Phoenix Extravagant – Yoon Ha Lee

phoenix extravagant cover

“Gyen Jebi strove to keep their hand from shaking as they dipped their brush into the pain they’d mixed from the provided pigments, a part of every artist’s training.”

I’ve been meaning to read some of Yoon Ha Lee’s work (e.g. Ninefox Gambit) for quite a while now, so when this new title appeared on Netgalley I jumped at the chance. Apparently it’s not too similar to the better-known work, but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Jebi is an artist in a fantasy version of Korea, during the occupation by the Japanese. Only in this reality the invaders won with the use of automatons, ‘robots’ brought to life with intricate symbols painted on their masks as commands. Jebi needs work and doesn’t see why they shouldn’t take money from the enemy, but things spiral out of control far quicker than they’re prepared for.

And then there’s the dragon automaton…

Despite the automatons, I’d put this in the fantasy genre, and it’s always welcome to see something that feels very different from Tolkien and elves. Like most Western readers, I don’t know much about the history used as background here, but it works so very well.

Between the themes and Jebi’s profession, this is such a visual book – I would have loved to see some of the art being discussed on the page. But, how could you portray the magical pigments that trick the eye, with such fabulous names as the ‘Phoenix Extravagant’ of the title?

I’d also have loved more of the dragon. It takes a bit less than half the book to really introduce them as a character, and they are wonderful! Jebi is a good main character – and if you think otherwise, I’m sure you’ll get your head around the non-binary pronouns quickly enough – and I really liked the Duel Master, Vei, albeit not with a huge role, but hey – dragon! 🙂 Philosopher, cat-like, curious dragon at that. Wonderful!

The story seemed to go from world building to action pretty quickly, and I was almost surprised by how fast the tale sped past. If I have one complaint, though, it’s that the ended felt quite truncating. I haven’t seen anything to suggest this is the first in a series, but if not then things do seem to end a bit abruptly.

Still. For painting really wonderful pictures in your head, this is recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-15th October 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – VE Schwab

addie larue cover

“A girl is running for her life.”

This book. Wow.

I was starting to get really concerned that it couldn’t live up to hype. I follow V on social media, and every time she told us that she’d poured her heart out into it I was equally desperate to finally read the book and terrified that I wouldn’t love it. Well, dear reader, love it I did.

So much, in fact, that I put it down at the 90% mark and took three days – THREE DAYS – to pick it back up again. I don’t do this, I really don’t, but I  didn’t want to face the end (in case it disappointed – it did not), and I wasn’t willing to read it when I was tired or only had five minutes. Finally I had a half hour to focus and… wow.

There. I have – I hope – conveyed how much I *loved* this freakin’ book!! 🙂

Adeline LaRue was born in 17th Century rural France. She wants a life full of small joys, of drawing and freedom to roam. So when it is announced that she is to marry an older widower and look after his children, she ends up making a pact with a devil for that freedom. He grants her eternal life and youth, but with a twist: no one will ever remember her.

And so Addie spends 300 years unable to be much more than a ghost. As soon as she is out of eyeline everyone forgets her instantly. It means being thrown out of rooms she has paid for, having to steal to survive as jobs are impossible. And of course the worst: never being able to have more than a day’s relationship. Until…

Well, I’ll leave that to the reader to discover. I had feared the hype was too high, but it was not: this book, this story, is amazing and so well told. We flit back and forth between Addie’s ‘now’ and flashbacks to her past, both her normal life and then the dance with her devil through the centuries

I maybe took a little while to settle in. I wished V had chosen any name but ‘Adeline’ (it reminded me too much of a movie with a few parallels) and if there was one thing I didn’t like it was the discomfort of that ‘duties of a woman’, which was the point. But the words are so well strung together, the pictures start to form so well, and it was impossible not to get caught up in not just Addie but other characters and their lives and loves and just how it all fits together so perfectly.

And underneath, it hits so hard because these are such universal human fears being explored: that your life, your existence, will leave no mark on the world. That people don’t see you, or don’t see the real you. That you’re never ‘enough’.

