in with Hollywood's past, had some decent behind-the-scenes material and also recapped the story.  Lavishly illustrated, I thought it was a great publication (and still have my copy in my collection).
I think it's impossible, in this age of social media and on-line spoilers, to over-state just how big a deal Star Wars was back then - because it really was.  Unlike today, nothing was available (apart from the novelisation) before it opened - even the toys, which everyone remembers, weren't released until a year later - and I spent 1978 enjoying those spoils.
The original 12 figures in the Palitoy/Kenner series
To help Star Wars celebrate its 40th anniversary, the blog will run a year-long thread "Star Wars At 40", with each post appearing on the first Monday of the month.  There will be articles/essays on the Marvel comics, Stormtroopers (of course), the production design, ILM, the toys and much more, along with other pop-up posts.  I'm looking forward to it and I hope you'll enjoy it too.

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

My Creative Year 2016

Continuing a tradition (now in its fourth year), here's my annual look back at 2016 from a creative standpoint.

During the year I wrote four short stories (three were horror, one was a love story), one novella (The Factory, which almost went to its deadline), some book reviews and a host of essays/articles for this blog (more than beating my once-a-week posting schedule).

I had eight short stories published:
* The Sealed Window in The Hyde Hotel, edited by James Everington & Dan Howarth, from Black Shuck Press
* This Is The Colour Of Blood in Chromatics, edited by Dean M. Drinkel, from Lycopolis Press
* Photograph Of You in Tales From The Lake vol 2, edited by Joe Mynhardt from Crystal Lake Publishing
* The Goblin Glass in Thou Shalt Not, edited by Alex Davis, from Tickety Boo Press
* Deb Loves Robbie in Easter Eggs & Bunny Boilers, edited by Matt Shaw, from Matt Shaw Publications
* The Order Of Aries in The Thirteen Signs, edited by Dean M. Drinkel from Nocturnicorn Books
* Do You Believe In Ghosts? in Ten Tall Tales, edited by Ian Whates from NewCon Press
Dreaming Of A Black Christmas in Bah! Humbug!, edited by Matt Shaw, from Matt Shaw Publications

I also had two novellas published:
* The Exercise in Darker Battlefields, edited by Adrian Chamberlin, from theEXAGGERATEDpress
* The Factory, published by Hersham Horror Books

* * *
The King For A Year Project, which I curated through 2015 (and wrote about extensively here) was nominated for Best Non-Fiction in the 2016 British Fantasy Society Awards.  It didn't win, unfortunately but it was very nice to get the nomination.

In a similar vein I curated 2 Mixtapes, where-in people I respected (writers, editors, readers) chose their favourite short stories.  The Brit Horror Mixtape posted in May and featured 24 stories by British writers and this was followed in July by the American Horror Mixtape, featuring 30 stories by American and Canadian writers.

* * *
The Factory cracked the Top 10 of Jim Mcleod's "Top 20 Reads Of 2016" and I'm proud to be included alongside some distinguished - and heavyweight - company.

The Factory also made Paula Limbaugh's Top 10 List at Horror Novel, which was very pleasing (and, again, I'm in great company).

James Everington picked Photograph Of You for his Favourite Short Stories: 2016 round-up (and I'm thrilled to be part of such a stellar line-up).

The Factory also made Ross Warren's round-up (posted to Facebook here), coming 2nd in a strong novella field.

* * *
I attended three great Cons in year.  The first was Edge-Lit 5, held at The Quad in Derby on 16th July (see my report here), followed by FantasyCon-by-the-sea, held at The Grand Hotel, Scarborough from 23rd September to 25th September 2015 (see my report here) and I rounded out the year with Sledge-Lit, held at The Quad in Derby on 26th November (see my report here).
At Edge-Lit - Lisa Childs, Ross Warren, Steve Harris, Phil Sloman, me
At FantasyCon-by-the-sea
from left - John Gilbert, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, James Everington, Priya Sharma, Phil Sloman, me, Lisa Childs, Ross Warren, Wayne Parkin, Cate Gardner
At Sledge-Lit, with Gary McMahon and Stephen Bacon

