An excerpt from The Birds Began to Sing

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming novel The Birds Began to Sing. This scene takes place in chapter 5, after aspiring writer Alice Darnell is offered the chance to enter a mysterious writing competition by her new agent, Isaac King.

“Isaac sat at his desk and indicated for Alice to sit on the chair opposite.

‘Alice, thank you for coming in today. Before I proceed, I’m afraid I have to ask you to sign this non-disclosure agreement. Everything we discuss today must be considered confidential until it is officially announced to the press.’

‘I understand,’ said Alice.

Isaac handed Alice a piece of paper which she read hurriedly. It seemed to be a standard non-disclosure contract, explaining that the business they were about to discuss was not to be revealed to any journalists and so forth. Alice wondered what all the secrecy was about and why a simple competition would be considered newsworthy. This wasn’t going to be televised surely? She hoped she hadn’t got herself into some kind of reality television programme for wannabe writers.

After signing the paper, Isaac began to explain in more detail about the competition.

‘Alice, I take it you have heard of Sasha Hawkins?’

‘Of course.’

‘She was our most lucrative client. Her death was a tremendous blow both to this agency and to Ravenhead Publishing.’

‘I can imagine.’

Sasha Hawkins had died just over a year ago in a car accident somewhere in the West Country. Alice remembered when this tragedy had been splashed all over the news. It had come as a huge shock, as Sasha Hawkins had been the most popular bestselling author of recent years, but had died aged just 30. She had sold her first book at 22, and had published at least one book per year since, churning out some of the most widely read and enjoyed thrillers of the last two decades. Alice had read several of her novels, and had recently even re-read some, as research during the composition of Deceitful and Wicked.

‘When she died, Sasha had almost finished her latest book, but it needed a final act to resolve the story,’ Isaac explained.

‘And now there’s to be a competition for someone to write the ending,’ said Alice.

‘Precisely. Elliot Farnham, CEO of Ravenhead, has promised the winner will get their own book published, plus obviously the Sasha Hawkins book with their new ending attached.’

‘What’s the book about?’

‘I am not allowed to tell you that yet.’

‘Why not?’

‘There are some very clear rules that have been laid out for this competition. If you wish to enter, you are not allowed to question them, but you must obey them completely and to the letter.’

Alice listened, intrigued.

‘The first of these rules is that the unfinished Sasha Hawkins manuscript will only be given to competitors under very specific circumstances. Namely, all competitors must stay as guests in the Hawkins family estate – Blackwood House on the edge of Dartmoor. Here they will have two weeks to read the book and write the ending of their choice. The best ending will be picked, and the competition will be over.’

‘Can’t you even tell me the title?’

‘The manuscript is untitled at this point.’

‘So, we have to stay at Blackwood House for two weeks, read the story and write our ending. Wow. Sounds a bit odd.’

‘Odd or not, those are the rules. Throughout the two week period of the competition, you are not permitted to leave Blackwood House or its grounds, for any reason whatsoever. If you do, you will be disqualified.’

‘What if there’s an emergency, like a family member dies or something?’

‘If you leave the grounds, you will be disqualified.’

‘That hardly seems fair.’

‘Nevertheless, those are the rules.’

‘What if you finish the ending before the two weeks are up?’

‘Then you can explore the extensive grounds to your heart’s content, or partake in any of the indoor entertainments that will be laid on for guests, but you cannot leave until the deadline expires, or you will be disqualified.’

‘Any other rules I need to know?’

‘Yes. You are not permitted any contact with the outside world for the two week duration. That includes phones, internet access and anything of that nature.’

‘But if we are supposed to write an ending, we might need to do research.’

‘You will have access to a very extensive library within Blackwood House, which should fulfil any such needs. All research will have to be done the old-fashioned way, with real books.’

Isaac smiled.

‘That’s fine by me,’ said Alice. ‘I always prefer to do that anyway. The internet and portable reading devices are all very well, but I’d rather feel and turn physical pages. Anything else I need to know rule-wise?’

‘You can receive written messages from outside, but you are not allowed to respond to them. Anything you suddenly and legitimately require, such as medication, will be sent for and delivered by courier. There will be an on site doctor, but if anyone gets seriously ill they will have to withdraw from the competition. Obviously all expenses will be covered, and food will be laid on.’

Alice sat silently for a moment, taking in what she had heard. It all sounded utterly baffling, but also fascinating. Why were the publishers going to such extraordinary lengths to set up this competition? Why not simply commission a writer to finish the unpublished Sasha Hawkins book? It would cost a lot less, and would still be a guaranteed bestseller.

‘I’ll have to book the time off work,’ Alice said presently. ‘Can you give me the exact dates?’

‘Not yet,’ said Isaac. ‘But it will almost certainly take place in the first two weeks of December.’

