CrimeFest 2023 Report

Day 1:

I always get a little bit of travel anxiety, but for once there was no delay on the train and I rolled in well in time for the first panel, on police procedurals. The historical crime writers claimed to have the easier job, but were much more insistent that their contemporary counterparts on research and accuracy. But Leigh Russell summed it up best by focusing instead on the sheer joy of the creative process, and the ‘holiday from reality’ that this gives to the readers.

Second panel came with a surprising local flavour for me, with Southampton/New Forest author Andy Hill, and Heidi Perks from Bournemouth, discussing a novel set in Lymington. The number 6 bus to Lymington stops right outside my house! And I did very recently see it depicted in crime fiction, when I read City of Tiny Lights, one scene of which takes place there.

The panel I’d been most looking forward too was up next, Paul Finch, Andrew Child, Nadine Matheson, Alex Shaw and Zoe Sharp discussing thrillers. I was especially interested in Matheson’s responses, as I’m working on a paper partially about The Jigsaw Man. Torture was mentioned, and she did confess to aiming for shock value.

Final panel of day one was on plot twists, and debut author Paul Durston waited until the very end to read the chilling opening lines of his new book.

At which point, it was time for me to leave to make my way to a cheaper hotel – which turned out to be a long way up a very steep hill. As I dragged my case all the way there – and then up two flights of stairs because there’s no lift, I resolved to stay in the convention hotel next time, whatever it costs. 

Day 2:

The second day began with a decent breakfast, and a post-breakfast descent. I could have skied down! Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn and rolled in about ten minutes late, and decided to miss the first panel rather than go in late. I cast my votes for Jamie Bernthal-Hooker and the late, great Christopher Fowler, and then headed to the James Bond panel early.

Charlie Higson had just recently published a timely adventure in which Bond saves the Coronation from attack – which sounds a bit like the plot of Johnny English – and it was also interesting to hear from Kim Sherwood, who has expanded the universe to write about other Double O’s.

Between panels I ran into leading Agathologist, the aforementioned Jamie Bernthal-Hooker. I rarely see much overlap between the commercial and academic crime conventions, other than myself, so it was great to see the two worlds collide. I wished him luck at the awards, and told him about my academic paper featuring Nadine Matheson, Graham Masterton, and Jeff Lindsay.

Matheson was on the next panel and again discussed torture and extreme violence, but grandfather in waiting Neil Lancaster stole the show when he talked about his role in the arrest of real-life serial killer Levi Bellfield.

Next up came the most eagerly anticipated, and densely attended panel of the day, with Mark Billingham, Vaseem Khan and Martin Edwards discussing the Golden Age, and its potential second coming. Richard Osman was again mentioned in less than positive terms, and it also again helped convince me that the crime fiction world is awaiting exactly the kind of hybrid fiction proposed in my (unsuccessful) PhD project.

After that I went back to being a fan boy and autograph hunter, picking up signed books by Mark Billingham (two), Caroline England, Felix Francis, and Neil Daws. But due to a calamitous mishap, Daws’s signed book ended up in toilet, barely a minute later! I pounced swiftly on it, dried it as much as I could, and wrapped it in toilet paper before I returned to the panels, but distracted as I was not much of anything made an impression or demanded that I remember it.

There was still time to take a drink at the CWA Dagger shortlist announcements, where glasses were raised to lifetime achievement winner Walter Mosely, and judging by the in-room reaction, Vaseem Khan emerged as favourite to take the prestigious Gold Dagger Award.

After that, what better way to finish the day, than a long steep climb, and taking a hotel room hairdryer to a soggy signed paperback. Why does it always happen to me?

Day 3:

With the hotel not doing breakfast until 8am, and the Con starting at 9, I had to realistically concede that the first panel was a write off. A shame, because last year I got the strongest energy from the debut authors panel, but at least there would be another on Sunday, starting at 9.30. Also Sunday morning though, was a Great Bristol Run, a half marathon that would be extremely testing judging by my walks, during which I was getting flashbacks of playing Crazy Taxi back in the day. It would be the most running up hills since the last series of Stranger Things.

My first panel was on genre, which featured Jane Shemilt coming fresh from a TV interview. It was also an opportunity for me to scout Paul Gitsham, and assess his prospects of winning Sunday’s convention-closer, Criminal Mastermind. He has a PhD in biology and used to be a science teacher – but does this undoubted braininess translate into knowing about the Lincoln Lawyer?

From there I went to the Cornell Woolrich panel/book launch. This is an author I was not really aware of, but I did know the films that emerged from his stories, The Bride Wore Black and Rear Window. What I also learned was his tragic demise, from gangrene in his foot from wearing a pair of slippers that were too small for him!

Next it was to the beautiful Wessex Room for Elly Griffiths’ Guest of Honour interview. This also gave me chance to check out another Mastermind contest – although I’ve lost betting on her before, last year’s St. Hilda’s Crime whodunnit, where I thought it was her, only for it to end up being Abir Mukherjee as the Inspector. The conversation meandered to treatment of Italian immigrants in World War 2, the fact that archaeologists deliberately plan car parks over sites of potential interest, and less welcome, Barry Forshaw’s suggestion that creative writing courses don’t do any good.

I remember Caro Ramsay making a special effort as a moderator last year, and so it proved again on this year’s police procedural panel, with hats and helmets for all, and even the uniform for Ramsay herself. She also ambushed Peter Guttridge with a series of quiz questions, at which he struggled with, especially at first. But as quizmaster of the Thursday night quiz, which I have still never attended yet, he wasn’t in line for Sunday’s quiz anyway.

Up next was Mark Billingham’s Guest of Honour interview. Previously considered for the ‘Brit Grit’ chapter of my PhD project, he now appears to be the latest to ‘go cosy’ with his new series, starting with The Last Dance. But any doubt was removed when Vaseem Khan introduced ‘an hour of cosy goodness’. Billingham though contends that he is still writing a gritty serious series, albeit laced with humour, “Serious and humorous are not mutually incompatible”. He then followed with the revelation that Hitler liked Blackpool, and ordered his bombers to leave it alone, that he might make it the cultural centre of a German-occupied Britain. Discussing cosy crime, and seeking a new definition for it, Billingham chose tragicomic to describe his work, and in closing questions, a member of the audience made a point I agree with, that including some humour actually makes for a more realistic experience.

The last panel of the day was on how crime fiction reflects society, with Elizabeth Chakrabarty in particular having a race hate crime to report, and largely avenge through her writing, with all the panellists also shining a light on injustice and corruption in their novels.

After grabbing something to eat, it was time for the award ceremony, or in my case – since I was scandalously snubbed in the nominations once again – the pre-awards reception, just for a quick one to return to my hotel, where I would be keeping tabs on the awards.

Partial good news regarding the toilet book. I’d put it on the windowsill to get some to dry it out, which it did, but also seems to have had a volumising effect. So now I’ve placed all the other books on top of this one to try and flatten the pages. Meanwhile Christopher Fowler’s posthumous prize for the final Bryant and May was the most welcome result of awards night, and well deserved.

Day 4:

Convention Sunday is always something of an anti-climax, with many having gone home on Saturday or first thing Sunday without going to any panels. Lost that remain are typically hungover, wistful, maybe even with a touch of con-drop starting to set in. FantasyCon kept things fresh by having their awards on the Sunday afternoon. Eastercon did it by having their convention carry on and include Monday. This had only the mastermind quiz to provide a novelty. Oh, and 15,000 runners pounding the streets of Bristol all around us.   

