Archive for December, 2016

Darker Times

Posted: December 31, 2016 in Post-Apocalyptic, Published fiction

My new novel is called Darker Times is now available on Amazon UK, Amazon.com and so on and so forth.

A post-apocalyptic melodrama in three parts it’s a story that handles the end of the world in a very intimate fashion. No biker gangs or gun battles, just four people and some secrets trapped by utter darkness. It’s available for just £2.99/$3.71 so why not check it out, remember you don’t even need a Kindle to read it, just the free Kindle viewer app. Below are the cover and blurb.

 

41cjt3bjqelIt’s supposed to be a quiet holiday in the countryside. Grace Fox is looking forward to spending time with her husband, Jude, and she’s hoping romance will blossom between her brother, Martyn and her best friend, Holly.

Their world is thrown into chaos when an ordinary July day is plunged into darkness as a deep, impenetrable night suddenly descends across the globe.

Marooned in a remote cottage, the four watch helplessly as civilisation, swathed in permanent darkness, begins to collapse. As their supplies dwindle and they face external threats, all too soon the cohesion between the four begins to deteriorate as well. Nerves fray, animosities intensify, and there are some secrets even a world of darkness cannot hide.

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Passengers

Posted: December 23, 2016 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.

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“And that, Aurora, is what feminism is.”

In some unspecified future time the starship Avalon is travelling to the colony world of Homestead II. On board are 5000 colonists and several hundred crewmembers, however, because the trip will take 120 years, everyone is in hibernation. An incident at the start of the film starts a chain reaction of events that will see two passengers, mechanic Jim Preston (Pratt) and writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence), woken too early. Unable to go back into hibernation they face spending ninety years aboard the Avalon with only each other and a robot bartender (an excellent Michael Sheen) for company.

The ship is luxurious, they’re surrounded by the grandeur of deep space, and luckily they’re both very attractive, so inevitably romance blooms. However, a dark secret will threaten to tear their love apart, even as a series of mysterious malfunctions threatens to tear apart the Avalon itself.

 

There might be a good idea for a film here, unfortunately, like a drowning man trapped under the ice, it never reaches the surface. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with Passengers, mainly because there’s so many things wrong about it. It irked me right from the start. An opening caption detailing the name of the ship, its crew and destination is a familiar sci-fi trope, but here it’s essentially meaningless because everything it tells us is delivered in dialogue within the first ten minutes. Never trust a film that doesn’t trust its audience to work out what’s going on.

The Avalon is a beautifully rendered ship, corkscrewing through space like a fragment of rogue DNA. Inside it’s about as far from Alien’s cramped, grimy Nostromo as you’re likely to get. This is a luxury cruise ship, and then some. Similarly both Lawrence and Pratt are beautiful people, and we get to see plenty of bare skin from both of them (in fact every time the film starts to drag Lawrence inexplicably goes swimming. She goes swimming a lot). Yet however aesthetically pleasing both the ship and its titular passengers are, it’s a surprisingly bland affair. The inside of the Avalon is like the most banal shopping mall imaginable, and both leads seem to have suffered something of a charisma bypass, which is odd. Increasingly I think Pratt is a bit of a one trick pony (though in fairness he does that one trick—slightly roguish nice guy next door—very well) but its undeniable he has screen presence, and as for Lawrence, I know damn well this woman can knock it out of the park, yet here both of them seem to be phoning it in, particularly Lawrence, but then again she isn’t given much to work with. Basically Michael Sheen lights up the screen more than either of them, and he’s playing a robot.

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“You know we do have a dress code, Sir.”

Things aren’t helped by a plodding script that features leaden dialogue (for all that Aurora is a writer the examples of her writing are laughably bad) and a series of contrived, yet curiously dull, disasters that reminded me of the chompers conversation in Galaxy Quest.

And I haven’t even mentioned the slightly creepier elements of the romance between the two characters yet. I won’t give it away (although it happens early in the film) but suffice to say that their relationship is based on the dodgiest foundation imaginable.

The effects are great, that’s undeniable, and there’s some nice moments involving spacewalks (not quite sure how that works when the ship’s doing 0.5 light speed but I’ll go with it) and a swimming pool when the gravity shuts down, but there’s zero worldbuilding. Neither Jim or Aurora feel like they’re from a future time, and nothing they do or experience to get by feels that different from two people marooned on a cruise ship today. There’s some vague nods towards the corporate greed of the Homestead company, and the nature of Aurora using the trip as effectively a way to travel into the future, but none of this is remotely seen as important when we can be watching beautiful people being beautiful together which seems to be the main crux of the film.

