Monday 19 December 2022

The Fourteenth Annual Westies - review of the year 2022

Well, this really has been a year of extremes for me (losing my Dad and seeing the thrillers take off) but now it's Christmas and even though I'm not in the mindset for celebrating it's time to indulge in the annual blog custom and remember the good books of 2022.

It's been an odd reading year - I've had a couple of DNF (did not finish), which is unusual and  I've struggled on occasion to find material that chimed with me - but I've read the second most amount (87 books) since I began my reading spreadsheet in 2002. There's been a decent mix 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 and a target to read past Book 30 in the Three Investigators series.

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 Fourteenth Annual Westies Award - “My Best Fiction Reads Of The Year” - and the top 20 looks like this:

1:    The Tooth Fairy, by Graham Joyce
3:    The Judas Goat, by Robert B. Parker
4:    B Is For Burglar, by Sue Grafton
5:    An Italian Island Summer, by Sue Moorcroft *
6:    God Save The Child, by Robert B. Parker
7:    Han Solo's Revenge, by Brian Daley
8:    Mortal Stakes, by Robert B. Parker
9:    A Is For Alibi, by Sue Grafton
10:  Chasing Spirits, by John Llewellyn Probert
11:  What They Don't Know, by Susan Furlong
12:  Dressed To Kill, by Brian DePalma and Campbell Black
13:  The Mistake I Made, by Paula Daly
14:  Insomnia, by Sarah Pinborough
15:  One Eye Open, by Paul Finch
16:  It's Alive, by Julian David Stone
17:  Billingsgate Shoal, by Rick Boyer
18:  The Lizard's Tail, by Marc Brandel
19:  Step Inside My Soul, by N K Curran (Steven Savile) *
20:  Tron, by Brian Daley

* This will be published in the summer of 2023, I read it to critique

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1: The Making Of Star Wars: The Definitive Story, by J. W. Rinzler
2: The Python Years: 1969-1979, by Michael Palin
3: The Definitive Biography Of Billy Joel, by Fred Schruers
4: Up Till Now, by William Shatner
5: Howard Kazanjian: A Producers Life, by J. W. Rinzler/Howard Kazanjian
6: Cinefex 30, by Jody Shay
7: Day Of The Living Me, by Jeff Lieberman
8: Cinefex 29, by Jody Shay
9: Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut, by J. A. Kerswell
10: The Incredibly Strange Film Book, by Jonathan Ross

Stats wise, I've read 88 books - 45 fiction, 11 non-fiction, 16 comics/nostalgia/kids and 16 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 72 books, the breakdown is thus:

4 biography
11 horror
7 film-related
6 drama (includes romance)
26 crime/mystery
8 sci-fi
0 nostalgia
10 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 5 December 2022

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Christmas Annuals (part 6)

"Christmas is coming!"
Me & Tracy, Christmas 1977 - look at how chuffed I am, I've got the new Look-In annual AND the Starsky & Hutch Gran Torino!

Welcome to the sixth post (you can find the others on these links here - 20172018, 2019, 2020 and 2021) 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.  For those who 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.

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, though kids today don't have the choice of comics we did, the only real difference seems to be that they're skinnier (and that's not me being all nostalgically misty - my ones from the late 70s and early 80s are substantially chunkier than the ones I’ve bought for Dude over the past few years).

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...
One of my favourite TV shows as a kid and this was a favourite annual (though I'm not sure either when Mum or Dad bought it - I wasn't born until 1969 - or I was given it).  Cracking book though.
My sister Tracy (who I wrote about here) loved horses for as long as I can remember and went on to be an accomplished rider and tutor.
 That theme music!  Gambit!  Purdey!
Sing it - underground, overground, Wombling free...
If we were out on bikes around this time - my friends, or me and TJ - we'd ride two-abreast and pretend we were Jon and Poncho.
My favourite "funny" comic when I was growing up, Cheeky Weekly actually finished in 1980 (it was incorporated - "great news for all readers!" - into Whoopee in February)
 Sir Roger Moore as James Bond.  Do you need any more reason to own this?
I'd moved on from annuals by this time, though I was a huge fan of The A-Team (and still am, as I wrote about here and here).  I didn't pick this up until much later.

