Love vs Honour – Did I fail?

LvsHonour 1600 x 2400In 2006, I wrote Love vs Honour, which I then self-published nearly ten years later, in 2015. The novel is a sideways step outside of my usual world of thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy and children’s adventures. Teenage romance isn’t something I dabble in, but when the premise of Love vs Honour occurred to me whilst stuck in traffic during an interminable bus journey, I felt the story was too good to ignore.

A tale of star-crossed teenage lovers with a religious twist, Love vs Honour begins as a conventional romance, with a holiday attraction leading to something more serious. Then it takes an unusual turn, as protagonists Johnny and Sabina 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.

Reviews have been mostly positive. However, at least a couple of people have told me there is a big, gaping flaw in the centre of the story: Johnny is not likeable enough.

Romantic fiction is not my area of expertise, and it seems this factor was a colossal oversight. The typical male lead in romantic fiction is handsome, dashing, charming, intelligent, perhaps roguish and flawed in some way, but above all he should be desirable. By contrast, I wrote Johnny as a realistically conflicted, angst-ridden teenager. He has a dark past that colours his view of the present, sometimes in negative ways. Like many teenagers he can be selfish, sulky and not entirely sympathetic. His statements are sometimes exaggerated, and are very much his side of the story (for example, he is quite scathing of his parents who, despite their more extreme religious viewpoints, are kind and generous people). Obviously he isn’t without redeeming features either, and as the novel gradually reveals dark elements from his past, he perhaps becomes a person with whom it is a bit easier to sympathise.

However, I think my critics might have a point. Even if Johnny is a realistic and believable character, he simply isn’t likeable enough as a conventional male romantic lead. By contrast, I think Sabina is far, far more appealing, and whilst it is plausible that intelligent girls like her would fall for someone like Johnny, in a romantic novel it can lead to a feeling of the story being unbalanced. I think in retrospect I was wrong to strive for realism, and should have erred more on the side of genre convention.

I’m still very proud of Love vs Honour as I think it does contain interesting characters and thought provoking scenarios. In that sense, it is best viewed as a drama rather than a romance. I also stand by my ending, which provoked a little controversy as well. However, if I were writing the book now, I would make Johnny a much more appealing character. Experience is a great teacher, and in the unlikely event I try my hand at teenage romance again, I will bear in mind what I have learned.

Check out Love vs Honour here, if you are curious.

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My Five Favourite Gothic Mysteries

As regular readers of this blog (and indeed my novels) will know, I absolutely love a good gothic brew of mystery, melodrama, thrills and horror. To date I have written five novels of this kind, including The Birds Began to Sing and The Thistlewood Curse, as well as The Spectre of Springwell Forest, which is the next book I intend to publish.

Here are five classic gothic mysteries that I return to endlessly, that have proved a huge inspiration and influence. NOTE: Although undoubted gothic classics, for this list I have deliberately ignored Dracula and Frankenstein, since those are less mysteries and more full-throttle horror.

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Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier) – I adore Daphne Du Maurier, and this one remains top of my gothic influences list. For instance, how many other novels have their own variations on the manipulative, vindictive, psychopathic housekeeper Danvers? The central narrative is great too, with the famously unnamed, tormented protagonist living in the shadow of her husband’s dead wife. It also has one of the greatest gothic mystery plot twists of all time, and an appropriately fiery climax.

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Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) – This moody, brooding romance features one of the most iconic gothic subplots in the history of English literature (ie the classic, oft-imitated mad-woman-in-the-attic). A rich, melancholy, menacing work, brimming with vivid description, dangerous passions, and many other gothic touchstones (like Rebecca, this one ends in purging flames).

 

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The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle) – I tend to think of this Sherlock Holmes story as a spinoff into gothic horror, rather than belonging in the main Holmes crime fiction canon. The quality of the suspenseful prose remains unsurpassed, not just in obviously scary sections, but in little moments, such as Watson’s unsettling first night in Baskerville Hall. The oozing dread and menace drips from every page.

 

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The Woman in Black (Susan Hill) – Despite the popularity of the long-running stage show and a successful film adaptation, the source novel is still one of the finest, most bone-chilling ghost stories ever written. The superbly abrupt, genuinely shattering ending (significantly different from the film) has lost none of its ability to shock.

