Saturday 30 December 2023

The Fifteenth Annual Westies - review of the year 2023

And so 2023 draws to a close. It's been another up-and-down year for me (Dude left for university in September and I can report that not only is empty-nest syndrome an actual thing, it's also bloody horrible), but it's been creatively satisfying and I've read a lot.

Which means that it's now time to indulge in the annual blog custom and remember the good books of 2023.

Once again, it's been a great reading year for me (one more book than last year, as it happens), with a nice mix of brand new novels, a lot of 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.

My target for the year was to read twelve biographies and I achieved it - some of them were good, a couple were dire, but some were absolutely brilliant (Sam Neill and Geena Davis, I'm looking at you).

As always, the top 20 places were hard fought and, I think, show a nice variety in genre and tone.

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

1: Double Indemnity, by James M Cain
2: A Love Letter Christmas, by Sue Moorcroft
3: C Is For Corpse, by Sue Grafton
4: Looking For Rachel Wallace, by Robert B Parker
5: It's My Life, by Robert Leeson
6: When You Comin' Back, Range Rider?, by Charles Heath
7: D Is For Deadbeat, by Sue Grafton
8: Point Blank, by Richard Stark
9: The Deep, by Peter Benchley
10: Carnosaur, by Harry Adam Knight
11: Are You Awake?, by Claire McGowan
12: The Night Shift, by Alex Finlay
13: The Burning Girls, by C J Tudor
14: The IT Girl, by Ruth Ware
15: Nightfall, by John Farris
16: Faithless, by John L Williams
17: The Ideal Couple, by Anna Willett
18: Gila!, by Les Simons
19: The Guilty Couple, by C L Taylor
20: Video Night, by Adam Cesare

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1: INXS: Story To Story, by Anthony Bozza & INXS
2: Did I Ever Tell You This?, by Sam Neill
3: Dying Of Politeness, by Geena Davis
4 All About Me!, by Mel Brooks
5: We Could Be Heroes, by Paul Burston
6: The Making Of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, by Derek Taylor
7: Blondie, by Fred Shruers
8: England's Dreaming, by John Savage
9: Chasing The Light, by Oliver Stone
10: The Director Should Have Shot You, by Alan Dean Foster

Stats wise, I've read 89 books - 40 fiction, 28 non-fiction, 14 comics/nostalgia/kids and 7 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 82 books, the breakdown is thus:

12 biography
10 horror
16 film-related
4 drama (includes romance)
27 crime/mystery
4 sci-fi
0 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 November 2023

The Ideal Couple, by Anna Willett

I am pleased to be part of the blog tour for Anna Willett's new novel from The Book FolksThe ideal Couple.

When detectives try to close a missing persons case, a small town’s twisted secrets begin to unravel…

A couple disappear in a region of the outback known for its gold mining. Some three years on, there is still no trace of them.

Detective Veronika Pope is handed the cold case. It’s cold only in name. When she turns up to the godforsaken town where the couple were last seen, the heat is sweltering; suspicion simmering.

The detectives stay in the same seedy hotel as the couple did. The townsfolk aren’t welcoming. Nobody wants the cops probing into their affairs.

From what Pope can gather, the missing duo were the perfect couple. Loving. Happy together. The picture of marital bliss.

Assuming a murder but missing a motive, the detectives do make progress. They might even find the bodies, as the trail is hot. Almost too hot to touch.

Pope is in serious danger of getting burned…

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My review:
Veronica Pope runs a cold case squad out of Perth and is called in, with her partner Jim, to investigate the disappearance of an apparently loving couple three years ago in the small outback town of Iron Creek. The red-dust coated ten streets are home to a hotel, a garage, a museum and a handful of people waiting for life to pass them by. The rest of Pope’s team are back at base, investigating the missing couple’s blended family and in-laws.

This is the fourth book in the Pope series but the first I’ve read and, apart from a couple of mentions of previous cases and a tease of her past that looks like it will be resolved in book 5, it’s a solid standalone that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Iron Creek literally comes to life, you can almost feel the heat and the oppressive dust and feel the knocks the townsfolk are taking. The characterisation is smart and brisk, giving us a life-story in a paragraph sometimes and leaving the reader to figure things out the next. The case itself is well plotted and constructed - it took me a while to get the main villain - and there’s plenty of grubbiness amongst the sweat to keep the attention as the pace crackles.

