George goes to Neptune out this October

This October, I am releasing the third and final novel in the George Hughes series, George goes to Neptune. It is available to pre-order from Amazon here.

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For me, this is the best George Hughes novel yet. I hope you enjoy it.

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 released on the 25th of October on Kindle. Pre-order your copy now!

Print copies will be available from the 31st of October. Details to follow soon.

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Film Review – Trainwreck

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At its core, Trainwreck, the latest comedy from director Judd Apatapow is an old fashioned romantic comedy. It just happens to be one that challenges gender stereotypes to a point, and is packed with enough sex, sexual references and strong language to put off more conservative viewers. So if you are the latter, consider yourself duly warned.

However, for viewers able to look past the filth, Trainwreck does at least have something to say, at least initially, in the way it challenges assumptions about the lead character Amy (Amy Schumer). Is there a reason why audiences more readily enjoy the guilty pleasures of a womanising lead male who falls in love and learns the error of his ways? Why not try the same with a female lead? Amy urges viewers in her opening monologue not to judge her.

In spite of this, the film soon settles into familiar romantic comedy territory once commitment shy Amy, who only has one night stands, begins to fall for doctor to sport celebrities Aaron (Bill Hader). There are some very, very good laugh-out loud moments – such as the hysterical monochrome film within a film starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei entitledThe Dogwalker, the acid exchanges at the sleazy magazine where Amy works, and one shot during a romantic montage that will mean I never look at the poster for Woody Allen’s Manhatten in quite the same way again.

Another key element of the plot is Amy’s poignant relationship with her father, who, in an opening flashback, explains why he is getting a divorce to his daughters by saying monogamy is akin to saying you can only play with one doll for the rest of your life. Obviously, the message sticks with Amy, who dearly loves him. The film could almost be entitled Trainwreck: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love monogamy.

In spite of that, there is still plenty here to offend, as I have already mentioned. Also, the film is overlong and frankly outstays its welcome, in spite of decent performances from the leads. That said, if you enjoyed previous Apatapow films (Knocked Up remains my favourite of his), Trainwreck is worth a look.

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Love vs Honour Q & A

I’ve had a few questions and comments about my latest novel Love vs Honour that I thought it would be good to address on the blog.

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When and where did you get the idea for the novel?

Sometime in 2005, on a bus in a traffic jam. The start and end downloaded into my consciousness from the inexplicable ethereal void known as “sudden inspiration”. The mid-section, whereby Johnny and Sabina pretend to convert to different religions as an elaborate parental appeasing ruse, occurred to me a little later. It wasn’t until mid-2006, after I moved to Devon, that I decided to write it and set it amid my new surroundings.

Why write something so clearly outside your usual genres?

I can only plead the afore-mentioned “sudden inspiration”. Teen romantic drama is a long way outside my so-called “comfort zone”. Yet the novel deals with themes similar to those found in my other works – rebellion, religious oppression, abuse of power, and so on.

What is the target readership?

Teenagers. But grown-ups have also told me they found it thought-provoking, gripping and moving.

Is Johnny based on you?

No, but there are elements of me in him, as there are, inevitably, in many of my characters.

Is Sabina based on a real person?

Sort of.

Is Johnny’s family’s troubled religious background based on my own?

Yes, to a point. It is actually closer to my own experiences than the fictional cult activities in Children of the Folded Valley.

Did you base the story on a real life relationship deception?

No. But who knows? Perhaps it has happened before, somewhere.

Is Love vs Honour pro-Christianity or pro-Islam?

Neither. It simply depicts characters from both faiths, and their differing views and convictions.

But surely you must have your own beliefs?

Of course. But I have not consciously used Love vs Honour as a vehicle for them. It is intended as a gripping romantic drama first and foremost.

It gets quite dark towards the end, doesn’t it?

Yes. I make no apology for that. The subject matter is challenging, and I tried to explore some big ideas as fearlessly and honestly as possible.

I didn’t expect that ending.

Good. But I hope you’ll agree it was the right ending.

Love vs Honour can be downloaded here. Print copies are available here.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

Two Religions. Two Deceptions. One Love.

When Johnny meets and falls in love with Sabina, their bond proves stronger than a teenage holiday fling.

Fearing the disapproval of their strict Christian and Islamic families, they undertake an elaborate deception to continue seeing one another. Johnny pretends to convert to Islam whilst Sabina pretends to covert to Christianity to appease their parents. 

But how long can this deception last before it unravels?

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Film Review – The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is carefully crafted to evoke nostalgia for old James Bond films and sixties spy movies, as well as the TV series on which it is based. It is rather a shame, therefore, to report that the results are so-so at best.

