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Tuesday 31 December 2013

Some new year writing resolutions:
1. Write every day.
2. Write 6 books this year...

Monday 30 December 2013

Books read – 2013

This year I read 46 books. Of that number, inevitably, a fair portion for the first half of the year were books published by Solstice Publishing which I read as editor or copy-editor.

I’m pleased to say that I haven’t read a bad book, though some shone more than others.  Those asterisked at the bottom can be viewed in my ‘top 12’ list. As with any list, it’s subjective, if not controversial. In no particular order…

Rachel Blackburn by Doreen McNicol
Victorian melodrama, the sequel to Rachel Weeks.  These two books have heart and capture the period. There are some moving scenes and the reader really wants to root for Rachel through all her struggles. Blurb: London, 1855. Rachel Wicks survived the workhouse and a terrible marriage to the vile and evil Emerson Blackburn. Her life should have been smooth thereafter, but she hadn’t reckoned on the interference of Mrs Worchester, a relative of Blackburn’s. For the sake of her daughter, Rachel throws in her lot with the Worchesters. But people and events from her past haunt her and threaten to forever darken her daughter’s future. And true love beckons – or is it yet another trick of fate, to be snatched away from her? She must be brave and true to her ideals, no matter how much rumours malign and pain her.

Hustle Henry and the Cue-ball Kid by Jack Strandburg
An hilarious western about pool hustlers, love and double-cross. Clarence Flannery changed his name to Hustle Henry, his pal Skinner became the Cue-Ball Kid, and the eleven men they recruited would go down in history as The Hole-in-the-Table-Bunch, known far and wide for hustling wannabe pool sharks out of their life savings.
Old Fashioned Detective Work by Devon Ellington
One of a supernatural detective series, written with a sure touch. Jain Lazarus is a hexbreaker. This is a sequel to Hexbreaker. Blurb: Detective Wyatt East finds himself the primary suspect when hex breaker Jain Lazarus disappears after their romantic weekend in Vermont.  In spite of these suspicions, Jain's boss, Maitland Stiles, hires Wyatt to track her down, forcing him to face aspects of his own painful past and revealing more about hers.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Classic, still works for me. Review can be found here

The Cauldron by Steve Carter
They don’t write men’s adventures any more. Well, so I thought. But I was wrong. Steve Carter has embarked on a series of adventures that bring to mind author H Rider Haggard, albeit with added expletives and sex; the style is old-fashioned, but highly readable, and laced with humour and poignancy. The first in the series, The Cauldron relates John Saxton’s coming of age. Sax is aided and abetted by his mentor, Marcus Brown – a Maasai warrior and friend of the family. This is the age of trade clippers and slavers, the early days of the Civil War, and it’s great to meet a young honourable man who fights for what is right and good against self-seeking and greedy men. Carter’s creation of Marcus Brown is a worthy successor to Umslopogaas.

Expatriate Bones by M. Howald
Murder mystery set in Montreal. Bounty hunter Leonard Marsland feeds on the hunt, the kill, and has been feeding his entire life.  When Christine Duma, a med student is murdered, Marsland steps closer to the last two names on his hit list, and Detective Austin Del Rio steps into the crossfire between Marsland’s revenge and a war crimes cover-up.

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
An epic tale. See my review here

The Maxwell Vendetta by Carl Brush
This historical thriller, the prequel to another gripping novel, The Second Vendetta, is set nearly one hundred years in the past, yet The Maxwell Vendetta embodies themes as contemporary as racism, political corruption, and sexual exploitation. In short, contemporary America mirrored in a novel of 1908 California. An excellent first person narrative. I seemed to live through the trials and tribulations - and there were many! - of Andy Maxwell. It was that believable. The book has it all - action, suspense, horror, drama and humour.

Combstock Lode by Louis L’Amour
The Comstock Lode was one of the richest finds in silver and L’Amour’s story is rich in characters and events, filled with drifters, schemers, dreamers, builders and thieves.

Shattered Prism by Rebeca L. Frencl
Fantasy. Robyn and Aerin have been down this road before as they hunt for the other seven Starbearers who will once more drive back the Darkness that wishes to unravel civilization and drive mankind back into howling barbarism… First in the Star Circle Trilogy.
Lenin’s Harem by William Burton McCormick
Mcormick has produced a book of vast scope yet deep intimacy. His feeling for the period, the country and the Latvians and Russians shines through on every page of this first person narrative… A book of betrayal, survival, brotherhood, identity and love that will linger in the mind after the last page has been turned.
Bond on Bond by Roger Moore
Lavishly illustrated reminiscences and coverage of the Bond movies, with Moore’s usual tongue-in-cheek delivery. Amusing and interesting!

