Film Review – Mother!


There has been much debate around Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! as to what it is all supposed to mean. Some have interpreted it as an environmentalist parable (a “Mother” who gives to an overpopulated world until she can give nothing more), and some have claimed it is as an allegory about religious delusions, or even an anti-Christian statement. Yet for all the discussion and controversy (which has fallen well short of A Clockwork Orange levels of outrage, despite the predictions of some), I actually found my own interpretation to be fairly straightforward, and even a trifle obvious.

For me, this is a difficult, darkly comic, savagely violent parable about the artistic process from the point of view of the muse. Mother! is a surreal, dreamlike experience that’s clearly intended as metaphorical and set in a world that’s a sidestep outside reality. For one thing, the characters have no proper names. The protagonist, “Mother”, is played  by Jennifer Lawrence – a visceral and committed lead performance – alongside supporting characters including “Him” (Javier Bardem, Lawrence’s husband, a poet suffering from writer’s block), and various others that come to their country house, disrupting their idyllic existence.

The first of these is “Man” (Ed Harris) who inexplicably mistakes their house for a bed and breakfast. “Him” welcomes “Man” into their home, despite the misgivings of “Mother”. “Man” is later joined by his wife, “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), who proves to be a nosy, tactless houseguest. Both rather lack self-awareness, to put it mildly, and at this point it becomes obvious (to me at any rate) that the people, the place, the house itself (unfinished, and being decorated by “Mother”) are all symbolic elements in the artistic process. “Mother” tries to inspire “Him”; creating a good environment for him to work, continually sacrificing and giving… She ultimately inspires greatness, but “Him” turns to others for inspiration as well, inviting them into their private existence. When “Him” finally succeeds in writing a masterpiece, it is not just for “Mother” but must be shared with the whole world – a world that intrudes upon the wellbeing of “Mother” in very alarming ways.

What happens subsequently may or may not be taking place in the mind of “Mother”. For one thing she takes medicine regularly, yet at one key point in the narrative she stops. Does this somehow unleash the madness that follows? I should add warnings here for extremely strong language as well as brutal, bloody and shocking violence. Yet it would be exceedingly foolish to take even the most unpleasant, upsetting violence at face value. Again, to me the metaphors – about the artistic process – were fairly obvious.

Aronofsky has created a claustrophobic, unsettling piece here. By keeping his camera focussed in and around Jennifer Lawrence, the film becomes genuinely disorientating and nightmarish. There are echoes of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and even Ben Wheatley’s High Rise at times, yet more than anything this feels like a companion piece to Aronofsky’s own Black Swan. It’s also the better film of the two.

I expect Mother! to polarise audiences as much as Aronofsky’s other films, but I must say I admire him. Mother! may be pretentious and self-indulgent at times, but it is also incisive, challenging, bracingly cinematic and actually in metaphorical terms quite honest in terms of the dark truths it confronts. Some will find the film offensive, no doubt, but as I said about Paul Verhoeven’s Elle earlier this year, I’d rather be offended than bored.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Plot Twists versus Unexpected Plot Turns

I have noticed some people confuse plot twists with unexpected plot turns. Here I shall attempt my own definitions of each, to explain the difference.

Earlier this year, I was most amused by a “bad” review of my novel Love vs Honour on Goodreads. The reviewer took great exception to the third act, stating the following:

“No…just No….
I hate such endings..
When the story got interesting then the author has to shock us?
That’s bad..”

Obviously the reader is entitled to their opinion, and I am pleased that my writing got under her skin, but I maintain (and this is supported by many others who have read the novel) that the third act of Love vs Honour is not a pointless exercise in shock tactics but an outcome that was hinted at throughout – indeed the very first chapter clearly telegraphs where this is all going to end up.

LvsHonour 1600 x 2400

That said my intention in writing that novel was to create an unexpected plot turn, despite the hints that had been dropped. The third act should still feel like a shock, even though in hindsight it ought to seem inevitable. This was not a twist, but a new and unexpected narrative direction. However, an unexpected plot turn does not mean earlier events are viewed in a different light. In Love vs Honour, the first two acts are not open to drastic reinterpretation as a result of the third act.

By contrast a plot twist, particularly a final act plot twist, turns the entire story on its head, providing a rush of insight that causes the reader to see all events and characters in completely new terms. Said twists must be cleverly woven into the narrative in such a way that they come out of left field, and yet like unexpected plot turns, also seem inevitable in hindsight, causing the reader to wonder how on earth they didn’t see it coming.

