2014 in review

I hope this post doesn’t come off as smug and annoying, but I can’t help but feel a little pleased at what I’ve achieved from a writing perspective this year. I am the kind of writer who sets very clear, long term goals, and whilst I don’t always achieve them, it is great when I do.

Folded Valley cover

Back in January, on New Year’s Day to be precise, I said I would release two, possibly three novels this year. I ended up releasing three, because I finally summoned the courage to cut the umbilical from Children of the Folded Valley, my first “grown-up” novel, and without a doubt my most “personal” work to date.

Children of the Folded Valley was an unexpected success (in relative terms), proving again that sometimes it is best to trust one’s instincts. This was a novel that came close to mainstream publication, though in the end that didn’t quite come off, partly due to certain compromises I wasn’t prepared to make. Furthermore, I had great doubts over the subject matter, first person narrative and ambiguity of the finale, all of which kept me clinging onto the manuscript, fearing what people might think of it. Yet in the end, all such George McFly style worry proved ill-founded. Given the fantastic reviews on the Amazon page, it seems readers have well and truly embraced the novel.

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

Of course, Children of the Folded Valley wasn’t my only output this year. Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge and The Birds Began to Sing were also released – the former a scary, outrageous adventure for young and old alike, and the latter a gripping mystery thriller for grown-ups.

DrGibbles_1600x2400_front cover

In between these releases I have been writing in earnest and have penned another two novels, including the (probably) final entry in the George Hughes series, George goes to Neptune, which will be released next year.

I also wrote The Thistlewood Curse, a supernatural mystery for grown-ups that takes place entirely on Lundy Island. I am not sure whether I will submit this one for mainstream publication or release it myself, but I will probably decide one way or the other next year.

So that was my 2014, writing wise, in a nutshell. Perhaps it did sound a bit smug in the end. As for what I am up to in 2015, watch this space…

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Film Review – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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I know there has been criticism in certain quarters regarding Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. Yes, it could be argued that the films need not have been split into three. Yet I have not had the same problem with the Hobbit films as I had with, say, the last Hunger Games film. To me at least, each of the three has felt like a complete movie, even though each has also been part of an ongoing saga. At a comparatively trim 144 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest in the series, and for me the best.

The film opens exactly where the last left off, with the dragon Smaug’s spectacular assault on Laketown. Those familiar with the book will know what follows, with Bard’s heroics leading to a tense feud with Elves, Dwarfs and Men, over exactly who has a claim on the treasure of the Lonely Mountain. Meanwhile, a huge army of orcs, giant bats, trolls and other infernal creatures are secretly marching on the mountain. In the middle of all this, Bilbo Baggins finds himself faced with a difficult choice in the face of Thorin’s descent into greed and madness.

Thorin here is the key character, and Richard Armitage plays him brilliantly. Even more brilliant is Martin Freeman, who simply owns the part of Bilbo despite the fact that at times he appears sidelined in his own story. The rest of the cast – Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, Luke Evans’s Bard, Lee Pace’s Thranduil, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel and so on – are all very good. Even Billy Connolly turns up, playing Thorin’s cousin Dain, but also kind of playing himself. And yes, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas performs a series of even more ridiculous stunts. Incidentally, Christopher Lee’s whirling dervish duel with the Ringwraiths at Dol Guldur is another bonus, and Cate Blanchett gets to do scary Galadriel once again, as (SPOILER WARNING) the White Council face down the Necromancer aka Sauron (Benedict Cumberbatch, who also voices Smaug), banishing him to Mordor and thus setting up The Lord of the Rings.

Everything one has come to expect from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth epics is present and correct, including spectacular New Zealand locations and astonishing special effects by the bucketload. Howard Shore’s music is tremendous, and Billy Boyd song The Last Goodbye, which plays over the end credits, brings the whole saga to an appropriately bittersweet close.

There is plenty of good dramatic meat to chew on too, with Tolkien’s study of the corrupting power of greed an ever present theme. Even more important from a moral/spiritual perspective is the central relationship between Bilbo and Thorin. SPOILER WARNING: Bilbo acts as a true friend by trying to save Thorin from what he has become blinded to, and like the novel this provides the film with it’s most powerful, tragic and moving scene. Essentially the moral of The Hobbit can be summed up in Thorin’s final words: “If more people valued home over gold the world would be a merrier place”.

I must confess I am intrigued to see an extended cut, since a number of shots and sequences glimpsed in the trailer were not present. But that isn’t to say the film feels as if anything is missing. All the main elements from The Hobbit are covered, and indeed this film sticks closer to Tolkien’s original text than the previous two. In short, The Battle of the Five Armies is a fully satisfying conclusion to a series of films that – for me at least – are every bit as funny, thrilling, relevant and ultimately heartbreaking as the book.

