Jumpstart

Wow. Quite a break.

Without particularly planning to, I seem to have neglected this blog for several months, the last post having been written way back in August.  Blame a shift in focus towards working on larger writing projects designed more for publication or production, rather than being posted online, for the long absence.  But I thought it was time I got back to some feature writing to vary things up.  I have to say, I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed doing things like reviews, so hopefully the rediscovery of that pleasure will motivate me to keep at it from now on.  As satisfying as it is to complete long-form projects like novels or plays, there’s every possibility that those won’t be seen by anyone except me for quite a while, so I think it’s healthy to get some writing back up onto blogs and social media (writing more substantial, that is, than ranting Facebook political posts).  In any case, for any poor saps who may have been following my posts regularly and were disappointed by their disappearance, I will do my best not to take such a long pause again.

So, with that out of the way, my first ‘return’ post will be a retrospective (promised way back in my ‘Merlin’ review) of the other contender for my favourite TV show of all time, ‘Smallville’.  Happy reading.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

 

 

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The Perfect Destination

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The sun is starting to feel like fire on my face as I wake up, and at first I assume it’s the blistering heat that’s stirred me out of my dreams.  But then I start to hear the groans, low, pained, strangely defeatist, and I turn on my sunbed to find a sight that startles me up and on to my feet.

Everywhere I look, by the pool, on the beach, as far as I can see across the whole resort, tourists are in some kind of distress, many burnt a frightening red by the afternoon sun, as though someone has accelerated the slow lethalness of the rays to deadly proportions, skin steaming and mouths open in contorted screams, mostly silent as the result of fried vocal cords.  Elsewhere, I see other figures disturbingly emaciated, scantily-clad youths riddled with some ailment, covered in sores and hives, crawling across the tiles and reaching out to no-one in particular.  Others still are trapped on their beds, stomachs bloated to almost ridiculous proportions, bellies hanging out over the sides and hands clutching at their chests as trickles of beer run out of the cans lying knocked over at the base.

I stumble away from those nearest me, moaning and crying and reaching out for me, and start running, desperately, flitting an eye up to the sun every few steps as if anticipating the moment the orb will start to burn through my own skin with sudden speed.  But it doesn’t happen.  I make it down to the beach, to the edge of the water, and on instinct, perhaps simply to get as far away from what I’ve just seen as I physically can, I plunge in, wading through the surf until I’m fully in the sea, head immersed and the waves crashing over the top of me.  I look down at the seafloor below, and my mouth falls open in fresh, disbelieving horror.

Across the ocean floor, more souls, much older, are making their way along, shuffling, struggling, most clad in heavy, drab coats, almost all with bowed heads, eyes dead and disappointed, all optimism apparently crushed from them.  Some are wheeling themselves along in chairs, others depending on crutches, some carrying shopping bags in both hands as tears of isolation flow down their cheeks.  Some, in concentrated groups, line up in queues, waiting in single file for packages being handed out.

A few, the ones with the barest traces of hope still on their faces, look upwards towards the surface, eyes searching as though wondering if things are better up there.  On instinct, I glance up and see brief flashes of legs and arms moving through the water, muffled laughter of children, and I make for the top, swimming my way to the surface and breaking my head above the surf.

The resort is a scene of bliss- sunshine and fun, holidaymakers enjoying the best of summer escapism, splashing in the water, laughing and playing on the beach, drinking on apartment terraces.  Glancing down, I find no sign of anything beneath me, nothing on the sea floor, no movement of lonely souls below my floating feet.  I open my mouth to question, to speak, to ask someone, anyone, if I’m losing my mind, when I feel the burning heat of the sun on my face, and my vision goes blank.

I open my eyes, blink, and find myself stretched on my sunbed.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

The Living and the Dead review

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Much has been made recently of how far the BBC is, or should try to be ‘distinctive’ in this current era of endless commercial channels and online platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Along with Anthony Horowitz’s current cop show ‘New Blood’, ‘The Living and the Dead’ represents a new and interesting experiment by the corporation to try the Netflix model for itself, releasing content as a complete boxset weeks prior to it airing in the traditional weekly format on TV, to allow for so-called ‘binge viewing’.  As far as this reviewer is concerned, they couldn’t have chosen a better series for the project.  Because ‘The Living and the Dead’ is pure class from start to finish, wholly deserving of being devoured all at once (or in this reviewer’s case, 2 episodes a night over 3 days).