In a number of my novels – including Uncle Flynn, The Birds Began to Sing and most recently The Thistlewood Curse – there are big, final act twists which mean the entire story has to be reassessed in light of the new information. How well these big twists work is of course up to readers to decide, but for better or worse, the events in those finales do mean the entire plots of those books are turned on their heads, hopefully in an entertaining and enjoyable way.

To conclude, a good example of the difference between the above narrative devices occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. The notorious shower stabbing is an unexpected plot turn, whereas the finale in the cellar (when the nature of Norman’s “mother” is revealed) is a plot twist.

Here are some other examples of both from books and movies (I will tip-toe around spoilers):

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – The man with two faces finale is a big plot twist.

One Day – The bike accident late in the novel is an unexpected plot turn.

The Sixth Sense – Bruce Willis’s final discovery about himself is a justly famous plot twist.

His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass – The upshot of the romance between Will and Lyra, as a result of the difficult choice they are forced to make, is an unexpected plot turn.

Planet of the Apes – Charlton Heston’s final discovery on the beach is a plot twist.

Great Expectations – The demise of Miss Havisham is an unexpected plot turn.

The Empire Strikes Back – Darth Vader’s big revelation is a plot twist, one that turns the entire story of not just that film but also the previous film completely upside down.

Million Dollar Baby – What happens to Hilary Swank’s character following the sucker-punch is an unexpected plot turn.

Les Diaboliques – The nail-biting bath finale is a plot twist.

Dead Poets Society – What happens to Neil after he performs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an unexpected plot turn.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – The identity of the mole in MI6 is a big twist.

Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler’s escape is an unexpected (and unconventional) plot turn.

Murder on the Orient Express – The finale is one of the most famous whodunit resolutions of all time, and one of the biggest twists.

Kind Hearts and Coronets – The delicious irony of why the protagonist finally gets arrested is a particularly amusing unexpected plot turn in this sublime black comedy.

I could go on and on, but hopefully that clarifies my definition.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – It


Stephen King’s It has previously been adapted as a memorable television miniseries, so this new version, helmed by Mama director Andy Muschietti, comes with a certain level of expectation. Personally I don’t find It quite the bone-chilling exercise in terror claimed by many, but the new film certainly works reasonably well.

For me, It (or at least this version) is more successful outside the horror elements when tapping into the Stranger Things zeitgeist. Updating the novel from the 1950s to the 1980s, this nostalgic, coming of age story is familiar King territory for anyone who has seen Stand by Me, not to mention kids-rule Amblin movies like The Goonies. That’s not to say it skimps on gruesome horror either, and at times the film borrows heavily from Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Now is as good a time as any to warn of strong bloody sequences, violence, bad language, and other disturbing content.

The plot covers the first half of King’s novel, whereby children in a small American town are terrorised, abducted and murdered by a demonic force that takes the form of Pennywise the Clown. This malevolent spiritual force has lurked in the town for decades, and a local group of bullied children (who collectively refer to themselves as “the Losers Club”) start to put together the pieces from history, discovering the truth and deciding to fight back.

The largely unknown cast all do pretty well, and Muschietti directs solidly, delivering a least a couple of decent scares. However, as I mentioned earlier I didn’t find it massively frightening overall, perhaps because clowns simply do not scare me. Far more disturbing are the appalling adults in the story, at best useless and at worst abusive (in one case sexually). The stand the children take against demonic evil is admirable, but I found myself far more interested in the afore-mentioned coming of age themes, as well as the character arc of one of the children dealing with grief.

All things considered, It is likely to please fans of both the novel and the miniseries. However, they’ll have to keep their fingers crossed for a sequel covering the second half of the novel, which will no doubt be dependent on box office.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing animal fiction

Earlier this year, my youngest son asked me to write a story about wolves. Initially I said no, as animal fiction is not something I have had an ambition to attempt. However, annoyingly, a rather good story then occurred to me, and before I knew it I had the outline of a novel on paper.


After a certain amount of encouragement/begging from the afore-mentioned youngest son, I decided to attempt the project. Astonishingly, I have just finished the first draft. I am currently awaiting the verdict of test readers, but if they are positive, I may well fast track it for release this year, instead of The Faerie Gate, which I had originally planned to bring out this autumn (that novel would be pushed back for a 2018 release).

Whilst awaiting feedback (apart from anything else, I need to know if the quality is good enough for my youngest son), here are some thoughts on my experience writing animal fiction.

It’s bloody difficult.

