Tuesday 21 December 2021

The Thirteenth Annual Westies - review of the year 2021

Well, after another odd year, here we are again, gearing up for Christmas and so it's time to indulge in the annual blog custom and remember the good books of 2021.

Once again, it's been a great reading year for me (in fact, I've read more books this year than I have since I began my spreadsheet in 2002) with a nice mixture of brand new novels, a few books that have languished on my TBR pile for too long, some good second-hand finds (which jumped straight to the top of the pile) along with some welcome re-reads.

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

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

2:   Season Of Mist, by Paul Finch
3:   Valley Of Lights, by Stephen Gallagher
4:   The Saturday Night Ghost Club, by Craig Davidson
6:   Summer At The French Park Café, by Sue Moorcroft *
7:   Clown In A Cornfield, by Adam Cesare
8:   Of Men And Monsters, by Tom Deady
9:   Don't Turn Around, by Jessica Barry
10: Blow Out, by Neal Williams
11: Reckless, by R J McBrien
13: The Flight, by Julie Clark
14: Driftnet, by Lin Anderson
15: The Other Passenger, by Louise Candlish
16: Murder Most Unladylike, by Robin Stevens
18: Later, by Stephen King
20: The Cottingley Cuckoo, by AJ Elwood

* This will be published in the summer of 2022, I read it to critique

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1=: Days & Ages, by Mark Beaumont
3:  The Storyteller, by Dave Grohl
4:  The Bassoon King, by Rainn Wilson
5:  Paperbacks From Hell, by Grady Hendrix
6:  Lonely Boy, by Steve Jones
7:  In The Pleasure Groove, by John Taylor
8:  A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away, by Paul Hirsch
9:  Imperfect Hero: Harrison Ford, by Garry Jenkins
10: Star Wars Year By Year, by Lucy Dowling

Stats wise, I’ve read 91 books - 42 fiction, 21 non-fiction, 16 comics/nostalgia/kids and 12 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 79 books, the breakdown is thus:

7 biography
20 horror
14 film-related
6 drama (includes romance)
16 crime/mystery
5 sci-fi
2 nostalgia
9 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

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

Monday 13 December 2021

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Christmas Annuals (part 5)

"Christmas is coming!"
Me, Christmas 1975 - 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 6-year-old kid look?
Welcome to the fifth post (you can find the others on these links, for 20172018, 2019 and 2020) showcasing one of the Christmas highlights from when I was a kid (beyond the catalogues I wrote about in 2016), seeing which annual I got that particular year.  If you don't remember them, annuals were (and still are) large size hardback books, designed for children and based on existing properties, generally comics and popular TV shows, as well as the occasional film and sport and pop round-ups.

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

Generally published towards the end of the year, annuals are cover-dated as the following year to ensure shops don't take them off the shelves immediately after the new year (though, by then, unsold copies are often heavily reduced).  Still as popular now, the only difference (apart from the fact kids today don't have the choice of comics we did) seems to be that they're skinnier (and that's not just me being all nostalgically misty about it - my ones from the late 70s and early 80s are substantially chunkier than the ones I bought for Dude when he was younger - he's 16 now and annuals don't feature on his wish list).

Here, then, is another selection of old favourites, ones I received and ones I remember my sister Tracy having.  I hope some of them inspire a warm, nostalgic trip down memory lane for you...

It's often said you were either a "Blue Peter kid" or a "Magpie kid" but I used to alternate between the two.  Which did you prefer?
I started watching this because of Captain Scarlet and didn't remember a great deal about it, to be honest, until I caught up with it on ForcesTV.  It hasn't aged well, it must be said, though the model work is superb.
 Rupert The Bear makes his statutory appearance...
I was a big fan of The Professionals and still am, the shows holding up remarkably well (as do the novelisations, which I wrote about here).
The Six Million Dollar Man led me to the Bionic Woman, which I watched and enjoyed.  I don't think I've ever seen Max The Bionic Dog though (I wonder if he got his own annual...).
Probably the line-up I remember the most.
The series had long finished by the time this was published and I didn't realise it existed until I started researching these blog posts.  How could I have missed this, from my childhood hero (who I wrote about here)?
Spun off from the TV show (which I remember finding extremely funny), I wonder how much of the humour went sailing over my head?

Happy Christmas!

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

You can read more of my nostalgia posts here

Monday 29 November 2021

Visions Of Ruin, a horror novella

After it was revealed in the latest NewCon Press newsletter, I'm proud to announce that they will be publishing my horror novella, Visions Of Ruin, early in 2022.
Me, on a Surrey bike, just outside Holimarine Corton, summer 1986
Having spent the last four years writing three mainstream thriller novels (which are now going to be published by The Book Folks, as I wrote about here), I've only dipped a toe back into horror when people have asked for short stories.  But the genre is in my blood and when Ian Whates asked if I'd like to write a novella for him, I jumped at the chance - I like and respect him a lot and I'm proud to be associated with NewCon Press.