Things liven up a little when someone else eventually shows up, but frankly what we get is another decent actor given nowt to do aside from explain a few things. One imagines the film must have been heavily cut, I doubt Andy Garcia was cast just for a five second wordless cameo at the end.

It desperately wants to be Titanic in space, but it lacks the humanity or excitement of that film, and Jim and Aurora have nowhere near the chemistry of Rose and Jack, even Jim and Aurora’s sex scenes are vapid, so what we’re left with is a perfume advert in space.

The Wikipedia entry describes the film as a romantic science fiction adventure thriller. It’s not very romantic, it’s not very good science fiction, it’s not adventurous and it’s sure as hell not thrilling.

Rogue One

Posted: December 19, 2016 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring Felicity Jones and Diego Luna.

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“Do you think we’ll get medals?”

When the Rebel Alliance get word that the Empire is on the verge of constructing a giant space station with the power to destroy entire planets, they determine to stop this from happening. After liberating Jyn Erso (Jones) from an Imperial prison they plan to use her to help track down her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) the research scientist they believe is responsible for the planet killer. Though Jyn has no idea, the Rebels plan to assassinate Galen.

Along with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Luna) and his irascible robot companion K-2SO (Alan Tudyk practically stealing the whole damn film) Jyn travels to the occupied world of Jedha where she hopes to find Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) a fanatical rebel commander who knew her father. Along the way they meet up with a blind warrior who believes in the force and his gruff companion. They also meet an Imperial shuttle pilot who defected to the Rebel Alliance with a holo-message from Jyn’s father.

As it becomes apparent that the Empire’s superweapon has already been constructed the rag tag group hatch an audacious scheme to acquire the plans to the weapon. If they succeed the Rebel Alliance might have a chance against the so called ‘Death Star’ but if they fail the rebellion is doomed.

 

Modern Star Wars films are a bit like buses. You wait decades for one and then two turn up in quick succession. From someone who remembers waiting three years between Star Wars films, getting one a year takes a little getting used to.

Rogue One is a very different beast from last year’s The Force Awakens however. Whereas TFA followed on from Return of the Jedi, Rogue One instead takes us back to a time before A New Hope, filling in the blanks to explain just how those rebel spies got hold of the Death Star plans that Princess Leia had to hide in R2-D2, as well as explaining just why the Death Star had such an obvious design flaw.

Of course, whether these blanks needed filling in is up for debate, but you can’t fault that it makes for a compelling basis for a film, and given the dearth of Star Wars films should we really complain?

I’ll get the hard bit out of the way first. The good news is that I liked Rogue One a lot, the bad news is that I didn’t love it, at least not on an initial viewing. It’s possible—likely even—that repeat viewings will see it gain in my affection, but on a gut level I can only say this; 12 months ago I walked out of seeing The Force Awakens with a bloody great grin on my face, and Rogue One didn’t remotely engender the same kind of emotional response.

Which doesn’t make it a bad film, because most films don’t have this reaction on me, but does mean I can’t quite agree with the sentiments of some who say it’s the best Star Wars film since 1977. It isn’t. But on the other hand it’s far from being the worst either, so you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Things get off to a slightly ropy start with the absence of an opening crawl, and the lack of John Williams’ iconic theme. I can understand why they were absent but it does serve to make the film seem less epic from the start. When the Rogue One title appears this doesn’t help because it’s kinda small, and isn’t even in bold. Yes this is a standalone film but its’ still a Star Wars film and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was slightly nervous/embarrassed about its heritage right from the start (similar to the absence of the gun barrel in several of Daniel Craig’s Bond films).

The opening third of the film is perhaps the weakest because there’s a lot of set up in terms of characters and worlds and we do seem to bounce around a lot. Thankfully the film does settle down somewhat, and it quickly becomes apparent that, just as A New Hope was a classic tale of farm boys, princesses, wizards and rogues transplanted into space, Rogue One is a World War 2 (and occasionally an Iraq/Vietnam War ) movie set in space.  So early on we get a lot of Rebel officers with stiff upper lips and English accents talking about secret missions and frankly you could have put them in WW2 era British army uniforms and it would have worked just as well. I liked this element of the film, it was nicely handled.