Writing animal fiction is a fiend, because it is very tricky to tread the line between assigning a number of human attributes to animal characters to make them relatable, and yet making sure their knowledge doesn’t go beyond what they would naturally know. A myriad of choices complicate this – everything from turns of phrase to knowledge of the world around them. For example, I had to weed out a lot of human expressions from the dialogue or create wolf equivalents. A wolf wouldn’t be “unable to put my finger on the problem”, for instance. It also gets very awkward when describing human devices they have no knowledge of (for example guns). In addition, when hearing about places beyond their natural habitat (eg cities, or the sea), again, they have to be seen to not fully comprehend such concepts.

Animal fiction is a technique, not a genre.

Animal fiction can incorporate everything from comedy to satire, allegory, adventure, fantasy and more. In the case of my novel, it is a coming-of-age adventure story for all ages (well, older children and up); combining the atmospheric, dirt-and-snow-under-the-paws realism of the Alaskan wilderness with metaphysical elements. There is plenty of action – with hunts, blizzards, epic journeys and more – alongside a mysterious, supernatural background. The main plot involves a revenge story, but in keeping with the great traditions of much animal fiction, humans lurk on the narrative periphery as an ever present potential menace. Key inspirations include Watership Down, Bambi and, bizarrely, Twin Peaks.

Suspension of disbelief: where to incorporate research, and where to ignore it.

Again, this was fiend. I undertook the usual deluge of research for writing this novel, but how much of it I should incorporate became a constant question. I have included elements of how cubs are raised, how a pack hunts, the challenges to become Alpha and so on. However, science tells me wolves see in black and white. Needless to say, I ignored the latter point and opted for poetic licence, for much the same reason George Lucas opted for poetic licence so we heard all those cool laser sounds and explosions in the Star Wars space battles, despite the fact that space is a vacuum and we’d hear nothing were such battles to take place in reality.

Title Trouble: From the generic to the enigmatic.

As with many of my novels, I wrestled for some time with the title. I wanted something original rather than my generic working title of Wolf Story (which has probably been used in any case). A close friend of mine sent me a number of amusing but useless monikers, including A Tale of Tails and Lupine Larks. However, in the end she came up with the title I am actually using: Echo and the White Howl. I rather like the enigma and mystery inherent in that title, and I hope (subject to feedback) that the rest of the novel lives up to it.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Download Uncle Flynn FREE – for five days only!

For five days only, my debut novel Uncle Flynn is available to download FREE from Amazon Kindle.

Uncle Flynn was received very positively. On the surface it is a properly old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, but it contains underlying themes about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. The book is dedicated to my eldest son, and was largely inspired by our many excursions over Dartmoor, as well as a bit of local history.

Here is the blurb from the back of Uncle Flynn:

When timid eleven year old Max Bradley embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious Uncle Flynn, he discovers he is braver than he thought.

Together they decipher clues, find a hidden map and explore secret tunnels in their search. But with both police and rival treasure hunters on their tail, Max begins to wonder if his uncle is all he seems…

Here are a few reviews from various readers:

“Harking back to the wonderful adventure stories of Arthur Ransome, Uncle Flynn is a welcome return to the excitement of outdoor exploits in wild surroundings. Excitement, tension and peril combine in a well-written tale where The Goonies meets Swallows and Amazons. The evocative descriptions of treasure seeking on Dartmoor will have you longing to visit and explore for yourselves. Action-packed puzzle-solving pleasure for children and adults alike, with a neat twist in the tale to keep you guessing.”

Mrs Alice R Brewer,

“A treasure for all ages. Kids and teenagers would love this fast-paced adventure story. Most adults would also find it a light and enjoyable read.”

B Fraley,

“Don’t pass this one by. I have been burning through the free NOOKbooks and this is the absolute BEST. Doesn’t matter what type of fiction you like to read, I can imagine this would capture just about anyone’s attention – and heart.”

willreadanything, Barnes and Noble.

“Could not put the book down, so enjoyed the journey. Recommended it to my 12 year old grandson who now wants me to be his book reading adviser. Loved by three generations.”

Brinney, Barnes and Noble.

“What a wonderful book for young readers and anyone else who loves a book with a great twist on an amazing story of courage over fear.”

Beansie47, Barnes and Noble.

“I’m an 83 year old woman. Your book was a joy to me. I felt I was having all the adventures myself at this ripe old age. Your book was like a cold drink of water on a hot day. Thank you.”