Ian writes in the newsletter:
"I am delighted to welcome Mark West back to NewCon Press' publishing schedule. Mark's short fiction has appeared in several of our anthologies over the years, including Ten Tall Tales and Hauntings, but this time he contributes a longer piece, Visions of Ruin, which will be the 8th entry in our NP Novella series. I rate this as Mark's most accomplished work to date, and was bowled over by it on first reading."

I began work on the novella whilst my latest thriller - Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine - was out on submission and it was a real delight to go back to horror, working in the novella format which I think suits the genre so well.  The idea took a little while to come together but once I realised it was set in the 80s, featuring teenagers in a rainy seaside town, I was off and running, the writing process itself (which involved me drawing several maps of the caravan park central to the story) being hugely enjoyable.

Ian, from the newsletter:
"A week in a caravan at 'The Good Times Holiday Park' at the edge of a rundown seaside town is not exactly the holiday sixteen-year-old Sam has been dreaming of, but he knows his mum is struggling and doing the best she can. At least he meets someone his own age to hang out with – Polly – but neither of them are prepared for the strangeness that ensues. Full of deft touches that bring the 1980s setting to life and populated with a cast of fully rounded characters that the reader can immediately relate to, Visions of Ruin will be released in early 2022."

I will post more details when I'm able, but I have to say, I'm looking forward to seeing Sam and Polly ride their Surrey bike out into the world.

Thanks to Ian for both asking for and then enjoying the story enough to want to publish it, Nick Duncan for taking the picture all those years ago and for our adventures on the east coast in the 80s, Teika Marija Smits who helped push me to start and, as always, David Roberts for the Friday Night Walks and the mammoth plotting sessions.

Monday 15 November 2021

The Mystery Of The Shrinking House, by William Arden

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 in 1973 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators followed the winding path.  All at once, a loud chilling scream echoed through the jungle vegetation.  It sounded again - directly in front of them!

Jupiter parted some thick leaves.  In a small clearing crouched a huge spotted cat.

“A leopard!” Jupiter said.  “Run!”

A voice spoke sharply from behind them.

“So!  I’ve caught you.  Don’t try to get away.”

They whirled to see a big, bear-like man.  In his hand was a gleaming spear…

The boys are on a buying trip with Uncle Titus, visiting the home of Professor Carswell and his son Hal, who are looking to sell the few belongings of their recently deceased tenant, Joshua Cameron, who died owing them money.  Cameron was an artist and among his possessions are twenty paintings, all showing his cottage, though it changes size in each one (looked at in order, the cottage appears to shrink, hence the title).  Jupiter thinks he spots someone and the boys end up chasing the intruder through the canyon, though he escapes in a car.  After Uncle Titus has managed to sell all of Cameron’s goods (including the paintings), the boys are contacted by the Countess and her estate manager, Armand Marchal.  It seems she is Cameron’s much younger sister, though they’ve been estranged for a while and she’s keen to have something to remember her brother by.  On the trail of the missing paintings which may - or may not - lead to riches, the boys encounter DeGroot, a mysterious Dutch art dealer and have run ins with Skinny Norris, with more villains popping up as the hunt intensifies.

The fourth book in the series by William Arden (the pen name of thriller writer Dennis Lynds) after a break of two years (he wrote The Mystery Of The Moaning Cave (1968) whilst creator Robert Arthur was still alive, then continued the series with The Mystery Of The Laughing Shadow (1969) and The Secret Of The Crooked Cat (1970)), this is as tightly plotted and well paced as all his books.  Arden makes good use of the canyon and gully around the Carswell property, while Cameron’s cottage is cracking location for some nicely done ‘in peril’ sequences.  There’s also a cleverly constructed ‘locked room’ mystery mid-way through at the studio of artist Maxwell James (who supplies the leopard seen on the paperback art).  Headquarters is used sparingly although, following an uncharacteristic slip by Jupiter, the Junkyard hosts an amusing scene where it’s over-run with local kids trying to help as part of the Ghost-to-Ghost hook-up.

The central mystery - the story behind the paintings and how they might lead to treasure - is well handled, if occasionally dry but having said that, the logic of it works perfectly and it plays out nicely, with Jupe putting the clues together well (and Hitchcock matching him in the deductions later).  The boys all have a clear role to play, the supporting characters are well-rounded and serve a purpose and it’s always fun to have Uncle Titus involved.  The Hitchcock intro is odd though, with the master director suddenly having an attitude similar to the one he had on The Secret Of Terror Castle.

