Echo and the White Howl – Brexit allegory?

I have been asked on a number of occasions how my latest novel Echo and the White Howl should be interpreted. Is it an historic allegory? A contemporary political allegory? A spiritual allegory? Someone suggested the story alluded to Stalin’s Russia and the way he created famines. Someone else even suggested the story might be about the European Union and Brexit.

Quite honestly, the primary motivation for writing the novel was simply to create a gift for my youngest son, who asked for an adventure story about wolves. If readers want to interpret the book in any other way, they are most welcome to, but certainly there is no intentional message of any kind in the story. Indeed, I take that approach with all my books. I believe that the more one tries to put a message in one’s writing, the more preachy it will sound.

What I do believe, as I have often stated on this blog, is that when one writes purely to tell a story and not deliver a message, what is important to the author will be inherent in the text, and thus be far more palatable and persuasive. So yes, it is possible, perhaps even inevitable, that some of my political and spiritual views are lurking beneath the surface of Echo and the White Howl. I shan’t get into what they might be, as I prefer to leave that to readers to interpret (inaccurately or otherwise). However, some of the themes present in my other works – abuse of power and corruption for example, not to mention the metaphysical elements – appear again here.

Echo and the White Howl is out now. Click here for your Kindle download or paperback copy.

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Film Review – Black Panther

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The latest from Marvel is an absolute blast – a wild, giddy, colourful thrill ride which gives superhero Black Panther a fabulous standalone film, having been introduced so effectively in Captain America: Civil War.

The story takes place mostly in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda – a secret world of highly advanced technology, thanks to their supply of vibranium, an incredibly powerful and versatile metal. Having lost his father, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) succeeds to the throne of Wakanda, and inherits the title and mystical powers of the Black Panther. But T’Challa faces an immediate challenge from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and the mysterious Killmonger (Michael B Jordan).

The cast, which also features Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya and Martin Freeman, are all excellent. The screenplay does a good job of making us actually care about the characters, and Creed director Ryan Coogler stages the thrilling action scenes with great aplomb, making great use of his Jules Verne-esque visuals in Wakanda, as well as the occasional non-Wakandan locations (for example, one jaw dropping car chase in South Korea). It goes without saying the special effects are terrific.

There are some interesting themes and subtexts – a wealthy nation’s responsibility to the less well off (neatly inverting concerns about western responsibilities to the Third World), learning to be true to your own ideals as a leader, the folly of self-appointed revolutionaries wishing to mete out punishment for colonialism – and obviously this is culturally significant as the first major superhero film with an almost all black cast. That said, nothing feels preachy, and the most important thing to be delivered – a first-rate superhero movie – is achieved with great success.

 

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Film Review – The Greatest Showman

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Tonight I caught up with The Greatest Showman, which received mostly poor reviews from critics, yet audiences have loved it. Did I love it? No. Frankly, I think the critics are right.

Ostensibly a fast-and-loose with facts musical based on the life of show-business pioneer PT Barnum, the film isn’t exactly terrible. It’s competently directed by Michael Gracey , but lacks the flair of, say, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It features the odd good bit of choreography and music (courtesy of John Debney and Joseph Trapanese, and songwriters Paul and Pasek), and a fine cast, including Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson. However, the screenplay is predictable, episodic and ultimately unconvincing in it’s preachy, depth-of-a-teaspoon attempts at celebrating diversity (via dwarfs, bearded ladies, giants et al).

The first act, in which we see Barnum’s early struggles and successes, works reasonably well. However shortly after that, the plot goes off the rails (particularly in an excruciating scene featuring Queen Victoria). This is a shame, because the subject matter certainly had potential. Barnum was an interesting character, but despite attempts at grappling with themes of class prejudice, racism, ambition versus family, the temptations of being on tour and so on, the film feels glossy but superficial. At no point does it surprise, and it’s moral conclusions have been explored far more satisfyingly and convincingly in other works.

Much like the newspaper critic in the film, I’m left rather scratching my head as to why The Greatest Showman has been so successful. To be fair it isn’t as bad as, say, the inexplicably popular Mamma Mia. That film really was a pestilential pimple from the cleft of Satan’s buttocks, whereas this one is, at best, an adequate entertainment.

Simon Dillon, February 2018.

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Writing Echo and the White Howl

Animal fiction is a notoriously difficult beast. I had never intended to write any, until last summer, when my youngest son begged me for a story about wolves. I initially said no, but then I had an idea that nagged and tickled, and the voices in my head would not be silenced until I had put them on paper.

Writing for my son proved a very good motivator, and despite my trepidation I pushed ahead with what eventually became Echo and the White Howl. It was not an easy novel to write for several reasons. For one thing, one has to make sure the reader suspends disbelief. That means walking the tightrope between assigning human attributes to animal characters to make them relatable, and yet at the same time making sure their knowledge doesn’t exceed their natural awareness. Wolves would have no understand of things like helicopters for instance (in the novel they are referred to as giant flying metal insects).

Turns of phrase can prove problematic. In the first draft, I often caught myself writing things like “Echo couldn’t put his finger on the problem” when he has paws, not fingers. On top of that, I had to decide which facts from my research should be incorporated into my story, and what should be left out. So for example, how a pack hunts, challenges to the Alpha and so forth are all woven into the narrative, whereas the fact that wolves supposedly only see in black and white was ignored. Poetic licence is important, and to have included the latter point would have been as foolish as insisting space battles in Star Wars feature no laser sound effects due to the vacuum of space.

Finally, I made a very conscious decision that this novel would not patronise children. I absolutely cannot bear children’s fiction which talks down to the reader. Whilst Echo and the White Howl is suitable for all ages, it does contain some frightening and upsetting moments. Nor does it skimp on blood and gore in both hunt and fight scenes. I honestly believe none of this material is gratuitous or out of place. Indeed, to have censored or left it out would have been fundamentally dishonest. In the main the novel is a thrilling adventure story with an ultimately reassuring outcome, but the fears, doubts, moments of despair and tragedies experienced by Echo and Saphira on their journey are not glossed over either. I believe this is in keeping with the traditions of the very best animal fiction, in the likes of Watership Down, The Jungle Book and Bambi.

Echo and the White Howl is out now. Click here for your Kindle download or paperback copy.

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Film Review – Phantom Thread

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Every so often I see a film that reminds me why I fell in love with the cinema. PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread is one such film. Ostensibly an oddball love story set in 1950s London, this is a more twisted tale than it first appears, with ghostly, oedipal undertones seeping from every meticulous frame.

The plot concerns renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose routine-based life is disrupted when he meets and is instantly attracted to waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds’s sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), who runs the business and facilitates his fastidious whims, at first believes Alma will prove merely the latest in a line of muses to be later discarded. However, gradually Alma becomes a more permanent fixture. The memory of Reynolds’s beloved mother looms like a shadow over proceedings, along with hints that Reynolds might be somehow cursed. As their fragile relationship threatens to crumble, Alma resorts to increasingly desperate measures to maintain her position.

Pointing out that the performances are fantastic feels like an exercise in redundancy. Day-Lewis is quite brilliant in what is supposedly his final ever role, and Krieps is a wonder, adding a quiet, subtle magic that brings real chemistry to their curious relationship. The superb screenplay features sparse, clipped dialogue that is often darkly funny, yet it is in the nuanced looks and gestures that the greater depths are added. Scenes featuring Reynolds’s distaste for loud eating are undoubtedly comic, but despite beautiful visuals (and costumes), the overall tone is bleaker, with even spectral apparitions adding to the air of profound melancholia.

Despite such prestigious cinematic influences as Hitchcock’s Rebecca and the films of Powell and Pressburger (especially The Red Shoes), Anderson’s film is unquestionably singular. A sublime music score from Jonny Greenwood stitches the drama together, adding layers of wistful nostalgia for a bygone cinematic era. Here I must add the usual warnings for strong language, though the swearing felt by no means gratuitous.

Themes of obsession, control, guilt and masochism are bound up within this rich tapestry of a film, and whilst it certainly isn’t for everyone, I have to say I absolutely loved it. Haunting, gripping and strangely moving, Phantom Thread is a dark romance that will definitely get under the skin of anyone with a serious interest in cinema.

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Researching Echo and the White Howl

As with all my books, my latest, Echo and the White Howl, involved a considerable amount of research. I have not ever been to Alaska (alas), but nonetheless I had to find out a great deal in order to generate a convincing, atmospheric, dirt-under-the-paws level of realism for the novel.

Echo and the White Howl Cover 10 (FINAL)

For a start, I had to learn a great deal about wolf packs and their habits. Everything from how cubs are raised, to how lone wolves are sometimes adopted into other packs. Mating, digging dens, pack pecking order, territoriality and hunting were topics I studied extensively in books, online and in documentaries. Much of this provided useful information with which I could punctuate the narrative.

Regarding the issue of hunting, how a pack take down large and small prey proved particularly instructive. There are a number of hunts in the story at key points, some of which coincide with vital character development moments, so it was important to get these details right. For example, following a hunt, the pecking order in a pack determines the order in which the wolves feed, with the Alpha male and female first, and so on. Having studied this, I was able to generate drama around post hunt feasting in the very first chapter, with certain wolves resentful and envious of others, setting up conflicts to come.

I also researched a great deal about Alaska itself, especially the wilderness where these wolf packs reside. Everything from the kinds of trees to flora and fauna were looked into, although I tried not to overdo the references in the novel itself. After a certain point, landscape description just becomes tedious. Indeed, I had to trim it back in earlier drafts.

Another key element woven into the story are the seasons, including perpetual sunlight and perpetual darkness, depending on the time of year. Again, I was able to use this to my advantage in the story, as the amount of daylight proves significant in a key moment at the end of act one.

Other animals had to be researched as well, including Orca whales, eagles, bears and racoons. Originally all four species played a key role in the story, although in the end the Orca subplot was cut as I considered it too outlandish. In the final draft, these whales do appear briefly, but only in passing.

Finally, the most fascinating thing I learned in my research – which didn’t have a direct bearing on the novel – is just how unfairly reviled wolves have been throughout the centuries, and how they have been needlessly and cruelly hunted down by humans, when in fact they pose no significant threat to us. Where wolves have been deliberately reintroduced into the wild, such as in Yellowstone Park for instance – entirely ecosystems have radically recovered as the balance of nature has been restored in an extraordinary domino effect. Check out this short video here.

Echo and the White Howl is a thrilling animal adventure for all ages. Click here for your Kindle download or paperback copy.

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Film Review – Downsizing

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Downsizing, the latest from writer/director Alexander Payne, is a curious beast. It has a fascinating premise, a surplus of ideas, and despite being overlong and episodic, has insightful things to say about the human condition.

Strapped for cash Paul (Matt Damon), and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), agree to undergo downsizing – a radical (and irreversible) process whereby they are shrunk and placed in a miniature community called Leisureworld, following a recent scientific breakthrough intended to combat overpopulation and climate change. At first, despite the rigours of the process itself (requiring the removal of all hair and dentures, for instance), the option appears idyllic, as anyone with modest income and savings finds themselves essentially millionaires in the economy of Leisureworld. But inevitably there is a dark side to paradise.

After a personal catastrophe that takes place as soon as Paul arrives in his new world, he descends into self-absorbed melancholia, until he comes into contact with his cynical, partying opportunist next door neighbour Dusan (a somewhat caricatured Christoph Waltz), and his Vietnamese refugee cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau). Despite horrific tragedies in her past, Paul discovers Ngoc is something of a good Samaritan to the underclass that occupy the lowest echelons of Leisureworld. Gradually he begins to help her, and so begins a journey of self discovery.

Playing like a cross between The Incredible Shrinking Man and An Inconvenient Truth by way of Gulliver’s Travels, Downsizing is nothing if not ambitious. Previously Payne had not directed any films involving major visual effects, but the miniaturisation themes here obviously require a great deal, and they are very well done. Performances are generally good, especially from Hong Chau, and there many moments of humour and poignancy along the way.

There can be no doubt that the film loses momentum in the second half, although it is still worthwhile. Despite jarring shifts in tone, from Swiftian satire to unlikely romance via apocalyptic science fiction, thoughts are definitely provoked on a variety of subjects. For example, the delusional folly of those who pretend they are downsizing to help the environment, despite the fact that it will mean they acquire immense wealth, reflects a great deal of real world hypocrisy.

Other issues explored, including human gullibility and propensity to pervert science for consumerist, tyrannical or otherwise destructive ends, delve deep into the fallen nature of mankind. The film even tackles the alarming lunacy of doomsday cultists in it’s latter stages, with Dusan wryly pointing out that although said cultists are peaceful and happy as they enter their pseudo Noah’s Ark, they’ll have killed each other long before the world actually ends. Perhaps most positively, Downsizing also explores a journey from self-absorbed materialism to genuine Christ-likeness (Ngoc is a Christian, and proves a great influence on Paul).

As well as pointing out the flaws, I am also obliged to warn about the presence of bad language and nudity in a few places, but nothing was gratuitous. Indeed, for all it’s faults, Downsizing is a fascinating if overreaching sci-fi parable, with it’s heart genuinely in the right place. It’s not in the Sideways/About Schmidt pantheon of vintage Payne, but well worth a watch nonetheless.

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Film Review – Coco

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Coco is a sterling achievement that almost, almost matches the brilliance of Pixar’s stand-out masterpiece this decade, Inside Out. A colourful and moving fairy tale for all the family, Coco should easily nab the Best Animated Film award at this years Oscars.

The plot concerns young Mexican Miguel, a boy who longs to be a musician, despite the fact that for generations his family have forbidden music in their home. This is because Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his family and never returned. Miguel secretly nurses his ambition with a hidden stash of records, his guitar and other musical memorabilia related to deceased singing legend Ernesto de la Cruz. But when a strange magical mix-up on the Day of the Dead leads him into the land of the dead, Miguel finds himself in a race against time to locate Ernesto, or else he’ll face a similar existential crisis to that of Marty McFly in Back to the Future.

Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina deliver the expected opulent visuals, especially during the stunning sequences set inside the land of the dead. The screenplay is superb, and even though it occasionally echoes previous Pixar greats (one key moment borrows from the climax of Monsters Inc), it delivers a third act of such overwhelming poignancy that I was left in tears. The vocal cast all do very well too.

Familiar themes of unchecked ambition, the importance of family, generational curses and following one’s heart are recycled in a way that feels fresh and convincing. In one sense none of that is groundbreaking, and yet Coco has such satisfying emotional punch that I wouldn’t be surprised if in years to come this is remembered as one of their greatest films.

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Echo and the White Howl – Influences

Whilst I believe my latest novel Echo and the White Howl is an interesting and original work in its own right, I also think it is disingenuous to deny influences. Here then are seven other stories that informed Echo and the White Howl.

 

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Watership Down (Richard Adams) – One of my favourite novels, and the most obvious influence. This tale of rabbits fleeing apocalyptic disaster and standing up against dictatorial oppression (both themes that also appear in my novel) has surprisingly dark, savage undertones, as well as being vivid, gripping and deeply moving. My novel doesn’t skimp on savagery either, as like Adams I don’t believe in patronising children. The notion of the rabbit god Frith is also echoed (see what I did there), with the wolf goddess Akna.

The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling) – Akela and the other wolves in Kipling’s iconic classic are so well-known and well-loved that I almost dismissed the notion of a wolf novel as futile before I’d even started. Akela’s presiding over the wolf council and his recitations of the law of the jungle are very clear influences on the character of Aatag, and how he runs his wolf pack.

The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) – This classic of animal literature is an undoubted tonal influence on some of the lighter, more whimsical elements in my novel, especially during sequences where Echo tries to persuade an eagle and a bear to help him through trickery.

The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson) – Nini the racoon is something of a comic relief character in my novel, but his amusing (and successful) attempts at talking his way out of being eaten are akin to that of the mouse in The Gruffalo.

Animal Farm (George Orwell) – Many animal fiction tales owe a debt to Animal Farm, and mine is no different. The tyrannical regime of the pigs proved a key inspiration for the tyrannical regime that appears in my novel. In Animal Farm the regime is meant as an allegory of Soviet Russia, and interestingly, some have read contemporary concerns (specifically Brexit) into “The Union” of my novel. I didn’t intend Echo and the White Howl to be a political allegory, but if people want to read that into it then obviously I cannot stop them.

Bambi (Film) – The “circle of life” narrative that underpins my favourite Walt Disney animated film was a big influence. My novel also features the traumatic death of a parent, as well as a forest fire in the climax.

Twin Peaks (TV series) – The idea of the villain being possessed by an ancient demonic force from the “Dark Realm” may feel like a side-step into outright fantasy or horror, but oddly enough the idea came from Twin Peaks, whereby the killer is possessed by a malevolent spirit from the “Black Lodge”. As my wife said in her (otherwise positive) assessment of Echo and the White Howl, “Not everyone is going to appreciate a left turn into weirdness”. Despite this, the Dark Realm elements simply add to the spiritual backdrop of the novel, along with the White Wolf of Akna, the Black Mountain, the Circle and so on. Besides, I believe mixing dirt-under-the-paw realism with the metaphysical creates a surprisingly potent combination.

Echo and the White Howl is a thrilling animal adventure for all ages, set amongst a pack of wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. Click here for your Kindle download or paperback copy.

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Film Review – The Post

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Steven Spielberg’s The Post is another example of what I have come to call his “elder statesman” films , alongside previous examples Bridge of Spies and Lincoln. Like those films, The Post is possessed of an absolute belief in the decency inherent in the US constitution, and in common with Bridge of Spies specifically, it uses Tom Hanks as the everyman mouthpiece for such humanitarian tub-thumping, this time about the freedom of the press to hold the government to account.

Based on the true story of the leaked Pentagon Papers scandal in the early 1970s, Hanks plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, a dyed-in-the-wool, old school newsman through and through. The paper has recently been inherited by Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) following the death of her husband, who is at first cautious and lacks confidence in her new role. Kay and Ben are subsequently put to the ultimate test of integrity when the Pentagon Papers (which expose how several US governments knew the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but did nothing to stop it) are acquired by the Post. The question of whether or not they should defy a court order and publish the story, thus risking prison and the collapse of the paper, forms the central drama.

Tom Hanks is very good, his performance by all accounts a good approximation of the real Bradlee’s posture and mannerisms. The rest of the cast, which includes the always excellent Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, add fine support. However it is Meryl Streep who really impresses. Working from Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s first-rate screenplay, the arc of Streep’s character is particularly satisfying. Kay Graham is a woman who gradually finds her voice in what was then a man’s world, culminating in a brave and heroic stance against a bullying government that wanted to suppress the truth.

It goes without saying that as a director Spielberg is in complete control. With tremendous attention to period detail, the cigarette infused, ink under the fingernails atmosphere of the old Washington Post newsroom crackles with energy, as the riveting drama gradually unfolds. Spielberg’s regular collaborators are also present and correct, with editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter and composer John Williams all making their usual invaluable contributions.

In an era of “fake news” and renewed hostility between the White House and the Press, The Post could hardly be a timelier film. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience, so doesn’t feel preachy, but by the end I was left in no doubt about why Spielberg chose to make this film so quickly, interrupting the post-production on his upcoming science fiction film Ready Player One in order to do so. History has an alarming habit of repeating itself, and Trump, like Nixon, must accept that however hostile it might be, a free press is essential to democracy.

To summarise, The Post is a worthy addition to the canon of great newspaper movies (of which All the President’s Men is probably still the greatest), and comes highly recommended.

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