A point of view about points of view

First-person, present-tense narratives seem to be increasingly popular these days. Zena Shapter’s Towards White is a good recent case in point. Her use of first-person present-tense places the reader on a thrilling and mysterious knife-edge.

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I’ve yet to write an entire novel this way, but I have used first-person present-tense once before, during the start and end of Children of the Folded Valley. I have also used it in the novel I have just finished writing.

This new novel (the title remains a secret for now) is a work of fantasy set primarily during the Dark Ages, but also in the present. There are actually three points of view in the novel – a third person, a first-person past tense, and on the periphery of the story, a mysterious first-person present-tense.

I must confess when I started this novel, I wondered if I wasn’t being overly ambitious. But to my surprise, the multiple point of view thing works very well, and even more surprisingly, I didn’t find the novel particularly difficult to write. In fact, considering the animal point of view challenges of my last novel, Echo and the White Howl, it was a relief to be writing human characters again (see here for my struggles in this respect).

What’s the new novel about? Well, the plot, like the title, is under wraps for now. But I will say it is a dark, brooding tale (for grown-ups) about knights, sorcery, quests, love, lust, betrayal and revenge. Past begins to influence present in a parallel story, as ancient secrets are gradually revealed. That’s all I want to say for now, except to unashamedly add that I am very proud of this book, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

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Film Review – A Fantastic Woman


A Fantastic Woman, winner of this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is a melancholy Chilean drama about a transgender woman coming to terms with the sudden death of her much older partner.

Daniela Vega contributes a first-rate central performance, with subtle, finely nuanced looks and gestures communicating much in the face of the prejudice and persecution she encounters from hospital staff, police and family members as funeral arrangements are made. Director Sebastian Lelio’s inspirations are both obvious (Pedro Almodovar) and less obvious (Alfred Hitchcock), and despite the hot-topic subject matter, the film has a curiously old fashioned feel, enhanced perhaps by Nani Garcia and Matthew Herbert’s Bernard Herrmann-esque music score.

Rarely if ever does the film feel like an activist axe-grind. Rather, it simply explores the complications faced by it’s protagonist dealing with grief amid difficult circumstances and flagrant hostility. It also feels oddly like a ghost story, with visions of dead lovers and metaphorical descents into the underworld featuring in the latter sections. One particular shot of her struggling against the wind provides a brilliant metaphor for her entire predicament.

The sombre tone certainly isn’t for everyone, I should add warnings for swearing, nudity and assault, and perhaps the film has been slightly overpraised. Nonetheless, A Fantastic Woman is well worth a look for cineastes if not casual viewers.


Religious Censorship and related matters

In the past, I’ve had it put to me by some of my more hot-under-the-dog-collar fellow believers, that I have no business telling stories that contain sex and violence. My response to such accusations is to point them firmly in the direction of the Bible, and ask if God also had no business telling stories that contain sex and violence.


Such differing views have existed among Christians for hundreds of years, with artists of all kinds often getting it in the neck. Take poor old Michelangelo for instance. Whilst struggling to finish the Last Judgement painting in the Sistine Chapel, in addition to injuries and broken bones sustained from falling from ladders and scaffolding, he frequently tangled with the church over nudity, and really had to argue his case. I think he had the last laugh though. When the painting was finally unveiled and shown to the Pope, he was overwhelmed by the sheer power and passion of the piece, and fell to his knees repenting in holy fear.

My own tangles with Christians over the years have been somewhat more banal by comparison, but I must say I have never had any sympathy with the everything-fun-is-wrong evangelical brigade, wanting to ban Harry Potter books because they think it will turn children to witchcraft, or taking offence at every f-word and miniskirt in a film, whilst refusing to look at the context.

And there it is: the c-word. Context is everything. As per my recent post on swearing, the decision as to whether include sex and violence in my stories is based entirely on context. In conversations I have had with certain Christians, eyebrows were raised over the “cutting” scene in Children of the Folded Valley, not to mention some of the (in my opinion mild) sexual content. In The Thistlewood Curse, concerns over the bloodbath in the finale have been mentioned. I dread to think what they’ll make of the next novel I plan to publish, The Spectre of Springwell Forest. Or some of the sex and violence in the book I am currently writing for that matter.

