Nothing really changes unless there’s a crisis. If something kinda sorta works, we muddle on because the effort, time, cash and reputations on the line to bring about change look like too high a price to pay for decision-makers.
But when terrible things happen we get Great Leaps Forward that spin us into brighter futures.
Without four years of Trump standing up for white supremacy and shifting resources into the pockets of billionaires, would we have got Biden’s transformative Presidency tackling the climate emergency, deep-rooted racial injustice, healthcare and an unbalanced economy? All issues that people said couldn’t be changed fast. All things that are now being tackled.
Crises are terrible, but crises disrupt stagnant or sclerotic systems.
The pandemic has been devastating with millions of lives lost. Yet out of it we’re seeing medical advances that are propelling us into a new and better world.
The mRNA technology which was used in a Covid-19 vaccine to massive success will change the face of medicine. It can be used to turn our own bodies into super-powerful drug-producing factories. Trials have already shown breakthroughs in treating advanced cancers, MS and malaria, and vaccines are now being developed for these and other illnesses.
Something you might want to check out for a little holiday reading. Eurasian Monsters is the seventh and final volume in the multiple award-nominated The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters anthology series.
Edited by Margret Helgadottir, the series has a pleasing diversity on many levels. Authors and artists from around the world have been invited to write stories based on their own folklore and culture.
Genres range through horror, fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, YA and crime.
Margret says, “The idea of the series is to feature creatures and monsters from around the world that have not received much spotlight in the western culture. Through the stories the reader also gets to know the countries and cultures covered, contemporary life and struggles that usually are unknown to us in the west.
“You’ll find stories with an underlying critique of aspects of society, be it poverty, illegal working or the life of immigrants, border conflicts, the relationship between east and west, or the tension between a traditional life and a modern society.
“All the seven books contain stories by new and established authors with a strong connection to the region or the continent we cover. The series contain stories by authors such as Cory Doctorow, Darcie Little Badger, Liliana Colanzi, Teresa P. Mira de Echeverria, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Xia Jia, Aliette de Bodard, Usman T. Malik, K.A. Teryna, and Maria Galina.”
Eurasian Monsters, which is published in paperback on December 20, has seventeen short stories by authors from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, including several authors never published in English before.
Here’s the TOC:
K.A. Teryna: Morpheus Marta Magdalena Lasik: Daemons of their time Yevhen Lyr: Sleepless in Enerhodar Karina Shainyan: Bagatazh Vlad Arenev: Rapunzel Haralambi Markov: Nine Tongues Tell Of Maria Galina: The Visit Alex Shvartsman: A Thousand Cuts Daryna Stremetska: The Whitest Linen Shawn Basey: Lysa Hora Karolina Fedyk: Our Lady of Carrion Crows Bogi Takács: Veruska and the Lúdvérc Eldar Sattarov: Mountain Maid Kat Hutchson: The Housekeeper Natalia Osoianu: The Serpent Alexander Bachilo: This is Moscow, Old Man! Ekaterina Sedia: Sleeping Beauty of Elista
In the Year of Staying In, we were all fortunate we were no longer trapped in the era of network TV. With the plethora of offerings from the streaming giants – a number growing year on year – no one could complain they couldn’t find something to their taste.
And there would have been lots more if Covid-19 hadn’t shut down so many productions, including all Apple TV+ returning dramas and Disney+ landmark Marvel series.
I try to keep up with at least a couple of episodes of every new drama. That’s getting increasingly hard to do. But here are my top ten lockdown loves of 2020.
10. Perry Mason
HBO offered up a gloomy take on the attorney of Erie Stanley Gardner’s crime novels, a far cry from the brightly-lit sixties TV series with Raymond Burr in the title role. It’s a strong dose of noir set as America claws its way out of the Great Depression, built on excellent period detail and with a tough realistic edge. Matthew Rhys makes a good hound dog Mason and there’s strong support from Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and Shea Whigham.
9. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
The third season maintains both its class and remarkable period detail while touching on issues with contemporary resonance. Mrs Maisel remains the unlikely outsider in a highly constrained society – a woman! in stand-up comedy! – but this time encounters people even more outside the norm. Winning characters and gentle humour are given full force by excellent performances from Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shalhoub among others. Worth all the Golden Globes and Emmys.
8. The Plot Against America
A chilling and timely adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel which looks at how easily fascism could arise in America, and out of the democratic system. Told through the eyes of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey as the nation deals with the rapid rise of populist politician Charles Lindbergh, its easy to see why, after the events of the last four years in the US, David Simon and Ed Burns decided to tell this now. Terrifying not only in how the story unfolds, but also in what it says about human nature and the nature of America.
7. The Good Fight
One of the few shows that is overtly about Trump and his influence on America. The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from the divisiveness and the underlying sense of threat in the country for people who don’t agree with the former President, and calls out Trump defiantly – he’s the background villain of the piece. But it delivers its commentary with wry wit and character-based drama. There’s also a winning quirkiness to its storytelling with flashes of animation, asides and hallucinations.
One of the unfolding strengths of this series is the ability to increase the stakes for the central characters not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. Every single choice the Byrde family makes as they attempt to stay alive and free leads to a worse situation. In lesser hands that could come across as breathless, but here it’s measured and the twists are always surprising. Julia Garner is the standout star, but Laura Linney is doing career-best work as the resourceful matriarch.
A truncated season because of the pandemic, this subsequently lacks the killer punch of previous finales (the final episodes will be shown in 2021, running straight into season 6). The manoeuvring and manipulation of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod grows more intense in the Shakespearean telling. Sociopaths rule the world. We all feared it. Now we see it’s true.
4. The Crown
As well made and enjoyable as this series has been, it’s never made my list before. But season 4 has been a tour-de-force. That’s partly because it’s reached the eighties, the era of high drama for the Royals with the spiralling tragedy of the Charles and Diana romance. And partly because of Gillian Anderson’s coruscating performance as Margaret Thatcher, perfectly capturing her divisive nature – driven and ambitious for Britain, but a megalomaniac, paranoiac and uncaring about a large swathe of the population which Thatcher deemed, in her own words, not “one of us”.
Novelist and filmmaker Alex Garland’s science fiction murder mystery is packed with ideas and deep themes that will leave you pondering long after its over. As with his movie Ex Machina, it’s ostensibly about technological advancement, here quantum computing and the wonders that offers, but it tackles free will and determinism. At it’s heart, though, it’s a human story about loss and the search for meaning in everyone’s life.
2. Better Call Saul
One of the best-written and acted returning series on TV. There’s nothing flashy about it. No shocking twists or bursts of ultraviolence. Instead it’s crept up quietly in the background with great storytelling and dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. It’s very different to Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it, yet it has now, in its own way, transcended Walter White’s odyssey. A measured character study of a flawed man and the way he changes the world around him.
The Queen’s Gambit
Not just the best series of the year, but the best for very many years. It came out of nowhere during the pandemic months and travelled the world through word of mouth – a drama, about chess? Are you sure? Of course, it’s not really about chess. In a way, it’s very old school storytelling. The script and direction by Scott Frank is unflashy yet brilliant, hitting all the notes of character, emotion and theme without drawing attention to itself. The world it creates is new and refreshing, a rarity these days, and you don’t need to know anything about chess to appreciate it. And it’s anchored by a luminous performance by Anna Taylor-Joy with an equally great supporting cast. Awards will shower down on it, and rightly so.
Wilbur Smith, the best-selling adventure writer, read my novel Pendragon a while back. Afterwards, he got in touch to see if I wanted to collaborate on a new project with him.
As it has now been announced in The Bookseller, I’m allowed to say it’s a historical fantasy adventure thriller set in Ancient Egypt, published worldwide in September.
Here’s the blurb:
In the heart of Egypt, Under the watchful eye of the Gods, A new power is rising . . .
