Friday, 19 September 2014

Reading and Q&A Session at Desborough Library

Coming up next month, I will be involved in a Horror Night event at Desborough Library, along with fellow writers Nicky Peacock and Paul Melhuish.  Starting with readings by the three of us - I'm going to do a creepy section from "The Mill", the real-life location of which is about a mile or so from the library - and followed by a Q&A session, our books will also be available and it promises to be a great evening.

Tickets are on-sale now so, if you're local, why not pop along?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Robert B. Parker and Spenser

In the late 80s, after seeing “The Long Goodbye” on Moviedrome, I began reading Raymond Chandler and quickly fell in love with crime fiction.  I got into the Sara Paretsky “V I Warshawski” series, the Hannah Wolfe novels of Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles, mainly by American writers.  One day I was browsing in the crime section of W H Smiths in Kettering and a title caught my eye.  It wasn’t the best designed cover in the world (see below) but it was published by Penguin and it sounded cool and so I bought it.

The book was “Promised Land” by Robert B. Parker, the fourth in the Spenser series, which was originally published in 1976 and won the Mystery Writers Of America association’s Edgar Award for best novel.

I loved the book, I loved the character, I loved Parker’s style of writing.  This is a review I posted to Goodreads of the novel, when I last re-read it in 2009:

Promised Land
first published in 1976, 

this is the 1987 Penguin edition
Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker
The first Spenser novel I ever picked up (back in the late 80s), this seemed like an ideal book to dip back into the series with.  It’s been a long time since I last read it and I’d forgotten just how tight a writer Parker could be, with dialogue that literally zings along and the occasional, beautifully observed moment.  

This has a lot to offer - clever plot, great characters, a keen sense of location and atmosphere - and even though it’s over 30 years old, it’s only very minor areas that date it - fashions and revolutionary ideals, mainly. A great book, crackingly well told and with a wonderful sequence on the beach in the dark, listening to someone else’s old records, that is almost worth reading the book for alone.  

I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Penguin was busy reprinting all the books and I duly picked them up.  I can’t remember now if I read them in order (probably not) but I got through them as quickly as I could.  I loved the earlier ones, when I think Parker was at his hard-boiled best, but as the series moved from the 70s and into the 80s, he really seemed to hit his stride, with great mysteries and characters.  Beyond that, sadly, I thought the books started to flag and the white space on each page seemed to get bigger - I finished the series with “Double Deuce” (book 19, published in 1992), which felt to me more like a novella - and I drifted away from the Boston private detective (“Spenser, with an S.  Like the poet…”).  Since then, as it happens, I’ve read “Hugger Mugger” (book 27, published in 2000) and whilst I enjoyed it - and its wonderful evocation of southern heat - I did have a problem in not knowing who some of the key players were (Parker keeps a continuing cast).

For all that, the books are brilliant and Spenser is an inspired character - firmly rooted in Boston, he enjoys life, keeps in shape, is a gourmet cook and his best friend Hawk was a one-time mob leg-breaker.  Spenser was committed to his long-term girlfriend Susan Silverman, though as the years and books progressed, their relationship took several believable twists and turns (they broke up at one point, before reconciling a couple of books later).  He was loyal to his friends (whichever side of the law they were on), beholden to no-one and fiercely independent, though he could be as ruthless as was needed if the situation called for it.  Even in the novels that I felt didn’t quite work, Parker continued to explore his recurring literary themes of love, loyalty, friendship and honour with skill and aplomb.

The Godwulf Manuscript
first published in 1974, 

this is the 1987 Penguin edition
The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert B. Parker
The book that began the series, this is perhaps the most hardboiled Spenser I’ve read.  

Setting the scene perfectly and quickly, Spenser is hired by a university to find the eponymous stolen manuscript but his trail quickly takes in mob connections, drug dealing, murder, cults and parents who mistake giving money for showing love.  It’s surprising to see how much the Susan Silverman character softened the series (for the better, in my opinion) - this has Spenser sleeping with both a mother and daughter (at separate times) and he kills two people - but this also includes items that aren’t mentioned often in future (his carving and some childhood memories).  A nice touch is Brenda Loring though, introduced here - and brought in at the melancholy finale, to add a touch of hope - and mentioned in “The Judas Goat”. 

This is an excellent crime novel, bracing and harsh and amusing, that is well worth a read.
(reviewed after a 2010 re-read)

I think it’s fair to say that whilst Parker had his detractors, it cannot be doubted that he led the way for a lot of crime writing that came after him.

“To me, [Early Autumn] shows the modern mystery at its finest - a true novel.”
- Robert Crais, interviewed in 2005

“I read Parker’s Spenser series in college. When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”
- Harlan Coben, interviewed in 2007

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

He said, in interview, that he met his wife Joan when they were both toddlers, but they did grow up together and were married in 1956, having two sons, David and Dan.  The Spenser character was originally going to be called David but since Parker didn’t want to favour one son over the other, the name was omitted and Spenser’s first name remains unknown.