It’s worth noting that last year’s memorable debut authors panel came on the Saturday; it seemed a big ask to expect this year’s crop to replicate that vibe. Nevertheless, it was a fairly packed audience for that first panel. And Emma Styles went straight into my good books by shooting down Barry Forshaw’s theory on the uselessness of Creative Writing tuition. She also did a good job of pitching her novel No Country for Women, as did Paul Durston with If I Were Me.

That was the last out and out panel, but there was still Peter Guttridge’s Toastmaster interview, in which he divulged his past touring with Mike Oldfield, failing to meet Madonna before she was famous, and as a nude model for an art class. Describing his writing, he addressed the balancing act between serious and comedic subjects.

This was followed by the Mastermind quiz, last event of the convention, and a chance to win tickets for next year’s con. I invested in Paul Gitsham to win with a score of 19, and after he scored 10 in his specialist subject, I thought I was well set, only for Zoe Sharp to blow him out of the water with a stunning 13. However, both of them suffered badly in the general crime fiction round, allowing last year’s winner D.V. Bishop to retain his crown. Looks like I’ll have to pay for next year, but pay I will for this excellent convention. Interestingly, one of the free passes was won by Neil Daws, so if anyone believes my toilet drop was a good omen, they are welcome to give me a signed book to ritualistically dunk in the bowl next year.  

I still had a tricky task to weave in and out of tired mile 12 runners to get the train station. It had evidently proved to be as demanding as I’d feared, up and down so many hills on a warm day, because on that short section alone there were two runners receiving medical attention.

I always come away from conventions as inspired and determined as any long-distance runner. I have a few months writing essays and papers, and then I will be let loose on fiction writing again, full of ideas and ambition.


Jay’s 4 Star Plus Club 2022

Forests of Eden – Elizabeth Counihan

Although it has a star-high concept, in worlds very different to those/that which we know, it is still essentially a book about real feelings and the human condition. Packs a lot into a very small word count too, making this a rapid, satisfying read.

4 Stars

Mirrorland – Carole Johnstone

Gone Girl meets Shawshank Redemption meets Rebecca, with a harrowing backstory and a plot full of twists. This is both emotional and cerebral; you never know who to trust, or what exactly is real, and even if you’re clever or lucky enough to guess one twist, the next will knock you sideways.

4.5 Stars

Fragile – Sarah Hilary

What’s good?: Another novel with echoes of Rebecca, and again explores themes of childhood neglect and abuse, and its crushing and permanent effects. This modern Dickensian is set past and present in two of the bleakest houses imaginable, with salvation, redemption and hope already in short supply for a narrator so old before her time.

4 Stars

Sundial – Catriona Ward

Dark, harrowing, and unremittingly bleak, despite the author’s commercial success this is unashamedly horror, with every revelation taking this into more disconcerting, unsettling territory. More creeping dread than sudden scares, other than a brief foray into Cujo territory, the main character slowly unrolls her terrible past to explain the problems of the present.

4 Stars

Dark Harvest – Norman Partridge

A breathless, breakneck romp, filtering the smalltown sensibilities of The Wicker Man with the anarchic chaos of Death Race and The Purge. This evokes the best work of Richard Bachman, combined with the homespun retro-Americana of his alter-ego, and the conversational narrative of Catcher in the Rye. Read in one night, pretty much in real time, as it should be.

4.5 Stars

Cunning Folk – Adam Nevill

Suitably cunning idea, which starts one way, and becomes something else, building and growing along with the terror and suspense. Veers from slow, brooding atmospheric build up to solid bursts of all out action in a hard, unflinching thrill ride.

4.5 Stars

The Grieving Stones – Gary McMahon

Quintessential grey-tinged poignancy and miserabilism from McMahon, who is better than anyone at wringing the beauty from the bleakness. There are plenty of surprises here too, and as close to a happy ending as this author will give you.

4 Stars

Scavenger Summer – Steven Savile

Thrilling mix of 80s nostalgia, coming of age tale, psychological thriller, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This frequently pulls the rug out from under your expectations, and boasts a chapter one which would be an excellent Twilight Zone style short story in its own right.

4 Stars

Punktown – Jeffrey Thomas

Acclaimed cyberpunk short story collection of Phildickian future shocks, all sharing a world where the Mos Eisley Cantina would be the tamest joint in town.

4 Stars

Devils of London – Simon Bestwick

Blessed with both breakneck pacing and in-depth characterisation, this raises the stakes to stratospheric levels, juxtaposing cosmic horror with the very real life fears of the rise of right wing extremism. In many ways the most shocking and scary aspect is that the titular devil, hell-bent on destruction and devastation, comes across as nobler and less evil than the gangs of vigilante militia who take to the streets at the first hint of emergency. Spotting my name in the acknowledgements was a magic moment too.

4.5 Stars

A Song for the End – Kit Power

This provides an outlandish concept but is adroitly delivered. It’s Liar, Liar meets The Cell, with lashings of blood, breakneck car chases, and such a telling critique on ethics and morality that the most honest character is the villain of the piece. And the hugely impressive ending isn’t a twist as such, but a cunning and playful revelation on the narrative context.

4.5 Stars

Visions of Ruin – Mark West

Deftly written throughout, this explores similar themes to Steven Savile’s Scavenger Summer, featuring a teenage boy finding a holiday romance in the 1980s. This protagonist suffers less loss, as a head injury takes the story into Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes territory, but there is the distinct hint of some troubling times ahead.

4 Stars

What They Find in the Woods – Gary Fry

Compelling story of academia dabbling in mythology and the supernatural, reading like a blend of M.R. James and Candyman, and also hinting at themes of midlife crisis and forbidden attraction.

4 Stars

The Vessel – Adam Nevill

Achieves the cunning feat of being simultaneously brooding and atmospheric while unfolding at a breakneck pace. Less folksy and more feminist than previous offerings, the gripping, uncomfortable ride is ultimately rewarded.

4 Stars

Reading the Cozy Mystery – edited by Phyllis M. Betz

This enters hitherto unexplored critical territory, and does it well, with plenty of insight into definitions of cozy, and fascinating chapters on Agatha Raisin, Aurora Teagarden, and Columbo.

4 Stars

Azalea House – Clare Castleberry

Compelling characters, creeping dread, and genuine mystery. This takes elements as diverse as The Shining, Sixth Sense, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mean Girls, and old school whodunnits, and implants them into a Gen-X nostalgia 90s setting.

4 Stars

Insomnia – Sarah Pinborough

A mind-bending study of conspiracy and paranoia, this piles misery upon mystery, never letting you know what is real, what is wrong, or who is doing it until the denouement. And the epilogue’s call back to Behind Her Eyes is a chilling, jaw-dropping moment.

4.5 Stars

Berserk – Tim Lebbon

Clever and chilling take on the vampire mythos, also examining conspiracy theory, and the whole nature of the monstrous. This flies along at a breakneck, real-time speed, while holding on to the heart and soul of basic human nature.

4 Stars


BristolCon 2022 Report

It’s been twelve years since I discovered this small, friendly, but prestigious convention, and it remains one of my very favourites on the entire calendar. I also have a proud record of appearing on a panel every year from 2016 onwards, and am pleased to say that continued here.

I’ve overnighted on the Friday of my last two visits, and maybe should have done again, especially with a restricted train service. With only the dreaded replacement bus service to my local station, I ended up having to take a lift to the next nearest. That should still have seen me breezing into the con hotel right on the 10am start time, but the inevitable delays made the first panel of the day a non-starter.

So I awaited the first of three career-focused panels I’d be attending, ‘My Back Up Plan’, by cheekily sneaking into an empty nearby room, only to find that in fact Ian Green was setting up what looked a fascinating presentation and workshop on worldbuilding. Just a glance at the Powerpoint alone had me amazed (herein can be seen the extent of my talents in that area, and I was sorely tempted to abandon my planned panel and stay there instead. I would have, save for the fact that my books, all with a real-world setting, don’t actually require much or any worldbuilding at all. Nevertheless, I requested he email me the presentation, and he graciously agreed.

After that I took in an entertaining reading from Steve McHugh featuring a thrilling fight to the death with a monster strangely reminiscent of South Park’s Manbearpig.

Then to the first panel, where Ben Jeapes declared more than enough genres of interest to be on my ‘Jack of All Trades’ panel, but Johannes T. Evans was the shining light, and has all but convinced me to launch a Patreon in the medium to long term. The panel also touched upon finding inspiration from work, as I did in loading my debut novel The Dead Shall Feed with characters based on betting shop customers, but tempered by John Allen’s assertion that work is not our identity.

After Emily Inkpen’s humorous reading of a story featuring a mechanical dragon, she then gave the most interesting and useful advice in the following panel, explaining how her signing up with agent John Jarrold was made possible by human interaction rather than mere submission guidelines.

I took a break for lunch, and returned for a book launch, the SPFBO award ceremony, and to boost my signed book collection by four, including Graham Austin-King’s entire Fae trilogy, before it was time to take my own place in the hot seat, with Ian Whates, Pete Sutton, Emma Newman, and Jaine Fenn. Some bollocks may have been spoken, but I think I did okay most of the time (you can see for yourself here and the biggest disappointment was that 25K’s worth of Jaine Fenn’s second person project as described last year was sadly abandoned.

Lost words was also a feature of Gareth L. Powell’s kaffeeklatsch, with him describing a 90K novel that didn’t work, and a more promising one lost to hard drive failure – every writer’s worst nightmare! But the best bits of each were either cannibalised or remembered, so it’s not a total doom scenario.

After the long day travelling, and the nervous exhaustion following my own appearance, I was flagging by the last two panels. The most memorable moment of the self-publishing panel was Graham Austin-King delivering some unduly harsh words to ‘hobby’ authors, saying they should keep off Amazon etc and save their work for Wattpad, although Alicia Wanstall-Burke kindly softened the remark by pointing out that some authors have been spotted on Wattpad, and gone on to have professional careers.

There followed the books that got away panel – too many to list here, and for me, too little time to read them anyway while working on my PhD. I myself had applied to be on this panel, but only come up with one example, so perhaps it was lucky I didn’t make the cut!

And that was that, apart from the long and gruelling journey home. It was a long, tiring day, but undoubtedly a special one. And I think I will be back to booking a hotel again next year, but the main thing is, I will be back.


CrimeFest 2022 Report

Day 1:

My third CrimeFest, after previous visits in 2017 and 2019, was done on a bit of a shoestring, and in the shadow of a huge, scary monster. A shoestring because I only booked two nights in a Travelodge, missing the Sunday, and the monster being my PhD transfer viva, a silent lurking assassin ready to kill my dreams, and already triggering my anxiety and imposter syndrome.

I was determined not to let it spoil my enjoyment of the event, and there’s a strong case to say that it’s the best preparation possible for justifying my research on a crime fiction doctorate. And I wasn’t expecting boozy nights of partying – I did all my drinking in my 20s, and BarCon has never been my thing, plus I’ve yet to cultivate as many good friendships in crimefic as I have on the SFF scene.

But that was okay. Quiet evenings in the Travelodge, no internet, no sport or movie channels, a chance to look over my presentation, make any last minute tweaks if needed, and maybe even get to work on my Dorothy L. Sayers paper, to present at the Golden Age of Crime Conference in Bournemouth next month – another speaking engagement to be nervous about, but at least one with less pressure and downside if I mess it up. It could either be my launching pad into respect and recognition within the community, as I continue towards PhD, or my last defiant swansong after dropping out, going down in a blaze of glory with a final glimpse of the academic I would have been.

Yet another stressful moment was the scrimmage for places on the Bristol/Cardiff train. Always a bunfight, this, with a two or three carriage train, woefully insufficient for the demand, and a packed Platform 4 at Southampton, full of passengers vying for the few available seats. But when it came, it was long – six carriages? – and it was virtually empty! Gosh. I’d heard passenger numbers were down, of course, but never before had I seen it so starkly illustrated. Good for me though – with the train stopping with one its doors directly in front of me, I didn’t just get the seat I was hoping for, I got the luxury of a table all to myself! (quite handy for writing the start of this report en route),

It was nice to gaze out of the window too, on a lovely, scenic journey with so many good memories, remembering as always to spot the White Horse on the hill on the approach to Westbury, and keep it in my eyeline for as long as possible, regardless of how much it unnerved the young man sat by the window who thought I was staring at him. I’d ridden this route to a UFO convention in Warminster, a transatlantic meetup with artist and friend Will Jacques in Glastonbury, the Grimbold authors barbecue hosted by Sophie Tallis, and all those BristolCons dating back to 2010, not to mention international cricket at Bristol, Taunton, and Cardiff. I’d never come to this part of the world without enjoying myself and being happy: even when Bristol Rovers beat Chester 5-1 there were positives to be had, not least a nice pre-game lunch with Open University classmate Rachel Hirstwood. As exciting as the destination was, I almost didn’t want the journey to end. Another pretty good metaphor for my university studies, actually.  

Inevitably, after all my romanticising, Bristol was a bit of a disappoint. For one thing, it stank. Really stank, like a sewer. And when I got to the Travelodge, I realised that the sewer-like smell was in fact, the sewer, Wessex Water working their magic right outside where I’d be staying. No twist to this tale, it’s the least mysterious mystery ever. Not so much a whodunnit as a ‘poodunnit’ (IGMC), right at the scene of a previous crime, when a bird shat on me at the very same spot.

My shoestring hotel disappointed me too. I didn’t really expect them to give me a cheeky early check-in, but I hoped I could stash my bag there for a few hours. But nope, they wouldn’t take it, nor could they store in on the last day, so for the two of the three days I’d be attending the Con, I’d have bulky luggage in tow, weighing me down and getting in everyone’s way.

The first panel room wasn’t really fit for purpose either, hampered as it was by a large pillar blocking the view of anyone further than four rows back. Thus distracted, all I remember is the lack of homophobia from crimefic fans – which is great, but the absolute minimum you’d hope for – and Michael Kurland namedropping Dorothy L.Sayers.

I switched rooms for the second, taking a much more advantageous all-seeing position, but I gather some people still had restricted view. I enjoyed it much more, seeing everyone is a big help, and there was an author I recognised among them, Samantha Lee Howe, although I know her best from her SFF days as Sam Stone. I was at the infamous 2011 FantasyCon, and loved it, but was on the train home before the big awards controversy occurred.

Welsh author Leslie Scase made the most relevant points to my studies, saying it was unrealistic for a crime novel to be all bleakness, and that his works contain elements of both cosy and gritty. But he went on to reveal that graphic content in one crime novel had made him feel sick, and he threw the book into the bin, so he clearly can only go so far along the spectrum. I’ll admit that I had to skip sections of my last read, White Bones by Graham Masterton, but binning a book seems an extreme reaction.