In the city of Lahun, Hui lives an enchanted life. The favoured son of a doting father, and ruler-in-waiting of the great city, his fate is set. But behind the beautiful façades a sinister evil is plotting. Craving power and embittered by jealousy, Hui’s stepmother, the great sorceress Ipsetnofret, and Hui’s own brother Qen, orchestrate the downfall of Hui’s father, condemning Hui and seizing power in the city.
Cast out and alone, Hui finds himself a captive of a skilled and powerful army of outlaws, the Hyksos. Determined to seek vengeance for the death of his father and rescue his sister, Ipwet, Hui swears his allegiance to these enemies of Egypt. Through them he learns the art of war, learning how to fight and becoming an envied charioteer.
But soon Hui finds himself in an even greater battle – one for the very heart of Egypt itself. As the pieces fall into place and the Gods themselves join the fray, Hui finds himself fighting alongside the Egyptian General Tanus and renowned Mage, Taita. Now Hui must choose his path – will he be a hero in the old world, or a master in a new kingdom?
Since 2016, it seems like we’ve been on a long march away from the light. Away from science, from truth, from international brotherhood, from equality and fairness and many of the liberal values we took for granted for much of the twentieth century.
The result of the US election provides some hope that a return to progress is within grasp. That maybe the last four years wasn’t a relentless process of de-evolution, but just a blip, maybe a last gasp of the old world.
The news of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine, with its potential ninety per cent efficacy added to that sense of the lamps coming back on.
In the UK, we still have the Brexit mess to navigate, and there’s a sickening current of blood and soil nationalism in many countries.
But right now things are looking better than they have done in a long while and I’m going to make sure I celebrate it as we move into the festive season.
There’s a spruced-up new look for the Hereward series from my pseudonym. It’s been selling well during lockdown, prompting my publisher to give a polish to the cover design. I kind of like the little Penguin logo on this version.
Package arrives – my annual upgrade of running shoes. As you can see, chosen brand for the moment is Adidas.
I run about 7km a day and have done since I was in my teens. It’s not just for health – though the benefits are well-documented. This is where I chase down stories.
You’ve got to be in the right place to create – especially if your livelihood relies on a constant stream of new ideas. There’s something meditative about the steady beat of feet on the ground that pulls up ideas from the unconscious.
The reward chemicals endorphins released during exercise have also been shown to activate creativity (and work similar to morphine, without the obvious downside).
And also particularly good for staying sunny, say during a time of restricted horizons.
Working in the outside office today. One novel delivered to the editor a week or so back, a big one for me, but as usual not contractually allowed to talk about it yet. There’s a little red dot permanently dancing on my chest, just in case I forget.
About 20k words into another novel and I have a TV script to write. Keeping busy.
No idea what the world’s going to be like when we come out of this. For sure it won’t be the same. A lot of shops, bars, restaurants and other businesses won’t reopen. Bookshops? How are publishers going to adapt?
There’s a hunger for film but maybe won’t be many cinemas to see them in. Studios can’t make as much off streaming so budgets will have to fall.
Several national newspapers on the brink of closing because of the collapse in advertising.
We’re all watching a stack of TV but quite how they’re going to go about making new drama, not even the broadcasters are sure. Green screen? Expensive.
How much do I hate coming up with titles? Imagine the thing you loathe the most and times it by a hundred.
Hour upon hour of my life wasted. Bouncing words, drawing mind maps. Gah. At least today I can sit in the sun and do it.
So much effort needed because the title is so important. The wrong one can kill a book’s sales or get a TV project passed over. Nothing too generic. Readers and viewers need to get a handle on the story from that first glance. Many won’t waste the time to find out.
Studies have shown certain words are a big turn-off for large sections – ‘death’, ‘the devil’, anything with negative connotations. And that’s even in genres like horror and crime.
The same studies show the most effective titles for reader engagement describe the central and unique element of the story. Sounds obvious, isn’t always easy.
And titles work best on those same terms when they’re not passive, when they suggest motion or mystery or threat. Easy.
Then do a quick search on Amazon and discover your unique title has already been used.
And that is where I am today, trapped on the endless loop.