The Spenser novels are also known for including characters of varied races, sexuality and religions, which critic Christina Nunez believes give his writing “a more modern feel”.  The homosexuality of Parker’s two sons, again according to Ms Nunez, gives his writing “[a] strong sensibility [toward gay people].”

Avery Brooks & Robert Urich, "Spenser: For Hire"
The books formed the basis of the series “Spenser: For Hire”, which ran from 1985 through to 1988 and was successful in the US (I didn’t know anybody, at the time, who watched it in the UK).  Whilst it had the benefit of a good cast and made great use of Boston locations, it was squashed to fit the standard TV format with ‘the cool car’ and funky apartment (a firehouse at one point) which were never in the books.  Robert Urich made an excellent Spenser and he, Barbara Stock (Susan) and Avery Brooks (Hawk) always appear in my minds eye (and Hawk’s “Spen-sah!” is how I read his greeting too).  Richard Jaeckel and Ron McLarty played the homicide detectives Lt. Martin Quirk and Sgt. Frank Belson respectively, though McLarty was missing the heavy five-o’clock shadow Parker always comments Belson on having.  Whilst I never saw it (perhaps it didn’t reach the UK), Hawk also got his own series, “A Man Called Hawk”, that ran for 13 episodes in 1989.

As well as continuing the Spenser series, Parker was asked by The Raymond Chandler estate to complete Chandler's last, unfinished Marlowe novel, “Poodle Springs”. He did so, in 1989 and followed it up the following year with “Perchance To Dream”, a sequel to Chandler's first Marlowe novel, “The Big Sleep”.

Starting in 1997 with “Night Passage” and taking in nine novels, Parker created a series featuring Jesse Stone, a flawed, alcoholic Californian detective who tries to start a new life as the Chief Of Police in a small Massachusetts town.  The books became the basis of a series of TV movies starring Tom Selleck.  Parker also created the character of Sunny Randall (a Boston-based private eye who began life initially as a possible project for the actress Helen Hunt) and wrote six novels, starting with “Family Honor”, from 1999 to 2007.

His prolific output (he refused to romanticise the act of writing and was quoted as wondering why plumbers never came down with plumber’s block) also took in several stand-alone novel and a popular Western series (including the acclaimed novel “Appaloosa”).

The Judas Goat
(London is encapsulated 
by the  Telecom tower and The Times!)
first published in 1978, 
this is the 1983 Penguin edition
The Judas Goat, by Robert B. Parker
Hired by a rich businessman, disabled in a terrorist attack that killed his wife and children, Spenser is soon on the trail of the Liberty group in London.  Discovering they are part of a larger group, with plans to liberate South Africa for the whites, Spenser calls in Hawk and goes after the unit, from London to Copenhagen and Amsterdam and finally to the Olympics at Montreal.  

Told with brazen wit, a keen eye for detail in location and character (and there are some terrific characters in here), this is prime Spenser.  The interplay between him and Hawk - and Susan - is wonderful and undercuts the violence and bloodshed nicely (there are several deaths here, plus a massive fight at the end that might be cartoon-ish in someone else’s hands).  

Very enjoyable and very highly recommended.
(read in memory of Mr Parker, who died 19/1/10, the day before I started reading this)

I didn’t know anyone else who read the series until I’d been published myself and, chatting with fellow writer Stuart Young at a gathering somewhere, we discovered a mutual love of Spenser.  Over the years since we’ve talked a lot about the books - and other crime writers - and although he’s read the Jesse Stone novels (and even got some for me), I’ve never read them or the Westerns (not really my genre).  I did read “Shrink Rap” (2002) featuring Sunny Randall but didn’t particularly enjoy it.

I won’t argue that all of the Spenser novels are brilliant, but even the weakest of them are wonderfully readable, with Parker's clipped, breezy style quickly pulling you along (and, generally, he always delivers the story well).

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

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

The Spenser Bibliography

The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
God Save the Child (1974)
Mortal Stakes (1975)
Promised Land (1976) (Edgar Award, 1977, Best Novel; adapted into pilot episode of Spenser: For Hire)
The Judas Goat (1978)
Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)
Early Autumn (1981)
A Savage Place (1981)
Ceremony (1982)
The Widening Gyre (1983)
Valediction (1984)
A Catskill Eagle (1985)
Taming a Sea Horse (1986)
Pale Kings and Princes (1987)
Crimson Joy (1988)
Playmates (1989)
Stardust (1990)
Pastime (1991)
Double Deuce (1992)
Paper Doll (1993)
Walking Shadow (1994)
Thin Air (1995)
Chance (1996)
Small Vices (1997)
Sudden Mischief (1998)
Hush Money (1999)
Hugger Mugger (2000)
Potshot (2001)
Widow's Walk (2002)
Back Story (2003)
Bad Business (2004)
Cold Service (2005)
School Days (2005)
Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006)
Now and Then (2007)
Rough Weather (2008)
Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel (2009)
The Professional (2009)
Painted Ladies (2010)
Sixkill (2011)

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that 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.