Viewers familiar with the characters so memorably inhabited by David McCallum and Robert Vaughn will perhaps struggle with seeing Arnie Hammer and Henry Cavill in the Ilya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo roles respectively. These CIA/KGB rivals are forced to join forces against a mysterious criminal organisation that wishes to obtain nuclear weapons. Add to this volatile mix East German mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander), whose father worked as a Nazi scientist, ice cool villainous Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), and the stage ought to be set for a really good blast of old school spy fun. But somehow all of this fails to congeal into anything above average.

It certainly looks fabulous, with glamorous use of Rome and Berlin locations. The opulent colour palette also evokes the spy movies of yesteryear, and Ritchie certainly seems to have a passion for the project. Yet the script is rarely thrilling, save for the opening, as Solo and Ilya clash during an attempt to smuggle Gaby out of East Berlin. The cast do reasonably well, but it is only the wonderful Vikander who really shines. That said, Hugh Grant pops up in a few scenes, and steals every one of them.

All things considered, this isn’t so much The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as The Meh from U.N.C.L.E. If you want a bit of spy action this summer, check out the superior Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation instead.

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The Best “Christian” Films of the past few years

Many readers will be aware of my Christian views, so I thought I’d offer a brief analysis of what I consider to be the most thought provoking films of the past few years from a Christian perspective. These are not “Christian” films per se, in the sense that they are not propaganda pieces (there are plenty of ghastly examples of the latter out there, which I emphatically don’t recommend). Rather, these are major, mostly mainstream releases; mostly if not entirely made by non-believers, who intentionally or not have grappled with and expounded on Christian themes in profound and interesting ways, across a variety of genres.

(WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD)

Batman Begins

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“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

Overview: The first film in Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary Batman trilogy features Christian Bale as the eponymous Dark Knight.

Theme: Faith without works is dead.

Key Sequence: Bruce Wayne tells Rachel that his playboy existence isn’t who he really is inside. She then challenges Bruce that it isn’t who he is inside, but what he does that defines him. Later in the film, Batman repeats this line back to Rachel, thus identifying himself to tremendous dramatic effect, and underscoring the faith without works is dead theme.

 Calvary

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“I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”

Overview: Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who is told by a parishioner that he will die in three days for sexual abuse suffered as a child at the hands of another now deceased priest.

Theme: Faith and forgiveness.

Key Sequence: The ending, wherein Gleeson’s absolute belief in forgiveness results in him willingly laying down his life.

The Conjuring

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“The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

Overview: Catholic paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren investigate their most notorious case in James Wan’s derivative but thrillingly scary horror pic, supposedly based on a true story.

Theme: Spiritual Warfare.

Key Sequence: During the full-on third act exorcism, the power of Jesus Christ drives out evil, albeit amid dollops of dodgy theology that will upset those Christians who bizarrely mistake films for sermons.

Of Gods and Men

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“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion.”

Overview: The true story of French Algerian monks who decided to remain in their monastery and keep helping the local community, despite threats from an increasingly dangerous Islamic militia.

Theme: Faith in the Face of Persecution.

Key Sequence: The wordless “last supper”, as the monks listen to Swan Lake whilst they eat. An almost unbearably moving depiction of Christians united in their belief to remain true to their calling, in the face of certain death.

The Book of Eli

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“It’s a weapon… aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them… All we need is that book.”

Overview: A violent post-apocalypse action thriller from the Hughes Brothers, starring Denzel Washington, about a man determined to protect a mysterious and powerful book from falling into the wrong hands.

Theme: The Power of the Word

Key Sequence: Action affictionados will love the single-take gunfight, but from a Christian perspective the most important element in this film isn’t so much a single sequence but the villain’s desire to obtain the mysterious “book”, because he knows it has power, and that he can twist that power to his own ends. The Book of Eli isn’t just concerned with the power of the Bible, but how the Bible has been misused. It’s worth adding that as I left the cinema, I overheard lots of people saying how that film had made them want to read the Bible.

True Grit

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“Everything in this life has to be paid for. Only the grace of God is free.”

Overview: The Coen Brothers adapt Charles Pontis’ classic western novel and manage to make a better film than the original 1969 John Wayne version, mainly because they retain the overtly Christian elements stripped out of the earlier film.

Theme: The Price of Vengeance.

Key Sequence: In the opening moments, Mattie says the line quoted above. She proves those words when she tracks down her father’s killers and exacts revenge. The consequences of her actions are immediate and permanent, as made clear by the final part of the movie.

The Lives of Others

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“To think that people like you ruled a country.”

Overview: Technically, this film doesn’t contain any direct Christian references, but I can’t think of a more powerful and haunting redemption story in recent cinema history. In 1984 East Berlin, a cold-hearted, desperately lonely secret policeman named Wiesler rediscovers his humanity when asked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman.

Theme: Redemption.

