REVIEW: LITTLE MONSTERS

Alright. I admit it. I’m a MASSIVE Lupita Nyong’o fanboy. I’ll watch anything that she stars in*, so when I got wind of a comedy horror movie that had her name above the title, I thought, “Yes please!”

Rather disappointingly, Little Monsters bypassed the cinemas where I live so I was denied the pleasure of a big screen viewing, and that’s a real shame as I found it hugely enjoyable.

Alexander England plays Dave, an ultra-selfish, washed-up musician who’s just broken up with his girlfriend and is, to use a very British phrase, on his arse. In a fit of self-pity he imposes himself on his sister, crashing on her couch.

One morning, she forces him to take her young son Felix to school and it’s there that he claps eyes on his angelic teacher Miss Caroline, played by an effervescent Lupita. Instantly besotted, he volunteers to help escort her class on an outing to some sort of outdoor attraction. Meanwhile, there’s been a zombie outbreak at a nearby military facility and soon the place is overrun.

Lupita Nyong’o is a mesmerising screen presence and it was a joy to behold her, armed only with a ukulele, morphing from ‘schoolteacher’ mode to ‘protector’ mode, doing everything and anything she could to keep her kids safe while also trying to convince them that the whole thing was just a game, even threatening a sleazy children’s entertainer (played by Josh Gad) with physical violence if he doesn’t play along.

This is a stupendously entertaining film and a lot more gory than I was expecting. Even though it’s primarily a comedy, director Abe Forsythe doesn’t shy away from the splatter, with zombie’s heads exploding and/or being cut off at regular intervals. There’s some great gags in her too, including a zombiefied sock puppet and the zombies joining in with a game of ‘If you’re happy and you know it’.

Needless to say, by the end Dave has learned the meaning of responsibility and is now a good example to his nephew Felix. Also, he gains Miss Caroline’s approval. But thanks to very likeable performances from all the leads his journey never feels hackneyed.

If they ever decide to make a sequel to this, I’ll be first in the queue. And hopefully this time it’ll be at a cinema.

*With the exception of that latest Star Wars trilogy. I have no intention of ever sitting through that again.

“I actually wrote a good book!” – the week DEEP LEVEL went on tour

On Monday 22nd February my debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL packed a suitcase, said goodbye and headed out on tour, leaving his tearful daddy (ie me!) behind.

It was a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was keen to see what kind of critical reaction my baby boy would get from book bloggers and reviewers. But on the other, I was terrified to see what kind of critical reaction my baby boy would get from book bloggers and reviewers.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried because the reviews were all great. Every. Single. One of them.

Now, it goes without saying that I already thought my book was good. Of course I did. I never would have sent it out to publishers if I didn’t think it was. But when you find out that OTHER people think it’s good – overwhelmingly so – now THAT’s a great feeling. In fact, it’s the best.

In case you don’t know, DEEP LEVEL is the story of four friends who set out to explore a system of secret Victorian underground train tunnels. However, they soon discover that some things are secret for a reason. It is, as previously stated, a horror novel, and what I found most heartening about the reviews was that many of them started with something along the lines of: “Now, I’m no horror fan, but…” and then went on to heap praise on it.

I loved the fact that my horror novel was appealing to non-horror fans. When I read those comments I knew I had done something right. Here’s a few choice quotes…

“With characters who share humorous banter, a creepy and unsettling locale, and a fascinating plot that will keep you on your toes, Deep Level is a book fans of the horror genre should definitely pick up.” – jazzybookreviews.com

“Wow…just, wow, this is an extremely well written debut, it’s intense, atmospheric, spine chilling and makes your skin crawl in places but is also laced with moments of humour.” – nickislifeofcrime.blogspot.com

“Truly sinister and unnerving, this is a great book for those who like their horror malevolent and greedy.” – ramblingmads.com

“The suspense in this novel is amazing. It was completely unsettling and downright creepy. I think what makes horror novels so great is when they get under your skin. That’s what Deep Level does.” – jessicabelmont.wordpress.com

“I was hooked from the end of Chapter 1 and the tension grows so intense but is sprinkled delicately with humour in just the right places.” itgirlworld.co.uk

There were loads more, but I don’t want to bombard you with too much awesomeness.

The tour was arranged by Rachel at rachelsrandomresources.com and she got me a total of 18 reviews and 3 Q&As over 7 days. I was blown away by that. I would definitely recommend her if you have a book to publicise.

Over the course of that week, DEEP LEVEL was read about by thousands of people who may not otherwise have heard of it, and for that I am very grateful. But what was just as valuable was the validation I felt as the reviews came pouring in day after day. I actually wrote a good book. I know that because everyone else thinks so.

