The Burning Girls – CJ Tudor

Burning Girls book cover

“What kind of man am I?”

An unconventional vicar, a scandal, and a sudden move to a small village. It’s supposed to be a fresh start for single parent, Rev Jack Brooks, and 14-year old Flo, dragged along against her will. But dark things lurk in Chapel Croft’s past. Martyrs, burning girls – celebrated with twig figures to this day – and legends that they will appear as a harbinger of trouble. But perhaps not all the horrors are hundreds of years old…

It’s so rare for me to read horror books these days, but CJ Tudor hits such a great combination of strong, modern writing and wholly tapping into my nostalgia from being a teenage Stephen King fan. Indeed, I enjoyed her previous books, The Chalk Man and The Taking of Annie Thorne, both giving me strong King vibes. Those aren’t as obvious here, but the story and writing are still enthralling.

Now, either I’m getting braver, or this book wasn’t as creepy as I’d feared (which meant daylight reading only ;)). That may be a plus or a minus depending on your tastes. There are more than a few scares, but after a couple of early supernatural shivers, a lot more of it seemed to come from more mundane threats. Like King, the real evil tends to be people and the awful things they are capable of. With carefully limited flashbacks and chapters from a new, unknown point of view, the layers of the story – or stories – start to build as the book goes on. Twists and turns aplenty, meaning some things I suspected, and others caught me by surprise.

The setting is perfectly done, conjuring the claustrophobia of small villages miles from anywhere ‘civilised’, and I thought the characters were very well realised. A far from vicar, goth teenagers, uptight local ‘gentry’, and more, all felt like real people. That only adds to the sense of danger and menace.

Overall, I probably think this isn’t quite as strong as the previous books from the author, at least on the creeping-me-out scale. But it was completely worth it for the atmospheric mood conjured, and an intriguing, multi-layered story.

NetGalley eARC: 500 pages / 70 chapters
First published: January 2021
Series: none
Read from 17th-21st January 2021

My rating: 8/10

A Tourist’s Guide to Murder – VM Burns

Tourist's Guide to Murder book cover

“‘Attention.’ I clinked my knife against my glass.”

This is the sixth book in the Mystery Bookshop series, following bookshop owner and wannabe mystery writer, Sam Washington, as she repeatedly stumbles across murders – and reasons to investigate!

This time, and to shake the series up a little, I imagine, she’s off to London and a crime writing tour of England. It stretched my belief a little that she takes the whole crime busting squad of her grandmother and other elderly friends, to be honest – somehow, in all the fiction, that was the bit that didn’t work for me! Mind you, much as I like the group of ‘silver sleuths’, I can imagine other readers might have been more upset if they’d been excluded.

As the group meets other tour attendees and stumbles across some friction on the tour company owners side, it isn’t too long before a body or two turns up – well, it is a (cosy) mystery!

I like this series, I really do, but this wasn’t my favourite of the set. I was looking forward to some of the UK-based travels, based around famous crime authors, but it didn’t feel like more than a mention of names and places, overall, and I missed a better sense of ‘foreignness’ (for the characters, at least). The crime(s) had a nice nod towards a bit of a ‘theme’ but again, felt too underplayed, like a brief mention and not enough detail to bring it to any kind of life.

Sam’s own writing forms a book within the book, and the reason she’s off to England to do research in the first place. This is a nice idea, never the strongest of execution throughout the series, but again this time it felt a little less well put together than previous stories – a few too many elements adding to a jumble, rather than increasing the mystery.

Still, overall it was a light and easy read, fun enough and a great palate cleanse, which is generally what I’m after from cosy mysteries.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 26th January 2021
Series: Mystery Bookshop book 6
Read from 16th-21st January 2021

My rating: 5/10

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 movie poster

It’s been some 70 years since Amazonian Princess and demigod, Diana (Gal Gadot), left the island of Themyscira to aid Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) fighting in World War 1. Spoiler alert, the pilot did not survive that movie, and it seems our Wonder Woman has been pining for all that time. Urm, yeah? Girl power, huh? Eye roll the first, quite frankly.

But now it’s 1984 and while still neck-deep in misery (I mean, really?), Diana is splitting her time between museum work and getting a bit overdressed for the incredibly low-scale acts of heroics. I mean, I’m sure the jogger who gets saved from a joyrider is thoroughly grateful, but it just seemed like a literal demigod could be doing a bit more for the world than hanging about shopping malls. All low key, bar the outfit. And acrobatics. And… look, I get that it looked cool, and very Stranger Things setting for capturing the decade, but – really??

I must confess, I massively over-rated the first Wonder Woman (2017) movie. It was just such a pleasant shock to have this female-led superhero movie, which was fairly run of the mill otherwise, but hit a chord. However, attempts to replicate the magic with this sequel are a crushing disappointment.

First we have a weak McGuffin – a stone that grants wishes. Wishes? Far, far too flaky a device, imo. And if you are going to do something like this, then consistency is critical – and not there, in this movie. Only one wish – unless it suits the plot. Hmm. Then we have our pair of baddies. I was expecting more from ‘Cheetah’, the alter ego of mild-mannered Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig). She does really well with the character, but alas the whole ‘frumpy geek to confidently strutting in high heels’ thing is super tired, and quite demeaning. There is one scene where I think we’re supposed to be all ‘shock horror’ as she beats up an abusive cat-caller, but – well, sorry, he sort of deserved it? Are we supposed to be appalled by (okay, she takes it a bit far) violence, when every superhero beats up baddies, constantly? Or is it just that women aren’t supposed to? Hmm.

Disappointingly, still, she’s pushed aside to allow our other bad guy to drive most of the plot, anyway. Pedro Pascal – what on earth were you thinking taking this role? It’s cringy. I do appreciate the ‘greed is good’ loser character so echoing modern politics, right enough, but still – bleh.

Ah… rant rant rant. Thing is, I’m actually pretty good at switching off and just enjoying a movie for what it is – and I did manage to enjoy the hokum of WW84. But it doesn’t take long to just think ‘wow, they messed that up’ – in almost every way imaginable. The ‘period’ setting is either subtle or pointless, depending on your view – oh, but for a few clothing jokes. There’s a ‘nice’ flashback scene – that makes Diana look like a brat, then all that cool Amazon element (and lovely Robin Wright!) is ignored. And there are one or two choices that just do not sit well at all – and are baffling as to why they needed to be included at all. Steve’s return is literally a wish, so what’s with the body possession element? A moment’s thought shows how creepy that concept is, as said body is put into danger and ‘used’ in ways that are just not okay, actually.

So. Yes, you can watch this film and have fun with it if you switch your brain off. But the problem for me is that you would need to keep your brain switched off to not start feeling it’s all just a bit off. And so, so disappointing.

Well done, DC. You just cannot help shooting yourself in the foot, it seems. Sigh.

Released: 16th December 2020
Viewed: 14th January 2021
Running time: 151 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

Why the F*ck Can’t I Change – Dr. Gabija Toleikyte

why the f can't i change cover

“Have you ever come up with amazing New Year’s resolutions like losing weight, starting to save money, setting up your own business, exercising regularly, changing your career, eating more healthily or quitting smoking?”

Ah yes, New Year’s Resolutions – and as the intro says, come February most of them will be long forgotten or guilty regrets.

This book is about change, and understanding the ways that you can help yourself make those changes you want in different areas. Three sections – Self, Results, Relationships – have three chapters each, covering topics including emotions, productivity, decision making, and communication.

The underlying theme is that better understanding of how your brain works will help figuring out how to work with it, not against it. I find psychology the closest thing we have to an instruction manual for ourselves, both absolutely fascinating and a huge dose of “why does no one tell you these things?!”

A lot of it was familiar from other reading, things like the ‘lizard, monkey, and human’ brain layers (the former controls e.g. breathing, the middle is our survival instinct, and the latter is what lets us use computers – to paraphrase badly!). But it was an excellent reminder of why life feels like such a struggle at times: under enormous stress this past year (as have so many of us been), it was hugely comforting to read that this pushed me into survival mode, so of course logical and creative thinking became so, so much more difficult.

I enjoyed the early chapters best, that covered more general topics applicable to everyone. The more specialised areas, such as leadership and relationships, felt a little more distant. Still globally relevant, but a little harder to connect with? I did like the use of an example or two, but sometimes it made the entire topic a little one faceted.

The language used is fairly intellectual, while still staying accessible. It’s not pop-science, but nor is it an academic paper. It suited me well, not talking down while at the same time challenging me to think and expanding my knowledge – without being too dense to even attempt!

Change is hard. There are a million books out there trying to push you through those New Year Resolutions, but I think starting with a ‘this is how the brain works’ is an absolute essential first step towards success in any area!

NetGalley eARC: 350 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 21st January 2021
Series: none
Read from 17th December 2020 – 5th January 2021

My rating: 7/10

Doors of Sleep – Tim Pratt

Doors of Sleep cover

“I yawned – one of those bone-cracking yawns so immense it hurts your jaw and seems to realign the plates of your skull – and staggered against the bar.”

When Zaxony Delatree – Zax – falls asleep, he wakes up in another universe. For three years he’s traversed the multiverse, occasionally taking on a companion, but most of them eventually find a world to stay in while Zax has no choice but to keep travelling. Sometimes he feels good helping them find better lives, and sometimes it breaks his heart. And once it was a narrow escape, as said companion was keen on vivisection…

There’s a lot to like in this book. It takes its time flitting between different realities, giving little slivers of world building – appropriately, though, as even with stimulants Zax can only stay awake so long and doesn’t get to experience much of any world. We do, however, get more information about his new companion, giving a sense of continuity that might otherwise be lacking in the tale and lessening the sense of crushing loneliness Zax faces others. Timely?

After some pleasant meandering, the threat that drives the rest of the plot is introduced and speeds the rest of the story along. If I had any complaints it’s that there isn’t as much meat to the story as there could be, and the world building is by its nature fleeting and brief, but then, the very nature of the set up gives little choice. I was a little more ‘hmm’ about the slight inconsistencies in the decisions about when to sleep/escape from any given reality – a little more grounding would have helped my suspension of disbelief.

I found Doors of Sleep a relatively light and pleasantly diverting read. That GoodRead gives it a series name makes me think there might be more adventures for Zax – and I’ll gladly check those out when they arrive!

NetGalley eARC: 238 pages
First published: 12th January 2021
Series: Journals of Zaxony Delatree book 1 (of 1, so far)
Read from 8th-28th December 2020

My rating: 7/10

The Ghosts of Greenglass House – Kate Milford

ghosts of greenglass house cover

“Frost was pretty much the worst.”

Do you need something to cosy up with for the quietest Hogmanay ever? I thoroughly recommend this book – for children of all ages!

I utterly adored Greenglass House, which introduced us to Milo and his hotel-running family just as a group of shifty strangers arrive seemingly to spoil his Christmas holiday. As ever, if you don’t want to know anything about that book before reading – and my 10/10 review suggests you should go read it 😉 – then finding characters appearing in book 2 is itself a bit of a spoiler.

A year has passed and Milo is out of sorts. It won’t snow properly, and while he’s looking forward to a quieter Christmas than the events of the previous year, he’s also missing Meddy who hasn’t been back in all that time. But things – of course! – don’t stay quiet for long, and soon there are some familiar visitors, plus a troop of carollers from a nearby town which has an odd reputation. As things start to go a little awry, of course the group have stories of their own to tell!

What follows is fairly similar to the plot of the first book, which some readers didn’t seem to like, but given I was reading this for cosy comfort reading it fit perfectly. There’s a mystery surrounding a famous smuggler’s haul, which Georgie and Clem have managed to get caught up with, plus a possible infiltrator in the house doing things like spiking the punch and knocking guests unconscious.

Once again Milo is on a campaign with the newly returned Meddie, and this time he’s playing a new character – I do love the way D&D (a new find for me this year!) is used to help him find different strengths within himself, and the change of role really highlights how Milo himself has and must change. The adoption element of the backstory is played very well again, and I still adore the loving relationship between Milo and the Pines.

As the story progresses there are some nice little mysteries to unravel, and yes, the group again ends up telling stories. Things do take a slightly strange turn and I wasn’t wholly on board with the fantastical, but by and large it all works very well – yes, it’s similar to book one, but in the best way, and with just enough additional growth to make it all work.

If I have any complaint it’s perhaps that there’s a lot crammed in here – a bit like the large group of characters crammed into the inn. It did feel a little overly-busy at times, and perhaps a few elements too many? Small complaint, tiny!!

So if you want to pass some of the winter’s worst, settle down beside a fireplace – or fake fireplace on the tv/computer will do just fine too! – make yourself a hot chocolate and grab Greenglass House and Ghosts of Greenglass House and enjoy the warm fuzzies of it all!

Kindle: 464 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: name book 2 (of 4 to date)
Read from 17th-19th November 2020

My rating: 9/10

Godmothered (2020)

godmothered movie poster

I have a very low tolerance for cheesy Christmas movies, and yet there’s still room for something a bit festive. Would Godmothered be able to walk that tightrope?

The Motherland, home to all fairy godmothers and those in training, isn’t doing so well. There hasn’t been an active godmothering in decades. Young Eleanor (Jillian Bell) is determined to prove her ability, though, and finds a letter that had been overlooked. Off she goes, to grant some wishes!

Only… turns out (whole plot of the movie, not a spoiler!) that the letter has been gathering dust for quite some time, and the ten-year-old, Mackenzie, who wrote her heart’s wishes is now a grown up (Isla Fisher) with children of her own – and very little patience for a meddling goofball like Eleanor. But with Mackenzie’s kids on side, can Eleanor help a jaded adult remember what happily ever after looks like?

The basic idea of Godmothered isn’t so dissimilar to other fairy-tale-esque, fish out of water movies, such as Elf or Enchanted, with a fairy tale character finding themselves in the real world. Which doesn’t bode desperately well for my enjoyment, as I can’t stand Elf and barely remember Enchanted. Hmm. The issue is similar here: these saccharine sweet Disney-fied fairies, elves, and the ilk are prone to be incredibly grating.

Godmothered walks a very thin line on irritating me, staying just on the right side by making Eleanor the butt of many jokes. And I could totally side with Mackenzie, who – despite being offered wishes – finds the whole thing alarming and silly and just wants her life back, thank you very much.

There’s not much else to say about it, as it is a very fluffy kind of movie on purpose. There’s no ‘will Mackenzie rediscover…’ blah blah, I mean you know fine and well things will end up well. Kudos that it’s not straight into the arms of a ‘prince’ rescuing her, a tiny nod towards making the movie more of the times. Ish.

Ah, it wasn’t awful. I’m not the biggest fan, but it wasn’t offensive. Ymmv, of course. Personally I would have liked a less treacly, shallow view of Fairy Land and a slightly less dipsy lead, but at least the real world stuff wasn’t too saccharine. Damned with faint praise indeed! 😉

Released: 4th December 2020
Viewed: 17th December 2020
Running time: 110 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6/10

The New Mutants (2020)

new mutants poster

Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) loses her parents in some strange and horrific event one night. She awakens in a secret facility led by Dr Reyes (Alice Braga), where several young mutants – because yes, this is the X-Men universe – are either being helped, or held prisoner – or both? They are a danger to themselves and others, they are told, but if they prove themselves here, they can go and be X-Men with Professor Xavier. However, Dani doesn’t have powers, isn’t a mutant – or is she?

Teenage angst and rivalries, unmastered mutant abilities, all pale into insignificance as the institute soon becomes visited by the pupils’ worst nightmares…

There was a chance to do something really interesting with this movie, taking mutant powers and placing them into a full-on horror movie rather than the same old superhero action we’ve seen time and time and time again. Indeed, some of the horror imagery is done well, and could have been quite chilling – if not for the mishmash of everything else thrown on top of it, the sheer amount of stuff that isn’t explained well enough to make much sense, and the total blehness of the ending. No spoilers, don’t worry, but it didn’t do a single thing for me except perhaps induce boredom.

It’s a real shame. The cast is decent, including Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit), Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), and Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things). Alas, all three are trying to act with degrees of terrible accents, helping nothing. Nor does the script really allow for much character exploration or development, just assuming – what, we either know these characters from the comics (nope) or can read enough between the lines (hmm)?

The setting itself goes for spooky-ish, but instead just feels oddly empty. An institute with a single member of staff? How is she really controlling five powerful kids, then? Who does the cleaning and pool maintenance? It’s nothing major, but just adds the feel of lazy world building.

And then yes, that ending – all too meh on top of already not great.

Bonus marks for at least trying to do something different, swiftly removed for failing to follow through at all. But at least it’s not as bad as either take on the Dark Phoenix story.

Released: 4th September 2020
Viewed: 20th November 2020
Running time: 94 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 4/10

The Prom (2020)

prom poster

I’ll admit, I’ll take a guilty pleasure in enjoying a fun musical movie: the sparkle, the toe-tapping, the OTT-ness of it all. I’m thinking Mamma Mia! or Pitch Perfect. Heck, from the Christmas TV listings I’m most looking forward to Singin’ in the Rain! Yup, you can’t beat a good musical.

And you saw this ‘joke’ coming: The Prom was not, alas, a good musical. Or a good film. Or a good use of my Sunday afternoon.

Oh, the elements are there: the starry cast, including Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and please-stop-giving-him-work James Cordon, all hamming it up high. Streep at least looks like she’s having some fun; Kidman looks like the botox is getting in the way again. And please, please stop casting James Cordon!! Urgh.

Most importantly for a musical, we have a whole slew of new music. Which is… urm… fine? I mean, it didn’t make my ears bleed, but I couldn’t hum you a single bar of any of it. Slight flaw, there. Bigger flaw in the lyrics, which more often that not were pretty crappy. Sorry, no other phrasing comes to mind.

And the story. A bunch of narcissistic Broadway ‘stars’ think the way to beat the latest bad reviews is to take up some cause, tout themselves as activists and garner praise. So off they head to Indiana where a big scandal has just broken out: a high school has decided to cancel prom entirely rather than allow the only (haha) lesbian in the village – I mean school – take a same-sex partner to the dance.

I’m sure there are places in small town America where that might still be a big deal, but quite frankly it was hard to get behind the story when my reaction was so firmly “Well, duh, of course she can do that”. What does the movie set in her way? Some bitchy classmates and one highly strung PTA member? Despite the ranting and the tears, never once did I think this was actually going to be a permanent issue the way Footloose (cough cough) convinced me the teens would never ever be allowed to dance except alone in barns. Urm, sorry, sidetracked. What can I say, the whole movie just had me wishing I was watching Footloose, or Grease, or anything else it borrowed liberally from.

Or, of course, it could just be that the cast and script failed to convince me on any level. Tonally it’s a mess, sometimes highly spoofy, other times too earnest for its own good, usually plodding along in a mess in the middle. The main teen (Jo Ellen Pellman) was pretty good but she seemed incapable of wiping a gassy-looking panic-grin off her face even in the serious moments, and it was almost as distracting as her uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Moss. It could have been The Handmaid’s Tale, drugged up dream episode.

Ah, it wasn’t awful. It tried hard to be that feel-good Sunday afternoon thing you needed on the day after Christmas was cancelled and you were reminded that the country is going to hell in a handcart. But it pretty much failed on every level for me, reaching the heady heights of ‘meh’ on occasion, and taking, far, far too long to get there. Seriously, should have been about 40 minutes shorter, minimum. But I recommend you save yourself the whole 2+ hours and go watch just about anything else instead.

Released: 11th December 2020 (Netflix)
Viewed: 20th December 2020
Running time: 130 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 3/10

A Deadly Edition – Victoria Gilbert

a deadly edition cover

“Sometimes chocolate is the only thing standing between me and murder.”

What a fab opening quote! 🙂

Librarian Amy Webber is in the final stages of wedding planning when a guest turns up dead at the party thrown for the couple by the enigmatic Kurt Kendrick. His shady past isn’t quite a secret and yet shrouded in mystery. So when the dead man turns out to be a rival art dealer, with both men bidding for the same ultra-rare book, there’s one obvious suspect.

But that isn’t the end of the tangled web, with some dodgy strangers in town, and tensions between Kurt’s sort-of supporters and the friends and family who seem involved in investigating him. One of these is Amy’s brother, who might or might not be hiding his real career working for the government!

I’ve enjoyed this series to date, finding the writing flows well and the main character’s involvement in the crimes not too ridiculously far fetched. It’s a bit less cheesy than some cosy mysteries, too. This latest volume shares those strengths, but adds a few weaknesses for me.

First off is really just a personal disinterest in weddings, so as that’s the main sub plot and a large amount of background padding, it’s already got me a bit inattentive. And secondly, there was a weird feel of trying to draw together a whole pile of past loose ends – is the author trying to tie up the series? So there’s plenty of mentions of Amy’s uncle, Andrew, and the drugs ring that appeared a few books back, and of course all the characters we’ve had to date. I think it was meant to create a familiar tone, but it felt more like a slightly shallow ‘greatest hits’ effort that didn’t quite capture my attention.

Still, it’s a pleasant enough read. Peril is present, and happy endings abound – no spoiler, as that’s just how the genre works!

NetGalley eARC: 258 pages / 30 chapters
First published: December 2020
Series: Blue Ridge Library mysteries book 5
Read from 1st-7th December 2020

My rating: 5/10