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 21 November 2022

Still Waters Run, by Mark West

I'm pleased to announce that Still Waters Run, my fourth mainstream thriller published by The Book Folks, is now available.

In late summer, sixteen-year-old Dan and his recently divorced mother head to a Norfolk seaside town’s holiday park for a vacation.

Shy Dan soon strikes up a friendship with a girl of his age, quirky and pretty Charlie, and his mother is swept off her feet by a suave local property developer.

Yet a shadow is cast over their stay when one of the camp attendants, Mia, goes missing. And things go from bad to worse when her body turns up near the town’s derelict lido.

Charlie draws Dan into her efforts to discover the truth about Mia’s death. But as the locals close ranks, cracks begin to show in their new friendships, and he’ll soon find himself in deep water.

This could turn out to be a holiday that mother and son will remember for all the wrong reasons, if they survive.

* * *

STILL WATERS RUN is set in Seagrave, the same seaside location as my debut novel, DON'T GO BACK. It takes place in 1985 over the course of a week as Jude and her sixteen-year-old son Dan go to stay at the Holidaze holiday camp. There, Dan meets Charlie - a pretty fellow teenager with a keen interest in photography - and Jude meets Paul, a local real estate developer. When a local woman goes missing, all four of them are drawn into a tangled web of mystery that leads to murder.

I started writing this last November (just after I'd signed the initial deal with The Book Folks) and, once again, it was plotted out with my good friend David Roberts on our Friday Night Walks. 

Monday 7 November 2022

A White Christmas on Winter Street, by Sue Moorcroft

Regular readers of the blog will know I've been friends with Sue Moorcroft since we first met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (we genre writers were consigned to the back of the room, where we had a great laugh).  Since then she's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promiseon her way to becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller, while her novel A Summer To Remember 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, A White Christmas On Winter Street, which has just been published in paperback and e-book.

When Sky Terran returns to the village of Middledip after losing the job she loves, she anticipates a quiet Christmas getting used to her new life. However, the annual street decoration competition is coming up and this year, the residents of Winter Street are determined to win.

As she is pulled into the preparations, Sky quickly grows to love the quirky, tight-knit community she is now part of. Including the extremely handsome Daz, who soon becomes more than just a friendly neighbour.

But when Daz’s ex turns up determined to win him back and it seems he might not be the man Sky thought he was, she remembers how much allowing people into her life – and heart – can hurt. As the snow falls, will she and Daz find a way through – and help win a Christmas victory for Winter Street?

A gorgeously festive novel about love, family and the power of forgiveness from Sunday Times bestseller Sue Moorcroft, perfect for fans of Sarah Morgan and Phillipa Ashley.

* * *

Sky Terran comes from a broken home and her only real family is Freddy Walker, who was briefly her foster brother when they were in the care of Nan Heather in Middledip village. Sky works for property developer Freddy but when his new girlfriend Minnie causes problems, she resigns and moves into The Corner House in Middledip. She plans to do the house up and make it her home but another local, Daz Moran, had been hoping to get it for a Youth Activity Centre. Soon, Sky and Daz are bumping heads over a lot of things.

Sue Moorcroft conjures up another winner with this wintry Christmas tale set resolutely in her wonderful village of Middledip. Characterisation, as always, is strong and vibrant and our lead couple make for a sparky and interesting relationship but the supporting cast is equally well drawn and quirky, from Marietta next door to the lovely Courtney and her brilliant realised son Wilf. 

Middledip shines and there are plenty of nods to Sue’s previous books - places, venues and especially characters - and each one brings a warm smile as you remember where they popped up before. The novel is sometimes challenging, often very funny and also nicely raunchy on occasion. Told with great pace, a keen eye for detail and a wonderful grasp of location, this is a fantastic read I heartily recommend.

