Children of the Folded Valley OUT NOW

My new book, Children of the Folded Valley, is now available from Amazon. Check out the link below:

It is also available FREE – for a limited time – from Smashwords in various digital formats:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/459663

Print copies will be available from Lulu.com from the 27th of July.

Children of the Folded Valley is the first book I have released that is aimed at a more adult readership. It’s a drama with a few background science fiction elements, told in flashbacks like a memoir.

Here again is the blurb from the back, to whet your appetite:

From the author of Uncle Flynn and George goes to Mars

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

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Film Review – Earth to Echo

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Pitched as ET meets The Goonies verite style, Earth to Echo is actually a fair bit better than one might expect. Yes, the found footage format is somewhat tired now, but as a contemporary update of that particular brand of 80s film, it is faithful to the spirit of the movies it emulates.

Of course, inviting comparison with ET is potentially disastrous, as it is a cinematic sacred text. But Earth to Echo gets away with it for the most part because of the strength of the largely unknown leads – Teo Halm, Astra, Reese Hartwig and Ella Wahlestedt. Director Dave Green coaxes sympathetic performances from all, and draws inspiration not only from the obvious sources, to which this film owes a direct debt, but also lesser known films of the genre (such as Joe Dante’s Explorers), Stand by Me, the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans (Echo looks a bit like the robot owl), and even the Children Film Foundation’s The Glitterball (from as far back as 1977).

Inevitably, Earth to Echo falls far short of the masterpiece that is ET, but on its own terms it works reasonably well. Although they now have mobile phones and wear safety helmets when they ride their bicycles, it’s refreshing to see a modern film where a bunch of likeable children go out and about and find themselves involved in a thrilling adventure.

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Children of the Folded Valley released tomorrow

Folded Valley cover

Tomorrow, my new novel Children of the Folded Valley will be available for digital download.

Print copies will be released on the 27th July.

As mentioned on previous posts, Children of the Folded Valley is something of a departure for me, as it is my first attempt at a grown-up novel. It is also the first time I have used a first person narrative.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

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Film Review – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-official-trailer-0

The latest offering in the recently resurrected Planet of the Apes franchise is a very strong entry indeed. In fact, it could be even better than the last (very good) film. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes emphasises all the stronger elements of the series, with a large dose of future shock dystopia, thought provoking political allegory, and of course plenty of action.

Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa follow on almost directly from the world wide plague that decimated Earth at the end of the previous instalment. Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis) now runs the ape colony in the Redwoods near a devastated San Francisco. Believing all the humans to be dead, Caesar and his apes are surviving peacefully until they encounter a group of humans in the forest led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who has survived in a virus-immune human colony led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The humans want to utilise the power of a dam in ape territory, but were unaware of the ape colony. Misunderstandings and initial acts of violence give way to a fragile truce, but with rogue elements on sides wanting to sow distrust and provoke conflict, war between the humans and apes begins to look likely.

The highest compliment I can pay the extraordinary special effects is that one simply doesn’t notice them. Serkis arguably delivers a career-best performance, and the rest of the cast are good, though a little more Gary Oldman wouldn’t have gone amiss. It isn’t just the supporting human characters that impress either, but also the supporting apes (especially quietly wise Orang-utan Maurice – motion captured by Karin Konoval). Director Matt Reeves proves highly adept at staging both action and drama, and this is certainly his finest film to date. Michael Giachinno’s music is another glorious bonus, especially in the way it pays tribute to Jerry Goldsmith’s original, largely percussive score.

There is also plenty of hefty moral meat to chew. A gun control message is delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but sometimes sledgehammers are effective tools, and it is a message well worth heeding. Like all great science fiction (and indeed all great storytelling), this film holds up a mirror to the human condition and in this case confronts the ugly lies, fears, prejudices and selfishness that wreck diplomacy and lead to war. Such insight into human failing is universally relevant in almost any contemporary conflict situation.

In short, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is exciting, intelligent and thought-provoking.

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Film Review – The Wind Rises

yoko_out

A difficult one this. On the one hand, Hayao Miyazaki’s apparent swansong The Wind Rises is one the most staggeringly beautiful animated films I have ever seen. I simply do not have the adjectives to describe how singularly magnificent it looks. In that respect, Studio Ghibli have excelled themselves.

