Unwritten – Tara Gilboy

unwritten cover

“Always, for as long as she could recall, Gracie had the memory of fire.”

After years of terrible nightmares, Gracie’s mother explains the truth: they are both characters from a story, escaping to avoid the horrible fate written for her. Try as she might to live a normal life, Gracie is plagued by ‘glimmers’ of story: things she should have done, if the book hadn’t been interrupted.

And then one day the book’s author comes to town to give a talk. Will Gracie finally find out who she was meant to be? What if story-Gracie isn’t the same person as she thinks she is, out in the real world – which side is true?

I love books about books, and am clearly not alone in this. Tara Gilboy has written a wonderful fantasy about characters moving in and out of their story, and how this changes their lives in both locations. There’s a strong theme of what it means to be labelled, and how you can choose to fight that label and ‘fate’ and live your own life.

The author in the book says that villians are often the most interesting characters, and while that’s not strictly speaking true here, I did like the fact that none of the characters is always nice, each with flaws to overcome (or not).

Excellent premise, nicely written. Recommended for younger readers, and those young at heart.

NetGalley eARC: 200 pages / 26 chapters
First published: October 2018
Series: none
Read from 10th-16th October 2018

My rating: 7/10

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Legion – Brandon Sanderson

legion cover

“My name is Stephen Leeds, and I am perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad.”

Stephen Leeds is not insane. He just happens to have a host – a legion, if you will – of hallucinations. However, when each is a specialist in a different field it makes them really very useful.

This first Legion novella is a slim slice of story in Stephen’s life. There are tantalising hints of background detail that show that there has been a lot of drama before the point we’ve reached – where Stephen is living rather comfortably in a mansion with rooms for many of his hallucinated ‘aspects’. The conversations with other characters reveal that it’s not schizophrenia, it might well be a way of hiding genius, but whatever, Stephen is now coping with it.

He has, however, had years of being something of a ‘circus freak’, and has put up walls in defence. People approaching him for help or to study him aren’t always easy to differentiate. But when someone shows up with evidence of a camera that can take pictures of the past, well – that might just be worth investigating.

I was rather impressed with the amount of background that seeps through the story, and in general just how well it’s written to present us with a lot of information without breaking the flow of the story – especially in such a short package.

NetGalley eARC: 97 pages / 8 chapters
First published: 2012, and as part of omnibus in 2018
Series: Legion book 1
Read from 6th-7th October 2018

My rating: 8/10

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

bad times at the el royale poster

When several strangers turn up at an otherwise deserted hotel, there’s no prizes for guessing that each has their own secrets. And indeed, the hotel itself may not be all that it seems…

There’s a lot to like about this movie. After a super-noir 1950s opening, the bulk of the movie is set in 1969. The period-ness is very appealing although it’s worth knowing a little about the era to get some of the (veiled) references – JFK’s assassination (1963 but still raw), Nixon’s presidency, the moon landing, the Charles Manson cult murders – this backdrop is worth being at least superficially aware of.

The story is told using the hotel as a framing reference, so characters are referred to by their room number on old-fashioned title cards between sections. As well as unravelling the mysteries of what each is doing at the El Royale, flashbacks give us more detail about each life: the femme fatale, the priest, the vacuum salesman, and the black woman in a time that isn’t kind to either of those things. The hotel itself is a great setting, full of its own mysteries.

I also really liked the Pulp Fiction-esque zig zagging with the timeline a little, so that key scenes can be viewed from different points of view. All done very well.

However, one character’s background involves adding a new face to the group, who rather parachutes in for the third act, changing the story and not, in my view, for the better. It feels just a little bit disappointing to change direction at this point, as if no one was quite sure how to contain the story that’s already on the go. And, while I am in the half of the audience that, urm, appreciates Chris Hemsworth’s abs rather a lot, I’m not entirely sure a character whose main appeal is being shirtless for most of his scenes is entirely in keeping with the rest of the story.