As well written as we’ve come to expect from William Arden, this has some smart set pieces and also what I hope are some nice little in-jokes.  I really want Professor Carswell to be a nod to Night Of The Demon while one of Cameron’s bric-a-brac items was sold to a Mrs Leary who lives on Rojas Street (Rojas was the main villain from The Mystery Of The Silver Spider).  A solid plot, a great sense of location and some nice interplay with the boys, this is an entertaining read that I’d very much recommend.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1976 and 1979), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1981 and 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition, more's the pity - the US had some and I'd like to have seen Roger Hall's take on them.

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

Monday 1 November 2021

Under The Mistletoe, 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, 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, Under The Mistletoe, now available in paperback and as an e-book.

Snuggle up with a mince pie, a cup of cocoa and the most heartwarming book this Christmas from the bestselling Sue Moorcroft.

Christmas. A time for family, friends – and rekindling old flames…

When Laurel returns to the village of Middledip, she’s looking for a quiet life. Adjusting to her recent divorce, she’s ready to spend some time getting back on her feet amidst the glorious snow-dusted countryside.

Yet, life in Middledip is far from straightforward. Coming to the aid of her sister, Rea, as she navigates her own troubles, Laurel barely has a moment to think about where her own life is going.

However, time stands still when she sees her old flame, Grady Cassidy – and it’s soon as if they’ve never been apart. But through her happiness, Laurel remembers why she left the village all those years ago, as she recalls a dark night and Grady’s once-wayward brother, Mac…

Can Laurel learn to forgive and forget? Or will her chances of Christmas under the mistletoe with Grady remain a dream?

My review:
Another winner, this is set in the heart of Sue's beloved Middledip and all the better for it.  Laurel, orphaned as a teen and looked after by her older sister Rea, left Middledip after a sexual assault and only comes back as a thirtysomething to help Rea with her daughter Daisy.  While there, she literally bumps into one of the group who attacked her, along with his brother Grady, who Laurel fancied at the time and still, she discovers, has a thing for.  Now a successful artist, Laurel is soon drawn into village life and as her relationship with Grady builds, so does the inevitable confrontation with the people who caused her so much anguish.  Strikingly well told, as always, this is filled with vivid characters (a lot of whom have either been the protagonists of previous novels, or were at least featured players), plenty of humour and a willingness to deal with the grittier side of life.  Hugely entertaining, thoroughly embracing the spirit of Christmas (I defy anyone to read this and not see the little cottages swathed in snow) and told with wit and pace, this is a cracking novel and I highly recommend it.
* * *

Thankfully - taking care to mask up and socially distance - Sue & I have been able to start meeting again, to chat over a drink at The Trading Post and I took the chance to ask her a few questions about the new novel.

MW:   Thanks for doing this Sue and I have to say, the book is a real treat.  What was it that sparked it off in the first place?

SM:   I had a memory of something that I think happened locally when I was at senior school, which caused a bit of a stir. I remember hearing a man say, dismissively, ‘Surely it was just horseplay that got out of hand?’ and I wasn’t impressed with his attitude. I haven’t given the exact same situation to Laurel but one that has much in common with it. Then I sat back and tried to work out the attitudes of various characters. It soon became clear that forgiveness - or being unable to forgive - was going to be a major theme.

MW:   I really enjoyed your setting for the book and I'm sure your fans will too but for you, as the writer, how much fun was it being back in Middledip for Christmas?

SM:   A lot. Middledip certainly knows how to do Christmas! The pub’s lit up like Santa’s Grotto and there are Christmas trees in every window. I enjoyed creating a village art group and have them all make Christmassy things. The cover image is actually a slice of a picture painted as a community art project.

MW:   There's a testing of sibling love in the story, did that come from personal experience?

SM:   Not at all. I’m very lucky that I get on extremely well with my brothers. I think that’s why I went onto Twitter and asked people how they’d feel if their sibling had been involved in ‘horse play that got out of hand’, especially if they loved them and looked up to them. Interestingly, not a single person said they’d overlook it. They spoke of disappointment and disillusionment. They felt that when trust was broken at such a fundamental level it would be hard to deal with, despite them continuing to love the person in question. I don’t think I could have had Grady and Mac stop speaking or anything, though.

MW:   I remember reading some of the online responses and have to say, I felt the same way.  Moving on a big element of the novel is accepting people's faults and issues and forgiving them.  Where did that come from?