 

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Coma (Film) – I’m referring here to Michael Crichton’s superb film version of Robin Cook’s novel, rather than the novel itself. The premise – a possible conspiracy in a Boston hospital whereby patients are being deliberately placed in irreplaceable comas – is a masterclass in escalating unease and paranoia, building to full blown suspense set pieces that are pure modern gothic. Genevieve Bujold makes a fantastic imperiled heroine, and Michael Douglas is also good as her is-he-or-isn’t-he-in-on-it boyfriend. A real nail-biter.

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Film Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Have you ever wondered how Han Solo got his blaster? How he met Chewbacca? Or exactly how he made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs? Me neither. Yet Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us the answers to these not particularly pressing backstory questions in a film that is surprisingly entertaining, given its troubled production history.

The main problem in any film about Han Solo that doesn’t star Harrison Ford will be that it doesn’t star Harrison Ford. Like Clint Eastwood’s Man with no name, the role is so completely actor dependant that for anyone else to take the role risks tarnishing the screen legacy of an absolutely iconic character. It is therefore something of a miracle that Alden Ehrenreich is very appealing playing a younger iteration of Han, who we meet during his troubled early adult years on an industrial hellhole planet run by the Empire. Here he dreams of becoming a pilot, having a ship of his own and running away with the girl he loves, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). An early escapade separates them, and Han goes off to become an Imperial pilot, quickly flunking out of the Empire for “having a mind of his own”, whilst Qi’ra’s fate remains unknown. Along the way he falls in with a gang of mercenaries, convincing them he can help pull of a dangerous heist. And yes, we get to find out how he obtains the Millennium Falcon, meets Chewie, Lando Calrissian and so on.

Safe-pair-of-hands Ron Howard took over the production after original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired. He reshot around seventy percent of the film, and it is to his credit that the film doesn’t appear to be damaged goods. It zips along at a fair clip, thanks to a fun screenplay by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan which deliberately plays like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in space.

Supporting performances are decent, with Paul Bettany quite good on villain duties, Donald Glover proving a scene-stealing Lando, and Woody Harrelson’s sort-of mentor figure for Han adding a tiny bit of depth to a film that generally lacks the substance of the main Star Wars episodes. The relationship with Solo’s conscience Chewbacca (here played by Joonas Suotamo) is also nicely handled, and a scattering of other amusing elements stand out amid the melee of action scenes, aliens, monsters and visual effects. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid blithering on about equal rights, for instance. Oh, and John Powell collaborates with the legendary John Williams on music scoring duties, to largely satisfying effect.

All things considered, there is plenty for the eye and ear in Solo: A Star Wars Story. It’s a fun space adventure for all the family – as long as you don’t go expecting too much from it, and can overlook one or two rather pointless surprise twists that are transparent sequel leads (should the film make enough money to warrant them).

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Why do I write?

Someone recently asked me why I write. It’s a fair question, and after stating the obvious reason (to silence the voices in my head by putting them on paper), I came up with three additional reasons, all of them beginning with C.

Comfort – I find it oddly comforting to write a certain kind of novel, specifically, gothic mystery thriller/horror. I have written five novels of this kind to date, including two I have already published (The Birds Began to Sing and The Thistlewood Curse), and three I have yet to publish (The Wormcutter, The Irresistible Summons, and The Spectre of Springwell Forest). Quite why I find this genre so appealing to write I am not sure, but whenever I return to it, I breathe a deep sigh of relief and feel like I am well and truly in my “comfort zone” (if you’ll forgive my use of an obscenity).

Challenge – The second reason for writing often comes when I want to try something new, or attempt something definitely outside of my happy place as detailed above. My motivations for doing this are often raw ambition, or simply wanting to resist typecasting as a certain kind of writer. But sometimes, this reason for writing arises simply because someone requested a particular kind of novel and then, wouldn’t you know, I get an idea and have to write the damn thing. Echo and the White Howl is a good recent example, as my youngest son wanted a novel about wolves and animal fiction is way outside what I would usually write. In fact, most of my children’s novels were very challenging to write.

Catharsis – The third reason I write is to exorcise the demons of my past, and sometimes my present. I don’t do this consciously and don’t even realise I am doing it until after the fact. The best example of this from my currently published works is Children of the Folded Valley, by far my most successful novel to date.

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Film Review – Beast

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Writer/director Michael Pearce makes a very strong debut with Beast, an eerie, atmospheric and wholly gripping gothic melodrama set on Jersey.