An excellent read which I would highly recommend and now I’m going to dive into the earlier cases! 

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Anna Willett was born in the United Kingdom and emigrated to Australia with her family when she was six years old. She developed a love of reading thanks to her mother who introduced her to authors such as Stephen King, Mario Puzo and John Steinbeck to name just a few.

Although her reading tastes are eclectic, when it comes to writing, Anna is drawn to thrillers and dark tales. Anna writes about the shadowy side of the human experience and how ordinary people cope in extraordinary situations. Common tropes in Anna’s writing include people who get into trouble after they leave the safety of the city and the rupturing of domestic bubbles in which those who one is supposed to trust become a threat.

Anna lives in Western Australia with her husband and their two children. When she’s not writing or reading, she enjoy movies, dining out and bushwalking with her dogs.

THE IDEAL COUPLE is the fourth title in the Cold Case Mysteries series featuring Veronika Pope and the full list of books is as follows:


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Monday 17 July 2023

The Piper's Children, by Iain Henn

I am pleased to be part of the blog tour for Iain Henn's new novel from The Book Folks, The Piper's Children.
A baffling mystery sets an FBI agent on a dangerous path...

Park rangers are puzzled when a child is found wandering alone in the middle of a forest near Seattle.

Stranger still, he speaks a peculiar language that sounds a little like German, and is dressed in clothes people wore in the Middle Ages.

With no one having reported him missing, FBI Special Agent Will McCord assembles a dedicated unit to investigate the case, placing Detective Ilona Farris at its head.

Their relationship is edgy. They used to be an item. But McCord knows Farris is the best person for the job. Especially when more children turn up in similar circumstances.

Farris isn’t convinced that she is in fact the right person. Memories of a traumatic incident in her own childhood begin to emerge, and threaten to cloud her judgement.

Can she bury her demons and solve the mystery of these children, seemingly lost in time?

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My review:

Starting with a bang - and a touch of surrealism - Henn hits the ground running and puts us straight into the story. Ilona Farris is drafted into a newly set up FBI team, headed by her ex-lover, when a boy is found in a Seattle forest speaking German and apparently on the run from the Pied Piper. 

Things get a lot weirder from that point on, but the pacing and structure keep you completely on board at all times. Peopled with believable characters - the best of which is Farris herself, sporting both a secret and a terrifying experience from her childhood that will help the investigation - and a keen sense of location, this works perfectly and is never less than readable. 

Red herrings abound, there’s a lot of suspense and weirdness as well as a plot that makes perfect sense once you discover all the details. I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to more stories about the team. Very highly recommended.

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Born in Sydney, Australia, Iain Henn worked for many years in print media production for newspapers, magazines, and direct marketing agencies, and as a writer for small business websites.

He has written fiction from a young age. Somewhere in his house, there is still a framed copy of his first published story, a ‘5-minute fiction’ tale in Woman’s Day. Since then, he has never looked back, having short stories published in various magazines worldwide, and now his suspenseful thrillers and mysteries. 

Commenting on what influenced his writing journey, he describes a moment that has stayed with him. On his first day in his first job, as a teenage messenger boy, he left the office via a back exit into a narrow alleyway where he saw the body of a man crumpled on the ground. He had just jumped out of a window from the neighbouring building. The paramedics were already approaching. When Iain returned an hour or so later, the body and the surrounding activity were gone, there was just a chalk outline on the ground where the body had been. Ever since he has wondered who that man was, what led him to suicide, and what his future might have been had he lived. Decades later, that chalk outline is often on the writer’s mind when telling the stories of his characters’ lives.

Authors who have inspired Iain include Daphne Du Maurier, Ken Follett, Michael Crichton, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Robotham, and Harlen Coben. He lives on the New South Wales coast with his wife.

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Monday 29 May 2023

An Italian Island Summer, 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, An Italian Island Summer, which has just been published in paperback and e-book.

Will one summer in Sicily change her life for ever?