My writing buddy Sue Moorcroft introduced me to blogger/writer meet-ups and I had great fun at the Brum ones and another, later, in London.  I also went to the NewCon Press 10th birthday bash in London and had a great time at Sue's book launch in Nottingham for The Christmas Promise.
Linda Hill, me, Shelley Wilson, Elaina James, in Birmingham, April 2016
* * *
Following a bit of a fallow period, I posted some interviews during the year and enjoyed the process thoroughly (clearly I picked good subjects).  In January I chatted with the excellent Nicola Valentine and also found time in January to chat with the gregarious Dean M Drinkel.  In February, I spoke to Alex Davis whilst in March, Stuart Young & I interviewed each other and then in May I had a chat with my friend James Everington.  Finally, to help celebrate the launch of her new novel, I interviewed Sue Moorcroft in October.

* * *
In July, I did a Talk/Q&A Session at Kettering Library with Sue for the 2nd KettFest (which I wrote about here)
Sue Moorcroft & I at Kettering Library, picture by Mick Arnold
* * *
Creatively speaking, 2016 has been a pretty good year.  The four short stories (and one novella) I wrote were all asked for and, of them all, I'm most proud of Dance The Blues (a contemporary - and nostalgic - drama about lost teenaged love), as I probably wouldn't have written it unless prompted.  Last years story that was looking for a home, Do You Believe In Ghosts?, was published this year by NewCon Press, in the terrific anthology Ten Tall Tales which I'm thoroughly chuffed to have been part of.
With my fellow Hersham Horror Books Novella writers - Phil Sloman, Steve Bacon , me and James Everington - FantasyCon Scarborough, September 2016 
Signing the hardback of Ten Tall Tales - Andrew Hook, Lynda E. Rucker, Paul Kane, Simon Clark, Ian Whates (editor) and me, FantasyCon Scarborough, September 2016
I'm feeling confident for 2017 too, as I plan to concentrate on writing a new novel which won't be in the horror field.  I'll keep you updated as to how that goes.

As always, thank you so much, dear readers of this blog, for all your support in 2016, especially those who bought, read and liked my work - I really do appreciate it.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish readers of this blog a very Happy Christmas, with all best wishes for the New Year.

Thank you all very much for your continued support and interest, let’s hope 2017 is as good to us as we want it to be!

Monday, 19 December 2016

The Eighth Annual Westies - review of the year 2016

Well it's that time already (another year having zipped by) and so, as we gear up for Christmas, it's time to indulge in the blog custom and remember the good books read in 2016.

Once again, it's been a great reading year for me with a nice mixture of brand new novels, a few books that have been languishing on my TBR pile for too long and some good finds on the behind-the-scenes film front.  This year has also seen my reading matter shift slightly as I explored the market of psychological thrillers and that, on the whole, has been very satisfying.

As with previous years, the top 20 places were very hard fought but, I think, show a nice variety.  I blogged about some of the titles (not too many this year as I found it really difficult to review a thriller successfully without giving away plot twists) and have linked to them in this list.

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

1: The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson
2: 13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough
3: In A Dark Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
4: The Lie, by C. L. Taylor
5: Just For The Holidays (*), by Sue Moorcroft
6: Strangers, by Paul Finch
7: Laudanum Nights, by Stephen Bacon
8: Craze, by Steve Byrne
9: Paper Doll, by Robert B. Parker
10: Albion Fay, by Mark Morris
11: Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker
12: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, by Usman T. Malik
13: The Grieving Stones, by Gary McMahon
14: Paupers' Graves, by James Everington
15: Becoming David, by Phil Sloman
16: Keep You Close, by Lucie Whitehouse
17: The Sister, by Louise Jenson
18: Buried In A Book, by Lucy Arlington
19: What They Find In The Woods, by Gary Fry
20: The Night Lingers And Other Stories, by Nicola Monaghan

* = This is Sue's second book of her Avon contract (I read it to critique) which will be published in May 2017.  Her current release, The Christmas Promise, was number 5 in last years chart.