My last panel of day one was back in the restricted view room, where debut author and fellow Hampshirean Tina Orr Munro sounded very knowledgeable and insightful, but she could sit next to me right now, and I’d have no idea who she was, because I never saw her at any point. Other highlight was the constant quipping of Steve Cavanagh, often self-deprecatory, and it was quite a fun one to end the day on, and at least I knew I could face the next one without the baggage.

Day 2:

I was going to start by lamenting the brutal 9am start time which made me miss the first panel, but in fact I’d greatly underestimated my own ability to inhale a full Travelodge cooked breakfast plus croissant, cereal, orange juice, and hot chocolate within twenty minutes, and a fast walk up the hill got me there just in time, albeit as a coughing wretch annoying and alarming all around me. But I recovered to take up my most restricted view place yet, looking at a five person police procedural panel which comprised Stuart Field at one end, Paul Gitsham at the other, and three faceless voices in between, which the programme tells me belonged to G.D. Sanders, Leigh Russell, and Rachel Blok. Key points were that you should know the rules the police go by, even if you want your characters to break them, it’s highly desirable to have a contact on the police force, but with the acknowledgement that a book which follows the rules completely might not be dramatically satisfying. I myself went a separate way in my first crime novel (massive future spoiler alert ahead), by having my team of detectives cut corners and ride roughshod over the SOPs to get their man, only to have much of their evidence ruled inadmissible and see him walk free after trial.

I stayed put, sort of, for the second panel, same room but taking up a much better central position, and Rachel Blok was there again, so I could finally put a face to the voice. Most impressive figure was moderator Martin Edwards, who had either taken the trouble to research his panellists extensively, or his knowledge of the genre is already that vast (very possible). The discussion was about locked rooms and tight-knit communities, and it was great to see a lot of love for And Then There Were None. Also great was to get David Hewson to sign my copy of The Savage Shore, thus making it number 246 in my collection.

I went back into panel room two (aka 3-4), realising that it would be my base for the whole day, with all my preferred panels and authors being there. Knowing this meant I could decamp somewhere that I could actually see all five panellists! And the next was a good one, moderated by Katerina Diamond, who admitted to being dead inside and that all her works were plagiarised. Simon Brett, celebrating the completion of his 113th novel, was hilariously self-effacing too – and has a novel set in a bookies’ which I ought to check out. Simon Toyne did an even better job making me want to read his stuff – forthcoming release Dark Objects sounds like an instant genre classic, only downside being it doesn’t come out until July. His TV show Written in Blood looks worth a watch.

The numbers started to thin out for the next panel, as we moved into the lunchtime window. I myself was feeling a bit of spectator fatigue, but having gormandised so gluttonously at breakfast time, I had no need to eat again. So I stayed put while Emily Koch moderated an interesting panel on secrets in crime fiction, but I was flagging, and second guessing her decision to have the aircon turned off.

I would have sat out the next panel, but it had an all-star cast, and in Alex North/Steve Mosby and Andrew Child, there were two who I’d brought books in to get signed by (numbers 247 and 248). The panel itself was fascinating too, authors describing how far they’d go to make their characters suffer. Katerina Diamond probably went closest to the edge by putting a male character through a rape ordeal, as I myself did in my own novella Midlife Crisis.

The last panel I stayed for, my sixth in a row in the same room, was on research and accuracy. Catriona Ward’s description of the remote controlled dogs experiment which influenced her latest novel Sundial was the most interesting thing, and then even better afterwards, I went into the signing room to make Robin Morgan-Bentley’s The Wreckage number 249 in my signed book collection, but he gave me an ARC of imminent release The Guest House, and signed that too, thus bringing the collection up to the milestone of 250, in the same city where I reached 200 before the pandemic hit.

I went back to my hotel for a couple of hours break, before going back to the Con for the Dagger Announcement reception. I felt I really should attend at least one social event after watching all those panels, and “the Oscars of the crime fiction world”, as said by Victoria Selman, was a good choice, with a buzzing atmosphere. The short story nominations drew the most celebrations around the room, with the Samantha Lee Howe edited anthology Criminal Pursuits particularly successful. The Gold Dagger shortlist was suspiciously quiet though, and I noticed some authors being consoled afterwards.

Naturally I ended Day 2 wondering if I’ll ever be in contention for any awards, but in any case, I’ve got more immediate challenges to try and win.

Day 3:

First panel on Saturday morning was the funnest one yet for me, starring debut authors Tina Orr Munro, Adam Lyndon, Saima Mir, Nadine Matheson, and Scott Kershaw. All were engaging and informative, and have taken their places on my reading radar, but Kershaw’s hilarious hungover grumbling stole the show. It was the first panel at this Con that I genuinely wish had run for longer.

I took a plum third row, central spot for the next two panels, one on crossing lines, and one on scaring the reader. The crossing lines panel was excellently moderated by Caro Ramsay, and revealed a cunning premise for Elle Croft’s novel Buried, and some shockingly sadistic methods of murder devised by Douglass Lindsay and Ross Greenwood. The most brutal of the would-be scarers was Matt Wesolowski, who wants to traumatise his readership for the rest of their lives.

I stepped away then to return to the hotel and bring back my bag, now stuffed and heavy with mooched books, and which I’d have in tow for my last two panels and the Andrew Child interview, by which time I too was stuffed, with an oversized Burger King order which made me look like I was shooting an episode of Man vs Food.

On return I saw another police procedural panel, inventively moderated by Helen Fields, who had them miming and playing Snog, Marry, Avoid, before hitting them with a question about how the Sarah Everard case reflects on trust in the police force, and whether we as authors should deal with and depict this. She also professed to hating cosy crime, saying it’s dangerous to show murder as anything other than brutal and ugly. This also prompted the first mention of Richard Osman, and a disparaging one at that. Along with his conspicuous absence from all the Dagger shortlists, and all bar one of the CrimeFest nominations (for audiobook), it seems like the inevitable backlash might already be in full swing.

I found a new room next, the Wessex Suite where Andrew Child chatted about his younger days, his real name writing career, and the present day having taken over writing the Jack Reacher books. And from there I found another new room, at the last time possible before I leave, the Marlborough Suite. It was large, light, airy, didn’t have any pillars instructing the view, and I wondered why this was only used as the tertiary panel room and not the primary one. Although I was somewhat answered by the air conditioning, which rattled loudly at the back of the room, and had some of the audience shivering and looking for more layers to put on.

It seemed a pretty good panel, but I had to bail to catch the train. I would have loved to stay for the pre-Gala Dinner drinks, and watch Eurovision on the big screen, and it’s a shame to miss Sunday’s Golden Age panel, but I hope to return next year, stay longer, and mingle more.


Jay’s 4 Star Plus Club 2021

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

Witty and funny throughout, with likeable, believable, relatable characters. The crime plot is cunning and intricate, and it contains greater moral ambiguity and packs more of an emotional punch than you’d expect from an ostensibly cosy book.

4.5 Stars

The Reddening – Adam Nevill

Unnerving, unsettling, and uncomfortable in all the right ways. Excellent pacing – this hits hard in the prologue, eases back from there for a while, leaving mystery, menace, and untrustworthy locals, before it accelerates constantly to a breathless, bloody, brutal denouement.

