Monday, 19 January 2015

King For A Year

Last April, I wrote a blog post called "From Little Acorns..." talking about a new project I was putting together.  At the time, Stephen King had been on my mind for a few weeks and I was having a Facebook discussion with Ross Warren, Anthony Cowin, Andrew Murray and Alison Littlewood and we started talking about our personal top 10 favourite King books.  Then I posted this...

Here's an idea - Ross, Anthony, Andrew, Alison - how about next year, we declare it a Stephen King year. Twelve of us, we each pick one book and then blog a review/essay on it and link back to each others blog.  What do you think?

They all thought it was a good idea, more and more people wanted to get involved, Ross suggested we set up a dedicated blog for it and Willie Meikle gave us the perfect title with "King For A Year".

Alison later tweeted me "from little acorns..." and the blog continued to pick up strength as 2014 wore on and last week, I filled the final - 52nd - slot which will be Dan Howarth writing about "Everything's Eventual".

The third review - Jenny Barber on "The Dark Tower VII" - was published today, following well received entries from Anthony Cowin (on "The Shining") and Stephen Bacon on the "Night Shift" collection.

For those who haven't checked out the blog yet, it has a very simple concept - the writer picks their favourite  King book (novel, novella, whatever) and writes a review of it.  52 writers, 52 reviews, all posted during 2015.

I haven't read any beyond the end of January (most - including my own review, of "Pet Sematary" - haven't been written yet) but I like what I've seen so far and I think there'll be plenty to entertain people over the year.

So if you're a King fan, enjoy his books (or like the writing of particular reviewers), I hope you'll dip in and see what people have to say.  Most of all, I hope the blog entertains you.

To whet your appetite, here's the list of confirmed reviewers:

Anthony Cowin, Stephen Bacon and Jenny Barber (all now published)
Wayne Parkin, Matthew Craig, Neil Williams, Donna Bond, Mihai Adascalitei, Willie Meikle, Dean M. Drinkel, Maura McHugh, Gary McMahon, Kevin Bufton, James Everington, Selina Lock, Kit Power, Rowan Coleman, Adele Wearing, John Llewellyn Probert, Lynda E. Rucker, Shaun Hamilton, Mark West, Kim Talbot Hoelzli, David T. Wilbanks, Jay Eales, Nadine Holmes, Thana Niveau, Alison Littlewood, Phil Sloman, Dave Jeffery, Steven Savile, Ray Cluley, Johnny Mains, Sharon Ring, Liz Barnsley, Jim Mcleod, James Bennett, Christian Saunders, Frazer Lee, Carole Johnstone, Andrew Murray, Cate Gardner, Conrad Williams, Robert Mammone, Ross Warren, Sheri White, Robert Spalding, Colin F. Barnes, Simon Bestwick, Charlene Cocrane, Edward Lorn, Dan Howarth

Check out the blog at this link

Friday, 9 January 2015

Random Happiness...

Post-Christmas, it's been chilly in England and Dude & I have made the most of it, exploring the winter wonderland of the Rec and Mounts.  Last weekend, he was thrilled to discover that some of the puddles there had frozen over and he had a fine old time, walking on the ice and breaking bits of it up with a stick.  I remember doing the same thing when I was a kid but this time - not wanting to slip on the ice (blimey, how old am I?) - I stood off to the side, watching him and it was great to vicariously enjoy his delight.

* * *
As regular readers of this blog will know, I value my friendships.  This week, there was a programme on BBC Radio 2 that featured Sir Roger Moore (one of my all-time heroes, as if you needed reminding) and I was touched by the fact that several people contacted me to let me know.

Equally heartening was the picture my friend Gard Goldsmith posted to Facebook, featuring himself pointing at a box of Mark West wine (yep, it's a real thing).

* * *
I got an email this week from an editor, inviting me to appear in a themed anthology he was putting together.  That's always a very nice thing to have happen and, since I intend to do a lot more writing this year than I did last year, I chose my element of the theme, thanked him profusely and then thought 'oh bugger, what if I can't think of a story?'

Almost as soon as I thought that, I got an initial image that steadily grew during the day and when I went out for my evening walk - bundled up against the cold, Jarre pounding through my headphones - the whole thing slotted together nicely over the 3 miles.  It's always lovely when that happens (I wish it did more often, truth be told), let's hope it translates to the page as well.