So… yes, recommended, especially the first two thirds. The ending isn’t bad by any means, but I left with a vague ‘meh’ that the wonderful atmosphere and quirky story telling could have been done just a little more justice in the overall.

Released: 12th October 2018
Viewed: 12th October 2018
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7.5/10

Nine Perfect Strangers – Liane Moriarty

nine perfect strangers cover

“‘I’m fine,’ said the woman. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.'”

Big Little Lies was some of the best television I saw last year, and when I backtracked to the book I could see why Reese Witherspoon had been so inspired to adapt (and, imo, slightly improve) it. So it was a no-brainer to request author Liane Moriarty’s new book, Nine Perfect Strangers, when it appeared on NetGalley.

Tranquillum is a health resort which promises to improve your life, changing it for the better in just ten days. Too good to be true? It’s alluring enough for a group of strangers to each head there, hoping to fix their marriages, their careers, or just themselves. At first the spa treatments and meditation, fasting and tai chi, are all par for the course. But Tranquillum’s owner, Masha, has some dark secrets in her own past…

Chapters switch points of view between the different guests, Masha and a few members of staff, giving different layers of insight into events that brought everyone together and add to their reasons for signing up for a ‘transformation’. Background is layered through the ongoing story, adding mini ‘reveals’ to rather more mundane mysteries that are every day – if not entirely ordinary – lives.

I thoroughly enjoyed Nine Perfect Strangers (although argument on the title, as they aren’t all strangers – there’s a couple and a family ;)). The mystery wasn’t quite what I’d guessed, but also didn’t surprise me too much – to be honest, it wasn’t quite as thrilling or shocking as I expected. In lesser hands that probably would have ruined the book for me, but the strength here is bigger than just the plot line. The characters are well-sketched – you don’t get too much time with any of them, considering – really drawing you in to their lives, their woes, and the reasons for them being here. In fact, almost 10% of the book is the ‘after’, which you’d think would be padding, but by this point I really wanted to know what happened to everyone.

So, perhaps not quite what I was expecting but thoroughly engrossing. I even quite fancy a spa/meditation/wellness retreat myself – although, probably not one like this 😉 Also looking forward to the movie or TV adaptation that looks to be in the works!

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 76 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 29th September –  5th October 2018

My rating: 9/10

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Secret Passages cover

“Publisher Olli Suominen spent the rainy days of autumn buying umbrellas and forgetting them all around Jyväskylä. He also accidentally joined a film club.”

Olli Suominen is a middle-aged publisher with a loving wife and young son, whose biggest life woes are squint walls in his otherwise lovely house and a propensity for losing umbrellas, when his past makes a rather dramatic reappearance in his life. What happened all those summers when he was a child, memories he seems to have half-suppressed? Who is the girl in the pear-print dress? As his small Finnish town is caught up in the magic of a book about ‘living a cinematic life’, the author turns out to be someone rather surprising…

I absolutely loved The Rabbit Back Literature Society with its mix of magic and darkness, whimsy and nastiness. Grabbing this from NetGalley was therefore a no-brainer, although I did suspect it would struggle to live up to one of my favourite reads from last year – and I was right. Mostly I still very much enjoyed this book, but that hint of unpleasantness started to feel a little… misogynistic? Certainly, a middle-aged male publisher describing dreams about women offering themselves just felt icky.

That was a minor part of things, though, and mostly what carried me through this was the mystery of what Olli had gotten up to in his childhood summers. What are these secret passageways – childhood games, or something darker? What happened to split up the group, this ‘Finnish Famous Five’?

I was also quite intrigued by the book-within-the-book, the Cinematic Guide. I could easily see such a tome doing well in the real world, encouraging people to romanticise their day to day, pretend they’re in a movie – in fact, dressing like a movie star sounds appealing to me right now 😉

As things progress, I did half-guess a bit of the big twist. However, this occurs at the 75% mark, so there’s still a fair chunk of book to go and it does take yet another direction I didn’t expect. No spoilers, but tbh I wasn’t quite sure how ‘okay’ the whole concept was, really – back to that vague feeling of ‘ick’.

