Joker (2019)

joker poster

From Cesar Romero through Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, Batman’s Joker has gotten darker and less comic-book-y as a character. The more recent films featuring Batman (either Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck) have been getting grittier and darker each time. And then we have Joaquin Phoenix, in director Todd Phillip’s new take on the villain’s origin story – which I can only describe as, imagine taking away all of the comic book. Imagine looking for murky reality, a believable, real-world take. Which is what makes it so damn chilling.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) struggles with mental illness(es), with society, pretty much everything. His life is grim and filled with tragic pointlessness. We see him dressing up as a clown for work, only to be brutally beaten by a group of kids. We see the hellish weight-loss the actor went through, each rib on bruised display. We see every human interaction tinged with dismissiveness, or cruelty, or just a sense that things aren’t right.

I was in two minds about seeing this movie: was it glorifying violence? Using mental illness as a scapegoat? Hmm. But those elements certainly add to the disturbing nature of the film, the thought-provoking aspects of it all. And then there’s a performance and a half from the lead actor – as excellent as Ledger was with the character, the unwavering focus here allows for so much more.

I said thought provoking, and I mean it. There is something dangerous about a film that has a person snap and get his own back on all the bullies and horrible people – a sentiment you want to cheer, but not the degree to which it quickly descends. It skirts so close to verite, the backlash against the rich as the poor suffer so much – Thomas Wayne personifying this well, even though the Batman links almost took away from the movie for me. Is it fair to use Fleck’s mental illness as a background to it all – or is it the constant failures and disappointments that break him?

I’m still not sure there aren’t more issues with the movie than good points, but as art and only art – wow. Edge of the seat stuff, even knowing (mostly) how the character turns out. You are waiting to see how far things are pushed, how awful they will get, whether that line will be crossed from ‘entertainment’, not just on screen.

And still – utterly worth seeing. Joaquin Phoenix disturbed me, which was the point – but also because I strongly remember watching him as a child (when he took the name ‘Leaf’) in Parenthood, not much older than me, wearing every line on his face. I spent long moments thinking things were ‘off’, only to realise that yes, Arthur is an unreliable narrator. To be honest, there are a lot of parts of the film – the dancing, for instance – that don’t really ‘fit’, but somehow add to the character even if it’s just a visual awkwardness to match the personality. And, those moments allow a use of music that fits so perfectly, and the oddest moments – the all-over-the-net dancing down the steps, for instance – serve in lieu of the touches of humour we might expect from other ‘superhero’ movies.

It’s so not a superhero movie (which is why the Batman stuff didn’t work for me, I suppose), but as a backlash against the decades of superhero-fluff (even the ‘we’re much darker and more series’ ones), just… wow. Couldn’t have gone much further in the opposite direction! It’s a psychological drama, more Taxi Driver than anything else (almost too much, some suggest?). It’s not an easy watch, it’s not ‘enjoyable’ – but it’s powerful and haunting and worth watching just for the performance.

Released: 4th October
Viewed: 11th October 2019
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10


Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain cover

“‘Tell me what you think you saw.'”

Following on immediately from the events in Revenger, usual warning that even mentioning characters that made it to the sequel can be a kind of spoiler. And my opening lines are definitely book 1 spoilers…!

Okay with that? Then read on!

Having won and renamed The Revenger, the Ness sisters are free of Bosa Sennen – or, are they? Did Adrana’s time being groomed as her successor leave its mark or did Arafura’s rescue come in time? And what of Fura – she had to change to beat the galaxy’s biggest evil, does that leave an even bigger mark? The two have clearly grown up – it’s tough to remember they’re supposed to be 18-ish, even more to remember Adrana is the elder – and their objectives have changed. Not wholly through choice, though, as escaping the shadow of Bosa is harder than they thought…

I’d reread Revenger in preparation for this, and as such it came as a bit of a surprise to find the first person narrative switching from Fura to Adrana. In fact, I found it so hard to switch mental gears, that I put the book down and read something else first!

It is clear from the story why the viewpoint had to change, but it takes a while to feel not-weird. Whether that was my brain adjusting, or the writing developing a more distinctive tone – not sure.

It also helps immensely when the action gets going, and by the time the crew land on-world the descriptions of the decaying, corrupt place were spot on.

Overall, there are enough mysteries to keep you guessing – with a few more explanations for some of the world-building, like the genesis of the Congregation (they did *what* to Earth, Mars, et al?!) – but none more so than wondering about the motivations of the characters.

Still, as enjoyable as this was, for me it doesn’t live up to Alastair Reynolds’ other work. The difference is writing for (I believe) more a YA audience, and something in the tone just didn’t work as well for me. I will look out for the third volume of the trilogy, though, as I’m intrigued enough to see where the Ness sisters end their story…!

