Monday, 30 November 2020

At Home In The Shadows, by Gary McMahon

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 November 2020

Ten Favourite Covers: The Three Investigators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See other Ten Favourite Cover posts here...

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

Monday, 16 November 2020

Christmas Wishes, by Sue Moorcroft

Regular blog readers will know I've been friends with Sue Moorcroft for a while, having met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (the group leader was of a more literary bent, so we genre writers were consigned to the back of the room, where we had great fun).  Since then she's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promise), becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller and her novel from last year, A Summer To Remember (which I wrote about here) won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020.  As well as featuring her a lot on blog (to see more, click this link), I'm also pleased to be one of her beta-readers and thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel, Christmas Wishes, now available in paperback and as an e-book.
A sparkling Christmas read from the Sunday Times bestseller – perfect to snuggle up with this winter!

Hannah and Nico are meant to be together.

But fate is keeping them apart…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

A Wing And A Prayer, by M W Arnold

To mark the publication of his new novel, A Wing And A Prayer, my friend Mick Arnold contributes this guest blog about the origins of his book.

The Air Transport Auxiliary Mystery Club!

Four ladies of the Air Transport Auxiliary bond over solving the mystery of who was responsible for the death of one’s sister. Battling both internal forces and those of the country’s mutual enemies, the women find that both love and dangers are cousins cut from the same ilk.

This is a sweeping story of love, death and betrayal set against the backdrop of war when ties of friendship are exceptionally strong.

Exclusive Extract:

“Mind the duck!”

Mary’s warning was a smidgeon too late. Betty turned her head toward the shout just when she needed to do the exact opposite and keep her eyes on the path. 

“Aargh!” cried Betty as she was sent sprawling to the ground. 

A loud, angry, “Quack! Quack!” was followed by a flurry of wings and feathers as the slightly stunned duck half flew and half staggered to the sanctuary provided by the river. 

“I did tell her to watch out for the duck,” Mary muttered in her own defense as they rushed to help Betty to her feet. 

Penny and Doris took an arm each as Mary reached to retrieve Betty’s handbag. It had landed precariously close to the edge of the river, and the dastardly duck was snuffling at it before Mary seized it and handed it back to Betty. 

“Mary!” cried Betty. “Grab that envelope!” 

Swiveling, Mary saw a large brown envelope and stooped for it before it could fall into the water. “Got it!” she yelled, waving it in the air. Unfortunately, the envelope being upside down, the contents spilled onto the ground around her, luckily missing going into the river. She bent down to pick them up and was surprised to discover they were all newspaper cuttings. 

Hands up who’s heard someone say, I could write a book…only I don’t have the time. I always want to shout at them. Well, make the time!

My new book, A Wing and a Prayer isn’t one of those. Saying this, I also have to say, it wasn’t planned. At no point in my relatively short writing life had I ever planned to write in this genre. I thought I’d be writing, or attempting to write, Women’s Fiction/Romances. Next thing I know, I’ve written a World War 2 Historical Saga –actually, as I write this, book 2 is with my publishers and book 3 is a quarter done – and received a publishing deal. Isn’t life strange?

So, how did it come about? Well, after The Season for Love my body decided the best thing it could do would be to ‘break’ for the best part of two years. At times like this, you discover who your friends are. One of them gave me some very good advice. Don’t try and pick up something you’d been working on, try something new. By going for an unrelated project, I should find myself somewhere I hadn’t been. Somewhat to my surprise, it seems to have worked.

I’ve always loved history, specifically anything to do with flying. As it happened, the same day this was suggested to me, I saw a program called The Spitfire Girls and that sparked the idea that perhaps I could come up with a story set in the Air Transport Auxiliary. A day or so of trawling the internet and the next thing I knew, I had actually planned out about 50% of the first story. I hadn’t set out to write a mystery, yet the girls seemed to migrate towards that thread of their own accord and the rest of the story – how four girls (men, of course, also served in the ATA in much larger numbers) from different walks of life came to live and work together – wrote itself around this thread. Indeed, the first scene in the story finds one of the girl’s sisters being found dead in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth biplane! So, the Air Transport Auxiliary Mystery Club was born.