In the late 1800s, psychologist Nathan Appleby is drawn home to the family farm after the death of his mother.  Together with his devoted wife Charlotte, he sets about making the farm a truly successful enterprise, planning to have a railway built over the land to enable the village’s access to greater markets.  But there is something at work in the local area, something dark and unknowable, and soon Nathan, already haunted by the drowning of his young son Gabriel, finds himself confronted by eerie visions and apparitions, most troublingly of all a mysterious woman carrying a ‘book of light’.

‘The Living and the Dead’ is a fine English ghost story, evoking the best classic horror fiction, and having been marketed very much as one in all of the trailers and promotional material beforehand.  But coming from the mind of ‘Life on Mars’ co-creator Ashley Pharoah, who also pens the first two episodes, the series pleasingly subverts expectations beyond this already-compelling premise, and a fantastic twist at the conclusion of episode 1 sets the story off in a whole other direction, allowing the modern audience to be simultaneously more aware than, and yet just as confused as the 1890s characters.  The series is beautifully constructed, falling neatly into neither an episodic or serial category.  Although carrying a definite ‘story of the week’ component, events, even from these standalone stories, carry through into subsequent episodes, with the guest protagonists of episode 1 in particular happily remaining significant through the rest of the series, the village and local residents far too connected for a ‘Midsomer Murders’-style disappearance once their stories are concluded.  All of the guest tales are engaging fables in their own right, while also tying together and forming part of a greater whole as the underlying mystery of the series unfolds over six hours.

The writing team complement each other excellently, Pharoah launching the series with an opener that manages to capture the perfect balance between action and contemplation, setting the show up as a thinking man’s ghost story.  But it’s eclipsed by his magnificent episode 2, which proves to be arguably the most emotional of the series, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, boasts the best of the standalone stories.  Its denouement in particular is both brave and heart-wrenching.

Simon Tyrrell picks up the baton admirably with episode 3, another well-constructed standalone, but it’s his work on the finale that truly stands out, a low-key, sparse hour of television, especially coming hot on the heels of the dynamic episode 5, but one that works a treat in its noticeable change of pace, bringing to mind the similarly low-key finale of the BBC’s ‘Merlin’ in its concentration on the central characters and their relationship, to the exclusion of almost all else.

Robert Murphy’s episode 4 is perhaps the nearest the series has to a weak link, though in a series this high-quality, that’s hardly damning.  If the pace and structure sometimes feels a little off or repetitive here, it’s more than made up for by the premise, which culminates in possibly the best (and again, brave) standalone denouement of the 6 episodes.  Peter McKenna, meanwhile, contributes something truly raw and exciting in episode 5, in many ways the most blood-curdling of the six, and one which provides some of the very best individual moments of the series.

The direction, too, is top-class, Alice Troughton crafting a rich, philosophical, believable world with the first three episodes, full of beautiful, atmospheric shots of the village and farmland, and genuinely spine-tingling moments with the various apparitions that haunt Nathan (episode 2 especially raises some definite goosebumps).  The directorial switchover to Sam Donovan from episode 4 onwards, however, is noticeable.  This is both a good and bad thing.  On one hand, it injects a fresh energy and momentum into the series as it builds towards its climax, paying off most spectacularly in the brilliant episode 5.  On the other hand, there’s a subtle but definite sense of continuity loss for this reviewer, as the world of the village, the farm, even the house, feels visually just that bit different from what was previously established.  For many viewers, it’s doubtful this would prove a problem.  For me, though, bothered as I was by the sense of a lost visual continuity in, for example, the ‘Harry Potter’ films, it grated a little.  But only a little.