4 Stars

Flashman’s Lady – George Macdonald Fraser

Fast paced adventure, thoroughly gripping at times, highly educational, but often absolutely hilarious. Fraser’s great achievement is in developing a character who is hugely likeable despite his character flaws and ill behaviour.

4 Stars

Exit – Belinda Bauer

This renders itself essential for study by being the ultimate cosy-gritty crossover. With shades of Richard Osman meets The 39 Steps, we have an elderly man turning sleuth when he gets caught up in trouble. But it’s the small town setting, and the domesticity of the crimes, which provide the cosy aspects, along with Bauer’s sparkling humour, but with a thuggish underclass as counterpoint, and a deep poignancy at the heart of this.

4.5 Stars

Q – Christina Dalcher

A chilling piece of speculative fiction, depicting the rise of elitism, all the way to fascism and eugenics. There are enough recognisable aspects of the world we know for this to hit home and be genuinely disturbing.

4 Stars

The Unheimlich Manoeuvre – Tracy Fahey

A stunning collection of intimate, domestic chillers, made all the more haunting for their basis in reality. It’s possible to imagine yourself in any of the situations presented here – in fact as the taut, relentless narrative grips you, it’s impossible not to. This is consistently relatable and intensely thought-provoking, to the point where even when you sense a twist looming, and guess it correctly, it’s a double payoff rather than an anti-climax. I could write a thousand word essay on each story, but easier just to recommend you read it too. This is a breathtaking experience for a reader, and a deeply inspirational one for a writer.

5 Stars

Run Walk Crawl – Tim Lebbon

Always interesting, often funny, hugely useful for anyone with an interest in running, and sometimes it finds that rich emotional seam that hits you right in the feels. Those moments are powerful and moving, like a motivational power ballad before a life-defining event. And yes, it made me want to run again.

4 Stars

Unheimlich Manoeuvres in the Dark – Tracy Fahey

Great to have a set of story notes (I had them in my own collection), and the extended essay is particularly interesting, overlapping with my Open University literature course in places. Of the new stories, the male POV ones were the most powerful, harrowing and haunting and shrouded in regret.

4 Stars

How to Make Monsters – Gary McMahon

Of all the monsters that lurk in this collection, the worst are loneliness, greed, misery, poverty, injustice, and regret. McMahon proves here that there is nothing more disturbing and unsettling than urban decay, and the real life problems and setbacks that relentlessly grind us down. Even when he gives us a standard(ish) monster, zombies in ‘Nowhere People’ they are used as tools of oppression by the wealthy, right-wing elite. Other standouts are short sharp shockers ‘Family Fishing’ and ‘Once a Month, Every Month’ (the closest thing to a happy ending on show here), the crushing, haunting ‘Why Ghosts Wail’, and the epic Lieber-esque finale ‘A Bit of the Dark’.

4 Stars

Greenbeard – John Travis

Sensitive and non-gratuitous portrayal of the most horrific crime imaginable, with some clever misdirection and a subtle, but not overplayed hint of the morality tale.

4 Stars

If It Bleeds – Stephen King

This does supernatural, this does wistfulness, this does terror, this does everything you’d expect from King. But it also provides a cutting social satire on modern day reportage and, despite never being a whodunnit, features absolutely oodles of detection and evidence gathering.

4 Stars

Hanging Hill – Mo Hayder

Deals expertly with the personalities as well as the crimes, with the separate lives and repairing relationship between the sisters particularly well realised. Tight but twisty plot grips and thrills, and then just when you think you’ve ridden it out, it pulls the rug from you spectacularly.

4 Stars

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Simultaneously a sweeping global epic, and a deeply personal insight into the coincidental or fated intersections of a smattering of lives, this evokes Raymond Carver as much as the great twenty-first century apocalypses of Cormac McCarthy, Alden Bell, and Mike Carey. The sense of loss is crushing at times, mitigated by the beauty of the prose, the motifs of hope in the tiniest things, and the remarkable prescience of publishing a book about a world destroyed by pandemic six years before one actually happened.

5 Stars

Moon Over Soho – Ben Aaronovitch

Big on both magical and detective content, with an engaging and accessible first person narration, and a strong whodunnit element.

4 Stars

The Summer Goddess – Joanne Hall

A powerful work full of contrasts and contradictions, this has a central character who is both strong and vulnerable, as the novel depicts the honour and nobility of fighting for a cause, as well as the pain, fear, and trauma that comes with it. The dangers of religious extremism are highlighted, along with the horrific brutality of slavery, but hardly anyone here is shown as pure evil: some weak, lazy, or cowardly, some too content to live within an unfair system which benefits them, but every character, however minor, is driven by a believable and relatable set of motivations. As such, this packs an emotional punch that is hard to bear at times, and will leave the reader much to think about even after they’ve finished reading.

4.5 Stars


BristolCon 2021 Report

Of all the conventions lost to Covid, it was last year’s BristolCon that I missed most. The unassuming one-day affair, close enough for a day trip, although I’d just started staying overnight beforehand, provided some of my very best memories as a con-goer, and gave me my first sessions sitting on panels, a long held ambition which meant a lot to realise. So I was particularly glad to see it get the go-ahead this time around.

Once again I booked the night before, for me and my wife, avoiding the horrendous Saturday night price hike the hotels impose, and giving us the Friday to enjoy in Bristol. And enjoy it we did, despite the bad weather on the day. We’d booked to go to Bristol Zoo, determined to enjoy it for perhaps the last time before its projected closure, but wondered if the persistent heavy rain would make for a miserable time. But the zoo is cleverly designed with lots of covered attractions and walkways, with only short uncovered walks between them, and we able to see most of the attractions while mainly staying dry.

After a gruelling, stop-start bus ride back to Cabot Circus, we grabbed a light lunch and browsed the shops, before going to the Odeon to watch Dune, perfect viewing for an SFF weekend. It was nothing if not epic, with the expansive cinematography, and even the screeching score, making the viewer feel that they themselves are caught in a sandstorm. But given that we’ve been rewatching Bad Girls all the way from S1, Ep1, my favourite thing was seeing Crystal Gordon as a proper film star now!

Save for hearty feed, that was us done for the night. I had an early start, being in the first panel of the morning in Room Two, which vindicated my decision to travel the day before. And my decision not to travel home on the Sunday saved me from potentially being affected by the train crash at Salisbury the next day. My sympathies to all involved.

Back to the Con, and that first panel, on SFF and crime fiction crossovers. I was unfortunately situated, being the first to receive each question, and might have embarrassed myself a little with probably the shortest self-intro of the entire convention – “I’m a multi-genre author, but I’m doing my PhD in crime fiction” – and a couple of cringingly basic early answers, whereas the other panellists – Jaine Fenn, Roz Clarke, surprise stand-in Jo Hall, and moderator Chrissey Harrison were effortlessly expert and erudite. But I warmed to the task a little, revealing that my entire 12-part crime series is actually a spin-off from secondary characters in my long out of print (but hopefully to return) zombie novel, and to take great pleasure in recommending the books Damage Time by BristolCon legend Colin Harvey, and Ghost Virus by Graham Masterton, not revealing the outlandish plot driver of the latter, but assuring the audience that Masterton does not just leap and soar high above the shark, he does a succession of twists and somersaults before faceplanting on the other side. I hereby also recommend Jaine’s work in progress, written largely, or even entirely in second person.

My two panel appearances were spaced well apart – one immediately after arrival, and the other immediately before departure, in fact. So in between them I had seven hours as a viewer. First up, I watched the panel on geography in SFF, most notable for the ever-knowledgeable Juliet McKenna revealing that “the invention of the bicycle did away with the village idiot”.

