As a writer, I consume a lot of material – either in the name of research, as a way of switching off, or whilst working. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best things that I’ve read, seen, and listened to, over the last twelve months. I thought it may be of interest to you, dear reader, where I’ve found some of my inspiration and what stirs my interest outside of monsters. I also know the podcasts I listen to have sparked genuine interest when I’ve mentioned them, or in the case of a few here, have been lucky enough to appear on.
Unlike what I’ve caught at the cinema, the books I’ve read aren’t necessarily specific to 2022 releases. As tends to be the case with books, I have discovered them as and when, often by spending too long in bookshops – second-hand or otherwise.
So, without further ado, here’s my favourites of the year. With books and podcasts, you won’t find any ‘worst’ picks, as I genuinely didn’t read any books I didn’t enjoy, and my podcast choices are all personal favourites. But there were a few stinkers on the big screen that I wanted to mention from a story-telling perspective.
This is a book that explores the history and legends surrounding the ‘Beast of Gevaudan’, a seemingly unstoppable killer wolf, (or wolf-like creature), that plagued a province of rural, pre-revolutionary France. I have always wanted to visit the region and investigate this real-life monster story, but Gustav Sanchez Romero has done a very comprehensive job, saving me the trouble, or spoiling my fun depending on your point of view.
In the foothills and plains of the Margeride mountains, France, between 1764 and 1767, it is estimated between 130 to over 200 men, women, and especially children – were killed by a marauding animal. Its identity has never been known for sure, but its rampage is a matter of record. Its story has seeped into novels, movies, and folklore. This book tries to uncover the facts shrouded by fiction, and sets out the case in a logical, linear series of investigation and explanations.
This is one of the books I discovered by accident, taking my purchases to the counter in a bookshop, and seeing this being put aside for another customer. They say never judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly what I did. Pine martens are one of my favourite animals and I was smitten at first sight.
It didn’t take long to feel whisked away to the Ardnamurchen peninsula with author Polly Pullar, whose descriptive language and wildlife-filled stories enchanted me from the very go. The book reveals how citizen science helped provide new insights into marten behaviour and the complex relationships they form – shooting down many preconceptions more so-called established naturalists had presumed for decades.
The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
This short memoir is simple, beautiful, romantic writing that paints a stunning picture of the Cairngorms, their people, and its wildlife. It simply made me want to disappear into the hills and breathe in what I’d been reading. You can probably pick up on my draw to Scotland in some of these choices!
Honourable Mention – Jack Carr’s James Reece novels, State Monsters series – David Weatherly
Sometimes, you need fast-paced fiction to help escape work or just the real-world in general. Look no further than Jack Carr’s James Reece novels – the first of which (The Terminal List) is now also a series on Prime Video, starring Chris Pratt. Somewhat in the mould of Jack Reacher, these books follow a Navy Seal commander who is betrayed by the government, and then sets out on a mission of revenge. What I really like about the books is that there is a genuine character arc, including redemption, challenge, and growth.
David Weatherly is a workaholic author. He is nothing but prolific. I think I’ve read three of his books that have hit the shelves this year, making it impossible to single out just one. If, like me, you have an interest in monsters and folklore, these books will satiate your appetite. Weatherly has dedicated each volume to a single state – and I have torn my way through Utah, Indiana, and North Carolina in recent memory, and I’m sure there were a few others. Weatherly’s journalistic approach and dedicated research is clear on every page, delivering the facts and letting you draw your own conclusions.
Top Gun: Maverick
There simply isn’t another choice. I saw Top Gun: Maverick more than once at the cinema, and a lot more once it became part of my film collection. This movie aced its storytelling, simply by not trying to be anything else. It didn’t try to ‘buy’ itself into an audience, end with a third-act CGI slugfest, or divert from its narrative to impose an opinion. It stuck to character-driven story, with a clear layout of the perils, the promise, and the payoffs we would get. As this YouTube video explains, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling.
One liners, slick action, clearly defined stakes, and a character we root for because we understand his flaws, all turned a sequel we didn’t think we needed into the blockbuster of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Jaws, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
It says a lot about the state of cinema, when two of the surprise hits (and certainly my favourites), were films between 40 and 50 years old, released either in a new format (IMAX and 3D in the case of Jaws), or celebrating its 40th anniversary (Wrath of Khan). However, the chance of seeing them on the big screen was incredibly welcome, not to say special.