Key sequence: The deeply moving final act, when Dreyman discovers, years later, how Wiesler protected him. He approaches Wiesler to thank him, then halts whilst still a fair distance away, realising how hollow his thanks would be. Instead he writes a book, and dedicates it to him, which Wiesler discovers in the final scene.

Senna

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“Whether you’re at the highest or most modest level, you must show great strength and determination and do everything with love and a deep belief in God.”

Overview: A truly extraordinary documentary about the life of Formula 1 racing legend Ayrton Senna, who had a troubled but remarkable faith in God.

Theme: Honouring God with the gifts he has given to you.

Key Sequence: Throughout the film, Senna consistently gives glory to God for his achievements. However, the way in which God apparently spoke to him through the Bible, hinting at his impending demise, is as eerie as it is faith-affirming.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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“I know I’m asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.”

Overview: Captain America fights a Hydra conspiracy to bring about a New World Order where people are deceived into accepting a brutal dictatorship because they feel afraid. Substitute the word “Hydra” for “Antichrist” and the film suddenly becomes very “End Times”.

Theme: Standing for truth and freedom in the End Times.

Key Sequence: Captain America’s speech quoted above leads to a stunning moment with the bravest character in the film – not Captain America, but a technician who refuses an immoral order, even though he knows he will be shot. Such bravery in the face of evil has provoked many a conversation with my children.

Philomena

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“I forgive you because I don’t want to remain angry.”

“I think if Jesus was here right now he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair – and you wouldn’t get up and walk.”

Overview: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan give remarkable performances in this hugely powerful true story of a journalist helping an Irish woman track down her lost son decades after he was taken from her by the Catholic church (via the notorious Magdalene laundries).

Theme: Supernatural forgiveness.

Key Sequence: The finale, in which Philomena (Dench) forgives the utterly unrepentant nun responsible for the trauma, abuse and subsequent subterfuge that kept her apart from her now dead son. Such forgiveness feels impossible, and I imagine most viewers will instead identify with Coogan’s righteous fury. Hence the two quotes above instead of one.

The Tree of Life

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“Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when you aren’t?”

Overview: Terence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece is a stunningly beautiful, profound, poetic piece of pure cinema. Essentially it deals with a son looking back on his troubled relationship with his father in fragmented, dreamlike flashbacks, but most of the dialogue is streams of consciousness or prayer, concerning suffering and tragedy, most particularly with regard to a sibling who died. Throw in an incredibly audacious flashback to the creation of the Universe, dreams, visions and a metaphysical journey into the afterlife, and you have a genuinely singular movie modelled loosely on the book of Job.

Theme: Coming to terms with grief and suffering.

Key Sequence: Here I must confess that I love The Tree of Life for many, many deeply personal reasons. I could list many sequences here, but I’ll pick the “heaven” moment near the end of the film, where Sean Penn’s character falls to his knees on the beach and is reunited with his entire family in paradise. Is Malick overreaching? Perhaps. But I defy anyone who has experienced grief not to find the scene powerfully moving and immensely cathartic.

I’ll end with one more quote from this remarkable film:

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

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Download Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge FREE – for five days only!

For five days only, you can download my novel Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge absolutely FREE from Amazon.

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

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

September 1987.

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

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

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is not just for children. Grown-up readers have commented on political cynicism and distrust of government apparently lurking between the lines (which of course I could not possibly confirm or deny). The ending caught a number of readers by surprise too, but don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.

Print copies (alas, not free) are available to order here.

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Film Review – Fantastic Four

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The latest attempt to reboot the Fantastic Four, courtesy of Chronicle director Josh Trank, is neither fish nor fowl. The film tries to be too many things and fails to be any of them in a truly satisfying way.

For one thing, the origin story feels painfully slow. At least the previous, not particularly fantastic Fantastic Four movies got the science-y accident that turns them into superheroes out of the way quickly. By contrast, here our fantastic leads Reed Richards aka Mr Fantastic (Miles Teller), Johnny Storm aka Human Torch (Michael B Jordan), Sue Storm aka Invisible Woman (Kate Mara) and Ben Grimm aka The Thing (Jamie Bell) seem to take an age to hop into that alternative dimension – a dimension that also turns their other science chum Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) into super-villain Dr Doom. Incidentally, this Dr Doom looks like an evil version of Bicentennial Man with a convenient cloak he presumably found whilst in inter-dimensional exile.

Yet the film somehow manages to feel rushed as well. A staple of origin stories is to mine scenes depicting superheroes coming to terms with their new found powers for comedy (as in Superman, Spiderman, etc). Here we are offered no such pleasure, merely a “one year later” caption, implying much footage may languish on the cutting room floor as a casualty of the troubled production history.

Although the film contains a clutch of acting talent, the screenplay never really allows them the opportunity to shine. Instead it tries at first to evoke teen indie drama, before evolving into science fiction movie with hints of Cronenbergian body horror, then settling for a brief and frankly rather anaemic conventional superhero action finale. Overall, this feels like a film that wants to be much darker, but isn’t allowed to be.