Of the eclectic bunch of characters (more Dirty Half Dozen than a Dirty Dozen) who form our core cast some fare better than others. Jones’ quality shines through, despite Jyn having a backstory that feels very similar to Rey’s in The Force Awakens (young girl left to fend for herself who grows into a tough no nonsense adult) although I do wonder if this was intentional? Jyn has the biggest journey of any character, going from cynic to believer in the space of the film and—aside from a later scene where she’s in disguise and you really notice how tiny she is—Jones firmly convinces as someone who can, and does, handle herself in any kind of fight.

As Andor Diego Luna (who it took me a while to realise was sleazy boyfriend from Blood Father) doesn’t get much back story, but he doesn’t need it because it’s written all over his face in every scene. This is a man who’s seen bad things and done bad things, who’s world weary as hell yet who won’t stop fighting until the Empire is defeated. They’re no Rey and Finn but Jyn and Andor do make for an engaging pair (and no romantic subplot neither).

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“Aren’t you a little short for a Rebel spy?”

As I said earlier, Alan Tudyk is a hoot as K-2SO, an Imperial droid reprogramed to serve the rebellion. In his own way he’s as much fun as BB8 was last year.

Donnie Yen also plays well as Chirrut Îmwe, although blind-warrior-monk-martial-artist isn’t exactly a daring new character type.  Jiang Wen as his partner Baze Malbus fares less well, he’s gruff and has a really big gun and, well that’s about it. Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebellion, is engaging, but we learn practically nothing about him, not even why he chose to defect.

As Jyn’s father Mads Mikkelsen is reliably solid, Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, head of the Death star project makes for a different kind of villain, though he rarely rises above the position of evil project manager. Of course he isn’t the only villain, and it’s no spoiler (I hope) to advise that Darth Vader is back.

Which should be a good thing, and is at times but at others feels like a stumble. Whilst nowhere near the disaster of Revenge of the Sith (NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!) Vader didn’t quite feel right in some scenes, even his costume seemed slightly altered and the voice doesn’t quite ring true all the time (even though James Earl Jones is back) and whilst it’s exciting to see Vader kicking ass and taking names, it does kinda prompt the question of why he was content to let his Stormtroopers take the lead at the start of A New Hope.

Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera is the weakest in the cast, playing some kind of crazy cross between Osama Bin Laden and Frank Booth, and I can’t quite shake the feeling that he had scenes cut, certainly his brain sucking alien pet seems pointless.

The effects are great, although a couple of CGI recreations of certain characters (not saying who) are both exceptional and disturbing in equal measure. Get ready for a lot of uncanny valley, especially given one of these characters is given quite a bit of screen time. One can’t help thinking less might have been more.

When the film finally reaches its third act it’s worth the wait because there’s one heck of a battle going on. Part Normandy landings, part Platoon, part battle of Endor, prepare to see a lot of things (and people) blown to smithereens.

Gareth Edwards direction is good, and I say that as someone who found both Monster and Godzilla a trifle dull. There are multiple action sequences before the big dénouement and all of them are well handled.

This is a very different kind of Star Wars film. These characters aren’t the typical heroes and the film goes to some dark and gritty places—in fact I’m still surprised Disney were on board with this. What this means is that at its best it’s a radical, and welcome, departure from the Star Wars norm rather than a cookie cutter Rebels vs Stormtrooper generic action flick. The downside to this is that at times it doesn’t quite feel like a Star Wars film, and no amount of references to “hope” can change that.

It is exciting however, and at times despite its grit it is laugh out loud funny, though at other times it’ll tug at your heartstrings. In places it’s a little too clever in trying to tie every loose end, and in particular the ending seamlessly segueing into A New Hope feels a trifle too neat. But I’m being really picky because it has the name Star Wars attached. Make no mistake, for all its faults this is a very good film, a hundred times better than dross like Suicide Squad and better than most blockbusters of the last twelve months, it’s just not quite good enough to make it into my top five films of the year, though its damn close, and who knows a repeat viewing or two might alter my view somewhat. It wouldn’t be the first time…

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Tanks for reading my review!!!

clipboard01My new novel Darker Times arose out of an idea I had a decade ago, an idea which eventually merged with another idea to become something very different, yet something that, in essence, was still the same idea I came up with ten years ago.

