Too much realism

I am not a fan of realism for the sake of realism. Nor was legendary film director David Lean, who once said films should feel like dreams. I would argue the same should be true for novels, and I am not a fan of stories that strive for realism at the expense of dramatic satisfaction, regardless of the genre.

As a reader I find it deeply frustrating when interesting dramatic situations and conflicts are swept aside in an unsatisfactory way in the name of realism, often in critically acclaimed novels. Atonement is a good example of this. Just because in real life the lead characters could easily have died in a sudden bombing that intrudes on the narrative mid-plot – before certain injustices could be properly explored and resolved – doesn’t make it a good dramatic choice. That may have been the point, but if so it’s a deeply frustrating one.

Charles Dickens had the right idea. He loaded his books with relevant, challenging social themes, making them “realistic” in the sense that you could feel the grime under the fingernails of Victorian Britain. But at the same time his works are deeply satisfying, superbly crafted tales that do not place “realism” above all else.

Some argue that whether or not a novel or film should submit to realism depends on subject matter, but I don’t think that is true. Lawrence of Arabia is about historic fact, but nonetheless feels like a dream, in accordance with the ideals of its director David Lean. The appalling Victorian social injustices exposed by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist are wrapped within the framework of a narrative that feels almost like a fairy tale.

As an aside, I find that large doses of realism actually work very well in fantasy writing. The shocking sudden deaths in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are a good example of this. The film Pan’s Labyrinth is another example, with the gritty realism of the Franco’s war against communist guerillas providing a backdrop to the fantasy elements. They may seem like oil and water but in fact they compliment one another perfectly.

In my own writing, I am currently penning an animal fiction novel about wolves in Alaska that combines elements of realism with more metaphysical elements. Time will tell whether or not I succeed in this, but at no point in any of my writing do I strive for realism at the expense of all else. Like David Lean, I want my stories to have a magic to them, regardless of the subject matter. I want them to feel like dreams.

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Film Review – The Big Sick

Ben Koepp

Last night I finally managed to catch up with The Big Sick, a fact-based romantic comedy drama which hasn’t done great business (in the UK at least). This is a shame, since The Big Sick is funny, touching and even has a timely, Trump-baiting undercurrent condemning American racism.

The plot concerns Pakistan-born stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and student Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). They fall in love but hit the inevitable objections of Kumail’s parents, who want him to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani girl. This obstacle is complicated further when Emily contracts a mysterious illness and has to be placed in a medically induced coma. At this point, Kumail finally meets Emily’s parents, slowly forms a close bond with them, and gains the courage to face down his parents regarding his feelings for Emily.

Nanjiani is great and Kazan brings genuine charm and warmth to her role (all the more remarkable given that she spends much of the film in a coma). The supporting roles are equally excellent. Adeel Akhtar is hilarious as Kumail’s older brother Naveed, and Holly Hunter steals all her scenes as Emily’s mother Beth, particularly in a stand-out confrontation with a racist heckler during one of Kumail’s comedy sets.

Speaking of racism, this is not a heavy, preachy film by any means. The racism Kumail encounters is shrugged off as absurd, and the film is all the more effective for it. Indeed, although this cannot possibly have been foreseen by director Michael Showalter, at times The Big Sick feels like a weary, incredulous head-shake at Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.

Ultimately though, this isn’t a political film at all. It’s a winning romantic story (albeit one which requires the usual warnings for strong language and sexual references) told with wit, warmth and honesty. It’s perhaps a bit too long and baggy in places, and it does have a certain predictability, but all things considered, The Big Sick does that wonderful, audience pleasing thing of giving the viewer what they want, but not the way they expect.

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Download Love vs Honour FREE – for five days only!

Continuing my summer giveaways, Love vs Honour is available for the next five days as a free download from Amazon Kindle.

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After falling in love, teenagers Johnny and Sabina pretend to convert to Islam and Christianity respectively, to placate the disapproval of both sets of parents. Then it gets complicated as their elaborate deceptions unravel in unexpected ways…

Yes, I know teenage romantic fiction isn’t really a thing I normally write, but rest assured this novel has the dark edges and challenging/controversial themes found in my other works so it really isn’t exclusively for the young adult readership. If you haven’t read it, why not give it a go?

Here are a few review snippets:

“You may find, as I did, it becomes a hard book to put down. The premise of a Christian and a Muslim pretending to convert to each other’s religion to be with each other for the sake of pure, unadulterated love creates a strangely addictive narrative.” – Graeme Stevenson, Amazon.

“This book is one of the few that made me cry. I love it. If you are a fan of emotional books then I urge you to read it. I give it 5 stars.” – Splufic, Goodreads.

“The ending of the book really made the whole thing.” – A Critical Reader, Amazon.

And just for balance, not everyone loved the ending. Check out this “bad” review from I_love_books on Goodreads:

“No… Just No…
I hate such endings…
Wtf….
When the story got interesting then the author has to shock us?
No…
That’s bad…”

Why not decide for yourself if you like the ending? Download Love vs Honour FREE here.