Jaws has always had me wanting to write a UK-based story in the same ilk, which may be coming sooner than you think. This is the film that established the summer blockbuster and Spielberg’s status as a Hollywood heavyweight, not to mention a universal fear of the water.
Khan could be seen as a little hammy, but it’s a film that saved a franchise, and watching a brilliant stage actor like Ricardo Montalban savagely chew the scenery with Shatner is a delight to this day.
Small Town Monsters has delivered another incredible year of investigations into the unexplained. All of their documentary films can be purchased directly from the website, or can be found on Prime Video and Vimeo. American Werewolves was a standout for me, alongside the addictively good Bigfoot: Beyond the Trail series on YouTube.
Panthera Britannia has shot to the top of the list of documentaries covering big cats in Britain. With compelling footage, stoic investigation, startling evidence, and expert commentary, a better case for the ongoing presence of big cats in the UK is yet to be presented. It is also now available on Prime Video.
Thor: Love and Thunder
Marvel has certainly been less than marvellous since the end of the Infinity saga, but Thor: Love and Thunder was an insulting mess that lacked story, respect, and appeal (for me). In the character of Thor, we’ve explored complex storylines and issues, like mental health, betrayal, revenge, and love. And whereas I felt the balance between comedy and story was right in Ragnarök, Love and Thunder played only for laughs – and cheap ones at that. Thor became a clown that played second fiddle to other characters like Korg, Valkyrie, and Jane Foster. And somebody, please tell Russel Crowe that he cannot do accents. Ever.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Loved the book. Loved David Strathrain’s performance. Didn’t care for much else. It left huge parts of the story out, including essential scenes that would have showed us the character of Kya and who she was. The book delivers in so many ways that the film fell short of. I’d still like to live in Kya’s cabin though.
I don’t binge watch much, but let’s just say I discovered Yellowstone late in the year, and I’m completely up to date. I am hooked and practically addicted. What I love about the storytelling is, primarily, these are not nice people. You’re not rooting for heroes. Almost all the characters have done horrible, unforgiveable things. Yet, they abide by personal codes of right and wrong that we understand and completely buy into.
Kevin Costner, Kelly Reilley, and Cole Hauser play standout characters in John Dutton, Beth, and Rip respectively. Together, they defend their ranch, family, and way of life through murder, savagery, and brutal payback to any slur. Yet, they’ll defend the weak, stand up to bullies, stop to help you change a tyre, and won’t break their word. But they’ll gun you down without hesitation if they need to. It makes for compelling viewing.
I’m yet to catch the prequel series’ of 1883 and 1923, but with the likes of Sam Elliott, Harrison Ford, and Helen Mirren starring, I’m sure they’ll be just as good.
All of the podcasts should be available on your podcatcher of choice but are definitely available on iOS Podcasts and Spotify.
Big Cat Conversations
Big Cat Conversations is hosted by Rick Minter, an author and researcher based in Gloucestershire – one of the UK’s hotspots for big cat sightings and activity. The podcast acknowledges that sightings of big cats have been recorded across the UK for decades and gives witnesses and the topic a much-needed voice. From exploring the implications of living alongside apex predators for the first time in millennia, to sharing incredible encounters, the podcast is a steadfast and grounded approach to the phenomena.
Honey + the Hex
Honey + the Hex is a podcast hosted by sister-duo Tatum Karmen Swithenbank and Tansie Swithenbank. Their fascination for folklore and spirituality oozes out of every episode as they discuss magick, traditions, myths, rituals, and realms less travelled today.
Monsters & Mysteries
Monsters & Mysteries brings you weekly interviews from across the Fortean field, from authors and researchers to fellow podcasters and devotees. I am always impressed with host Paul Bestall’s dedicated research and genuine interest that always comes across.
Into the Fray
Into the Fray is a riveting ride into the world of cryptids and strange phenomena. Each week sees eyewitnesses to UFOs, bigfoot, the paranormal, and more, discuss their encounters with host Shannon LeGro. A staple of my working week is tuning in to Into the Fray.