SALEM RECOMMENDS: THE CRY OF THE LAKE BY CHARLIE TYLER

If I ever meet Charlie Tyler in person I’m going to keep a safe distance.

A lake on the surface is calm and serene, but underneath it is a dark and dangerous place. Perhaps the same could be said of Tyler. Friendly and accommodating on the outside but a raging hellstorm of murderous intent within. Or at least, she is if this, her debut novel, is anything to go by.

Right from the off the reader is thrown in at the deep end (pun intended) with a body that needs disposing of. From then on things only get worse. This unfortunate victim has been killed for no other reason than to frame an innocent man. So far so cosy crime. But before you settle down with a mug of cocoa, looking forward to that old trope of the investigating detective gathering his or her suspects together for the inevitable revelation, just know that things don’t stay cosy for long.

In The Cry of the Lake, even the secrets of secrets have secrets, and nothing is as it seems. The story demands your attention but never loses you, and with every revelation you feel yourself getting dragged down deeper and deeper into the murky depths of madness and despair. Also, the characters are richly drawn and the author doesn’t compromise on making them complex and multi-layered.

This is a brutal read and is never less than utterly compelling. By the time I finished it I felt like I needed to come up for air. And I’m only joking about Charlie. I know for a fact she is a sweet and accommodating person. However, I think we should all be grateful that she exorcises those dark thoughts of hers in her writing, otherwise we’d all be in trouble!

ADVENTURES IN RADIO ADVERTISING pt.2

When you work in radio advertising, as I do, there’s a certain kind of horror that descends on you whenever a client says: “…and I’d like my niece to voice my ads.”

Just to clarify, it’s not just nieces voicing commercials we fear. It could be any relative/friend/acquaintance of the client. Ads should always be voiced by professional voice over artists, or at the very least by the clients themselves, if they’re outgoing and confident enough. But in this particular case it happened to be a niece.

The business in question was a day nursery, and the instant those words left the owner’s lips I felt my whole body slump. Oh, here we go, I thought. How am I going to let him down gently?

“So, does your niece have any experience in acting?” I asked.

“I should say so,” the client replied. “She’s Joanna Page.”

Wait up. You don’t mean THAT Joanna Page? Joanna Page of Gavin and Stacey and Love, Actually fame?

“Yes. THAT Joanna Page.”

My heart didn’t so much skip a beat as sprint up to the top of a large hill and yell for joy.

By this point we were well into December and Christmas was threatening to put the brakes on commercial production, so I had to move fast. The client gave me her number and told me she was expecting a call. So I called and she answered in the only way Joanna Page could, with a chirpy “Hiya!”

I asked where she was based, expecting her to answer “London”. “London”, she replied. I asked when she was free. She gave me a date and I said I’d book a studio and we’d do the voice over session via ISDN.

To the uninitiated, ISDN is a broadcast quality line that allows us to record VO artists remotely. So I could book her into a studio in London and direct and record from my little studio in Swansea. Easy peasy.

However, there was a problem. But then, when there’s no problem there’s no story, so let’s all be grateful. The problem was that our ISDN kit was being ripped out and replaced on the one day she was free. What were the odds?

I had two options. Option one was to trust another producer/engineer to produce the session for me. I wasn’t keen on this as only I knew how I wanted my scripts to sound. I wouldn’t even be able to listen in via phone because there’s no signal in the studios because of the soundproofing.

Option two was to get in my car and zoom up to London to produce the ads myself. So that’s what I did. But in the meantime, there was the matter of the scripts. I worked fast and bashed out a few that capitalised on Joanna’s uber-bubbly public persona (try saying that three times) and got them approved by the client. I also had a few tag lines and station links for her to record. I was all set.

I didn’t actually drive INTO London. That would have been crazy. Instead, I drove to Reading, parked up and got on the train. So much more convenient. I had ‘borrowed’ a studio from TalkSport and by the time I got there Joanna was waiting for me in the canteen. We had a little bit of a chat and then one of the engineers came up to show us to our studio. Heads turned as we were led through the sales office.

Yes. That really was Joanna Page. Her of Gavin and Stacey and Love, Actually fame?

Needless to say, she was a little bundle of Christmassy joy and the voice over session was a blast. When we were done I gave her a Christmas prezzie from my station and a bag of Welsh cakes from me. I never go anywhere without Welsh cakes. Then we wandered outside as her husband was due to pick her up. He turned out to be none other than actor and VO artist James Thornton, best known for starring in Emmerdale.