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 31 October 2022

Halloween Horrors (Painted Movie Posters)

It's 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 fifth Halloween post (following paperback covers, Top TrumpsVHS cover art and behind the scenes special effects shots), I've decided this time to go with something else I love, namely painted movie posters.  Looking at some of these again reminds me of being a young horror film fan in the late 70s and early 80s (when BBC2 began showing Universal horrors in the early evening), seeing gaudily gorgeous posters for films I wouldn't get to see for quite some time (and which, sometimes, didn't live up to my imagining of what they'd be).

So with all that in mind, enjoy this Halloween treat of posters that (very occasionally) promise more than they deliver...
Produced by Gene Corman, this is the perfect horror film poster (something the Corman team did very well indeed).  I really want to see this, even though I know the monsters won't look anywhere near as convincing as they do here (which isn't saying a lot, I realise).
I first read about this in Stephen King's Danse Macabre and couldn't wait to see it, though by the time I eventually did (late one night on BBC2, if I remember correctly), I was waiting for King's suggested last line.  He wrote that there was a legend of a lost ending, where Xavier - having plucked his eyes from their sockets - shouts "I can still see!"  Unfortunately, it's just a terrific rumour - Roger Corman said, in interview, that the scene was discussed but never filmed.
There's so much to love about this film, it makes for perfect Halloween viewing.  An anthology film (an Amicus speciality), this features "Werewolf" with Neil McCallum, "Creeping Vine" with Alan Freeman (which is properly creepy, though it'd sound silly if I explained it), "Voodoo" with Roy Castle and his trumpet, "The Disembodied Hand" with Christopher Lee and Michael Gough lending real weight and "Vampire" with Donald Sutherland (and a cracking ending).  Peter Cushing plays Dr. Shreck in the framing story.
A so-so film (it feels very long) but a great Arnaldo Putzu poster
A brilliant poster from Vic Fair which does so much without really doing a great deal.  How could you not want to see the film are seeing this?
Swinging Dracula on the Kings Road (with added Caroline Munro gorgeousness).
Another terrific Amicus anthology film, well served by an Arnaldo Putzu poster.  This features "Midnight Mess", a creepy vampire story (with some great in-camera effects) with Daniel and Anna Massey, "The Neat Job" with Terry-Thomas, "This Trick'll Kill You" with Curt Jurgens, "Bargain In Death" with Michael Craig (and, in a nice touch, Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies as two trainee doctors - they'd appeared together in "Doctor In The House", an ITV sitcom) and "Drawn And Quartered", with Tom Baker and Denholm Elliot (as well as Terence Alexander, who gets a bigger head on the poster) and some great views of early 70s London.  The framing device sees five strangers boarding a descending lift in a modern London office block.
We can't be sure what H. G. Wells would have thought of this but surely, bearing in mind all the animals they could have chosen for the poster, was a giant chicken really the best one?
Also known as "Shocklines" (the title I first saw it under, as a VIPCO release), I was first aware of it when I saw an advert in Starburst magazine.  The film itself is slow and creepy but those underwater nazis are as effective as the poster art makes them out to be.
A cracking little horror film (you'd be better off with this than the remake), Joe Dante is on top form with a John Sayles script, make-up effects by Rob Bottin and piranha effects by Phil Tippett, amongst others.
Unnerving, dark, claustrophobic and frightening, this is an excellent film (which I wrote about, in detail, here) that was unfairly classed as a Video Nasty for while.  Best seen knowing very little about it, you're wrong-footed from the start and all the way through.  Great stuff.
There's never a great deal of subtlety in a Lucio Fulci film but they're all the more fun for that.  I first saw this on a VIPCO tape (and if you remember that label and their claims, then you'll understand why I thought it was a confusing mess), re-watched it on another label and liked it a great deal more.
A wonderful Graham Humphreys poster for a funny little film that was, sadly, a bit out of step with the times for when it was released (though it did get a Look-In cover).
Graham Humphreys again, giving us some of the highlights from Sam Raimi's bizarre and very funny sequel.
A clever and fairly subtle poster for a darkly intense and unsettling modern vampire tale, long before those creatures of the night got all spangly and sparkling.  I love the film (especially the uncomfortable sequence in the bar when you suddenly realise that everyone's in trouble) and I think this poster serves it well.

Happy Halloween!