On the other hand, the subject matter – a highly romanticised tribute to Japanese aerial pioneer Jiro Horikoshi – is understandably controversial. This is, after all, the man who designed the Zero, which was used for kamikaze raids in World War II. Is it fair to celebrate his undoubted engineering achievements whilst conveniently ignoring what his creations went on to do?

To be fair, I actually don’t think what his fighters did is ignored. The soaring dream sequences that show Jiro’s inspiration also contain many disturbing hints of what is coming in the future. The key moment comes in a (dreamed) conversation Jiro has with Italian aircraft pioneer Caproni, who asks him if he would rather live in a world with or without pyramids. The implication being, he would rather live in a world with aircraft rather than a world without them, in the full knowledge that his heroic dreams of flight will inevitably be perverted into instruments of destruction.

Some will argue this fudges the issue, as what the fighters did is not directly addressed. But I believe the imagery implies a great deal – particularly towards the end, where piles of destroyed aircraft parts are seen strewn across a burning landscape. Furthermore, where some may see historical revisionism, I see an admirable, committed pacifism that rightly or wrong paints Jiro – and by extension Miyazaki – as a someone who abhors war, conquest, imperialism and everything it stands for.

Whether or not you can view the film in that light will inevitably colour your opinion. In my case, regardless of the controversy, I found The Wind Rises to be a remarkable piece of work, and worth seeing for the astonishing imagery alone. It is also really two love stories – one between Jiro and his work, and another between Jiro and the woman who comes to be his wife. Both stories are beautifully interwoven, and contain an undeniable emotional power.

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Children of the Folded Valley – Excerpt 2

Folded Valley cover

As promised, here is a second, slightly longer excerpt from my upcoming novel, Children of the Folded Valley. This section introduces Benjamin Smiley, leader of the Folded Valley Fellowship.

From Chapter 2:

On Sundays Smiley wore a white suit, white tie, and white shoes. There were a number of different rings on his fingers; some plain gold, some set with small red or green gems. I don’t know why, but these rings made him seem more powerful, especially as he pointed out across the congregation whilst reading the Bible.

‘This is what Daniel said, after God gave him a vision of the apocalypse in Daniel chapter twelve: I heard but I understand not: then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things? And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.

Smiley put his large, ancient looking Bible to one side and stared at us. Surveying the congregation keenly, his eyes halted on me. In that moment I was afraid, yet I also experienced a sense of awe.

‘Daniel had a vision but did not understand it. The Lord told him the words were sealed until the end of time.’

Smiley picked up another ancient looking, but much smaller book.

‘This is Daniel’s vision: The second Book of Daniel. Hidden for untold centuries, the Lord himself showed me where I could find it inside the Temple in the Folded Valley. He has revealed this to me now, for the time of the end is indeed at hand. You are obviously familiar with these verses, but they warrant repeating:

For the Almighty declares that in the final hour he shall send forth his greatest servant. And this shall be the sign of him: He will lead you to a place of safety to shield you. He shall have the power to heal, and as the world – the Fallen Dimension – burns in fire, so shall he keep the chosen from harm, as a hen with chicks under her wings.’

Benjamin Smiley smiled.

‘Of course, I am nothing more than a humble servant, however great. I did not chose greatness, but God has chosen me. Who am I to argue with him? For me to disobey would result in the damnation of your very souls. Woe to me! And woe to you if I do not do as the Almighty bids! For the temptations and traps of the Fallen Dimension are terrible indeed, and few escape their snares. Yet we, the chosen holy remnant of the human race, shall rule and reign with God himself after the world is purged in the flames. We shall wait here, shielded from the inevitable destruction. And though we do not know the precise day or hour of that destruction, we know it will happen soon.’

Benjamin indicated the Bible.

‘The signs spoken of in detail in these pages are coming to pass. Every day in the outside world there is war, conflict and destruction. Technology is advancing, but the people serve it like a god. The love of material goods that do not satisfy consumes those outside. There is no longer any respect for authority. Law and order is breaking down, as is the family unit itself. There is rampant sexual immorality, and love itself seems to be dying. The economies of the world will collapse and dependence on oil will eventually bring about a global nuclear catastrophe triggered by greed and insanity. Put simply: the earth as we know it is utterly and irretrievably doomed.

‘And yet there is hope. Whilst this happens in the Fallen Dimension, we will wait here. Patiently and diligently we will occupy this beautiful land set apart for us, until the time comes for us to re-enter the world, once the wrath of God has been satisfied.’

