Egyptian Enigma – LJM Owen

egyptian enigma cover

“Sipping a glass of hot apple tea, Dr Elizabeth Pimms watched dawn flow over the desert, blushing shades and grey shadows shifting and merging until they coalesced into the vast Pyramids of Giza.”

Tomb robbers and over-enthusiastic early archaeologists weren’t the only dangers to Egypt’s ancient mummies. Pharaohs rewrote history to remove their predecessors, and then stories of female pharaohs were discounted when it didn’t suit the prevailing social norms. Which only makes the mysteries that much harder to decipher.

I’ve missed a couple of books introducing Dr Elizabeth Pimms, the young Australian Egyptologist. That didn’t seem to matter too much – although I could tell when references to previous events were being made, without it impacting too much on the plot here – as it was easy enough to pick up with the story. Past events have led Elizabeth to a quieter-than-planned career as a librarian and tutor, so when she spots some strange markings on a papyrus during a trip to her beloved Egypt, she jumps at the chance to begin an investigation into the ‘Golden Tomb’ and the unidentified mummies that were discovered there.

Interspersed with Elizabeth’s modern archaeology – 3D printers are fabulous! – we get chapters told from the point of view of Tausret, the last pharaoh of the 19th dynasty – and a woman!

I do have a bit of a liking for ancient cultures such as Egypt, and a growing fondness for ‘cosy mysteries’, so I thought I’d give this NetGalley opportunity a go – and ended up gulping it down! The mix of real history – Tausret is real, the Golden Tomb is fictional – and a little insight into amateur archaeology in the technology age was a great mix.

The story is rounded out by various threads about Elizabeth’s friends and family – this is probably the bit most impacted by not reading the first two books, and indeed I’ve probably spoiled the plot to one of those by starting here. Still, the multicultural grandparentage was rather interesting, and I’m also a huge foodie so the descriptions of Chinese, French, and Welsh feasts was rather mouth watering!

Despite those bits, I would offer a warning over some of the ‘cosy’ status: I really shouldn’t have looked up ‘scaphism’ aka death by milk and honey before trying to sleep o_O

Overall: a fairly light yet involving read that moved at a good pace. I am deducting a mark, however, as the biggest non-Mummy mystery is left as a huge cliff-hanger – this isn’t  a stand-alone read, alas!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth book 3
Read from 9th-13th March 2018

My rating: 7/10


Places in the Darkness – Christopher Brookmyre

places in the darkness cover

“‘Consciousness Does Not Exist,’ says Mehmet.”

Ciudad de Cielo, the city in the sky, abbreviated to CdC and pronounced ‘Seedee’. And this is the story of the seedy underbelly of what is meant to be a shining beacon for humanity’s future in the stars.

We alternate chapters from the point of view of two characters: Nikki ‘Fixx’, an ex-LA cop now Seedee security and not adverse to a backhander or eight. And Alice Blake: the new head of everything, here to root out corruption, about to get her eyes opened to the true extent of the issue.

All of which would be hard enough on both women, without the skinned corpse floating in a research lab…

I have slightly mixed feelings about this book. It’s a little heavy on the exposition of the sci-fi stuff, I thought, perhaps showing the author’s relative inexperience with the genre over the mystery and crime elements of the plot. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Christopher Brookmyre’s earlier work, and sci-fi is my favourite genre, so it was a little disappointing that the two didn’t gel a little better.

That said, the world that is created here is well thought out and reasonably immersive, and the eventual plot twists weren’t what I was expecting – they were better! I did think the attempts at setting red herrings along the way were a little too obvious, but when the final reveal happened I was suitably impressed.

Hardback: 403 pages / 72 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 26th February – 6th March 2018

My rating: 7/10

The Shape of Water (2017)

shape of water poster

I’m a bit late to the game with this one, but at least I get to say “Yes, I know it won the Best Picture Oscar, but…”

I haven’t seen the other nominees, but I’m still finding it odd that this got the top honour. I mean, it’s a good movie, and there are layers to it, it looks amazing, and the performances are outstanding. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d have to go with “weird”.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a government research facility, and when they bring in a new ‘specimen’ (Doug Jones, once again under layers of aquatic prosthetics) she soon befriends the unfortunate creature. Tensions ratchet up when creepy project lead, Strickland (Michael Shannon), decides the research is going nowhere fast, and his preferred route forwards turns towards dissection.

