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

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The Cat of the Baskervilles – Vicki Delany

cat of the baskervilles cover

“The footsteps of a gigantic hound!”

I’m still enjoying my occasional dips into cosy mysteries set in bookshops or libraries, and it was nice to be able to nab a copy of the third installment of this series, from NetGalley. We first met Gemma Doyle – no relation to author Sir Arthur however much her own uncle Arthur would like to claim – in Elementary, She Read and then Body on Baker Street. Londoner Gemma has moved to the picturesque seaside town of Cape Cod, North America, following the break up of her marriage. She now runs a Sherlock Holmes-themed bookstore, with her best friend Jayne managing the coffee shop next door. She’s got a tangled past with the local police force, as her powers of deduction rival those of the great detective himself – unfortunately making it look like she might have just a little too much information about various crimes.

In this third installment, Gemma’s determined not to get involved in yet another mystery – but of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story unless she does! So when a once-famous actor arrives to play Holmes in an amateur production of Hound of the Baskervilles, the in-fighting of the theatre crowd stirs up something quite deadly…

This was a very quick and easy read, and enjoyable enough, but perhaps not quite as good as the first two in the series. I did think for a little while that the plot from the previous book was being recycled, but things are changed up ‘enough’. I wasn’t entirely sure I was okay with Gemma’s meddling being borderline criminal, right enough! There is a bit of progress on the personal lives side of the stories, but this is kept to background material rather than overwhelming the main plot and mystery.

Book four is due out in the autumn, and I think I’m glad about that – while at the same time hoping the author isn’t rushing too many of these out at the expense of quality.

NetGalley eARC: 304 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery book 3
Read from 11th-14th February 2018

My rating: 6/10

The Crystal Skull – Manda Scott

crystal skull cover

“Because it was her wedding gift, Stella came first out of the tunnel.”

Back when this was written, the impending doom of the end of the Mayan calendar on December 31st 2012 was still a ‘thing’. Add in myths surrounding thirteen crystal skulls possibly having the power to avert the supposed end of the world, and everything lines up for a Da Vinci Code-style thriller. As the final ingredient, though, let’s have a much better author, known for writing rather good historical fiction (e.g. Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle).

And so we swap between two timelines. The ‘present day’ (2007) when Stella and new hubby, Kit, discover the long-lost ‘heart stone’ in a cave no one else has seen in centuries. Legend has it that every holder of the skull-stone has died – so perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised that they’re soon caught up in something altogether less academic.

Jump back, then, to the time of Nostradamus and Queen Elizabeth, conquistadors ‘discovering’ the New World, and the latest in a long line of skull-keepers, Cedric Owen. Charged to fulfil his and the skull’s destiny, Owen’s chapters slowly reveal answers to some of the puzzles set in the modern section of the story, and do more than hint at some of the more fantastical aspects of the skull.

I started out fairly enjoying this book, liking the mix of thriller and history. But as the storylines progress, I lost interest. Things are all ‘because prophecy’ and mystic guidance, which is rarely fulfilling. The characters become increasingly DVC-ish-ly flat, and as the whole pitch of the ‘2012 end of the world doom’ ramps up, it feels more and more ridiculous reading it in 2018 – which shouldn’t matter. The final couple of chapters are particularly a let-down, which doesn’t help my rating at all.

It’s not the worse thing I’ve read, by a long shot, but it’s just too meh to be recommendable at all, and my copy will be in a charity shop near you me soon.

Paperback: 544 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2008
Series: none
Read from 24th January – 13th February 2018

My rating: 4/10

When We First Met (2018)

when we first met poster

Noah (Adam Devine, Pitch Perfect) thinks he’s made a connection with Avery (Alexandra Daddario, Percy Jackson) after they meet at a party. Three years later, he’s still carrying a torch and wondering what went wrong as she celebrates her engagement to Ethan (Robbie Amell, The Flash). Drunk and bitter, he discovers something amazing: a photo booth that lets him travel back in time. Can he figure out his mistake, redo the whole evening, and create the perfect future?

This is a rather saccharine romcom version of The Butterfly Effect, with a time travel device that’s surely related to the aging wish-granter of Big. Noah tries again and again to alter his path to true love, and we’re shown most of the ways in which he gets it wrong along the way.

There’s nothing either surprising or objectionable to this, it’s just… fine. The cast are all pretty and/or bland, although the lead borders on irritating. There are a few laughs along the way, and exactly the message you’re expecting after about, oooh, reading the description 😉

So, while nothing special, if you have Netflix and nothing better to do for Valentine’s day, this isn’t the worst option. Probably 😉

Released: 9th February 2018 (Netflix)
Viewed: 10th February 2018
Running time: 97 minutes
Rated: 12

My rating: 5/10

Paris Adrift – EJ Swift

paris adrift cover

“The anomaly is waiting.”