Troubled island girl Molly (Jessie Buckley) lives with her controlling mother (Geraldine James). Molly then meets and falls in love with the mysterious Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who may or may not be a serial killer. Things go a bit Cathy and Heathcliff, and the scene is set for their ill-advised but full-blooded affair to get tangled in the police investigation, to the chagrin of the local community.

Pearce makes brilliant use of island locations, with big open spaces, spectacular cliffs and sea vistas providing a great visual counterpoint to the incestuous, everyone-knows-everyone claustrophobia amongst the islanders. Performances are terrific, especially from Buckley. Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is beautiful, bleak and menacing, and Jim Williams contributes a fine music score.

The usual warnings are warranted for sex, violence and bad language, for those put off by such things. However, those who enjoy a heady brew of torrid passions, slow-burn suspense and teasing is-he/isn’t-he ambiguity will find themselves most satisfied. The drama twists, turns and shocks, right up to the very last frame. I loved it.

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My top five Alex Rider novels

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I’m a big fan of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Think teenage James Bond, but without any sex (though there is a hinted-at love interest in the character of Sabina Pleasure). In each novel, loads of globe-trotting action ensues, with memorable villains, cunning plots, fights, chases and gadgets galore. The prose is fast and furious, packed with surely-he’ll-never-get-out-of-this moments. What I most love about the stories is that they don’t patronise children at all. There is a real sense of danger throughout, with deadly consequences for many characters, and some surprisingly dark undercurrents, particularly in the later novels.

Here then is my Alex Rider top five (in chronological order, as opposed to order of merit):

Stormbreaker – The first novel sees Alex join MI6, following the death of his uncle. He is then sent undercover to investigate Herod Sayle, whose school computer giveaway scheme conceals a plan involving a deadly virus.

Eagle Strike – The one with the deranged pop star who wants to destroy drug-making countries by hijacking US nuclear missiles. Damian Cray is a particularly odious villain.

Scorpia – Disillusioned by MI6, Alex almost joins the dark side trying to discover the truth about his father, by joining evil organisation Scorpia. Recurring Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovich plays a key role in this one.

Snakehead – Alex investigates people trafficking (amongst other things) in this grittier instalment which introduces his godfather Ash. Major Wu is another agreeably nasty adversary.

Never Say Die – The most recent novel is an absolutely cracking tale of Alex attempting to discover if someone he previously thought dead is in fact still alive, whilst thwarting a rich kids kidnap scheme in the process. The finale in an abandoned Welsh mine is a standout.

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Film Review – Deadpool 2

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I didn’t like the first Deadpool. I hadn’t read the comics, and quite honestly found Ryan Reynold’s merc-with-a-mouth exceedingly tiresome. Apparently that is the point, I am told by lovers of the comics. Well, each to their own. I didn’t expect much from this sequel, but Deadpool 2 is a moderate improvement over part one. It has a bigger budget, better plot, more exciting villain (in the form of Josh Brolin’s Terminator-esque Cable) and the annoying spoofy meta-textuality isn’t laid on with quite the same irksomeness as in the first instalment. Also, there’s also only one penis joke. Unlike those in the first film, it’s quite a funny one.

One thing that did wrong-foot me was how much of the film Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), spends in a state of suicidal depression. Obviously this is mined for dark laughs, but the device is surprisingly effective. Said depression is brought on by tragedy early in the film, and when one suicide attempt proves unsuccessful, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) takes Wade under his wing to try and give him purpose as a trainee member of the X-Men. Needless to say, that doesn’t work out, and once troubled young mutant Russell (Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople) arrives on the scene, events twist and turn in different directions, including a stretch in prison and the ill-conceived assembly of Deadpool’s answer to the X-Men, the “X-Force”. This name is supposedly chosen for being more gender neutral, but is immediately dismissed by new recruit with luck superpower Domino (Zazie Beetz) as too generic.

It’s fair to say that if you were offended by the first film, you should avoid the second. Very strong language, bloody violence and sexual references are proliferated throughout, so consider yourself duly warned. However, the impossible-to-offend brigade will enjoy this as much as the first, assuming they aren’t people like me who weren’t so much offended as bored. Was I bored this time? Not as much. The character of Deadpool still annoys me, but this film at least has a bit of a heart in that for all it’s winking at the audience and fourth wall breaking, it is genuinely about the importance of family (surrogate or otherwise), and how doing the right thing is often messy and causes trouble. Not that director David Leitch is taking this particularly seriously as a moral tale. Nor should he, if he is aiming for the high watermark of offend-everyone superhero satire, Kick-Ass (of which this still falls woefully short).