‘That shouldn’t be a problem. What is Blackwood House like?’

‘It’s a large mansion situated at the edges of Dartmoor around Okehampton. The family have maintained it for centuries, although the Blackwood family name disappeared around 1870, as Lord Sebastian Blackwood had no sons. However his daughter Catherine married into another substantial family fortune when she wed James Hawkins, the Earl of Somerset. He moved into Blackwood House, and since that time there has always been a Hawkins in residence.

‘Blackwood House was originally built in medieval times, before being knocked down and almost completely rebuilt in the seventeenth century. It has been meticulously restored over the centuries. The estate does look beautiful, but it also has a slightly sinister reputation. Some even claimed to have seen ghosts within its walls.’

‘A haunted house?’

‘I don’t believe in such things. But there have been alleged sightings of ghostly apparitions. Its spooky reputation probably appealed to Sasha Hawkins given her penchant for the macabre. No doubt that was why she chose to stay there with her parents rather than move out. Perhaps she thought she could contact the ghosts herself, or at the very least be inspired by her surroundings. The Hawkins family didn’t think they needed all that space for themselves though, and the estate is very expensive to maintain. That’s why they opened the house to the public and only live in one small wing.’”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the novel:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon (click link below).

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

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Film Review – ’71


The spirit of John Carpenter is alive and well in director Yann Demange’s ’71. Echoing classic Carpenter pics such as Assault on Precinct 13, Demange’s film is a stripped down, tense, thrilling piece of work that puts him on the map as a director to look out for.

The story – set in Northern Ireland in 1971 (hence the title) – concerns in-over-his-head British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell). After his first posting lands him in a Belfast troubles hotspot, Hook finds himself separated from his unit inside a hostile Catholic area with IRA gunmen on his tail. Wounded and without weapons, can he make it back to his barracks alive? Will the Ulster Unionists he encounters be more of a help or a hindrance? Or will his own comrades manage to rescue him first?

It is important to make clear that ’71 is not a political film. It simply uses the volatile situation in 1970s Belfast as a backdrop for an invigorating, palm-sweating chase movie that has an admirably spare relentlessness to it. O’Connell and the rest of the cast are good, and Demange stages a number of riveting sequences. On moment in particular recalls the foot chase of Point Break and has the same intensity. Whilst this is clearly a genre piece, Gregory Burke’s screenplay does not duck the horrific trauma of what it means to actually kill somebody, and whilst the film does contain a number of plot contrivances, they do not occur at the expense of realism. Hence why I must now add the regulation warning for strong language and violence.

All in all, a fine piece of work.

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George goes to Neptune – update

People continue to ask me when the next novel in the George Hughes series will be released. To reiterate, the third – and almost certainly final – instalment in the series will be released early next year. I will announce a precise date in January.

George goes to Neptune follows George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan, rounding off what has become an unexpected trilogy. The first book was originally planned as a standalone piece, but with each sequel I have found new ideas and ways of continuing George’s adventures that people seem to have enjoyed. I hope this third novel proves every bit as exciting.

I still have a few very minor tweaks to make to the manuscript, but the bulk of the work is done and I am looking forward to releasing the finished product.

George goes to Neptune features the return of George, as well as series regulars Meredith and Giles. Most of the supporting characters will also return, though some in larger roles than others. There are also some new characters, but I will remain tight lipped on that subject for now.

As for the plot, that is also very much under wraps at present. However, here’s a brief summary of what I said last time, plus a couple of new titbits. The plot will obviously involve a voyage to Neptune, but the reasons for George’s journey are very different this time. The plot will feature Martians and yes, there will be a new alien race that George and our heroes discover. The tone is perhaps a little darker, especially towards the end of the story. George is going to face his toughest adventure yet – one that involves him confronting not only a deadly enemy but his own darkest fears.

However, rest assured that the book contains just as much action as the previous two, and that if you enjoyed them, I believe you will enjoy this one just as much.

You can catch up with the previous two installments in this series at Amazon, with George goes to Mars available FREE at

George goes to Mars:

George goes to Titan:

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The Birds Began to Sing – About the cover

Here is the cover for my upcoming book, The Birds Began to Sing.

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

For the design, Charles Bown – who I interviewed earlier in the year on this blog – presented me with a number of striking options, but I eventually settled on the image of a woman’s silhouette in a dark corridor as it immediately conveyed the mysterious and sinister mood of the novel. The story does feature a few sequences involving the protagonist creeping down an important sinister corridor, so that was obviously another reason for my choice.

The other options offered included stylised exteriors of Blackwood House on Dartmoor, where the bulk of the plot takes place. These images also struck the appropriate tone. However, one of my favourite designs – a stark graphic of black birds on a white background – I rejected because to me it said “highbrow, Booker Prize baiting endeavour” rather than “page-turning genre piece”. People quite understandably judge books by their cover, and it was not my intention to mislead anyone into thinking I had literary delusions of grandeur.

