Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman

dinosaurs

I probably knew more about dinosaurs as an eight year old than I do now.

Indeed the pattern might be repeating as my (admittedly very smart and scientific) nine year old niece clearly knows more about dinosaurs than me, while my two year old nephew puts me to shame with his ability to recognise and name them.

So suitably humbled, I was looking for a primer to get me back up to speed.

And this VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION kind of does the trick.

Covering the discovery of dinosaurs and the realisation of what they were; the Crystal Palace exhibition (the event which really puts dinosaurs in the public imagination, and if you’re in London, I’d definitely recommend you visit – even if the models bear only a slight resemblance to what the creatures actually looked like); various competing theories of the dinosaurs’ natures; and – of course – various competing theories about what killed them off.

It’s all written in a breezy, knowledgeable style which manages to be both technical and scientific, but not too technical and scientific. A layman like me can reach up and grab it, rather than spending most of his or her time looking up a succession of unknown terms in a big, weighty dictionary.

Undoubtedly there isn’t as much in here as I’d have liked, but that’s the point of a primer, isn’t it? If it’s done its job, it’s a book that doesn’t completely satisfy you, it leaves you craving more.

Me, Writing, in 2017

typewriter

I finished the first draft of the new book this week. Well, I suppose it’s a second draft, as I did have an original rough draft, scribbled across two small notepads. But now I’ve gone through my hastily scrawled hieroglyphs and rewritten every word.

I was so chuffed that I allowed myself a bottle of alcoholic ginger beer to celebrate.

Ha!

That might be the most Pooterish sentence I’ve ever written, but it was the first booze I’d had in nearly a month so it meant something.

Anyway, I digress.

It sounds idiotically obvious but the most important thing about writing is you need to actually write.

If I’d waited for circumstance to be right – a nice peaceful room overlooking a meadow and a beautiful oak desk – nothing would have got done.

If I’d waited for a bolt of pure inspiration, nothing would have got done.

If I’d worried about the fact that the sentence I’d just scribbled down wasn’t as good as it could have been, I’d have swiftly grinded to a halt.

The important thing was that I got the ideas onto paper, that I captured the emotion I was aiming for, that I began to shape the characters.

The actual words, the actual sentences will come.

They’re what re-writing is for.

I have an early draft of a novel. One I feel incredibly passionate about, one I’m actually quite proud of.

Now, of course, I have to put that passion to good use and work hard and give myself a final book which makes me truly proud.

The Witches (1966)

The Witches

One reason for why this 1966 Hammer movie isn’t that well known could be timing. This tale of a school teacher convalescing from a nervous breakdown, moving to an English country village and gradually realising that there’s something dangerous and wrong in the very fabric of this country idyll, would have perhaps been more successful if it had been released five years later. It could have grouped together with BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW and THE WICKER MAN as another example of great English pastoral horror. (It does actually share some of the same story beats as THE WICKER MAN). Maybe then it would be remembered more fondly (or remembered at all) by horror fans.

But I’m reaching with that theory, as the main reason this isn’t remembered that fondly by horror fans is it really isn’t that scary.

It does do an excellent job early on of creating an unsettling atmosphere, and Joan Fontaine (looking really good, twenty-five years after REBECCA) is superb as a character who maintains a poise even when on-edge. But whatever menace the film manages to create, it squanders.

The biggest problem is that the big satanic orgy/sacrifice that culminates the film is absolutely ludicrous. Rather than terrifying, our Satanists prance around in unison as if they’ve been choreographed by some black magic, Jerome Robbins. It’s not so much a summoning of all that’s evil as a discordant aerobics class.

In my TWINS OF EVIL review, I suggested that there was a different and better movie hidden away within it. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case with THE WITCHES. The fundamentals – the story and what it’s trying to achieve – ain’t bad. It’s just not done very well. So really, the better, scarier film hidden away in THE WITCHES is actually THE WITCHES, just made more competently.

Witches 2

The Dead Zone by Stephen King

dead-zone-stephen-king-paperback-cover-art

Undoubtedly the reason Stephen King was so loudly vociferous against Donald Trump last year is that he actually predicted him.

In THE DEAD ZONE, King conjured up Greg Stillson, a maverick politician who doesn’t play by the rules, and who – with his poking the establishment in the eye stance – wins himself a huge following. He’s dangerous, divorced from normal mores and basically a psychopath in a sheep suit. And, just like Trump, Stillson is initially dismissed as an amusing distraction:

“The reporters should have had a field day with Stillson. His colourful, controversial personality seemed to stir only amused admiration from the national press, and he seemed to make no one – except maybe Johnny Smith – nervous.”