Then I got the train back to Reading, jumped in my car, aimed it in the direction of Swansea and was back in work that afternoon. There wasn’t much of the afternoon left by that point, but one likes to show willing. It had been a monumentally tiring day with about six hours spent on the road. But it had also been a very rewarding one. The ads sounded ace, and that’s all that matters.

In radio no two days are ever the same, and this was definitely one of the most memorable. On the plus side, to this day, whenever a client says they have a relative who can voice their ads for them, I no longer feel a sense of horror fall over me.

ADVENTURES IN RADIO ADVERTISING pt.1

When we do a celebrity voice advertising campaign in radio, this is how it usually works…

A business wants to advertise. We come up with an idea. We think, “Hey! You know who the perfect person to voice this campaign would be?” We contact their agent and get a quote. We pitch it to the client. They love it. We book the studio time with the celeb in question, giving ourselves plenty of time to nail down the scripts, and we get to work.

But that’s not how it happened in this case.

Fairyhill Hotel on the Gower Peninsula in south Wales was relaunching and wanted a brand new campaign to reflect the new identity. Nigel (the owner) and Shakira (the marketing bod) came into the station to have a chat about it. That chat went something like this: “We’ve got Joanna Lumley booked into a studio in Soho next week. We need a campaign.”

The campaign consisted of six 30-second scripts and a whole bunch of taglines to cover pretty much any eventuality. Cue a week of coming into work early and staying late in order to get them done, as well as all the other campaigns I was working on.

I told my mother I was working on a campaign to the voiced by the one and only Joanna Lumley and that I’d be going up to London for the recording session, and she asked me a really bizarre question. She said, “How are you going to cope with that?”

How was I going to cope? It’s not like I was going to be coming under sniper fire or anything. Weird.

Anyway, come the day of the recording session and we still weren’t 100% happy with the scripts. Shakira, Nigel and myself worked on them all the way to London on the train, finishing off the last one as we were pulling into Paddington Station. Before jumping into a taxi, Shakira emailed them on to the studio to be printed out in time for our session.

We arrived and took a seat in reception. At 1pm, right on schedule, Joanna Lumley arrived. Before we commenced with the recording we enjoyed a bit of chitchat and Joanna treated us to a history lesson from her time growing up in Kashmir. What a day!

The campaign was in the style of the classic M&S ads so we had Joanna going into pornographic detail about the sumptuous dishes served at the new Fairyhill. She said voicing all those scripts about food made her hungry, but that was okay because I’d brought a bag of Welsh cakes along for her. I brought some for the producer too. He said he hadn’t had a Welsh cake since his university days in Aberystwyth, so he was very grateful. I had a bag for the receptionist as well. Welsh cakes all round.

We got the session done just in time and Joanna left at 2pm on the dot. What a pro. Then myself, Nigel and Shakira headed out for a celebratory lunch in old London town. Joanna had been just as lovely and charming as we’d always imagined and we knew that the commercials were going to sound amazing.

Later, Nigel and I got the train back to Swansea (Shakira was staying over). We were in the buffet car when who should come staggering in from first class but actor Toby Jones. He appeared to be very drunk. Nevertheless, this was not preventing him from buying some more booze. If he hadn’t been quite so sozzled I would have introduced myself and said hello as I, in a very loose sense, had worked with him once before. I was an extra in Captain America: The First Avenger in which he played Doctor Zola.

So, it may have been a fraught week of long hours and little sleep but I didn’t care. I love the unpredictability and mania of my job. The only thing that mattered was that the campaign was a success and got people talking. For months afterward, whenever I told people who I worked for, they’d invariably ask: “Is that really Joanna Lumley on the Fairyhill ads?”

It sure was.

SALEM RECOMMENDS: LATER by STEPHEN KING

In horror maestro Stephen King’s latest (see what I did there?), a young boy who lives with his single mother realises he can see dead people.

Sound familiar?

But don’t be fooled because The Sixth Sense this ain’t. This is far more visceral stuff. Our young hero is Jamie Conklin, but he doesn’t stay young for long. As we follow him into his teens he learns to accept his gift and use it to do good deeds, like finding a missing wedding ring for an elderly neighbour who has just lost his wife. His mother is a literary agent (I love how King never strays far from the book world) whose business seems doomed following the death of her number one client. His mother has a girlfriend, a dirty cop called Liz, who brings to the story a generous helping of noir menace.

Jamie’s world takes a turn for the bizarre and terrifying when Liz intercepts him from school one day to help her prevent an atrocity being committed. A psycho who has been terrorising the city has taken his own life, but not before planting a bomb that’s set to go off god knows where and god knows when.