Joan McLaughlin, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

“I downloaded the book for my boys to read, and thought I’d just read the first few lines… Needless to say I read to the end! Well written and most enjoyable – great adventure with life lessons woven into the story.”

Cecile Weyers, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

Uncle Flynn is available to download FREE here. Print copies are also available (not free) here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – Patti Cake$


Patti Cake$ is an entertaining if flawed indie outing from writer/director Geremy Jasper. It follows the fortunes of overweight, white female rapper wannabe Patti Dombrowski (the excellent Danielle Macdonald). Her determination is undermined at every turn by those in her downtrodden hometown in New Jersey, including her divorced, alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett), herself bitter at the way her own career as a rock/metal star failed to happen due to teenage pregnancy.

Despite such hard knocks, Patti is encouraged by Indian best friend Jehri (Siddharth Dhananjay), and later a black, Sex Pistol-inspired punk rock wannabe who calls himself “Basterd the Antichrist” (Mamoudou Athie). For reasons too convoluted to explain, the three of them, along with Patti’s grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty), form a multi-racial rap group.

It’s well acted and directed, intermittently amusing and touching. However certain scenes feel a bit forced, such as fantasy sequences where Patti is enraptured by the godlike presence of her idol rap star OZ. Despite its rather determined offbeat quirkiness, Patti Cake$ is actually quite a conventional narrative that doesn’t really warrant the hand-wringing it has induced in certain politically correct corners over “cultural appropriation” (a particularly annoying current axe-grind for the professionally offended). Nor does it quite warrant the praise that has been heaped on it by those who view it as breaking down social, racial or gender barriers, even though I admit there is a certain amount of subversion in the way it occasionally exposes the misogyny inherent in a lot of rap culture (particularly in an early, ultimately shocking scene, involving a street rap contest).

To be honest, Patti Cake$ is best viewed and enjoyed as a straightforward, agreeably heartwarming underdog tale, albeit one that contains a plethora of bad language and sexual references. I enjoyed it mostly for Macdonald’s winning performance, and for that reason alone the film is worth seeing.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – Emmi


Emmi, a short film directed by Andrew Carslaw, proves to be a well-acted, well-directed but remorselessly grim affair. Set in a high rise council building, the story concerns an infertile woman who longs for children, and a teenager concealing a secret pregnancy. Hints of abuse from the unseen “Uncle Ray” and a sense that something terrible is about to happen hangs like a shadow over the entire film, which in ten short minutes packs a considerable punch.

Performances are good, especially from Amy Harris and Natalie Martins, as Sarah and the eponymous Emmi respectively. Writer Susie Stead clearly has the social conscience of a Ken Loach, and her admirably spare screenplay leaves plenty of room for viewers to fill in the blanks. Personally I’d have preferred a smidgeon of dark humour to undercut the bleakness, as the story does feel a little one note, but it is one note played very well.

Carlsaw paints his film in a muted palette of steely greys, and the overall tone combines social realism with hints of horror. A seeping dread lingers throughout the entire piece, from an opening subway encounter red herring to the bleak finale. The editing and music score, also by Carslaw, are very well done. Overall Emmi is a fine short and a good calling card for Ferny Films.

NOTE: Emmi can be seen at the following UK film festivals this autumn:

9 SEPTEMBER: Copenhagen Film Days (

10 SEPTEMBER: London Rolling Film Festival ( – Free and including Q&A

23 SEPTEMBER: Screen It! Film Festival (

9-22 OCTOBER: Fisheye Film Festival ( – including Q&A

14-15 OCTOBER: Bristol Radical Film Festival ( – including Q&A

19-22 OCTOBER: Southampton International Film Festival (

11 NOVEMBER: London Golden Scout International Film Festival (


Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – The Limehouse Golem


A fine brace of lead performances from Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke form the heart of The Limehouse Golem, an agreeably nasty Jack the Ripper-esque Victorian whodunit with deliberately theatrical Grand Guignol horror hokum overtones. Deft sleight of hand and neat, should-have-seen-that-coming twists are the order of the day, so if you can withstand the sex, violence and considerable levels of blood and gore, this will certainly hit the spot for a certain kind of viewer.

The film neatly “begins at the end” with celebrated Music Hall performer Lizzie Cree (Cooke) arrested for the alleged poisoning of her husband. Flashbacks tell of her rise to fame, from humble beginnings in harsh, abusive poverty to her arrest. Along the way, Detective Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) investigates a series of brutal, seemingly unconnected killings, with Lizzie Cree’s late husband amongst a four suspect roster.