* * *
"Drive" continues to pick up good notices and mentions in Year End Reviews, which makes me very happy indeed.  I'm keeping the section in My Creative Year post updated with the news.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Movie miniatures, by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)

As regular readers will know (from my previous miniatures post here, as well as other behind-the-scenes film posts which can be found here, here (about Return of the Jedi)herehere and here), I am fascinated by movie miniatures and how they can trick the viewer into completely believing the world the film-maker presents to them.

When I wrote my first miniatures post, I didn't want to talk about the ILM work on "Star Wars" as it's been so well documented in the past (though I couldn't resist one) but having enjoyed the process of researching and writing it, I realised I couldn't ignore ILM in this area.  So here then are some fantastic examples of miniature magic (most of which come from the 80s).
original ILM logo
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was founded in 1975 by George Lucas to produce the special effects shots for "Star Wars", since the major studios had closed their departments down.  Originally in Van Nuys, California, it moved to San Rafael during pre-production on "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) in 1978 before moving to the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio of San Francisco in 2005.  By this time, ILM was almost completely digital, having sold off its miniatures department - renamed the Kerner Optical company (after the building it was housed in) - though they continued a working relationship before Kerner went bankrupt.

ILM has won 15 Academy Awards (nominated 29 times) and 15 BAFTAs (nominated 17 times).

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Dennis Muren - visual effects supervisor
E.T.'s ship lands in the forest clearing
Poltergeist (1982, directed by Tobe Hooper)
Richard Edlund - visual effects supervisor
Building the Freeling's house, as used in the climax of the film
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Dennis Muren - visual effects supervisor
Although some of the mine car sequence was shot full-size, the scope required by the film dictated it use miniatures.  Working backwards, from deciding the camera size (they used a regular Nikon still camera, adapted to shoot celluloid), Muren realised they could make the sets not only very small but also very cheaply - all of the rock formations are created by painting aluminium foil.
Putting together the set
Left - the converted Nikon and the miniature mine-cart
Right - Tom St. Amand stop-motion animates Indy, Willie and Short Round
Top - frame from the film, as Indy, Willie and Short Round investigate the caves (nicknamed the Jaws shot, for obvious reasons)
Bottom - combining a Frank Ordaz matte painting with a foreground miniature
Back To The Future (1985, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Ken Ralston - visual effects supervisor
Steve Gawley (left) model-shop supervisor and Ira Keeler, with the miniature DeLorean used in the end sequence
Always (1989, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Bruce Nicholson - visual effects supervisor
Most of the aerial work and all of the fire effects were done in miniature.  Check out the camera car, something of an ILM stalwart!
Back To The Future 3 (1990, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Scott Farrar - visual effects supervisor
Whilst the train sequences with the actors were filmed on full-sized props, most of the work was completed with miniatures.  And good use was made of the ILM car!
Star Wars: Special Edition (1997, directed by George Lucas)
visual effects supervised by John Dykstra (original credit)

Okay, so I couldn't resist one "Star Wars" entry...
Lorne Peterson brushes up the Sandcrawler miniature, re-furbished for the special edition

 And to finish (for now), here's George Lucas posing with some of the miniatures created for the original "Star Wars" trilogy, housed in the Lucasfilm Archives (c. 1983)

Monday, 29 December 2014

My Creative Year 2014

Making a tradition of something I started last year, here’s a look back at 2014 from a creative standpoint (and yes, it might be a bit self-indulgent but this is, after all, my blog…)

During 2014 I wrote 5 short stories, a novel pitch, a load of book reviews, created some book covers and trailers (via Rude Dude Films) and wrote a dozen or more essays/articles for this blog.  I also suffered a heart attack, which put paid to my creativity through the summer (we now refer to it in our house as being my “Fall Guy Summer”, since Dude & I worked our way through the first two series of that early 80s TV show whilst I recuperated).

I had 2 short stories published:
* The Ilizarov Apparatus in Voices From A Coma #1, edited by Shaun Hamilton from Imaginalis Publishing
* Rhytiphobia in Phobophobias, edited by Dean M. Drinkel, from Western Legends Publishing

My novella Drive was published in print and digital editions by Pendragon Press and is available from Amazon.  Thankfully, it was very well received (including an excellent review in Black Static).