Liz wants Jamie to help her find the dead guy’s ghost and get the location of the bomb out of him before lives are lost. But, of course, this being Stephen King, things are not quite that simple.

This is King’s third book in the Hard Case Crime series and is told in the first person, which lends a cool swagger to the narrative without losing the author’s signature groove. The protagonist is likeable and the story zips along at a satisfying and exciting pace. Also, crucially, the sense of threat he faces is palpable and leads to a thrilling denouement that features a genuinely gasp-inducing twist.

I really enjoyed living in Jamie’s world while reading this book. My only complaint would be that it left me wanting more. But, thinking about it, I’m not sure that even qualifies as a complaint at all.

CHANGE ANTHOLOGY

Greetings friends. I hope this correspondence finds you well.

My writing group has released an anthology entitled CHANGE. It features two short stories by my good (and bad) self, albeit under my mortal name of Rhydderch Wilson.

Here’s an excerpt from one of them…

***

When Luke woke up his first thought was that it was Saturday. Happy and relieved, he allowed himself the luxury of drifting back off to sleep. As he did so, he felt the warm body of his wife Daphne snuggle in behind him.

            When he awoke for the second time that morning his bladder felt ready to burst, so he got up. After he had finished in the bathroom he went downstairs and put the kettle on. Deciding that the house could do with some waking up too, he switched on the radio and opened the conservatory windows. Already the sun was up. It was going to be a nice day.

            He drifted back upstairs and stood in the bedroom doorway for a moment. Hazy sunbeams were bleeding in through the gap in the curtains. Daphne blinked awake.

            “Kettle’s on,” said Luke.

            Daphne stretched lazily and serenely. “What time is it?” she asked.

            “Gone nine.”

            “Does that officially qualify as a lie in?”

            “It does.”

            Daphne sat up. The duvet fell from her body to reveal that her arms were no longer there. Luke’s blood turned to ice.

            “Chilly up here,” she said, her blond hair glowing in the morning sunlight. “Could you pass me my dressing gown?”

            Frozen, all Luke could do was stare. He tried to speak but no words were forthcoming. His extremities tingled with pins and needles.

            “Darling? Dressing gown?” Daphne repeated.             Feeling as if his body were moving through warm water, Luke retrieved the fluffy pastel blue dressing gown from the hanger on the back of the bedroom door. Every muscle turned to jelly as he watched his wife, now armless, slip from the bed as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Then she approached, turned and stood waiting with her back to him. Luke just stood there, his mind as arid as a desert, his mouth tinderbox dry, his thoughts drowned out by a chorus of vultures.

***

The collection is the third of a successful series of anthologies and is partly inspired by the events of the 2020 pandemic. It distils the best of the creative thought from that year on change of all kinds.

It includes everything from a man changing in the sea, to the planting of seeds and watching them grow; the change of growing up, to career change and homelessness through poetry, prose, humour and serious thought.

It’s available from Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.

Swansea and District Writers Circle is a group of dedicated amateur and professional authors from south Wales who meet regularly to exchange ideas and learn from their peers.

DEEP LEVEL IS GOING ON TOUR

Over the past couple of months I’ve been busily sending books out to reviewers and completing questionnaires for bloggers – and now the time has almost come…

My debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL is embarking on its first ever tour.

Like any proud parent about to see their child off into the unknown, I’m a swirling cocktail of pride and terror. But I have confidence in my creation and I know that it won’t let me down.

So, if you’ve been wondering what makes me tick (or sick) as a writer, or want to get the lowdown on DEEP LEVEL, visit one or more of the listed blogs.

See you there.

REVIEW: EWOKS – THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR

Check out the above poster. See that mean-looking human dude in the middle brandishing a blaster? I have absolutely no idea who that is, and I only watched this film last night. He is literally NOT IN THIS MOVIE, and yet he has pride of place on the poster. But why?

One possible explanation for this glaring anomaly is that the producers (ie Lucasfilm) wanted to send out a signal that Battle for Endor was going to be a far livelier affair than its predecessor Caravan of Courage, and I am happy to report that it is.

This Ewok sequel, released in 1985, is less magic and whimsey and more action and adventure. Gone is the dreary Burl Ives narration from the first film, thankfully. Also, it’s goodbye magic stones, cursed ponds and fairies. The only concession to fairytale is the presence of an actual wicked witch, called Charal. However, it’s not all bad as she’s played by Siân Phillips who is all kinds of wonderful in everything she’s in (including the original movie version of Dune which came out the previous year).