Painting by Numbers by Tom Gillespie
This isn’t a thriller, but it is a psychological suspense page-turner. On the surface, I can see why some people might liken it to Dan Brown’s oeuvre – esoteric knowledge about artwork and mathematics, for example, and a quest to a foreign land. That’s as far as such comparisons should go, however. If any comparisons should be made, I’d refer to Christopher Priest – notably his The Affirmation. Priest, like Gillespie, is a wordsmith… bravura storytelling about dislocation, obsession, grief, guilt, fidelity and intrigue. The ending is perfect. 

The Filey Connection by David W Robinson
First in the Sanford Third Age Club (STAC) series of cosy crime novels, this was a pleasure to read. If you’ve enjoyed Simon Brett’s Mrs Pargeter novels, then you’ll like these too.  A whodunnit and a whydunnit, this is a quick read with plenty of chuckles along the way.

Cast-Iron Star and other stories by Robert J. Randisi
This is a good collection of western short stories by a master storyteller. If you’ve never read any Randisi, this is a fine place to start… ‘The Ghost with Blue Eyes’ is a moving tale about an aptly named gunman called Targett who accidentally kills a child and how he achieves redemption. It’s a tear-jerker and worth the cost of the collection alone. Never sentimental, the writing is spare but powerful.

Shaman’s Drum by Ailsa Abraham
This is a good fantasy tale of relationships set in the near future when our organised religions were banned, eventually replaced by paganism and magic. Civilisation is still as we know it, complete with Internet and mobile phones, cars and taxis, but without the angst of religious guilt or conflict. Needless to say, without conflict there is no story. And of course even in a supposedly ideal world there is still crime, jealousy, and a lust for power… A satisfying read and I’m already curious about the prequel!

Solo by William Boyd
Another ‘literary’ author tackles James Bond, following in the recent footsteps of Sebastian Faulks and Jefferey Deaver. To all intents and purposes Boyd continues where Fleming left off as far as the historical timeline goes, so we’re in 1969… The writing was accomplished in parts, and the narrative kept me turning the pages, but I wasn’t emotionally involved. And I felt the ending was rushed.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emil Zola
The source book of the TV series, though there are many differences. In its own right, it’s a fascinating read and the strength of character of the heroine Denise shines through, Woman Victorious.

West of the Big River: The Lawman by James Reasoner
A fictional tale about a real lawman, Bill Tilghman. He’s sent to the Oklahoma territory settlement of Burnt Creek to sort out a spate of rustling and discovers that the town’s lawman and mayor are in cahoots with the rustlers. Finely drawn characters, fast paced and well written, as one would expect from such an accomplished author.

Rim Road 1 - The Lost and Found by Patricia A. Matrinelli
Fantasy. Rim Road starts out with the main character not too happy with her current life choices and decides to make changes. The first of her new choices lands the woman into a world where she will have to make the right choices just to stay alive.

Making of Pride and Prejudice by Sue Birtwistle – review here

The Boston Connection by Dick Moomey
Murder mystery. ‘a bubbling pot of passion and intrigue is The Boston Connection. Dick Moomey takes us to a small private school named Ramsdell somewhere in the Boston vicinity and lifts the lid on a stew of intrigue.’

The Expressmen – research for the Old West. Vital.
Roman Dalton by Paul Brazil
A collection of six short stories about a werewolf private detective in a nameless city, this is bound to appeal to a wide modern audience. It’s surreal, sleazy, dark, humorous, and a quick read, laced with music riffs. Brazil has a good ear for the amusing phrase, in the wisecracking private eye manner.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
Review here

Chapters of Life by Tina K. Burton
The book fulfils its promise on the back cover: ‘This diverse group of people, brought together by their love of reading, forge lasting friendships and make some unexpected discoveries about themselves and each other.’ Overall, a worthwhile read, with some mystery, suspense and tragedy to affect the group’s equilibrium. Bound to be a popular read.

Against the Ropes by Jack Tunney (Terrence McCauley)
This short novel provides all of the atmosphere, the ambiance and the thrills of the 1920s. Combine that with the stupidity of Prohibition, the rackets and the fight game and this becomes a bout of heart-pounding excitement where the audience is rooting for the good guy Quinn, yet realising that the odds are severely stacked against him. The dialogue is as sharp as a toothpick, as foreboding as the next incoming storm of punches, and full of character. By the end, I was punch-drunk, the fight sequences were so gruelling and realistic.

Death comes in pairs by Loretta Jackson and Vickie Britton
The prolific writing sisters have written over 40 novels, in a number of genres. This is a traditional western with a strong mystery element… This is a potent mix for a whodunit western-style and the authors don’t disappoint. Well written with plenty of colourful description and characters, it’s an enjoyable read that keeps you turning the pages to the satisfying conclusion.

I Know You Know by Helen Howell
This is a slow-build suspense novella which is worthy of 3.5 stars, in my opinion. The two characters Janice and Kipp are delineated well.  The narrative style lends itself to being a quick read.