SM:   When Grady learned the truth about what Mac got caught up in led me to puzzle over how Laurel was going to be able to move forward with a life with Grady. Her - very understandable - feelings had painted her into a corner. In fact, she’s plagued by a desire for revenge, rather than a wish to let bygones by bygones.

Mac was in a bad situation, too. He was horrified when Laurel returned to the village. To him, her reappearance threatened everything he’d worked for and the peace of everyone he loved. We can’t forgive to order or stop feeling something just because someone wants us to. She had to have a moment when she could see a way for everyone to get what they wanted. She and I puzzled over that for a long time!

MW:   And the business with the compostable wreaths!

SM:   Did you like that idea?

MW:   Yes, I really did.

SM:   Last year, I had a couple made by a friend of the family. I really liked the natural look and I also liked the idea of there being no plastic or wire involved. You need something whippy like willow, beech or clematis so you can wind it into a circlet. Collect evergreen leaves, cones, seed heads and berries and, using 100% jute twine, tie them into little bunches. Then tie the bunches on the circlet so they lie attractively. You don’t have to cover the entire circlet - half covered looks nice, too. After Christmas put the wreath on your compost heap or garden refuse bin instead of contributing to landfill.

I know you’re going to rush off and make one, now…

MW:   I am.  Though Dad's a big fan of yours, so if he reads this, he might not be surprised come Christmas...  

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.

Monday 25 October 2021

Halloween Horrors (Old School Horror Paperback Covers)

It's almost Halloween, when all the ghosts and ghouls come calling (usually for chocolate), when the evenings are dark and the air smells of woodsmoke and the thoughts of us all turn to the idea of watching or reading something scary and creepy.
For my fourth Halloween post (previously I wrote about VHS cover artbehind the scenes special effects shots and Top Trumps), I've decided to stick with something I love, the cracking paperback covers of the 70s and 80s.  One of the blogs I follow is Will Errickson's Too Much Horror Fiction, where he posts some cracking scans (I've tracked down a few of the books because of them) and in a nice twist, he sought out The Happy Man based on my post about the Eric Higgs novel.  Looking at those old covers reminds me of being a young horror reader in the 80s when there was so much reading waiting for me to discover (along with the awful realisation that sometimes the artwork was the best thing about the whole book) and so much to be enjoyed.

These fit perfectly into my occasional Old School Paperbacks thread, blogs celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten .  They might not be great art, certainly, but they have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

So with that in mind, enjoy this Halloween treat of covers that (on occasion) promise far more than they deliver...
New English Library, 1978 - cover scan of my copy
I first encountered this book at my cousin's - the back copy, amongst the film credits, calls Rick Baker 'the master of them all' for his make-up effects.

Sphere, 1978 - cover scan of my copy
This promises everything, doesn't it - ravening, gut-chilling worm-power (what the hell is worm power?).  As it is, I read this earlier in the year and enjoyed it well enough (you can read my review at Goodreads here).  And  in a nice touch, even though the technology didn't exist when this was designed, if you scroll up the screen with your mouse roller, the title text seems to wiggle.

New English Library, 1980 - cover scan by Will
My Dad had this edition on his bookshelf and it scared the living daylights out of me.  A few years later, around about the time the first Evil Dead film was being banned in the UK, someone at school mentioned how gruesome this book was and so, of course, a bunch of us read it.  As I recall, the scene in the school was considered the worst (we were all about 12 or 13 at the time) but, as an adult, I found the suicide at sea sequence much more disturbing.

New English Library, 1980 - cover scan of my copy
There is so much to enjoy about this - the font, the blurb, the woman, the horns, that skull.  Genius.

Pocket Books, 1981 - cover scan by Will
Brings new meaning to the term "chained to the photocopier..."

New English Library, 1982 - cover scan by Will
Mr Johnson was obviously on a winning streak, though this cover's not a patch on The Succubus, but I do love the way NEL have re-defined the word Homunculus (the Oxford English dictionary says it's 'a microscopic but fully formed human being from which a fetus was formerly believed to develop').
Futura Publications, 1983 - cover scan of my copy
I'm not entirely sure how this glorious cover (the screaming woman is lifted from the poster of the 1981 shocker Nightmares In A Damaged Brain) reflects a novel about killer jellyfish but I've read it (and blogged about it here) and quite enjoyed it.

Pocket Books, 1984 - cover scan by Will
Is it just me, or did you look at this picture and hear that little Bill And Ted air-guitar-riff?

Panther, 1985 - cover scan of my copy
Peter Tremayne is apparently the fiction writing pseudonym of the Celtic scholar and author Peter Berresford Ellis.  The hardback edition (which I can't find a decent scan of, unfortunately) features a lifted image from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Pocket Books, 1985 - cover scan by Will
This might well be a terrific novel (Kirkus reviews seemed to like it) but I think Village Voice might be overplaying their hand here.  As an aside, Campbell Black wrote the original novelisation for Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981 and The Intruder, which I blogged about here.

Signet, September 1985 - cover scan by Will
I'm not sure how it took three people to write this (Bischoff is a noted sci-fi novelist and scriptwriter) but it sounds like fun.  Here's the blurb - A college professor of medieval literature, drunk and desperate to liven up a dull party, performs a demon-summoning ritual, which, unexpectedly, succeeds. The demon, a four thousand year old half-human female, proves more alluring and mischievous than the professor anticipates, and proceeds to turn his life upside down.

Paperjacks edition, 1986 - cover scan of my copy
I reviewed this slim novel in an earlier blog post, which you can find here and liked it a lot.

Tor ,1987 - cover scan by Will
This is the kind of kiss where, in later years, they reminisce and laugh, saying "remember that time our teeth clashed?"

Arrow Books, 1987 - cover scan of my copy
John Halkin is, apparently, the pseudonym of an unknown British author who's most famous for writing the 80s "slimy" trilogy - Slime, Slither and Squelch - none of which I've managed to find reasonably priced copies for.  All look like cheesy fun as, indeed, is this one.  I read it earlier this year and you can find my review at Goodreads here.  The US had an alternate cover, which Will posted, though I prefer the UK one.
Guild Press, 1988 - cover scan by Will

Leisure Books, 1989 - cover scan by Will
A skull, shark teeth, some kind of weird eye - seriously, what's not to like?

Pocket Libary, 1989 - cover scan by Will
I love this cover and I think that's because the thing we initially think is the monster with a screwed up face might, in fact, just be a person who's been startled by the monster grabbing their shoulders from behind!

Tor Books, 1994 - cover scan by Will
Published in 1994 (but an honorary 80s cover, I'm sure you'll agree), this must have caught the tail end of the horror boom.  I first saw this on TMHF and managed to track down a copy (for much less than I thought) through Amazon US - I mean, what a fantastic cover (by Joe DeVito).

* Thanks to Will for the use of his scans

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

Monday 11 October 2021

Writing News!

I have some exciting writing news that, to be perfectly honest, I'm chuffed to bits with.  As of last week, when I signed the contract, I became a writer for The Book Folks.

Although the bulk of my published work is horror, I got some great feedback on my novellas Drive and Polly, both of which were dark thrillers.  To that end, as long-time readers of the blog will know, I've spent the last few years working on mainstream thriller novels and going through every writers nightmare of submission and rejection (and rejection, trust me, absolutely does not get any easier whether it's the first, the tenth or the fiftieth).

But now my books have a home and I couldn't be happier.

JENNY WAS A FRIEND OF MINE will be published in early 2022.  Here's the tag-line I put together as part of the submission package.

Forced to confront a dark secret she’s spent fifteen years trying to bury, Beth discovers that sometimes, the past is murder.

Set in Seagrave, a British seaside town that feels very much like Great Yarmouth and is, indeed, just down the coast from Lowestoft, the novel is told in two timelines and was great fun to write.  I started it just before the pandemic and it (the story and the town) became a lovely place for me to visit, to get away from reality for a while and ended up at 208k words in first draft (the fourth draft, which Erik at The Book Folks accepted, was 95k words).  Plotted out with my good friend David during a walk one Friday evening, it took a few twists and turns in its progress from idea to finished tale and features tension and suspense, some scary parts, some funny bits and a few sad moments too.  I'm really proud of it and very pleased it will start my career with The Book Folks.

JENNY will be followed by:



and a fourth novel, which isn't even planned yet.  

A huge thanks to everyone who has helped me get to this point, who's either supported me, listened to me (like poor Dude, who endured countless lockdown walks over the fields, listening patiently as I worked through ideas for JENNY and gave me a few of his own), offered advice or read my stuff and liked it enough to tell me.  And, of course, David for those brainstorming sessions and the Friday Night Walks with Pippa.

Once I have more details on the books and their publication dates, I'll let you know all about them.

Monday 27 September 2021

Skin For Skin, by Terry Grimwood - review & guest essay

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.  And as a bonus, Terry has contributed an essay explaining where the story came from.

"And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life." Job 2:4

Troublesome priest Eve Clements is exiled from her North London parish to remote St Jude's, miles from the nearest village.

Carrying childhood demons with her, broken relationships and addiction, she becomes an unwilling pawn in a supernatural battle that keeps her confined within the parish grounds, with a congregation that is not what it seems.

Eve must find her purpose if she is to survive, as terrifying apparitions and her own emotional fragility drive her towards breaking point. 

My review of "Skin For Skin", based on the one that originally appeared in Parsec magazine, issue 1:

When troubled - and troublesome - priest Eve Clements is exiled from her North London parish, she accepts an offer to minister at St Judes, a small church in deepest Suffolk.  Bearing the load of childhood demons and the trauma of a recently ended relationship, she quickly discovers all is not as it seems. St Judes, it quickly transpires, is a focal point of supernatural activity and Eve becomes an unwilling pawn in the centre of an epic battle between good and evil. In order to survive, she must find purpose as terrifying apparitions push her already fragile emotional stability to breaking point.

The novella mostly takes place in and around St Jude’s and Grimwood makes excellent use of the location, situated as it is two miles from the nearest village of Weddon “because of the Black Death”. The narrow roads, ploughed fields, dense hedgerows and hidden copse’s both expand the scope and draw in the claustrophobia, isolating Eve more and more from the reality she’s struggling to deal with. The weather also plays a part, storms locking her in further and reducing visibility until the reader can almost feel the rain striking their skin. The church of St Jude itself is all odd angles and weird stained glass and when we later find out what happened to it in the 18th Century, it’s dislocation makes all the more sense.

Eve’s character is well defined and drawn and opening the novella with a harrowing drugs bust, told entirely from her seven-year-old point of view is a masterstroke, the reader having to fill in the blanks as “The Shouting People” invade her squalid home. It also sets up the course of her life, missing her junkie mother and struggling with New Mum & Dad before entering priesthood, a path we don’t see but encounter when things have already started to go badly wrong. Dedicated to her faith and her flock in the run-down North London parish of St Martin’s, Eve is a thorn in the side of the establishment and when she gets involved with a local mother whose son has died because of drug dealing, it brings her into direct conflict with her bishop. Her growing relationship with local would-be councillor Ruth doesn’t help either. Although we meet the new flock - to say more would give the game away - we only really engage with Angela, the deacon who invited Eve to move and her duplicitous character works well, throwing the reader and Eve off alike, before revealing her true colours in a masterful twist that properly took me by surprise.

Grimwood does a good job, updating and paraphrasing the Job story and although much is made of the religious struggle - both internal and what is actually happening within St Jude’s - this is much more about human relationships and loneliness, especially how people cope with it. It’s never treated sentimentally and never seems manipulative, but being alone and trying to deal with it drives almost all of the characters, from the orphan Eve who has burned every bridge to Ruth, who suffer even when surrounded by supposedly close friends and family. And for those that don’t know (I had to look it up), “skin for skin” comes from Satan doing physical harm to Job, to see if Job will stay faithful to God.
My only gripe is that I didn’t get a real sense of where Eve found her faith that’s strong enough to force her to do things that will, often, only create more agony for her but part of that might be my reading of it (as a long-standing Agnostic).

Told with a decent pace, the twin storylines interweave well and dispense information slowly, giving the reader time to absorb different steps and how they interlink and this is all the better for it. Solidly written, with some wonderful turns of phrase and a keen sense of location and atmosphere, this is a very good read from a writer who gets better with every piece of work. I would very much recommend it.

* * *
Guest blog essay by Terry Grimwood

The Strange Tale of Job, Revisited

So, what’s the story behind my novella Skin For Skin? Is it the product of a fevered imagination? Yes. Are its roots buried deep into my out-in-the-sticks upbringing? Absolutely. Does it owe anything to Hope-Hodgson’s House on the Borderland? You bet it does. And The Book of Job? Most certainly, although not until the story was underway and I began to understand what I was trying to write.

Much of my fiction has a religious undercurrent. My plays, Tattletale Mary, Jar of Flies and The Bayonet all have ministers as key characters. Soul Masque is a somewhat brutal look at the war between God and the Devil. Deadside Revolution features a fallen angel and a conflict in Hell, and my novella, Joe, explores the agony of trying to reconcile sexuality with religious belief. 

I come from a long line of Baptists, so religion, by which I mean Western Christianity, has played some part in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I was a regular at an Anglican Sunday School and was even educated at a Church of England-funded primary school. 

At the age of 10 or 11, however, I voluntarily transferred my spiritual obligations to one-service-a-week at the Baptist Chapel my parents attended, because continued Sunday School membership meant joining the church choir. There was no way I was going to wear a dress, frilly collar, and sing in a girl’s voice (no disrespect to girls’ voices, they are beautiful, but I think you know where I’m coming from). Such was my need to escape, I was prepared to endure interminable, ancient hymns, ground out on an equally prehistoric harmonium and hour-long sermons delivered by a regular cycle of thee-and-thou preachers who had stepped straight out of the Edwardian era. I love those old hymns nowadays, by the way. There’s power in their language.