I served for over sixteen years in the Royal Air Force, travelling all over the world and, of course, the United Kingdom. Some of the bases I served on were once visited by these brave people I've written about and I feel honoured to play a small part in keeping their story alive and in, perhaps, bringing it to a new audience. Their bravery needs to be heard about and with this story, the first in the ‘Broken Wings’ series, I hope to be able to perform this task I've set myself.

Author Bio – 
Mick is a hopeless romantic who was born in England and spent fifteen years roaming around the world in the pay of HM Queen Elisabeth II in the Royal Air Force before putting down roots and realizing how much he missed the travel. This he’s replaced somewhat with his writing, including reviewing books and supporting fellow saga and romance authors in promoting their novels.

He’s the proud keeper of two Romanian Were-Cats, is mad on the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and enjoys the theatre and loving his Manchester-United-supporting wife.  A full member of the Romantic Novelists Association, A Wing and a Prayer will be Mick's second published novel, and he is very proud to be welcomed into The Rose Garden.

Social media links:

Monday, 2 November 2020

Even More Look-In Cover Art

Look-In, 'The Junior TV Times', was a much loved magazine of my childhood (I wrote a Nostalgia post about it in 2016), which helped develop my love for The Six Million Dollar Man, Blondie and behind-the-scenes stuff, amongst other things.  It also featured painted covers, mostly by Arnaldo Putzu, an Italian artist working in London who made his name creating cinema posters for the likes of Morecombe & Wise, Hammer (Creatures the World Forgot and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires), the Carry On series and Get Carter (which I wrote about here).

Looking back over the old covers was wonderful (often reminding me of things I'd completely forgotten about) and I posted some of them in 2018 with a follow-up in 2019.  Now, with little encouragement needed (as ever) and a special focus on 1980 (all of forty years ago), here's another small selection of that wonderful artwork.

While I don't recall seeing this at the time (I was only six), I vividly remember the TV show (as I wrote about before) and collecting the Topps cards with my friends
Look at all that action!
Does anyone remember Flintlock?  Judging by their coverage in the magazine, they must have been big at the time...
I haven't seen it in decades (and not sure it'd be wise to revisit it) but I loved The Man From Atlantis.  I used to use plasters to simulate the webbed skin on my fingers
This shows how long it used to take films to get to TV, as the big Bond film for Christmas 1978 was Diamonds Are Forever (released in 1971)
Was it just me that found Worzel Gummidge terrifying at times (especially when he pulled off his head)?
On a Saturday morning I would often flick between Tiswas and Swap Shop - I liked the anarchy (without, at that time, understanding the concept of it) of the former and the more orderly nature of the latter
Ah, Sir Roger and the excellent "For Your Eyes Only", which I wrote about here

for more, there's a great Look-In archive on Facebook here

Monday, 26 October 2020

Ten Past Three - A Portuguese Ghost Story

I've discussed this incident on the blog before but with Halloween coming up - and the fact that it happened 30 years ago this August - I thought it worth another mention.  I adore the horror genre but I'm relatively rational and, like everyone else, I've often placated my son when he's scared with the phrase "there's nothing there."

But what if there is?
Me and Craig, Cabo da Roca, Portugal.  It was 1990, we all wore short-shorts like this, honestly...
I've loved ghost stories since I was a kid and as a ten-year-old there wasn’t much better than losing myself in a Three Investigator book, or a Peter Haining or Mary Danby collection. I formed ghost hunting groups with friends (one day, I might tell you about the ghost at Blue Bridge, who was said to be Old Nick himself), read as much as I could and scared myself silly with real-life ghost books from the library. Happy days.

I have had three brushes with what I think are perhaps most accurately described as unidentified phenomena. One was with my childhood friend Nick and he still talks about the incident, almost forty years later. Two were with my friend Craig – one was an unidentified flying object and the other, this one, was about ghosts.

In 1989, he & I went on holiday to Portugal. He worked for a travel company, we got a reduced rate, we had a great time. Our hotel was a lovely place, run by a bear of an Englishman, with local staff. Beyond the restaurant/club house was a patio area, then two blocks of apartments – we were on the ground floor of the first, facing back towards the house. We got on well with fellow guests, there was a good atmosphere in general, it was a cracking holiday.

Towards the end of the week, having sworn off drink for a few days (we were twenty and didn’t realise the shots were doubles), we’d had a meal and enjoyed the evening in the club and gone back to our room. It wasn’t a big room – through the front door, the bathroom opened off the hall, then the main room had twin beds, patio doors (which faced out towards the main house) and built in wardrobes across from them (against the back of the bathroom wall). I slept in the bed nearest the wardrobes, Craig had the bed by the window.

On this particular night, nothing spectacular had happened. We chatted for a while, then went to sleep.

A red guard from Flash Gordon.  My version
didn't have a gun...
 I woke up and knew it was the middle of the night, though it wasn’t particularly dark (we tended to keep the curtains open). As my eyes got accustomed to the light, I was very surprised to see someone crouching down beside the bed, staring at me. My over-riding memory of it now is that it looked like one of the red guards from the Flash Gordon film – a monks habit, with the hood drawn up and some kind of gas mask/breathing apparatus obscuring the face. I don’t remember reacting to this interloper, but watched as he stood up and walked carefully around my bed and along the back wall. As the thing reached the end of Craig’s bed (with me now up on one elbow, watching it go), Craig sat bolt upright in bed (and that startled me more than my ghost had).

“What time is it?”

I fumbled for my watch. “Ten past three.”

“Okay,” he said and laid back down. I couldn’t see my ghost any more, so I too laid down and went back to sleep.

The next morning, he was up bright and early and went to reception to make a call. When he got back, he explained he’d wanted to ring his parents, as he was really worried. I asked why and he explained he’d woken up to see two people sitting on the end of his bed, watching him. His first thought was that it must be his parents, checking he was okay, but when he rang home, they were fine and healthy.

As we sat there, on our beds in the early morning Portuguese sunshine, I told him about the thing I’d seen. As we talked, it came to me that maybe my ghost had been moving slowly because he was threading his way between things I couldn’t see, perhaps guests at a party. Guests that might, conceivably, be sitting at the end of Craig’s bed saying “look at that, a ghost person in bed.”

Completely stumped as to what was going on, but convinced the party angle was the one to go for, we trooped off to reception (I don’t know that we expected to find out, maybe that a party had been going on years before, until a fire broke out and killed everyone, but it would have been a start).  We knew the girl behind the counter, who was very nice and had taught us a few words and phrases in Portugese and haltingly tried to explain ourselves.

“We were just wondering if there’d been a party in our room.”  She checked the pigeon hole for our room and came back with our passports. “No, we’re in there, we just wondered if there’d been a party in there before.”

She frowned at us, so we told her the story. About halfway through, she started to hyperventilate. Towards the end, she looked genuinely upset. When we got to the time part, she was very agitated. So much so that she went to get the manager’s wife (a fearsome, if friendly, lady – when I got sunstroke just after arriving, she made sure I got grilled chicken for dinner to help me, even though it wasn’t on the menu). We re-told our story, conscious of the poor receptionist who was, by now, sitting in the backroom being comforted by her colleagues.

The manager’s wife listened to our story, looking at us to make sure we weren’t pulling her leg. She tried the obvious – were monks on my mind, there was a brand of drink called Sandeman whose logo was a man in a cape, all manner of stuff – but realised our story wasn’t going to change. She took us to one side and said, “If you promise not to mention this again, whilst you’re here, you can have free meals for the rest of your stay.”

Did my years of wanting to be a ghost-hunter kick in? Was my drive to discover the paranormal world enough that I would refuse? No, I’m now ashamed to admit that Craig & I thought with our bellies and went for the free meal option.

So, story ended right? We saw something we couldn’t explain, we freaked out a receptionist (who might have been prone to over-react, who knows?) and we were then offered hush money. I’d love to report that we experienced more phenomena but we didn’t – I was wary about being in the room on my own for the duration of our stay, but neither of us ever saw anything untoward in that room again.

It was all finished, except for something we overhead that night at dinner. Sharing our floor in the block were ex-employees of BOAC. Friendly, chatty and very funny, we got on well with them (bearing in mind they were perhaps fifty years older than us) and our little table was next to the large one they occupied.

