My brain needs a break

My brain needs a break. Here’s a scary picture of me in brain meltdown mode.

IMG_0660(1) Given the rather excessively productive year I have had so far (first drafts on two longer than usual novels, lots of editing on earlier, currently unreleased novels, and a couple of short stories), I have decided to take a short break from writing and from posting on this blog. However, I will be back in the first week of September, and I will still post film reviews of any films I see at the cinema.

In the meantime, if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, or are stumbling on it for the first time, why not buy or download one of my novels?

I write in a variety of genres, so here are five that might interest you:

Folded Valley coverChildren of the Folded Valley – By far my most popular novel to date, this tale of a man looking back on his life growing up in a strange cult has over eighty mostly rave reviews on Amazon, and seems to have struck a chord with a lot of readers. It even seems to have got under the skin of people who didn’t like it (eg “Disturbing, distasteful and fascinating all at the same time” was one “negative” reader comment). I’ve also been told it’s my most “personal” novel to date, whatever the hell that means, although to be fair it is partly inspired by some of my own experiences in a cult during the early part of my life. Check it out here.

 

Uncle Flynn_CoverUncle Flynn – A story about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling disguised as a treasure hunt adventure, this is my second most popular novel, and again, Amazon reviews are mostly raves. It is aimed at all ages, so don’t be put off by the “children’s book” label. For example, one reader said “In this day and age I sometimes find myself reading books like this unaware. I loved it and I’m nearly 69 years old. Uncle Flynn is a real treat.”

Read more here.

 

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front CoverThe Birds Began to Sing – A nail-biting psychological thriller about a wannabe writer entering a mysterious writing competition in a remote country house, this will satisfy anyone who loves a gripping, sinister narrative with a big twist ending. The reviews on Amazon are unanimous raves, with one reader commenting: “I kept guessing, thinking up various theories but never really sure which one would solve the mystery. As it turned out, none of my ideas were right!”

Click here for more.

 

Echo and the White Howl Cover 10 (FINAL)Echo and the White Howl – An animal fiction adventure about wolves in Alaska, mixing dirt-under-the-paw revenge story realism with a dash of the metaphysical. Tonally it is akin to something like Watership Down, and just as much aimed at adults as children. Here’s what one reviewer had to say: “The wolves bring to mind Jack London as well as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but Dillon does it his own way, as always, with the spiritual/religious features that are common in his work.”

Click here for more.

 

LvsHonour 1600 x 2400Love vs Honour – Teenage romantic drama isn’t a genre I typically I dabble in, but this novel is something of an outside curiosity compared with my usual work. It details a tale of star-crossed teenage lovers with a religious twist, as the protagonists try to appease their religious parents by pretending to convert to Islam and Christianity respectively. A tangled web of deception ensues, building to a much darker final act that some readers think is brilliant and some readers absolutely hate. Why not have a read here and decide for yourself?

 

 

Happy reading, and see you in September.

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Film Review – The Meg

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Giant shark versus Jason Statham? Well, I suppose it’s not as ludicrous as a tornado filled with sharks. But that’s almost a shame. The problem with The Meg isn’t that it’s a bad film. It is self-aware enough so that it doesn’t foolishly aspire to be Jaws. But nor is it quite silly enough to belong in the pantheon of outrageous sharksploitation flicks like Deep Blue Sea. It is, alas, deeply average.

The lunatic plot concerns a billionaire and his ought-to-know-better scientific cronies discovering a new deep-sea ecosystem and inadvertently unleashing a huge Megalodon shark. Cue retired diving expert Jason Statham to the rescue, who has the regulation no-one-believed-me “past” with this creature. A cast of stock B-movie characters await to provide shark fodder.

There is absolutely no point applying logic to a film like this, although it is disappointing that the major shocks and twists are so painfully predictable. Director Jon Turteltaub stages the odd mildly effective set-piece (Statham’s attempt to swim to the Megalodon to plant a tracker on its fin, for example), but most of the action lacks anything approaching a sense of peril. That’s also down to the poor dialogue and equally poor acting, particularly in the first half.