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Film Review – Ida

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If you fancy a spare, grim slab of stark monochrome minimalism to cut through the impending Christmas cheer, look no further than Ida, the new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikoswki.

Actually, I’m not sure if it’s still playing everywhere as I’ve only just caught up with it at our local arts centre, but in any event, Ida is the superbly acted and directed story of the eponymous Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate in 1960s Poland. Having been brought up by nuns, Ida is informed by the Mother Superior that she must visit her only living relative, her aunt Anna (Agata Kulesza), before taking her vows. Anna then reveals that Ida is in fact Jewish, and was secretly taken in by the nuns as a baby during World War II.

What follows is something of an odd couple journey for aunt and niece to discover the truth about Ida’s family, and to locate where her parents lie buried. Locals are questioned, and in turn casual anti-Semitism manifests itself – the same anti-Semitism that no doubt caused some Poles to betray their Jewish neighbours to the Nazis. Amid this quest Ida slowly, subtly begins to question her desire to become a nun, though she can barely even admit as much to herself. At the same time, Anna has her own private and deeply tragic reason for wanting answers about Ida’s past.

This is a quiet, thoughtful and staggeringly beautiful film. The film is shot in unfussy black and white 1:33 Academy aspect ratio, and as such Pawlikowski makes tremendous use of height as well as width. He also frames several close-ups with the heads in the lower part of the frame, creating a profound sense of isolation and loneliness. Such deliberately paced, understated miserablism will not appeal to all but I really, really liked this film, which, at a mere 80 minutes, certainly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

On a wider scale, behind the tragedy of Ida’s family looms the greater tragedy of a nation decimated by one dictatorship (the Nazis), only to end up in the grip of another (Soviet Communism), before finally emerging in more recent years to an increasingly uncertain future. Ultimately however, what lingers in the consciousness even more than the bigger political picture, or even the magnificent cinematography, are the performances – particularly from Agata Trzebuchowska. As Ida she is subtle but completely brilliant, conveying every emotion with phenomenal nuance and realism. It is her haunting face you will remember long after the end credits roll.

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What age are my books aimed at?

DrGibbles_1600x2400_front cover

I am writing this post somewhat under duress, as it is a response to repeated requests for me to provide a suggested readership age for the various novels I have published.

I am reluctant to do this, because all children are different. Some have more advanced reading ability than others. Tolkien once said that one does not improve a child’s vocabulary by giving them material aimed at their reading level, but by giving them reading material aimed above their reading level. I heartily agree.

The other reason I have been asked to provide an age bracket for my novels is to ascertain whether they are too scary/violent/disturbing or not. Again, I submit that all children are different and what might disturb one will not disturb another. My father once said that children reading about orcs, trolls, giant spiders, dragons and the like in The Hobbit is a very different prospect to seeing them onscreen, because how scary they are on a page is governed by the imagination of the child. However, in a film version, it is the imagination of an adult that has interpreted the depiction of these creatures, and therefore they can be (indeed they are) considerably more scary. For that reason, I do support a suggested minimum age for viewing films (although even then the individual temperament of the child needs to be taken into consideration).

All that said; here is a very rough guide for the age groups/demographics my currently published novels are aimed at – both in terms of reading ability and content.

Uncle Flynn – Reading age, around 10 and over, but could be read to children around 8 and over.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge – Reading age, around 10 and over, but could be read to children around 8 and over.

George goes to Mars/George goes to Titan – Reading age, around 10 and over, but could be read to children around 8 and over.

Children of the Folded Valley – Primarily aimed at adults, though teenagers around 14 and over might also enjoy it.

The Birds Began to Sing – Primarily aimed at adults.

I hope that is useful.

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Film Review – Black Sea

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The shadow of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre looms heavily over Black Sea – a fine piece of genre filmmaking that makes an efficient fist of the whole heist-crew-seek-gold-then-turn-on-each-other routine. There are other influences obviously, but Sierra Madre remains the key text director Kevin Macdonald’s film borrows from. Yet Macdonald also brings enough of his own fresh spin on the well-worn tale to engage and grip the viewer, delivering a relevant and timely morality tale with plenty of suspense and thrills.

Recently laid off salvage captain Robinson (Jude Law with a slightly questionable Scottish accent), puts together a crew to try and locate a sunken Nazi U-boat laden with gold bullion deep in the Caspian Sea. His crew include various stock characters; for instance wet-behind-the-ears Tobin (Bobby Schofield) and the obligatory psycho Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn). Out of necessity, Robinson is forced to charter a very old, rusty Russian submarine, which complicates matters because of the need for (mostly) non-English speaking Russians amongst the crew. The Russians are immediately targets of hostility from the Brits who begin to grumble over Robinson’s insistence on equal shares of the loot.