So, the idea of God, Jesus, the Bible, prophets, apostles and all the rest were inculcated into my system from my first awareness. Predictably, I kicked against it when a teenager, embraced it with great fervour in my early twenties, then watched my faith slip like sand from my tightly clenched fist as I entered my thirties.

I still believe, but can no longer subscribe to the organised structures of the faith I once cherished. They are riddled with too many tightly-tangled philosophical conundrums that I cannot simply shove aside. Yet the wonder of it remains. Think about it. A being so vast, ancient and powerful it could create and sustain a universe. The enigmatic references in the early chapters of The Bible to the “Sons of God” who came down to Earth to take human women to wife. Enigmatic characters such as Enoch who simply “walked with God and was not” and yet, looms large over ancient Biblical history. Nimrod the Hunter, who or what was he? A catastrophic global flood, the sun travelling backwards in the sky. Plagues. A sea being ripped part into two towering walls of water to allow safe passage for an entire nation. 

And Job…

Ah, yes, the strange and terrible story of Job.

A rich, devout man, he seems to have caught the attention of Satan, who comes before God to issue a challenge. Take everything from Job, leave him ruined and broken, and he will “curse thee to thy face”. Astonishingly, God gives Satan permission to rip Job’s life apart, which he does with great enthusiasm. Job’s entire family and all his livestock are killed, his home demolished and his crops destroyed. Job, himself, is afflicted with sores and left to rot. It is an act of immense cruelty, a life trampled into the dust simply to settle a dispute.

History or parable, the story of Job portrays God as more concerned with scoring a point than caring about one of His creations. Yes, ultimately Job was rewarded for his steadfastness, but why did the poor guy and his family have to suffer all this in the first place? 

Like most of my extended fiction, Skin For Skin evolved from a completely different idea, then found a life of its own. It always feels to me as if stories already exist and it is the writer’s task to uncover them. If that is the case, then this one was buried deep. I found myself being drawn deeper into the heart and soul of the main protagonist, Eve, and realised that she is, in many ways, the personification of my own bruised spirituality. 

Unlike me, she is a courageous, difficult and principled person who was born into terrible poverty and neglect. The darkness of her early childhood is the engine for her faith, and passion (if not obsession) for helping those in trouble. Crushed by the enormity of the burden, her own sense of right and wrong and then by the religious establishment who see her as a troublesome priest determined to disrupt the status quo, she is exiled to a remote church, located in a storm-ravaged, otherworldly landscape - the same lonely East Anglian landscapes I walked as a child.

Like Job, Eve’s life is shattered through no fault of her own. She chooses what she sees as the Right Path and ends up broken and cast out. Then, once in exile, she discovers that she is once more to be a used as a pawn in The Game.

I think that the root of my religion-themed writing is anger at the idea that the complex, wondrous entities God has created, beings capable of beautiful art, mind-bending technology and acts of immense compassion, are simply cannon fodder in the war between “good” and “evil” and damned to Hell if they don’t subscribe to this or that point of doctrine. I don’t believe that to be the case. Any God big and powerful enough to create an infinite universe can fight His own battles. We, as the end of Skin For Skin declares, are here for each other.

* * *
Terry Grimwood is a writer, electrician, college lecturer, actor, amateur theatre director and musician, who, in what little spare time he has, has published a number of novels and novellas.  

His short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and magazines and has been collected in two volumes, The Exaggerated Man and There Is A Way To Live Forever

He directed the first performances of his own plays, The Bayonet, Tattletale Mary and Tales From The Nightside, the scripts for which are available from theEXAGGERATEDpress and in addition to fiction, has co-written a number of engineering and electrical installation text books. 

He likes to misquote the legendary Football manager Bill Shankley by claiming that writing is not about life and death...it is much more important than that.

Terry can be found online at theEXAGGERATEDpress website and on Facebook.

Monday 13 September 2021

The Year Of The Ladybird, by Graham Joyce

In another edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I love.  This review originally appeared on the blog in 2013 but, following a long overdue re-read, I feel the need to - once again - let as many people know about it as possible.  Back then, Graham was still with us but as that's sadly no longer the case, I've included a biography of the wonderful writer and thoroughly nice bloke.  
A ghost story with a difference from the WORLD FANTASY and multiple BRITISH FANTASY AWARD-winning author of SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE.

It is the summer of 1976, the hottest since records began and a young man leaves behind his student days and learns how to grow up. A first job in a holiday camp beckons. But with political and racial tensions simmering under the cloudless summer skies there is not much fun to be had.