From there I switched rooms and camped out in Room One from that point. First up was the New Weird Britain panel, which intersected with ours through mentions of Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May novels, and Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books.

I missed one panel while getting lunch, but was back for the Handheld Press showcase about Elinor Mordaunt, and the most romantic moment of the Con, with a special presentation for long-distance couples Gareth L. Powell and J. Dianne Dotson, and Graham Austin-King and Alicia Wanstall-Burke (does she have a quadruple-barrelled surname now?).

Anna Smith Spark’s Guest of Honour interview was the most pensive and philosophical one of I’ve seen, and a fascinating insight into the creative mind and the personality behind it. That was followed by panels on democracy, or lack thereof, in fantasy fiction, and another on series continuing or returning after they have already peaked. Consensus from the former was that the Chosen One narrative should be put away for good; ironic therefore that Luke Skywalker should be the memorable motif of the latter, Alicia Wanstall-Burke championing the enjoyment of a new generation of fans over preserving the legacy of the original trilogy.

Finally I was up again, and I might have made myself look a complete idiot in my second panel, on self-promotion, moderated by late replacement Dan Pawley, and starring J. Dianne Dotson, R.B. Watkinson, and my Grimbold labelmate Joel Cornah. First I admitted both my lack of success hitherto, and my lack of activity to change that, before delving into the full litany of errors I made in self-publishing my collection Wrong’Un and Other Stories, which contains the very best of my short stories, but was produced in an amateurish, slapdash fashion. Seconds later, the mic went to Joel, who gently chided “self-deprecation does not sell books”, Ouch. But the panel gave me much to learn, and much to ponder. It’s now on my to-do list to stage an event at Totton Library, and I have a tough decision to make as to whether to unpublish Wrong‘Un so that the best of it can rise again in a year or two in another collection, either by a publisher, or self-published more slickly and professionally than this one. And on another level, ropey though my panel appearances may have been, I was most happy not to have let the nerves and stagefright hamper my enjoyment of the event, which has happened in previous years.

I marched back to Temple Meads immediately after the panel, successfully avoiding sporting spoilers on the train ride home, so I could utilise the extra hour to enjoy a recording of England’s cricket win over Australia and Match of the Day highlights of Southampton’s win over Watford. A suitably happy note to end a great weekend.


FantasyCon 2021 Full Report

Day 1:

After being wiped out, along with pretty much everything else, in 2020, FantasyCon made a heroic and courageous return at Birmingham Jury’s Inn this weekend. I had to be there, and was honoured and delighted to have been chosen to give a reading and me on two panels.

Friday was my travel day, and I was saving money by using the Megabus, which meant, ironically, I was starting my journey in the shadow of Southampton’s Jury’s Inn. Even closer was Solent University, where I am studying for my PhD, preparing for their open day on the Saturday, and with inside and out adorned with dozens of resplendent red deckchairs to welcome everyone.

There was a mixture of delight and trepidation when I realised the journey up would go past Firgo, but I watched for it, and treated myself to a celebratory croissant when we were safely clear. All was well.

We got to Brum pretty much on time, leaving me a 10-15 minute walk to the Con Hotel – only the second time I’ve stayed in one. What Google Maps hadn’t given me was the gradients, and having long since lost all my erstwhile marathon fitness (although I’m making my 5K comeback in two weeks), I was half dead after dragging a wheeled suitcase up the north face of the Eiger. But I still had the predatory instinct to snap up one of the 20 randomly dropped copies of Benedict J. Jones’s Hell Ship: Special Edition. At least I hope they were, otherwise I’ve totally nicked someone else’s copy.

Before my 6pm reading I saw Steven Poore in the dealer’s room, and he made a very valid point when I suggested that the Con was diminished this year, and he pointed out that this was an opportunity for a lot of new faces and voices. Very well put.

I caught the tail end of the reading with Susie Williamson, Clint Wastling, and Teika Bellamy, and although they finished early, some good questions from Nat in the audience helped turn the remainder into a mini-panel.

Then it was my slot, and a Hampshire invasion with me, the Sotonian Tottonian, and David Cartwright, the Basingstoke-based Altonian. It was a small crowd, which probably helped with my nerves, and I really enjoyed reading ‘Chasing the Sunset’, and hearing David’s excerpt from Rendered Flesh, especially with a prominent character named Jay.

From there I took in the low-key, informal opening ceremony, made a bit less of a celebration by Ian Whates’s unfortunate absence (my, and everyone’s thoughts with him), but there was also a tinge of resolute defiance, that we’ve gathered for this Con against all odds.

Then I was back in the reading room, in the timeslot where I would have been reading before a late rejig, and it turned out that being bumped forward was a lucky break for me, because Neil Williamson, Jonathan Walker, and Dan Coxon had to contend with the karaoke coming very loudly from next door, but coped admirably.

So did the panellists for the World Horror discussion: Steve Shaw, Myk Pilgrim, Jim McLeod, and Peter Mark May, superbly led and moderated by Laura Mauro, and with good audience insight from Tim Lebbon, Kit Power, and Graeme Reynolds. This was first event on the programme that really did feel like the good old days of FCons past.

And that was it for me. Tired but happy, I left it to others to party hard, while I retreated to my room to start writing this … 

Day 2:

After a hearty hotel breakfast, I made the epic fantasy panel my first of the day, with Steven Poore and Anna Smith Spark always worth watching. That said, I was diluting my attention just slightly, with my laptop silently showing the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy final between Southern Vipers and Northern Diamonds. It was hardly fireworks there early one, slow and steady, if not quite the glacial pace which Steven attributed to plot development in his novels.

When that panel finished I had half an hour before my own FantasyCon panelling debut, and whether it was nerves or mask wearing, I had the beginnings of a headache. Thus when I encountered Ross Warren, Graeme Reynolds, James Everington, Tim Lebbon, and Jim Mcleod – the cool crowd I wanted to be hanging out with! – all I had time to say was to ask if anyone had any paracetamol on them, and then rush over the road to the shop when they said no.

Two tablets and a swig of water later, I was as ready as I could be for a discussion about a subject I had little expertise in – Religion in Horror. But I set up my printed nameplate, put a copy of my collection, Wrong’Un, in front of me, and set about it as best I could.

I was definitely the bluffer amongst the group; moderator Iain Grant is an RE teacher, Jon Walker was raised in a religious environment, and Simon Clark is an absolute legend in the genre. As for me, I warned the audience in my introduction, “My religious characters are usually fakers and charlatans, and up to no good.” Which I demonstrated by reading a content-warning-required excerpt of the Scriptures from ‘The World Shall Know’ in which the hierarchy use phoney religion as a driver for their bigotry and lust for power. I also invoked David Icke, Muscular Christianity, and explained how perceptions of good and evil are shaped by our own morality and bias. I like to think I came across as moderately competent at least, although in my excitement I left my nameplate behind.

I retreated to my room to see that while I’d been discussing religion, divine intervention had struck for the Southern Vipers! Seven wickets had fallen during the hour, in two separate mini-collapses, from 72-1 to 73-4, and then from 112-4 to 116-8. The Vipers seemed certain to reel in the trophy, and heal some of the hurt from Hampshire’s heartbreakingly near miss in the County Championship, but excellent late batting from Ami Campbell for the Diamonds took them to 183, potentially a competitive score, and I went into Birmingham for lunch, and to take in the vibes from Pride, which was there for the weekend.

