Urban Enemies- various

urban enemies cover

“Villains have all the fun – everyone knows that – and this anthology takes you on a wild ride through the dark side!”

The idea of this collection really appealed to me: a series of short stories set in ‘famous’ worlds, but giving the author a chance to explore the baddie’s point of view. I thought it’d be a good chance to explore some series that I haven’t yet tried, as well as a few that were familiar but from a very different angle.

Alas, it didn’t quite work out for me – as the very long gap in my reading probably shows! There’s nothing at all wrong with these stories, the writing is all very well done. However, not being familiar with most of the worlds being (re)visited here, I struggled to get in to many of the stories. They probably work very well if you’ve a familiarity with the series already, but the new-to-me and unusual viewpoints weren’t a great place to start.

The one series I am very au fait with would be the Dresden Files, but alas (again) this story didn’t do much for me. I know the characters, but the tale just didn’t grab me. I’d expected more, I think, as quite often the villains are if not the most then certainly often highly intriguing characters, but I just didn’t find myself hooked.

On the other hand, there were a few that worked despite my lack of prior knowledge. Seanan McGuire is an author I’ve been hearing great things about for a while, and her contribution here – paranormal creatures that look human but can make people do anything they want – did exactly what I expected this collection to do: made me want to reach for the main series.

Overall, there’s nothing bad about this anthology, and I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t click more with me. On the other hand, there are definitely some intriguing ideas here, including a pocket dimension that looks like a film back-lot, and a (I assume) fallen angel turned monster with a pretty good explanation even in such a short tale. If you’re familiar with any of the ‘worlds’ already then the alternate viewpoint could well be even more interesting.

The authors/series here are: Jim Butcher/Dresden Files, Kelley Armstrong/Cainsville, Seanan McGuire/October Daye, Kevin Hearn/The Iron Druid Chronicles, Jonathan Maberry/Joe Ledger, Lilith Saintcrow/Jill Kismet, Carrie Vaughn/Kitty Norville, Joseph Nassise/Templar Chronicles, Domino Finn/Black Magic Outlaw, Steven Savile/Glasstown, Caitlin Kittredge/Hellhound Chronicles, Jeffrey Somers/Ustari Cycle, Sam Witt/Pitchfork County, Craig Schaefer/Daniel Faust, Jon F Merz/Lawson Vampire, Faith Hunter/Jane Yellowrock, Diana Pharoah Francis/Horngate Witches.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 17 stories
First published: 2017
Series: short stories from various SFF series
Read from 5th July 2017 – 12th June 2019 (put it down in the middle, for a loooong stretch!)

My rating: 6/10

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Rocketman (2019)

rocketman poster

I’m not particularly a fan of Elton John, so this might not have been the most obvious choice of movies for me. Indeed, if you are a fan then the movie experience probably held a lot less surprise, but I got to learn about Reggie Dwight the child prodigy (able to play something on the piano when he’s literally just heard it – wow! And, so jealous!), the problems behind the rise to super stardom, and the unexpected marriage…!

The basic story isn’t too dissimilar to Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), with humble beginnings leading to stardom set against a host of personal problems. However, the rest is very different. Rocketman takes a more fantastical approach, with moments of outright musical – as in, big spontaneous song and dance routines in the street – as well as dream-like moments that conjure some of the drugged-out highs (and lows). It also has a huge plus in that Elton John is still alive and was quite happy to have a ‘warts and all’ approach. “I’ve been a c*** since 1974” he/the character says at one point, and the movie doesn’t try to shy away from showing some of that. Drugs, sex addiction, shopping binges, bulimia – the movie makes the musicality and professional success seem oh so easy, but everything else very much not.

Large praise has to go to Taron Egerton in the lead role. Amazingly, he’s doing his own singing – and he isn’t half bad at all! He also manages to do enough to convey an impression of Elton without focusing too much on that to the detriment of the acting. All in all, he absolutely makes this movie work.

There’s not much else to say. The music is excellent, the story involving, and the approach intriguing. Fan of the man or not so much, this is a really great movie biopic. Recommended.

