Monday 30 September 2019

Let It Snow, by Sue Moorcroft - review and Q&A

Regular readers of the blog will know Sue Moorcroft and I have been friends for a while, having met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (the group leader, of a more literary bent, consigned we two genre writers to the back of the room where we had a lot of laughs).  Since then Sue's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promiseand also becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller in the process (with The Little Village Christmas).  With her latest (the fourth) Christmas novel, Let It Snow now out in ebook (and appearing in paperback on 14th November), I'm pleased to be taking part in the book's blog tour.
This Christmas, the villagers of Middledip are off on a very Swiss adventure…

Family means everything to Lily Cortez and her sister Zinnia, and growing up in their non-conventional family unit, they and their two mums couldn’t have been closer.

So it’s a bolt out of the blue when Lily finds her father wasn’t the anonymous one-night stand she’d always believed – and is in fact the result of her mum's reckless affair with a married man.

Confused, but determined to discover her true roots, Lily sets out to find the family she’s never known; an adventure that takes her from the frosted, thatched cottages of Middledip to the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland, via a memorable romantic encounter along the way…

* * *
My review:

Lily Cortez finds out, by accident, that her real father has just died.  Growing up with her sister Zinnia in a two-mum household, she’d assumed - and made her peace with the fact - her father was a donor but now it appears her birth-mother, Roma, had a fling which her mum Patsie, wasn’t best pleased about.  To try and establish links with her “other” family, Lily moves to (Sue's wonderful town of) Middledip to work in the pub her half-brother Tubb runs.  But when he takes a sabbatical to Switzerland, in order to recuperate from a heart attack, Lily finds herself smitten with new bar manager Isaac though, as always in a Sue Moorcroft novel, things don’t run smoothly.

I liked this a great deal - Lily is a fantastic character and her interplay with Isaac is nicely handled, as is her friendship with Carola (from The Little Village Christmas).  It’s always great fun to spend time in Middledip (and revisit a lot of characters from Sue’s previous books) and, this time, the action moves further afield as a big chunk of the novel is set in Switzerland at Christmas, when snow is all around.  The pacing is spot on, the characters and atmosphere and perfectly realised and there’s a well-maintained suspense to the will-they-won’t-they.  Highly recommended.

* * *
5 Questions With Sue Moorcroft:

I decided, on one of our regular get-together's at The Trading Post, to take the opportunity to quiz Sue about the book.

MW:   Let It Snow is a great title, I love that song.  Was it enjoyable fitting the phrase into the novel?

SM:   My publishers suggested it and one other title. I chose Let it Snow because I like the song too. Until then, the favourite song of the singing group in the book, the Middletones, was White Christmas. I changed it.

MW:   Brilliant! The book features a timeline shift where some characters are in Switzerland and some in the UK.  How did you manage that?

SM:   With a giant headache, most of the time. Timelines aren’t my biggest talent so I keep an electronic timetable, which I update as I write the first draft and then again whenever changes occur in subsequent drafts or edits. As well as the characters being in two countries, I had to weave in the timetable for medical treatment of Isaac’s ex-girlfriend Hayley and also the work rota of all the staff at the pub, The Three Fishes. I also had a Google calendar with different characters showing up in different colours.

And yet … when I was on a writing retreat in Italy in the summer I received an email from Avon saying the proofreader thought she’d found an anomaly or two … OK, it was three. I was so sure I’d got it right this time I almost sent the electronic timeline and asked her to check for herself. I’m glad I didn’t because the proofreader was right twice and I was right only once.

While on her research trip, Sue finds one of her novels in German
MW:   Why did you choose to set this novel in Switzerland?

SM:   My friend and fellow author Rosemary J Kind sometimes lives in the UK and sometimes Switzerland. We were talking about her driving to Switzerland in Messenger and she said, ‘If you want to set a book there, you can come with me.’ I got straight on to my editor to see if she thought it was a good idea and, happily for me, she did! Ros and I immediately began planning the trip. I’m indebted to her because she introduced me to her Swiss friends and took me to most of the Christmassy things you find in the book as well as picking me up and driving me through England and France to Switzerland.

MW:   What was your favourite thing about Switzerland?

SM:   The beautiful parts. Lakes, mountains, architecture … everywhere you look is another gorgeous view or elegant building. Also, they really know how to do Christmas. The lights and Christmas markets were breathtaking.

MW:   Do you prefer Middledip in the summer or the winter?