By my return, the Vipers had lost both openers, neither of them scoring, and as I went to the book launch room, with the match on computer, but commentary on silent, the regular fall of wickets had left them staring at defeat on 109-7. Sport in general was being very unkind to me, with Chester FC, enduring a pretty miserable start to a season, 1-0 down to Blyth Spartans at half-time.

Grimbold’s four o’clock book launch – low key, but so was much of the Con, for understandable reasons – brought with it a miraculous change of fortune, as well as great readings from Joel Cornah, Shona Kinsella, and Pete Sutton, the latter particularly poignant. Because during that magical hour, Chester FC smashed five unanswered goals past Blyth to get the big win which kick-starts the season, and Emily Windor and Tara Norris put on a sublime unbroken partnership of 78 to retain the trophy in sensational style, with two balls remaining. Although everything had looked bleak and tragic, it was all okay in the end.

Which was the overriding theme of Great British Horror 6: Ars Gratia Sanguis launched at 5pm, at least according to Black Shuck Books editor Steven J Shaw, who had a wicked glint in his eye. The readings were dark and atmospheric, dripping with loss, especially Teika Marija Smits’s excerpt from ‘Our Lady of Flies’.

After that I took a couple hours out to prepare for my next panel, and ended up watching more sport, Brentford’s amazing 3-3 draw with Liverpool. Perhaps that, after the dramatic epic wins earlier, helped shift my mood from nervousness to one of a purely positive excitement. I was really looking forward to this one, The Horror, The Weird, The Supernatural, moderated by Graeme Reynolds, and alongside Simon Clark again, and Pauline Kirk, who I didn’t previously know, but was a knowledgeable and engaging presence throughout, whose work I will definitely seek out.

My confidence was up, and I was happy to just ad lib this one. I started informally enough, improvising a nameplate by scrawling my name on the flipside of introduced myself by confessing that Graeme has been waiting for my zombie novel rewrite for eight years, and since I was being so honest, I told the audience that the reason Escaping Firgo has no swearing, or violence is because I wrote most of it in a tax office with stringent profanity filters on e-mailed documents. I referenced Silence of the Lambs as a crime crossover, examined the good and bad in the Final Destination movies, highlighted the dangers of the London Underground in An American Werewolf in London and The Jam’s ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, championed Tracey Fahey’s The Unheimlich Manoeuvre as the best collection I’ve read, and we ended by saying how horrible the world is now and that only reading and writing horror can save humanity. I loved it.

My final word was to point out the irony that having described the ugliness of violence, I was off to watch a boxing match next. Yes, more sport. I was hoping that Anthony Joshua would knock out Oleksander Usyk with one punch, and then I could see almost all of the horror readings in the dark. Or hear them at least, depending how dark exactly. But the fight was won not with violence but skill, an exhibition of pugilism from Usyk to score a superb win on points, and thus force me to miss an hour’s worth of stories. But I still got there for Phil Sloman’s chilling hardcore horror take on M.R. James’s ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and Kit Power using King Kong and Godzilla as a backdrop to a life lived. Both excellent, and a great way to end a great day, but still made even better by spotting Benedict J. Jones in the audience, and having time for a quick catch up, and for him to sign that mysteriously acquired copy of Hell Ship.

Day 3:

This being my first year as a member of the British Fantasy Society, one of the things I was strangely looking forward to, amidst all the fun and frolics, was the BFS AGM.

I accosted Peter Mark May at breakfast to sign my copy of The Screaming Dead – I was making more sense and presumably smelled better than when I’d pretty much collapsed on him at the start of the Con. Although he was interested in my ambition to bring FantasyCon to Southampton in the next few years, and the suggestion that the 2025 World Fantasy Convention bid could tie in with the City of Culture, he warned that the AGM might not be as exciting as I was anticipating.

He could not have been more wrong! All was standard and fairly dry at first, income and expenditure sheets and the like, until election time came round, and a temporary acting Chair was asked for. People shuffled nervously, and among the cowards and the cowed, only Anna Smith Spark had the courage to stand up and step forward.

And her half hour reign will never be forgotten! Driven by the nominations and machinations of power-behind-the-throne Karen Fishwick, there was a complete overhaul of the hierarchy of the BFS, with mostly the ‘male, pale, and stale’ making way. We lost a lot of hard work and expertise, but this is an exciting time for the Society, and we are fortunate and privileged to have a new president with the profile and calibre of Juliet Mushens, agent to the crimefic phenomenon Richard Osman, amongst many others. And my question as to whether the horror community remained part of the Society’s vision for the future was met with a reassuring response.

And that was almost that. I just had time to take in a reading from Laura Mauro – the star of the Con from what I’d seen – and I would have gone in for the live recording of the Writeopolis, but I risked falling foul of the 12pm check-out time if I did so. So instead, it was a reluctant farewell, a gruelling coach ride home (made slightly more bearable by my purloined pastries from breakfast time), and the hunger to do it again.

Next year’s FCon clashes with an important family occasion – although I might make it up just for the Sunday if I get nominated for an award! – so I might look to ChillerCon or Edge-Lit to get an extra fix. And in any case, it’s only a few weeks until BristolCon! To quote a Stevie Nicks song title, I can’t wait.


FantasyCon 2021 Day 1:

After being wiped out, along with pretty much everything else, in 2020, FantasyCon made a heroic and courageous return at Birmingham Jury’s Inn this weekend. I had to be there, and was honoured and delighted to have been chosen to give a reading and me on two panels.

Friday was my travel day, and I was saving money by using the Megabus, which meant, ironically, I was starting my journey in the shadow of Southampton’s Jury’s Inn. Even closer was Solent University, where I am studying for my PhD, preparing for their open day on the Saturday, and with inside and out adorned with dozens of resplendent red deckchairs to welcome everyone.

There was a mixture of delight and trepidation when I realised the journey up would go past Firgo, but I watched for it, and treated myself to a celebratory croissant when we were safely clear. All was well.

We got to Brum pretty much on time, leaving me a 10-15 minute walk to the Con Hotel – only the second time I’ve stayed in one. What Google Maps hadn’t given me was the gradients, and having long since lost all my erstwhile marathon fitness (although I’m making my 5K comeback in two weeks), I was half dead after dragging a wheeled suitcase up the north face of the Eiger. But I still had the predatory instinct to snap up one of the 20 randomly dropped copies of Benedict J. Jones’s Hell Ship: Special Edition. At least I hope they were, otherwise I’ve totally nicked someone else’s copy.

Before my 6pm reading I saw Steven Poore in the dealer’s room, and he made a very valid point when I suggested that the Con was diminished this year, and he pointed out that this was an opportunity for a lot of new faces and voices. Very well put.

I caught the tail end of the reading with Susie Williamson, Clint Wastling, and Teika Bellamy, and although they finished early, some good questions from Nat in the audience helped turn the remainder into a mini-panel.

Then it was my slot, and a Hampshire invasion with me, the Sotonian Tottonian, and David Cartwright, the Basingstoke-based Altonian. It was a small crowd, which probably helped with my nerves, and I really enjoyed reading ‘Chasing the Sunset’, and hearing David’s excerpt from Rendered Flesh, especially with a prominent character named Jay.

From there I took in the low-key, informal opening ceremony, made a bit less of a celebration by Ian Whates’s unfortunate absence (my, and everyone’s thoughts with him), but there was also a tinge of resolute defiance, that we’ve gathered for this Con against all odds.