Despite such anti-censorship views, I have, on occasion, toned bits and pieces of my work down, depending on the target readership. For instance, one section of my last novel Echo and the White Howl I self-censored very slightly, when reading it back I realised one violent and gruesome sequence crossed the line into a level of gleeful sadism that could prove a bit too strong for younger children. That said, I still think the sequence remains challenging, bracing and incisive in its final published form. I don’t believe in patronising children by shielding them from writing like this, and the changes were largely cosmetic.

If I ever did fear the disapproval of my more uptight brethren, I no longer do so, whether writing for children or adults. Just before my father died, despite his own faith, he urged me to rewrite Children of the Folded Valley slightly, so it would be less timid, as he felt I had tried too hard to avoid offending Christians. He was absolutely right, and the resultant novel was all the better for it.


FREE Children’s Books Month: Echo and the White Howl

The final novel I am giving away for Free Children’s Books Month at Simon Dillon Books is my latest, Echo and the White Howl – available to download FREE from Amazon Kindle, between the 22nd and 26th of March.

Echo and the White Howl is an animal fiction story set amongst a wolf pack in Alaska, and a gripping and thrilling adventure for all ages.

Here is the blurb from the back of Echo and the White Howl:

When a wolf pack discovers humans lurking near their territory, Echo senses dark times ahead.

Despite the warnings and omens, Aatag, the pack Alpha, refuses to flee… leading to a cruel turn of events that forces Echo into exile, and a quest for revenge that will change the pack forever.

Echo and the White Howl is available to download FREE here.

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Film Review – Mary Magdalene


Lion director Garth Davis attempts to correct centuries of misconception in Mary Magdalene, showing how the eponymous disciple of Jesus was not a prostitute, as claimed by Pope Gregory I. That’s a laudable ambition, and certainly a fascinating point of view on the familiar gospel story. Unfortunately, the film itself fails to rise above the level of average.

On the plus side, Rooney Mara’s central performance is excellent. In the first part of the film, her extraordinarily expressive face (so brilliantly deployed in previous films such as A Ghost Story) gives the film a weight the patchy screenplay probably doesn’t deserve. We get a good sense of the social attitudes that Mary would have been up against, and the forces that would have disapproved of her joining Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples. Simon Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is particularly put out, although Judas Iscariot (Tahar Rahim) is more welcoming. In fact, the film goes out of its way to try and treat Judas more kindly than other versions of the story, one of a number of areas of artistic licence.

Said licence is unlikely to provoke any real controversy, and a part of me finds that a shame. There is little of the bracing, incendiary passion that drove, er, The Passion of the Christ for instance. There are occasional powerful moments, and Christians will undoubtedly enjoy these as faith affirming, but as the action moves towards Jerusalem, events become more disjointed. Part of the problem is Davis wants to have his cake and eat it as well. Showing the final events of Jesus’s life entirely from Mary’s point of view might have sounded good on paper, but it makes for a disrupted narrative that ironically feels as though Mary’s story is clashing with Jesus’s story, since audiences less familiar with Biblical details will need to fill in the blanks as to why Jesus is suddenly being crucified.

In truth, I desperately wanted to like this film more than I did. I think it had real potential, and I wish it had taken bigger risks. Given the splintered narrative created by sticking to Mary’s point of view, perhaps a more “Terrence Malick” approach would have helped. There are hints of how such a style could have worked in the opening scene, where Mary is underwater and quotes the verse about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed.

There are other problems too. For example, Phoenix occasionally lapsing into an American accent. After the Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic of The Passion of the Christ, accents bother me a lot more these days in Biblical tales. Against that, the film looks good, with a great sense of scale that works well on a cinema screen.

All things considered, this is a frustratingly mixed bag, and again, a film I wished had been much better.


Annihilation: The death of cinema at the hands of Netflix?