Smiley moved away from the pulpit and walked down a few steps, moving closer to the congregation.

‘Now some here have doubts in their hearts. Oh, they will not speak of it openly, for they are ashamed. But it is doubt nevertheless. Some here question whether the Fallen Dimension is indeed worthless, as the second Book of Daniel claims. For this ignorance there is forgiveness, but ignorance must be corrected. Therefore it is good on occasion to be reminded of our many blessings and why the Fallen Dimension and its materials – however desirable they may appear – must be shunned.

‘Here we dwell in a place where there is no disease, no hunger and no war. Where there is food and water in abundance and crops never fail. Where no natural disasters occur. There are no floods, no earthquakes, no volcanoes. It is a place where families flourish. Where children can play outside safely without fear. Where everyone works together for a common good. There is an abundance of joy, love, hope and peace.

‘That is not true of the Fallen Dimension. Though it has many glittering, attractive temptations, they are but empty baubles; trinkets of a lost and dying world utterly empty and void of worth. A world destined for flames that has no part of our future. Therefore the Bible says: Come out from among them and be ye separate. That is why the Eldership – those in whom I have placed my trust – only allow such items of the outside world we deem beneficial and uncorrupting. For there is much that is sinful in the world and if brought here their evil will work in your hearts. It might be a book or an article of clothing, or even a toy…’

Benjamin fixed me with another stare. I could not hold his gaze, so cast my eyes to the ground.

‘Beware the toys of the Fallen Dimension! They are the tools of Satan himself! They will seduce but not satisfy, and soon you will want another and another and another. Before you know it the trinkets of the Fallen Dimension will have corrupted you to the point that you want to leave this paradise that the Almighty in his beneficence has provided. Do not take his warnings lightly. Heed the words of his greatest servant, and be of sober mind, lest you fall and burn with the outside.

Children of the Folded Valley – my first novel aimed at grown-ups – is released on the 20th of July in various downloadable digital formats.

Print copies will be available from the 27th of July.

Here is the text from the back of the novel:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

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Film Review – Boyhood

boyhood

Twelve years ago, director Richard Linklater hired Ellar Coltrane, a six year old boy, to star in a film he would shoot every summer for the next twelve years. This film would chronicle the childhood of a boy, Mason (Coltrane), growing up in Texas with his struggling single parent mother (Patricia Arquette), his man-child father (Ethan Hawke) and his older sister Samatha (Lorelei Linklater – the director’s daughter).

On paper, the project looked like a bold experiment, though of course much could have gone wrong. Coltrane might have wanted to stop acting in it for one thing. Furthermore, if mistakes were made, it isn’t as if they could go back and reshoot. The very nature of the project prohibited such cheating. Yet in the end the gamble paid off. Boyhood isn’t merely an interesting cinematic experiment. It’s something of a masterpiece. Fans of Richard Linklater (particularly the Linklater of films like Dazed and Confused or the Before… trilogy, rather than the Linklater of School of Rock), are likely to declare this one of the greatest films of the decade.

Of course, this kind of thing isn’t without precedent in the documentary field, but what Linklater has attempted represents something of a fictional first – at least, for a fairly mainstream film that will almost certainly win wide acclaim and end up Oscar nominated (trust me, it will). The cast are all excellent. Coltrane in particular is a revelation, yet ironically considering the film’s title, this isn’t all about him. In fact, his largely unremarkable journey from boyhood to manhood is merely the hook on which hang some much bigger questions that don’t just explore boyhood but motherhood, fatherhood, sibling relationships and much more.

For example, over the course of the film, we come to understand the tumultuous relationship between his separated parents; how they had children by mistake (far too young), how the struggle to bring up two children alone drives his mother into a series of disastrous marriages to alcoholic husbands, and how Mason’s father gradually becomes the responsible parent his mother had wanted years earlier, but much too late.

That might make the film sound terribly depressing, but it isn’t. There is trauma and tragedy, yes, but not the kind you find in Greek theatre. Instead, Boyhood has the ebb and flow of real life, with difficult and occasionally dangerous domestic situations merely touched upon as a fact of life. There is no sense of judgement with any of the characters, all of whom are deeply flawed, and in their own way trying to make sense of life’s big questions.