Hardback: 488 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Revenger book 2
Read from 1st September – 10th October 2019

My rating: 7/10

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E Harrow

ten thousand doors of january cover

“When I was seven, I found a door.”

January Scaller lives as the ward of Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of fantastic items from other cultures, while her father roams the world in search of these objects. She’s not unhappy, exactly, but on the other hand her life is as restricted as one of the items in Locke’s collection: she is a singular oddity, reddish skinned, out of place wherever she goes.

One day, January finds a book entitled The Ten Thousand Doors. Instantly appealing to her huge imagination, it’s not long before she starts to wonder… what if this isn’t fiction?

Usually when a book comes with as much hype as this, I’d tend to shy away thinking it could only disappoint. But, the lure of the portal fantasy is strong, and I am so glad I went for this!

First, the few things I didn’t like: given the period setting (turn of the previous century), the treatment of women and those of colour is not good. I know it’s a big part of the plot, but I was actually tempted to abandon everything at the point where January’s autonomy is so utterly removed from her – apparently a bit of a trigger for me. But, stick with it.

And now the good: absolutely everything else! First the language: it’s got a poetry, but without being flowerly. I wanted to capture so many little quotes, just perfect turns of phrases and lovely descriptions. The period is captured very well, alongside all the more fantastical elements. The world building is excellent – who wouldn’t want to live in a world with Doors, all those possibilities and wonders and magic? And the story itself is enthralling: believably nasty baddies, a fierce heroine, strong supporting characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a rare beast: a book for adults that’s full of the wonder usually reserved for children, which catches you up in a whirl of story and possibility. All in all, a sheer joy to read – and very recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 14 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 7th-26th September 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Lure of the Ring – Alan James Strachan

lure of the ring cover

“Tom Bombadil is the prevailing mystery in Tolkien’s work.”

This is an odd little book. It’s basically a treatise on spirituality, using The Lord of the Rings as an example. Not entirely what I thought I was getting, and probably not going to find a wide audience – Tolkien fans will be disappointed that it’s not really about LotR, and if you’re looking for the spiritual stuff the fantasy-source might seem flippant.

Still, I started off rather enjoying it – someone talking about LotR can’t be all bad, after all! But, after a while, the tone really started to grate on me. I would have preferred an approach of “I think”, “my translation is”, “to me, this suggests…” rather than the quasi-academic sense of certainty. Writers rarely ‘mean’ what future studies try to pin on their stories; indeed, at the end of this the author even admits that Tolkien’s letters reveal the multi-layers of allegory and meaning didn’t appear until years later.

The lecturing tone can be a little patronising, I found – or, perhaps that’s the increasing density of the subject. From easy-to-grasp concepts – what Galadriel’s refusal of the Ring says about her character, for example – by the end he’s quoting quasi-religious texts, talking about the Self that is no-Self, and at times my head was just spinning!

If this is your cup of tea, by all means give it a go. Personally, I don’t think I was fully expecting the build up to full-on ‘nondual spirituality’ and self-actualisation, and while it might have been interesting getting there I didn’t wholly appreciate the feeling of being preached at, even if the author does back away from that by the end again.

The message, though, is nice enough, and it is interesting seeing ‘just a fantasy story for kids’ (hah!) providing such rich source material.

NetGalley eARC: 87 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 23rd-28th September 2019

My rating: 5/10

Ad Astra (2019)

ad astra poster

Short review: vastly over-hyped, massive disappointment.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of the most heroic, lauded astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones) that ever was. Alas, McBride senior disappeared sixteen years into a mission to the edge of the solar system, to try to track down intelligent alien life. Twenty-seven years later, the Earth is in terrible peril from energy surges that seem to come from.. yup, the edge of the solar system. Space Com, a company with worryingly large amounts of power, suspects Roy’s father is to blame – but, that would suggest they have reason to think he’s alive…

So far so good. There were many paths that the filmmakers could have taken this story, at least one of which was suggested by the trailer. But, this is not that movie. I am rather stunned by the fantastic reviews this film is receiving; based on those, I would think I was watching a different movie! Yes, it looks gorgeous, but it’s slow, mopey, full of highly irritating inaccuracies and stupid actions, the story makes no sense, and that voice over – eeep! And please don’t tell me that I just don’t ‘get it’ – the whole void of space vs void of inner life blah blah needs to be paired with something that didn’t make me want to roll my eyes, cringe, or nod off.