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1: American Film Makers Today, by Dian G. Smith
2: Life Moves Pretty Fast, by Hadley Freeman
3: Let's Go Crazy, by Alan Light
4: The Cars We Loved In The 1970s, by Giles Chapman
5: Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series (vol 1), by Gary Gerani
6: The Making Of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, by Jody Duncan
7: Creating The World Of Star Wars, by John Knoll
8: Cinema Alchemist, by Roger Christian
9: We Don't Need Roads, by Caseen Gaines
10: Ridley Scott: The Making Of His Movies

Stats wise, I’ve read 70 books - 37 fiction, 22 non-fiction, 7 comics/nostalgia/kids and 4 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 66 books, the breakdown is thus:

1  biography
11 horror novels
19 film-related
2 drama (includes romance)
18 crime/mystery
6 sci-fi
3 nostalgia
6 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

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

Monday, 12 December 2016

1986 and all that...

1986, as I’ve mentioned on the blog before, was a banner year for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  In honour of its 30th anniversary - and because we’re rapidly heading for 2017 - here’s a little celebration.
Hunters Foods Xmas do, my friend Helen is standing next to me.  Taken at Kane's Wine Bar (now long gone), Corby - December 1986  
Top 10 Films (US)

1: Top Gun
2: “Crocodile” Dundee
3: Platoon
4: The Karate Kid, part 2
5: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
6: Back To School
7: Aliens
8: The Golden Child
9: Ruthless People
10: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I was in the Sixth Form for the first half of the year and a group of us went to the cinema quite often - though we had to convince one of the dads to drive us each time.  In late January, we went to see Rocky IV (released in 1985, so it made that years top 10) which I remember vividly because my friend Sean Marshall insisted on calling it “Rocky Eye-Vee”.  Just to show we weren’t affluent teenagers, I should point out that our local cinemas at the time (Kettering Ohio, Corby Forum and Bentley’s At Burton Latimer) weren’t part of a chain - they were glorious flea-pits (Kettering, which I wrote about here, was built into the upper tiers of the old cinema whilst the ground floor was a bingo hall) and it cost £1.50 to see a film.  With most of that same group of friends, I co-edited the student magazine for that year too (which I wrote about here).

According to my diary, my favourite film of the year was “Crocodile” Dundee (which I still love).  Top Gun was also very popular with us and we saw it a lot, mostly due to the fact that it hung around for such a long time so we caught it on several occasions.  The same thing happened with Dirty Dancing in 1987.
I may have had a bit of a crush on Kathleen Turner...
Spies Like Us was another favourite (I re-watched it recently and it doesn’t stand up at all well, unfortunately), Young Sherlock HolmesThe Jewel Of The Nile (not as good as Romancing The Stone but, hey, Kathleen Turner…), Aliens (my second favourite film of the year), Nightmare On Elm Street 2 (which none us particularly enjoyed, since it departed so far from the original), the incredible (and unsettling) Blue Velvet, Poltergeist 2 (which was very odd but good fun - and the first film I went to see with my friend Pauline Weston, who I wrote about here) and the genius that was Big Trouble In Little China.  Cobra, the very silly and very violent (and very, very 80s if you re-watch it) Sylvester Stallone film (he’d apparently been in the running for Beverly Hills Cop and took his ideas with him) was the first 18-rated film I saw at the cinema (along with Nick Duncan - who I wrote about here - and Craig Tankard - who gets introduced later - at Corby).

Top 10 Books (US version, as per the New York Times - couldn’t find one for the UK)

1: IT, by Stephen King
2: Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy
3: Whirlwind, by James Clavell
4: The Bourne Supremacy, by Robert Ludlum
5: Hollywood Husbands, by Jackie Collins
6: Wanderlust, by Danielle Steel
7: I’ll Take Manhattan, by Judith Krantz
8: Last of the Breed, by Louis L’Amour
9: The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy
10: A Perfect Spy, by John le Carré

My favourite book of the year was IT (which I wrote about here)

UK Top 10 Singles

1: Don’t Leave Me This Way, by The Communards
2: Chain Reaction, by Diana Ross
3: I Want To Wake Up With You, by Boris Gardner
4: When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going), by Billy Ocean
5: Take My Breath Away, by Berlin
6: The Lady In Red, by Chris De Burgh
7: Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna
8: Spirit In The Sky, by Doctor & The Medics
9: So Macho, by Sinitta
10: Rock Me Amadeus, by Falco