Released: 22nd May 2019
Viewed: 7th June 2019
Running time: 121 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire – GM Nair

duckett and dyer cover

“So this is how it ends…”

Michael Duckett is a bit of a no-hoper whose sad life is about to be injected with terrifying levels of excitement. First his not-quite girlfriend goes missing – not the first disappearing act of late – and then increasingly strange things happen to him and best friend, Stephanie Dyer, a lazy lay-about with some odd ideas about the world.

But… when there are thunderstorms causing people to disappear, and ads in the paper for ‘Duckett & Dyer’ that neither set up – who’s to say what’s odd or not?

This book was… infuriating. Because I loved the story, and the wacky sense of humour, but wanted to slap the editor who didn’t tighten up a LOT on the writing style. Argh!!

So I started off feeling quite sniffy about this book. I thought, “poor man’s Dirk Gently fan-fic”. The acknowledgement of the cliche in the dectective being called ‘Rex Calhoun’, hard drinker, etc etc, didn’t stop it being gratingly un-ironic. But as the story unfolds, the weird and funny Douglas Adams-esque-ness is one of the strong points, and what I loved most. I sort of saw where the story was going early on, but it’s just such fun getting there…

Alas, what’s less fun is the language. It all feels like it’s trying too hard, and really could have done with some hefty editing. The characters tell us their feelings a bit too often, their interactions often a bit false. The number of adjectives and persistence in providing detail that wasn’t needed made this one to occasionally skim rather than read word by word. Otherwise it gets a bit much – which is a shame, because this *could* have been really really good, instead of just fun but far from perfect.

That said, it ends with a “Duckett and Dyer will return in…” which I rather do fancy picking up if/when it happens! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 300 pages / 32 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 1st-10th June 2019

My rating: 7/10 – bonus points for fun, although it’s far from great

Aladdin (2019)

aladdin poster

I’m far from convinced about this plan to turn all the Disney cartoons into live-action movies. Beauty and the Beast (2017) sort of summed things up for me: not as good as the original, why did you bother? I ran screaming at the thought of sitting through Dumbo (2019), and the trailer for Lion King (2019) looks like a car crash, quite frankly. And yet, Aladdin (1992) is one of my favs from the House of Mouse, and so triumph or disaster, I was curious to see what they had done to it.

So, you know the story. Street rat and petty thief falls for the princess and winds up being used as a pawn by the evil vizier. But, instead of handing over the magic lamp he’s been tasked to steal, Aladdin ends up with a genie granting him three wishes. Can he improve his life, win the princess, yadda yadda yadda?

There are a few minor deviations in this new version. Princess Jasmine gets a new song and a 21st Century update, now trying to convince her father that a girl can be a ruler, not just a wife. I approve! It also felt very well done, imo, quite organically woven into the script and not just a tacked-on moment of ‘girl power’ (I’m looking at you, Endgame!).

The other big change that hits you the most is the loss of the wonderful Robin Williams as the genie. I can’t imagine anyone being brave enough to step into those shoes – but then, if it was going to be anyone, Will Smith makes a lot of sense. He’s been derided quite harshly for the role, but – perhaps going in with such low expectations – I actually think he manages pretty well. Still, it’s a little jarring mixing the genie we know with the Fresh Prince persona slipping through, and then a sweet if odd choice of adding in a crush on the princess’s handmaiden. Hmm.

Otherwise, it feels like the aim was to match the cartoon as closely as possible, and this might have been a flaw. The rooftop chase parkour looks like CGI not gone entirely right, and a few other scenes too end up looking cartoonish – and not in a good way, often running at a slightly odd speed or just looking juddery.

So… I dunno. It wasn’t awful, even while it wasn’t great. I was entertained enough but would rather watch the original. On the other hand, it was far more successful than e.g. B&tB, and more than I expected. I’m glad I quenched my curiosity, I’m mildly impressed that they translated as much of the animation as they did, and if nothing else, Friend Like Me and Prince Ali are fab songs – and Will Smith does them well.