Johnny Smith is of course the hero of THE DEAD ZONE. A man who gains psychic abilities that enable him to see the future of those around him if he touches them. Once he shakes Stillson’s hands, it becomes his mission to stop him getting anywhere near The White House.

In real life, we’re not so lucky.

THE DEAD ZONE comes from Stephen King’s imperial phase. That period at the start of his career where he was more than just a horror writer, instead a populist juggernaut who bulldozed everything from his path.

This book however isn’t a big, grandiose story. Instead what we really have here is King’s ability to make the ordinary epic.

You could almost describe it as a chamber piece. There aren’t many characters and more often than not they’re just hanging around in New England rooms talking,

Yet it feels so much more.

It’s not just that the stakes are so high, it’s that in this small locale King brings together pain, hope, faith and anger to give us a hero whose journey is huge even though he doesn’t travel far.

Wonderfully written to boot (King is such a visual author, striking images abound), this is an incredible work which is over-shadowed somewhat by other books of its vintage – SALEM’S LOT, THE SHINING, THE STAND – but deserves to be regarded as their equal.

How would you write about Donald Trump in a horror story? (part 9)

Trump mirror

I like the image of Trump staring into the mirror.

Absolutely when Donald Trump looks in the mirror, he doesn’t see what the rest of us sees.

He doesn’t see a pouting, red cheeked man-child, whose resting expression suggests a kind of repressed fury that he can’t just kill everyone around him.

No, he sees an incredibly handsome guy with a goddamn sexy haircut and normal sized hands. He sees a man wearing his wealth like gold armour and a gold halo combined, but who – if he didn’t have that wealth – would still have the tightest babes in the world desperate to bed him.

That sense of self-aggrandising delusion, to be fair, isn’t going to be that unusual.

Nobody is going to try and become the most powerful person on Earth without having a blue whale of an ego. But it’s more than that with Trump. With the other Presidents in my lifetime, you got the impression that the world wasn’t how they wanted it, so they were determined to change it. No matter how wrong headed or damaging their analysis of the problems might be, they (pretty much) accepted the facts of reality and made their moves from there.

Yes, I know those WMDs never showed up, but that was the case of men desperate to go to war grasping for a reason to have that war. They misled, they lied, but the reality as they saw it was that Saddam was dangerous and they needed a reason to get him. (Obviously I don’t in anyway agree with what they did.) With Trump though it stretches further than a grand fabricating of evidence, he tries to bend the whole of reality to his will and when it doesn’t do what he wants, he just says it has.

So Trump stares into his mirror. He sees a handsome, smart, charming, wonderful man. He sees things no one else sees. Because it isn’t just himself he sees differently, it is the whole wide world. He is seeing everything different when he looks in the mirror. Himself and everything behind him. There is a whole alternative universe in there.

Now Trump in reality is being frustrated by political opponents, he’s actually being frustrated by so-called allies. Even though he is the so-called most powerful man in the goddamn world, he isn’t going to change the world as much as he wants to through normal legislative methods.

But what if all he had to do was break the glass of that mirror?

Smash his fist against it and let whatever’s in there come through to our world?

What would happen if the world of Donald Trump’s inner mind suddenly bled through to this one?

What terrible things are contained within his darkest thoughts?

What demons would be lurking in the darkness, subconsciously created by his imaginings?

Doctor Who Reviews – Knock Knock

Knock knock

Written with no prior knowledge of what’s going to be in the episode – I watch the ‘Next Time’ trailer and make sure I see, hear and read nothing else – and written immediately after my first viewing. This is my unfettered, emotional response to this week’s DOCTOR WHO fare.

I’ve enjoyed this series thus far (looking back on my reviews, it’s clear that ‘Smile’ was my favourite in the immediate aftermath), but I hadn’t had an episode where my immediate thought at the final credits was “Hell, yeah! I want to watch that again!”

Until now.

‘Knock Knock’ had me gripping onto the sofa fabric like I was nine years old and this was an 18 certificate VHS I’d illiicitly sourced. It gripped me and squeezed at my nerve endings. There were a few moments where I actually had to contain a gasp so that I’d still look manly in front of Mrs Jameson.

And in a way I’m quite annoyed by that reaction.

I’m too much of an old school horror geek not to realise how derivative it all was. The old house, the creeky floorboards, the hormonally charged youths, the monster living in the walls, even thunder and lightning thrown into the mix for no other reason than as a horror movie cliché.

Even the ending, where the whole thing turns out to be the actions of a misguided little boy, was such a mainstay of STAR TREK that FUTURAMA actually spoofed it.

It’s all been done before.

But my word it was done well here.

The direction was superb. If the revitalised Hammer Horror isn’t on the phone to Bill Anderson’s agent this evening I’d be surprised.

The sound-mix was incredible – with every creak, knock and scritch calibrated to maximum scary effect. They were noises to get between your bones. Watching this without them, would be like watching JAWS without the ‘duh-duh duh-duh’.

The FX guys also deserve a cheer. Yes, making creepy-crawlies look creepy sounds like the kind of thing that should be a day’s work on a day when it’s early knock-off for the pub, but they made every one of those little lice menacing to every one of its eight, nine or ten legs. To see a group of them eat a person and then still make an isolated one look just as scary afterwards requires some skill.

Then there’s David Suchet. Obviously he wouldn’t be the weak link in any episode, but he really rose to the challenge here. Managing to be be creepy and tender and solicitous and dangerous all in one go. It was genuinely chilling to watch him regress to a little boy in his final scene. Without make-up or visual tricks, just as if that long-ago child was climbing up from within.

(And P-Cap was great and P-Mac was great,  but that’s really starting to be a given. Although, has there ever been a series regular with less to do than Matt Lucas?)

I’m sure there are some old school horror fans (old school Doctor Who fans too) who will come down hard on this because it is so derivative, because it has been done so many times before. But take it from this old school horror fan (and old school Doctor Who fan), that if they’re done really well, the old scares are sometimes the best.

And finally…..

Is it Missy in that vault? Or is that too damned obvious now? It feels like the kind of thing Moffat would do, but only if there’s some big, grand twist attached.

 

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z

In the last few years, the novels I’ve read with real people as characters have fallen into two categories.

They’re either real people investigating grisly, imaginary crimes (THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER; THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ), or they’re wives of literary figures of the Jazz Age (this; THE PARIS WIFE.) There must have been others on the bestseller shelves in recent years, but if there are, I’m struggling to think of them. Indeed, a quick google search not only failed to throw up anything that might buck the trend, but revealed that there’s actually a cottage industry of authors writing novels about Zelda Fitzgerald. There are currently four – that’s four! – recently published or set for publication.

I hope the others do a better job with the material than Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD. Annoyingly, for a book about two such young and sparkling literary darlings, it’s frequently boring and unforgivably clunky. This is a novel where a character finding herself at one of life’s crossroads, will actually picture herself at a crossroad – just in case the reader doesn’t properly get the idea.

Rather than continue down two different paths – real people investigating murders, or books about Zelda Fitzgerald (or Hedley Hemingway) – it strikes me that these two sub-genres should merge. I think the plodding pace of this book could have been improved considerably by throwing in a couple of grisly murders. Maybe Cole Porter gets it before his time, Hemingway is the obvious subject for Zelda, while Dorothy Parker utters bons-mots and turns out – after Gertrude Stein gets it in the Salon, crushed by the full weight of the Encyclopedia Britannica – to be the killer all along.

If anyone out there is working on their own Zelda Fitzgerald novel and struggling to make it unique then – please – take the idea, it’s yours!

Panicked

“There’s nothing more pleasurable than killing a panicked man,” his calloused fingers gripped tight around the back of my neck. “There’s no greater joy than killing a man who’s given in entirely to fear. Some kill with a rifle, at a remove. I’ve never cared for that myself. I like to look a man in the bloodshot eyeballs and smell his sweat. I like to see him try to envisage all the terrible things I could possibly do to him right then, while knowing that his darkest and most horrific imaginings couldn’t cover all I’m capable of.

“Absolutely I’m a sadist. I know that. I relish it.

“I make sure he knows it too.

“Before I go to work on him, I always give him my smile. It’s my Bastard’s Smile, that’s what I call it. And I know if he hasn’t soiled himself before that moment – if he’s somehow held off the dread of hopelessness – he will certainly lose control of himself then.

“Fear is the key,” his grip loosened on my neck. “Up close, provoking that sick feeling of the wrong kind of adrenalin. And that, my young friend, is why I’m giving you the chance to run now. You might think I’ve underestimated you, that you can escape, that you might – with luck – even live through this day. But I promise I will catch you and, when I do, all you will be able to taste is blood and fear.

“Now,” he licked his fleshy lips. “RUN!”

via Daily Prompt: Panicked

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardans

I’m generally in favour of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2.