The Bureau Of Lost Children, which appeared in last year’s ill at ease 2, received an Honorable mention from Ellen Datlow.

My novel pitch for “The Witch House” was rejected and I was gutted.  However, I’m pleased to say that I’m back working on it now.

* * *
James Everington included "The City In The Rain" and "A Quiet Weekend Away" (both from my collection Strange Tales) in his Favourite Short Stories of 2014 round-up.

Kit Power, in his "What Kind Of A Year Has It Been?" round-up, awarded "Drive" an honorable mention in the Novella Of The Year category (which was won by Stephen Volk's masterpiece "Whitstable", itself my top read in 2012).  He said "Recommended as a one sit read, this one grabs you by the scruff and drags you though the intense narrative at a breathless pace."

Jim Mcleod at The Ginger Nuts Of Horror included "Drive" in his annual "Best Horror Of 2014" post, saying "While this is strictly not horror, still a brilliant tense and fast paced story of urban horror."

Matthew Fryer at Welcome To The Hellforge included "Drive" as one of his three top novellas 'that linger...' and says "A true edge-of-your-seat cinematic experience that doesn’t let you pause for breath."

Anthony Watson, in his annual "Dark Musings" round-up included "Drive" in his novellas category with "a tense, white-knuckle chase through darkened streets that will keep you gripped to the last page."

Peter Tennant, at Black Static, included "Drive" in his annual "Best In Class - 2014" round-up

* * *
I attended two great Cons this year, the first was Edge-Lit 3 in July, held at The Quad in Derby (full report here) and FantasyCon in September, held at The Royal York Hotel (full report here).  In addition, I was also involved in the Fox Spirit Writers Evening in November, held at Leicester Central Library (full report here).
top - at FantasyCon with Steven Chapman, Phil Sloman, Jim Mcleod, me, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams and Chris Teague
bottom - The Edge-Lit gang, aka The Derby Dhansak Daredevils with James Everington, Richard Farren Barber, Ross Warren, Chris Teague, John Travis, me, Paul M. Feeney and Steve Harris

* * *
Creatively speaking, 2014 hasn’t been bad at all, from the wonderful acclaim that Drive has attracted, the great projects and collaborators I’ve been involved with and the terrific Cons I’ve attended, though it was all tempered somewhat by my cardiac episode and the novel rejection.  Thankfully, 2015 is shaping up quite nicely with four short stories due for publication (as I write this) along with The Lost Film novellas (with Stephen Bacon) finally seeing the light of day and, as I mentioned before, I’m back working on the novel.

So all in all, a pretty good year and I’m feeling optimistic about 2015.  Thank you for your support in 2014, especially to those who bought, read and liked my work - I really do appreciate it.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Happy Christmas

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish readers of this blog (and their loved ones) a very Happy Christmas, with all best wishes for the New Year.

Thank you all very much for your continued support and interest, let’s hope 2015 is as good to us as we want it to be!

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Sixth Annual Westies - review of the year 2014

Well here we are again, with another year that seems to have whipped by (bit more of a bumpy ride than usual, I have to say) and so, as we gear up for Christmas, it’s time to indulge in the blog custom and remember the good (and not so good) books of 2014.

Once again, it was a great reading year for me, not only with my position as jury member for the BFS Best Horror Novel Award (free hardbacks!) but also because I decided to enrich my genre understanding and read some true classics.  As ever, the top 20 places were hard fought and, as with last year, I had a tie (for second place, this time) because the books were just too good to separate.  For some of these titles, I've written specific blog posts and linked to them in this list.