SM:   Winter does make the village look like a Christmas card with frost on the cottages but I don’t mind what the season is, to be honest. I return there with a feeling of pleasure at visiting a place I know well and wondering who I’ll encounter this time. I already know my Winter 2020 book will be set between Middledip and Sweden.

MW:  Great answers, thanks Sue!

SM:   Thanks very much for inviting me onto your blog, Mark, and also for joining the Let It Snow blog tour.

Enjoying a meal in Derby with writing friends (from left, Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs, Richard Barber and Ross Warren), July 2019
* * *
In other news, I was part of the team who have helped keep Rothwell Library open, following the inability of Northampton County Council to conduct themselves in a professional manner.  As we were planning out the activities, I mentioned that Sue & I had done a few library events together and one thing quickly led to another, until we came up with this...

If you're local, we'd love to see you!

Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary, and has been nominated for several other awards, including the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards.

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Amazon author page:

Monday 23 September 2019

The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert B. Parker (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I’ve read and loved, which I know adds to the crime genre and that I think you’ll enjoy you’re a fan.  Of course, since this book is almost fifty years old (published in 1973), you might have already heard of it.
cover scan of my copy, 1987 Penguin edition
For Spenser, that most unorthodox of private detectives, no case is ever straightforward and the theft of a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript proves no exception.  His investigation soon leads him into organised crime, dope-pushing, theft, radical politics, adultery and murder.

The Boston private eye is seldom at a loss, however and with the best left hook since Bulldog Drummond and the neatest line in patter since Philip Marlowe, Spenser takes on all comers.

Spenser (“I was living that year on Marlborough Street, two blocks up from the Public Garden”) is hired by a Boston university to recover a rare medieval manuscript, stolen from their library.  His investigations lead him to SCACE (the Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation) whose secretary, Terry Orchard, is living in rebellion against her rich and prominent parents and when she’s framed for her boyfriends murder, she calls Spenser for help.

As the book that began the series, this is the most hardboiled Spenser I’ve read and it’s interesting to see how elements we’d later take for granted are still finding their feet though the bulk of Spenser’s traits - his code, the humour, the cooking, the doggedness - are all very much in evidence.  This is made more vivid because his usual support team - Susan Silverman and Hawk especially - are missing (Susan won’t appear until the next novel, Hawk arrives in Promised Land), while the book shows him meeting Lieutenant Quirk for the first time (with an abrasive start that slowly calms down) and establishes he already knows Sergeant Belsen.  Spenser is harsher here (Susan’s influence definitely softened his character), sleeping with both a mother and daughter (at separate times) and killing several people, while his interaction with Brenda Loring (mentioned later in The Judas Goat) brings a nice touch of hope to the melancholic finale.  Secondary characters, as ever, are well observed (especially, in this case, Iris Milford and Phil, the enforcer for crime boss Joe Broz), there’s excellent use of location (the sequence at Jamaica Pond, where Spenser gets into real trouble, is excellent and doesn’t shy away from either the boredom or the brutality of the private detective’s lot) and the pace trots along wonderfully.

As always, there’re some nice touches of humour such as when he meets Terry’s stockbroker father and is asked, “Spenser, do you know who I am?'
“I guess you're Terry Orchard's father.”
He hadn't meant that. “Yes,” he said. “I am. I am also senior partner of Orchard, Bonner, and Blanch.”
“Swell,” I said. “I buy all your records.” 

There’s also a beautiful little piece, when Terry takes a drink at Spenser’s apartment.
“She let the smoke slip slowly out of her nose as she sipped her drink, holding the glass in both hands. The smoke spread out on the surface of the bourbon and eddied gently back up around her face. I felt my stomach tighten; I had known someone a long time ago who used to do just that, in just that way.”

For a book that’s almost fifty years old, it stands up very well to a modern read and only some elements - namely the fashion and some of the dialogue from the younger, radical characters - age it.  Otherwise it’s a fantastic crime novel, bracing and harsh and amusing, a cracking start to an excellent series.
1976 Penguin edition
I’ve long been a fan of Robert B. Parker and his Spenser series.  As I wrote in my appreciation of Parker (which you can read it here), I first discovered him in the late 80s as I got into crime fiction (inspired by seeing The Long Goodbye on Moviedrome), having started with Raymond Chandler’s novels, then Sara Paretky’s V I Warshawski series and Sarah Dunant’s Hannah Wolfe novels.  After thoroughly enjoying Promised Land (which I wrote about here), I worked my way back to the beginning.