It’s amusing when it wants to be (in fact, I think it has more laugh out loud moments than a lot of recent comedies I’ve seen), it’s exciting when it wants to be and it’s far more affecting than I thought it would be. That’s surprising, as if ever there was a film that seemingly wants to strut around with a glib, cocksure, take-nothing-seriously attitude, it’s this one. However, whilst distracting us with the funny stuff, it’s working hard to create a proper emotional arc, the payoff of which feels like a sucker-punch even though it’s been there the whole time.

So, amusing, exciting and a film to tug on the heartstrings as well. What’s not to like?

Well….

(And you surely knew there was going to be a Well…)

Well, all of that above is written with the caveat that this isn’t as good as the first one. Whereas the original was fresh and surprising, this feels more laboured and drawn out.  There really isn’t much plot, but what’s there – wafer-thin as it is – takes a long time to work through. Of course, the film makes up for this by doubling down on the stuff that people liked from the original: the jokes and the interplay between the characters. They’re a great set of characters, so of course we enjoy them riffing off each other. It’s just that even with that interplay of characters – and a large audience primed to like that interplay – it still can’t disguise the fact that the whole is much less inspired this time.

Two final points: one good, one wait and see.

Firstly, if you allow me to just put on my DOCTOR WHO fan hat here and say how much I liked Karen Gillen in this one. As much as I adore Amy Pond, I thought Nebula was one of the weaker parts in the original. She was great when under-playing was called for, but decidedly over-doing it when needing to emote. Here the performance is much more consistently under-played and better for it.

(I’m already aware that there are some who’ll disagree with that praise. I saw the film with the good lady wife, Mrs Jameson, and when I mentioned to her how good I thought Karen was, she said that she found her speaking style thoroughly irritating throughout, before doing such a spot-on impersonation of it that I did find myself doubting my view for a few minutes.)

The other point is that it looks great, like some fantastic Seventies album cover. But, I saw a bit of one of George Lucas’s STAR WARS prequels on TV recently. They similarly have lots of computer generated worlds and, even though they’re only just over ten/fifteen years old, the technology has moved on so much they now look like a film taking place in a bad 2003 videogame. So I fear if it will only be a couple of years before we come back to this and it’s various software-created vistas, and it will be the case of enjoying the jokes, but not really being drawn into the film as it just looks so ridiculously cheesy.

I genuinely hope not, as I’d like to watch my daughter laughing at the jokes and enjoying GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2 in a few years time.

Although, even if it still looks good enough to suck her in, I’m sure it will be the first one on heavier rotation.

Doctor Who Reviews – Thin Ice

Dr Who

Written with no prior knowledge of what’s going to be in the episode – I watch the ‘Next Time’ trailer and make sure I see, hear and read nothing else – and written immediately after my first viewing. This is my unfettered, emotional response to this week’s DOCTOR WHO fare.

I’m flipping loving Bill!

I’m flipping loving Pearl Mackie!

Her performance this week was fantastic. To be fair she hasn’t made a misstep in any of these three episodes, but she was particularly fine tonight. From the wide-eyed wonder as she stared around ice-bound Regency England, to her calling The Doctor out for his perceived callousness, to gradually understanding what it means to be him and finally the anguish of her choice and her desperation to save everyone she could from the ice. Every part of her tonight was mesmerising. There’s a freshness to her performance, an enthusiasm which is just compulsive. Part of that is, of course, that Bill is the new companion, but Pearl Mackie is selling that sense of wonder at being The Doctor’s companion perhaps better than any actor ever has before.

Actually, if we’re throwing acting garlands around, one has to say how good P-Cap was as well. His effortless mixing together of stern and playful is just superb. Plus, The Twelfth Doctor punching a racist is a moment that will live long and joyously in the memory.

The script was good, although I’m not sure how memorable the story will prove to be (it shares a lot of DNA with Matt Smith’s second adventure: ‘The Beast Below’, although there Amy initially makes a different choice to the one Bill does). But the setting was just fantastic, and I mean that in the most literal way possible for a historical story. Of course, the Thames did used to freeze and there were fayres on it, but to see it visualised with elephants and circus acts was like stepping into a whole other magical world. In years to come people might not remember the storyline, but I’ll pretty much guarantee that the kids who see this will remember the DOCTOR WHO set on the ice with the sword swallowers.

There are a few flaws: the villain is poorly written and flatly played; some of the younger kids gave line readings redolent of am-dram or an early HARRY POTTER movie; and some of the effects when the ice broke up were surely stolen from a SyFy channel film of the week. But thanks to the design and the wit of the dialogue and – most of all – the performances, I was undeniably charmed by it.

Roll on next week!

Roll on more Pearl Mackie!