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

1: The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons
2= Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
2= Psycho, by Robert Bloch
2= Carrie, by Stephen King
5: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
6: The Happy Man, by Eric C. Higgs
7: The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin
8: The Wedding Proposal, by Sue Moorcroft
9: Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco
10: Pastime, by Robert B. Parker
11: The Night Just Got Darker, by Gary McMahon
12: The Weight Of The Ocean, by Paul M. Feeney
13: Home And Hearth, by Angela Slatter
14: Crimson Joy, by Robert B. Parker
15: Cold Turkey, by Carole Johnstone
16: Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
17: The Unquiet House, by Alison Littlewood
18: Beside Me, by Carolyn Henderson
19: Incubus, by Ray Russell
20: Dead Gone, by Luca Veste

(it should also be noted that Gary McMahon's short novel "The End" was published this year.  I first read it, as a critique, back in 2010 and it easily secured 2nd place in my list of that year as it should have done, it's a wonderful piece of work.  So really, this list has two McMahon entries, one you can see and also a 'ghost' one).

The Top 5 in non-fiction are:

1: Last Man Standing, by Sir Roger Moore
2: Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular: A Riotous Footballing Memoir about the Loneliest Position on the Field, by Graham Joyce
3: The Making Of The Empire Strikes Back, by J. W. Rinzler
4: The Making Of Return Of The Jedi, by J. W. Rinzler
5: Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, by Chris Nashawaty

Stats wise, I’ve read 69 books - 31 fiction, 9 non-fiction, 17 comics/nostalgia/kids and 12 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 57 books, the breakdown is thus:

4  biographies
21 horror novels
4  film-related
4 drama (includes chick-lit)
6 crime/mystery
3 sci-fi
3 nostalgia
12 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

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

Friday, 19 December 2014

My Three Investigators All Time Top 10

Over the course of this year, to mark the 50th Anniversary of The Three Investigators, I've been re-reading (and blogging about) my favourites to compile this "All Time Top 10" (which, of course, will always be subject to change).  In case you're interested in those titles that don't appear here, I read all 30 of the original series between 2008 to 2010 and reviewed them on this dedicated blog.

So this is it, as at the end of 2014, 50 years after the boys first appeared in print, here is my Top 10 (with links back to my original post and the full review).

by M. V. Carey
Another strong entry from M. V. Carey (her fifth in the series), this has long been my favourite, for a whole variety of reasons.  Although the boys are hired to investigate a "shadow" that might be a ghost, the real mystery kicks in once they’re on the scene at Paseo Place and the burglary of the late Edward Neidland’s house takes place.  He has created a unique crystal sculpture for Fenton Prentice, The Carpathian Hound, “a heavily muscled dog with a square  massive head. The wide round eyes were rimmed with gold, and gold froth flecked the crystal jowls” and now it’s being held for ransom.  At the same time, a lot of apparently separate incidents are happening around the apartment complex - the church next door is broken into, one neighbour is poisoned and hospitalised, another is in his apartment when there’s a fire that hospitalises him and the building supervisor has her car blow up when she’s on the way to the market (after the bombing, a policeman remarks “Things have been really weird on this block the last couple of days.”).  Great fun, from start to finish, this is a superb read with well-developed characters, a vividly created location, a nicely realised atmosphere and a strong pace.  I highly recommend it.
Read my full review (from December 2014) here

by Robert Arthur
Well told and structured, this is superbly written and drops clues for further in the timeline (“Two and two don’t always make four,” Jupe said, his manner mysterious. “And fifteen and fifteen don’t always make thirty” after Worthington mentions that it opens on the fifteenth day of their thirty days use of the Rolls Royce) though it does niggle me there’s a chapter not told from an Investigator-led POV (which probably troubled me more as an adult than it did as a kid).  That aside, this is a great book with a good sense of location and atmosphere and further proof - should it be needed - that it’s a shame Robert Arthur didn’t write or plot more of the adventures.
Read my full review (from March 2014) here

by Robert Arthur
This is a rollercoaster of an adventure that doesn’t let up and covers a lot of ground from the initial robbery (a cleverly staged set-piece), to the details of the gnomes (when they’re first seen, it’s quite a spooky sequence) and beyond (including a terrific chase in an abandoned cinema), this is full of assured writing and helped by a great sense of location and atmosphere.  It also has a sense of melancholic nostalgia (which I probably missed as a kid but now realise is a signature of Robert Arthur), where the differences between past and present are not generally good.  In this case, it’s Ms Agawam reflecting on the lack of children in the area as those she once read to - and wrote for - have now moved away to start families of their own and it’s also about how old LA is being demolished (the old Moor theatre next door) to make way for the new.  I really appreciated that on re-reading it.
Read my full review (from March 2014) here 