Robert Brown Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on September 17th, 1932, the only child of Carroll and Mary Parker.  After earning his BA from Colby College in Maine, Parker served in the US Army in Korea and in 1957 earned a Master’s degree in English Literature from Boston University (BU).  He worked in advertising and technical writing and earned a PhD in English Literature from BU in 1971 with a dissertation titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality”, which discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.  He wrote his first novel in 1971, became a full professor in 1976 and turned to full-time writing in 1979 after five Spenser novels had been published.

In addition to the Parker series (he eventually wrote 41 novels, the last two published posthumously, the final completed by literary agent Helen Brann), his prolific output included nine Jesse Stone novels, six in the Sunny Randall series, four in the Cole & Hitch series (including Appaloosa), two Philip Marlowe novels and seven stand-alones.

Parker received three nominations and two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the first for Promised Land, the second being the Grand Master Award Edgar for his body of work in 2002.  In 2008 he was  awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award.

Robert B. Parker died suddenly of a heart attack, sitting at his desk at home, on January 18th, 2010. He was 77.

Monday 16 September 2019

Game Over, by Dan Whitehead (a review and reminisce)

I picked this book up on the off-chance from HMV recently, taking advantage of a price reduction because I was buying some more vinyl.  I've never been that big a gamer but, as long-time readers of the blog will know, I'm quite nostalgic for the 80s and loved the home computer revolution that began in that decade.
Remember the days of bad graphics, glitchy software and seemingly pointless games? What were we thinking? How did we cope? 

This humorous yet fond look at gaming of old is sure to have gamers shaking their heads in wonder and chuckling at the craziness of what we had to put up with. And yet there is no denying that many of the games we played back in that golden era have helped to shape the world of gaming and brought us to where we are now.

Starting with the announcement 2018 was the 40th anniversary of “Space Invaders”, this charts computer/video gaming from its infancy in the 50s and 60s through to today, though it spends a lot of time in the boom of the 70s and 80s, which worked perfectly for me.

The format is simple, each double-page spread commenting either on a particular game, system or historic incident, with Whitehead making for a good host.  He gets across plenty of facts with a good sense of humour, so this reads almost as though you’re sitting down with a more knowledgeable mate and having a nostalgic chat about the computers of your teens.  The games are discussed broadly - though the programmers are almost always named - and the systems are put into context of what they led to, while the artwork is a mixture of screengrabs, cassette covers and production art.

Funny, occasionally enlightening (I didn’t know there were Spectrum games built around James Herbert’s The Rats or The A-Team) and always readable, for someone who came into gaming in the 80s (I had a ZX81), this was an excellent read and I would highly recommend it.

* * *
When Dude was a lot smaller, I introduced him to the joys of Donkey Kong and Frogger via simulators on the laptop and he thoroughly enjoyed them (he wasn't quite a dab hand with his Nintendo DS then), though some of that may have been down to me saying I'd played them when I was a teenager.

Back then, you see, we did think this stuff was cool because - at the time - it was cutting edge.  I remember going to Wicksteeds Park and finding they had the original Atari Star Wars game cabinet where you sat to pilot your (never seen) X-Wing down the wire-frame Death Star canyons (can you imagine that now with photo-real games?).  I loved it and, probably, contributed a significant chunk to the Wicksteeds profits for that summer.

What follows is some idea of what we had to look forward to in the early 80s.  Talking to Dude now, who has a PS4 in his bedroom and spends a lot of time watching other people play on YouTube, he can't believe life was ever this primitive.

"Oh yes," I tell him, "but back then, this was all unbelievably exciting!"

1981 advert for the ZX81 - 16k RAM pack add-on!  Thermal printer!  It was all mod-cons!
from the 1982 Argos catalogue, a good range of electronic games.  I had Demon Driver and loved it - I really wanted Tin Can Alley but, to this day, I've never had a go on one
My friend David Roberts still has his C64, though I don't think he's used it in a while. 
Taken from the Argos catalogues of 1983 (right) and 1984 (left)
The ZX Spectrum, from the 1985 Argos catalogue.  £119.95 was a hefty sum then.
All those games (ad from 1984), all those brand names!

