Film Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2


I have now seen the second half of a film I started watching a year ago, thanks to the decision to split Mockingjay, the final Hunger Games movie, into two parts. Of course said decision was made for the best possible artistic reasons, not to milk a cash cow…

Anyway, as a film, Mockingjay part 2 obviously does not stand alone, so if you haven’t seen any Hunger Games films, or read the books, don’t bother reading further. This details the final battle between Katniss and chums (including obligatory love triangle suitors Gale and Peeta) and the Capital, headed by the odious President Snow. But is resistance leader Coin just another dictator in waiting?

All this is decently acted, with Jennifer Lawrence terrific as ever in the lead. Able support is provided by Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as well as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore. Visually it all looks suitably grim and dour, with director Francis Lawrence helming events solidly. The action scenes are intermittently exciting, even if the special effects fail to convince at times. One underground sequence echoed James Cameron’s Aliens in a moderately effective albeit bloodless way. And yes – the film remains essentially faithful to the source material, albeit without quite the needed level of blood and guts.

Intriguing themes of totalitarianism, propaganda, power, corruption, failure to learn from history, and what is and isn’t acceptable from a side with supposedly the moral high ground in war remain in the background of the action, though for the most part fail to be as chilling as they should. Whilst still powerful, the film fails to quite capture the full irony, outrage and dramatic satisfaction of the novel’s superb climax – again perhaps partly because the story was split in two. I’m not sure every single bit of the very ending needed to be included either. For instance, I think the film would have benefited from a slightly less on-the-nose final scene. It worked well in the book, but here it feels like a Timotei commercial.

In short, Mockingjay part 2 is by no means a disaster, and if you liked the others, you’ll like this one. It is, however, still half a film.

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“Never open a book with weather” – my ten favourite openings to a novel

I am not sure quite where to attribute the above quote, although it is the first of Elmore Leonard’s ten tips for writers. I can actually think of a few classic novels that open with weather, for example Jane Eyre.

Anyway, for no particular reason, here are my top ten opening sentences in a novel, in no particular order of merit. Some immediately grab by the scruff of the neck, whilst others are more subtle. Some are from acknowledged classics, whilst others perhaps would appear in no list but mine.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – “Marley was dead, to begin with.”

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Moby Dick by Herman Melville – “Call me Ishmael.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

1984 by George Orwell – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

The Ghost by Robert Harris – “The moment I heard how McAra died, I should have walked away.”

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger – “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

I leave you with the opening to my most popular novel, Children of the Folded Valley, just to whet your appetite if you haven’t read it:

Folded Valley cover

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

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Film Review – Steve Jobs


Michael Fassbender adds to his lengthy list of sterling performances in Steve Jobs, playing the eponymous computer entrepreneur. He brilliantly depicts the vitality, stubbornness and genius of this larger than life figure, though I have no idea how true to life his portrayal or the film is. Some have said it whitewashes Jobs, whilst others claim it is too harsh. I for one do not particularly care, since regardless of the truth, Steve Jobs is riveting.

As per current biopic trends, this eschews the cradle-to-the-grave approach and instead focuses on backstage drama around the launch of three different Apple products in 1984, 1988 and 1998. Besides Fassbender strong support is provided by Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Bridges, as Jobs’ long suffering marketing manager Joanna Hoffman, programmer Steve Wozniak and original Apple CEO John Sculley respectively. In addition, Jobs’ daughter Lisa is portrayed by three different, equally brilliant actresses Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine. Danny Boyle directs with his usual visual panache and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin provides a fine theatrical template, set almost entirely within the claustrophobic backstage environment, and packed with his requisite sizzling dialogue.

All of which begs the question, how did this terrific film fail at the US box office? Steve Jobs shares DNA with the much more successful The Social Network (also written by Sorkin), and with this much talent attached, it is genuinely baffling as to why the film did not find an audience. Although films about unlikeable protagonists can be a hard sell, this manages to give the hoary old genius-who-is-rubbish-with-people tale a fresh spin. It explores key relationships between Jobs and Hoffman, the woman who acts as his conscience, Wozniak, who remains loyal despite appalling treatment and Sculley, who comes off as either duplicitous our misunderstood depending on where audience sympathies fall.

In the end though, the relationship with Jobs’ daughter Lisa is what really gives the film emotional depth – a shocking catalogue of sins of omission beginning with refusal to accept parentage to regret and recriminations later in her life. As Wozniak aptly laments “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time”.

With such food for thought amid the dramatic fireworks (I should throw in the regulation warning for strong language here), I’m left scratching my head as to what’s not to like. Do yourself a favour and don’t believe the box office figures. See Steve Jobs. It’s a brilliant film.

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Muse the force

“I must caution you that I am a writer. Anything you say or do could be used in my next novel.”

Muses are integral to any writing process, whether they inspire characters directly, indirectly, in part or in full. If a writer writes what they know, as conventional advice dictates, then their writing will be full of people who have inspired their work, consciously or unconsciously.

In my own writing, I have consciously written about people, and also unconsciously, realising that I had after the fact. For example, my wife – my greatest inspiration – consciously inspired elements of the three central female characters in my as yet unreleased fantasy magnum opus Goldeweed. However she also unconsciously inspired Meredith, or significant elements of her, in the George Hughes trilogy. Only after my mother pointed out the obvious connection between Meredith and my wife (after the first novel George goes to Mars) did I realise. Meredith’s defining characteristic is her fierce loyalty, and that comes directly from my wife. She also often comes up with the plan that saves the day, and generally has the best lines too, especially in the final novel George goes to Neptune. Again, this is very characteristic of my wife.


Love vs Honour is another example of a novel where the characters (and also situations) in some cases were inspired by people from my past.

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There are dangers, however, of crowbarring unworkable elements into fictional characters if one relies too much on direct inspiration from real individuals. There is a balance to be struck. For example, earlier this year, when writing a supernatural thriller entitled The Irresistible Summons, I based the central character, and two other supporting characters, on friends of mine (in one case, my closest friend). For the central character I’d say about 70 percent is based on the muse in question, and the other 30 percent made up. At times I was tempted to make this protagonist more like her real-life counterpart, but it would have weakened the overall novel. The same was true for the supporting characters.

Elsewhere many of my novels (particularly Children of the Folded Valley) feature characters minor and major that are directly inspired from figures in my past or present. But they are always cloaked in fictionalised elements, mostly for the purposes of the novel but also very occasionally to differentiate sufficiently from real life incidents. This is to avoid potential offence being taken, should the real people ever realise they inspired the character in question. After all, I don’t always own up to people if they have ever ended up in a novel in some form, especially if their portrayal is less than flattering.

Folded Valley cover

And make no mistake – some of the people I write about are deeply unpleasant individuals. An odious left luggage attendant in The Irresistible Summons is based entirely on a truly obnoxious person I once had the misfortune to encounter in Paddington railway station. In The Birds Began to Sing, Alice’s boss is an officious, corporate non-entity based very much on a person I know, though I suspect he would not recognise himself in print. Much more seriously, cult leader Benjamin Smiley in Children of the Folded Valley is also based on someone (now deceased) that I knew as a child. Of all my novels, Children of the Folded Valley contains more characters that are either composites or else directly inspired from people I know or knew than any of my other works.

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Film Review – Brooklyn


Old fashioned in the best possible sense is a good way to describe Brooklyn, director John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel. Not only does it hark back to the great “woman’s picture” movies of the 1930s and 40s, but it will also strike a chord with anyone who has had to adjust to life far from home in a new country, thanks largely to a completely convincing central performance from Saoirse Ronan.

Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, who leaves Ireland for a new life in 1950s New York. Here she is assisted by kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and no-nonsense landlady Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters). At first Eilis feels cripplingly homesick, but soon she finds her feet, eventually falling for the charms of Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen). However, unexpected news from Ireland precipitates a return to her home country, where another potential suitor Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) awaits. Eventually Eilis finds herself torn between two worlds.

On the surface, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Brooklyn. It is understated, gentle and considerably less melodramatic than the trailer makes it appear. However subtle but strong performances from the entire cast (particularly the afore-mentioned Ronan) really make us care about the characters. Nick Hornby’s screenplay also contains many intriguing little details and vignettes – from the charity Christmas dinner with down and out elderly Irishmen (whom, we are told, helped build American bridges, buildings, railways and so forth), to the awkward dances Eilis and other single girls attend hoping to find romance. On top of this, the smaller characters are often imbued with a deep, heart-warming humanity (the wonderful Mrs Kehoe for instance) that rings very true. Crowley’s direction is restrained and unshowy, giving the film an authentic feel despite the odd chocolate box edge. Another plus is that politics are mercifully absent from the picture, so nothing is mentioned about the troubles (thank goodness).

Ultimately, Brooklyn works very well as an understated, likeable and moving story of leaving home and coming of age, old fashioned in the best possible sense.

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George goes to Neptune – now available in print

George goes to Neptune, the third and final novel in the George Hughes trilogy, can now be ordered in dead tree format, with pages that physically turn, from Amazon Create Space.

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Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

In this spectacular sequel to George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan, George Hughes faces his most dangerous adventure yet.

Following the Titanian invasion, a deadly and very personal threat forces George to undertake a voyage to a top secret Martian research base on Neptune.

On this remote outpost, he uncovers a diabolical plot. But George is too late to prevent the catastrophe.

A catastrophe that will change his life forever…

George goes to Neptune is also available from Amazon Kindle.

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Film Review – Spectre


The Daniel Craig era comes to an immensely satisfying culmination in Spectre, the latest in the seemingly indestructible James Bond franchise. There are direct, spoiler-laden references to immediate predecessor Skyfall (which the filmmakers assume you have seen), and beyond that a drawing together of threads contained within Casino Royale onwards, with previous villains and plots revealed as the work of one massive and hideously sinister organisation. No prizes for guessing what it’s called.

In fact, no prizes for predicting the plot twists either, for in contrast to Skyfall and Casino Royale, Spectre relies more on the conventional Bond formula. That is not necessarily a bad thing as the story is still strong, with everything one would expect from a first-rate Bond picture. As Colin Firth observed in Kingsman: The Secret Service, the recent Bonds have got a bit serious, so “give me a far-fetched theatrical plot”.

The Mexico City prologue is worth the price of admission alone. After the familiar gun barrel (back at the start of the movie where it belongs), director Sam Mendes opens with a stunning, Touch of Evil style long take, following Bond through the streets during the Day of the Dead festival, inside a building, into a bedroom with inevitable female companion, then outside for a rooftop assassination. A melee of exploding buildings, foot chases and helicopters looping the loop ensues, making this one of the most memorable beginnings to any Bond. Apparently it was also the most elaborate, employing thousands of extras and an army of make-up artists, stunt men and so on.

The fact that Spectre is also the most expensive Bond film ever made (and also incidentally contains the single largest real explosion ever put on film) shows in every glamorous frame, with dazzling use of locations including the afore-mentioned Mexico City, London, Rome, Austrian mountains, Tangier and others. The action sequences are tremendous. Highlights include a car chase through the streets of Rome, an elaborate plane/car chase in snowy Austrian mountain roads and a fantastic train fight scene that recalls From Russia with Love. Speaking of early Bonds, the film this most reminded me of is You Only Live Twice, for reasons that should be obvious from the title.

Performance wise Craig is tremendous as ever, cementing his reputation as Best-Bond-since-Connery. Monica Bellucci’s role amounts to little more than a cameo, but Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann ranks amongst the best Bond girls. Dave Bautista‘s Mr Hinx is a suitably imposing henchman (an early moment of nastiness has been somewhat censored in the UK to meet the demands of the 12A certificate), whilst Christoph Waltz is tremendous as uber-villain Franz Oberhauser. Returning Skyfall alumni Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris and Rory Kinnear all reprise their roles memorably (as M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner respectively).

Oh – and Spectre also contains the most sinister meeting this side of an Illuminati or 33rd Degree Freemasonry AGM. It’s great to see Bond get back to full-on theatrics again; which means yes the villain does gloatingly tell Bond his master plan in monologue whilst he has him at his mercy, instead of simply putting a bullet in his skull. That said, the plot does contain contemporary concerns. Post Snowden relevance manifests itself in a subplot involving the potential mothballing of the double-0 section. M spars with young upstart C (Andrew Scott), who seems determined to replace M and his antiquated agents with Orwellian surveillance. However, in spite of these flirtations with serious issues, the film is not above knowingly passe set pieces involving ticking time-bombs and the like, and it’s all the better for it.

On a technical level everything looks and sounds tremendous, with the production design including a pleasingly retro Bond baddie’s base. Sam Smith’s title song Writing on the Wall has provoked snobby reaction in certain quarters, but I think it works rather well. The opening titles feature snippets of previous Craig movies, much as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Goldfinger featured clips of earlier Connery instalments, again adding to the feeling of this film being a summary of the Craig era thus far.

All of which begs the question, which James Bond will return? Daniel Craig has recently been quite vocal about his disdain for the character, indicating rather clearly that he’d like to be done with the franchise. If that proves to be true, as opposed to mere irritation at endless press junkets, then Spectre is a very high note to go out on.

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George goes to Neptune – out now!

The wait is over!

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George goes to Neptune, the third and final novel in the George Hughes trilogy, is now available for download on Amazon Kindle. Click here to get your copy!

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

In this spectacular sequel to George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan, George Hughes faces his most dangerous adventure yet.

Following the Titanian invasion, a deadly and very personal threat forces George to undertake a voyage to a top secret Martian research base on Neptune.

On this remote outpost, he uncovers a diabolical plot. But George is too late to prevent the catastrophe.

A catastrophe that will change his life forever…

Print copies of George goes to Neptune will be available from the 31st October. You can pre-order copies here.

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George goes to Neptune out tomorrow

It’s almost here! Tomorrow George goes to Neptune, the third and final novel in the George Hughes trilogy, will be unleashed upon the world of digital downloads.

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You can still pre-order from Amazon by clicking here.

FREE copies of previous instalments George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan can be downloaded here and here (although hurry – only two days left on this offer).

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

In this spectacular sequel to George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan, George Hughes faces his most dangerous adventure yet.

Following the Titanian invasion, a deadly and very personal threat forces George to undertake a voyage to a top secret Martian research base on Neptune.

On this remote outpost, he uncovers a diabolical plot. But George is too late to prevent the catastrophe.

A catastrophe that will change his life forever…

Print copies of George goes to Neptune will be available from the 31st October.

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Download George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan FREE – for five days only!

To celebrate the release of the final novel in the George Hughes trilogy, George goes to Neptune, I am making the first two novels in the trilogy available free on Amazon Kindle for five days only!

Click here to download your free copy of George goes to Mars and here to download your free copy of George goes to Titan.


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.

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…

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.

The George Hughes trilogy is not just for children. Here are a few of reviews from adults:

“This is the second Simon Dillon novel that I’ve read and have thoroughly enjoyed. A wonderfully engaging and enjoyable read. A fun and easy going escape from reality, as all good books should be!” – Delian Jones, Amazon.

“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.

For those who prefer print copies, they can be ordered here and here (sadly not for free).

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George goes to Neptune is released on the 25th October. You can pre-order the Kindle download from Amazon by clicking here. Print copies will be available from the 31st October.

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