Running away from her old life and old sense of self, Hallie lands in Paris and Millie’s bar. Surrounded by other travellers and misfits, it’s the closest Hallie has felt to home in a long time – until, that is, she stumbles through a time portal in the basement. At first terrified, then obsessed, can Hallie retain her sense of self as she is drawn again and again to explore the past of this city she has grown to love?

I was fantastically intrigued by the description of this book, and, for a large part, it does deliver. Despite the time travel elements, this isn’t really a science fiction kind of a novel. It’s borderline on ‘New Adult’ (YA, but a little older?) or even – eeep! – a bit of romance. And, especially by the end, it’s a lot about self-discovery, but in a very good way – in fact, the closing epilogue-y chapter gained this back a few points for me.

Because, while it’s well-written, and intriguing, and definitely has some cool ideas, there was also just something that didn’t quite click here for me. I’m not entirely sure what. Perhaps I’m just too old and un-travelled to have been quite as swept up by the whole life-in-Paris side, which I’d been hoping to find more evocative. Or perhaps I’ve just read too much time-travel to not find a few too many loose ends with the storyline. Or, there’s just not quite enough of any of these elements pushing through the mix.

Whatever didn’t quite satisfy me, I’d still cautiously recommend this book. Full marks for being something a bit different, and while not living up to The Time Traveler’s Wife (one of my favourites!), it might still appeal to fans of that.

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 47 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 2nd-11th February 2018

My rating: 7/10

Elysium Fire – Alastair Reynolds

elysium fire cover

“From a distance it almost looked natural.”

For a police force tasked with maintaining democracy and voting rights, the Prefects of Panoply seem to get involved in an awful lot of rather more gory crimes. Such as the sudden outbreak of Glitter Band citizens having their brains boiled from the inside. Faulty implants, or something more sinister? Could it have anything to do with Aurora or the Clockmaker (see The Prefect aka Aurora Rising)? And isn’t it convenient that such a mysterious disaster is pending just as the demagogue-like Devon Garlin is stirring up trouble, encouraging habitats to break away from the care of Panoply and go it alone.

That last made me chuckle – it’s just so Brexit, reminding you that Alastair Reynolds is British and sci-fi is a lot about current events, even when it’s hidden in stories about virtual realities and space faring and, urm, hyperpigs. Go with it!

Still, that’s rather an aside. What we’re really looking at here is a murder mystery with added layers of reality-bending capabilities and some very cool tech. I rather want a material that self-cleans, used for clothing or floors that do the recycling for you!

Again, that doesn’t do this justice. Having already set several books in this universe, Reynolds has a firm grip of his world building, and a rich sense of history even though this duology (so far) is set prior to Revelation Space. Events aren’t just happening to further this plot, but have roots in events that have been mentioned before.

I’m still not 100% sold on the characters, to be honest, although I think there is an improvement from 2007’s The Prefect. Having only just read that, the glimpses of change in the real world are more telling, from little background details like the non-gendered person near the beginning.

There’s definitely scope for more books in this series, and I’ll happily be reaching for them. I really like this world, and I think we’ve yet to read the best story set there.

NetGalley eARC: 488 pages / 23 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Prefect Dreyfus Emergency book 2 / Revelation Space universe 0.2
Read from 24th January – 1st February 2018

My rating: 8/10

The Death Cure (2018)

death cure poster

The story that began with The Maze Runner (2014) reaches its conclusion with the delayed (after an on-set accident) final part of the trilogy. Can Thomas finally escape from WCKD’s attentions? Can a cure for the deadly Flare virus be found before the whole world is turned into zombies? Can I remember much of anything about the previous movies, or in fact the books they are based on?

To be honest, I went to see this for lack of better options, and an excuse to try out the new 4DX screen at my local cinema – that’s the one where the seats throw you about, air puffs at your ears every time a bullet is shot, and the occasional weird scent is wafted at you. Hmm. Okay, it did add a certain something to the whole experience, but striping away that novelty, the film underneath was just a bit… so-so.

I was desperately unimpressed with the middle installment of the trilogy, The Scorch Trials (2015), so there was no way I was going to rewatch it for the plot reminder – although I possibly could have done with it. Still, there’s not vast amounts that you can’t pick up – Brenda must have been bitten at some point, for instance, and Minho captured. Thus we begin with a reasonably action-packed rescue scene. Get used to it: the original movie was about escape, the second all about running away from various things, and now we have the rescuing everyone repeatedly.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s not great, either, although it is an improvement on the previous film. The acting is reasonable, it’s been made well enough and has some interesting and effective visuals. Ultimately, though, I think the story underneath just isn’t as strong as it thinks it is.

Released: 26th January 2018
Viewed: 27th January 2018
Running time: 142 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10