Furthermore, there are plenty of laughs to be had – particularly with pop culture references that are revisited. For instance, the apparent end to the Star Wars trilogy is discussed during a father/son camping trip (which of course we know now will continue). On another occasion, Mason and his sister queue to buy a newly released Harry Potter book. Political issues are raised and commented upon – most obviously 9/11, the Iraq invasion, and Presidents Bush and Obama. Mason rants against superficiality of social media during the rise of Facebook. Then there is the soundtrack, which of course references pop music over the last twelve years (everything from Coldplay to Arcade Fire).

There is also a joy infusing much of the film, with growing up, new discovery and the magic and melancholy of childhood perfectly balanced. Simple scenes where Mason is out riding his bike, or swimming, or making awkward adolescent conversation with a girl, or even doing things we might disapprove of (such as drinking and smoking weed) all have the ring of truth to them. This is a modern childhood, warts and all. It is the kind of childhood that exists alongside broken, struggling parents or guardians trying to understand what they want from life, and why.

That the film does not provide any answers of any kind is arguably a strength. Yet it is also likely to frustrate some Christian audiences who perhaps would want the film to at least hint in the direction they would prefer (for the record, Christianity – albeit the American right wing fundamentalist manifestation of it – is largely dismissed out of hand). In addition, strong language and sexual references throughout are likely to rule this film out for some. However, I felt such material was important, as it kept the rough edges of real life present and correct.

In the end, I suspect some will dismiss Boyhood as much ado about nothing, and in a sense it is. But it will also strike a chord with many, especially in the way it’s near three-hour running time seamlessly depicts how quickly children grow, how fast time passes, and, more painfully, how difficult it is to find purpose and meaning in life.

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Children of the Folded Valley – Excerpt 1

Folded Valley cover

Here is the first of two excerpts from my upcoming novel, Children of the Folded Valley:

From Chapter 1:

“We spend our adult lives trying to regain what we lost in childhood.

I do not claim to be unique in that respect. Whilst it might be argued that I lost more than some, we all, I think, chase after what we once had or never had. What we lost cannot be replaced, but we chase after it nonetheless.

Some think of what they lost with romantic rose tinted spectacles, whilst others are more pragmatic. Some deny it, others get angry about it, others still accept it and seek help from friends, family, lovers, therapists, priests, gurus or anyone else who will listen. But I cannot do that. I can never tell my friends, my colleagues, my wife or my children what happened to me in the Folded Valley.

People perceive that I am obsessive, but they don’t know why. Most of the time I don’t even realise that I am obsessive in the amount of thought I give to the past. Since escaping from the Folded Valley I have been searching. I don’t know what for. Perhaps the quest is futile. But still I search.

Sometimes this is a conscious quest. Other times I am unaware of what I am doing, until someone points out that I am distracted or aloof. But mine is not a sentimental journey. I do not long for the past, yet nor do I think of it as exclusively bad. I don’t ever want to go back, but I want things that are trapped there, lost forever.

What I lost, I lost on the railway line that runs along the southern edge of Dartmoor. I can still see the train disappearing; a silhouette against the bleak moors and darkening sunset skies. I can still smell the freshly cut grass, sense the cool breeze and feel the stinging tears. I remember the relief at escaping, the fear of what lay ahead and the horrible churning sensation at the knowledge that everything I had ever known was gone.

That happened in August 1982.

I was just fourteen years old.”

Check back soon for another excerpt.

Here is the text from the back of the novel:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

Children of the Folded Valley – my first novel aimed at grown-ups – is released on the 20th July in various downloadable digital formats.

Print copies will be available from the 27th July.

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Oh, the irony…

NOTE: this article contains spoilers for Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Breaking Bad and Schindler’s List.

Singer Alanis Morissette famously complained that rain on her wedding day was ironic when of course it was simply bad luck. But to be fair to her, irony is one of the most misunderstood devices in storytelling. It is also very, very difficult to write.

To my mind, the most satisfying uses of dramatic irony involve those where the central quest of the protagonist evolves in an ironic way. For instance, if the protagonist sets out to achieve one thing, yet throughout the course of the story achieves the exact opposite. As a result they either become a happier and better person, perhaps seeing their original aim as foolish or deplorable. Or else they find that their actions result in the very thing they feared or set out to avoid in the first place.