After her marriage falls apart, Ursula Quinn is offered the chance to spend the summer working at a hotel on a beautiful island off the coast of Sicily, Italy. Excited by a new adventure, she sets off at once.

At Residenza dei Tringali, Ursula receives a warm welcome from everyone except Alfio, son of the Tringali family. He gave up his life in Barcelona to help his mother Agata with the ailing business, and is frustrated with Ursula’s interference – and she in turn is less than impressed with his attitude. As they spend more time together, though, they begin to see each other in a different light.

But what with Ursula’s ex-husband on her tail, family secrets surfacing and an unexpected offer that makes Alfio question his whole life, there’s plenty to distract them from one another. Can she face her past and he his future, and together make the most of their Sicilian summer?

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A new book by Sue is always welcome and this time we see the return of a character, Ursula, who played a role in one of her earlier novels. As always, there are plenty of twists and turns as we follow the story of Alfio and Ursula and part of the fun is watching the blocks put into their path and how they might get around.

Told with Sue's usual sure-hand skill, the book moves at a good pace and is filled with characters who burst into life from the page. Family life, in all its forms, is well represented, there's a lovely and lovable cat and the antagonists are realistically horrible. With a well realised - and used - central location, a lovely atmosphere that is well maintained and some great writing, this is another winner!
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Buy the book from Amazon here

UK here
USA here

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.

The Missing American, by Julie Highmore

I am pleased to be part of the blog tour for Julie Highmore, making her debut with The Book Folks with her novel The Missing American.

New to the private investigator game, Edie Fox is delighted when a handsome American client with disconcertingly dazzling teeth asks her to find his missing cousin, Isabella. Especially when he leaves her a bundle of cash to get started.

However, the case quickly gets complicated, and so does her life when a one-night stand from her Oxford university days gets in touch and asks if her 26-year-old daughter, Maeve, is also his child. Judging a chaotic home, a brimming wine glass, a daughter besotted with her new-found daddy, and a rekindled old flame, Edie must try to focus on the job.

But with unreliable witnesses, a less than trustworthy client, and an assistant with her mind on other things, Edie will be up against it and risks losing all.

THE MISSING AMERICAN is the first book in a series of hilarious cozy mysteries by bestselling author Julie Highmore. Look out for the next book in the series, THE RUNAWAY HUSBAND, coming soon!

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Edie Fox is new to the private investigating business and delighted when a handsome American client asks her to find his missing cousin, Isabella and hands over a bundle of cash. The case quickly gets complicated, however and so does her life when the father (a one-night-stand from her university days) of her twentysomething daughter Maeve, turns up out of the blue. With a chaotic home-life, a rekindled old flame and a job with unreliable witnesses and an untrustworthy client, Edie is up against it as she tries to find Isabella.

I'm not well read in the cosy crime field but the blurb for this was intriguing and, with news that a second book is on the way, I decided to give it a go and I’m really glad I did. Told with a clear, dry voice, this reminded me of the hardboiled novels of the forties with Edie’s ever complicated homelife impeding on the case (and vice versa) and her observations about events were often very humorous. The case twists and turns, almost everyone’s a suspect and there’s a lovely sense of location (it’s set in the less desirable areas of Oxford) that really grounds the whole piece. It’s also not afraid to show the seamier side of life, which was refreshing. 

Edie is a fantastic character, fully rounded and believable and even though she’s an amateur, she puts the clues together well. With a varied and often eccentric supporting cast, all of them fully living and breathing and with plenty of smart lines to amuse, there was a touch of “The Beiderbecke Affair” about this and that just made me love it all the more. Very highly recommended.

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The daughter of an RAF officer, Julie Highmore moved around a lot as a child but eventually settled in Oxford in her twenties. After having three children, she studied first at Westminster College, then Oxford Brookes University and gained a first class degree in English. As part of the course, she studied creative writing with Philip Pullman, who encouraged her to continue with her writing after graduation. This she did, and her published work includes nine rom-com novels, and more recently, a crime fiction series for The Book Folks.

When not writing, Julie enjoys music, binge-watching a good TV series, country strolls, doing the New York Times crossword and hanging out with her husband and ever-expanding family.