Any article moaning about Netflix is likely to provoke comments along the lines of “Times have changed”, “Technology has changed”, “Most people don’t go/can’t afford to go to the cinema” and “They are just responding to consumer demand”. I expect some will even point out that Netflix are allowing film directors considerable creative freedom, which is a fair point. Nonetheless, I don’t care. I am going to have my say, and then I will disappear back into my Luddite cave with my imaginary reels of 35mm film…

Increasingly, Netflix have been making and releasing films directly to their platform, without a cinema release (give or take the odd film festival screening). This greatly irritates me, as I would much rather see a film on the big screen, at least when I first see it. I have much sympathy with Christopher Nolan, who recently lamented this trend. Why make a film that is designed for the big screen, and only release it on Netflix? Surely the best thing to do would be to give it a cinema release first, and then by all means make it exclusive to Netflix?

When I go and see a film at the cinema, it is still – despite the advent of digital projection over 35 or 70mm, despite occasional inconsiderate audiences with mobile phones – an experience. It has a very special magic. No matter how many surround sound systems or big TVs you get, psychologically nothing beats the escape and total immersion of a cinema. What’s more, when I see a film at a cinema, it often becomes a beautiful memory fixed firmly in a particular time and place. Case in point: I recently saw The Shape of Water with my wife, on our wedding anniversary. We both loved it, and now that film will have a special place in our hearts.

Having seen a film like The Shape of Water at the cinema, I am happy to rediscover it on television, even though films always lose something on a small screen. I feel the same way about many cinema classics – Apocalypse Now, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so on. I shudder to think of anyone watching those classics for the first time on a television screen, but the memory of that amazing first cinematic viewing can be rediscovered that way.

Speaking of 2001, my eldest son really wanted to watch it, but I urged him to wait for a re-release for his first viewing. We then saw it together during a re-release a few years back (he was 10 at the time), and he thanked me afterwards for suggesting he wait. That film will now be forever linked to the overwhelming experience of seeing it on a big screen, whenever he rediscovers it on television.

Discovering a film for the first time on Netflix simply does not generate the same potent sense of memory and occasion. This is a shame, as recent Netflix movies like Okja, Gerald’s Game, and Our Souls at Night (what the hell is a Robert Redford movie doing going straight to Netflix?) would definitely benefit from a bigger screen. Recently, when The Cloverfield Paradox was released directly to Netflix, it felt like a harbinger of doom. A shape of things to come. And sure enough, Alex Garfield’s Annihilation, which I have been looking forward to seeing in the cinema for some time, is now heading directly to Netflix (Paramount sold it) because it supposedly flopped on big screens in America for being “too brainy”. Even more alarmingly, Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman is a Netflix production. The words “Martin Scorsese film” and “straight-to-TV” have no business being in the same sentence. It is a cinematic blasphemy.

In one sense, this is nothing new. We used to get direct-to-video releases all the time, alongside major releases. But direct-to-video was not something to aspire to. These films had a justified reputation for generally being rubbish. In addition, video releases of major titles would come after cinematic runs. If you wanted to wait, you could wait. However, cinematic die-hards like me always opted for the big screen wherever possible, to see the good, the bad and the indifferent. As far back as I can remember, I have always loved being able to say I saw this or that film on a big screen – even if it was a bad one – because I remember the experience. To this day, I see at least one or two films per week at the cinema, and sometimes more than that.

At this point all is not yet lost, but I do wonder if in the long run, cinema as we know it is doomed. I desperately want Netflix to start giving their films a cinematic run, but I just don’t think that will happen. I don’t expect the world to revolve around me. I know that my cinema habit is not the norm. I know it is expensive (I rationalise that what I would spend on cigarettes if I smoked, I spend on cinema tickets). I know that all Netflix are doing is responding to consumer demand. I know this is apparently the future, that times have changed, and that technology has changed… but I don’t have to like it.

In short, if the Netflix trend ends up killing cinema, I officially hate the future.


FREE Children’s Books Month: George Hughes Trilogy

The George Hughes trilogy is 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, as they do follow on from one another.

All three can be downloaded FREE from Amazon Kindle during the next five days.

Also, I must emphasise, these books are not just for children. Adult readers have found plenty to enjoy too (especially those who have picked up on some of the subtexts).

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.

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

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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…

Here are a couple of reviews from adults:

“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.

The George Hughes trilogy can be downloaded FREE here (book 1), here (book 2), and here (book 3).


Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Red Sparrow


If you are considering seeing Red Sparrow, the new spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence, be warned. There are some surprisingly nasty scenes of violence, torture, rape, dehumanising brainwashing (often of a sexual nature), as well as sex scenes, nudity and very strong language. I’m actually very surprised the film didn’t get an 18 certificate in the UK. It was slightly cut to get a 15, but with or without cuts, caution is definitely warranted.

Still here? If so, the good news is that Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe have crafted a surprisingly effective film out of Jason Matthews’s novel. The Nikita-esque plot concerns Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), who, after an onstage accident, takes violent revenge on her cheating boyfriend and his lover. As a result, she is told by her spymaster uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) that she has a choice: face punishment (including the withdrawal of proper medical care for her sick mother), or work for the state. Dominika opts for the latter, leading to a Kubrick-esque brainwashing sequence as she becomes a “Red Sparrow” – trained to spy, seduce and so on – under the tutelage of “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling). Following this she is placed on an assignment targeting CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), but a tangled web of intrigue ensues on both sides, leading suspenseful and surprising sequences riffing on that most essential of spy story themes: who can you trust?

Despite all the nastiness that festers around the frames of this film, the overall tone is quite old fashioned. Francis Lawrence has crafted an atmospheric and cinematic piece that obviously recalls Luc Besson’s Nikita, but also the likes of The Quiller Memorandum, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and other Cold War thrillers. It also makes fine use of locations in places like Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and London. Despite some slightly dodgy accents, Jennifer Lawrence is very committed in the lead, and the supporting cast also includes small but good parts for Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds. James Newton-Howard contributes a fine music score which also feels pleasingly old-school.

With a nice gradual build-up of suspense and some clever twists and turns, Red Sparrow was ultimately a much better film than I expected. But if you do see it, be prepared for some unexpectedly sharp edges.


Swearing: Lack of command of the English language?

I have often heard it said: “Writers who use profanity don’t have a proper command of the English language.” To which I reply, bullshit. Or perhaps, a big steaming mound of male cattle excrement.

I keep thinking of that scene in Back to the Future, with Marty advising George how to confront Biff.

George: Do you really think I ought to swear?

Marty: Yes definitely. Goddammit George, swear.

For me, the choice of whether to use swearing simply comes down to what the character would say, in that moment. If they would swear, they should swear. Morally censoring a work and thus rendering it dishonest is foolish.

At the same time, I am not in favour of swearing for the sake of swearing. Many books and films completely overdo this, and so the accusation about not having a proper command of the English language becomes easier to understand. Having bad language in gross profusion reduces the dramatic nature of a story, rather than heightening it. Good use of swearing adds drama, but bad use just becomes numbing and pointless. I could (but won’t) cite many, many examples of otherwise excellent modern novels that are undone in this way. It is also interesting how, in these cases, when turned into films that require a commercially viable PG-13/12A rating, they often manage to the tell the same story, just as effectively, with a lot less swearing.

I also take what I consider to be a common-sense position when it comes to swearing in children’s or young adult books, ie I don’t use anything beyond the odd “bloody” if need be. That said, there are very rare exceptions where stronger language is contextually justified. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, for example. However, I have never found a case where I needed to include f-words in a children’s book.

Anyway, that is my position on swearing in books. Hopefully you don’t think it’s a load of bollocks.

Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Game Night


“From the guys who brought you Horrible Bosses” isn’t perhaps the most promising of movie endorsements, but surprisingly Game Night is moderate amount of fun. Superficial and fluffy yes, but with more than enough laughs, some of them pleasingly dark, to make this a passable mainstream comedy.

The premise involves a group of friends who meet regularly for game nights. Main characters Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), fell in love and married because they bonded over their shared extremely competitive streak. However when Max’s older, apparently more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) sets up a special “murder mystery” game night, events take a comically nasty turn when a genuine kidnapping takes place, which at first is mistaken as all a part of the game.

An intermittently amusing comedy of errors ensues, with decent comic turns from the main cast. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, and writer Mark Perez gain laughs in set pieces including impromptu bullet wound surgery, a running gag involving a Fight Club, an unconventional Faberge Egg heist, and one particularly hilarious character, Max and Annie’s socially awkward cop neighbour Gary (Jesse Plemons).

The usual warnings apply for swearing, and it’s hardly going to change the world, but there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours. If nothing else, Game Night is far better than Horrible Bosses.