"The Shining Girls" won the 2014 August Derleth Best Horror Novel Award at FantasyCon.

“It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

Chicago 1931. Harper Curtis, a violent drifter, stumbles on a house with a secret as shocking as his own twisted nature – it opens onto other times. He uses it to stalk his carefully chosen 'shining girls' through the decades – and cut the spark out of them.

He’s the perfect killer. Unstoppable. Untraceable. He thinks…

Chicago, 1992. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Tell that to Kirby Mazrachi, whose life was shattered after a brutal attempt to murder her. Still struggling to find her attacker, her only ally is Dan, an ex-homicide reporter who covered her case and now might be falling in love with her.

As Kirby investigates, she finds the other girls – the ones who didn’t make it. The evidence is … impossible. But for a girl who should be dead, impossible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen…

This is the first Lauren Beukes book I’ve read and, even though it was recommended to me last year, the apparent sci-fi angle with the time-travelling serial killer did put me off and it really shouldn’t have done because this is a fantastic novel, told with pace and wit and a sure sense of itself.  

Kirby Mazrachi is a great character, seen through various points in her life (from leading an almost abandoned childhood to surviving an appalling attack) and never being less than believable.  Spiky, opinionated, forthright and driven by purpose, she leaps off the page and is so richly developed that everything about her sparkles - her dress-sense, her scarf, the Little Pony motif, her boots - to us, not just to Harper Curtis, the serial killer himself.  With him, Beukes has created a stand-out villain who it’s impossible to tears your eyes from.  Falling into The House (the timeline of which becomes much more twisted with the Postscript) and the ability to time-travel, he’s ruthless and vindictive, growing colder and more unpleasant as the book progresses even when he’s still trying to figure out what’s going on (and is, arguably, as much a victim as the girls).  Worse, he keeps getting hurt - an ankle injury at the start of the book means he uses a crutch throughout the novel, one victim breaks his jaw meaning it has to be wired up (in 1932, which leaves him scarred), he’s attacked by dogs and other victims, but still he keeps coming.  Rounding out the leads is Dan Velasquez, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, divorced and now a sports reporter after kicking up too much heat on the crime beat.  He reported on Kirby’s attack, so she approaches him when she wants help in tracking down Harper.

The time-travel device is superb and dealt with inventively - it’s there, it happens, let’s get on with it.  Harper can control, to a degree, where he ends up and he likes to go out and explore but we never fully understand why it works, why it’s there or even why the girls themselves are shining.  The book works better for that, I think and it’s intriguing going from chapter to chapter, dotting backwards and forwards in time, seeing events from different angles and viewpoints.

With something this complex (I saw a picture - see below - of Beukes standing in front of the timeline chart she used to follow everyone and it looked terrifying), it stands and falls on the strength of the writing and this is wonderfully assured.  Told in present tense and with a deceptively easy style, it rattles you along and seduces you with language before bringing you up short with the violent attacks.  And they are incredibly violent, told with an almost casual approach that makes them all the more brutal and unpleasant.  None of them are less than gruesome but when we finally see what happened to Kirby, it’s like being repeatedly punched as the whole terrible spectacle unfolds.

The Shining Girls themselves are dotted through time, from 1932 up to 1993 and we get to know enough about the victims (with plenty of local colour thrown in too) to feel great sympathy for them especially since we know that Harper is, essentially, unstoppable.  The story is filled with great details of the various periods and plenty of history, though neither feel shoehorned in and the social commentary - racism, the great depression, abortion, feminism, sexism, gang culture and the lost souls of modern life - grounds everything in a terrific, grimy realism.

Superbly written, with great pace and nerve, this is a fantastic read and I highly recommend it.

photo by Morne van Zyl

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Movie miniatures - an appreciation of Derek Meddings

Derek Meddings, surrounded by various James Bond-related miniatures 
Derek Meddings was a special effects genius and whilst most movie-goers won't know his name, millions of them have seen his work (especially on films from the 1970s and 80s, when American movies utilised British talent based on our technicians outstanding international reputations).

Derek, working on the Thunderbirds episode 
"Fireflash" in 1965
Derek was born in London on January 15th 1931.  His father was a carpenter at Denham Studios, whilst his mother was Alexander Korda’s secretary and occasionally the stand-in for Merle Oberon.  Derek attended art school and, in the late 1940s, secured a job at Denham lettering credit titles.  A meeting with special effects artist Les Bowie led to Derek joining his matte painting department which thrived in the 1950s as they worked for Hammer Films, whose limited budgets necessitated many ‘string and cardboard’ creations.  This served Derek well when he was hired by Gerry Anderson to work on ‘Four Feather Falls’ (creating backgrounds of ranches), ‘Supercar’ and ‘Fireball XL5’, before designing (with Reg Hill) the models for ‘Stingray’ and then to ‘Thunderbirds’, where he was given a free hand to design the series.