Released: 22nd May 2019
Viewed: 8th June 2019
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6.5/10

Simplify Your Life – Sarah O’Flaherty

simplify your life cover

“Frustrated with the old processes of goal setting and outmoded self-help techniques, I’ve developed a new, simplified approach to personal development.”

There’s nothing wrong with this book, but there’s nothing new or desperately interesting about it either. And the title felt a bit misleading: there’s a lot of very generic improve-your-life stuff (mainly pretty obvious), and very little about actually simplifying through the first part.

The first two sections are ‘About You’ – self awareness, on different levels – ‘About You and Me’ – relationships and ‘tribes’. So far, fine but much as will be found in any self-help tome. The third section is about relating to the world and your environment, creativity, purpose – again, not awful, but still had me shouting “Get to the simplicity!”

Section 4 is ‘Essentials’: being present, gratitude, giving, and – FINALLY! – simplicity. Seriously, one short chapter in a book of 23 that deals with the topic I was here for?!

So yeah. Being harsh for not being what it called itself, although otherwise it’s a perfectly fine (if nothing wow) self-help 101. This ‘new, simplified approach’ really wasn’t apparent to me, just light reading on basic topics.

NetGalley eARC: 136 pages / 23 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th May – 4th June 2019

My rating: 5/10

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

“Today I found something I could eat and something I could burn to keep back the darkness.”

In our not too-distant future, astronaut Gary Rendell is part of an international team sent to explore the mysterious object discovered at the edge of our solar system. Instrument readings show it should be the size of a planet; probes send back images of something far smaller but which always presents the same face to the camera even it’s orbited.

Gary considered himself lucky. Lucky to be living his childhood dream to be an astronaut, lucky to make the selection for the first mission that might prove alien life exists. Lucky indeed to survive the cluster-f that said mission turns in to. Lucky… yeah o.O

There is something quite familiar about a lot of the story: Gary walks the mysterious Crypts, encountering dangers and fellow travellers. I loved that there’s an alien encounter that never manages proper communication, but ends up being co-operative anyway – we don’t see enough of that in fiction, where it’s usually all ray-guns blazing.

I could have read this short novella in one sitting, quite frankly. It’s dark and twisty, and a mix of sci-fi and horror. There’s also a huge ‘gotcha!’ that I didn’t quite see coming… I mean, I thought something towards the three-quarters mark, but then… Heh 🙂

Very, very well written. I really should read more of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work! Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 105 pages / 14 chapters
First published: May 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th-31st May 2019

My rating: 9/10

Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum? – Sam Slaughter

are you afraid of the dark rum cover

“Nostalgia often evokes good feelings. Cocktails often evoke good feelings. That’s what this book aims to do.”

If there’s one thing better than a good cocktail, it’s a good themed cocktail. And I might be more of an 80s child than 90s, but I was up for some nostalgia and cool drink sipping. I really, really wanted to like this book, in other words – alas, it’s left me a bit meh.

I do like the concept, and I think the drink names and sense of humour that runs through the book are a lot of fun. The obligatory ‘tools and basic instructions’, plus a brief word on different types of spirit and liqueur at the start, and ‘syrups’ at the end, both read clearly and well.

However, the drinks themselves… well, hmm. I think there a half-handful that I could have made now without going and buying a new ingredient or three – and my cocktail cupboard is not sparse, by any means. I had to look up several of the liqueurs mentioned, never having heard of such things before. Cherry heering? Oh, cherry brandy will be fine! Fernet branca, dolin rouge, ancho reyes… oh dear!

I also found the specificity to be annoying, despite the foreword that these were ‘just recommendations’. Nope: give me the basic recipe, and say “And my preference is…”. Otherwise I, the reader, have to do a ton of work to figure out what’s a decent alternative to e.g. “Glen Moray Chardonnay Cask Finish Scotch Whisky.” I mean, really??

Overall, I’m a bit disappointed. I had images of a fun theme party, or at least a few new cocktails to try out. As it is, I’m tempted by a few but largely underawed.

NetGalley eARC: 132 pages
First published: 4th June 2019
Series: none
Read from 19th May – 2nd June 2019

My rating: 5/10