Bemoaning all the ideas we come up with but never get around to using is something a lot of writers, myself included, talk about, I’ve even seen some consider getting rid of old notebooks of ideas as they imagine they’re never going to use them, but I think Darker Times shows why this is never a good idea. Even fragments of ideas ‘you’re never going to use’ might find a home within a totally new story, a character you’d envisaged for a space opera set in the 25th Century might, with a bit of tinkering, make for an interesting 18th Century pirate (or vice versa).

Darker Times went from being a haunted house story to a post-apocalyptic melodrama, and yet in so many ways it’s still the damn same story!

Let’s start at the very beginning. The year was 2006 and I was on holiday with friends in Egypt. Along with two others I’d plumped for a hike up Mount Sinai, where Moses supposedly collected his stone tablets from God, to witness the sunrise. It was an amazing, if exceptionally tiring, experience, but before I climbed down the mountain, before I saw the sunrise, before I even climbed up the mountain, I came up with an idea.

We were picked up by a coach late at night and advised to try and get some sleep on the drive out to the mountains (because there sure as heck wouldn’t be time for sleep later). I can’t recall if I actually slept or not, I probably dozed at least in the darkened coach, but what I did do was daydream, and that daydream quickly evolved into a story idea that, by the time we reached our destination, had become fully formed, complete with initial sketches of the main characters.

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me atop the mountain with a head full of ideas!

The original story, if I’d written it (I started chapter one), would have been called Ten Photos of Coffin House, and would be a contemporary ghost story set in a small cottage near the tiny village of Blodwel Nave. Four people would visit the cottage for a holiday, but by the end of their stay three would be dead or missing and one would be so severally traumatised that they wouldn’t be able to tell what had happened, and so the only evidence of what had occurred would be ten photos taken on a disposable camera that was found at the scene.

The idea of the book was that an academic (or possibly some pulpish writer of mysteries) would contrive to fill in the blanks based on the photos, and myths and legends relating to the cottage.

I’m not sure it was an idea that could ever really work. The photo conceit seemed like a good idea at the time but I can’t see how it could have worked, outside of getting models to pose for ten photos that could be used as chapter headings. Similarly I might not have been a good enough writer at the time to make it work because the whole point was going to be that maybe there was a supernatural element involved, or maybe it was just that one of the groups went doolally. Nuance isn’t one of my strengths.

But what the initial idea did give me was four characters, most of whom had secrets, and in some instances actively loathed one another, trapped in a confined space.

Like I say, I worked on chapter one and then tossed the idea to one side.

51wpt1jhu1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Flash forward a couple of years and the sadly now defunct American indie publisher Pill Hill Press issued a submission call for post-apocalyptic stories to be published in an anthology inspired by the supposed Mayan prophesy that the world would end in 2012. Given I’ve always had a thing for post-apocalyptic stories (“you don’t say” groaned everyone who knows me) I decided to submit a story. I wanted to come up with something slightly different from the more usual nuclear war/zombie apocalypse/pandemic/asteroid strike/alien invasion kinda thing. In the end I can’t remember quite where the notion originated from, but I decided to go with a future world where, for some unspecified reason, it had got suddenly dark one day and stayed dark.

41hb7ggl6jl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The story that arose was Stranger Times, featuring a mysterious stranger named, er, Stranger, who encounters a community of survivors on the Californian shore. It’s always been a favourite story of mine and I did like the universe, even so it wasn’t something I expected to return to—although as with many stories there was a recurring fantasy that it would be noticed by someone big in publishing who’d commission me to write a whole slew of Stranger novels and pay me millions for the privilege. I’m still dreaming obviously— but then a few years ago another Indie publisher, Fox Spirit, issued a submissions call for their Girl at the End of the World anthologies, and I duly obliged, writing Savage Times, which can be found in Girl at the End of the World volume 2. Savage Times featured a teenage girl surviving in darkened Nottingham.

For another open submission I then wrote Darker Silence (originally titled Silent Times before I decided I’d give all works in this universe the Darker prefix). Darker Silence follows the adventures of a deaf young man in France, and is currently unpublished. This year I’ve also written Darker Sins, a story set in Vegas at the start of the darkness, it’s also unpublished at the moment but…I’m getting ahead of myself.

After writing Savage Times and Darker Silence I decided I really ought to write a Darker novel. I considered several ideas before deciding that maybe it would be good to focus on how a small group of people dealt with the sudden darkness and impending collapse of civilisation.