Leitch stages action scenes quite well, especially one darkly funny sequence involving a parachute drop and an elaborate vehicle chase. There are a few surprise cameos, end credit gags, and I have to confess there were at least three places I genuinely guffawed, so  that’s halfway towards film critic Mark Kermode’s famous six laugh test. One of these laughs involved the James Bond spoof opening titles, which announce the film is directed by “One of the people who killed John Wick’s dog”.

In short, fans will find plenty to enjoy here. The unconverted are likely to remain so, but if dragged along perhaps they will only feel moderately fed up.

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Shadows of the Sea launch

My author friend Marcus Bines has had a fantasy story accepted to be part of an anthology entitled Shadows of the Sea. Today there is a launch party on Facebook between 13:30 and 00:30 UK time, with Marcus’s section at 21:00.

Marcus is also working on his own epic fantasy novel. I have read an early draft of part one, and lets just say fans of fantasy are certainly in for a treat once this is released. But for now, check out this celebration of his first professionally published work.

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Film Review – Tully

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Charlize Theron gives a superb, utterly convincing central performance as a struggling and exhausted mother in Tully, the new film from the makers of Juno.

Mother of three Marlo (Theron), whose charges include a son with behavioural difficulties and a new-born girl, is utterly worn down through sleepless nights. This leads to her obtaining the services of a night nanny, so she can get some much needed shut-eye. Said nanny, the eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis), forms a strong bond with Marlo and begins to have a profound effect on the rest of family.

Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have crafted a very fine piece of work which doesn’t stint on depicting the brutally tough part of motherhood. For example, the montage of relentless sleepless nights will strike a chord with many. The additional challenges faced by Marlo, such as those presented by her son, are also convincingly portrayed.

Theron is brilliant, and Mackenzie Davis is also remarkable, adding a pinch of the enigmatic to her performance. It’s also worth mentioning Ron Livingston’s turn as Marlo’s husband Drew. His character isn’t a bad father or husband exactly, but his busy work life and the stress of having young children has caused him to retreat within himself, barely communicating with Marlo and disappearing into video games. His character arc, gradually realising that he needs to be more present and supportive, is gently and sensitively achieved, without once coming off as judgemental.

Despite the presence of strong language and sexual content (which I note here for those who appreciate such warnings), Tully is an empathic and very positive film that ultimately celebrates the virtues of sacrificial motherhood. It is brutally honest, sharply funny, but also deeply compassionate. I’ll admit that I did see the ending coming a mile off (partly because I have used a similar plot device in one of my own novels), but that didn’t make it any less effective.

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Three Underrated Fantasy Series

I’m sure most people have read CS Lewis’s Narnia stories, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If not, I urge you to stop what you are doing immediately and remedy that situation.

For the rest of us that have gorged on Hogwarts and Middle Earth, and crave more, here are three fantasy series that are somewhat underrated (despite their ardent followings), which I would humbly bring to your attention.

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The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix – This clever saga is set in two fiction nations – one with technology akin to 20th Century Australia, and a second bordering land filled with magic. A tale of necromancers and sorcery, the first novel, Sabriel, features the eponymous protagonist on a quest to rescue her father from death itself. Subsequent volumes also explore the lines between the worlds of the dead and the living in interesting and vivid ways.

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Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer – These surreal, thrilling and often funny adventures revolve around teenage anti-hero genius Artemis, his bodyguard Butler, and his various pseudo-villainous escapades. At the start of the series, Artemis attempts to capture and hold to ransom a rather dangerous fairy, but as the books progress, Artemis begins to work alongside the fairies against villains as diverse as the Russian Mafia, evil businessmen, insane pixies and more.

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Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud – Set in a parallel London filled with powerful magicians, the story begins when young apprentice Nathaniel summons the demon Bartimaeus to help take revenge on his cruel master. Notable for the witty first-person sections told from the point of view of the demon, this trilogy also has an interesting character arc for its human protagonist, who goes from pitiful yet noble to power-crazed and arrogant, and finally heroic and sacrificial.

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