Dark Voices by Darren Sant
Fifteen mostly short tales, many with stings in their tails… If you’re brave enough, enter the dark world of Darren Sant with this wide-ranging collection. You won’t come away unaffected.

Look you on Beauty and Death by Livia J Washburn and James Reasoner
Husband and wife writing team pen a fantasy short story that cries out for a series. Swordsmith Ralna is an intriguing character and ripe for more development.  Good description, plenty of action, a few dashes of humour, and you have a recipe for a good read.

Tarzan – the epic adventures by R.A. Salvatore
It was great to read a 'new' Tarzan adventure and there were many elements from the original, thanks to the teleplay by Burt Armus, though I suspect blending aspects of The Return of Tarzan with Tarzan at the Earth's Core meant it would be a rushed job, too much, too soon. Point of View was all over the place and I'd have liked more of Tarzan's POV; the humour was a nice touch, but I thought the hand-to-hand combat scenes were over-elaborate. Still a worthy addition to the Tarzan books, even if it clearly didn't capture a reading public who wanted more of the same.

Holt County Law by Richard Prosch
Holt County has the potential to be a long-running series. As one dying man says, ‘Holt County’s a good place. There’s good people here. Don’t let a few bad apples (spoil it).’ The western will never die, because writers like Richard Prosch are able to enthral us with new stories about the Old West. Taggart by Louis L’Amour
Adam Stark’s found gold. But it’s in Apache country… On the run, Taggart stumbles upon Stark, his wife and sister and tensions mount between them all… with gold in the mix,

One book was ready to publish but the author pulled the plug, so I won’t mention it or him; a shame, it was a damned fine book, too.

* - the following already discussed in …

Jane by Robin Maxwell

September Wind by Kathleen Janz-Anderson

The Singing Mountain by Anne E Summers

World without End by Ken Follett

Tarzan Centennial by Scott Tracy Griffin

The Satanic Gospel by William Patrick Hackett

The Elephants of Shanghai by Stephen Jared

Breath of Africa by Jane Bwye

Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

A Limited Justice by Catriona King

Playing on Cotton Clouds by Michela O’Brien

Bad Moon Rising by Fraces di Plino


Sunday 29 December 2013

My top 12 books read in 2013

This year I read 46 books. Of that number, here are my top 12. An invidious decision, this, as I’m pleased to say that over the year I haven’t read a bad book, though some shone more than others. There are a number of honourable mentions which will appear in the full 2013 listing later. In no particular order…

JANE – The woman who loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell
This book’s release, authorised by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, coincided with the centenary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. It’s a fitting re-invention.

Many years ago, I read and re-read all two dozen of the Tarzan books and also the John Carter series. Like fans worldwide, I’ve always felt that the films never did Lord Greystoke justice. So, it was with a little trepidation that I tackled this book. What many film-makers neglected but this novel recognizes, ‘There is no Tarzan without Jane’, to quote John R Burroughs. As I became immersed in the tale, all fears for the treatment of the lord of the jungle evaporated. It was obvious that this was a work of love and respect for the original, a worthy homage.

There are several poignant moments – not least the reading of Alice’s diary, the vaguely recalled past of young Tarzan and the erotic yet tasteful relationship between the ape man and his mate, Jane.

You don’t have to have read any Tarzan book to appreciate this wonderful novel. If you have read some of the ape man’s adventures, then you’ll find much to please you in this retelling, bringing the lord of the jungle back to an adult readership, Burroughs’ intended audience. The full review can be read here.

SEPTEMBER WIND by Kathleen Janz-Anderson
Orphaned at birth in 1940, Emily lives the next eighteen years on her grandfather’s farm with four thankless men and an indifferent aunt nearby. When the school board forces Grandfather’s hand and allows her to attend school, she experiences a beautiful friendship, and the thrill and pain of an innocent young love. Still, there is an underlying loneliness, and a secret she bears alone. When she prepares to leave the farm forever, a traumatic confrontation thrusts her into a harrowing run for her life. She arrives in San Francisco wide-eyed and filled with hope, but is deceived into entering a bordello... Emily’s innocence survives, despite the unwelcome and unexpected hand fates deals her; her heart is torn and tugged, yet it remains pure. Finally, she learns about her past, a secret she never guessed at. A journey of self-discovery. Riveting, moving and finally heart-warming.

This thick fantasy tome spans the period 1918 to 1940 – the end of one war and the outset of another. Yes, it’s about conflict, but in an Otherworld. Megan is accused of murder and her sanity is questioned. Before the law can step in, she is attracted to a gypsy friend, Alun, who helps transport her from Wales to a mythological world parallel world yet in a different time. For some mystical reason, the White Witch of this world can clear Megan’s name. In this strange world she encounters Wil, an immortal, with whom she feels a strong affinity… Myths of the Mabinogion, battles of good and evil, love across time and worlds… This is a moving account that will suck you in until the last breath of… but that would be telling. Summers uses evocative prose and description to immerse you in her two worlds.

This 1237-page tome continues the story of Kingsbridge, the town and cathedral we first encountered in The Pillars of the Earth, but some 200 years later. Monumental in size, in scope and execution, World Without End is an enthralling read that deserves all the superlatives it has gleaned. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get around to read it – it’s been sitting on my library shelf for five years. Initially, I was daunted by its size. But once I’d read Pillars, I knew that it might be a thick book, but it would be a fast read, and it was, as Follett’s story pulls you in and the pages seem to turn of their own volition.

Throughout, it’s a believable depiction of the lives and times in this period, with the feudal system crushing ambition, the plague devastating swathes of the population, and politics of church and aristocracy vying for power and glory. By the end, I felt I’d lived with these characters and was sorry to leave (most) of them - no mean achievement for a writer after so many pages! 

TARZAN CENTENNIAL by Scott Tracy Griffin
This book is lavishly illustrated throughout with colourful artwork and stills from the films. It’s a mine of information about the creation of all the books, with a brief storyline of the twenty-four novels. Hollywood never really did the ape-man justice – he wasn’t a monosyllabic tree-swinging hero; in fact, Tarzan became fluent in many languages, among them French, German and Russian.

Ron Ely, one of the many screen Tarzans, provides a Foreword in which he rightly states that he believes most of the films and TV productions misplaced the ape-man by putting him into contemporary society when the basic allure is the period he was created, the 1920s, an age when communication and travel were protracted and challenging; though the film Greystoke came close. It’s about time this great character was restored to his former glory, not as an adventurer in children’s fiction but as an exciting pulse-pounding adult hero, which was the original creation. Scott Tracy Griffin, a foremost expert on Edgar Rice Burroughs, has amassed a wealth of information about the ape man and his creator and provides insight into the creation of the novels.

This is a book to enjoy and treasure, a slice of cultural history. The full review can be read here

THE SATANIC GOSPEL by William Patrick Hackett
The blurb reads: ‘Sixteenth century Spain. In a monastery, a Hebrew manuscript written by Nicodemus is discovered. Its revelations are startling and eventually destructive to the monks and their abbot. When the translator is murdered, an illiterate monk escapes to return years later, now as an ex-soldier and very literate. Disguised as a pilgrim, he plans to retrieve and read the Spanish translation he hid and to right a dreadful wrong he had witnessed.’

This is a superbly written book, a literary conundrum to rival Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A splendid realization of Spain in the sixteenth century, where power struggles and belief vie for the souls of men. A remarkable – and perhaps controversial – novel with cunning twists at the end. Not to be missed. As impressive as Hackett’s debut novel, A Dark Time, yet completely different.


Here we have two books in one – Jack and the Jungle Lion and The Elephants of Shanghai. They’re about Jack Hunter, 1930s adventure film star who first survives a plane crash in the Amazon and finds not only an escape from head-hunters but true love; then some five years later, he finds himself in China in a race against time involving priceless jewels, secret weapons, a mysterious singer and a fiendish warlord. This is your Saturday morning at the flicks, with hair-raising cliff-hanging chapter-ends, humour and lots of pluck. Beautifully written and with a lot of heart. This should make a great TV or film series.

Spanning almost thirty years, this novel follows the trials and tribulations of Caroline, a girl from a privileged background in Kenya. Her childhood with best friend Teresa is scarred by the State of Emergency that existed due to the Mau Mau uprising. Two other significant characters are Charles Ondiek, a farm labourer who aspires to study in Oxford and Mwangi, a wielder of effective black magic curses. Interwoven in the story is Kenya’s transition to independence under Jomo Kenyatta. The breath of Africa permeates the entire book and certainly reminds me of Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing in the depth of feeling by Jane Bwye for the dark continent.

GAME OF THRONES by George R R Martin
There are so many prime characters that Martin sensibly hands over POV to individuals to move the story forward, and it works:  Lord Eddard of the North, Bran, his seven-year-old son, Jon, Eddard’s bastard son, 14, Catelyn, Eddard’s loving wife, Arya, their daughter, 9, Sansa, their eldest daughter, 11, betrothed to Prince Joffrey, 12, Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, the dwarf brother of Queen Cersei, and Daenerys Stormborn, an exiled princess, 14.  

Eddard is soon out of his depth when he joins his old friend King Baratheon in the South. He discovers truths that threaten the very existence of the monarchy and, sadly, his honour leads him into dangerous waters. Queen Cersei tells him on p471, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.’ And this game has no rules, despite it being played out by knights, some of whom possess dubious honour. The fantasy elements hover in the shadows, never far from mind. The devious plotting by self-serving acolytes and ministers creates almost palpable tension. The duplicitous Queen and her twin brother are cunningly drawn. The book is rich in detail and atmosphere and is deservedly regarded as the beginning of a great epic.

I’ve almost finished the sequel, A Clash of Kings, but that won’t happen till the year changes…

A LIMITED JUSTICE by Catriona King
First in a series of DCI Craig novels, this is a very impressive debut. I’m pleased that I have three more in the ‘Belfast’s Modern Thriller Series’ to read in my pile of books. Considering this book was published in 2012, that’s a laudable production schedule Catriona King is maintaining.

King trained as a doctor and as a Police Forensic Medical Examiner in London, where she worked for many years – and it shows: ‘… with the smell of burnt flesh, to make a perfume that would never find a market’. Here we have the voice of experience.

DCI Marc Craig is a fine creation… King doesn’t skimp on the forensic details, but this will doubtless appeal to the vast audience who can’t get enough CSI and its siblings. However, there’s humour to leaven the trauma and horror, usually between the team workers in Craig’s section. This is a moral tale, with no easy answers.

In this superb book about friendship and relationship, we travel with the main characters from 1983 through to 2008, with a poignant flashback to 1980. What’s interesting is that the author was born and lived in Italy until 1994, when she moved to England; yet she captures the period prior to her arrival very well indeed.

The narrative is from the perspective of the three friends, and at every stage there’s a depth of character and an emotional resonance that rings true. Emotion in a relationship novel has to be felt by the reader, not simply observed – show, not tell, and Michela O’Brien does that brilliantly: she could have written ‘Livy felt hurt by him’ or something similar; instead, she gives us ‘Her heart had taken a dive into her stomach and she briefly held her breath to fish it out and put it back in its place.’ There is a birth and a death, both handled with exquisite restraint and all the more powerful and moving for that. This debut novel is excellent, the writing controlled and a delight.

BAD MOON RISING by Fraces di Plino
This debut novel is simply excellent. Frances de Plino takes command of the characters, the plot and the narrative in a measured, masterful way. This book can be read on several levels. It’s a graphic, grim psychological thriller, a police procedural foray into the dark recesses of a destabilised killer, and it depicts a view of social breakdown… What raises this book above many others in the crime genre is its emotional intensity. The characters are believable and prone to hurt, and the villain is truly reprehensible. Not for the squeamish or the prude. De Plino deftly inserts red herrings and misdirection into her plot.

Suspenseful, page-turning stuff! De Plino, in my book, can certainly give Minette Walters a run for her money.
My books currently available include BLOOD OF THE DRAGON TREES and SPANISH EYE.


Saturday 28 December 2013

Ted Morton - a potted history

On this day in December 1911, my father Albert Edward Nicholson-Morton was born in Cheshire into a large family. He rarely spoke of his childhood, though once mentioned that at one time he had no shoes to wear.

He enlisted in the Cheshire 22 Regiment on 24 January, 1934. While in the army, he took up athletics and won a running medal in 1935. He was stationed in Whitley Bay for a number of months, where he met and married Florence Ross, daughter of Arthur Ross, the town’s main florist.  He was then posted to Northern Ireland, thence to North Africa, the Sudan, Khartoum as a senior NCO. He served in Malta, then Egypt and Palestine and was then sent on to India before the war, including the North West Frontier. In 1937, he ran the mile in 4mins 26 seconds in the Bombay District Athletics.

Dad (bottom, 2nd from left) Bombay 1937

Dad climbing in Kasauhl, India

Onboard trooptrain, Sudan

The war was imminent and he was posted back to Sudan from there joined the landings in Sicily, where he was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel. He saw friends and officers die, but rarely spoke of his experiences. When recovered, he joined the invasion of Italy and got as far as Rome

After the war, in 1946 he demobbed and trained as a painter and decorator and became an expert in this trade, in the days when DIY was virtually unheard of.

In July 1948 they adopted me, when I was a few weeks old.

Dad and infant me on the beach

Dad used to work away from home on various painting contracts, notably one of them being at Spadeadam, Cumbria when the UK worked on the Bluestreak missile, which was later aborted. He came home at weekends on his motorbike; I recalled sometimes in winter when he would be blue with cold on arrival. Eventually, he found a job on the council as a painter and decorator until he retired.

In the early 1970s, Mum and Dad bought a guest house near the sea-front of Whitley Bay, a dream they’d long held, and made a reasonable success of it, until she was taken by cancer at the age of 58.

Jen and I lived in Hampshire, as I was in the Navy, but Dad continued to live in the guest-house. After a number of lonely years, he remarried, to Kit, a local lady. When Kit died, we brought Dad south to a home (1996) and it seemed for the first time in my life I actually saw a lot of him. Yet still he would not reminisce about his time in the Army.

