Film review – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Fantastic Beasts film series has not exactly been a success, at least as far as critical reception goes. The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was merely mediocre; the second, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, was an absolute disaster that left me both angry and laughing at how bad it was. With this third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it does at least seem like Warner Bros took onboard some of the criticism; while J.K. Rowling got the sole screenwriting credit for the first two films, here she shares it with Steve Kloves, who wrote the scripts for most of the Harry Potter films. So, with a more experienced screenwriter helping out, does The Secrets of Dumbledore mark a turning point and give hope for this series? Well….no, not really.

Granted, it’s a definite improvement on Crimes of Grindelwald (not that that’s saying much); Kloves’s influence on the script is clear, as the story feels a lot more cohesive and does flow better. The trouble is, it’s still not an especially well-presented story. As Story Writing 101 tells us, a protagonist needs a goal, but as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his allies set out at the start of this film, it’s not made clear to the audience just what they are trying to achieve. Yes, we know they want to stop Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), but we’re left to gradually work out exactly what they’re stopping him from doing and how.

I had gone into this film with cautious optimism as the trailers did suggest some intrigue, but in fact the first and second acts are rather boring, partly because of the aforementioned unclear overall goals of the characters. The first bit of interesting action doesn’t come along until about an hour in. The film doesn’t even look very nice, presented mostly in a dull, faded hue. A few isolated scenes that hint at more interesting world-building and character development, and even indulge in the same sort of wild magic as the original Harry Potter films, just highlight how this one is failing to live up to its potential. The third act, at least, is significantly stronger with an established direction; meanwhile, the big revelation from the end of Crimes of Grindelwald – which greatly annoyed me at the time – is explained here in a way that at least isn’t as major a violation of canon as it first appeared, but does still feel a bit forced.

With Johnny Depp having been dropped from the series, Mads Mikkelsen takes over as our villain, Gellert Grindelwald. He immediately scores points for not having such ridiculous hair as Depp, and his performance is certainly a better fit for how Grindelwald was described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the parallels of his maneuvering in this film with the rise of Nazism in Germany – happening around the same time in-universe – are clear without being shoved in the audience’s face. Professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) is the strongest addition to the cast, providing many of the film’s most enjoyable moments. Otherwise, the characters feel pretty underdeveloped: Credence (Ezra Miller) doesn’t really feel essential here despite how important he was supposed to be in the last film; and the resolution of Jacob and Queenie’s relationship ends up being rushed, though Alison Sudol does put on a convincingly conflicted performance with what screentime she’s given.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is disappointingly vanilla, and not especially magical. It happens to end in a way that suggests Warner Bros are reconsidering adding more films to the series, and if they decide to just leave it there, I certainly won’t complain. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Film review: The Batman

With continuity in the DC Extended Universe having become so messy that it’s difficult to keep track, Matt Reeves’s new film The Batman keeps things refreshingly simple by steering clear of any connections to the DCEU and – for now, at least – standing alone as another reboot for the Dark Knight. So, after so many other live-action Batman films, what does Reeves bring to the Bat-Table?

When this film begins, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been active as Batman for two years, long enough to become a source of fear for Gotham City’s criminals, and form a tense alliance with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Now he has a new case to deal with, when the mayor of Gotham is murdered by a masked man calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano), who appears determined to draw Batman into some sort of twisted game. As the Riddler continues to target other city officials, Batman follows the clues and is led deeper and deeper into a complex web of corruption and painful truths.

Clearly trusting that the audience don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down for the umpteenth time, Reeves drops us into a point in Batman’s career where he’s established enough to have gained a reputation, but not so established that he’s fully found his feet; the police and public’s general mistrust of him makes for some extra conflict, and he occasionally questions whether he’s really making a difference for the better. The overall plot – Batman’s pursuit of the Riddler and the deeper revelations that this leads to – takes the form of an intriguing crime thriller which grows increasingly complicated as the film progresses, though it’s not too difficult to keep track of the main threads. It’s a long film at nearly three hours, but most of the time it keeps moving at a satisfactory pace. It differs from the likes of The Dark Knight in that it’s very plot-driven and any character exploration or development is kept to a minimum – for the most part, it’s just Batman doing his thing. With this approach, the film is still mostly fulfilling, just not as much as it could have been; maybe Reeves wasn’t sure if he could contribute much new material in terms of exploring who Batman is at his core.