And soon there is a terrible price to be paid for his new-found freedom and independence. A price that will come back to haunt him, even in the bright sunlight of summer.

As with SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE, Graham Joyce has crafted a deceptively simple tale of great power. With beautiful prose, wonderful characters and a perfect evocation of time and place, this is a novel that transcends the boundaries between the everyday and the supernatural while celebrating the power of both.

David Barwise is a 19 year old student who, against the better wishes of his Mum and step-dad, gets a summer job as a greencoat on a holiday camp in Skegness.  Set against the scorching summer of 1976 - and the subsequent ladybird invasion - David is led into two love affairs, one with the wife of an apparent monster, one with a lovely Yorkshire lass, as he tries to find his feet amongst the staff of the camp - some theatrical, some racist, some thuggish and some genuinely nice - and the ever present punters, adults and child alike.  He is not only there to escape from home, he’s also trying to find details about his long-since-dead father, the only photograph of whom shows him on a Skegness beach.  And then, in between getting caught up in the rise of the National Front, he begins to see ghosts on the beach and on the camp, of a suited man and his young charge.  

This is a glorious novel, full of wit and invention (and a nice line in dry humour) that is told is a deceptively simple style.  Perfectly capturing both the 1976 summer and the start of the slow decline of the east coast seaside resort, this crackles with energy and pathos.  The characterisation - David narrates the story - is pitch perfect, often delivered with the lightest of touches - Pinky and the way he dresses, Tony and his exuberance, Colin and his chilling demeanour - but always spot on and always human, with none of the characters ever behaving in a way that seems out of place.  David is first drawn into the web of Colin, a thuggish and boorish man, and his wife Terri, who sings like an angel but is apparently abused into submission at home.  Attracted to her, the relationship between him and his older, secret lover, is fantastically played with neither David or the reader quite sure of what’s going on.  A surer, safer bet is Nikki, a beautiful half-caste dancer, painfully aware of her own shortcomings (which aren’t really, to David or the reader) and it’s this relationship that we want to see work, the coupling that makes this the perfect coming-of-age novel.  

Because that’s what this is, at the end of the day.  It’s a social and political observation - the holiday camp, the members of the National Front and what it’ll mean to people like Nikki (and how she reacts, when she realises David has been duped into attending a meeting, a stigma that remains with him for the bulk of the novel) - but it’s also about spreading your wings, finding love (the first erotic interlude, with David and Nikki, is wonderfully erotic whilst being almost mundane) and loss and setting out onto the path of adulthood.  

There are supernatural elements - and the denouement of that particular plot strand is obvious but also heartbreakingly beautiful - but this isn’t a supernatural novel, it’s not a horror novel, it is instead a perfect drama about a young man, finding his way in 1970s Britain.  

It speaks to me on a couple of levels, in that I love coming-of-age stories and the east coast seaside (and follows my reading of the similarly themed (in terms of nostalgia and love) “Joyland”), but also because I was seven in 1976 and my family holidayed in Ingoldmells, a few miles north of Skegness and it’s a town that I still visit on occasion today.  

A truly beautiful work of art (that had me in tears towards the end), populated with characters that I grew to love (and I so desperately want to know that the central love story carried on beyond the seventies), this is an incredible read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Graham Joyce was born the mining village of Kerseley, near Coventry, on 22nd October 1954, where he grew up.  He obtained his bachelor’s degree in education at Bishop Lonsdale college, an MA in English and American Literature at the University of Leicester and in 2004 was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.

In 1988, he quit his job and went to live on the Greek island of Lesbos, to concentrate on writing.  His first novel, Dreamside, funded travel to the Middle East and he went on to write fourteen novels, five young adult novels, and an autobiographical book about his experiences as goalie for the England Writers' football team (which, by the way, is excellent).  He also wrote numerous short stories.

Over his career, he won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times, the World Fantasy Award , the French Grand Prix De L'Imaginaire twice and the prestigious O Henry award for his short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen. In 2008 he was awarded the Honorary degree of Master of Letters by the University of Derby.

He continued to write and teach creative writing at Nottingham Trent University until his death on 9th September 2014.

Biography from the Graham Joyce website

I was lucky to meet him on several occasions and we got to know each other well enough we'd chat and share a laugh whenever we were in the same place (usually at FantasyCon).  I saw him at WFC (he was heading downstairs, I was heading up, he said "Hello mate!" and changed direction so we could walk and talk for a while) in Brighton and got to tell him how much this novel meant to me and he seemed genuinely moved when I told him it made me cry.  However, when I asked him if he was going to write a short story, detailing the love affair after the novels end, he told me to bugger off!  

I miss his presence and his writing.