The early 1960s time period setting works brilliantly here, adding in elements of Cold War paranoia, homophobia, racism, and dreadful sexism, all of which can be said to find parallels in the ‘alien’ treatment of the creature. Elisa’s muteness is also a fantastic device, allowing both the main characters to be completely silent while her friends – both from poorly-treated minorities at the time – give her voice. Not that she wholly needs it: the facial expressions and body language is a masterclass.

So, all good. But… well, hmm. I dunno, there was just something a little too bizarre to everything for me, I think, with a mix of elements that just seemed odd. In hindsight, yes I assume that no decision was made without due thought, but when you’re sitting at the start of a fantastical, cinematographically delicate, period-rich fairy tale, it was really really jolting to be left thinking, “Wait, was she really just masturbating in the bath – to an egg timer?!” o_O

I’m going to go with: yes, it’s a good film and very well worth the watch, but between the Academy Award and the rest of the hype, perhaps my expectations were just a bit too high. Still, what do I know – it did win Best Picture, after all!

Released: 14th February 2018
Viewed: 8th March 2018
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Provenance – Ann Leckie

provenance cover

“‘There were unexpected difficulties,’ said the dark gray blur.”

Set not long after Ancillary Mercy, but following new characters, Provenance is a chance to look at a part of that universe outside Radch space. We follow Ingray, a foster-daughter of an important ‘politician’, trying to prove herself worthy of – literally – her mother’s name. Driven to extremes to beat her golden-boy brother, engineering a prison break – from an impossible-to-escape prison – is only the first step and she’s soon caught up in intrigue that affects at least three species and which may threaten her entire world’s sense of identity.

The Ancillary trilogy was on my top reads of last year, and I was hugely excited to revisit the universe. Of course, with such a background, it was always going to be tough for this to live up to – and for me, it doesn’t quite hit it. And yet, it’s still a good book – comparisons can be killer! o_O

Ingray is okay as a main character, but to be honest she’s a bit, well… teenage? Prone to tears and a bit bumbling, she’s at the same time refreshingly different from the ‘strong female lead’, and somehow displaying a quieter strength even as you think she’s a bit lost. The story is a lot about politicking and jostling for position, and the weird ways in which we ‘prove’ our worth, which is made about as interesting as it can be but still feels a little small in comparison to some of the events of the previous books – even when we start bringing in intergalactic peace treaties.

So, while very very well-written, and still pretty fascinating, this is more of a “aren’t some alien species funny?” kind of a tale, not quite played for laughs but almost, rather than anything like a typical space-opera. It doesn’t hurt Leckie’s reputation one jot, but I did find myself thinking this was more of a ‘message’ book than a riveting story that needed telling, at times.

Hardback: 438 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: set in Imperial Radch universe, but not part of Ancillary series
Read from 18th February 2018

My rating: 8/10

Black Panther (2018)

black panther poster

Superhero movies. Dumb and overdone, right? And yet, I’m growing increasingly convinced that it’s through these ‘silly’ movies that we’re seeing a shift in all sorts of cultural norms. Wonder Woman gave us our first female-led superhero movie, and now Black Panther is the first set in Africa, with an overwhelmingly black cast. Both show us (futuristic ideals based on) cultures not usually put on the big screen in movies like this, and both are massively better for it. Oh, and Black Panther is just a really very good blockbuster!

Following the death of his father, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to be crowned King of Wakanda. Any opponent who might step forward is less of a challenge than the pressures to review Wakanda’s self-protectionist policy of hiding itself and its vastly superior technology away, disguised as a stereotypical third world farming culture. Is it time to show a better face to the world? And what if parts of that world are intent on breaking in?