In terms of aesthetics, this film gets live-action Batman just right; there’s no rubber suit or chain-smoker voice here. The Batsuit looks like effective armour, while still retaining the recognisable Batman look. This version makes me think of the Batman from the Arkham video games more than anything else; not just in terms of appearance, but also the array of interesting gadgets that Batman employs specifically for detective work. Gotham City itself appears to be a balance between the modern look of Christopher Nolan and the run-down cesspool of Joker, with a dash of more gothic architecture here and there. The city generates its own grim atmosphere, with the most of the film taking place in the dark, though thankfully it’s never so dark that we struggle to see what’s going on – unless the director intends it that way. I particularly liked one of the early scenes where we see a series of criminals going about their business in Gotham, then fearfully staring into the shadows, half-convinced that Batman could emerge from any of them.

Beforehand, I did have my doubts about Robert Pattinson; as versatile as he undoubtedly is, I wasn’t sure he had the look for Batman or Bruce Wayne. In the event, the latter hardly matters, as Pattinson spends most of his time onscreen in costume (this film is the opposite of The Dark Knight Rises in that regard). He is at least able to pull off Bruce Wayne the brooding recluse well enough, but I’d like to see what he does with Bruce the playboy in future films. In the meantime, Pattinson fits into the Batsuit very nicely, and delivers everything that we expect from Batman as a character: stoic, intimidating, unwilling to let his emotional walls down, and determined to deliver justice whatever the cost to himself.

Paul Dano is a far cry from the traditional green-suited Riddler who lives to fuel his own ego; instead, he’s more of an emotionally unstable basement-dweller, and is certainly volatile and dangerous enough to make for an effective villain. True crime buffs – or fans of David Fincher – will easily recognise the influence of the real-life Zodiac Killer on this version of the Riddler, from his costume to his love of ciphers and cryptically taunting the authorities. All of the side characters play their parts very well: Zoe Kravitz as a cynical and combative Selina Kyle, Jeffrey Wright as a Jim Gordon who is prepared to work with Batman without being able to fully trust him, and Colin Farrell being practically unrecognisable as the Penguin, who manages to be a highlight as one of the side villains.

The Batman is definitely one of the better Batman films – certainly on par with Batman Begins, if not The Dark Knight – and I look forward to seeing what comes next for this version of the character. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Looking Back on 2021

2021 has felt like a fairly conservative year, which I suppose is only to be expected. With the Covid-19 pandemic still very much ongoing, there was a certain cautiousness about getting out and doing things even when restrictions were lifted. Now, with the Omicron variant, the future still feels uncertain, and all you can do is be resilient, take sensible precautions (including vaccinations), and make the best of things as they stand. In spite of everything, I’ve been able to do quite a lot this year that I’m pleased with:

  • I completed a second draft of a novel for the first time – am currently working on the third draft.
  • Running has been going really well, especially after losing the weight I put on from lockdown comfort eating. I completed an in-person half marathon event for the first time, and went to two non-local Parkruns; I’ve also started volunteering at Parkrun.
  • I read or listened to 83 books – and I’ve got one more audiobook I’m expecting to finish before the New Year.
  • In the summer, my dad and I walked a 21 mile walking/cycling route – it took us 6 hours and 34 minutes, including a couple of breaks.
  • I went on another UK-based holiday, where I walked around London and also had a daytrip to Oxford. Easily the highlight was going to see the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, which has a very impressive collection of aircraft, including my all-time favourite, the SR-71 Blackbird (the only one on display outside the United States).

Favourite Films Released in 2021

  1. Free Guy
  2. Spider-Man: No Way Home
  3. Tick, Tick…Boom! (Netflix)
  4. The Mitchells vs The Machines (Netflix)
  5. Eternals
  6. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
  7. The Suicide Squad
  8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  9. Black Widow
  10. Encanto

TV Series Watched in 2021
The best TV I’ve watched this year has been on streaming. The Marvel TV series on Disney Plus have all been worth a look at the very least, with WandaVision and What If being my favourites. I also enjoyed Squid Game (Netflix) and For All Mankind (Apple TV).

Favourite Fiction Read in 2021

07. The Vampire Lestat – Anne Rice
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked this book much more than its predecessor, Interview with the Vampire. Lestat is undoubtedly a more compelling narrator than Louis, and while the prose is still thick, it always has interesting things to say. I liked how the book presents the different philosophical and spiritual viewpoints of its characters, and how there are vampires who have wildly different lifestyles and are perceived in different ways by themselves and others, despite coming from the same blueprint. It even seems to incorporate the shift between the monstrous, skulking vampire of old and the more recent popular incarnation that can move among mortals and present itself as desirable.