I liked a lot of these (hey, it was the 80s) but most of my favourites didn’t hit the chart.  I loved the Cliff Richard & The Young Ones version of Living Doll (and still do), Debbie Harry’s French Kissin’ In The USA (written by Chuck Lorre, who went on to create some sit-coms...), the double-whammy from the Bangles (Manic Monday and Walk Like An Egyptian), Livin’ On A Prayer from Bon Jovi, Queen’s A Kind Of Magic, the wonderful Levi-related re-releases from Sam Cooke (Wonderful World) and Jackie Wilson (Reet Petite), Bowie was back (with Absolute Beginners), The Damned had Eloise, Broken Wings from Mr Mister, two crackers from A-ha (The Sun Always Shines On TV and Hunting High And Low), soundtrack favourites Glory Of Love by Peter Cetera and Power Of Love by Huey Lewis and the News, plus Spitting Image’s wonderful The Chicken Song.  My big favourite of the year though was Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer, a cracking song enhanced by a cracking video.

UK Top 10 Albums

1: True Blue, by Madonna
2: Brothers In Arms, by Dire Straits
3: Now 8, by various artists
4: Graceland, by Paul Simon
5: Whitney Houston, by Whitney Houston
6: Now 7, by various artists
7: Hunting High and Low, by a-ha
8: A Kind of Magic, by Queen
9: Silk & Steel, by Five Star
10: Revenge, by Eurythmics

My favourite, which came in at number 39, was Riptide by Robert Palmer.  True Blue, the single, was everywhere that summer, most discos (either school ones or the various 18th birthdays we were going to) played it (as well as The Lady In Red) and it was big at Tymes nightclub too.  It took me a long time to appreciate it again after that kind of overkill (Lady In Red hasn’t fared so well).

1986 events - Highlights and low points (for me and the world at large)

7th - The Society Of Motor Manufacturers and Traders announces that more than 1.8 million new cars were sold in the UK during 1985, beating the record set in 1983.  The Ford Escort is the most popular model and all of the 10 top models are built by Ford, Vauxhall or Austin Rover.
The Westland Affair claims big government scalps - Michael Heseltine resigns as Defence Secretary (9th) and Leon Brittan resigns as Tade and Industry Secretary (24th).
19th - the first PC virus, called Brain, starts spreading.  Hardly anyone has a PC.
20th - The UK and France announce plans to build the Channel Tunnel.
24th - Voyager 2 makes its first encounter with Uranus - ha, you said your anus (hey, I was sixteen, it was funny…)

3rd - Pixar Animation Studios are opened in California.
10th - I turned 17.
17th - I go to London by bus with my friends Rob Nichols, Mark Guyett, Sean Marshall, Steve Corton and Phil Cross.  We have an excellent time.
In Kettering bus station (also long since demolished), very early in the morning on our way to London.  This was taken with my disc camera, hence the grainy image.  From left - Rob, Sean (Rocky Eye-Vee), Mark, me, Phil
10th - the first sanitary towel advert is broadcast on UK TV
30th - the BBC2 TWO ident takes a bow (and stays in place until 1991)

5th - Jean Michel Jarre performs Rendezvous Houston in Houston, Texas.  Years later, that will be one of my favourite albums to power walk to.
7th - Clive Sinclair sells the rights to the ZX Spectrum and other inventions to Amstrad.
11th - The Chart Show (the first place I will later see Nirvana perform Smells Like Teen Spirit) debuts on C4.
17th - John McCarthy is kidnapped in Beirut
Also on the 17th, the Three Hundred And Thirty Five Years War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly is ended by treaty.
26th - Chernobyl.  A mishandled safety test kills “at least 4,056 people and damages almost $7bn of property”.  Radioactive fallout is concentrated near Belarus and Ukraine, leading to 350,000 people being forcibly resettled from those areas.  Tests afterwards showed “traces of radioactive deposits unique to Chernobyl were found in nearly every country in the northern hemisphere”.

21st - My Dad & I start to watch A Very Peculiar Practice.  It is very peculiar indeed.
25th - Sport Aid, supported by Band Aid and UNICEF, organised Run The World, a worldwide event comprising a total of 19.8m runners who ran, jogged or walked 10km to support African famine relief charities.  I ran the local course between Rothwell and Desborough with Nick and Mark (and wrote about it here).
Mark Guyett (centre of picture on the left) and me Run The World
12th - Austin Rover is renamed the Rover Group, four years after changing from British Leyland
20th - Montsaye School Lower Sixth trip to Great Yarmouth.  We have a brilliant time.
21st - I finish working at the Co-op (my place of regular employment - after school and on Saturdays - for the past couple of years), which has helped pay for most of my driving lessons.
22nd - Maradona beats England with one sensational goal and one assisted by the ‘Hand Of God’, knocking us out of the World Cup (Argentina go on to win the competition).  Gary Lineker wins the Golden Boot with six goals.
23rd - I start work at Hunters Foods as an accounts clerk.  I meet Craig, who is 2 days younger than me and we instantly become great friends - as well as cinema buddies, we go on holiday together until the early 90s.  I meet Pauline, who would go on to become one of my best friends, on the 27th.
On the beach at Great Yarmouth - from left, James McDonald, Steve Corton, me, Phil Cross, Nick
28th - Estate agent Suzy Lamplugh vanishes after a meeting in London.

9th - Yorkshire Television (YTV) becomes the first British TV channel to broadcast 24 hours a day.  The other TV regions do likewise over the next two years, leading to scores of 80s nightclub goers coming home to veg out in front of Get Stuffed! and Hitman And Her.
Nick & I at Corton Beach on holiday.  Disc camera, flash, twilight - it wasn't a great combination...
GCE ‘O’ Level and CSE’s are replaced by GCSE’s.  I’ve just started work and already my CV makes me look like a dinosaur…
6th - Casualty starts on BBC1.  Thirty years later and it’s still bloody going…
8th - I pass my driving test first time.

27th - BBC1 starts a full daytime service.  Before this, apart from covering special events, it closed down during weekday mornings and afternoons, though it broadcast pages from Ceefex starting in May 1983.
‘The Big Bang’ in The London Stock Exchange abolishes fixed commission charges, leading to electronic trading.
29th - The completed M25 (the first section of which opened in 1975) is officially opened.
With my first car, a Vauxhall Viva.  Trust me, white socks and black loafers was a fashionable look back then...
UNESCO designates the first World Heritage sites in the UK - England has Durham Castle and Cathedral, Ironbridge Gorge, Studley Royal Park (including the ruins of Fountains Abbey), Stonehenge and Avebury and associated sites.  Northern Ireland is represented by the Giant's Causeway and the Causeway Coast and Wales by the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd.
1st - I buy my first car.  It is both a wonderful passport to independence as well as being a slightly dodgy purchase which lasts me less than a year.
16th - The Singing Detective, by Dennis Potter, debuts.  I remember being astounded by the scope of it but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it since.
Craig Tankard & me, performing a comedy routine we wrote, at the Hunters Foods staff Christmas dinner
8th - “If you see Sid, tell him!”  British Gas shares are floated on the Stock Exchange and the initial public offering values the company at £9bn.
17th - Ringo Starr narrates his last ever Thomas The Tank Engine episode.  I won’t actually see any of them for another twenty years, when we start showing them to Dude.
Dad's traditional 'picture of the kids at Christmas' - me, Sarah and Tracy

Thanks for the memories, 1986!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Nostalgic for my childhood - Christmas and catalogues

"Christmas is coming!"
Me, Christmas 1976 - Action Man helicopter, Batman, Six Million Dollar Man, Planet Of The Apes annual and a gun that shot darts with rubber tips!  Seriously, how much more excited could a 7-year-old kid look?
Well, it's still a little while away but you get my drift.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s, one of our pre-Christmas treats was going through the toy pages in various catalogues (the Kays one Mum always seemed to have, Argos, toy manufacturers) and deciding which items we wanted to add to our list.  When Dude was younger, my Mum used to get an Argos catalogue just so he and his little cousins could go through it with a marker pen to highlight what they wanted, thus continuing the tradition that me and my sister Tracy enjoyed.

So here's a nostalgic look back to catalogues of days past - did you want any of these?  I know I did...