February 1983 - me, my much loved ZX81 and the portable TV you had to tune to the stations.
In 1983 I was part of the Rothwell Parish Church Youth club quiz team that competed in a grand Quiz Championship at the YMCA centre in Northampton with loads of other teams from the Midlands and East Anglia.  We reached the final and the last round, with everything to play for, was on films.  It was one of my specialist rounds and as the question-master cleared his throat, my team mates looked at me.  I looked at them and tried not to appear worried.  All I remember now is that the last three questions were based on E.T. and I was the only kid in the room who'd seen it.  We won the cup and I was absolutely thrilled.
David with the BBC Micro
I took Computer Studies as a class at school and the room had a handful of BBC Micro's for us to use and I remember them as being relatively easy to program (I passed my exam that year, having written a learning game for infants school pupils).  In 2018, David & I went to the National Video Games Museum in Nottingham with Dude (he was lured in by the Space Invaders cabinet and we didn't see him for ages) and found a machine, all hooked up and ready to program.  We spent a wonderful 15 minutes or more, typing in variations of 10 PRINT "WE WERE HERE" 20 GOTO 10.

Monday 9 September 2019

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Poster Magazines

Back in the 1970s and 80s, a publication I really enjoyed was the “poster magazine”.  The format was always the same, an A4 glossy colour magazine which folded out into a (large) A1-sized sheet.  One side would be the magazine itself, the covers and articles with plenty of photographs.  The reverse side would be a giant poster and, depending on what you’d bought, the image might be a person, an action scene or the film poster.  They were really popular and most kids I knew had at least one huge poster on their wall.

me, in 1978, with a poster of my hero
Dez Skinn (who later created Starburst magazine) produced Monster Mag from 1973 to 1977 which featured gory movie stills from the likes of Hammer Films and Amicus.  TV series offered one or two editions (though some, like Star Trek, ran to series) and you could pick up issues devoted to The Six Million Dollar Man, Doctor Who, Space: 1999The ProfessionalsThe Hulk, Battlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes.  Music got in on the act too but even more popular were the film tie-in’s, featuring the likes of Star Wars, Superman, James Bond, Jaws, Alien and Buck Rogers - if it was a blockbuster, there’d be a poster magazine on the newsagents shelves sooner rather than later.

I haven’t seen one for sale in years (spacemonstersmag reckons they died out in the 1990s) but still have a few in my collection (though not on the walls of my study) and think they’re great fun, another nostalgic item for film and TV fans of a certain age.

Which ones did you have on your wall?
 As I may have mentioned before, I was a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man (as the picture from 1978 duly proves, showing the poster from this magazine on my wall...)
Star Wars was a natural fit for the poster magazine, hugely popular and full of fantastic imagery.  This continued through The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi (one of the issues for that featured a 50-facts breakdown of the special effects which I loved).
 Then and now, I'm a huge fan of The Professionals
I like Moonraker (and wrote about it here)
 One of my favourite films, I wrote about Raiders here

with thanks to spacemonstersmag

Monday 2 September 2019

The Six Million Dollar Man, at 45

The Six Million Dollar Man was an American TV series that ran (in the US) from March 1973 through to March 1978 over five series and 99 episodes (plus six TV movies) and was shown in over 70 countries.
Steve Austin first appeared in Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel Cyborg, which was quickly followed by three sequels, Operation Nuke, High Crystal and Cyborg IV.  The first TV movie, based on Cyborg, aired in 1973.  Written by Howard Rodman (it was nominated for a Hugo Award), it made several changes to the novel - plot modifications and Austin was now a Colonel in the US Air Force - and proved very successful, leading to two more ‘Movie Of The Week’ presentations, Wine, Women And War (in October 73) and The Solid Gold Kidnapping (in November 1973).  The weekly hour-long series began in January 1974 (it began 5th September 1974 here in the UK) and was very well received, introducing several pop culture references of the 1970s such as the opening catchphrase (“We can rebuild him...we have the technology”), the slow-motion action sequences and the related bionic sound-effects.  It also made an icon of Lee Majors, who played Colonel Steve Austin.
The crash shown in the opening sequence was real, an M2-F2 grounded on 10th May 1967 (test pilot Bruce Peterson survived) and the dialogue spoken by Lee Majors is based on Peterson’s communications.  The later narration, by initial series producer Harve Bennett, serves to identify our hero - “Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive” - before Richard Anderson, as Oscar Goldman (Steve’s boss), says, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.  We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better... stronger... faster.”  This is heard over images of the bionics being fitted, before we see Austin running to the rousing theme music, composed by Oliver Nelson.
The Six Million Dollar man’s bionics had limits set by producer Kenneth Johnson to maintain plausibility in the show.  He said, in interview, “When you’re dealing with the area of fantasy, if you say, ‘Well, they’re bionic so they can do whatever they want,’ then it gets out of hand, so you’ve got to have really, really tight rules. They can jump up two storeys but not three. They can jump down three but not four.”  Steve was fitted with a bionic left eye, bionic legs (allowing him to run at 60mph and make huge leaps) and a bionic right arm (left in the Cyborg novel), though the implants are shown to fail in extreme cold.  To indicate when Austin was using his bionics, sequences were presented in slow-motion and accompanied by electronic sound effects - to the delight of kids (such as myself at the time).  When the bionic eye is used, the camera zooms in on his face, followed by an extreme close-up of his eye and his point-of-view includes a crosshair.  For his running and jumping, in slow-motion, the sound effects were originally used by the clone of Major Fred Sloan (John Saxon) in Day Of The Robot.  Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) was introduced as “The Bionic Woman” in 1975 and given her own series in 1976.