It doesn’t take long for disgruntlement to escalate into greed, sabotage and murder, and Robinson adopts an increasingly Ahab/William Bligh attitude to proceedings. Tension, twists and turns ensue, and claustrophobic viewers in particular will find their pulses racing at some of the nerve-shredding set pieces.

In spite of the clichés this is terrific stuff – largely thanks to committed performances, Macdonald’s deft helming and Dennis Kelly’s screenplay, which takes the time to add a modicum of social comment on recent economic times. Yet although Robinson and his crew are victims of the recession, modernisation and heartless corporate management (the opening scene where the seasoned Robinson is laid off by some early twenty-something corporate lackey is particularly telling), ultimately Robinson only has himself to blame for neglecting what is really important in life. The film provides a suitably sobering reminder to value spouses, children and family above one’s career, before it is too late.

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Christmas Present ideas: The Birds Began to Sing

With Christmas rapidly approaching, if you’re scratching your head for gift ideas, I have several novels available that might make good presents.

Today’s suggestion: The Birds Began to Sing

Intended Readership: Adults.

The Birds Began to Sing is a mystery novel inspired by the likes of Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with a dash of Susan Hill, the Bronte Sisters and Michael Crichton but hopefully also original in its own right (you decide). It is dedicated to my wife, who loves a gripping, page-turning thriller.

Here is the blurb from the back of The Birds Began to Sing:

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.

This is my most recent novel so there aren’t many reviews available yet. However two reviewers at Barnes and Noble had this to say:

“Mystery, drama, conspiracy theory, and some supernatural intrigue. A real page turner!”

“I really enjoyed this. Really thought it was unique.”

Print copies are available to order here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/the-birds-began-to-sing/paperback/product-21878694.html

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Christmas Present ideas: Children of the Folded Valley

With Christmas rapidly approaching, if you’re scratching your head for gift ideas, I have several novels available that might make good presents.

Today’s suggestion: Children of the Folded Valley

Intended Readership: Adults.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood growing up in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, 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.

By far my most successful novel to date, Children of the Folded Valley has been very well reviewed.

Here is a sample of the many raves:

“I don’t usually leave reviews but I felt so strongly about encouraging people to read this fantastic book. It had me captured from start to finish. At one stage in the book I actually thought it was a true story.” – Paul, Amazon.

“The use of re-written religious doctrine to control, govern and frighten is particularly chilling… Full marks to Simon Dillon for this creative and highly readable novel.” – Around Robin, Amazon.

“Creepy and unnerving. Kept me gripped the whole way through.” – Lucyboo, Amazon.

“I couldn’t put it down.” – Bukky, Amazon.

“Really well written, well thought through, compassionate… Full of empathy.” – Over, Amazon.

“So well written, you could believe it was a memoir.” – Shelley, Amazon.

“A perturbing and very original story… The ending is magnificent.” – Joan, Goodreads.

Print copies can be ordered here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/children-of-the-folded-valley/paperback/product-21812308.html

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Christmas Present ideas: Uncle Flynn

With Christmas rapidly approaching, if you’re scratching your head for gift ideas, I have several novels available that might make good presents. Over the next few days I will explore each one in a little more detail.

Some of my novels are aimed at grown-ups, others at children, but all readers can enjoy them. As CS Lewis once said, a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.

Today’s suggestion: Uncle Flynn

Intended Readership: Children and adults.

Uncle Flynn, my debut novel, was received very positively. On the surface it is a properly old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, but it contains underlying themes about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. The book is dedicated to my eldest son, and was largely inspired by our many excursions over Dartmoor, as well as a bit of local history.

Here is the blurb from the back of Uncle Flynn:

When timid eleven year old Max Bradley embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious Uncle Flynn, he discovers he is braver than he thought.

Together they decipher clues, find a hidden map and explore secret tunnels in their search. But with both police and rival treasure hunters on their tail, Max begins to wonder if his uncle is all he seems…

Here are some reviews:

“Harking back to the wonderful adventure stories of Arthur Ransome, Uncle Flynn is a welcome return to the excitement of outdoor exploits in wild surroundings. Excitement, tension and peril combine in a well-written tale where The Goonies meets Swallows and Amazons. The evocative descriptions of treasure seeking on Dartmoor will have you longing to visit and explore for yourselves. Action-packed puzzle-solving pleasure for children and adults alike, with a neat twist in the tale to keep you guessing.”

Mrs Alice R Brewer, Amazon.co.uk

“A treasure for all ages. Kids and teenagers would love this fast-paced adventure story. Most adults would also find it a light and enjoyable read.”