Then I was back in the reading room, in the timeslot where I would have been reading before a late rejig, and it turned out that being bumped forward was a lucky break for me, because Neil Williamson, Jonathan Walker, and Dan Coxon had to contend with the karaoke coming very loudly from next door, but coped admirably.

So did the panellists for the World Horror discussion: Steve Shaw, Myk Pilgrim, Jim Mcleod, and Peter Mark May, superbly led and moderated by Laura Mauro, and with good audience insight from Tim Lebbon, Kit Power, and Graeme Reynolds. This was first event on the programme that really did feel like the good old days of FCons past.

And that was it for me. Tired but happy, I left it to others to party hard, while I retreated to my room to start writing this …  


The Health Tourist

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, this probably isn’t the post for you. I’m not one, and have been waiting anything but patiently for mine for a long time now. My main worry was returning to work unjabbed, especially after leaked reports suggest all over 40s would be first dose vaccinated by Easter, only for them to backtrack and have us waiting until May.

Thankfully, very early May in my case, Saturday the first in fact. I didn’t get the local appointment my wife did, at one of my favourite places in the world at AFC Totton’s stadium. Indeed, not only were there no appointments here in Totton, there weren’t even any in Southampton either! So, given the choice of travelling or waiting, I picked the former, and from there I made another decision. With no disrespect intended to Eastleigh, Basingstoke, or Gosport, I thought if I’m getting on a train, it might as well be to somewhere worth going to. And reasoning that half a million lockdown rebels can’t be wrong, I chose Bournemouth.

Of course, it’s long been a favourite visit of mine, way before the 2020 invasion. Going back three decades, I’ve headed through the forest to get there for beach breaks, football, cricket, fun runs, gigs, and nightclubbing alike. I’ve ridden the hot air balloon, its big wheel replacement, and walked the pier more times than I can mention. The one thing I haven’t done yet is zipline from there back to the shore, but I’m looking to rectify that later this year. So given that it’s such a go to place for me, perhaps it’s fitting that Bournemouth should be where I get my pandemic protection too.


Hopes had been high for a day at the beach after an early vaccination, but seemed to have been ruled out by a pessimistic weather forecast. However, my wife and I packed for a day out just in case, and when we got there, we were met by a beautiful vista over the beach and ocean. The sky was a clear, pure blue, and visibility was the best I’ve ever seen it there. You couldn’t just see the Isle of Wight, you could see the people on it going about their daily business. If you put a quid in one of those telescopes, you could probably read the newspaper over their shoulders.

Unfortunately, I failed to take a camera with me, and to make matters worse, none of the online images replicate that view I got getting off the bus at Bath Road. I’ll be sure to take a picture next time I’m there, but for now, these offer a pretty fair representation. Any authors reading might look at these and think this would be a great place to host a FantasyCon, and I for one wholeheartedly agree.

It was around 8.55am when we got to the pier, and somebody helpfully told us that we could go on for free before 9 o’clock. Thus, we enjoyed a lovely promenade up and down the pier without having to pay, although I would have been happy to do so. It’s not much more than a quid I think, and the ticket lasts all year. I picked up some useful info while I was there too, a reassurance that despite piling on the pounds during lockdown, I’m still safely short of the maximum weight for the zipline.

Not that I don’t intend to get healthier though, and I took a step towards that next – well, many steps actually. My wife was directing us up the slope towards the West Cliff Lift, and the Travelodge we usually stay in, but I thought better and went round to the main entrance, only to end up pretty much circumnavigating the BIC before being allowed in an entrance right where she’d been pointing.

And that wasn’t the end of my walking, having to follow a long and winding queue for pre-assessment, and then a lesser one for the jab itself. But once done, the sun was still shining, I was safer than before, and we had a day of leisure and tourism ahead. We went through the Lower Gardens and into the covered arcade to visit our favourite shops: Waterstone’s for me, L’Occitane for her, and a slap up McDonald’s breakfast meant it all added up to our hottest date in months.

All we needed to make the day perfect was an hour on the beach, a splash in the sea, fish and chips from Harry Ramsden’s, and ice cream from one of the stalls. But after we’d been on the beach for all of two minutes, albeit time enough for my feet to go numb in the freezing Solent, the first drops of rain began to fall. We tried to wait it out, but those first little drips soon became an apocalyptic torrential downpour under leaden, slate grey skies. We cowered in the Harry Ramsden’s doorway until they opened up and made us move.

We took that as our cue to cut the day short, and made the 12.05 train by the skin of our teeth. It would have been nice to have a bit longer in sunny Bournemouth, but the weather decided differently, and it was still a lovely morning, on top of potentially saving my life, and possibly those of people close to me too.


As for how I coped with the jab, well at first, until jinxed by my mum. She phoned in the afternoon and asked how I was, and at the time I was fine. But as the evening went on, first came the chills, then the headache, then the feverish night of truncated, intermittent sleep. I felt a little tired and drained on Sunday, but otherwise okay, and absolutely fine from Monday onwards, as much as I’d love to use that as an excuse for my slow completion of this article.

Follow up jab is in July, in the more prosaic surroundings of a local clinic, and after that, hopefully, gigs, sports, conventions, choir, and everything else I’ve missed. And I’ll be back in Bournemouth purely for fun next time.


O Captain! My Captain!

This has hit me hard, but I’ve dried my eyes, composed myself a bit, and now I want to react. I want to react not just in praise of the great man, but in defiance of the virus that took him, and so many others, and so much from all of us.

I didn’t know him of course, but as with everybody else, it felt like I did. He truly was the best of us, and will continue being an inspiration and a hero for a long time yet.

I did know Debbie Trotter, pretty well. She was my Zumba instructor and, because the only man in Zumba class, and Clubbercise, is going to be both a curiosity and need extra help, we became friends. The classes were always fun, and worked me out in ways which long-distance running could not. I became fitter, and more outgoing and confident. And Debbie also championed my writing, being one of the first to buy my novella Escaping Firgo, and left a nice review, and recommended it to her friends.

A bad knee had stopped me going as regularly as before, but when the first lockdown happened, I resolved to go week in, week out once everything was back to normal. Sadly, fate was to deny me my chance. She was taken on 13th April, when Captain Tom was one week into the challenge that would make him a household name. But unlike him, Debbie was not a centenarian; she was 61 years young, fit as a flea, full of energy, and could easily have passed for 40.

These are just two of the 100,000 to be taken by this terrible virus, ten months apart, and we still don’t know when, or if it will ever be gone. Other than staying in, wearing the mask, washing our hands, and so on, how do we beat this? How do we defeat Covid?

My suggestion is by living our best lives once we’re out of this. I intend to. I’m going to go back to choir singing, go back to gigs, go back to authors’ conventions, go back to football and cricket matches in person. I’m not sure if I can do Zumba again with someone different, but I can and will run again. Bad knee and massive weight gains mean it will be 5 and 10Ks rather than full and half marathons, but I will wear the numbers, run past the crowds, collect my medals.

The point is I’m not going to let niggly little details stop me any more. Will it be raining? How much is the train fare? What time will I be home? Nope. These things might once have got in my way, but no more. Not after this. I’m gonna grab life once I can, and I’m gonna grab it hard. And until then I’m gonna use this time and write, prolifically and cathartically.

Your post-lockdown wish list is probably different, but I urge you to pursue it. You owe it to Tom, you owe it to Debbie, and above all, you owe it to yourself.