Boasting a fine screenplay from Jane Goldman (based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd), The Limehouse Golem has had something of a difficult production history, with a number of directors attached to the project at various times (including names as diverse as Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan). In the end however, Juan Carlos Medina helms the piece with appropriately atmospheric gothic panache. Sequences where suspects are seen as possible killers in flashback are well deployed, with effective use of sound, and the film is elegantly constructed with a certain clever-clever, metatextual, borderline fourth wall-breaking suggestion that the audience (in both the Music Hall and cinema) are complicit in the gruesome murders.

Given that many of the characters are sexually and socially unconventional for the time period, it’s difficult not to read subtexts lamenting homophobia and sexism into the film. This proves particularly poignant amongst supporting roles, including Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), Lizzie’s close friend and fellow Music Hall performer, and Kildare’s assistant PC George Flood (Daniel Mays). On the subject of the supporting cast, it’s also worth giving Sam Reid and Eddie Marsan a special mention, as both have pivotal roles in the narrative.

All things considered, The Limehouse Golem is a very well-crafted, suspenseful, satisfying mystery, albeit a rather gruesome one.  I enjoyed it a great deal.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Managing Metaphors

Sometimes metaphors in novels can seem crass and unwieldy. Other times they can be sublime. But what is the difference between good and bad use?

Folded Valley cover

My general rule of thumb is that deliberate metaphors should only be included if they are also a vital part of the narrative. For example, in my novel Uncle Flynn, when Max is stalked by the panther, it is an essential ongoing element of the story, without which the plot would fall apart. But the panther is also a metaphor for Max’s fears, and his responses to the panther illustrate his progress in this respect.

In Children of the Folded Valley, the trains form an equally essential part of the story. Without them the plot would simply cease to exist. And yet, the trains take on an increasingly metaphorical role as the novel progresses; lost childhood, the passing of time, the end of an era and so on.

There are a number of excellent metaphors in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series that adhere to my above principle. For example, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Dementors are essential to the plot, but are also a metaphor for depression. In the same novel, the hippogriff Buckbeak, unjustly sentenced to death, is a metaphor for another character who has also suffered a miscarriage of justice. Again, Buckbeak is pivotal in the climax. In the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one character’s silver doe patronus symbolises their ongoing love for a deceased character – a very poignant metaphor. Patronuses are, of course, an ongoing and vital part of the series.

There are exceptions to the above rule from time to time, but generally I get irritated when a metaphor takes me out of the story and draws attention to itself when the plot could exist perfectly well without it. When that happens, I feel as though the author is deliberately popping up in the middle of the narrative to announce how clever they are. I have had many an eye-roll for this reason, often when reading critically acclaimed high-brow literature.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Film Review – American Made


Tom Cruise gets back to his roots (sort of) in Doug Liman’s American Made. Very loosely based on a true story, the film tells of Barry Seal, a TWA airline pilot involved in small-time cigar smuggling, who was recruited by the CIA in the late 1970s to fly photography reconnaissance missions over Central America. Approached by Pablo Escobar et al at the same time, Seal decides to run drug deliveries on the side, and is surprised to find his criminal activities ignored and even assisted by the CIA, in return for adding gun-running to aerial photography. Soon he’s making so much money he can’t even find places to store it. But eventually and inevitably, such reckless, life-endangering activities come with a price.

The arrogant, selfish yet oddly charming, adrenaline-fuelled risk addicted character of Seal fits Cruise like a glove, and it is he who really makes the film work. I was definitely reminded of his early roles in the likes of Top Gun, Cocktail and so on. The rest of the cast are good, particularly Domhnall Gleeson as Seal’s CIA handler “Schafer”, and Sarah Wright does very well in the fairly thankless role as Seal’s wife Lucy.

Liman directs with deliberately scraggy, hand-held flair, especially in sequences where Cruise himself is flying aircraft. At one point when Cruise leaves the plane on autopilot for a low level drug package drop, it’s fun to watch knowing the stunts were done for real. In fact, the whole confection is a gloriously entertaining, fast-paced ride that stylistically reminded me of Goodfellas in places, though without any of that film’s Faustian depth. Underlying themes of corruption, greed and the dark side of the American Dream aren’t really explored in anything more than a superficial manner, despite the presence of news footage and other archive material here and there, but the film is such a blast it hardly matters. I should probably add the usual warnings for swearing and sexual content here too, for those who appreciate them.

In short, whilst hardly likely to change the course of cinema, American Made is a satisfying and very enjoyable romp held together by Tom Cruise’s grinning performance.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment