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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 22 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


A cinematic chiller for the weekend after Christmas

The Haunting of Radcliffe House is a feature length supernatural thriller that you could easily have missed, tucked away as it was at 9.35pm on Channel 5 last night. For those who enjoy a good haunted house mystery on a cold mid-winter’s night, it is definitely worth a look. Starring the excellent Olivia Williams and one-time Hollywood star Matthew Modine the story revolves around a family’s move to a derelict mansion on the Yorkshire moors, where the wife’s job is to oversee the property’s restoration for her American employer. Tensions between husband and wife are apparent almost immediately, as is the mounting sense of foreboding which builds when the secrets of the labyrinthine country house begin to reveal themselves.
The tale is fast-paced, full of creepy vignettes and with a perfectly menacing performance by Modine. There are undeniably some horror cliches dotted about in this drama; with bricked up doorways and disconnected telephones ringing in the dead of night but enough original little details in the script to make the viewer overlook them.
Overall, a thoroughly entertaining watch, with atmospheric direction and plenty of genuine chills.

A seasonal tribute to one of my favourite authors


The author P.D. James continued writing books well into her nineties but very sadly, passed away earlier this year. She was born in Oxford in 1920 and in the 1950’s and 60’s she worked for the Home Office; firstly in the Police Department and latterly in the Criminal Policy Department. This experience clearly influenced the subject matter of her novels. P.D. James was made a life peer in 1991 and won many awards for her work internationally.
P.D. James is one of my very favourite writers. I’ve read every single one of her books and Adam Dalgliesh remains my preferred protagonist.
During the Christmas holidays, I’ve always loved to cosy up in the evenings with a good book. This year is no different, however, I have found it tricky to unearth a writer whose work I enjoy as much as P.D James and Ruth Rendell. Their styles of writing are similar in many ways and in real life the women were great friends. They are both superb storytellers and their observations on the quirks and eccentricities of human nature have always interested me. P.D James was an educated and clever woman, with a particular insight into the machinations of the British legal and police system. She was one of the first crime writers to emphasise the importance of procedure in her novels and utilised her knowledge of forensic science to great effect.
It was an incredible achievement for her to have written her novels over the space of six decades, writing about subject matter which might very well have been deemed inappropriate for a female author.
Indeed, the novel, ‘An Unsuitable Job For a Woman,’ which introduced the sharp-witted private detective Cordelia Gray, investigated that very concept.
P.D James’ novels have a wonderfully rhythmical style to them. They are full of literary references and reflect the full life that the author herself had lived. It was never any surprise to me that Dalgliesh himself was a published poet, giving him an artistic side to his character that other policeman lacked. This is a concept well-trodden now in crime fiction, but P.D James was one the first to create this kind of three dimensional, intellectual detective, along with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.
Once of the elements I like the most about James’ novels is the atmosphere and the sense of place that she creates. Her mysteries are set in locations spanning the length and breadth of the country. This allowed her to exercise her wonderful descriptive skills. As you read her books, you feel transported to those windswept, usually coastal settings and this was always a significant part of the pleasure in immersing myself in one of her tales.
In recent years, P.D. James set out on something of a departure from her usual genre. Her ‘sequel’ to Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ became an international bestseller. Sceptical at first, I discovered that ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ was entirely in keeping with the original, whilst injecting an excellent mystery into the story, adding a dimension that livened up the story in a refreshing way. The television drama based on P.D. James’ book aired last Boxing Day and this year we are noticeably lacking any equivalent.
With the sad passing of this wonderful writer I feel as if we are drifting away from a past era. There certainly are writers still out there who compete very well with these great crime authors, but they are getting harder to find. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what it is about P.D. James’ prose style that I’ve always enjoyed so much, an element of it is probably nostalgia, having read her books since I was a teenager.
As far as the RetroReview is concerned, we could not have allowed 2014 to reach an end without paying tribute to this wonderful writer who certainly proved that unsuitable or not, she performed the job of creating gripping crime fiction extremely well.

Has the back page blurb gone out of fashion?

This statement is a lament rather than a question. I’ve looked at a great deal of fiction titles on Amazon today, either with Christmas presents in mind or holiday reading. After examining the pages of a number of popular titles I was struck by how many authors had eschewed the book description section and added a stream of reviews instead. To be honest, I was perplexed. As a customer, what I wanted to see, most of all, was what the book was about. If I wish to read reviews, which I undoubtedly do, I will subsequently pan down to the customer review section.
I’m sure I can’t be unusual in this practice. When I am getting ready to publish a new book, the ‘blurb’ is the first thing I begin work on. It is the information that will encourage a reader to either take a look at a sample of the novel or simply move onto another title. I would consider this synopsis of the plot to be absolutely crucial to the marketing package.
Reviews are also important, but I’d really rather know what the story is all about first. I will recognize immediately if the tale is going to appeal to me or not. In addition to this, the ratings of other readers are very useful, but reviews from literary periodicals and newspapers I tend to ignore. They seem so generalized I’m never truly convinced they’ve actually read it, or if the acclaim relates to another novel by the same author, but not necessarily this one.
Bring back the back page blurb please. I, for one, can’t buy a book without it.

The Christmas period means something quite different now for authors and publishers


With less than four weeks to go until Christmas, what should an author’s marketing strategy be?

I’m busy with my own festive preparations right now and with completing the Christmas present shopping, but I am also aware that this is one of the busiest times of the year for sales of my books. So, how best to optimize this? As a consumer myself, I am very careful not to pay too much for books. On the High Street, prices for a new release paperback and certainly for hardbacks can be very high. I might seek inspiration from the shelves for gifts but then I tend to purchase online, where I will get a better deal. What this means, is that by the middle of December, it’s pretty much too late to order books as gifts for Christmas, unless you are prepared to pay a lot for postage and even then, it would still be a bit of a gamble whether it arrived in time. The final weeks and days are really for food, booze and local shopping for those last minute extras.
For authors like myself, who are exclusive to Amazon, this means that the Christmas shopping flurry is really over for the year by Christmas week, doesn’t it?
Well, not entirely. According to retail research over the past few years, our Christmas shopping habits have changed. The purchasing certainly doesn’t end just as soon as the carol concert from King’s College is broadcast on Christmas Eve. Indeed, Christmas Day and Boxing Day have now become important times for a surge in online retail activity. Think of all those amazon vouchers people receive in their stockings? In a quiet moment after the turkey has been eaten and the crackers pulled, folk may just be tempted to fire up their new tablet computers and start spending once again.
So Christmas now means something different for authors and publishers. We need to consider sales right across the holiday season. The weather has been fairly good in the UK recently, but even so, once the sun has gone down it is the perfect time of the year to curl up in front of a log-burner with a good book, whether it is a physical copy or an e-book version. The distinction is mattering less and less.
I keep my e book prices at under £2 and my paperback prices as low as possible to cover production costs and raise a reasonable profit. This is because consumers appreciate a bargain all year round and once all the hard work has been completed on the 25th December, perhaps someone will enjoy slumping in their favourite armchair and absorbing themselves in one of my books. I like the idea of that very much.

Is writing just an elaborate form of therapy for the author?


Whilst listening to the writer and comedian Sarah Millican on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this morning, I was fascinated to hear that Millican began writing in earnest after the painful and unexpected break-up of her first marriage in 2004. The reason for this was threefold; the writing helped her to escape from the unbearable situation in which she found herself, the fact that others laughed at the routines she based around the divorce made her feel she was not alone in her anguish, and finally, we must assume that the divorce created the opportunity for her to tour the country and do stand-up.
In the intervening decade, Millican has found great success with her career and now has a new husband, a fellow performer on the comedy-circuit. Sarah Millican’s story made me think. Many of the comments she made had a profound resonance for me. I started penning my first novel roughly two years ago and I am now beginning my seventh. I’ve often described my method of writing as borderline compulsive. From start to finish, it will take me about three months to write a book.
But this burst of creativity did not spring out of nowhere. Like Sarah Millican, the writing of my first novel was borne out of a very difficult period in my life. It was nobody’s fault and just one of those things that happens to plenty of people, but for a few months back then, the only thing I could manage to do in order to hold things together was to write. I suppose it was a form of escapism, but even if it was, it worked. not overnight, that’s for sure, but over the following months and year I began to recover, my novels giving me the respite I needed to achieve it.
Hearing Sarah Millican’s story, it made me wonder how many other people have been spurred to creativity whilst at their lowest ebb. Nowadays, I write my books for an entirely different reason and am perhaps more circumspect about them. But I would never have started this whole author business at all if it wasn’t for that temporary crisis in my life which of course, never feels temporary at the time.
It is one of the reasons why I feel particularly protective of my early books. Those stories and characters helped to lead me through the darkness. As an author, we can only hope that our books might strike a chord with someone going through a similarly testing time. In many ways, it is what the arts should be about. We are sharing our experiences of what it is to be human, through good times and bad.
I’m very glad that Sarah Millican decided to embark upon her career in comedy, she’s extremely good at it and it was obviously what she was always meant to do. But was it worth the trauma and upset which set her on that path in the first place? Who knows, it a question I really couldn’t answer myself. All we can do as writers and artists is move forward with our work, in the knowledge and hope that what we create now will be born out of joy rather than pain.

A disappointing end to an otherwise great drama #TheMissing

Pipe - 18027
I have to force myself to write this post when what I’d really rather do is forget I ever watched the final episode of The Missing.
This superior drama has gripped me from the very beginning with it’s script, acting and production values. I’ve invested a great deal of emotional energy in following its twists and turns. I know I am not the only one.
But about twenty minutes before the end of this last episode of eight, I found myself shifting forward in my seat with a slowly dawning horror that James Nesbitt himself would struggle to portray.

We weren’t actually going to get a definitive answer to the fate of Oliver.

Now, BBC dramas have done this to me before, but do I ever learn my lesson? No. Here I am again, feeling disappointed and frankly, rather upset. I would have watched the next series anyway, because the acting and direction have been so good. Now I’m not so sure.
A mystery thriller that continues over 8 hours needs to be resolved. I am a mystery thriller writer and I can attest to this fact. It’s a shame, because it feels cynical.
Perhaps I will see things differently in the morning. But for now, I’m seriously not impressed.