Still. High marks from me, although I totally get why this is a(nother) marmite book people either love or hate. I found it refreshingly different to most things I read, and I got real chills when the first revelation about the secret passages arrived. It’s a slow start, but worth sticking with.

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 55 chapters
First published: 2010 / 2017 in English translation
Series: none
Read from 21st-10th September 2018

My rating: 8/10

A Simple Favour (2018)

A Simple Favour poster

Single mom Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) has a seemingly perfect life: bubbling with energy, running half the school committees, and host of her own cookery vlog. But one day she meets fellow mom Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) and finds a new level of ‘perfect’. Which woman has it better? Perhaps their growing friendship – however odd Emily seems – might have improved things for both women, until the day that Emily disappears.

I absolutely loved this movie, despite a few inconsistencies in tone. The beginning and end are definitely black comedy, but in the middle things just get a fair bit darker and less fun. There are twists I did and didn’t seem coming, but through it all I was completely engrossed.

There was something here that made me think, too. The two ‘perfect’ lives are of course anything but, and the slow reveal of secrets is very well done. That said, it’s easy to see why Stephanie finds Emily so inspiring – I, too, was eyeing up Blake Lively’s wardrobe and music tastes and overall chicness, and thinking ‘wow’. Ironically, on-screen hubby isn’t quite up to Ryan Reynolds standards, but amusingly enough her tipple of choice is Aviation Gin…  😉

This is one to see without spoilers, but definitely one to see, I reckon. Like the character’s lives it’s not quite perfect, but it’s a cleverly done thriller with eye candy to spare.

Released: 20th September 2018
Viewed: 23rd September 2018
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

Read and Gone – Allison Brook

read and gone cover

“I glanced around my cottage at the thirty or so guests laughing and chatting, and grinned.”

It’s only been a few months, book-time, since the events of Death Overdue. Carrie is settling into all aspects of her life: moving back to her childhood town, finding a perfect new home, library job, cat ownership, new boyfriend, talking to the odd ghost, and solving a few murders.

What her new domestic bliss does not need is a reappearance from her absentee, jewel-thief father. Jim Singleton arrives on Carrie’s birthday, but his visit has more to do with some missing loot… trouble is, he’s not the only one keen to get his hands on it, and soon the bodies are piling up…

The Haunted Library wasn’t my favourite cosy mystery series of last year, but picking up this second volume felt like it was written for me: it starts with a big birthday (I’ve just celebrated one) and house warming (which I’m looking forward to hosting!), and the main character has recently found a job that fits her, after many years of being an outsider. I’m even considering going the other way with her fashion choices, and dying my hair purple…!

However, similarities end there, and my camaraderie with Carrie slipped massively when she started throwing histrionics at the slightest provocation. She storms out on her boyfriend more times than I counted, after jumping to conclusions and very little chat. It got a bit annoying. I could forgive the plot-driving daft choices (oh yes, of course go chasing a known murderer on your own, you librarian!) but the chick-lit relationship woes (with boyfriend or with father) wasn’t really for me.

The mystery element is okay, not the strongest but at least logical enough. And yes, I guessed the baddy ahead of time! Alas, characters are somewhat two-dimensional, serving plot or stereotype rather than feeling rounded. Ymmv.

I’m not really sure about this one, overall. It requires a lot of foreknowledge from the previous book, but uses it as brief background. The library ghost, for instance, feels crammed in with no real purpose, just out of necessary for the series title. And the amount of time spent writing about the cat feels a bit out of proportion.

That said, I was in the mood for an untaxing read, and this suited that perfectly.

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 38 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Haunted Library book 2
Read from 16th-18th September 2018

My rating: 5/10