Click here for more info on the writer:

The Missing American features the somewhat flawed, Oxford-based private investigator, Edie Fox; a single mother and very young grandmother who inadvertently gets her precious family caught up in her first big case. The Oxford she knows is based in the more edgy and diverse east of the city, full of small Victorian houses, students, cafes, delis and retired lecturers.

Monday 24 April 2023

The Name On The Bullet, by John Dean

I am pleased to be the first port of call on the latest blog tour from John Dean, a stablemate of mine at The Book Folks, who is promoting his new novel The Name On The Bullet, which was published on April 4th.

After a policeman is shot dead, DCI John Blizzard seizes a chance to settle old scores

When a high-profile detective on a reality TV cop show is killed, John Blizzard fancies old-school gangster Nathaniel Callaghan for the crime.

With the aging boss’s control over his northern crime empire on the wane, Blizzard sees an opportunity to turn his associates against him. But MI5 are also in on the action, and the different departments are in danger of scuppering each other’s investigation.

Yet as skeletons clatter out of the closet, it dawns on Blizzard that things are not as clear cut as they seem.
Who had murder on their mind, and who wrote the name on the bullet?

* * *
When a policeman fronting a reality TV cop show is killed, his colleague DCI John Blizzard seizes a chance to settle old scores with local gangster Nathaniel Callaghan, who appears to be behind the murder. But as the investigation continues, drawing in MI5 and other departments, it seems that things aren’t as clear cut as they seem.

This is the eleventh book in the DCI Blizzard series and, thankfully, works perfectly well as a stand-alone since it’s the first of John Dean’s books I’ve read. This has plenty of twists and turns, some more surprisingly than others and the book was helped along by a keen sense of location and nice sense of humour. There are a lot of characters (I did have to go back with a couple of names, to check who they were) but they’re briskly introduced and work well, particularly with the little brushes of personal life we see (especially for Blizzard). The backstory is well constructed and details of it are fed out at a good interval, helping keep the reader off-guard. Told with a decent pace, some clever writing and a straightforward voice, this works really well and I’d very much recommend it.

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John Dean is a former journalist who worked on regional newspapers for 17 years before going freelance in 1997. As a freelance, he wrote for regional and national newspapers and for many magazines on subjects as diverse as crime, wildlife and business before retiring in March 2020 to concentrate on his crime fiction. He also runs creative writing courses. 

John lives in South West Scotland and his website can be found at

THE NAME ON THE BULLET is the eleventh standalone murder mystery by John Dean to feature stalwart crime-solver DCI John Blizzard. The full list of books is as follows:


The book can be picked up from Amazon on these links

Free with Kindle Unlimited and available in paperback and hardcover.

Amazon US:

Amazon UK:

Amazon CA:

Amazon AU:

You can follow the rest of the tour at these great blogs

Monday 27 March 2023

Ten Most Memorable Times At The Movies

This MEME originally did the rounds way back when but I thought it'd be nice to revisit it.

"This is not about the best movies you've ever seen. Describe ten experiences watching a movie that stick in your mind as being particularly memorable - for whatever reason."

Star Wars
Still my favourite film of all time, I saw this when it first came out in the UK in early 1978, when I was 9.  As I've written about before (which you can read here), I was very aware of the film and very eager to see it.  We'd already tried to get into one showing but it was  full, so Dad took me and my friend Claire back to Rothwell.  We headed off down the Rec. to play - it was cold and there was a lot of fog - and only realised the time when we could hear Dad calling us, to go to the next showing.  My main memory from that day is watching the Star Destroyer come over the camera in almost the first shot and I knew I’d never seen anything like it before in my life.

I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema a few more times - a double-bill with The Empire Strikes Back and then a triple-bill (what a marathon that was) with both Empire and Return Of The Jedi - and I also caught the special editions at the cinema too.

Even better, I got to watch the films again with Dude and it was wonderful to re-experience them through his eyes!

Dead Ringers
My friend Craig & I went to the cinema a lot in the late 80s/early 90s, alternating between the Kettering, Burton Latimer and Corby ‘theatres’.  Can’t do that now, can we, Mr Odeon?  I’d loved David Cronenberg’s films since watching Videodrome (which I wrote about here) and Scanners in the mid-80s, so rushed along to see this.  It wasn’t a popularly held view - including me and Craig, there were only 6 people in the cinema.  It’s the quietest I’ve ever heard an audience file out - all of us looked shocked and white faced - but what a brilliant film it is.

Basic Instinct
Not the greatest film ever, I know but Alison & I went out as mates on a cinema trip to The Point in Milton Keynes.  We booked a double bill, watched Waynes World first and then went to get something to eat.  Midway through I asked her to go out with me so therefore our first film as a couple was Verhoven’s sleazy thriller.  Well, it could be worse…

The Land Before Time
Back in the late 80s, I often took my kid sister Sarah to the cinema during school holidays (video was starting to get a real grip, but we didn’t have a player, so the only place to see big Disney films was at the flicks).  I picked this particular film out of the many because it vividly reminds me, every time I think of it, of the difference between kids and adults (I would have been in my late teens, Sarah around 5 or 6).  One of the dinosaurs’ mothers dies, right near to the start and the kids in the audience went mental (it was quite a spectacular death if I remember rightly), laughing and shouting.  I thought it was very sad and looked around, trying to see if I was alone in that and wiping away a stray tear.  Turns out I wasn’t - whilst most of the kids were thoroughly enjoying themselves, most of the adults seemed to have “something in their eye”.

I went to see this at The Point, in Milton Keynes, with a friend of mine called Julie.  It was my suggestion - I'd enjoyed the Ken Russell films I'd seen to that point and I liked Theresa Russell a lot.  The film started.  It was vile.  It got worse.  To date - and I’ve seen a lot of films at the cinema - this is only film I’ve ever walked out of.

Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger
1977 - my friends and I went on our own to a matinee showing of this (I assume none of our parents wanted to sit through it).  The cinema was chaotic, popcorn everywhere, a lot of noise and we 8 year olds were thrilled to be there on our own.  The noise quietened down during the film and I remember I liked it - a feeling no doubt helped because of the presence of Ms Lambs Navy Rum herself, Caroline Munro (who, many years later, I got to meet - as I wrote about here).  A friend of mine, who’d already seen the film, kept telling me about this huge seal that came out of the ice to attack the goodies and I was, quite frankly, terrified.  Then I saw it and, for the first time, realised that my imagination, on occasion, could be far more powerful than what film-makers could get on the screen.

Fatal Attraction
For our first date (I do pick them, don’t I?), I took my new girlfriend Sara to see this at the Northampton ABC - a beautiful old Art Deco theatre, complete with a balcony and organ that came out of the stage, which is now a Jesus Army Centre (thanks for that, Mr Out-Of-Town Multiplex).  I enjoyed the film and, as soon as it appeared that Glenn Close was dead in the bath, I knew what was going to happen.  This is why, when she leapt out of the water only to be shot by Ann Archer, I was watching the rest of the cinema-goers rather than the screen.  And I swear it was as if everyone moved into the seat directly behind them, a living, screaming ripple effect.  I’ve never seen anything like it since.

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
Never the biggest Star Trek fan, I don't think I'd even see Wrath Of Khan (probably my favourite of them all) when this was released but one of the tabloids offered free tickets if you queued at the nearest relevant cinema and that seemed like a good idea.  The closest one to us was the Northampton ABC so me, my friend Steve and his sister spent a happy few hours in the queue, chatting to our fellow would-be patrons.  We got the tickets, I enjoyed the film and later wrote an essay about the day, which won an English prize that year at school.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Nick (who I've known since 1976 and is still my best friend) and I had a falling out during the summer of 1981.  Not being friends wasn’t at all pleasant but, typically for pre-teens, as horrible as it was neither of us was going to back down (and I can’t even remember what caused us to fall out).  It just so happened that, at the same time, Raiders Of The Lost Ark arrived at the cinema and nobody I knew wanted to see it - they either didn’t like spiders or snakes or ghosts.  Quite by chance, our mum’s met in the high street and, whilst talking, discovered both of us wanted to see the film but didn't have anyone to go and see it with.  I can’t remember now who made the first move but we made up, went to see the film and haven’t fallen out since.  The irony is that now I like horror films and Nick doesn’t, yet it was me at the time who covered his eyes when the first ‘angel’ turns into a ghoul at the climax!  It's a fact Nick has never let me forget.