For the full interview with Charles Bown from earlier this year, check out the link below:

Also, you follow Charles on Twitter here:


In addition to the cover, here is the blurb from the back to whet your appetite:

From the author of Children of the Folded Valley…

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. It is currently available to pre-order at Amazon.

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

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Film Review – Gone Girl


David Fincher’s latest film Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her bestselling novel, is a deliciously dark, cynical portrayal of – in flashback – a marriage in meltdown. In between flashbacks, events in the present show beleaguered Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), working with an increasingly suspicious community and police investigation to help find his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The question is, did he kill her? Or is something far more twisted and sinister taking place?

It is impossible to review Gone Girl in any depth without revealing major spoilers, suffice to say it contains terrific central performances – especially from Pike who I have been a huge fan of for years. This is unquestionably her greatest role to date, and I would be surprised if she didn’t get an Oscar nomination. It is also worth noting a couple of the very good supporting performances. Firstly Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo (with whom he amusingly plays the “Game of Life” board game in an early scene), and Tyler Perry’s turn as high flying lawyer Tanner Bolt.

I suspect Fincher’s assured direction and Flynn’s screenplay will also be Oscar nominated. I have not read the novel, but apparently the screenplay is more darkly comic, something which I particularly appreciated. That said, I doubt this film will be something everyone finds funny. All of which brings me to the usual warnings about very strong language, bloody violence and sex.

In one sense, Gone Girl is nothing particularly original. There are shades of Hitchcock (Vertigo, Marnie and Dial M for Murder in particular) and classic film noir throughout. One is reminded not only of Double Indemnity but also lesser known noir gems such as Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Other key texts this draws inspiration from include Jagged Edge, The Talented Mr Ripley, John Dahl’s The Last Seduction and even a classic Sherlock Holmes short story, The Problem of Thor Bridge. However, what makes Gone Girl feel interesting and contemporary is the way it raises issues of media voyeurism, marital stereotypes, class snobbery, misogyny, infidelity, hypocrisy and deception in an entertaining and thought provoking way. In particular, the dispiriting modern trend of managing and presenting our personalities – the best versions of ourselves, if you like – is dissected with an unrelenting scalpel of scrutiny.

Ultimately, I suspect the issues in the marriage between Nick and Amy will strike a chord with many viewers, even though the problems here are exaggerated to the nth degree. Admittedly this will be way too strong for some to stomach, but for those with the temperament for it, I highly recommend the film. Perhaps just not as a romantic date movie.

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When is a book finished?


I’ve read a lot of posts on other writing blogs – some of them excellent – on how vitally important it is to keep polishing work prior to submission to agents and publishers, or prior to publication if you are self-publishing. The underlying message is that however ready you might think your work is, the chances are it isn’t ready yet.

All of which is well and good, but there does come a point when tinkering is only going to make the writing worse. The trick is to know when that point is.

I think the answer is somewhat complex, as there are so many levels on which writing needs to be polished – story, characters and dialogue for starters. That’s before getting into the really detailed edit of making sure it reads well, eliminating unnecessary words and repetition, making sure adjectives are used not too much or little, eliminating adverbs except where they serve an important purpose, grammar, punctuation, etc.

The only answer I can offer is that a novel can never be perfect. The trick is to get it as close to perfection as you possibly can without going insane. Then it has to be submitted or released, regardless of what overlooked warts remain. In some cases these can be corrected subsequently (for instance, one can upload revised text to online versions), but in the end you have to move on.

Before reaching this point however, there are two very obvious things to do when you can’t see the wood for the trees. One is to get feedback from trusted people. The other is to allow a period of time to pass before you pick up your work again. I find the latter method in particular to be very effective, as the distance of time provides perspective and you can redraft with a fresh eye. Of course, the downside to this is that you cannot expect to write a novel and release it within a short space of time. You have to be prepared for your novel to sit on the shelf, perhaps for years, waiting for the moment it is finally ready for release.

I have several novels – some of which were written over ten years ago – waiting for that moment when I will be happy to finally let go of them. Others I have turned around in a relatively short space of time, simply because experience has taught me not to make the mistakes I made ten years ago that necessitated holding back my work. But if a novel simply isn’t ready, it is always better to hang on to it until the right time – whether you’ve worked on it for six months or six years.

There does come a time though, when all rewriting must end and a book must either be released or abandoned, regardless of the inevitable imperfections that remain.

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Film Review – Two Days, One Night


Marion Cotillard, one of my favourite actresses at present, delivers a sterling performance in this simple but gripping drama. She plays Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers her work colleagues are to be forced to vote between keeping their bonus or keeping her on staff. Over the course of a weekend she has to convince her colleagues to side with her – no easy task given that she has just recovering from a bout of chronic depression.