06. The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
When I try a new fantasy novel, it’s often hard for me to predict whether I’m going to enjoy it or not: there are some well-regarded ones like The Name of the Wind or Assassin’s Apprentice that I just couldn’t get into. I decided to try The Blade Itself as it was one of those recommended for readers of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, my favourite fantasy series set in another world. This was definitely a solid recommendation.
The Blade Itself takes a lot of old ideas – plenty of familiar fantasy archetypes are here, from the wise old wizard to the rugged, internally conflicted barbarian warrior – but uses them in interesting new ways. It does a great job of gradually building its world without the need for exposition dumps, and it’s a very large and varied world too; one thing I particularly liked was the culture shock when characters from different places and backgrounds come together. The main conflicts stem from worldly concerns, from political manoeuvring to foreign invasions, rather than some vague, dark, magical threat (though there are possible hints of something like that to come), which is what I personally prefer reading about in fantasy. There’s a wide cast of compelling characters, and plenty of grim humour. I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the First Law trilogy.

05. The Blue Gemini trilogy – Mike Jenne
This is a series of fascinating, intelligent and well-paced Cold War thrillers. I liked the details of the secret American and Soviet space programs which are featured within, and the relationship between the two main characters, Drew Carson and Scott Ouerecky, seeing them grow from reluctant partners to loyal and devoted friends. The final instalment, especially, sets up the tension in its various subplots very well – particularly with regards to the threat of nuclear war – and brings the story to an emotionally satisfying, if bittersweet, conclusion. I would recommend this series to anyone with an interest in space exploration (as well as novels).

04. The Evening and the Morning – Ken Follett
This historical fiction novel is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, and while I don’t tend to like prequels, I certainly liked this one. Its independence from the original story probably helps: it takes place long before any of the characters in The Pillars of the Earth were even born, and its purpose as a prequel is rather to show how the setting of Kingsbridge evolved into how it was by the reign of Henry I. Of course, that’s generally background detail; the real focus is on the compelling, well-paced story and the large cast of characters.

03. The Midnight Library – Matt Haig
The concept of this story is that the protagonist, who has a lot of regrets about her life and is suicidally depressed, gets the chance to live the infinite lives she could have had if she had made different decisions. The way such a concept should progress seems predictable: one expects the protagonist to try out these alternate lives, find they’re not so great, and realise that her real life isn’t so bad after all. But that doesn’t do justice to The Midnight Library; it’s more complicated and thoughtful than that. It delves deep into the human psyche, exploring themes like where our regrets come from and how valid they are, how much we live for ourselves or other people, and how much is dependent on our perspective rather than objective reality. It ends up being a beautiful and cathartic story that might well give you a new perspective on things and appreciation for existence.

02. The Percy Jackson series – Rick Riordan
It’s taken me too long to get round to trying out this series: Greek mythology combined with an urban fantasy element – what’s not to like? I enjoyed plenty of things here: the main character and how he grows, the well-paced adventures, how the different mythological elements are used, and how it balances the lighter, more humorous parts with the darker side of its world. (I now understand why the film adaptations are so universally loathed by the fan base.) I’m planning to check out the sequel series, Heroes of Olympus, next year.

01. Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir
While I can’t go too far into the story without getting into spoilers, it’s well structured in terms of revealing information to the audience, with the protagonist starting off with amnesia and gradually regaining his memories as selective flashbacks. There’s plenty of tension and high stakes – with some alarming parts exploring the level of sacrifices and hard decisions necessary to save a whole planet – and some parts even made me a bit emotional. The style of snarky humour is also very similar to Weir’s previous works. There’s also plenty of clever and inventive application of science; I liked how much the process of experimentation is used. If you like science fiction and space travel, this is a must-read.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2021

10. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
Of the author’s previous works, Sapiens talked about the past and Homo Deus about the future, while this book focusses on the present. So is it a useful tool for living your life in the here and now? Well, it certainly provides some worthwhile ideas about how the world around us works and where our current paths may be leading us in the near future. Many of the possibilities it raises are unnerving, or perhaps that’s just because change in general is scary. In terms of guidance for the years to come, it provides enough for some vague pointers to be inferred. The latter stages of the book get quite bewildering as it examines our existence at a basic level and delves into whether we really have free will or a true, singular identity. The conclusions may be uncomfortable, but they certainly encourage contemplation.

09. Into the Woods – John Yorke
This book delves into why we tell stories and why most stories can be boiled down to the same structure, and I got a lot out of it. It has a variety of interesting ideas and perspectives on stories, from five-act structure to fractal symmetry. Though its content isn’t framed as directly offering advice to writers, they can still glean a lot of useful knowledge from it – and there are also some psychological and sociological ideas on storytelling (some taking examples from modern television) that provide much food for thought in general.