Ironically, this is not a book you’re likely to ever forget. Read it now! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 560 pages / 101 chapters
First published: October 2020
Series: none
Read from 25th September – 9th October 2020

My rating: 10/10

Lockdown A-Z challenge part 2

You can read the background to this in the Part 1 post. The second half of the alphabet went much slower, mainly as I had less time in general, with life settling into a new kind of normal. But I was determined to finish, even though I struggled mightily to find an N, a Q, and then utterly stalled towards the end. But – we’re done! 🙂 And yes… there’s a next challenge…!

nancy drew posterNancy Drew (2007)

Why oh why did I not manage to pick something better?! There are surely a ton of great ‘N’ movies, but after lasting all of 10 minutes of No Country For Old Men and finding it far too heavy going I went too far in the other direction in search of fluff. This was… yeah. No.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)ocean's eleven poster

After something so disappointingly duff, I think I was looking for a sure-fire bit of fun, and a rewatch of Danny Ocean and his madcap heist scheme fit the bill perfectly 🙂 Just hits the right note of suavely stylised, with a cast of who’s who of the period.

pokemon detective pikachu posterPokemon Detective Pikachu (2019)

Yeah, wasn’t the most obvious choice 😉 But it was actually huge amounts of fun, even to someone like me with only the vaguest knowledge of the pokemon stuff. Mainly the trailer caught my eye because the yellow ball of fluff sounded like a less sweary Deadpool lol!

The Queen’s Corgi (2019)queen's corgi poster

Oh em gee, I found a new low point o.O In fairness, Q was always going to be a tricky letter, but wow do I wish I’d gone for Quantum of Solace o.O This was Not Good. This was actually Pretty Bad. Jack Whitehall does corgi, every bit as awful as it sounds.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979)

rocky horror picture show posterSee above comment re needing a known quantity following something terrible – step to the right forward, Doctor Frank N Furter! It’s been an aaaage since I last saw this, and to be honest I was a little ‘hmm’ at all the bits I’d totally forgotten – the memorable highlights are absolutely rocking, but to be fair there is also a bit of padding going on. But still oh so worth it for the wonderful Tim Curry 🙂

Starship Troopers (1997)starship troopers poster

Another rewatch of something I last saw a looong time ago. In fact, probably nearer first release, and without much background to explain that this wasn’t just a gung ho dumb shoot the giant bugs b-movie. Which, urm, it also is. And very of its time, have to say.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

three billboards posterI will be the first to admit that my taste in entertainment is usually a bit on the suspect side. It is rare these days that I have the patience or mental state to sit through a ‘worthy’ kind of a movie. But when I do, I am blown away by just how brilliant a movie can be. This was… just so powerful. The cast is just excellent, all of them.

Unbreakable (2000)

unbreakable posterTo be honest, I didn’t like this movie when it came out and I first saw it. It was just so slow. It’s like the anti-superhero movie: no pace, no action, no fun. However, having more recently enjoyed both Split and Glass, the rest of the trilogy, I thought perhaps I’d enjoy this more on a second viewing, knowing what I was getting in to. I did not. It was still tortuously slow and quite frankly kinda dull.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

valerian posterAnother rewatch of something I wasn’t that impressed with on first viewing. I did, however, think that the visuals would carry another watch – and they remain outstanding. But otherwise, no, it’s still not a good movie. Mainly, I think, it really really needed a better lead actor. Someone older and with more charisma could have made this work.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

whiskey tango foxtrot posterOmg, something I hadn’t seen before! I’m slightly surprised at myself for choosing this, as it doesn’t really sound like my cup of tea – and in truth, it mainly wasn’t. Billed as comedy/drama, I didn’t find it at all amusing, just not too dark with otherwise very serious topics. I probably stuck with it more to get ‘W’ out of the way, but I’d say it was okay rather than great, for me. Impressive cast, though, including Martin Freeman with a surprising Scots accent.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

xmen apocalypse posterLet’s face it, options were thin on the ground for this especially when I couldn’t find a copy of Xanadu – thank goodness for the X-Men franchise! I meant to go with Days of Future Past, having seen First Class again relatively recently, but this was more convenient. I wasn’t too impressed on first viewing (hmm, sensing a theme!), but it was fun enough. In hindsight it gets the advantage of being so much better than Dark Phoenix, at least, but still leaves me thinking it could have been done so, so much better.

young guns 2 posterYoung Guns II (1990)

I was so sure I was going to rewatch Yesterday for this, but mood was more for something with just a tad more substance. This couldn’t be more early 90s if it tried, really, from the cast (I want to say Brat Pack, but bar one more BP adjacent) to the soundtrack, to just the style. It holds up pretty well, imo. 

z for zachariah posterZ for Zachariah (2015)

What a shame to end the challenge on a bit of a bum note. This isn’t a bad movie, but rather than the sci-fi drama tag it was a post-apocalyptic love triangle. The cast of three were amazing, but I really didn’t like the slow pace or the nasty tones of the story.