A brilliant, stirring film, Raiders remains one of my all-time favourites.

An American Werewolf In London
I've long been a fan of the film (I wrote a retrospective on it here) and adore it but had only ever seen it at home or with friends, first on murky VHS, then on gorgeous DVD (where I finally realised the figure steaming in the night air was the original werewolf and not Jack, as I'd always thought).  When a company called Luna Flix began showing open air films at Stanwick Lakes, my friend David & I jumped at the chance to go and see this, the evening of the showing coinciding with a full moon, which was terrific.  The film looked gorgeous, it was great to see it under the stars and on a big screen and the whole experience was great fun (I wrote about it here).

I could also discuss the Live & Let Die/The Spy Who Loved Me double-bill my Dad took me to see, in 1978 - the first Bond films I’d ever seen at the cinema (but I already did, in-depth, at this blog post).

So what are your memorable moments?

Monday 13 March 2023

The Restless Bones - a bit of nostalgia

Back in the day, when I was at Junior school, we had a thing called The Bookworm Club.  It must have been a nationwide organisation (I vaguely remember a catalogue, though I can’t find any info about it on the Net) but what happened at Rothwell Juniors was that a stall was set up in the hall and you went in and bought any books that took your fancy (there was also something with collecting vouchers and saving them on a card).  I enjoyed it because it was aimed towards me (bookshops in those days weren’t, particularly, kid friendly), I could pick what I wanted and they had some great titles to choose from.

One of my first purchases was The Restless Bones, edited by the great Peter Haining.
cover scan of my copy
The Restless Bones & Other True Mysteries, edited by Peter Haining, is a slim Armada paperback that has no copyright/publishers information in it at all, though I believe it was published in 1978.  The cover was painted by Alun Hood, whilst the interior illustrations were the work of Ellis Nadler.

(left - "The Restless Bones" are discovered - right - "The Thing From Outer Space")

Peter Haining (1940-2007) was a journalist, author and anthologist from Suffolk, who was Editorial Director at New English Library before becoming a full-time writer in the early 70s.  He edited a large number of anthologies, predominantly of horror and fantasy short stories and wrote non-fiction books on a variety of topics, sometimes using the pen names ‘Ric Alexander’ and ‘Richard Peyton’ for crime anthologies.  He won the British Fantasy Society Karl Edward Wagner Award in 2001.

The Restless Bones contains ten stories:
The Restless Bones, The Winged Monster of the Desert, The Terror Of The Dragon, The Mystery of the Loup-Garou, Old Roger’s Vengeance, The Witch’s Familiars, The Call of Darke’s Drum, The Trail of the Devil’s Fooprints, The Thing From Outer Space and The Voice In The Graveyward.  “I have drawn on the large file of material I have collected over the years about events and experiences which are fantastic - but factual” is Haining’s comment on their origins, as he writes in his introduction.

The killer story for me was “The Voice in the Graveyard”, wherein teenaged Richard, in 1964 Wisconsin, accepts a challenge to spend the night in a graveyard, all on his own.  As I write this - a grown man far removed from the nine-year-old me reading it over the 1978 summer holidays, I can still remember the frisson of fear that ran through me when Richard hears a whispering voice plead, “…help us…

Well presented, with a good range of mysteries, this kept my attention well and steered me further into the path of horror and the supernatural (the devil's footprints being backed up by Arthur C. Clarke, of course).

I'm also proud to say that this book still stands on my bookshelf - it looks a little beaten up around the edges, but it's holdings its own.

Monday 27 February 2023

If You Think Reading Is Boring...

Regular readers of the blog will know I've been writing my own stories since I was eight, but reading for longer than that.  I take reading seriously, I take book collecting seriously and I'm a real advocate for people losing themselves in a book.  And since it's World Book Day on Thursday, what better time to start than now?
I love the tactile nature of books (I've still not converted to Kindle yet), I love the smell of books, I love the delight of finding a new bookshop and losing myself amongst the shelves (especially 2nd hand ones).  In these current times, I'm really missing that.

I love the delight of finding a new author to enjoy, I love the thrill of starting a new book and falling in love with the style and the characters and the flow of the language and I love the sense of satisfaction - mixed with a certain sense of loss - when you close the book for the last time and put it on your lap and rub the cover and want to say "thanks, mate, I enjoyed that".
The book can be anything you want and you don't have to spend a lot of money on a glossy hardback, or read a certain title just because it's at the top of the charts.  Outside of lockdowns, go to the library (if you have any left near you) or buy a paperback, or download an ebook, or go into a second hand or charity shop (when you can) and pick up something for 20p.  It doesn't matter how you do it, it doesn't matter what you read, just pick something up and open the cover and start.
Dude, in 2014, reading his latest Coronet Snoopy collection and me, in a B&B in Bridlington in 1988, reading my latest horror anthology purchase
And here's an icon of our times, who enjoyed reading...

Monday 20 February 2023

"Don't Go Back" - Happy Book Birthday!

Although it doesn't seem quite possible, my debut mainstream thriller Don't Go Back, published by those fine people The Book Folks, is a year old!

A captivating thriller about a woman whose past suddenly catches up with her

When Beth receives news that a once-close friend has died, after years away she reluctantly returns to the seaside town where she grew up.

Beth becomes increasingly unsettled as she attends the funeral, encounters people from her past, and visits her teenage haunts.

She is forced to take herself back to the awful summer when she left for good. Yet it is not just memories that are resurfacing, but simmering resentments.

Someone else hasn’t quite so readily put their past behind them, and unwittingly Beth will become the key to their catharsis.

As she puts two and two together, the question is: whatever possessed her to return?

DON’T GO BACK is a truly nail-biting read that will appeal to fans of Claire McGowan, Vanessa Garbin, Teresa Driscoll, Linwood Barclay and Anna Willett.

This is the best book you’ll read all year!

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The book is set in Seagrave (a British seaside town that feels very much like Great Yarmouth and is, indeed, just down the coast from Lowestoft) and told in two timelines, which were great fun to write. My good friend David Roberts & I plotted it out on one of our Friday Night Walks and I wrote it during the lockdowns (which might explain why the first draft was twice as long as the second!). The novel took a few twists and turns in its progress from idea to finished tale and the novel features tension and suspense, some scary parts, some funny bits and a few sad moments too. 

Having come out of the UK horror small press I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but the reaction has been better than I could have imagined. People - some my friends from real life (Ross Warren deserves a mention for leading the charge) and Facebook, others I had never interacted with - were hugely helpful and supportive, sharing my posts and tolerating me talking about the book a lot and letting their friends and followers know that Don't Go Back was out there.
The book has acquitted itself well over the year and, as I write this, it's sitting with 1,025 ratings on Amazon and a 4.1/5 average. I'm grateful to everyone who's bought a copy and left a rating or review (Steve Bacon posted his to his blog here). People seem to have taken well to the dual timeline which is pleasing because the writing process for that and trying to get it all tied together seemed - at times - to be a never-ending headache.

Like most writers, I create the stories because they're in my head and I enjoy the process of getting them out onto paper but to know that someone else derives pleasure from it makes all those painful parts (why won't this character do what I want her to, why isn't this part working, why on earth did I think it was a good idea to have a dual timeline?) worthwhile.
And if there's anyone you think might like a dual timeline thriller novel set in an English seaside town with some funny bits, a few scary bits, a couple of sad bits and a whole lot of suspense, please tell them all about Don't Go Back. 

Tell all your friends!

Monday 6 February 2023

The Shelter, by James Everington - Redux Reviews 2

Welcome to the second edition of the thread where I revisit reviews of books by friends and writers I admire, to highlight the works for readers who might have missed them the first time they appeared.

This time it's The Shelter, by James Everington, a novella I originally reviewed in 2013.

It’s a long, drowsy summer at the end of the 1980s, and Alan Dean and three of his friends cross the fields behind their village to look for a rumoured WW2 air raid shelter. Only half believing that it even exists beyond schoolboy gossip, the four boys nevertheless feel an odd tension and unease. 

And when they do find the shelter, and go down inside it, the strange and horrifying events that follow will test their adolescent friendships to breaking point, and affect the rest of their lives...

During the long summer of 1989, thirteen year-old Alan Dean hung around with three friends - Mark, Tom and Duncan.  Mark was a charismatic bully, a bad seed who was used to getting what he wanted and when he suggested the four of them explore an old shelter, they all agreed.  At the same time, a local boy called Martin had gone missing and the newspapers are asking if a killer’s on the loose but once Alan and his friends find the shelter, they experience something strange and horrifying that will change all their lives forever.

I love coming-of-age tales and I love eighties nostalgia and so, as my introduction to the writing of James Everington, this couldn’t have gone much better at all.  Although he’s at the opposite end of the decade to me (in terms of points of reference), he perfectly evokes a long boring summer to the extent that the reader can almost feel the prickly heat and hear the flies buzzing and there’s nothing that knocks this illusion at all.  The characters are well drawn, though Alan - who narrates - is probably the only one most people will identify with - Tom and Duncan are herd animals, not quite smart enough to strike out on their own and instead happy to be the muscle, whilst Mark is almost chilling in his relentness need to be in control, though Everington spotlights his vulnerability well as the story progresses.  The peer pressure too is well evoked, with the other boys being two years old than Alan, so he goes along them with because he’s too scared not to, plus he likes the increased social status their comradeship gives him.

The shelter itself is a superb invention, very real and with a claustrophobic atmosphere that is almost tangible.  When Alan sees what he sees, we’re there on the ladder with him and equally desperate for release.

With an afterword that explains where the story came from, which is interesting in itself, this is an excellent novella.  It has good pace, believable characters, a nice use of location and a sureness in the telling that pulls the reader through.  A wonderful exploration of powerful, quiet horror, this is well worth a read and highly recommended.

The novella is available from Amazon as a paperback here and as an ebook here.

James & I first met at Andromeda Con in Birmingham in 2013 (which I wrote about here), though we'd been chatting through social media for a while. We instantly hit it off and I quickly became a big fan of his excellent writing. When he told me about The Shelter, which originally appeared in 2011, it sounded right up my street and proved to absolutely be so.

Our friendship endures to this day and his writing just gets better and better (he's been reviewed in The Guardian, don't you know!).

Sledge-Lit in Derby, November 2017
James, me and Alison Littlewood

Monday 23 January 2023

The Tooth Fairy, by Graham Joyce (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've just read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan. In this case, the book first came out in 1996 and was written by the late and much-missed Graham Joyce, so the chances are you might have already heard of it. I'd been putting off reading it for a long, long time and when I finally picked it up I was pleased to find it inscribed to me and I realised I bought it from him at a Terror Scribes gathering in Leicester in 2001 (which I wrote about here).

When seven-year-old Sam Southall loses a tooth, he’s visited by the Tooth Fairy, a demonic being (sometimes male, sometimes female) that apparently only he can see, but whose malignant influence spills over onto his family and friends. The Tooth Fairy hangs around as Sam grows up, teaching him to make mischief at school and influencing his actions. One day she insists Sam’s friend Terry sleeps over and that same night, Terry's father shoots his wife, his other children, and himself…

I am a huge Graham Joyce fan and I’d been holding this back (the book was published in 1996) because  - well, there aren't a lot of his I have yet to read - but I’m so glad I did. Filled with Joyce’s wonderous prose, mastery of character and dialogue and a brilliant evocation of a seventies childhood (the timespan is never properly specified), this was just glorious. The lives of Sam, Terry and Clive are imbued with a sense of love and melancholy and the introduction of Alice to the group works brilliantly - she’s just as vivid a character as them, even if her motives aren’t always clear. And while the boys navigate friendships, parents and the rigours of becoming teenagers, the Tooth Fairy is always there, an ever-present reminder that things don’t always go right, however much you try to make them. There are scenes of horror - Terry’s family, Tooley the scout, poor Linda in London - and they’re shocking but the book, ultimately, is about friendship and love and I found it by turns funny and sad and eminently readable. I cannot recommend this highly enough and I envy those who have yet to discover its sense of wonder.

* * *
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 his novel The Year Of The Ladybird 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.