08. 26.2 Miles to Happiness – Paul Tonkinson
I enjoyed the author’s motivating and insightful perspective on running; the comedic moments are unexpectedly balanced out with some serious and honest personal reflection; and the picture it paints of how it feels to run a marathon is very informative for a runner like me who isn’t quite at that stage yet.

07. Spaceman – Mike Massimino
Another really brilliant astronaut autobiography. Mike Massimino is a great storyteller (and audiobook narrator): he manages to structure his personal story like a novel, right down to the climax repairing the Hubble telescope. While not an especially long book, it’s still very dense: Massimino covers a great deal about what it’s like to be an astronaut, along with some very poignant moments and plenty of positive guidance on how to approach life. My own interest in space travel has generally been focussed on the Apollo days, but the more I learn about the achievements and culture of the Shuttle era from books like this, the more enthusiastic I become about it.

06. The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting – Evanna Lynch
This is a well-written, highly engaging and devastatingly honest memoir. While the majority of it centres around Lynch’s experiences with anorexia – going into heart-wrenching detail about the thought processes involved – the disorder is ultimately one part of a bigger issue that outlasts it and to which just about everyone can relate: insecurity. Lynch’s whole journey toward fully loving herself is well worth the read; while Harry Potter – the part of her life for which she is best known – only makes up a small part of it, one certainly gains a new perspective on her connection with Luna Lovegood, a character who is totally comfortable in her own skin.

05. Why We Eat (Too Much) – Andrew Jenkinson
This book contains a lot of interesting information (backed up with understandable science) on how our body regulates our weight, why many people try to diet but can’t keep the weight off long-term, and the impact of the unhealthy Western diet on our various systems. While I intend to check other sources regarding some of the information presented – particularly regarding saturated fats – for those interested in nutrition and improving your diet, it certainly provides (forgive me) food for thought.

04. The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr
This guide to writing really appealed to me as it places reading and writing stories in a scientific context: it explains why and how stories appeal to us psychologically, which subsequently leads to plenty of logical guidance about how to construct a compelling character and a story arc for them.

03. Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
A very informative and valuable book which explains all about the various functions of sleep, how it is internally controlled, and the severe medical consequences of not getting enough of it. If you’re like me and don’t get as much sleep as you’d like, reading this will certainly give a better appreciation of sleep, and motivate you to try and improve your sleep hygiene; while the book is focussed on the science behind sleep, there’s plenty of useful tips to be inferred from its content.

02. Limitless – Tim Peake
I really loved this book. Even though Tim Peake’s time as an astronaut is only covered in the last third, that hardly matters as he has so many fantastic and interesting stories from his time as a military pilot. The style of writing is very honest and wonderfully British; Peake may not have grown up dreaming of being an astronaut, but the qualities that suited him to that role when the opportunity arose really come through. (I also went to see Peake’s live show in November, and it was brilliant.)

01. Born to Run – Christopher MacDougall
A fantastic book for runners. The story and writing style are compelling and motivating, and while I’m not sure I’ll try barefoot running myself in the immediate future, I really enjoyed the emphasis on running for the joy of it (and the examples of Ann Trason and Emil Zatopek) and the theory of how humans evolved to be excellent distance runners. I’ve read other books about ultra-marathons, but this is the first one that made me think I might go for it someday.

My resolutions for 2022 are largely based around developing the same areas I have been in 2021. With regards to running, I have two more half-marathons booked, and I’ll see how I want to progress after those. I also want to expand on my Parkrun tourism – I’ve been to four different Parkrun locations in total, and I’d like to get up to at least twenty. I’ll continue to work on my novel editing, as well as finding the courage to write something I can share with other people. There are a lot of books that I still want to read in the near future, as well as re-reading some of my favourites. And, hopefully, I can finally take the holiday abroad that I’ve now been waiting nearly two years for.

Have a Happy New Year, wherever you are!

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Doctor Who: Flux – Series 13 – Final Thoughts

Doctor Who: Flux isn’t bad. Indeed, at its strongest, it probably represents the best of the Chibnall era. Yet there’s still something dissatisfying about it. By the final episode, I was rather troubled by the fact that I wasn’t too disappointed to see this storyline conclude.

Undoubtedly part of the reason for this is that Doctor Who: Flux has one of the most convoluted storylines that the revived series has ever attempted. As unfortunate as it was to have a Doctor Who season with only six episodes, having the whole series centre around a main storyline while also factoring in smaller, episode-long stories was a promising concept; in fact, it brought to mind similar story arcs from the classic era, like The Keys of Marinus. It can’t be coincidence, however, that the best episodes of the series – War of the Sontarans; Once, Upon Time; and Village of the Angels – were the ones that functioned best as self-contained stories. As for the main plot involving Division, the Flux and the Ravagers, I could barely begin to try and explain it to you; I had given up trying to properly understand it by the end of Survivors of the Flux.

Jodie Whittaker gets more room to flex her acting abilities in this series as the Thirteenth Doctor is tested more than previously; the series does its best to continue to develop the Timeless Child revelations from Series 12, though with mediocre results – perhaps it’s too recent and controversial a development to be fully emotionally invested in. Any hope that Yaz would have more room for development with Graham and Ryan out of the picture sadly proved in vain, as she has little opportunity for introspection and spends much of her time away from the Doctor. John Bishop’s Dan Lewis is a pleasant chap, but there’s not that much more to him; perhaps he will be best remembered for giving birth to the Evil Dan meme.

Kevin McNally’s Professor Jericho is easily the best side character, subverting expectations by proving to be much more capable than he appears at first glance; fellow side characters Vinder and Bel, meanwhile, provide a charming but ultimately irrelevant love story. As for the monsters, the Sontarans make good use of their surprisingly large role, and the Weeping Angels go back to their roots in being utilised for effective horror. The Ravagers, Swarm and Azure, have a great look and start out as very intimidating – but like Vinder and Bel, they end up feeling superfluous by the conclusion.

When I heard that Russell T Davies was coming back as showrunner, my first thought was that if anything could possibly please the complaining fans, it was this one. Now, after two-and-a-half seasons for Chibnall’s style, I myself feel eager for a change. As much as I’ve found value in Series 11 and 12 – and indeed, Flux – this current era of Doctor Who is like a brand of fast food that tastes good and even a little novel at first, but loses its initial appeal after you’ve eaten it enough times.

Series 13 Episode Ranking:

  1. Once, Upon Time9/10
  2. War of the Sontarans8/10
  3. Village of the Angels8/10
  4. Survivors of the Flux7/10
  5. The Halloween Apocalypse6/10
  6. The Vanquishers6/10

So, now we have another New Year’s special coming up – making a tier ranking of Christmas specials on Twitter recently caused me to realise how much I miss watching Doctor Who on Christmas Day. Then, after two more specials in 2022, we shall see who the Fourteenth Doctor is and how Russell T Davies manages the second time round. I look forward to it.

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November: Two Different Endurance Challenges

The end of November saw a couple of achievements to reflect upon. First, I completed my thirteenth National Novel Writing Month – here are some thoughts on how this one went:

  • I’d done a lot of prep work beforehand, yet on the first day, it took me a little time to get going as I hadn’t looked at my notes for a while.
  • This year was pretty straightforward as NaNoWriMo goes: there were only a couple of days where I didn’t write at least 1,667 words due to external circumstances wearing me out, and I didn’t feel the need to skip ahead in the story as often as I usually do.
  • For some reason, there were several days where I thought about writing and felt anxious that I wouldn’t be able to produce anything. In these cases, however, the hardest part is just starting to write – once I was underway, the words tended to come fairly easily.
  • It was certainly enjoyable to write a dinosaur story; some of my favourite scenes involved exploring the prehistoric environments that the characters found themselves in, with one of them – a palaeontologist – taking the time to put what they were seeing in context. Turns out, in a science fiction story, you can get a lot of words out of scientific exposition.
  • Another fun little thing I did was feature the protagonist of a previous NaNo project about vampires – or rather, an alternate version of her. This character intended to become a policewoman before being turned into a vampire – so, in this alternate universe where vampires don’t exist, I had her fulfilling her dream and filling a small role in the story.

The story itself is nowhere near finished, so I intend to continue into December, and then use future NaNoWriMos or Camp NaNoWriMos to write sequels.

At the same time, throughout November, I was training for my first proper half-marathon event (after running a virtual one last year soon after lockdown). My training runs had gone so well, I was feeling confident of not only finishing, but setting a good time. I brought my NaNo project to 50,000 words on the last Saturday in November, in time for the race on Sunday. That morning, the weather was freezing cold, but at least the worst of Storm Arwen had passed and there wasn’t much wind. As we set off, I checked my time against each of the mile markers, and was very pleased to find that I was ahead of my expected pace and still feeling strong. Just before the halfway point, it began to snow, but what did that matter? This was great!

The feeling didn’t last, however. By the 10 mile mark, I was having to will myself to keep going, and by 11 miles, I had very little left in the tank. Finally, I had to alternate between jogging and walking. (There was a nice moment at this point when another runner, passing me, gave me a pat on the back in encouragement.) In the end, I put in one last spurt over the line for a chip time of 01:49:38. It was a great time, though I couldn’t appreciate it immediately as I was exhausted, cold, a little queasy, and had apparently lost control of my mouth as I could barely speak or even smile for my post-run selfie.