What’s next? Well, I’m pondering doing some movie years – the best (and worst) of a given 12 months, looking back. Or a rewatch of some favourite trilogies, long overdue in lockdown it feels! LotR, Batman and more…!

But first up… the 80s movie challenge! Come join me (us, this time – I have company!) as we watch one movie from each year 1980-89. What would you pick? 🙂

Secret Garden (2020)

secret garden poster

As more and more of the ‘big’ movies are pushed back for a 2021 release, Friday night movies are tending more towards the low-key. Things like this: another adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden.

Mary Lennox has grown up in luxury in India, but when her parents die she’s sent back to England and the estate of her bereaved uncle. Given the run of miles and miles of land butting up against the Yorkshire moors, spoiled and lonely Mary runs wild. She discovers not just the ‘secret garden’ of the title, but a sickly cousin, a friendly dog, and the gardener boy, Dickon. Cue family-friendly, gentle kinds of drama tinged with the magic of imagination.

While not a terrible movie, to be honest I found this quite disappointing, compared to either previous adaptations (not that I remember much about any) or the cosy feel-good factor of a classic childhood book.

Perhaps I’m just getting too old, but a movie with two spoiled brat kids as the leads was already on the path to winding me up. Yes, there are redemption arcs, but, oy, early film Mary needs a good smack o.O It doesn’t really help that the rest of the cast is so insignificant – perhaps an issue when you’ve cast Colin Firth and Julie Walters, amongst others. Neither has much to do, nor particularly stood out doing it.

Of course, the real focus of the film could/should be that Garden. Certainly, when the ‘magic’ elements creep in there is scope for a lot of interest. But… hmm. Little bits of it are cool, like the things blooming as the children pass. But it’s oddly done, and rather left me wondering if I was supposed to be assuming more imagination was involved. The size of the garden, for instance – it’s a bloomin’ forest. Which is fine, but adult-brain me couldn’t accept something that size could be ‘hidden’ (even in the permanent moor mists) let alone walled in – I mean, the amount of stone that would take o.O

Still, the scenery is lovely, garden and house – especially the murals – both. Alas, that was about the only thing I really liked. It wasn’t the worst movie to snooze in front of on a very tired end of week, but nothing about it stood out in a particularly positive way for me. Ymmv.

Released: 7th August 2020
Viewed: 2nd October 2020
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 4/10

For Letter or Worse – Vivian Conroy

for letter or worse cover


That’s… some way to open a book o.O

Things do improve significantly 😉 LOL! We’re back in the small, ex-mining town of Tundish, where Delta Douglas moved at the start of Last Pen Standing to follow her dream of running a craft store and designing her own stationary. It’s a sleepy kind of place – expect when people turn up dead, of course! This time the murder is linked to one of the town’s wealthy residents, a former model and her interior designer husband.

The story ticks all of the cosy mystery ‘tropes’, but in a very well written and well balanced way compared to many. Yes, we have a hint of romance – but it feels nicely ‘real’ and down to earth. The police chief is of course unsympathetic, but it doesn’t come across as wilful negligence. And the characters are drawn into the mystery quite naturally.

For me the best bit is that the mystery was well formed. It’s not quite Agatha, but nor was it too obvious or too deus ex machina. The suspects and red herrings lined up nicely.

This was a really great example of a nice, gentle cosy mystery – ticked all the right boxes and was a lovely wee read. I’ll be back for the third installment!

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Stationary Shop mystery book 2
Read from 21st-30th September 2020

My rating: 8/10

Enola Holmes (2020)

enola holmes poster

Turns out Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes had a much younger kid sister, at least according to this movie and the books it’s based on. Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) has been raised in relative isolation by her bohemian mother (Helena Bonham Carter) – who goes missing on the youngsters sixteenth birthday.

So there’s our underlying mystery set up. Enola takes far more after her more famous sleuthing brother (Henry Cavill, a nicely laconic but oddly beefed up Sherlock) than the cold and rigid eldest (Sam Claflin) who only wants her to go to a harsh finishing school, learn how to be a proper lady, and make a suitable marriage. Enola is, quite rightly, having none of it.

And so she sets off both to escape her fate as much as to track down her missing mother. And then she runs into a young Marquess, also on the run from his family, and we have our subplot, too.

Story-wise, it’s not too bad. It’s not exactly edge of the seat, but as a family mystery it’s entirely watchable. It looks good, the acting is good (who knew MBB was English?!) and it certainly kept me entertained for the evening.