What a cast.  Again, the word ‘class’ immediately springs to mind, as the actors here have to be among the finest working in British television, rivalling even the terrific ensemble put together for the BBC’s ‘Dickensian’.  This reviewer cannot praise highly enough fellow Northern Irishman Colin Morgan.  Long overdue a leading role following the conclusion of ‘Merlin’, he is extraordinary here, by turns a loving husband and benevolent employer, while barely restraining deep-rooted grief for his dead son, and grappling with a genuine struggle over what to believe about the phenomena haunting his village.  There is an edge to Morgan’s performance here, something this reviewer hasn’t quite seen in any of his previous roles, and by episode 6, this culminates in a superb character study of a man driven to the very brink.  Morgan has expressed in promotional interviews his pleasure at getting to take the character almost to the point of villainy by the end, and his relish is clear to see throughout the final episode.  His confrontation with Charlotte in the kitchen towards the end, as she contemplates joining him forever in his desolation, is the Armagh-born actor at his very best.

Charlotte Spencer, as loyal wife Charlotte, is a true discovery.  Managing to portray both an utterly devoted spouse and an independent spirit, she imbues the part with sheer charm, making her namesake a thoroughly engaging personality full of fun and a zest for life, while also keeping a practical head and knowing what needs to be done for the farm and her relationship’s health and survival.  Right from the opening moments of episode 1 post-credits, we are given a snapshot of a vibrant, devoted, fully-in-love couple, ensuring the viewer roots for them and their happiness as the series unfolds, and making her devastation in the finale as Nathan drifts into madness keenly felt by the audience.  One gets the sense throughout that Spencer hugely enjoyed the part, and this reviewer hopes to see her on screen again sooner rather than later.

Morgan and Spencer are leant wonderful support by a rich array of minor characters and guest stars.  Kerrie Hayes is a warm, likeable, often witty presence as housemaid Gwen, afforded some punch-the-air moments in her support of her employees, particularly in episode 4 (and, very refreshingly, the character gets to be a sexual being without any sense of judgment or punishment all too common in period drama).  Nicholas Woodeson as Denning is the local priest we would all like to have, the moral centre of the show, while also exhibiting compassion and understanding, and, in the end, an open mind to the phenomena plaguing the village.  Next to Morgan’s Nathan, he’s the second most compelling study of a character changed and altered by extraordinary events occurring around him, and Woodeson’s primal scream at the sight of one particular horror in episode 5 may very well be the best, rawest moment of the entire series.  Tallulah Haddon, as Denning’s daughter Harriet, gets to show the best of her talent as the victim of possession in episode 1, creating a sinister, gravelly-voiced villain not unlike Linda Blair in The Exorcist- no bad comparison.  David Oakes, meanwhile, as local landowner William Payne, pours on the charm as Charlotte’s admirer, portraying a convincing rival love interest as Nathan slips into insanity- though not without fascinating glimpses of a less honourable side in the finale.

Robert Emms, as Peter, brilliant earlier in the year in series 2 of ‘Happy Valley’, creates another engrossing portrait of a loner driven into darkness in episode 3, while the excellent Elizabeth Berrington (so chilling in her recent stint in ‘Doctors’), gets to shine as his mother Maud in both that story, and the terrifying episode 5 (even if, in a significant grievance for this reviewer that feels like a continuity error, Peter remains frustratingly absent in the wake of her final, startling fate).  Elsewhere, Malcolm Storry is another fine presence as farmhand Gideon, initially distrusting of Charlotte’s managerial position over the farm, but building up a touching, subtle respect for her as the series progresses.

To say too much about Chloe Pirrie’s character would be to spoil a major component of the series, but suffice to say Pirrie does fantastic work in episode 6 as a woman haunted by demons of her own, and driven to find a way to escape them, while Fiona O’Shaughnessy, as episode 4’s Martha, gives a quietly fascinating performance as a repressed schoolteacher, her final speech during the episode’s denouement making sense of what seemed like a somewhat off-kilter portrayal previously, and moving the audience as her particular burden becomes clear.

Rounding out the cast are some excellent younger actors too, not least Isaac Andrews as episode 2’s Charlie, and Arthur Bateman as Gabriel, responsible for some heart-in-mouth moments in the finale as he menaces Pirrie’s Lara and her young child.