However, Sandra’s task is far from straightforward. In many cases, her colleagues desperately need their bonuses, and have no choice but to reluctantly vote against her out of self-preservation. In spite of this, Sandra manages to persuade some to vote for her, but will she convince enough? Amid the minutiae of Sandra’s conversations, various other tensions boiling beneath the surface sometimes erupt, with the bonus issue proving a catalyst for her ongoing struggles with depression, guilt and marital strife, not to mention her colleague’s fears of what happens if they vote for her (such as contracts not being renewed) and so forth.

Writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are clearly influenced by the social realist cinema of Ken Loach, and as such underpin their screenplay with an enquiry into the darker side of the free market. It isn’t exactly the full Loach (ie all but gunning for a socialist revolt), but it is asking pertinent questions and exposing the price that must be paid for a capitalist society. What makes this so watchable is the way the viewer is continually forced to think about what they would do not just in Sandra’s shoes, but in her colleague’s shoes. There is a neat sting in the tale too, which again provokes much food for thought.

All in all, Two Days, One Night is a very fine piece of work.

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NEW NOVEL ANNOUNCEMENT: The Birds Began to Sing – available for pre-order!

This October I am releasing another novel, The Birds Began to Sing. It is available to pre-order from Amazon (see link below).

This is the second book I have released aimed at grown-ups, and represents the closest I’ll ever get to an Agatha Christie, murder-in-a-country-house type story.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

The Birds Began to Sing draws inspiration not only from Agatha Christie, but also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, gothic romances from the Bronte sisters (especially Jane Eyre), Daphne Du Maurier (particularly Rebecca), as well as ghost stories such as Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and conspiracy thrillers from authors like Michael Crichton.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing with this book, as it was a joy tinkering with the conventions of the genre whilst crafting a mystery thriller that is hopefully original and interesting in its own right.

The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. Pre-order your copy now!

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

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Film Review – Night Will Fall


This timely documentary is essential viewing for 1) anyone with a serious interest in film, 2) anyone interested in the post war politics that led to the suppression of some extraordinary Nazi death camp documentation and 3) anyone brave enough to view some of the most distressing images of the Holocaust ever captured on film.

In 1945, producer Sidney Bernstein and director Alfred Hitchcock (yes, you read that correctly) were commissioned to oversee German Concentration Camps Factual Survey – a film which was to contain everything in the liberated death camps that would “prove this actually happened”. This documentary was shot, scripted and partially edited, but the project was ultimately shelved by a Foreign Office who ruled it “inconvenient”, given rapidly changing post war political considerations, such as the rise of Zionism and the need for Germany as an ally against the Soviets.

The complete film, missing for several decades, has subsequently been rediscovered and finished to Bernstein and Hitchcock’s original specifications by Imperial War Museum scholars. It will screen at the London Film Festival next month, but in the meantime Night Will Fall, director Andre Singer’s companion piece, explains the story behind the making of this film, and provides interviews and context for its truly horrifying footage.

Singer is the ideal choice to oversee a project like this, given his involvement in The Act of Killing (a documentary I haven’t had the courage to watch yet, in spite of its near universal acclaim). The result is a sober and fascinating piece of work. Be warned – the imagery on display here is beyond shocking and will scar your memory forever. However, this remains a vitally important and profoundly relevant film as, to quote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, it “exposes once again the obscenity of Holocaust denial”. Given recent current events, I couldn’t put it more eloquently than that.

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Film Review – A Most Wanted Man


The late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a strong, suitably dour performance as the spy at the centre of A Most Wanted Man. To be honest, he is really the primary reason to see what is otherwise a fairly low key thriller.

Adapted from John Le Carre’s novel, the film clearly has aspirations of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy variety. But unlike Tomas Alfredson’s outstanding version of that spy classic, Anton Corbijn’s picture is a far less riveting affair. The story concerns a Chechen Muslim illegal immigrant whose presence in Hamburg is suspected to be part of a terrorist plot. Rather than arrest him, spymaster Gunther (Hoffman) works hard to persuade other interested parties – including the Americans – to keep their distance to see if he will lead them to the mastermind behind the plot. Further convoluting the mix are a dodgy banker (Willem Dafoe) and lawyer (Rachel McAdams), who Gunther accuses of being a “social worker for terrorists”.

The murky morality of espionage is duly examined with the requisite hand-wringing, but with little of the piercing insight into the human condition that made Tinker Tailor so memorable. On the plus side the location work is good, and Corbijn’s eye for a good image remains keen. But visually his previous films Control and The American are far more interesting. Hoffman aside, the performances are decent and the film does just enough – even if it does grind along in very low gear – to keep the audience interested. In the end though, there can be little doubt that A Most Wanted Man is, at best, a moderately wanted film.

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