However, the more I think about it, the less keen I am on the themes and underlying elements. There is something just a bit off about the portrayal of the equality struggle. Enola is fierce and bright and independent – but… I dunno. Her story revolves around men, or needing her mother. Her mother who, fighting the same battle, just walks out (not a spoiler, we’re told before it even becomes a mystery) and abandons her daughter to the wardship of a pantomime villain like misogynist, Mycroft? Surely any other approach could have worked?

I’m not articulating well what I found a bit ‘meh’ here. On the surface it’s fine, perhaps I’m just bored with the whole “girl has to fight the patriarchy” narrative, which alas isn’t as consigned to historical fiction as it should be.

Anyway. Despite that, I still recommend the movie as a relatively light-hearted couple of hours of entertainment. It moves along at reasonable pace, and I found the asides-to-camera tone at the top level to be fiesty and fun. Perhaps I shouldn’t have looked too deeply into a bit of semi-fluff entertainment!

Released: 23rd September 2020
Viewed: 25th September 2020
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 12

My rating: 6/10 – 7.5 for enjoyability, but marks off for substance

Flex Your Mind – Rachel Bonkink

flex your mind cover

“Leaving ancient texts like the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Hatha Pradipika nicely where they are in history, as they are outside the scope of this book, I pick up with Patanjali, an intellectual and ascetic who lived in ancient India around 200 BCE.”

Although my practise has been interrupted in recent times, I’ve been a fan of yoga for many years. Like most Westerners, when I say ‘yoga’ I mean the physical exercise, the poses and stretches. But I’ve always known that there is a wider, more encompassing aspect that doesn’t so much veer as smash headlong into the spiritual side of things.

This book is a fairly gentle, not too preachy walk through the philosophy of yoga, one take – as she says herself – on explaining some of the theory. I wouldn’t say it manages to completely stay away from the whole ‘new agey’ tone that so many dislike, but it was warm and open enough that I found it very readable regardless.

For background, btw, I am not a fan of preaching to others. I look at all these kinds of philosophies as ‘self-help’ and a way of understanding the self that doesn’t necessarily required outside beliefs. This book managed quite well not to tread on that viewpoint, while at the same time shouldn’t (!) offend anyone who does follow a religion.

So, the book is split into ten chapters, each tackling one of the Principles of Yoga, designed to ‘bring peace of mind and an easier way to deal with the challenges of modern life’. They are ancient philosophies, and the strength of this book is the translation into modern speech and lifestyles – all very well having a set of guidelines for hermits and mystics, but the rest of us still have things to do in the real world!

The Principles themselves are non unfamiliar. Non-violence, truthfulness, non-attachment, self-discipline and more. Yes, at times – particularly as the book progresses – I did have a vague sense of dipping more into spirituality, but for the main it’s a pretty good explanation of what, for example, ‘non-stealing’ actually means: not just the obvious, but it could also include not ‘stealing’ your own rest and ability to have a happy focused day by doom-scrolling on social media into the early hours.

I enjoyed the book. As I say, it’s still a little on the ‘new age’ side, but that’s hardly surprising and the amount of common sense along with it keeps everything very readable. However simply things are explained, though, these are not going to be easy ways to change your life – as much as I can see the appeal. But, as something to dip in and out of, to revisit on occasion, as part of an effort to a ‘cleaner mind’, then yes.

NetGalley eARC: 147 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 28th June – 20th September 2020

My rating: 7/10

Ava (2020)

ava poster

The deadly female assassin is turning into a bit of a trope these days: do we really need another take on it? Hmm, not so much. I mean, yes give women as many chances as the blokes have had over the years, but I still want something more interesting than just ‘she’s a woman’.

Jessica Chastain plays Ava, an assassin working for some shadowy black ops organisation, travelling the globe like some kind of female Bond. Oh yes, even using sex as a weapon. Like 007, she has a bit of an alcohol problem; unlike 007 we’re treated to a full ‘this is bad’ whole issue-as-personality shortcut thing. Hmm again.

When a job goes wrong, Ava is told to take a vacation. The timing is actually pretty good, as she needs to head home to her estranged family and deal with issues – oh, so many issues – there. But something is not right, plots seem to be boiling behind Ava’s back. Can she trust her handler (John Malkovich), or his once-protege now boss (Colin Farrell)?

This isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s neither as original as it thinks nor slick enough, gripping enough, or fun enough to stand out from the action movie pack. To be honest, the trend of making the lead character more flawed, the story all the darker, just doesn’t really work for me. I want escapism in my action movies, not misery.

Still, Chastain kicks a$$ well enough, and her backing cast are fine. I’m not really sure about the character ‘development’ in the ending, though – it’s almost laughable. Except, this is not a movie you’ll be laughing at, or with.

By all means stick it on one rainy day, but keep those expectations pretty low, if you want my opinion. Watchable, but nothing special.

Released: 27th August 2020
Viewed: 28th August 2020
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

Little Bookshop of Murder – Maggie Blackburn

little bookshop of murder cover

“Summer Merriweather slipped off her flip-flops, allowing the sand’s warmth to comfort the bottom of her feet like it had thousands of times before.”

I’m a sucker for stories about books and bookshops, and there’s something lovely about a good cosy mystery when you need some non-mentally-taxing reading. Alas, while not dreadful by any means, I wouldn’t really go so far as to call this a great example of the genre.

Summer has returned home for her mother’s funeral. Her life has been too full of drama of late, after a video goes viral of her freaking out while teaching a class – although to be fair, I’d also be freaking out if the neighbouring lab’s arachnid collection came wandering in, so the whole might-be-fired thing seems kind of OTT. Hmm.

Anyway, she now has more on her mind, after her very healthy mom suffers a fatal heart attack. When several threatening letters are discovered, however, everyone – apart from the obligatory doubting police – starts to wonder if it wasn’t natural causes after all.

All of the usual elements to a cosy mystery are here, really, with the exception of a budding romance – much to my relief, I should add. Mourning a parent is not the best headspace to have a character start down that path! But we have a murder, a good reason for Summer to be investigating, and a group of friends of all ages to help out.

So far so good, and yet… there’s just something about the way it’s all put together here that really didn’t grab me. The first chapters are quite downbeat and repetitive with Summer’s shock over the death and all of that kind of thing. Several elements throughout seem to serve very little purpose – the whole spiders thing, for instance, is so overplayed I was dreading a huge icky scene but I can reassure my fellow arachnophobes that there’s just one ‘thing I read in a book’ scene and otherwise I wasn’t too freaked out!

Far less forgivable, however, is the sheer obviousness of the whodunnit, and the obtuseness required from the characters to not have them stumble onto the right answer almost immediately – it’s almost hard work for them to dance around it so many times!

It’s not all bad. I liked the family dynamic, and the location is a nice mental vacation spot. Quite how a tiny bookstore deals with so many regular deliveries that need six people a time to sort them, though – hmm! There’s also a subthread which feels irritatingly ‘meta’, about a Shakespeare professor getting over her snobbishness about romance and cosy mysteries, which is perhaps driving a little too hard – we’re already reading the book, we’re not the ones needing convinced (much ;)).

So… can’t really find myself recommending this. I still sort of enjoyed the daft read, but really just too many flaws and irrelevant meanderings to make it one I’d look for a follow up from.

NetGalley eARC: 258 pages / 66 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Beach Reads mystery book 1
Read from 5th-14th September 2020

My rating: 4/10

Project Power (2020)

project power poster

There’s a new drug on the streets of New Orleans. This one doesn’t just make you feel powerful: it literally gives you superpowers. However there are catches: it will only last for 5 minutes, and you have no way of knowing what power you’ll get. Invulnerability is great, turning into a human torch might have it’s uses, but then again you might just be one of the unlucky ones that just explodes. Messy.

Into this set up throw a teenage drug dealer, a cop who isn’t above fighting fire with fire, and a dangerous man on a mysterious mission.

I do like my superhero movies, especially those that are trying something a little bit different. This almost manages that. The device of the pills, the random effects, and the time limit are highly intriguing. Are they used as well as they could have been? Hmm.

Full marks for the cast. Jamie Foxx is always excellent, and Dominique Fishback steps up strongly into a surprisingly big role. I say surprising, because marketing had led me to believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have a bigger part, but he’s a little in the background.

What works: the SFX are well done, the acting is good, and the action is high. What isn’t quite as strong: the plot didn’t feel that original, and the mechanics of the superpowers are allowed to be a little fuzzy when it suits. The attempt to add logic of a sort never, ever works well in these kinds of stories, either.

Overall, this was a pleasantly diverting, fun and daft kind of a Friday night action flick. If you have Netflix and a liking for that sort of thing, you could certainly do worse.

Released: 14th August 2020
Viewed: 21st August 2020
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10