Now if only I had a cast of characters and a remote location I could use…

Slightly embarrassing to admit that the lightbulb above my head didn’t immediately flare into life, but oh when it did! Suddenly everything slotted together as smoothly as it it’d been planned all along. I had four characters I knew inside out, they had secrets and animosities that would make being stuck in a confined space bad enough, even before you landed an apocalypse on top of this. If anything the darkness worked better as an antagonist than potential ghosts would have.

Of course some other things changed. Coffin House would have been an old property (all the better for ghosties and ghoulies) whereas the cottage in Darker Times became a much newer, prefabricated construction. The eventual fates of each character changed as well, so don’t take the above comment about three of them dying/disappearing and one going nuts as any kind of spoiler, that isn’t how Darker Times ends!

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Inexplicable Dolly pic!

But in so many ways if you strip away the veneer of Darker Times, there’s still a whole lot of Ten Photos of Coffin House underneath. So, the moral is, hoard your ideas, you never can tell when you might end up stitching a few rags of ideas together to make something stylish, just like Dolly Parton and her coat of many colours.

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With the announcement that Michelle Yeoh is going to play a recurring part in the new Trek series, Discovery, it got me thinking. Yeoh was, of course, a Bond girl, starring as Wai Lin opposite Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, so I started to wonder who else counts as both a Bond and a Trek alumni?  The below isn’t intended to be a definitive list, but these were the ones that immediately sprang to mind. Feel free to add any I’ve missed in the comments!

**Warning there are a few spoilers for Bond and Trek here**

Of course, Yeoh might have been the main Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997, but she wasn’t the only one because starring as the doomed Paris Carver was Terri Hatcher, best known for Lois and Clark and Desperate Housewives but, earlier in her career, someone who popped up in the dreadful second season Next Gen episode The Outrageous Okona.

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As most everyone knows Paris Carver comes to a sticky end courtesy of Dr “I could shoot you from Stuttgart” Kaufman, a wonderful turn from talented character actor Vincent Schiavelli (also seen in Ghost, The X-Files and a ton of other stuff). Before he was a villainous doctor with a side-line in celebrity overdoses, however, he was an automated salesman in the The Arsenal of Freedom, a season one episode of TNG.

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Of course, neither Yeoh or Hatcher were the first Bond girls to have done Trek, because Goldeneye’s thigh-squeezingly good henchwoman Xenia Onatopp, Famke Janssen, also did Next Gen, playing an alien who romances Jean Luc Picard in what was only the former model’s second acting role; season five’s Perfect Mate.

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Clockwise from top left: With Connery, hunting Scaramanga, in prosthetics and finally showing up in the holosuite!

When it comes to who’s done the most Bond and Trek, the clear winner must be Marc Lawrence, renowned character actor who played a lot of Mafia gangster roles. He starred in both Diamonds are Forever and The Man with the Golden Gun on the Bond side of things, and in Trek he featured in the Next Generation 3rd season episode The Vengeance Factor, plus the hugely enjoyable DS9 7th season  episode Badda Bing Badda Ba as, you guessed it, a gangster!

 

 

The award for ‘ouch that’s a coincidence’ goes to another renowned character actor, Anthony Zerbe. He starred in Star Trek Insurrection in 1998 as Admiral Dougherty who comes to a sticky end courtesy of a face stretching machine, which is interesting given that almost a decade earlier in Licence to Kill he played Milton Krest who was killed in a decompression tank, a process that saw his face stretching yet again! Talk about typecasting!

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John Rhys-Davies (best known for the Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones franchises) played charming Russian General Pushkin who, despite being KGB was an ally of 007 in 1987’s The Living Daylights. Flash forward ten years and he had a recurring role in Star Trek Voyager as a holographic recreation of Leonardo da Vinci.

 

Of course, not all Russian generals Bond encounters are so friendly. In 1983’s Octopussy General Orlov, played by the irascible Steven Berkoff, wanted to start World War Three. He went on to appear in the Deep Space Nine 5th season episode Business as Usual as a duplicitous arms dealer.orl

Like I said this isn’t supposed to be a definitive list, and I’ll be amazed if there weren’t others, but what’s clear is that Michelle Yeoh isn’t remotely the first person to cross the aisle between these two venerable franchises.

Of course we’ve never had a Bond himself do Trek, but you never know, if Daniel Craig hangs up his PPK and Tom Hardy gets the job this could change!

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