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Film Review – Annabelle Creation

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Let’s not kid ourselves, Annabelle Creation is a deeply clichéd film. A prequel to a prequel, this offshoot of The Conjuring universe (why is everything part of a “universe” these days?) really ought to provoke rolled eyebrows given the cheap visual tricks, jump scares and the like on display here. But against the odds, Annabelle Creation turns out to be a satisfying slice of horror hokum vastly superior to the previous Annabelle prequel.

Much of the credit goes to director David F Sandberg, who gleans winsome performances from his young cast and stages the scares very effectively. The plot concerns a dollmaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his scarred, bedridden wife (Miranda Otto), who twelve years after the tragic death of their daughter invite a nun and several orphaned girls to come and stay in their large, remote house, circa sometime in the 1950s. But the new arrivals are then targeted by the demon possessed Annabelle doll seen in previous films. Exactly how the doll came to be possessed is finally revealed here.

The actions taken by the characters in this film do not hold up under any kind of logical scrutiny, so my suggestion is just go with it and you’ll have a blast. After a slow-burn start, terrors are piled on thick and fast, with plenty of regulation disturbing imagery that will unsettle and delight in equal measure, depending on one’s temperament.

Best of all, the strong Christian worldview proclaimed in The Conjuring continues here, with evil held in check by prayers and the word of God. Of course, I guarantee many evangelical Christians will do the usual thing of rejecting the film as demonic, which is a shame as once again despite lunatic theology and (by dramatic necessity) exaggeration of the power of evil, the spiritual battle is highlighted to good, conversation provoking effect.

In summary, Annabelle Creation really has no business being this effective. If this is your cup of tea, you could do a lot worse.

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Film Review – A Ghost Story

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A Ghost Story is not a horror film. Nor is it a film for mainstream audiences or those whose attention spans will not withstand the glacial pacing. It is, however, a melancholic, surreal, visually striking meditation on grief, death and existence from writer/director David Lowery.

Features terrific performances from Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, that latter spends the bulk of the movie under a sheet looking like a pantomime ghost. The reason being he is recently deceased. With aching sadness, he observes his partner’s grieving process until she moves away. As time passes he lingers in the house, observing and occasionally angrily interacting with subsequent residents.

This is a notable piece of work for a number of reasons. Shot in Academy aspect ratio, with curved edges at the corners, the film appears like a moving photograph stuck into a photo album. This treatment adds to the themes of memory and indeed becoming unstuck in time. There are also some remarkable, dreamlike shots of Affleck’s ghostly lonely figure traipsing across landscapes and building sites, as well as lurking in empty rooms and so forth. Profound melancholia bleeds from every frame, especially in a brilliantly upsetting sequence where Mara’s character indulges in a bout of grief eating.

A Ghost Story would be unbearably depressing if it weren’t for the neat, occasional undercurrents of humour that crop up in surreal ways I won’t spoil. That said, this really is one for elite cineastes rather than casual viewers. Poetic, mysterious and moving, this is certainly recommended, but with the afore-mentioned caveats.

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Janice Hardy blog

I get useful tips for my writing from a number of sources, but here’s a special shout for the great Janice Hardy and her superbly exhaustive blog.

Whether you are struggling with plot or character problems, adverbs, adjectives, description, pacing, repetitions, passive writing, showing versus telling, editing, submission processes, publishing or any other matter pertaining to writing, this is my number one blog for helpful hints. Like anything else it isn’t infallible, and I have had disagreements with Hardy on a few occasions, but nonetheless it is always worth considering her viewpoints, and more often than not heeding her advice has helped my writing sound better.

Check her blog out here.

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Film Review – Atomic Blonde

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Atomic Blonde is not the kind of film that stands up to anything resembling close scrutiny, but there are still some guilty pleasure thrills to be gleaned from this gloriously superficial, stylish, violent spy thriller.

Set in 1989 Berlin just before the wall came down, the plot is tissue-thin standard nonsense about recovering stolen double agent lists and exposing high ranking traitors. If you are looking for depth of characterisation, forget it. This is not a film about substance but about glossy, nostalgic retro-atmosphere. Everything from the spray-painted credits to the fashions and the music – a cracking 80s playlist of New Order, David Bowie, The Clash, Depeche Mode, Nena, Public Enemy, A Flock of Seagulls, Re-flex and many others – is meticulously crafted to appeal to people of a certain age (ie me).

Charlize Theron’s impossibly cool, sexy, ass-kicking agent Lorraine Broughton is fun to watch, and her many fight scenes with various baddies are superbly choreographed. During one bravura sequence, director David Leitch stages a very elaborate, 10 minute single-shot fight that starts in an apartment building then escalates into a car chase. There might be a few hidden cuts in the sequence, but it still looks seamless.

On the minus side, although Theron is well supported by James McAvoy, the rest of the cast feels somewhat wasted, especially Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and John Goodman. I should probably add the usual warnings about very strong language, sexual content, nudity and violence. Much of it is gratuitous but it certainly isn’t dull.

Double, triple and quadruple crosses ensue, and to be honest by the end of this nonsensical tangled web, I really couldn’t have cared less about the true allegiances of any of the characters. But Charlize Theron is cool, as are the fight scenes and the soundtrack. So if any of those factors appeal, you might get a kick out of Atomic Blonde.

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The Birds Began to Sing FREE from Amazon Kindle – for five days only!

Since it’s summer, here is the first in a series of giveaways on most of my presently published novels.

Beginning today, for just five days, you can download The Birds Began to Sing absolutely FREE from Amazon Kindle.

The Birds Began to Sing is a mystery novel with shades of Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a dash of Susan Hill, a pinch of the Bronte Sisters and sprinkling of Michael Crichton. Actually, it isn’t really any of those things, but it is a damn good and highly original thriller in its own right, even though I say so myself.

Here is 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.

Some review snippets:

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

“Well written, poetic in places, funny at times and with a plot that will keep you turning the pages…” – Al Gibson, Amazon.

“This was really a great read and I loved the twist. Did not expect it at all.” – Jennifer, Amazon.

The Birds Began to Sing can be downloaded from Amazon Kindle FREE here (you can also buy a print copy here).

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Film Reviews – Despicable Me 3/Cars 3

I recently caught up with a couple of family movie “threequels” – Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3. Since neither proved much to report home about, I am being lazy and dealing with both in the same review.

In the case of Despicable Me 3, it’s more of the same. Directors Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon preside over a machine-tooled piece of holiday viewing guaranteed to raise giggles from the young, or fans of the previous movies. But 3 really isn’t as good as 1 or 2, wherein uber-villain Gru was transformed from villain to villain fighter, adopting three little girls and acquiring a wife in the process. With an intact family unit, this one casts its net further afield in search of a story, to Gru’s long lost brother Dru. In the background of all this is former 1980s child TV star Balthazar Bratt, whose petulant refusal to accept his TV show got cancelled at the onset of puberty results in silly villainy set to Michael Jackson music.

As a film Despicable Me 3 is all over the place, meandering into bizarre subplots including goats mistaken for unicorns and inept attempts at parental bonding. There’s the odd chuckle here and there, most of them involving the minions or a bungled heist. In addition, I suppose the 1980s musical references are funny for people of a certain age, but although it is well animated, with decent vocal performances (Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig. Trey Parker, etc), Despicable Me 3 is likely to leave all but the most minion crazed with an indifferent shrug.

Cars 3 proved a bit more positive, in that at least it takes the story in the next logical direction post Cars. Wisely overlooking the inexplicable and convoluted genre leap into spy movie that was Cars 2, director Brian Fee instead concentrates on racing legend Lightning McQueen finding he’s no longer top dog (or rather car) when younger, snazzier rivals interrupt his unbroken run of wins. The rest of the plot revolves around McQueen trying to get his mojo back, but the question is when will he realise he needs to make the transition from racer to mentor? Long after the audience has, and therein lies my major problem with Cars 3: just how predictable it is.

To be fair, Cars 3 proves as impeccably animated as any other Pixar movie. Also, despite being predictable, the film does just enough to be funny when it needs to be, exciting when it needs to be (the races are as spectacular as ever) and poignant when it needs to be. A vocal performance from the late, great Paul Newman culled together from unused outtakes from the first Cars certainly elevates the film. The rest of the cast, including Owen Wilson, Armie Hammer and the usual Pixar suspects (yes, John Ratzenberger crops up again), all do a good job too. Ultimately however, Cars 3 falls someway short of first-rate Pixar, something we have not seen since Toy Story 3 give or take the blip of absolute brilliance that was Inside Out.  On the plus side, Lou, the supporting cartoon before the main feature, is really rather wonderful.

In final analysis, Cars 3 has the edge over Despicable Me 3 despite the fact that it isn’t much of an edge.

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The Thistlewood Curse – a quick summary

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been promoting my latest novel The Thistlewood Curse for some weeks. Here then is a summary of the essential information about the book, as well as links to articles exploring its different aspects:

Blurb from the back of the novel

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

Excerpts

Short extracts to whet the appetite can be read here and here.

Cover

More about the cover design here.

Inspiration

What novels or films inspired The Thistlewood Curse? Click here for more.

Facts behind the novel

Lundy Island, cabbages, castles and more… The historical and geographical facts that stirred my imagination can be found here.

Themes

Human trafficking, witchcraft, religious oppression, grief… What’s The Thistlewood Curse really about? Or is it just a scary story? Click here for more.

Early Reviews

Find out what readers have been saying here.

The Thistlewood Curse is available as a download from Amazon Kindle, or in print, here.

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