The best gag in The Meg occurs in the very last shot, by which point you might smile if you are feeling good natured enough. In the interests of fairness, I must report that my nine-year-old greatly enjoyed the film, so perhaps if you have a monster movie obsessed child, it might prove diverting. Otherwise, there are better blockbusters out there at present.

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Film Review – Ant-Man and the Wasp

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Not every Marvel movie needs to be about saving the Universe. Ant-Man and the Wasp is refreshingly small scale, in relative terms of course, following the Universe shaking events of Avengers Infinity War. Or rather before them, as a key mid credits scene makes the chronology clear.

At any rate, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a great deal of fun. Three days shy of completing a two-year house arrest sentence following his government defying antics in Captain America Civil War, Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) spends time with his young daughter and generally looks forward to being a free citizen again. That is until he gets entangled in a rescue mission, whereby Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope aka Wasp (Evangeline Lily) require his help to rescue Pym’s long-lost wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the so-called quantum realm. Attempting to thwart their plans are mysterious villain Ghost, a rich criminal who wants Pym’s quantum technology for his own business empire, and the FBI, who (rightly) suspect Scott of pulling the wool over their eyes regarding his house arrest. All manner of small, normal and giant sized action shenanigans ensue.

The main cast all do well, and there are some good supporting players. Lawrence Fishburne turns up as one of Pym’s former colleagues, and Scott’s criminal pals turned security firm employees are back too, in the form of Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian and TI. Visual effects are appropriately eye-popping, particularly in one early kitchen fight scene and the car chase finale in the streets of San Francisco. Director Peyton Reed stages these scenes with imaginative flair, having a great deal of fun with all the miniaturisation gags. There are also some fine running jokes about card tricks and truth serum. In fact, I laughed a lot in this film, which means I forgave the rather predictable plot.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is arguably a minor entry in the series, and it isn’t top tier Marvel product (Captain America instalments Civil War and The Winter Soldier remain the genuine standouts for my money), but I still enjoyed it a lot. One more thing I must add: there’s a genuinely brilliant gag near the end, involving my all-time favourite 1950s monster B-movie Them! For me, that alone was worth the price of admission.

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Update on current projects

2018 is more than half over, so here’s a sort-of mid-term report on how the year is shaping up for me so far.

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Ravenseed – The first few months of the year were spent writing this Dark Ages set fantasy novel. Even though I have yet to test it on any Beta readers, I’m really very pleased with the results. A brooding, melancholy tale of knights, sorcerers and enchantment, Ravenseed simmers with love, lust, betrayal and revenge. However, alongside the Dark Ages narrative is a parallel framing story set in the present, featuring a journey that echoes the quest in the ancient past. It was a very tricky novel to write, but I honestly think my hard work paid off.

Peaceful Quiet Lives (title to be confirmed) – This week, I have just finished making a few final adjustments to the first draft of this dystopian novel set in a future America. I have set out to satirise both sides in the so-called culture wars, and at this point I honestly can’t tell if I succeeded brilliantly, or if the novel is a crash and burn failure. Perhaps looking at it in a few months with a fresh eye and the feedback of Beta Readers will shed a more accurate light on what I actually have here.

The Spectre of Springwell Forest – This ghostly, gothic nail-biter (which I wrote in the early part of last year) will be my next release. The story is set in the 1970s, and involves a sinister painting and an equally sinister abandoned railway tunnel. Full details to follow soon. Watch this space.

In addition, this year I have written a short story which I have just submitted to a publisher in the hopes that it will selected for a horror anthology entitled All Dark Places which his due for release this October. If my story is chosen, more details will follow.

Speaking of short stories, I’m currently writing another, a romantic fairy tale, to submit to a different anthology due for release in December. In fact, I’d better get back to it…

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Film Review – Mission Impossible: Fallout

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Is Mission Impossible Fallout the best in the series as some critics claim? Difficult to say after an initial viewing, although I would certainly put it near the top of the list. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine audiences feeling short changed, as this is action thriller par excellence, and probably the stand-out in the silly season’s glut of big blockbuster movies.

The plot (some convoluted nonsense about plutonium ending up in the hands of leftover terrorists from 2015’s Rogue Nation) doesn’t bear close scrutiny, and will even perhaps prove quite predictable to those familiar with the format. But that hardly matters. What does matter are the very high-quality action sequences, courtesy of returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. Stunts, fights and chases are all very imaginatively staged, delivering a blast of adrenaline and suspense that builds to a vertiginous, utterly exhilarating helicopter chase/cliffhanging finale.

Before said climax, we get plenty of the fun one expects from Mission Impossible, with cunning set-ups that hark back to the 1960s TV series, rubber masks, double and triple crosses. One fight in a toilet is particularly effective, as is a skydive that goes wrong, not to mention an extended chase through Paris. Speaking of which, the use of locations is also very effective, not just in Paris but in London and Kashmir as well.

Tom Cruise is on fine action-man form. His grit and determination here is particularly winning. As the villain puts it, he just won’t accept he’s beaten (following a terrific running-over-rooftops sequence). Series regulars Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin and Rebecca Ferguson all make fine contributions, and along for the ride we also have CIA covert ops guy Henry Cavill, sporting the whiskers that meant his reshoots on Justice League precipitated digital moustache removal.

In the end, what makes Mission Impossible Fallout work so well isn’t so much what happens as how it happens. Words really can’t do justice to the brilliance of the action scenes. Go and see it on the biggest cinema screen you can find.

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Aggregator aggravation

I have developed a particular dislike for aggregator review sites. For example, Rotten Tomatoes for films, or Goodreads for books.

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The star rating system is one I have always found reductive. In expressing an opinion this way, intelligent critique and discourse is invariably lost, unless people bother to read the accompanying review (assuming there is one). For example, a novel may deserve a five star rating on account of how well written it is, but someone might find the story or subject matter profoundly depressing, and rate the novel one star accordingly. What does the rating reflect? Quality of writing or quality of entertainment? It is often impossible to tell.

However, my main bone of contention is that some books or films are inherently divisive. They are either absolutely loved or absolutely reviled by those who read them. The result is that the aggregated score comes out as “average” which is hardly an accurate picture. Take for example JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye. For every person who claims it is a literary masterpiece, there is someone who thinks it’s a load of dull, meandering nonsense. In cinema, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain was one of the most divisive films of recent years. Some found it mesmerising and magnificent. Others found it a pretentious, inexplicable bore. One thing I can guarantee though. No-one who read The Catcher in the Rye or saw The Fountain found them to be so-so or average.

This post may sound like sour grapes, but that really isn’t the case (my novels all come out fairly well on the review aggregators of Amazon and Goodreads). My objection is that aggregators are reductive and misleading. They stifle debate about art and pander to a deeply flawed lowest common denominator way of thinking. Are they inevitable in this day and age? Probably. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them.

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Film Review – A Prayer Before Dawn

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Immersive. Visceral. Brutal. Sweaty. These are just some of the adjectives I could use to describe A Prayer Before Dawn, the hugely compelling new film from Johnny Mad Dog director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire. I suppose now is as good a time as any for upfront warnings of 18 certificate content – swearing, drug use, violence, sexual violence and general lack of personal space. It’s certainly a tough watch.

Based on the true story of boxer Billy Moore, who was incarcerated in a notorious Thailand prison, then fought in Muay Thai tournaments to try and earn his freedom, A Prayer Before Dawn spares us nothing of the confusion and horrors of Billy’s prison life. Whether it’s claustrophobic solitary confinement, beatings, gang rape, crap food or the sheer nightmare of having to share inadequate inches of floor space with several other sweaty, tattooed men, the film doesn’t let up for a second.

With minimal dialogue but incredible use of sound, Sauvaire keeps us on the edge of our seats. Many films aspire to be as powerful as brutal classics like Raging Bull and Midnight Express, but here the comparison is genuinely justified.

Underpinning the entire drama is an extraordinarily physical central performance from Joe Cole. An angry, drug-addicted, self-destructive protagonist, he nonetheless shows occasional moments of vulnerability and tenderness lurking beneath his furious exterior, hinting at the possible redemption to come.

It won’t be for everyone, but A Prayer Before Dawn is a horribly realistic, tremendously ferocious, utterly gripping piece of work.

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Why I am an egomaniac

I am a writer, which makes me a bit of an egomaniac.

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I don’t think that is a bad thing, and here is why. To honestly, truthfully believe that someone would want to read whatever it is you have written, you need to be possessed of a certain egomania. You have to believe you are a great writer. In fact, I personally believe every novel I write is the most imaginative, exciting, gripping, funny, relevant, thought-provoking and moving novel ever written, whilst I am writing it.

Of course, amid these dizzying heights come the dizzying lows (in my case, George McFly Syndrome), and invariably it is unlikely at best that I have written the greatest novel of all time. But I still have to believe that someone, somewhere will want to read it. Otherwise, it becomes very, very hard to persevere.

So, accepting that writers are egomaniacs to a greater or lesser degree, how can that ego be managed so it doesn’t become insufferable? My personal recommendation is twofold.

Have a very, very thick skin – This is vital for when Beta readers come back with critiques of your work. If they are worth their salt, they will not sugar-coat things and they will be severe when they need to be. I once had a Beta writer tell me to put a particular novel through the shredder (I have since agreed that it should never see the light of day). If you fail to listen to Beta readers (they may be wrong, after all), be aware that if they are correct, you are adding vanity to folly by exhibiting your flawed or failed work. In that case, be fully prepared for scathing reviews. Incidentally, I try to wear bad reviews on my sleeve wherever possible. Not everything I have published has been a roaring success, and in some cases, I have ignored Beta readers when I really shouldn’t have done. However, it is a learning process, so I take all that on the chin.

Have a very dark, self-deprecating sense of humour – This is more for the benefit of those you live with – wives, husbands, children, families, flatmates and so on. The ability to laugh at yourself will be a saving grace and a fine counterbalance to the egomania necessary to actually finish a book in the first place. Great books have been written by people who didn’t possess the ability to laugh at themselves, but I bet they were really, really horrible people to live with. If you are going to be a melodramatic flounce, at least try and be self-aware enough to realise that even if you are the greatest writer of all time, a bit of humility goes a long way, and the ability to laugh at yourself goes even further.

Now go and read my books. They are all absolutely bloody brilliant.

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Film Review – Incredibles 2

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Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is my favourite Pixar film. It is also the only Pixar film other than Toy Story which I thought could benefit from a sequel. Now Bird has finally revisited his masterpiece, the big question can finally be answered: is this as good as the original?

The short answer is no. However, Incredibles 2 is still a visually eye-popping, thrilling, funny and clever animated superhero adventure. The story picks up directly from the end of the previous film, with a fight against a villain called the Underminer (a character I am sure is inspired by something I saw in an old Flash Gordon cartoon). Following this, a telecommunications tycoon and his sister decide to do something to help superhero PR, and get the law banning superheroics overturned. However, they opt for Helen Parr aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) over Bob Parr aka Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) to kickstart their campaign. Thus, Bob gets to be a stay-at-home Dad, juggling teenage problems with his daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), homework problems with his son Dash (Huck Milner) and baby problems with Jack-Jack, whose numerous newly discovered powers prove a recurring comic highlight of the film (look out for one particularly hilarious moment involving a racoon).

Vocal performances from the leads are all good. Elsewhere favourite supporting characters such as Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) and costume designer Edna (Bird himself) return. The animation is stunningly rendered, especially during action scenes (an early motorbike chase is a must on the big screen). Design wise, the film continues the retro/parallel 1960s look of the original, an element enhanced by Michael Giacchino’s deliberately 1960s James Bond style music score, echoing the late, great John Barry.

All that said, Incredibles 2 fails to match the original, mainly because the villain isn’t anything like as strong as Syndrome (arguably the greatest, best motivated villain ever dreamed up by Pixar). Yes, the Screenslaver concept works reasonably well in a Manchurian Candidate kind of way, but the identity of the big bad is obvious from the word go, undercutting dramatic heft for the big reveal. Once said reveal occurs, the villain’s motivation is also rather weak.

On the plus side, the film has fun with Mr Incredible’s feelings of emasculation, although he ultimately copes well being the stay-at-home parent. Positive themes of families working together are continued from the first film, and mercifully this doesn’t degenerate into a preachy gender equality statement.

I particularly liked the scene where Helen argues about the illegality of superhero work, whilst Bob points out the law is sometimes wrong, and that doing the right thing can mean breaking the law. I’ve never been one for slavishly following rules just because they are the rules, so that gave the film a few more points in it’s favour, as far as I’m concerned.

In the end, Incredibles 2 may not match the original, but it is still a worthwhile sequel with plenty of entertainment value for all the family.

One more thing: the cartoon short before the main feature, Bao, is surreal but ultimately rather touching. Don’t arrive late and miss it.

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George goes to Neptune – the version that never was

GGTN 1600 x 2400 Whilst glancing through some old notes and files the other day, I came across an outline I’d written for George goes to Neptune, the third novel in my George Hughes trilogy. I glanced through it and was astonished. The plot I described was radically different to what ended up in the finished novel, and I had completely forgotten about this earlier version.

The early outline involves George meeting a long-lost sibling called Sally, who is legally entitled to a share of his vast wealth. At first George is pleased to meet Sally, and gets on well with her. However, Meredith has a bad feeling about his sibling, which George refuses to listen to. Sally proves a bad influence on George, but he doesn’t see the warning signs. Subsequently George voyages to Neptune, for the same reason as is in the novel, but once there, the alien civilization they encounter is very different (it’s a largely aquatic culture, dwelling beneath an ocean). It also transpires that Sally was genetically engineered using George’s DNA as a fake sibling, under the control of a splinter faction of Martian extremists, who used to follow General Grykur. They are using Sally in an elaborate game of revenge. The final act involves another Martian attempt at Earth conquest, this time thwarted by the aquatic aliens they discover on Neptune. Oh, and Giles gets killed off too.

The three page outline reads fairly well, detailing new characters, aliens, action scenes and there are some good ideas in it. There is a major focus in act two on the friendship between George and Giles, with Giles revealing huge swathes of dark personal backstory that foreshadow his demise in the finale. Of course, the finished novel is completely different. It is bereft of Sally, aquatic aliens, Martian splinter groups, and Giles doesn’t die.

What’s interesting about the earlier outline is how I much I replaced. For example, the Sally concept isn’t bad, but ultimately I replaced her with the more intriguing psychological battle George has against his own dark side. Ditching the aquatic aliens was entirely logical, once I came up with what George discovered on Neptune instead. I considered the Giles backstory too grim for younger readers, so that was abandoned. Furthermore, making the Martians the main baddies again just seemed repetitive, so that went out of the window too. The final act in the finished version is far, far stronger, with layers of irony and poignancy that were entirely absent from the earlier outline. In that context it made much more sense for Giles to survive. Obviously, I will not specify any further details on the finished novel, for fear of spoilers.

What I took away from rereading this old outline was one simple reminder: just because you have a good idea, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better idea, or a best idea. I am very proud of George goes to Neptune, and indeed the whole George Hughes trilogy, because with all three novels I feel I really did discard not just the bad and indifferent, but also the good, in order to get to the great.

Check out the George Hughes trilogy here.

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