So this half-marathon was both a positive result and a learning experience; next time, I need to be more mindful of my pacing and how much it matters over a long distance. I already have another event booked for the New Year; my aim for that one is a mental reset, where I just go at an easy pace and try to enjoy myself the whole way round.

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Doctor Who – Series 13, Episode 1: “The Halloween Apocalypse”

  • Excellent cold open to kick things off, complete with references to Nitro-9 and the Doctor previously being Scottish.
  • I’m liking Dan Lewis so far, though given how positively he’s framed with sharing his passion for Liverpool and helping out at a food bank, I hope we get some flaws and additional development to make him more rounded. I’m wondering if it was John Bishop’s idea to stick in the praise for Liverpool F.C. – not that I’m complaining. (Doctor: “I watched the Barcelona match nine times!”)
  • So, how do the Doctor and Yaz interact without Graham and Ryan? They argue like an old married couple and provide more food for the shippers.
  • Mixed feelings about the various alien designs in this episode. I certainly liked the twisted skull-like look of Prisoner Swarm. It’s pretty funny when Karvanista comes barging in like a proud alien warrior and then reveals himself to be a furry humanoid dog; but he has barely any ability to express himself through his makeup. As for the new Sontarans, I preferred their look from earlier seasons.
  • It was around when the Weeping Angel appeared that I thought, “How much are they going to throw into this opening episode?” – though I did like how that scene took the Weeping Angels back to basics with the tense horror approach. And then right after that, another new character named Vinder is introduced. By the time the couple in the Arctic Circle reappeared, I’d forgotten about them.
  • Presumably Prisoner Swarm is linked to the Flux given their similar effect on people – but is his reference to previously battling the Doctor, which the latter doesn’t remember, linked to the Timeless Child?

A decent enough starter for this season-long arc, but it already feels like they crammed too many different elements into this opener and there’s already too much to keep track of. Well, we’ll see how it goes. Rating: 3/5.

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Back to the Cinema

There have been plenty of advantages to lockdown measures being relaxed this year, and one of them is that cinemas are open again for the release of new films. Sadly, Top Gun: Maverick has been pushed back again to next year, but there’s been plenty coming out in the meantime. Here are my brief thoughts on the films I’ve seen at the cinema so far in 2021.

Fast & Furious 9

With the world providing so many ways for mental health to come under threat, it was actually quite pleasant, for my first cinema visit this year, to just turn my brain off and watch an uncomplicated action film. The people behind the Fast & Furious franchise are obviously having to stretch to make each film more explosive and over-the-top than the last, and there is so much ridiculous stuff in this instalment, from the characters being harder to kill than the burglars in Home Alone, to a presumably deliberate ignorance of how space travel works. A bit stale, and certainly not as good as films 7 or 8, but still entertaining.

Black Widow

There was certainly enough of a compelling story and enjoyable action to justify finally giving this long-running character her own film, though I wasn’t happy about how it completely wasted the character of Taskmaster. Maybe the MCU can retcon that, particularly with the multiverse having been established.

The Suicide Squad

Both a sequel and a soft reboot, this film is a massive improvement on its 2016 predecessor; it feels like the sort of film that the original wanted to be but was too restrained by the studio to pull off. It both gets you to care about all of the main characters and gives all of them something substantial to do – Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn remains as brilliant as ever – and goes all out in terms of violence and craziness; the fact that the final boss is a giant mind-controlling starfish tells you all you need to know about the overall tone.

Jungle Cruise

A decent Disney adventure, very much in the same vein of the Pirates of the Caribbean or National Treasure films.

Free Guy

My favourite film so far this year. It has a compelling story with likeable characters and a great deal of heart, and also has plenty of fun with its video game setting. Ryan Reynolds is at his most charming, and Jodie Comer gets to show off even more accents after Killing Eve.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

This is basically everything you expect from an MCU film; it’s certainly good, but it doesn’t do much to defy complaints about these films being formulaic. I did like its portrayal of a platonic male-female friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy without feeling the need to have them hook up in the end; and the use of Ben Kingsley’s character does a lot to make up for that awful twist in Iron Man 3.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Another sequel that I liked much better than the first film, this one takes a simple approach: more of what worked in the original, less of what didn’t. With the boring setup and origin story out of the way, more time can be devoted to the hilarious relationship between the resident odd couple, Eddie and Venom. The limited action is very watchable, and all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves. It also felt refreshing to watch a film that’s closer to 90 minutes than 120. I ultimately had more fun watching Venom: Let There Be Carnage than either Black Widow or Shang-Chi.

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NaNoWriMo 2021: Year Thirteen!

Most of my writing efforts this year have been focussed on editing, and while I haven’t managed to keep it up every single day, I’ve definitely done a lot more across the year than I have previously. But now it’s time to put that aside for a month, as National Novel Writing Month is upon us once more.

I had several potential ideas, which I eventually narrowed down to the next instalment in my historical series (a direct continuation of last year’s NaNoWriMo) and a story about dinosaurs. When I struggled to decide, I did my tried-and-tested method of going for a walk to somewhere quiet and green, and meditating on the issue to see which idea had the stronger pull. The result was that the dinosaur idea won out – but I had no idea what the plot would be; I just thought that it would be fun to write about dinosaurs after the concept has been on my ideas list for so long.

So first I did some brainstorming by asking myself, ‘What do I want to see in this story?’ This included such concepts as the characters encountering dinosaurs in both their natural habitat and the present day, and a list of particular dinosaurs and prehistoric settings, as well as a few ideas that fell more within the science-fiction area. Once I had established the method by which humans and dinosaurs would be brought together, I had to lay down ground rules and look for potential queries that needed to be addressed. What I ended up with felt like too much for one story, which means more projects for future NaNoWriMos or Camp NaNoWriMos – but with follow-up stories in mind, I would still need to figure out a three-act structure, conflict and resolution for this initial story for it to be satisfying. Using the Snowflake Method, I was able to pull together a decent plan. The characters, meanwhile, are a mix of fresh faces, characters I initially came up for an unfinished story many years ago, and characters I’ve had in my head for a while without having a proper story for.

Having already completed NaNoWriMo so many times, and knowing what kind of prep I usually need to get through it, I was able to get all the necessary groundwork laid down by the middle of October. Now I feel ready to just jump in come the first of November. It should be fun!

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My 600th Post: My Running This Year

As well as being a good year for reading and writing, 2021 has turned to be a positive year for running too. After completing a virtual half-marathon last year, I felt as if I lost my running mojo to a degree. I was still going out to run, but I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it, particularly when winter set in and the weather became less inviting. June of this year, however, proved to be a turning point, when I made the decision to cut down on the comfort eating I’d unfortunately gotten into since lockdown. The payoff came pretty quickly: as I shed weight, my running speed increased, and I found myself feeling happier on my runs. Various audiobooks on running were also providing motivation: 26.2 Miles to Happiness by Paul Tonkinson painted a detailed and honest picture of what it’s like to run a marathon, and The Lost Art of Running by Shane Benzie had plenty of good tips about improving your running form.

But I was still just a little dissatisfied with running on my own. I wanted to take part in an event again – which, thanks to Covid, I hadn’t been able to do since the last Parkrun in March 2020. With the pandemic situation apparently easing, I felt safe booking a half-marathon and the Preston 10K for September, and I was excited to find out how fast I would be by then.

Then there came the long-awaited day in July: Parkrun was back! I headed down to my local event, definitely enjoying the feeling of being among fellow runners again. Fuelled by excitement and pent-up energy, I ended up setting a new personal best of 23:58! Unfortunately, it turned out that I might have been a little too excited. When I went out for what was meant to be a gentler run the following day, I was a few kilometres in when I was struck with pain behind the middle toe of my right foot. I turned around and limped home; and in the subsequent days, despite application of ice and a great deal of hoping, the injury didn’t appear to be healing quickly.

I ended up going to a physiotherapist, who reckoned that I had aggravated a tendon, possibly from the way the foot bends when running up a hill. My big fear had been that it was a stress fracture, but apparently it’s quite hard to get a fracture in the middle of the foot. All I could really do was keep up the ice and rest, and let it get better – and in the meantime, I was going mad from not being able to run at a time when I was most loving it. It might have been the wrong time to listen to the audiobook of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, a book which places a lot of emphasis on the joy of running which fuelled such athletes as Ann Trason and Emil Zatopek. I had listened to books about ultra-marathon running before, but Born to Run was the first one that made me think I might want to give it a go one day. (Of course, I’ll need to complete a marathon first, then see how I feel.)

A month after my injury, my foot had healed enough for me to resume running, and I was pleased to find that my condition hadn’t deteriorated too much. When I felt confident that all was well, I went to Parkrun again, this time taking it more gently. The following morning, I reckoned there was no harm in having another run – so off I went. A short distance in, I found a pedestrian approaching me on the pavement – with social distancing now a habit, I came off the pavement to avoid them. As I was coming back on, I tripped on the kerb and fell, painfully grazing my hand and my knee. I began to wonder if I was under some ‘day-after-Parkrun’ curse.