He died on 10 April, 2000 - 'he ran a good race'. If he’d lived until today, he’d be 102. Rest in peace, Dad.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Book list - 1966

What was I reading so long ago? Does it matter? Trends and general interests change. The early 1960s, thanks to Dr No et al, was crammed full with espionage thrillers, many of which have indeed withstood the test of time. There were plenty of good popular mainstream writers available in paperback, too, and most paperback lists contained a generous sampling of science fiction and westerns. Eventually, spy books would make way for crime thrillers and both the western and the sci-fi books would end up in ghettoes for several years.

Wreckers must Breathe is an unusual submarine spy adventure from Hammond Innes (which has just been reissued as a Vintage Classic). In contrast, I read Up the Junction, social realism in fiction, depicting the lives of Ruby, Lily and Sylvie in 1960s London (now reissued as a Virago Modern Classic). Having read the previous two volumes, I now finished That Hideous Strength, the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’ science fiction Cosmic Trilogy: the hero Mark is a Sociologist who is enticed to join an organisation called N.I.C.E. which aims to control all human life (Hmm… nothing to do with the current named organisation, of course!)
Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, which I found quite remarkable; two films evolved from its pages. It interlinked lives over decades; I feel that, along with A Stone for Danny Fisher, it’s one of his best, before he deteriorated into lazy writing and excessive sex scenes.
Death on the Prairie is a sweeping narrative of the Indian wars on the western plains by Paul I Wellman. Part of the blurb on Amazon, which sums it up well, states: 'There is never a quiet page as Wellman describes the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), the Fetterman Massacre (1866), the Battle of the Washita (1868), the Battle of Adobe Walls (1874), the Battle of the Little Big Horn (1876), the Nez Perce War (1877), the Meeker Massacre (1879), and the tragedy at wounded Knee (1890) that ended the fighting on the plains. Celebrated chiefs (Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Black Kettle, Satanta, Joseph, Ouray, Sitting Bull) clash with army officers (notably Custer, Sheridan, Miles, and Crook), and uncounted men, women, and children on both sides are cast in roles of fatal consequence...'

I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, and felt it came to a satisfying conclusion – though some years later, he embarked on additional books in the series.

Trial by Terror is by an author now hardly read, yet he was big in his day, Paul Gallico. He couldn’t easily be pigeonholed. This book was about an American reporter imprisoned as a spy by the Hungarian authorities. I was reading it as research for future writing. Gallico created Hiram Holliday – there was a comedy TV series about this character. He wrote Thomasina, the Mrs Harris adventures, The Small Miracle, The Snow Goose, The Poseidon Adventure and The Hand of Mary Constable, and my favourite, Scruffy, an amusing tale about an ape of Gibraltar during WWII.
1066 And All That by Sellar and Yeatman. History as it wasn’t, tongue in cheek, and still funny. Followed by a darkly humourous classic, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

There was little humour in King Rat by James Clavell. I’d already been won over by his monumental Tai Pan. Rat was in complete contrast, drawing upon his own experiences as a POW under the Japanese. The film never did it justice.
I continued to read Dennis Wheatley’s books, notably his Gregory Sallust adventures. He was a fictional spy even before James Bond came on the scene. The Scarlet Imposter (took place in August-November 1939, and was published in 1940), Faked Passports, The Black Baronness, V for Vengeance, and Come into my Parlour. I also read his Richleau novel set in WWII, Codeword Golden Fleece and his extraordinary Ka of Gifford Hillary.
At this time, some Edgar Rice Burroughs manuscripts were being released in paperback apparently for the first time, so I grabbed them from WH Smith’s at Waterloo Station on the way home on leave - Tarzan and the Madman, Tarzan and the Castaways and The Chessmen of Mars.

I still enjoyed Leslie Charteris’ Saint books and read The Saint’s Getaway and The Saint Meets His Match (previously titled She was a Lady).

And I discovered a new thriller writer, Gavin Lyall, with his two adventures The Most Dangerous Game and The Wrong Side of the Sky. He drew on his experience as an RAF pilot to pen adventure stories that usually involved dangerous flying missions in exotic places by cynical young men of dubious morals. He was married to columnist/author Katherine Whitehorn.

As is quite obvious, I was keen on spy books. I’d read a number by Helen MacInnes by this time. She was dubbed ‘The Queen of Spy Writers’ and the title was well deserved. This year I read The Venetian Affair, a classic cold war espionage thriller. Titan Books has recently reprinted her books in attractive covers.
My Bones and My Flute (1955) is a haunting ghost story by Edgar Mittelholzer, an author I discovered with the book Kaywana Stock and others in the plantation series, which are sadly hard to get hold of these days...

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, as well as The Real World of Spies, revelations about spying in the early days of the Cold War; pretty tame by later accounts. And Understrike, the second adventure of Boysie Oakes by John Gardner, an author who subsequently took on the task of writing new James Bond thrillers. Also, Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964), the third in the unnamed hero series (Harry Palmer in the movies); I saw the film in the same year.

The Moving Target (1949), Ross MacDonald’s first novel to feature his sleuth Lew Archer. MacDonald is justly highly regarded. The 1966 film of this book starred Paul Newman, scripted by William Goldman.
The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy’s 1955 novel (once banned in Ireland and the USA for obscenity).  

I was still reading non-fiction, mainly about war escapades: among them, Escape Alone (We Die Alone), The Dam Busters, The Frogmen, I Will Survive, and Mark of the Lion, the incredible story about Charles Upham who won the Victoria Cross twice! He was a sheep farmer who fought in the war, won his medals and then went back to his sheep.

Overload (1959), Undertow (1962), Shockwave (1963) and Feramontov (1966), novels in the Johnny Fedora series by Desmond Cory; greatly underrated, regarded as 'the thinking man's James Bond'..  

Boxing Day

If anyone had told me a year ago that I’d be writing a story about boxing, I’d have thought they were punch drunk. Still, I was asked to contribute to an anthology of boxing stories and have written a boxing tale set in Chicago that should appear in the Fight Card series early in the new year. I was inspired by reading this book by Terrence McCauley, writing as Jack Tunney (a house name for the Fight Card series, inspired by Paul Bishop and Mel Odom).

New York, 1925. Terry Quinn is another orphan protégé of Father Frawley from the Gym at St. Vincent’s, Chicago. He’s close to the big fight against Jack Dempsey. Just two more fights, maybe… Genet was tough, but he managed. Next in line was Whitowski, a big bull of a contender. And the Tammany boys wanted Quinn to take a dive, let Whitowski win. A lot of money was riding on that. No way. Trouble was, ‘no way’ meant ‘no exit’ for Terry and his trainer, Augie…

The Tammany boys included Corcoran and Doyle: ‘If Manhattan was an island surrounded on all sides by an ocean of dirty money, Fatty Corcoran was Moses, able to part the dirty waters and make them go any way he wanted.’ Whereas Doyle ‘had a growing bootleg booze operation that almost took in half the city… Doyle was tougher than he looked and he looked plenty tough already.’

This short novel provides all of the atmosphere, the ambiance and the thrills of the 1920s. Combine that with the stupidity of Prohibition, the rackets and the fight game and this becomes a bout of heart-pounding excitement where the audience is rooting for the good guy Quinn, yet realising that the odds are severely stacked against him. The dialogue is as sharp as a toothpick, as foreboding as the next incoming storm of punches, and full of character. By the end, I was punch-drunk, the fight sequences were so gruelling and realistic. Great stuff. You can get it here

McCauley is a writer to watch. He can certainly capture the period. You might want to try his 1930s style novel Prohibition, also.

The year is 1930 and New York is a city on the edge. The Roaring '20s ended with the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression is only beginning. Banks are failing. Companies are closing their doors. Breadlines grow longer by the day. The only market making money is the black market: racketeering, rum running, and speakeasies. But when even those vices begin to weaken, the most powerful gangster on the Eastern Sea-board, Archie Doyle, sees the writing on the wall. He launches a bold scheme that, if successful, will secure his empire’s future beyond Prohibition. Beyond even the Great Depression.

But when a mysterious rival attempts to kill Doyle’s right hand man, a dangerous turf war begins to brew. With his empire under attack, Doyle turns to his best gun, former boxer Terry Quinn, for answers. Quinn must use his brains as well as his brawn to uncover who is behind the violence and why before Doyle’s empire comes crashing down.

Terrence McCauley whips up a fast paced pulp thriller ripe with Tommy-gun blasting hoods, corrupt cops and deadly dames in this original novel reminiscent of the classic gangster movies of old. Brilliantly illustrated by Rob Moran with designs by Rob Davis, PROHIBITION is a tough-guy blow to the literary gut readers will not soon forget. You can get this here


Wednesday 25 December 2013

Make a date - Christmas Day - and 4 and 14 December


Some time ago I published a regular monthly column linking a set selection of dates in history. The series was popular. I'm busy coordinating the articles into book form. As today is 25 December, here are a number of linked events for that date plus two other December dates. To avoid repetition, I've simply indicated the relevant date in brackets. The three dates for this article are:

 4, 14 and 25 December

4(International hug day!), 14 (Christians’ Feast of St John of the Cross) and 25 (Christmas Day and the birthday of Pakistan’s Muhammed Ali Jinnah (in 1876) December

Rarely these days do the British politicians seem to talk about the military and moral morass that’s become modern Iraq – they’re more interested in deflecting our attention elsewhere, perhaps towards Iran. In fact Iraq actually gained its independence (14) from the UK in 1927– so why did we go back? Ironically – or maybe deliberately – Saddam Hussein’s capture was announced on the same day (14) in 2003.

Some leaders fall from grace, others attain thrones, such as the Christmas Day coronations of Charlemagne (800), crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome and William the Conqueror (1066), crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey. And on the same auspicious day in 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, which was dissolved the next day, heralding the end of the Cold War. A brave man, a brave move.

Gorbachev (Wikipedia-common)
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was born on Christmas Day in 1918 and on his birthday in 1977 met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Egypt, beginning the moves of peace between those two warring countries and later earning both of them the Nobel Peace Prize.

Most people know about the Christmas Day three day First World War truce in 1914, when the vying forces crossed No man’s land and exchanged gifts. Perhaps they sang Silent Night, which was first performed in Austria in 1818 on Christmas Day. Naturally, the authorities realised it couldn’t last, as it would lower moral if soldiers fraternised with men who they were ordered to kill...

Earlier peace talks occurred in 1918 when Woodrow Wilson sailed for Verseilles (4), becoming the first US president to travel to Europe while in office. At least that president knew where Europe was... A mere 299 years before, on the same day (4), thirty-eight English colonists from Berkeley disembarked in Virginia and gave thanks – starting off the annual American Thanksgiving holidays.

It seemed unthinkable, but Panam, the airline that seemed a byword for trans-Atlantic flight, stopped operations (4) in 1991; the next time you watch Blade Runner you’ll see that Panam adverts are quite prominent in that futuristic movie set in Los Angeles in 2020...
News from the New World had to rely on sailing vessels and was slow until the telegraph was invented and laid across the Atlantic; but if you think that’s an amazing accomplishment, consider the Pacific Ocean – it’s enormous – yet the first telegraph cable was laid (14) across this vast expanse in 1902. Another method of passing messages over great distances was the semaphore, invented by Claude Chappe who was born on Christmas Day, 1763.

Christmas cards and shop windows often feature the Nativity scene – unless you’re in a politically correct country - yet the first such scene was only assembled by Saint Francis of Assisi on Christmas Day, 1223. Surprisingly, the first broadcast (25) of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was only read on radio in 1939, the same day that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was introduced by the Americans, which might have pleased animal lover Saint Francis.
You tend to feel some sympathy for those people born on Christmas Day, since they probably only get presents once a year. True, Christmas is not simply about presents. And we know it’s only the observed date for the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – who’s also considered to be a prophet by Islam – which could be anywhere between four and seven years B.C. Now that’s really confusing!
Perhaps some Christmas Day birthday folk felt that they needed to strive harder – certainly that could be said of Sir Isaac Newton, physicist and mathematician (1642), Conrad Hilton, hotelier (1887), actor Humphrey Bogart (1899) and singer Little Richard (1932), among others.

Film producer Charles Pathé was born and actually died on Christmas Day, in 1863 and 1957 respectively. And of course his name lived on with Pathé News. The world’s first Sunday newspaper was The Observer, published (4) in 1791.

It was The Times that reported the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911, led by Roald Amundsen (14).  The question is, did Nostradamus – born on the same day (14) in 1503 – foresee this event, among others? He supposedly predicted the end of the world – which is probably what it felt like in China on Christmas Day in 1932 when the Ganshu earthquake – magnitude 7.6 - killed about 70,000 people.

More massive loss of life occurred (14) in 1287 when the remarkable Zuider Zee sea wall collapsed, killing over 50,000 people. Less devastating yet quite lethal, the Great Smog of London (4) killed hundreds in 1952 – the word being an amalgamation of smoke and fog – a polluting inheritance from the Industrial Revolution.

Long before the American Revolution of 1776, North America was being colonised and explored by intrepid and religious men and women, among them Father Jacques Marquette who set up a mission on the shores of Lake Michigan (in 1674) to minister to the Illinois Indians (4). The mission became Chicago. That great warrior who fought at the Little Big Horn, Chief Crazy Horse, was born on the same day (4) in 1849, sharing the same birthday as Francisco Franco (1892), dictator of Spain, though fifty-three years apart.
Crazy Horse
And on the same day in 1872 the crewless ship Marie Celeste was found, like something out of a science fiction movie; it was discovered relatively undamaged, having been abandoned for nine days.

Rod Serling, scriptwriter and the brain behind the science fiction series The Twilight Zone, was also born on Christmas Day (1924). The inventor of the word robot was Karel Capek, a Czech writer, who died on the same day in 1938.

And, finally, to come full circle back to the same part of the world, the Persian poet, astronomer, mathematician and philosopher Omar Khayyám died (4) on the same day in 1131.