With his early experience, Derek created simple solutions to problems like tracking moving vehicles (either on roads or runways), using an escalator system where the model was stationary whilst the set moved around, under or over it.  His work moved to the big-screen with ‘Thunderbirds Are Go!’ (1966) and the live-action feature ‘Doppelganger’ (also known as ‘Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun’) in 1969.  Back on TV, Derek designed effects for ‘Captain Scarlet’ (1967) and the live-action ‘UFO’ (1970), both for Anderson.

Drafted into the Bond franchise by producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli with 1973’s ‘Live and Let Die’, Derek struck up a working partnership that would last until ‘Goldeneye’ in 1995.  Between Bond’s, he went back to the ‘string and cardboard’ method on ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ (1975) and did some excellent work on ‘Aces High’ (1976) where he rigged the planes for the flying sequences.

Some of the miniature work on 'The Spy Who Loved Me' (1977)
top left - Stromberg's Atlantis base is lowered into the sea (two crewmen hang on)
top right - filming one of the Lotus miniatures
bottom left - the 60ft miniature of the Liparus (showing the wake)
bottom right - a crewman adds a sense of scale to the Liparus miniature
On ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), Derek supervised filming of the underwater and supertanker sequences, which meant spending four months in the Bahamas.  Since using a real tanker was prohibitively expensive in terms of insurance, he built a 60ft long miniature and put an outboard motor inside it, to replicate the enormous wakes the real ships create.  He also created the Atlantis headquarters of Stromberg (based on the design by Ken Adam) and the submersible Lotus Esprit (shot using a combination of full-size body shells and one-quarter scale miniatures).

top - the Golden Gate Bridge miniature for 'Superman' (1978)
bottom - David Michael Petrou (author of the making of paperback) stands in front of the Hoover Dam miniature)
He went straight to work on ‘Superman’ (1978) and shot all of the miniature sequences at Pinewood Studios, including the Golden Gate bridge, Krypton and the Hoover Dam, earning an Oscar for his effects.  The drowned village part of the Dam sequence was completed by another company after Derek left the production and, unfortunately, the join between the two is all too obvious.  Nevertheless, he amply delivered on the films promise that the audience would believe a man could fly.

Derek working on the Moonraker miniatures, 1978
For ‘Moonraker’ (1979), the production schedule was so tight that Derek was forced to utilise a very old technique for all the space-set shots and shoot everything ‘in camera’, winding the film back after each element had been shot and running it again with another model.  One shot, apparently, has 48 separate elements in it, meaning the film was wound back at least 96 times (imagine messing that shot up one before the end!).  For the destruction of the space station, he and his team hung the model in the James Bond 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios and shot at it with a shotgun.  At the time, Sir Roger Moore was quoted as saying of Derek and his team, ‘if [NASA] had our boys working for them, the real Shuttle would have been launched by now.’

Derek and colleague at work on 'Superman 2' - Metropolis streets on the left
After more great work on ‘Superman 2’ (1980), including replicating the streets of Metropolis for the climactic fight, Derek created the St George miniatures on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (1981).  Briefly appearing in ‘Spies Like Us’ (1985), he worked on ‘Batman’ (1989) and believed he got that job because director Tim Burton was a big fan of ‘Thunderbirds’.
Derek, touching up the satellite station miniature from "Goldeneye" (1995)
Going back to the Bond franchise with ‘Goldeneye’ (1995), Derek created incredibly realistic miniatures that are peppered throughout the film (notably the satellite station, the train and the radar dish) and they serve as a wonderful memorial to the man (a dedication in the final credits reads ‘To the memory of Derek Meddings’).

Derek Meddings died of colorectal cancer on September 10th 1995, aged 64.

He won a Special Achievement Award Oscar in 1979 for his work on ‘Superman’ and received the Michael Balcon Award from BAFTA in the same year.  His work on ‘Moonraker’ was Oscar-nominated and ‘Batman’ received a BAFTA nomination.  He was posthumously awarded the 1996 BAFTA Award for Best Achievement (in special effects) for ‘GoldenEye’.


Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)
Thunderbird 6 (1968)
Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun; 1969)
Z.P.G. (1972)
Fear Is the Key (1972)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
Shout at the Devil (1976)
Aces High (1976)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Moonraker (1979)
Superman II (1980)
For Your Eyes Only' (1981)
Krull (1983)
Banzaï (1983)
Superman III (1983)
Supergirl (1984)
Spies Like Us (1985)
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
Mio min Mio (1987)
High Spirits (1988)
Apprentice to Murder (1988)
Batman (1989)
The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1991)
Hudson Hawk (1991)
Cape Fear (1991)
The Neverending Story III (1994)
GoldenEye (1995)

There is a Facebook group dedicated to Derek, which can be found here on this link

Pinewood Studios Special Effects award winners
Left to right - George Gibbs, John Stears, Kit West, Charles Staffel, Brian Johnson, Roy Field, Derek Meddings, Richard Conway.
plenty of links to ILM and Lucasfilm here too - Gibbs worked on "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom", Stears on "Star Wars", Kit West on many projects and Johnson on "The Empire Strikes Back"

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

FantasyCon, York, 5th September to 7th September, 2014

Friday 5th September
Having decided to ‘let the train take the strain’ again, Sue Moorcroft & I arrived in York at 12.30 but couldn’t work out where the hotel was.  The picture on the website showed Downton Abbey standing in acres of land but we discovered it was a clever camera angle (it was Downton Abbey but the photographer crouched low, cut out some cars and road and so the lawns looked like acres of land - cunning!).  Deciding we’d head straight to get something for lunch, I was drawing out money from the cash machine and Bryn Fortey spotted me.  It was lovely to finally meet him and we had a chat, before James Everington briefly joined us, then Bryn took us to the hotel to get checked in.  Informed our rooms wouldn’t be ready until 3pm, Sue & I walked into the city and had lunch at a café near the Minster, sitting out on the square (where Sue managed to smash the lid of the teapot she had…).
Chris Teague with copies of "Drive" on prominent display...
Back to the hotel and we began to see old friends - James, Phil Sloman, Ross Warren and Steven Chapman, Steve Harris, John Travis, Terry Grimwood and Peter Mark May, Lynda E. Rucker and Jay Eales & Selina Lock.  Paul & Cath Finch were registering and during our chat and Paul asked when Dude is going to start coming to Cons (next year, as it happens, he’s remembered my promise to let him come when he’s ten)!  Plus there was Ian Whates and the lovely Helen, Simon Bestwick, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Alison Littlewood and Fergus, Mick & Debbie Curtis, Gary Cole-Wilkin & Soozy Marjoram (who gave me a massive hug and then made sure I was looking after myself now!).  Plus Mark Morris arranging for our Three Investigator conversation, Dean M. Drinkel, Paul Meloy and Sarah Pinborough.  Adele Wearing, Vincent Holland-Keen, Karen Davis and Ewan, Ruth Booth (who zipped around with redcloak efficiency), Gavin Williams and Pixie Pudding and Joan De La Haye, Anna Taborska and Reggie Oliver.  I love FantasyCon because it’s about horror and writing but it’s also about our genre community and I love getting to see old friends again and catching up with them in person.
Friends meet up - from left, Steven Chapman, Phil Sloman, Jim Mcleod, me, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, Chris Teague
With Steven, Sue & I went to the Opening Ceremony (I’d never been to one before, I don’t think I’ll bother again) but heard the bad news that Graham Joyce wouldn’t be attending (he should have been the MC), which was a great shame.

Back upstairs, we found Neil Williams - it was his first con and although he & I have been communicating regularly for years (he is one of the original ‘ill at ease’ gang), it was our first time of meeting - and then, on a trip to the dealer room (where Chris Teague had copies of “Drive” on prominent display), we bumped into Jim Mcleod, Mr Ginger Nuts Of Horror himself.  It was brilliant to meet him finally, as he’s been hugely supportive of me and my work, so I got to shake his hand heartily and tell him what I thought of him.
Adam Nevill indulges in his "smell my finger" game - l to r - Phil Sloman, Adam, me, Steven Chapman
We went to the Tor launch and got Adam Nevill to sign our books as we chatted about how grim his latest novel was and then met up with Gary McMahon, who tossed his mane of richly thick hair a little too often for my liking (I do so envy it, but I can’t ever tell him…).  We then went out onto the terrace to enjoy some of the late afternoon sun and glorious, tangent-filled con-speak followed.  Steve Bacon finally joined us and we headed for the Joel Lane tribute (held in Joel Lane Bar, next to the main events room).  It was a lovely and really quite touching hour or more, as his old friends chatted about him and read selections of his work, though there were some noisy folk just behind us who Ramsey Campbell shouted at to “have some respect”.  Everyone went silent, it reminded me of headmasters bellowing in corridors but did the trick!

Ackbars Indian Restaurant - me, Paul Edwards and  the
biggest naan breads ever.  A bemused Sue Moorcroft looks on
Back up to the lobby, where we found Sue waiting with Jay & Selina and also Paul & Mandy Edwards, who I haven’t seen for a couple of years so it was lovely to catch up with them.  We headed off to the Ackbars Indian with Lucy Wade and some members of Jay & Selina’s writing group (and yes, most of the conversation revolved around how they could fit “It’s a trap” into the menu and how much of a shame it would be if they didn’t - turns out, they didn’t…), catching up on lives and family news on the way.  Ackbars was crowded and noisy but the food was good and I sat next to Neil - a curry virgin.  Selina & I steered him towards a chicken korma, then half of us ordered naan breads without noticing from other tables that they were huge, far bigger than I’ve ever seen (Steve said they acted as curtains for across the table).  Neil, Mandy, Paul and Sue all attacked mine and we still didn’t finish it.

Since the hotel bar prices were so high (ridiculously so - a glass of diet coke that, if you took the ice out of, wouldn’t have held half a can of drink, cost £3.50), we alighted to the York Tap next door and took over a big corner table.  Jasper Bark, Jim Mcleod, Lisa Jenkins and a couple I didn’t catch the name of (the acoustics were terrible) joined us and we talked and laughed and talked some more.  Then Johnny Mains turned up and came over to say hello and that’s always a treat.  By the end of the evening, I had a really bad case of heartburn (from my spicy Tikka Massala I assumed), which worried me slightly and I sat up for a while and it put me off the idea of going for another curry run tomorrow.

Saturday 6th September
Saturday was supposed to start bright and early but following my late night, sitting up wondering if it was heartburn and a travel alarm that was reluctant to do its job, I was re-woken by Sue ringing me to make sure everything was okay.  It was, of course, so I got sorted and met her in the lobby and we went in for the (very nice) buffet breakfast.  We then met Neil and Steve in the lobby and planned out our day.  Sue went off for a panel, as did Neil and Steve & I, along with Paul & Mandy Edwards, went to the Film Show (run, as ever, by Martin Roberts and Helen Hopley) and saw a reading of an M R James story (everyone else liked it, I thought it was too stagey) and a short from Spain called “Home Sweet Home” which I loved, with its apparent echoes of “Repulsion” and “The Tenant”.  Into the next room for the Spectral Press launch of Mark Morris’ “The Spectral Book Of Horror Stories”, which had a tremendous turn-out - we queued for ages, chatting with Lynda, Simon, Ross, Simon & Lizzie Marshall-Jones and plenty of others.  The signing panel was great too, with Alison Littlewood mentioning the naughty corner in her inscription.  Sue went to her room to watch the F1 qualifying, so Steve & I went back into the Film Show as they were presenting “The Jacket” (adapted from a Johnny Mains short story - his introduction was amusing and very much on point to what we saw - I want to see it again though with his commentary) and “Ascension” (which I’ve seen before and written about here) with Dave Jeffery (writer) and James Underhill Hart (director) in attendance.  I’ve known Dave for a few years and really like him, James I met briefly at a Comic Con at the NEC a year or so ago and it was great to watch the film with them.  It stands up very well on a bigger screen too and Dave gave me a DVD copy for my support, which I really appreciated.  After a chat with Martin and another with James Barclay in the corridor, we met Neil and Sue in the lobby (fifteen minutes late but it's such a regular occurrence by now that Sue doesn’t mention it) and wandered out into the York rain for lunch at Bailey’s Café and Tea Room, which was nice.  Over our sandwiches we talked about how we all met, what we were working on and plans for the future.
Friends in an expensive bar - Fiona Ni Ealaighthe, Jim Mcleod, me, John Travis
Back to the hotel, we visited the bar and had some chats, then went to the NewCon Press launch, for Gary McMahon’s “The End” (which I critiqued several years ago and contend is still one of his best novels) and it seemed to go well (though Jay Eales convinced him to mention his hair so my inscription reads ‘Behold my mane!” - grrrr.  I do get a nice mention in the acknowledgements though).  Steve & I then went into the “Horror on the small screen” panel, chaired by the brilliant Maura McHugh and feauuring Stephen Volk, Paul Kane, Toby Whithouse and Laura Cotton (? I might have got that wrong) which was very entertaining.  Since it was still chucking it down, we repaired to the bar and stood chatting with Jim, Fiona Ní Éalaighthe and John, Paul & Mandy were around - his brother was visiting - and I had a brief word with Maura and Steve V, telling them how much I enjoyed the panel.  Paul Finch came through like a whirlwind (Steve is in “Terror Tales Of Yorkshire” and Paul Edwards has been asked to contribute to “TT of Cornwall” and I’m desperate for Paul Finch to get to the Midlands and I keep reminding him of where I live!).  None of us wanted to go to the mass signing so we headed out into the now thankfully rain-free evening to try and find a restaurant.  A quick word about York - lovely city, great architecture and people, but incredible rowdy in the early evening, as it appears that every local stag and hen do hits the streets!