One of the criticisms of Marvel movies has been the relatively weak villains and/or their motivations. This bucks that massively: the bad guys are nuanced, and not entirely wrong. The good guys sometimes do bad things. Choosing between a good leader and policies you believe in isn’t black and white (no pun intended). There’s actually a ton to come away and think about after you enjoy the battle rhino’s charge!!

BP balances well interpersonal and familial tensions with the expected OTT ass-kicking expected from a movie like this. The sci-fi elements are a ‘wow’, the cinematography is lush, and there’s enough snippets of humour that a movie like this needs. If I had any complaints it’s possibly over some of the accents, and a slight ‘hmm’ over the idea that a futuristic society is still doing challenge-by-combat – but hey, the Dora Milaje (female bodyguard squad) is utterly, utterly badass! 🙂

I sort of regret giving Wonder Woman as high a mark as I did – it’s culturally important, and blew me away for reasons other than a rather so-so storyline. BP on the other hand, has both: it’s culturally important AND well made AND a lot of fun. But hey: there’s plenty room for both, and here’s to all sorts of diversity showing up in future superhero – and other! – movies!

Released: 13th February 2018
Viewed: 21st February 2018
Running time: 134 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 9/10

The Dresden Files: Dog Men – Jim Butcher

dresden files dog men cover

“Get up, Dresden.”

(Story by Mark Powers, Art by Diego Galindo)

The Dresden Files is one of my all-time favourite series, but it’s been a long wait since the last novel. So, despite not being a huge fan of graphic novels, I absolutely jumped at the chance to nab a copy of this. I hadn’t even known that there was a canon-approved series of graphic novels, but you don’t need to have read the rest before this – or even the main series, really, but why wouldn’t you?

“I was ready. I was confident. Usually that means I was f-‘ed.”

Harry Dresden is asked by senior Council member, Listens-to-Winds, to accompany him on a case. Of course, it’s as much a ruse to get Harry away from his self-recrimination and nightmares, although it says a lot when a grisly murder scene and some non-human monsters are less bad than his nightmares!

The artwork here is pretty good, but given my previous attempts with the format were the gorgeously illustrated Sandman set, this was unlikely to compete. In fairness, some of the bigger ‘location’ panels are great, but I wasn’t desperately impressed with the depiction of Harry himself – limitations of any pictorial adaptation of a series, your readers have their own mental images!

The character still comes across exactly as he does in the main books, though – all pop culture and offbeat humour, offsetting the rage and fearsome power. The story is fairly slight, with rather two-dimensional supporting characters, and a little heavy on the lessons for our hero. Still, while we’re waiting impatiently for the next novel in the series, it was really nice to check back in again with the best wizard called Harry 😉

NetGalley eARC: 146 pages / 6 issues
First published: 2018
Series: Dresden Files graphic novels book 7 (collection of issues 1-6)
Read from 3rd-18th February 2018

My rating: 7/10

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

jumanji poster

This sequel to Jumanji (1995) shakes things up a bit: the game itself takes the dismissive “who plays board games anymore?” to heart and evolves into a video game. And instead of releasing its dangers into the world, this time it’s going to suck its unwitting players into the heart of the jungle itself. And, perhaps my favourite alteration, once inside the game the four teenage leads are transformed into their character avatars, meaning we get The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan playing ‘teenagers’ trapped in very different bodies.

The laughs are mainly around this body-swap idea, with the scrawny geek now a muscle-bound fighting machine, the self-absorbed selfie queen finding herself now a tubby, middle-aged man (as shown in trailers), etc etc. There’s a hefty dollop of self-discovery to be had along the way, of course, as our team face myriad dangers and amusing video game tropes, like the NPCs with limited dialogue capabilities.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this, especially as I hadn’t been a big fan of the original. Losing the younger cast helped a lot, for me, and the adult actors are all pretty spot on. Even Kevin Hart, who annoyed me greatly in his last collaboration with Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence (2016), fits really well.

It’s far from perfect – oh, what is?! – but I was pleasantly surprised and found this to be amusing and fun. Recommended for a Sunday afternoon, or when you need a daft pick-me-up.

Released: 20th December 2017
Viewed: 17th February 2018
Running time: 119 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10