I would say mastering irony is a very noble goal, even though it is fiendishly tricky, because if you can the results are often amazing. A central “ironic arc” (or ironic ascension, as Robert McKee calls it) can work brilliantly in a screenplay, novel, play or television programme. Here is an outstanding example from each of the above mediums.

macbeth_tyne

Theatre: MacbethAn obvious choice from Mr Shakespeare, but one that illustrates my point. Macbeth’s actions are set in motion as a result of his consultation with the witches. Had he disregarded their prophecies, his ambitions and desires would have been fulfilled in any case, since King Duncan already favoured him, naming him Thane of Cawdor and heir to the throne. Instead, the famous bloody tragedy ensues.

Gatsby

Novel: The Great GatsbyFitzgerald’s masterpiece is another obvious choice. Gatsby’s delusional, doomed quest to win Daisy is not merely an unwise or futile obsession. It is the very thing that ultimately destroys him. There are so many moments that underscore this. For instance, the way Gatsby sits up all night making sure Tom doesn’t hurt Daisy after the yellow car incident, when in fact Daisy is making up with Tom, showing yet again how disloyal she is and how she simply isn’t worth Gatsby’s efforts. Obviously Gatsby gallantly takes the blame for the yellow car incident to protect Daisy – another irony which leads directly to his demise.

 breakingbad

Television: Breaking Bad – This was a truly extraordinary series. What struck me most was not the brilliance of the direction or performances, or the way in which cliché is so studiously avoided, but Walter White’s astonishingly ironic character arc. Rarely has a descent into evil been so darkly funny, so hideously bone-chilling and so utterly, utterly convincing. It is positively Shakespearean. White starts secretly manufacturing crystal meth simply to pay his medical bills and provide for his family after a cancer diagnosis, but this gradually deteriorates into full blown megalomania, and by the end he has completely lost sight of his original reasons for doing what he did. Nor was what he did even necessary in the first place, since rich friends offered to pay his medical bills, but Walt’s pride wouldn’t allow for that. There is a rich vein of irony in many of the subplots too, but the main plot really does hit the bulls-eye in that regard.

 schindler

Film: Schindler’s ListObviously this was a book before it was a film, but Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is a phenomenal adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s original text, based on the true story of Oscar Schindler. Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party who came to Poland to profit from Jewish slave labour. But over time, as he saw the level of persecution against the Jews, he systematically bankrupted himself, saving as many as he could by bribing officials to keep them in his factories and out of the gas chambers. By the end of the war he was broke, but obviously he had achieved something far greater than financial gain. It is worth noting here that screenplays with ironic character arcs seem to do rather well at the Oscars.

Mastering irony is extremely difficult, and quite honestly any ironic resonance in my own novels is mostly achieved by accident. When he read an early draft of my soon to be released novel Children of the Folded Valley, my father approvingly noted certain ironies in the plot. I must confess I hadn’t noticed them, but obviously I played it cool and insisted I had planned the novel to contain said irony from the very beginning.

Folded Valley cover

Ironically, I didn’t plan for my novel to be ironic. But I’m very glad it is.

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Film Review – Cold in July

Cold-In-July-1

Derivative, implausible but nevertheless entertaining, Cold in July is a diverting bit of genre nonsense that works well enough on it’s own terms.

Sporting a mullet that isn’t too over the top but nevertheless provides a continual reminder of the film’s 1989 setting, family man Richard Dane (Michael C Hall) accidentally shoots a young intruder in his home. The police don’t ask too many questions, given that it was an act of self defence. However, the dead boy’s equally criminal father has just been released from prison, and begins to act all Max Cady around Dane, making the usual veiled threats against his family and so forth.

The film then lurches into an altogether unexpected direction in a very twisty-turny way. Too twisty-turny, to be honest. Suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly difficult given the sheer amount of improbabilities that ensue, but in spite of this the film is enjoyable, thanks to smart, stylish direction from Jim Mickle and some very solid performances.

Said performances don’t just include Hall, but also supporting turns from Sam Shepherd and Don Johnson, the three of whom form a somewhat unusual investigative posse in the second act. Drastic shifts in tone constantly threaten to derail the film, yet somehow the winning performances make it just about hang together, even if I did come away feeling as though the entire thing was ultimately much ado about nothing.

I conclude with the usual warnings about strong violence, swearing and the like, for those who appreciate them. But then again, Cold in July is the kind of sweaty, hard-boiled pulp where such content is a prerequisite.

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