Obviously, part of our deal was to tell no-one and we adhered to that. So imagine our surprise when the BOAC table started to talk about their previous night. Every one of them had woken up – either from hearing something or through a bad dream – and all of them were tired. We couldn’t resist and leaned back.

“What time was this then?” we asked.

There was general murmuring from the table, as people thought back about it.

So what time did five or six couples – a total of seven separate rooms – all wake up, on the same night, when nothing untoward was happening?

“Ten past three,” they said.

Monday, 19 October 2020

The Mystery Of The Silver Spider, by Robert Arthur

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1969 and 1971), cover art by Roger Hall
Desperately The Three Investigators began to climb the rope.  Far below them, the city lights gleamed and the Denzo River swirled dark and swift in the night.  If they gave up now, they all knew what the guards would do to them.  Suddenly, before he could save himself, Bob's hand slipped and he fell backwards...

Jupe, Pete and Bob uncover a sinister plot when they visit Varania.  For evil forces are out to destroy the tiny country's young Prince and seize power.  But when the priceless Silver Spider goes missing, the boys know it's time for a speedy exit - before they end up in the local torture chamber...

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
by Roger Hall
On their way from a visit to Alfred Hitchcock, the boys are almost involved in a car crash which is only averted due to the quick thinking of Worthington.  In the other car is young Prince Djaro, soon to be crowned ruler of the principality of Varania in Europe, who’s visiting the USA.  They boys quickly become friends and Djaro organises for them to spend the day at Disneyland where the lads discover all is not well in the kingdom.  After Djaro invites them to Varania, they’re visited by Bert Young, a US secret service agent, who wants them to help out.  It seems the Regent, Duke Stefan, has plans for Varania that are not only villainous but most definitely do not involve Prince Djaro.

The eighth Three Investigator book written by the series creator Robert Arthur, he has a lot of fun taking the boys out of Southern California and casting them into the kind of small European kingdom that feels a curious mixture of medieval and modern.  Taking full advantage of castles, dungeons, sewers, history and a rebellion, he clearly enjoys himself giving the boys CIA toys to play with (camera radios and mini-recorders) and the set pieces reflect that though I did miss the usual touch of melancholy Arthur often brought to his work.  The Silver Spider of the title is a small piece of sculpture that plays a very big part in both the book and the rituals of Varania and its disappearance drives the plot, while the resolution of it is very well played.

Characterisation, as always, is spot on and the boys have a good repartee, while Jupiter shows he perfectly understands how he’s sometimes perceived (but thankfully is okay with it) - “I don’t suppose you can call me exactly typical because some people think I’m conceited and use too many long words and sometimes get myself pretty well disliked.  But I can’t seem to change”.  Bob also has a decent part to play, with a couple of bumps to the head and a nice call-back to his injured leg.  There’s a larger supporting cast than usual, so those characters are painted in broader brushstrokes - Djaro, Rudy and Elena, who help them escape - while the villain of the piece, Duke Stefan, is quickly shown to be terrible with a great scene set in a torture chamber (and his plot is intriguingly dastardly).  The set pieces are all action - shinning up and down ropes, boating through cellars, chasing across squares and into church - and very well written with great pace.  A complaint might be that, on occasion, the boys feel like passengers in the adventure as their new friends organise escapes but having said that, it's Bob who hides the Silver Spider and Jupe who figures out how to call attention to Duke Stefan's scheming, so it balances out.  As an aside, at the accident, the boys had “just been to Hollywood to call on Alfred Hitchcock and give him the facts of their latest adventure” so does this happen directly after The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye?  With a cracking pace, an excellent sense of location and some great character work, I thoroughly enjoyed my read and would highly recommend the book.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1972 and 1980), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed in 1982 and never reprinted), 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)

Monday, 12 October 2020

Just Keep Walking, by INXS, at 40

Forty years ago, INXS released their second single to help promote their debut album in October 1980.
Just Keep Walking was written by the band as a whole (a credit tactic their manager Chris Murphy suggested), backed with Scratch and released in Australia and New Zealand in October 1980 and in the UK, by RCA, in May 1981.  It was the only single release from the album and would eventually go gold (selling over 35,000 units) though it took a good few years to do so.

The band had released their first single, Simple Simon/We Are The Vegetables, in May 1980 and performed it live on an afternoon kids show called Simon Townsend's Wonder World (their first TV appearance).  Just Keep Walking, their second single, became something of a pub anthem locally and also broke into the Australian Top 40 (peaking at number 38), leading to them appearing on Countdown for the first time.

Clever words on smooth tongue talking 
Shove it brother 
Just keep walking 

The video was directed by Gary Page, a friend of Michael Hutchence's and shot in one day in September in a warehouse in Sydney, on a budget of "about A$1,200" (according to Kirk Pengilly, introducing it on the I'm Only Looking DVD).  The plastic floor and wall concept was designed by Hutchence (according to Pengilly) to represent a "room within a room".

Andrew Farriss wrote, on the INXS Anthology Liner Notes: "The song lyrics were about life on the road and the pubs: Green grass fields and earth, broken bottles bricks and dirt. By the time we started recording our first album, I had written the lyrics already and showed them to Michael. He liked the line:  Clever words on smooth tongue talking, shove it brother, just keep walking. We knew it would connect with the workers and drinking mob in the pubs."

Tim Farriss told journalist David McGee in June 1983 that the lyric Shove it, brother/Just keep walking "sort of summed up our attitude. We took on an 'angry young man' status because we were working our guts out and still starving."
INXS was released in Australia on 13 October 1980.  Recorded at Trafalgar Studios in Annandale, Sydney, it was co-produced by the band and Duncan McGuire and because of the low budget (Deluxe Records gave them $10,000 to make the whole album), they had to record between midnight and dawn (often after playing live shows earlier in the evening).

I like the album, though it's a very different sound to the one that would make INXS a world-beating group.  Alison isn't so keen on its New Wave-ska-pop style and she's not alone...

I'm not a great fan of the first album. It's naïve and kinda cute, almost. It's these young guys struggling for a sound. All I can hear is what was going to happen later and it's probably an interesting album because of that. Just Keep Walking was the first time we thought we'd written a song. And that became an anthem around town. It's funny, I remember kids in pubs saying it and hearing it on the radio the first time. We'd never heard that before.
- Michael Hutchence

The band's first appearance on Countdown, 5th October 1980.

Discogs release information
I'm Only Looking DVD
Michael Hutchence quote from Burn: The Life and Times of Michael Hutchence and INXS, by Ed St. John
INXS Anthology Liner Notes

Monday, 5 October 2020

Bullet Comic Art

My collection of Bullet comics is slowly growing and I'm thoroughly enjoying the process, picking copies up from here and there.  I found a copy on ebay this week and it occured to me that it's been a while since I showcased some of the covers on the blog.
Bullet, my favourite comic growing up (I wrote a retrospective on it here), was launched by D. C. Thomson on 9th February 1976.  ‘Packed with action stories - fast and furious’, the figurehead and main character, Fireball, promised readers “rough, touch action stories” and the comic duly delivered.  Focussing on action and adventure, science fiction, sport and war, this popular boys comic ran to 32 pages and cost 7p an issue.
As well as the decent array of stories, the comic featured Fireball Calling, a letters page that included trivia, password messages and competitions.  Readers letters got a Fireball t-shirt and the letter of the week won an electronic pocket calculator, which was a big deal then. There were also sports profiles, mostly featuring footballers and fact files, while the back pages often carried “A to Z” entries on various topics.
Me, in 1981, proudly wearing the Fireball jumper knitted by my aunt
The Fireball Club (which you could join for 25p, postal orders only please) gave you the Fireball story (which also acted as the decoder for the Top Secret messages in Fireball Calling) in a red plastic wallet, an ID card and, best of all,  the Fireball ‘Flaming F’ pendant (which was not only very cool, it was worn constantly by Fireball and saved his life on occasion).  I wore mine with pride.

Bullet’s fine run ended with at issue 147 on 2nd December 1978 (as I wrote about here), when it merged with Warlord, a linked comic from the same publisher.  I read it for a while even though, as was often the case, most of the strips I enjoyed didn’t make the transfer while the rest quietly faded out as the weeks or months rolled on.

Reading it back now, more than forty years later, it’s still great fun and I’m thoroughly enjoying the nostalgic blast - in fact, I’m turning some pages and seeing a host of images that instantly push me back to the late seventies.