We ended up at Silvano’s Pizzeria & Ristorante and had a great meal and chat.  We’d intended to get back for the Boo Books launch but missed it and, as I’d been convincing everyone all afternoon how great the FCon disco was two years ago, we headed for that.  Paul & Mandy joined us there and I think I danced pretty much solidly (both in terms of time and dancing style) from 9pm through until 1am (by which time Sue had given up and gone to bed and Steve Bacon had unfortunately had to go home.  Neil & I walked him to the door and said our goodbyes and I gave him a big hug).  Paul & Mandy also went - my dancing partners in crime - so there was a lot of hugging there too.  Back on the dance-floor, I was (I was going to say co-erced but that definitely isn’t true) convinced to twerk, along with Steven Chapman, Donna Bond and Peter Mark May and - unfortunately - that’s the only part of the evening that Jim Mcleod filmed.  The twerking I was doing in my head didn’t match what Jim captured on his phone, I can tell you…
With the Edwards at the disco - a quieter moment with Mandy and letting rip with Paul
We were all buzzed and none of us wanted to call it a night so we took over a set of sofas in the corner of the lobby - me, James, Steven, Chris Teague, Jim, Peter, Neil, Graeme Reynolds and Lisa Jenkins - and talked for a couple of hours and it was a lovely, pleasant way to round off the evening (plus it was very close to a set of toilets which looked very grandiose and had people nipping off to take pictures of it).  At 3am I decided it was time to head off so I got up and then everyone else did - just waiting for me to be the old fart, I suppose.  Another cracking day, another cracking evening.

Sunday 7th September
Neil, Sue & I on the wall, outside of the hotel enjoying the glorious sunshine
I met Sue on time and we went in for breakfast, where I noticed Simon Clark sitting on his own so I got him to join us.  Sue went to the Toby Whithouse interview and I fully intended to go as well but as I was checking out, I saw Gary in the bar and went in and never came out, joining in conversations with James, Ross, Steve H, Victoria Leslie, Neil Snowden, Jim, Pablo Cheesecake, Mhairi Simpson and more, so many more.  Paul Finch came over to say his goodbyes, shook my hand and wished me well and told me to be ready for the call to the “TT of the Midlands” book - yes!  Sue came back, she was absorbed into the conversation and we finally got up to leave at lunchtime.  We said our goodbyes, just in case we missed everyone later and it was as sad as it always is, knowing it’ll be a while before we all get together again.  Sue, Neil & I embarked on a walking tour of the city, taking in the glorious afternoon sunshine and the sights York had to offer.  I led us out towards Micklegate and we discovered a little café called “Your Bike Shed” and had lunch in there - it was great.  We then walked along the wall until the got to the river, cut through the city centre, joined the tourists at the Minster and the Shambles, then went back on the wall.  Sue stayed there and Neil & I headed to the hotel for the awards ceremony.

As always, the banquet was running late so we stood in the bar with Neil & Donna Bond and Lucy and had a laugh before they let us into the events hall.  There wasn’t enough seating so Neil & I, like a pair of the most unstealthy ninja’s ever, went on a chair raid so we could sit down.  The ceremony went well, the results were well received and it’s great to see such a strong genre represented.

By then it was 4pm and time to go.  We said goodbye to Neil, bumped into Chris Teague and Lisa Jenkins just outside the hotel and said goodbye to them, then caught our train and talked all the way back to Kettering until, at 7.05pm, Sue & I said goodbye to each other.
In the Tap on Friday night - from left, Stephen Bacon, Sue Moorcroft, me, Mandy Edwards, Paul Edwards, Neil Williams, Chris Teague, Jasper Bark
All in all, it was a cracking con.  There have been comments made about the lack of horror on the programme and I suppose that’s true, but I don’t really go for the panels - I go for the people, the chatter and the laughs.  The one panel I did catch was interesting and good fun, the signings were great, as was the film show and I missed all the readings (sorry people) but the company I kept was outstanding.  If I did have gripes, they’d be the lack of a raffle, no midnight ghost stories but worst of all, the bar prices which helped to fragment the crowd - as people found other watering holes to drink it, it meant there wasn’t ever one central point where you knew people would be.  That aside, it was well organised and everything ran on time and what more could you ask?

The other nice thing, for me, came from seeing old friends and their genuine concern and love following my mini-heart attack a month or so ago.  To have my friends come over and ask how I was, tell me how much I scared them and make sure I was okay before hugging me (or, in Gary McMahon’s case, flicking his mane of luxurious locks and then patting me on the chest), was wonderful.  Thank you, thank you all.
On the terrace.  I am centre bottom, then clockwise left - Steven Chapman, Neil Williams, Sue Moorcroft, Stephen Bacon, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, James Everington, Steve Harris
As ever, I’ve tried to mention everyone I saw and chatted with, even if only briefly (sorry Charlotte Bond!) and if I’ve missed you out, I’m sorry - in fact, let me know and I’ll edit you in!
The "ill at ease" boys - Stephen Bacon, me, Neil Williams - finally we all meet up
Apparently the Con is going to be at Nottingham next year and I’m already looking forward to it!

edit - I posted this on Tuesday morning and we found out that Graham Joyce passed away on Tuesday afternoon.  He was a genuinely wonderful bloke, who loved life and genre and hated inequality and he always made time to stop and chat whenever we ran into each other at Con's (except for the burlesque incident!).  He will be sadly missed.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The Mystery Of The Magic Circle, by M. V. Carey

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1979 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Suddenly Bob cried, “Something’s burning!”

The next moment a great billow of smoke gushed into the room, nearly suffocating them.  coughing and choking, Jupiter peered into the hall - it was a seething, glowing inferno.

“There’s no way out!” he sobbed.  “We’re trapped!”

When the memoirs of a famous actress mysteriously disappear, The Three Investigators are sure they can track down the thief.  But they soon discover that someone else has other plans - and that their adversary is determined to destroy the manuscript and its secrets forever…

Working for the summer in the mail room of Amigos Press, The Three Investigators are quickly drawn into a mystery surrounding the (potentially explosive) autobiographical manuscript of now-recluse movie star Madeline Bainbridge.  When the office is burned down - quite literally around them - it coincides with a robbery at a film restoration lab next door, of the negatives of Ms Bainbridges films which have recently been sold to television.  When the manuscript - hand-written and the only one in existence - is also stolen, the boys are hired by Amigos Press publisher ‘Beefy’ Tremayne to try and find it and the trail leads them to a lonely house in the hills, a haunted wood and mysterious happenings from the past.

Another strong entry in the series from M. V. Carey and it’s been one of my favourites since I first read it in 1983 (I have the 1982 Armada paperback).  Back then - as now - I got the impression from their working at Amigos Press (as Bob says “the private detective business is slow this summer, we thought we’d get some experience with office work”), that Carey was writing them as slightly older and I think it works really well.  The book also has a nice attitude - shared by Jupe - towards old-time Hollywood that really grounds this in reality.

With only the briefest appearance by Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus (Jupe watches the morning news programme with them, as it features the Amigos Press fire) and no mention of Headquarters, the action is all centred around Santa Monica and Hollywood and the locations are well used, especially as some of them are slightly grimier than you’d expect.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is written well, giving Madeline Bainbridge a nicely constructed and believable history.  Dabbling in the art of witchcraft, she headed a coven and regularly held Sabats, with her boyfriend Ramon Desparto dying after one of them in an accident she blames herself for (and which led to her withdrawing from public life).  She’s a great, if little-seen, character and Jupe’s observation at one point that she’s “a sleeping beauty in an enchanted castle” fits perfectly, though she is a bit too trusting of the boys as events develop later in the book.

As well written as ever, this has some excellent set pieces - the sabat the boys spy on, the haunted wood, the incident in the wreckers yard and the fire that opens the mystery - and the characterisation is vivid and sharp, with even the minor members of the coven having distinctive personalities.  Beefy Tremayne is well observed as are Jefferson Long - a minor actor with Bainbridge, now a famous crime reporter - and Marvin Gray, Bainbridge’s chaffauer who has an unpleasant air from the start.  Starting with a bang, this has a good pace, a concise plot that unravels well, a nicely nostalgic atmosphere and the boys interplay is brilliant.  Great fun, a terrific read, this is very highly recommended.

Armada format b paperback (published in 1981, last reprinted in 1982), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition, which is a shame as I'm sure Roger Hall would have done a great job.

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

Friday, 29 August 2014

Flashback Friday - friends and conventions (part two)

Back in June (on this post, if you're interested), I made the point that I'm somewhat of a documentarian and love taking photographs and keeping a visual record of family, friends and events that link us.  What kicked the post off was finding a load of old Convention pics, which all spoke volumes of camaraderie and good friends and they seem to have made a lot of people smile.

So in a similar spirit (and because I'm off to FantasyCon next Friday) and as this is Flashback Friday, here are some more Con pics featuring good friends and good times.

from left - Joe Rattigan, John B. Ford, Mark Samuels, me - Stuart Young is in front
Rainfall Writers at the BFS Open Night, the Princess Louise, Holborn, December 2003 
FantasyCon 2008, Britannia Hotel, Nottingham
Three of the "We Fade To Grey" gang - me, Simon Bestwick, Gary McMahon
FantasyCon 2010, Britannia Hotel, Nottingham - me, Simon Marshall-Jones, David Price
FantasyCon 2011, Brighton
Enjoying (or not, as the case may be) a pizza at the end of the pier with Mandy Edwards, Stuart Hughes, Richard Farren Barber and David Price
Alt-Fiction, Leicester, 2012 with Sue Moorcroft
Also at Alt-Fiction, Leicester 2012, with Johnny Mains
FantasyCon 2012, Brighton
enjoying the disco with, amongst others, Peter Mark May, Lee Harris, Paul Melhuish, Simon Kurt Unsworth and Robert Spalding
WFC 2013, Brighton
Admiring Neil Bond's autographs with Steven Chapman and Ruth Booth
WFC 2013, Brighton.  Steve Bacon & I in the mirror...
Andromeda One, Birmingham 2013
me, Dave Jeffery, Phil Sloman, James  Everington, Steve Harris

All of my Convention reports can be found at this link