One comment I’ve seen in a few reviews is how ‘realistic’ the space stuff is. Urm, absolutely not! There’s not enough gravity on the moon to make dust hang in the air like that; lighter gravity on non-Earth planets isn’t shown; you CANNOT get a ‘boost’ from a shockwave in space like that, and antimatter doesn’t… oh, I give up. Each and every one of these had me cringing. The so-called ‘deep and introspective’ nature of our astronaut ‘hero’ was no excuse for pouting, stupid behaviour, and moments that clearly defied all training. The thing is, if you’re going to make a film set in space I think you either need to go big and silly (e.g. Flash Gordon) or you need to live up to the claims of being ‘realistic’ – this halfway nonsense is just a mess.

And still, y’know, I could have forgiven a lot if the film wasn’t full of randomness that didn’t really fit. The attack by ‘space pirates’ – what was the point of that? Killer baboons! And, why was that research being carried out so far out into space? Other characters flit in and out, and it sort of fits the theme that they are largely meaningless (poor Liv Tyler should have learned from Armageddon), but still. Grrr.

I sat through the mess, thinking this was the kind of film that pulls everything together in the third act, suddenly enlightening the audience and making the slog worth it. No. As seen throughout the movie, there’s a lot of build up to… nothing. And oy, don’t get me started on the total lack of repercussions for anything!!!

Okay. Deep breath. Mostly I am just stunningly disappointed in this film. There are small things that are really well done: the opening disaster; the use of silence (if only Gravity hadn’t gotten there first); the brand names on the moon, the $125 for a pillow and blanket – little nods to the future state of mankind were intriguing. But overall, I think this was just a damp squib, trying to be ‘intellectual’ and failing miserably, and quite frankly too much of an irritating mess to be worth seeing even for the possibility that you’re going to be one of those raving about it.

Released: 18th September 2019
Viewed: 23rd September 2019
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 4/10 – it looked great, but… everything else o.O

Last Pen Standing – Vivian Conroy

last pen standing cover

“Even though the sign of her destination was already in sight, calling out a warm welcome to Tundish, Montana, “the town with a heart of gold,” Delta Douglas couldn’t resist the temptation to stop her car, reach for the sketchbook in the passenger seat, and draw the orange and gold trees covering a mountain flank all the way to where the snow-peaked top began.”

My foray into the cosy mystery genre has so far centred around books set in bookshops or libraries. This new series is set in the world of craft supplies and notebooks, another topic that appeals to me greatly.

Delta Douglas has been lucky enough to come into enough money to leave her stressful graphic design job in the city and pursue her dream: to own a stationery shop. But her move to a picturesque tourist town quickly goes from glitter to murder. Worse, her best friend and business partner is implicated in the case. Can Delta enlist the help of the ‘Paper Posse’ crafting group, find the real murderer, and save her friend – or will poking her nose into the crime put her in more danger?

This book ticks all the boxes for a cosy mystery: dream job, move to a small town, helpful locals, possible love-interest, hobbies, cake, and dogs. It’s also well written, with plenty of mystery to keep me guessing. The big reveal doesn’t quite pack a (craft) punch, but that’s as expected from the genre, I think.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing voice, the story and descriptions, and will definitely be looking out for the sequel. I’m also feeling quite inspired on the crafty front – bonus! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 18 chapters
First published: September 2019
Series: Stationery Shop Mystery book 1
Read from 21st-10th September 2019

My rating: 7/10

Elements of Fiction – Walter Mosley

elements of fiction cover

“This monograph is concerned with the hope of writing a novel that transcends story in such a way as to allow the writer to plumb the depths of meaning while, at the same time, telling a good yarn.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a ‘monograph’, but this is a rather lovely, personal meander through the ‘feeling’ of writing a book. It’s not a how-to, it’s not got a set of directives, but it gets into some of the deeper, wider arching thoughts behind writing a book. It’s like a conversation with a subject matter expert, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Walter Mosley previously published This Year You Write Your Novel, so I suppose this is a companion piece. Not having reader the former, I can’t comment. But having read plenty of writing advice (if not taken so much of it ;)) I very much liked the approach here. You are a writer, you are writing, but this is the sort of thing that is/should be/might be going on at a deeper level.

Sections have titles such as ‘Revelation’, ‘The Novel is Bigger than Your Head’, as well as the more obvious Structure, Character, Narrative Voice, etc.

What I particularly liked was the way the author almost starts telling stories, little ‘what if’ beginnings of ideas, that he then picks apart or spins around, or in one case backs off and says ‘or I’d go this completely other way’ – but, he’s learned something about his story and his characters along the way.

“The purpose of this book has been to show by example and intention how deeply you can go into your mind, excavating a world worth the struggle, the man thousands of hours, and just the right words.”

Lovely, thought-provoking little book. Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages
First published: 2019
Series: could be seen as a follow up to This Year You Write Your Novel
Read from 2rd-11th September 2019

My rating: 8/10