Me, in 1978, with a poster of my hero
I’m sure it wasn’t designed to be but the series had great appeal to children and the show was far less violent than the source novels.  Lee Majors, who’d already made a name for himself in The Big Valley, among other series, became hugely popular, helped by his movie-star looks and charm (he was also married to the world’s number one pin-up, actress Farrah Fawcett-Majors, which didn’t hurt) - he also became my hero.  The show sparked a merchandising extravaganza and here in the UK Denys Fisher produced a twelve-inch-tall action figure, dressed in a red tracksuit and trainers, which had a bionic eye you looked through (though it made your own eye ache to do so) and a bionic right arm (covered with an elastic, skin-like material that hid a removable bionic module).  The figure also came with an engine block to lift (there was a ratchet motion on the bionic arm) and there were other accessories, including a ‘bionic transport and repair station’ that I really wanted but never got.  There were also two board games, produced by Parker Brothers (I got them for Christmas though they weren’t as exciting to play as the box cover suggested) and snap-together models.
Sound effects provided by child!

Look-In magazine (which I blogged about here) featured a weekly comic strip version written by Angus P. Allan and drawn by Martin Asbury, full of action and excitement and there were four annuals produced too (I have all but the last one).  In addition to the Caidin novels, several episodes were novelised with most writers choosing to base their character on the literary Steve Austin, rather than the TV hero.  Mike Jahn wrote four (Wine, Women and WarThe Rescue of Athena One, The Secret of Bigfoot and International Incidents), while Evan Richards and Jay Barbree contributed one each (Solid Gold Kidnapping and Pilot Error respectively).
Ah, the joy of the Christmas annual...
Posters from Look-In
Both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were cancelled in 1978 though the characters returned in three TV movie re-unions, The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1987), Bionic Showdown (1989) and Bionic Ever After? (1994) in which Austin and Sommers married.
Steve Austin and his boss, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson)

* * *
Lee Majors was born Harvey Lee Yeary in Wyandotte, Michigan on 23rd April 1939.  His parents, Carl and Alice Yeary, died in separate accidents (before his birth and when he was one, respectively) and he was adopted, aged two, by an uncle and aunt in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  Earning a scholarship to Indiana University, he transferred to Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond in 1959 where a severe back injury left him paralysed for two weeks and ended his college athletics career.  He turned to acting before he graduated, in 1962, with a degree in History and Physical Education.  Moving to LA, he worked at the Los Angeles Park and Recreation Department while studying acting and picked his stage name as a tribute to his childhood hero Johnny Majors.  After some television guest appearances he was cast in The Big Valley in 1965, making films in the downtime and when the show was cancelled in 1969 signed a long-term contract with Universal Studios.  He won the role of Colonel Steve Austin in 1973, making his directorial debut in 1975 with the sports-themed episode One Of Our Running Backs Is Missing.  Following the cancellation of the series he made several films (including the wonderful Killer Fish in 1979) before moving back to television with The Fall Guy in 1981 (I also wrote about the series here), another huge success.  That series finished in 1986 but Majors has worked steadily, on television and in film, ever since.  Married four times (Farrah Fawcett was his second wife, married in 1973, they divorced in 1982) and has four children.

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

Kenneth Culver Johnson was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on October 26, 1942 and graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology.  Working almost exclusively in television, he produced The Six Million Dollar Man and created The Bionic Woman (1976), The Incredible Hulk series (1977), V (1983, the TV movie as opposed to the series) and the TV adaptation (1989) of Alien Nation, among others.