At least this was only a superficial injury, so it didn’t hold me back much. Due to my earlier foot injury, I had moved my half-marathon booking to another event later in the year, but there was still the Preston 10K.

I turned up on the day of the 10K feeling a bit anxious. There had been a route change at the last minute and the map didn’t make it especially clear where the first few kilometres were going; plus the clouds were looking ominous. Yet as soon as the race began and I started running, all my anxiety was turned off like a light switch. I was just focussed on the familiar movements; I was in the zone. The route proved unproblematic to follow, though it wasn’t the easiest in terms of effort: there were several uphill sections, including a few long, gradual stretches that are more insidious and draining than short, steep hills. It was, however, a very satisfactory result: I finished with a chip time of 48:41, just sixteen seconds slower than my 10K PB!

So right now, I’m going to keep up my running as we get into autumn, while taking care to allow recovery and not overreach myself to minimise the risk of more injuries. Hopefully before the year is out, I’ll have completed a half-marathon at an actual event. My goal for 2022 is to get more half-marathons under my belt – and then, when I feel ready, to move to the next level and sign up for a full marathon!

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The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag – 2021 Edition

This has been a very good reading year for me so far: I set myself a target of 70 books for the year and I’ve finished 46. So I thought I would do a mid-year review with this tag from last year.

  1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2021

Currently still Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – it’s at least as good as The Martian, if not slightly better.

  1. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2021

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. I got the whole five-book Percy Jackson series for my birthday in March; although by the third book, I was a bit dissatisfied that they all seemed to involve the heroes doing the same things but with different monsters, the fourth and fifth books certainly picked up. The fifth book, The Last Olympian, was my favourite, providing an epic and satisfying finale.

  1. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

Locked in Time by Dean Lomax, a non-fiction book on how the behaviour of prehistoric animals can be inferred from certain fossils. The podcast Space and Things also keeps providing new releases to add to my list, like Beyond by Stephen Walker, which is about Yuri Gagarin.

  1. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield – a space thriller by an actual former astronaut holds great promise!

  1. Biggest disappointment

Contact by Carl Sagan. I wanted to like this book more than I did, having enjoyed both the film based upon it, and Carl Sagan’s non-fiction. Unfortunately, while there are moments of beauty – particularly when painting pictures of the cosmos and having philosophical discussions – a lot of the content is poorly paced and feels very dry, with some scenes that should have some drama making little effort to instil an emotional response in the reader. Apparently the concept started out as a screenplay – and ultimately, it works a lot better as a film.

  1. Biggest surprise

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. I got the audiobook of this as I was in the mood to try some fantasy – but it’s often hard for me to predict whether I’m going to enjoy a fantasy novel or not. I tend to either really enjoy them or be indifferent to them. I decided to try The Blade Itself as it was one of those recommended for readers of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch, and I was pleased to find that this was a solid recommendation. I think I prefer fantasy stories where the main conflicts stem from worldly concerns, like political manoeuvring and foreign invasions, rather than some vague, dark, magical threat – though there are possible hints of something like that to come in the First Law trilogy, the rest of which I’ll be checking out at some point in the future.

  1. Favourite new author (debut or new to you)

Rick Riordan. Given how much I love Greek mythology, it’s really taken me too long to start reading his books. Having gotten through the original Percy Jackson series and thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to reading the subsequent Heroes of Olympus series.

  1. Newest fictional crush

I don’t do fictional crushes.

  1. Newest favourite character

Rocky from Project Hail Mary. Amaze!

  1. Book that made you cry

I still don’t cry at books, but a few particular scenes in Project Hail Mary got the biggest emotional response out of me.

  1. Book that made you happy

Spaceman by Mike Massimino. Former Shuttle astronaut Massimino is a great storyteller, both in terms of his writing and how he narrates his own audiobook. This, along with the interesting subject matter, and a combination of funny and poignant moments and positive guidance, made this book a real pleasure.

  1. Most beautiful book you’ve bought (or received) so far this year

Marvel Greatest Comics: 100 Comics That Built a Universe by Melanie Scott was at least the most aesthetically pleasing, inside and out.

  1. What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

This year, I’ve been building a list to keep track of what I intend to read this year – including new discoveries (e.g. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E Taylor), books by authors I like (e.g. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari), books that have been on my shelf for a while (e.g. Forever Young by John Young), and old books that I fancy re-reading (e.g. American Gods by Neil Gaiman). But of course, that list keeps getting longer, so who knows if I’ll get through them all by Christmas?

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