Even in the arts, we have to play by the rules.

Whilst queuing up to see my youngest’s school nativity performance last week, my mum and I became involved in a lively discussion about the circumstances of Pixie Lott’s exit from Strictly Come Dancing. The depth of our debate would probably have been more appropriate to an analysis of UKIP’s recent electoral successes, or the future of our place within the European Union, perhaps. But no, it was not. Instead, we were entirely absorbed by the pros and cons of illegal lifts performed during a Cha Cha Cha.
So why should such apparently trivial issues concern us so much? I think I may be beginning to understand why sports fans become so inflamed about the minutiae of athletes’ performances on the pitch/field/court. I’ve never really grasped the concept before, but now I might have got it. There seems to be an innate part of us as humans that loves a competition. And more than that, it needs to be very carefully defined. There have to be strict rules and regulations. At times, we support with our hearts rather than our heads but when push comes to shove, the best team has to win.
If the rules get broken, we simply can’t ignore it.
We might grumble about a decision, but ultimately, we accept the judgement of the adjudicator. As viewers and fans we simply have to, otherwise anarchy would reign.
Not only are we watching a talent show, but we are also observing the exercise of fair play and camaraderie.
Perhaps writing can sometimes be the same way. Flair and originality are what keeps literature alive. But there are also certain rules to stick to, especially in the case of mystery fiction. Justice has to be done and a puzzle solved, if not in one single book then certainly at the end of a series. If you set out to break the rules just be aware, there will be people who become genuinely, and justifiably, upset by it.

Is #TheFall taking us for fools?

wintry trees
Having watched two very well produced, powerful and intelligent dramas on television this week – The Missing on BBC1 and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries on ITV – it has made the shortcomings of the second series of BBC2 drama The Fall all the more starkly apparent. I don’t object to a slow moving storyline, as long as the length of the piece allows for thorough character development and/or the construction of an effective sense of place.
However, in the case of The Fall, it feels as if we’ve spent the last five weeks treading water. The entire raison d’etre of the second series has been to lead us round the houses to the exact same point where we were at the end of series one, with Spector on the verge of being arrested and the irrefutable evidence of his guilt piling up against him. Nothing has been achieved in the intervening episodes apart from us poor, long-suffering viewers having to witness unpleasant scenes depicting the degradation of a female kidnap victim.
This type of scene can only be justified if it is central to the plot or if it’s leading us somewhere. But we’ve been here before and because the programme makers thought they were onto a winner, they decided to dish us out the same old thing second time around. I really think I’ve wasted my time with this series, but I certainly won’t be fool enough to do it again.

The really clever thing about #The Missing

Lonely young woman on top of a cliff at night

As I settled down last night to watch the penultimate episode of BBC1 drama, The Missing, I immediately noticed that something was different. I was not gripped with the usual gut-wrenching tension that anticipating this series normally engenders in me. Instead, I was actually quite relaxed, ready to enjoy a really good piece of entertainment. As I realised this, I was suddenly brought up short. I shouldn’t be enjoying it. Had I forgotten the horror and the upset of those early episodes, when Oli Hughes was first taken? How could I possible be enjoying the programme – it was wrong, wasn’t it?

Then I got it. That is what this brilliant series is all about. The terrible journey that Tony and Emily Hughes are forced to endure after their son is abducted in a non-descript French town. Time moves on for the couple, eight years has passed. And so for us viewers, time has moved on too. As we watch episode 7, we don’t feel the raw anguish that we experienced in episodes 1 and 2. The writers and actors have made us take that journey along with the parents. In last night’s episode, when back in Chalons Du Bois in 2009 after another young boy had been snatched and subsequently found, Emily challenged her husband’s self-imposed martyrdom. She told him that they were allowed to smile, to enjoy life occasionally – that this didn’t make them bad people. Tony clearly disagreed. His whole existence was placed on hold when his son went missing in 2006.He’d denied himself any joy since.

But then, in the present day, as Emily, Tony and Julien pull together to find out what happened to Oliver, we see Tony start to soften and perhaps even to begin to forgive himself and those around him. This gradual transformation is brilliantly played by both James Nesbitt and Francis O’Connor.

I think I have a good idea now of who took Oliver, or certainly the individual who was central to it. If you’ve followed from the very start then I’m sure you have too. But at this stage, the fate of Oliver is mattering less, which would have seemed unbelievable back at the very beginning. It has begun to become a story about the lives of those left behind. When we find out what did happen to Oliver, it will provide us with the answers that we so desperately crave. But then, after we’ve been told the truth, life will have to go on, for all of the protagonists. That terrifying prospect is really what Tony and Emily will have to prepare for.

And life will continue for all of us, without this superior drama, which has intertwined a gripping crime mystery with a complex tale of love and loss; exploring the terrible uncertainties that life can throw at us. In the end, it is the latter which will stay with me, something that I would never have predicted back at the very start. I think that is probably the cleverist thing about this excellent series.

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