by M. V. Carey
There are some great set pieces - breaking and entering the butlers flat (the first time I think Jupe deliberately breaks the law) and the bombing of the deli - but the key one is when the foursome infiltrate the cult’s mansion on Torrente Canyon. Gripping and tense, with a real sense of location and some great descriptions, this works brilliantly.  Helping the overall tone of the book is that a lot of the action takes place at twilight or after dark and there’s a real sense of adventure to it.  There are also some nice observations about why people join cults and the power of belief that are sharply written and in keeping with future Carey stories, where she touches upon real phenomenon and deals with it effectively.
Read my full review (from March 2014) here

by M. V. Carey
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.  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.
Read my full review (from September 2014) here

by M. V. Carey
With Rocky Beach only seen very briefly, this takes place in Twin Lakes, an old mining town in New Mexico that has shrunk since the Death Trap mine played out its silver (only the town’s logging operation is keeping it going).  There are some nice reflections on this - and a great use of Hambone, a ghost town that suffered a worse mine closure - and the locations are well used and realised.  Tightly written and paying out its clever central mystery strand-by-strand - their tracking down of information on Gilbert Morgan (the corpse found in the mine) is well played - this is full of suspense, casting suspicion on Wesley Thurgood and Uncle Harry’s other neighbour Mrs Macomber alike, before fresh suspects enter the fray.
Read my full review (from June 2014) here

by William Arden
There’s a lot of bright characterisation - especially Billy Towne, Dingo’s eight-year-old grandson who knows all about the Three Investigators and ends up a fourth partner (and wears a cape and deerstalker), Turk & Mr Savo and Dingo’s niece and nephew, the awful Winifred & Cecil Percival, two nasty piece of work English villains - along with some nice interplay between the boys.  The book also has a good sense of humour about it, typified by Pete’s eating habits and it runs at a cracking pace (I read the first half in one sitting and the time just flew by).  After opening on Bob writing up their last case (the search for Mrs Hester’s ring), we see the boys at school (and find out that Jupiter is president of the Science Club) and old favourite the Ghost-to-Ghost hook-up makes another appearance - and is used again by Billy, at a critical point of the story, where he makes his headquarters a phonebooth.
Read my full review (from April 2014) here

by William Arden
This is another terrific entry, combining a deceptively simple plot with some really good set pieces, logical detection and plenty of intrigue along the way.  After setting things up in the first chapter, the story takes off and whips along, featuring bad luck, a reverse-disguise, carny-life, a human fly, a bank robbery and remnants of the past along the way.  There’s great use of the abandoned amusement park and it’s desolation and spookiness is remarkably well conveyed (especially during a tense and suspenseful moonlit pursuit).  The book also has an element of Robert Arthur style pathos to it, about the waning carnival life and people wanting someting for nothing, which is a nice touch.

by William Arden
Taking place solely in Rocky Beach - as did Arden’s last book, “The Mystery Of The Dead Man’s Riddle” - and giving us a whole new set of locations to imagine, this makes good use of the town and adds the story a nice flavour.  Opening on Pete’s street and staying close by for several chapters, it brings a touch of realism to a tale that, it has to be said, needs to be sometimes taken with a pinch of salt.  Now I like pulpy action, I like twinges of horror in my mysteries and so I loved the whole Dancing Devil (the spirit/demon/man, rather than the statue) concept (especially how people accept its existence) but I can see that others might have problems with it though who could deny that “The Dancing Devil of Batu Khan, dated 1241AD and inscribed ‘To the Exalted Khan of the Golden Horde’” isn’t a touch of brilliance.
Read my full review (from July 2014) here

by M. V. Carey
This has some great characterisation (including a prize quote from Worthington - “Master Pete prefers to avoid unnecessary vexation”), a nice cameo from Dr Barrister, who appeared in ‘The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent’, some nicely spooky scenes and Jupe using Sherlock-Holmes-level detecting skills to wrap the case up at the harbour.  Top notch writing, a smart mystery and a cracking pace make this a fun read.
Read my full review (from April 2014) here

For all of my Three Investigator related posts, click this link

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