‘The Living and the Dead’ would have worked as a one-off series, unfolding with all the beauty and patience of a classic ghost novel, particularly when viewed in short succession as its release on iPlayer allowed, but the final scene of episode 6 all but guarantees it will return, provided the BBC don’t make an unforgiveable decision to cancel it.  Morgan is the beating heart of the show, a worthy, fantastically-crafted drama for him to finally become a leading man in again, but the talents of Spencer, Troughton, Donovan and Pharoah, along with the supporting cast, would also be greatly missed by this reviewer if it doesn’t return.  It simply has to.  In the vein of all the best ghost stories, it’s a show that stays with you.

More please.

 

*****

 

Atmospheric and scary, but with a huge heart, ‘The Living and the Dead’ displays the best of its leading man’s talent, while nurturing a rich supporting cast, and fantastic writing and directing talent.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Wicca Series review

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‘Wicca’ is what the ‘Twilight’ phenomenon should have been about.

This reviewer isn’t as vehement a critic of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire saga as some, having read the series and found some things to enjoy about it, but, having read ‘Wicca’ several years before in my early teens, it’s hard not to feel that this beautiful, fifteen-book epic by Cate Tiernan was far more deserving of the YA craze that later took off.

Seemingly ordinary high school girl Morgan Rowlands finds her life altered when handsome newcomer Cal Blaire arrives in her hometown of Widow’s Vale, and quickly becomes the object of desire for every girl in school, not least Morgan herself.  When Cal reveals his Wiccan beliefs and decides to form a local coven, Morgan finds herself drawn deeper into his world as she starts displaying a talent for witchcraft herself, leading to conflict not just with her best friend Bree, who also has her eye on Cal, but with rival coven leader Sky Eventide and her cousin Hunter Niall, a Seeker for the International Council of Witches, who is determined to investigate Cal and his mother Selene for possible misuse of magic.

‘Wicca’ (or ‘Sweep’ in the US), although sharing the same Young Adult paranormal DNA as ‘Twilight’, is a richly-crafted world full of well-written and developed characters and in-story atmosphere and logic that most detractors of Meyer’s saga complain that her series lacks.  The world-building and establishment of rules within the story, meshing together elements of real-life Wiccan practice and obviously invented supernatural phenomena is understated, yet hugely impressive, seeping the books in a sense of authenticity, despite the paranormal setting.  The juxtaposition of this hidden world with everyday issues of high school and family life, while hardly uncommon to YA fiction, is a wise move, making the story and characters relatable to their intended readership, and grounding them in a reality the reader can almost see themselves in.  While some real-life practitioners of Wicca have criticised the books for their apparent sensationalising of much of the religion’s rituals, from an objective point of view this reviewer can appreciate the need for dramatic licence for a story that is, at the end of the day, about the supernatural, and it’s abundantly clear throughout that Tiernan intends no offence to real-life Wiccans.  Her aim is to tell a compelling story, and in this, she more than succeeds.

The characters that populate her world are a rich cast, every one of them believable, well-rounded, and undergoing change and growth as the series progresses.  Central heroine Morgan, while just as subject to the natural vulnerabilities and worries of high school life as any real-life teenager, has the sort of backbone critics craved in Bella Swan, especially in the later books, and is the ideal window for the reader into the new, exciting world of witches and magick that she enters.  Besotted with handsome new arrival Cal, but evidently subconsciously aware that something’s not quite right about their relationship, she makes the sort of correct decisions that all too many fictional teenage girls fail to, and there’s a real sense of triumph when she finally gets the measure of him, and makes her choice about how who to trust.  Her horror at uncovering the secrets of her true parentage, and her struggles with her adopted parents over conflicting ideas of faith give us plenty to root for over the course of the series, and her slowburn romance with initial enemy Hunter is one of the true joys of the saga, to the point where her devastation over his apparent fate in final book ‘Night’s Child’ is keenly and heartbreakingly felt by the reader.