B Fraley, Amazon.com

“Don’t pass this one by. I have been burning through the free NOOKbooks and this is the absolute BEST. Doesn’t matter what type of fiction you like to read, I can imagine this would capture just about anyone’s attention – and heart.”

willreadanything, Barnes and Noble.

“Could not put the book down, so enjoyed the journey. Recommended it to my 12 year old grandson who now wants me to be his book reading adviser. Loved by three generations.”

Brinney, Barnes and Noble.

“What a wonderful book for young readers and anyone else who loves a book with a great twist on an amazing story of courage over fear.”

Beansie47, Barnes and Noble.

“I’m an 83 year old woman. Your book was a joy to me. I felt I was having all the adventures myself at this ripe old age. Your book was like a cold drink of water on a hot day. Thank you.”

Joan McLaughlin, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

“I downloaded the book for my boys to read, and thought I’d just read the first few lines… Needless to say I read to the end! Well written and most enjoyable – great adventure with life lessons woven into the story.”

Cecile Weyers, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

Print copies are available to order here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/uncle-flynn/paperback/product-21165126.html

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Christmas Present ideas: Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge

With Christmas rapidly approaching, if you’re scratching your head for gift ideas, I have several novels available that might make good presents. Over the next few days I will explore each one in a little more detail.

Some of my novels are aimed at grown-ups, others at children, but all readers can enjoy them. As CS Lewis once said, a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.

Today’s suggestion: Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge

DrGibbles_1600x2400_front cover

Intended Readership: Children and adults who enjoy books like the Alex Rider series.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is a gripping and scary tale involving spies, monsters, haunted houses, mad scientists and lots more besides, with action and thrills to spare. It was actually inspired by the nightmares of my youngest son, and the book is duly dedicated to him.

Here is the blurb from the back of Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge:

September 1987.

Curiosity lands Tim Rawling in a world of secrets, spies and a desperate race against time.

The haunted house, the monster and the mad scientist are only the beginning of a terrifying adventure.

So far hardly any reviews have appeared for this book, which is a shame as I think it is rather good. There is a five star rave on Barnes and Noble, calling it a “fantastic read” but by and large the novel has been somewhat overlooked. Time to change that!

Print copies are available to order here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/dr-gribbles-and-the-beast-of-blackthorn-lodge/paperback/product-21564790.html

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Christmas Present ideas: George goes to Mars/George goes to Titan

With Christmas rapidly approaching, if you’re scratching your head for gift ideas, I have several novels available that might make good presents. Over the next few days I will explore each one in a little more detail.

Some of my novels are aimed at grown-ups, others at children, but all readers can enjoy them. As CS Lewis once said, a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.

Today’s suggestion: George goes to Mars/George goes to Titan

Intended Readership: Children and adults who enjoy books like the Alex Rider series.

George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan are books 1 and 2 respectively in a thrilling, action-packed space tale set just over a hundred years in the future. Each story is a stand-alone adventure, but I recommend reading the novels in order nonetheless. The third (and almost certainly final) book in this series, George goes to Neptune, will be released next year.

George goes to Mars

Here is the blurb from the back of George goes to Mars:

When George Hughes discovers he has inherited the planet Mars, he goes from poverty to becoming the richest boy on Earth overnight.

Accompanied by his new guardian, a mysterious secret agent and a crew of astronauts, George voyages to Mars to sell land to celebrities wanting to build interplanetary holiday homes. But sabotage, assassination attempts and the possibility of an alien threat plunge him into a deadly adventure…

Print copies can be ordered here: http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/simon-dillon/george-goes-to-mars/paperback/product-21336550.html

George goes to Titan

Here is the blurb from the back of George goes to Titan:

The thrilling sequel to George goes to Mars…

A year on from his adventures on Mars, George Hughes faces an even deadlier peril as he travels to Titan on an urgent rescue mission. The mysterious Giles returns to help him, but assassins are once again on his tail, and a new, far greater alien menace lurks in the shadows waiting to strike.

Print copies can be ordered here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/george-goes-to-titan/paperback/product-21736985.html

Here are a couple of reviews from adults:

“A thoroughly enjoyable read” – Mark, Amazon.

“Reading like a cross between one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy Mars adventures and a Robert Heinlein ‘juvenile’, this improbable yarn (just how many “saved in the nick of time” coincidences can one novel contain?) about a rags-to-riches-to-hero boy named George was nonetheless page-turningly entertaining. Perfect rainy day/sick day reading.” – Elizabeth Olson, Goodreads.

And here some thoughts from the target audience (at least I assume so, given the tone of their reviews):

“This was totally amazing! Involves space ships, aliens and more! A totally exciting adventure you’ll love!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

“Pure awesomeness! Packed with suspense and adventure, as well as LOTS of action!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

“Best book ever!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

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