Argos - Autumn 1976
I had the Six Million Dollar Man action figure (though not the repair station) and Ricochet Racers (which I loved, though it never shot as well in real life as it did on the advert)
Argos - Autumn 1977
Fairly slim pickings for my sister TJ, though she loved Sindy.
Argos - Autumn 1977
The 'Eagle Eye' Action Man from Palitoy was a must-have (and I was lucky enough to get one).  The equipment for him was very expensive though, but luckily the Cherilea Toys vehicles fitted him perfectly.  I had a Palitoy helicopter and the Cherilea motorbike-and-sidecar, both of which I loved and played with all the time.  Unfortunately, they - and my Action Men - have long since been lost to the sands of time...
Corgi - 1977
Top image - I was a big Batman fan and had the Batmobile, the Batcopter and really wanted the Batboat.  I was also a Bond fan and thought the Lotus was the coolest car ever (I think I still do...)
Bottom image - I still have the fire engine 1143 (and Dude loved it when I introduced him to it), though I don't think I've ever seen that design in real life
Matchbox 1978
I really liked this line, which was a tie-in with 2000AD comic at the time (another of my favourites), though I only ever had K-2002 (which reminded me of the Joe 90 car) and K-2003.  I still have them both (in 'played with' condition) but mint-in-box versions are going for silly prices nowadays.
Argos - Autumn 1978
Star Wars doesn't feature in the catalogue at all, even though Palitoy had started to produce the toys during 1978.  It's good to see the Six Million Dollar Man still flying high, along with Batman and Star Trek (which had last been made as TV series in the 60s), whilst Superman would be released in the UK in December.
Action Man (Palitoy) 1978
Taken from the 1978 Action Man "Official Equipment Manual", this shows the helicopter (which, as mentioned above, I had) plus the fantastic Turbocopter (which I also had).  You'd strap it onto Action Man's back (with thin lengths of elastic) and then, holding him, press the orange button on the left side (which you can see here) and that would make the rotor go around.  Fantastic fun - I wish I still had it...
Corgi - 1979
Top - I so wanted that set of "The Spy Who Loved Me" vehicles - over the years since I've picked up the helicopter and Jaws van to go with my Lotus but haven't been able to put my hands on the Cortina and boat.
Bottom - The Muppets were new in town!  I was lucky enough to have the Saint's Jaguar and Bodie's Capri (plus the figures!)
Palitoy 1979
Ah, Star Wars.  From this line-up, I got Han Solo, the Death Star Commander (both of whom still stand on my book shelf today) and Luke.  Since then, I've picked up the droids, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and a LOT of Stormtroopers...
Argos - Autumn 1979
Ah, the joy of board games.  Give or take a few exceptions (the Jaws game is still around, it just goes under a different title now), re-designs and upgrades, these aren't too dissimilar to what you'd find in an Argos catalogue today, 37 years later.
Argos - Autumn 1980
The girls section - TJ loved Sindy and had a Girls World but never really got into Barbie, as I recall.
Argos - Autumn 1980
"Wait, you mean there's a thing we can plug into the telly and we can play games on it?  Really?  How is that possible?
(slight pause as 11-year-old me absorbs the information).  Dad?  Dad!  Dad, can we get one?"
To my Mum & Dad's credit, we got the Binatone system (top left, on the right hand page) - I loved the 'tennis' and target practise games
Argos - Spring/Summer 1985
"Wait a minute, you can buy this thing called a Walkman and play your own tapes and listen as you walk around and do stuff?  Really?  Wow, the future is here."  I was 15 going on 16 when this was published, can you imagine how I'd have reacted to a modern mobile phone, which performs the task of items on several pages of the Argos book.
On the Walkman front, Back To The Future (which came out at the end of the year) made them seem even cooler... 
Argos - Autumn 1985
By now I was sixteen, so I'd moved on from checking out the toys in the Christmas catalogues.  But I've included this because for my birthday in 1985 I got the Kodak Disc camera (item 1) here and the pouch (item 5) to protect it.  As an upgrade from my old camera (which used 127 film!), I thought it was terrific - though the images, it turned out, were much grainier.  But the freedom the camera gave me was amazing and I began taking A LOT of photographs...
Argos - Autumn 1986
Now 17, I'd  started work (at Hunters Foods) so I suddenly had my own funds to buy the things I wanted - and one of those was a Swatch watch.  To me, at the time, Swatch was one of the coolest brands around and I was the proud owner of item 12 (which, at £24, was pretty expensive back then).  But just look at this page and those colours, it couldn't be anything other than the mid-80s, could it?  Glorious! 

Thanks to Retrosmash for the Argos scans.  Action Man and Corgi catalogue scans from my own collection.