Monday 17 October 2022

The Secret Of Phantom Lake, 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 1974 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
"Step carefully and look behind you - mystery and danger await all who follow The Three Investigators to Phantom Lake."

That's Alfred Hitchcock's warning...

Not only do Pete, Bob and Jupiter hunt lakeside phantoms - thy're also haunted by a ghostly gunfighter.  Not to mention a piano at plays itself and a saloonful of poker-playing miners - invisible ones!

Where will the spooky treasure trail to Phantom Lake lead them next?

You have been warned...

Detail from the back cover of the Armada format a paperback,
art by Peter Archer.  There were no internal illustrations
in the UK editions.
The fifth entry in the series by William Arden, pen name for the prolific thriller writer Dennis Lynds  (his fourth, The Mystery Of The Shrinking House, was published just prior in this in 1972 and I wrote about it here), this is as well plotted and paced as all his books.  There’s some action in the Jones Junkyard (including Jupiter using “Plan One!”), but most of the piece takes place at the Gunn estate, which is well observed and described.  With a haunting visit to Cabrillo Island (where Arden really ramps up the atmosphere - it provides the basis of the hardback artwork) and the diverting trip to Powder Gulch (a ghost town which gives the paperback editions their imagery), the book also makes good use of a trip to Santa Barbara (utilising real locations, I was pleased to discover).

The central mystery - was there actually any treasure and where might Gunn have hidden it? - is well put together and the way the boys unlock the clues is nicely played, though I was amazed at all these businesses that just happened to have one-hundred-year-old documents lying around.  Aunt Matilda and Hans have decent sized roles - the latter participating in a few key scenes  - and Arden makes good use of the Christmas period, with the boys helping their parents/guardians put up the decorations and seeing them all over town, while the season adds a chill to the air.

As well written as always, this has some decent set pieces - especially the Santa Barbara and Cabrillo Island sequences - some nice touches of comedy (there’s a bit where Jupiter runs one way, only to see his compatriots coming the other way) and a mention for Ruxton University (where Dr Barrister, who the boys first met in The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent, works).  Although the ending is perhaps wrapped up a bit too quickly for my liking, this is a solid mystery that works well and gives each of the boys their moment to shine.  I would very much recommend it.
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 1980 and 1982), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition which is a shame, since some of the set pieces used in the US hardback edition would have been ably served by Roger Hall.

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

Monday 3 October 2022

New Nightmares - Horror Writing School

Alex Davis, the mastermind behind the fantastic Edge/Sledge Lit conventions at Derby Quad (which I've written about extensively, as you can see here) has now posted the modules in his latest online writing school.

I am thrilled to be involved with such a great line-up of writers and very happy to be putting on a module for "Plotting and Planning" alongside my dear old chum and plotting partner David Roberts

While we haven't finalised our event yet, we'll be going through the processes that have so far seen the creation of four thriller novels with the fifth just about to get underway. This will cover everything from the initial idea to creating a spine for the set pieces and how to put together compelling characters. There might also be a practical element where we plot out a novella in the session!

More details on the event link here and David & I hope to see some of you online.

I can guarantee it'll be fun and you never know, we might even teach you a new trick! Get your tickets and find out!

David & I in his study standing in front of the white board where we'd just finished bashing out the plan for what became ONLY WATCHING YOU.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

An 80s Newspaper Clipping

A few weeks ago, I was flicking through my copy of Skeleton Crew and found this newspaper clipping.  I can only assume I ripped it out of the Kettering Evening Telegraph (dated 20th September 1986 - 36 years ago!) to take into work so my friends & I could plan what we were going to see at the cinema.  We went a lot in those days.
Just look at that terrific selection of films!    While Cobra was the first 18 certificate I got into (as I wrote about here, though according to my diary I saw it in Corby), I managed to see The Evil DeadRocky IV and Karate Kid 2 at one of the venues shown, at those astonishing prices (I remember a double-bill would cost £2.50 except, I presume, on Mondays and Thursdays).