Battle for Endor sets out its stall early with the deaths of three fourths of the Towani family (who we saw shipwrecked in the first film) at the hands of a pack of horrid Marauders. These Marauders take sole survivor Cindel, along with all her Ewok buddies, prisoner. However, Cindel and Wicket escape and flee into the forest where they meet grouchy old hermit Noa (played by Wilford Brimley) and his little friend Teek, who is a small, cute furry creature with big ears who can run extremely fast. I’m talking Quicksilver from the X-Men fast here.

It’s quite possible that Wilford Brimley was method acting on this production as he apparently remained grouchy even after the cameras had stopped rolling. I remember reading that things got so bad that George himself had to be called in to have a quiet word in his ear.

Anyway. after eating porridge and muffins and picking flowers, our fantastic foursome head off to the Marauders’ castle to rescue the imprisoned Ewoks where all kinds of Mayhem ensue. So as I say, there’s a lot more going on here than in the first one.

The chief of the Marauders is Terak (played by Carel Struycken) who makes for a fantastic baddie. He and his cohorts are all suitably grotesque, loads of fun to watch and add a level of threat that was missing from Caravan of Courage. Also of interest are the beasts of burden they use, called Blurrgs. They were apparently based on one of the unused tauntaun designs from The Empire Strikes Back and later turned up in The Mandalorian.

The climactic showdown is enjoyable and exciting and rivals the one seen in Return of the Jedi. Actually, that was a complete lie, but it really is enjoyable and exciting, and we do get to see something we didn’t in ROTJ: Ewoks going into battle armed with blasters!

In addition to the nifty old-school stop-motion FX there is plenty of gorgeous matte work to admire. There are some very impressive sets too, especially in the Marauders’ castle and Noa’s crashed spaceship, which lend the film a bigger feel than its predecessor. Also, crucially, it has a good dose of humour. Oh, and a dragon!

It was cowritten and directed by brothers Ken and Jim Wheat who went on to make sci-fi horror classic Pitch Black. Like Battle for Endor, that movie also featured a band of crash survivors fighting for their lives on an alien planet, but featured far less fur.

Warwick Davis, who returns as Ewok favourite Wicket, said there was a treatment in the offing for a third Ewok movie, but sadly it never came to pass. That’s a shame, because I enjoyed this one so much that when it was over I found myself feeling hungry for more – and I suppose there’s no greater compliment than that.

REVIEW: APPIUS and VIRGINIA by GE TREVELYAN

Warning: this review has more spoilers than a boy racer convention!

The story of Appius and Virginia is as interesting as the story in Appius and Virginia.

It was the first novel by Gertrude Trevelyan, already an award-winning writer, and was published in 1932 to (mostly) stunning reviews. It’s about a woman who buys a baby orangutan with the intention of raising him as a human being. Living in seclusion, Virginia teaches him over the years how to read and how to speak, albeit at a basic level. At 9 years-old and believing that he is a man, Appius’s world falls apart when he sees an image of an orangutan in a children’s book about animals labelled ‘ape’.

Appius and Virginia is for the most part a study of loneliness. Virginia, 40 years-old and unattached, at first sees raising the baby ape as nothing more than a project. An experiment for which she will one day be lauded. But as time goes on, and as her friends drift further into the past, she comes to see him as her very own child and dreams of him one day going to university and achieving great things.

However, that is not how Appius sees things. A chasm exists between how both characters perceive each other and the world. Appius barely has any grasp of concepts such as “past” and “future”, and so Virginia’s dreaming is all in vain.

It’s a compelling, original and tragic story. Trevelyan digs deep into the psyches of both Virginia and Appius and we turn every page knowing that such an “experiment” cannot possibly end well.

Virginia throughout the story projects her own aspirations onto the young ape, misreading almost all his behaviour patterns. We are never allowed to forget that despite his thin veneer of domesticity, Appius is a wild animal. This side of him is always there, barely contained beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment. Eventually of course, it does and the author makes no concessions to softening the inevitable blow.

GE Trevelyan went on to write seven more books, but in October 1940 she was injured in a German bombing raid and died about four months later. She was described in her death certificate as “Spinster – an authoress”.

After her death her novels fell out of print and were sadly forgotten. Until now, that is. Appius and Virginia is once again available thanks to the Abandoned Bookshop, a publisher whose “mission is to track down forgotten books of the past and re-publish them for a modern audience.”

And thank goodness they did.

I finished reading this book in the hope that others by GE Trevelyan will also be resurrected. Thank you, Abandoned Bookshop.