It isn’t terrible exactly. We aren’t talking Michael Bay levels of ghastliness. But this Fantastic Four is wildly uneven; lacking pace, wit and action. It is, at best, deeply, deeply average. Certainly it fails to follow through on any of the promise Trank displayed in Chronicle. If you want a superhero fix this summer, go and see Antman instead.

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Film Review – The Gift

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Actor Joel Edgerton makes a very impressive writing/directorial debut with The Gift, a slow burning but hugely gripping thriller that is well worth seeking out.

It begins like so many other home invasion psycho thrillers, with a young married couple moving to a new house. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are attempting to make a fresh start after a difficult patch. A chance meeting with old classmate Gordo (Joel Edgerton) leads to a series of mysterious gifts and unwanted encounters that gradually become creepy and sinister.

At this point, the narrative appears simple and predictable, like countless other genre pics. But Edgerton’s screenplay gradually turns in altogether unexpected, fascinating and pleasingly ambiguous directions, becoming something of a dark morality tale about bullying and the consequences of foolish actions. As the movie tagline says, just because you’re done with the past, doesn’t mean the past is done with you.

Edgerton makes clever use of light and framing to milk maximum suspense from every shot. “Hitchcockian” is an adjective I don’t use lightly, but here it is definitely warranted. The tension builds gradually and subtly, though Edgerton is not above throwing in the odd (very effectively deployed) jump-scare. The cast are terrific too, with Edgerton at his most unnerving, Rebecca Hall making a fine imperilled heroine and Bateman convincingly evolving what appears at first to be a one-note character into someone much more complicated. There is some swearing, but arguably Edgerton’s greatest achievement is that he achieves an extraordinary atmosphere of threat and menace with barely any onscreen violence.

All things considered, The Gift is an unexpected, nail-biting gem of a movie. It features no car chases, explosions or lavish special effects, just really good old-fashioned character centred storytelling. If you love a good thriller, you’ll love this.

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Breaking away from writing in the middle of a…

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I am between novels at present, so having just been on holiday, I was be able to do so without the complications and character arcs of act two rumbling in the back of my mind.

Breaking away from in-depth writing is always difficult, and conventional wisdom dictates that a clean break is best, ie between novels, as outlined above. However, given that this isn’t always possible, how best to proceed? Finish the chapter or section one is writing?

Surprisingly, I would advise the exact opposite. I always leave each writing session in the middle of a section I am enjoying or finding easy to write – for example, in the middle of a conversation, or amid a crucial dramatic moment. It sounds like madness, but the truth is upon re-reading I find I immediately get excited about what I am writing, remember why I decided to write it, and throw myself into it afresh with renewed enthusiasm.

By contrast, I find finishing a chapter or key section of the drama makes it harder for me to get back into it next time I sit down to write. If I reach the end of a chapter, I always write a chunk of the next before stopping, just to break the ice, so to speak. Chapter beginnings are always psychologically difficult, and it helps to at least have those first few paragraphs.

The psychological challenge of actually beginning a novel is even more intense, but that’s a subject for another post.

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Film Review – Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Ethan Hunt and gang are up to their usual espionage high jinks in Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation. These are, it must be said, rather entertaining high jinks; certainly on a par with the last instalment, Ghost Protocol. Director Christopher McQuarrie continues in the vein set by his predecessor Brad Bird, by making this spy caper a breathless blast of jolly good fun.

After an enjoyably silly opening stunt involving Hunt (Tom Cruise) dangling from a from a Hercules as it takes off, the proper plot soon kicks in as the Impossible Missions Force come into contact with The Syndicate: a kind of anti-IMF. Hunt’s pals from the previous movie William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) are back, along with prior IMF alumni Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). CIA big cheese Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is also thrown into the mix, as he hopes to absorb the loose-cannon IMF into the CIA fold. There’s a splendid villain in the form of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and also a mysterious wild card Ilsa Faust (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson). Guessing her true allegiance is, of course, part of the fun.

And fun is what this film is all about. There is nothing dark or brooding about it, thank goodness. It is simply a series of extremely enjoyable action set pieces, some of which contain properly Hitchcockian, nail-chewing suspense. Two moments in particular – one involving an assassination at the Vienna Opera, another involving a hold-your-breath underwater heist – are absolute stand-outs.

The cast are all good, and McQuarrie handles the action stuff very well, making good, glamorous use of locations including Casablanca and London, as well as the afore-mentioned Vienna. In addition to action it has wit to spare, and even though it perhaps goes on a smidgeon too long during the finale, that can be easily forgiven.

Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation isn’t going to win Oscars or end up on any lists of the greatest films ever made. And obviously it is utter nonsense. But did I mention it was great fun?

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