I loved these places and they held a lot of history for me.  Dad took me to see my first James Bond film at Corby cinema (as I wrote about here), I saw a lot of great films at Kettering (Dad took me and Claire to Star Wars, Nick & I saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark, which I wrote about in What Gets Left Behind, Dad & I saw ET, the list goes on) and when Bentley’s opened it quickly became a favourite.

Attendance must have been falling (probably not helped by the fleapit nature of these cinemas, well past their prime) but the independents were clearly knackered and on their last legs when the multiplexes arrived and did away with them.  Sixfields in Northampton dealt the first blow and the Odeon in Kettering finished the job.  I'm not a big fan of the multiplex (I still go to them, obviously) because to me they feel like heartless, sterile places, more interested in selling food and drinks than anything else.  Yes, Kettering Ohio had holes in the ceiling and seats were missing and it was often better to sit down in the dark so you couldn’t see the state of your seat, but it felt real, like a proper cinema, where everyone there cared about the films.

On the bright side, independent cinemas have made something of a comeback and we often go to the Northampton Filmhouse (which was originally called the Errol Flynn), where Jon & I saw a brace of Hitchcock, Alison & I watched the INXS Live Baby Live film and I took Dad to see Dunkirk where the soundtrack almost rattled the speakers off the wall - it's small and comfortable, well run and shows an eclectic range of films.

 And yes, I know I sound like a dinosaur.
Another clipping I kept, this one from 1982
If we fancied a change, we'd sometimes go to the ABC Northampton (now a Jesus Army Centre) or the Palace Wellingborough (now a pub called The Cutting Room).  Later, when we had our own cars, we'd go to the midnight movie at The Point in Milton Keynes (the only multiplex I ever had any fondness for, it now stands by the MK shopping centre looking knackered and forlorn).

I took this picture in 2005, knowing that the building
would eventually be knocked down and wanting to
have a record of it...
Kettering Ohio started life as the Savoy Cinema, opened as a dual purpose cinema and theatre on 21st May 1938 with Spencer Tracey in The Big City plus a variety show on stage. It was built over the remains of the Coliseum Theatre which had opened in 1910 but burned down in 1937.

The Savoy had 1,150 seats in the stalls and circle as well as a full stage (the Northampton Repertory Company performed regular seasons between 1949 and 1951) and was taken over by Clifton Cinemas on 25th August 1944.  In 1968 the circle was split off to make a smaller (485 seat) cinema called the Studio, with a bingo hall taking over the stalls and stage area.  In 1973 the screen was split into two (known as Studio 1 & 2, seating 160 and 140 respectively).  After briefly closing in 1986, it re-opened as the independent Ohio and finally closed in 1997 when the Odeon opened.

The Ohio is a key location in my novel In The Rain With The Dead (Magellan, the baddie, makes his base there) and I wrote about the cinema as it was being demolished in 2014.

Bentley’s of Burton Latimer was originally The Electric Palace, which opened in August 1914 with an auditorium that seated 500.  It became a Watts Cinema in 1938 but closed in 1960.  In 1985, Ashley Wyatt bought the building, renovated it and opened Bentley’s as a 182-seat cinema in January 1986 though it closed the following year.  It was re-opened in 1994 by Brian McFarlane (who owned the Ohio) but closed soon after.  The venue is now an Italian restaurant.

You can just see the wording "cinema" on the back of the auditoriums.
Photograph from the late 80s.
The Forum Cinema opened on 7th April 1973 as a Jerry Lewis Cinema (part of the US based Network Cinema Corporation), featuring two screens (each seating 325) as part of a new shopping centre being built in Corby.  It was almost immediately bought out by the Walker chain, re-named Oscar cinema and then, in 1980, Focus cinema before Ashley Wyatt took it over in September 1983 and renamed it Forum Cinema.  The number one screen was eventually twinned, with number two becoming a laser quest games centre and the cinema closed (to become an over-25’s nightclub called Talkies) on 24th September 1992.  The Forum Cinema site was demolished in the summer of 2005 when the shopping centre was rebuilt.

I like to think I sound like a wistfully melancholic dinosaur now...

sources: - Savoy, Kettering - Forum, Corby - Bentleys, Burton Latimer