Hunter himself is the sort of love interest that typically makes a YA readership swoon, while being at the same time much more understated in his heroism than the likes of Edward Cullen, bringing a quiet strength and reserved quality that pays off all the greater when his guard finally lowers.  The decision to devote some of the later books, or parts of them, to his point of view is a great one, ensuring that by the time he strikes out on his own in Book 10, ‘Seeker’, we’re still fully engaged and ready to accompany him on his journey, despite Morgan’s absence for most of the book.  His conflicting sense of duty and guilt over having to take action against shop owner David Redstone in Book 5, ‘Awakening’, risking alienating Morgan just as they’re starting to grow close, is one of the highlights of the whole series.

One of the series’ best rug pulls is the unmasking of initial love interest Cal as an antagonist, and ultimately reversing his and Hunter’s original positions in the mind of the reader, and it’s to Tiernan’s credit that even after his exposure in Book 4, ‘Dark Magick’, he remains an interesting, three dimensional character, not as wholly bad as it would have been all too easy to write him from then on.  The surprisingly early exit of the ‘Edward’ of the series, less than halfway through, remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the better trajectories of a YA hero due to its unexpectedness, though penultimate book ‘Full Circle’, as the title would suggest, does return to his story.

The series enjoys an impressive collection of villains generally, the decision not to rely on just one antagonist, a la Harry Potter’s Voldemort, proving to be one of this reviewer’s favourite decisions by the author.  From her first boyfriend and his mother, to the very Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader conflict with her biological father (one of the most interesting, well-rounded characters of the whole saga) to her utterly odious half-sister, all of her enemies are intimately connected to Morgan herself and to each other, making her conflicts with them all feel like a natural evolution of her journey and story as they occur, rather than bringing in some external ‘big bad’ purely for the sake of it.

Not that there aren’t some arguable missteps on Tiernan’s part.  For the most part, her choice to tell the story from points of view besides Morgan’s pays off well, from the excellent use of diary entries by characters like Hunter building to whole sections of, or entire books told from his perspective, to the majority of Book 11, ‘Origins’, being told from the POV of Morgan’s ancestor Rose via the device of an ancient journal, to the split-perspective of the finale, ‘Night’s Child’ between Morgan and her daughter Moira.  The decision, however, to devote some of Book 12, ‘Eclipse’, and all of Book 13, ‘Reckoning’, to secondary character Alisa, as interesting as she is, feels just a little too random, a little too much like a whole other story, given that the following two books bring the entire saga to a close.  Placed so late in the series, it can’t help but feel a bit like filler before the buildup to the series finale, Tiernan perhaps temporarily unsure where to go with the series before the misfortune of declining sales made her decide to start wrapping the saga up.  And it’s slightly frustrating to have some later entries like Book 9, ‘Strife’, devote so much time to high school melodrama and parental/child conflict over rather mundane issues like homework, after successfully avoiding this earlier in the series.  The decision to follow the journey of Moira in ‘Night’s Child’, meanwhile, while a more than interesting character in her own right, is initially very jarring stylistically, the book shifting to third person after sticking reliably to first in every preceding one.

These are minor grievances, however, in the overall scheme of things.  This is a saga full of lively, likeable characters and immersive romance, engaging intrigues and mysteries, and sporadic, but always well-earned and exciting action.  It covers impressively mature ground at times, such as conflict over differing faiths, with Morgan’s Catholic parents displaying real difficulty in accepting her practice of witchcraft, as well as the idea that handsome or beautiful people are not always virtuous or trustworthy, the character trajectory of initial dreamboat Cal a refreshing antidote to the outwardly gorgeous = inwardly beautiful take on love interests in ‘Twilight’.  Wicca is the sort of YA phenomenon that teenagers deserved to have, and this reviewer still craves the day that a film or TV adaptation finally sees Morgan Rowlands, Hunter Niall and their supporting cast come to life in the flesh.  It would be, to pardon the pun, magic.

 

*****

 

A well-written, richly crafted supernatural world, full of relatable characters, sweeping romance, impressive twists, and all seeped, appropriately, in magic and atmosphere.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris