To Kill a Mocking Girl – Harper Kinkaid

to kill a mocking girl cover

“Quinn Caine may have traveled all over the world, but she still thought nothing was more enchanting than springtime in Vienna, Virginia, especially driving with the windows down on Church Street.”

Quinn is newly returned to her hometown after years of volunteering abroad. As she settles into her new life repairing old books, she doesn’t know if she’s more surprised that her hellraising cousin and best friend is now a nun, or that her sleepy town has just witnessed its second brutal murder in six months…

This book and I didn’t get off to the best starts, as I found it hugely cliched – the aggressive, in-Quinn’s-face police officer hellbent on pinning the murder on her irked me immensely.

However, things did settle down and I ended up enjoying the read. The cliches don’t end, though, with an unrequited crush, school bullies who are still full-on Mean Girls, feisty canine sidekick, several nasty characters to layer on the red herrings, and – sad to say for the cosy mystery genre – a final solution that doesn’t feel entirely ‘earned’.

Still, there’s a lot to like. The inclusion of a novitiate nun as a character was rather intriguing, albeit background fare. I found it charmingly odd to have each chapter begin with a quote from a less than ‘usual’ source, including Game of Thrones, Neil Gaiman, and other quite pop-culture sources. The characters are mostly likeable, at least where they’re meant to be, and the reasons for Quinn’s involvement in the detective work don’t feel too forced.

Overall, though, it’s a bit ‘hmm’. There seemed to be a bit of meandering in the plot, and several characters, with things not wholly feeling resolved in a number of places – although, they weren’t really the point, either. What makes most sense is thinking of this as the first in a series, and I suspect some of the threads will be picked up again. So would I give Quinn another go? Actually, yes, so it can’t have been all that bad! šŸ˜‰

NetGalley eARC: 352 pages / 31 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Bookbinder Mystery book 1
Read from 17th-24th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (season 1)

zoey's extraordinary playlist poster

When a strange experience in an MRI machine leaves Zoey able to hear people’s inner thoughts in the form of song and dance routines, her life becomes extraordinarily weird. Rather than a special power, it can be more of a hindrance in navigating her life as a developer in a hip software company. I mean, do you need to hear your boss’s heartache while you’re trying to go for a promotion, or discover that someone has feelings for you – when you may not feel the same?

I gave this show a go on a whim, and it ended up being one of the highlights of my week over the past few months. It’s quirky and funny and heartwarming – and heartbreaking. The last episode in particular absolutely broke me – take that as a warning, rather than a spoiler. The show deals with death, by suicide or degenerative disease, divorce, relationships, religion, gender identity – it could have been a heavy drama. But instead these are the anchor to Zoey’s fantastical new ability.

And the music is such a joy! I didn’t recognise half the songs, but I am a fan of the kind of musicals this harks back to. Her new ‘quirk’ is almost like Zoey getting her own Bollywood movie world, and it never failed to amuse me to see her try to cope when friends, colleagues, or complete strangers suddenly break into choreographed routines – usually at highly inappropriate moments. I think the cast were picked for their singing ability, as all are very good, including that-bloke-from-Pitch-Perfect who was the only familiar face, bar Zoey’s parents and a few cameos.

I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s not light hearted enough to appeal to those who love the escapism of light musicals – thinkĀ La La Land taking a darker turn, but far more natural. And conversely, the whimsy of the singing is going to be a turn off for those who prefer their drama more series, or their comedies less dancy. For me, however, it hit a sweet spot. I’m a little ‘argh’ at the way it ends, and so far no word of a second season, but otherwise, if you like a hefty dose of whimsy in your viewing, this is highly recommended.

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1
Episodes:Ā 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 9/10

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

princess of mars cover

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”

I have mixed feelings about classic sci-fi. It’s good to know the roots of your favourite genre, but it doesn’t always age so well. The Barsoom books, however, can be taken more as adventure stories that happen to be set on a fantasy version of Mars that might as well be Narnia. There’s an indulgence to stories from what seems like a simpler time, maybe a slightly patronising tone to the reading that lets you nod and play along and just enjoy the lack of complication.

John Carter is a Virginian gentleman and veteran of the American Civil War, who stumbles into a mysterious cave and wakes up on another planet. He’s promptly captured by the warmongering Tharks, the so-called ‘green men of Mars’. To say there’s a large amount of the Mary Sue to Carter would be an understatement. The lower planetary gravity gives him super strength and he easily beats many of the larger warriors, earning himself a stay of execution. He then picks up the language in about twenty minutes flat, before falling in love with a captured princess from the other of Mars’ main species, the ‘reds’.

The pace of this story is lightning. There’s little dwelling on anything, and big events happen in a sentence. That’s part of the appeal, really: it’s simple but it keeps moving so fast that if you can let go it provides a light distraction. Alas, it can also seem a little unsatisfying for the same reasons, plus the fact that you just know (the other) JC can never really lose…

Except, there’s a framing tale. Carter is telling his story – perhaps it’d be nice to think of them as an old man’s tall tales? – and not quite everything goes to plan. That’s why there are ten sequels, I suppose šŸ˜‰

I’m glad I read this. It doesn’t feel like high literature, but it is one of the classics from its time, and despite its many flaws for a modern audience there’s a lot to like here. Definitely not sci-fi, but as a boys’ own kind of adventure, it’s quite fun.

As a final note, if – like me – your main knowledge of this comes from the somewhat disappointing movie,Ā John Carter (2012), it’s clear to see both how much they had to leave out, and how much better the story is with just that bit more meat and context.

eBook: 202 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1912
Series: Barsoom book 1
Read from 12th April -10th May 2020

My rating: 7/10

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

sonic the hedgehog poster

Adaptations of video games rarely go well, and even less so when the game itself didn’t really have a plot to speak of. Still, I have fond memories of my Sonic-playing days, and if nothing else, the disastrous first attempt at a look for the blue speedster piqued my interest.

So, in need of something fun and lighthearted as lockdown (and everything else) started to get to me a bit this weekend, it seemed like just the moment for this kind of fluff. Fluff that begins by telling the story of a young hedgehog who for some reason is under attack (I might have blinked a bit at the beginning) and escapes via magical portal rings to Earth, where he is living a life of painful isolation and solitude. Ah, nuts!

It gets more fun, as a Sonic-induced power outage attracts the attention of the government and psychotic scientist Doctor Robotnik. This is the main reason to watch this movie: Jim Carrey having an absolute, scenery-chewing blast. It’s been a while since we got to see the man on screen and it almost – almost – makes the movie worth watching.

Elsewhere, I didn’t mind the new CGI for the blue hedgehog, and James Marsden tries his best, poor sod. The other characters are totally flat and purely there to fill in scenery, really.

Plot-wise, it’s just a standard chase movie, with Robotnik willing to destroy anything to get his hands on Sonic. There are some ‘nice’ nods to the games, I think especially the ‘boss fight’ being unexpectedly close to what I remember and didn’t think they’d be able to actually make work. Not sure the big to-do on ‘how Sonic gets his red sneakers’ added much, right enough.

So… yeah, not so much. It wasn’t awful, I don’t regret choosing to see it, but it offers next to nothing on any level.

Released: 14th February 2020
Viewed: 16th May 2020
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10 – it’s not awful, but…

The Ash-Born Boy – VE Schwab

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“Once, long ago, there was a man and a woman, and a boy, and a village full of people. And then the villageĀ burned down.”

I wasn’t wholly enamoured with The Near Witch, but this short prequel story fleshes out one of the characters to the point that I wish I’d read it first. ‘Cole’ gives a brief telling of his tragic backstory in TNW, but here we get to see how his not-so-normal life came to the end that leads him to Near.

Written just a year afterĀ TNW, the improvement in the characterisation and writing style is already apparent. Finally, I find myself caring a little about some of the players.

However, I still can’t wholly recommend this book, or say I enjoyed it. It’s well written, it’s a great little story, but I find the world that contains Near and Dale unpleasantly dark and cruel. Fear of witchcraft is one thing, but torturing a teenager – ‘cutting to the bone’, holding him down forcefully enough that his wrist is broken. No, no no – sorry, but this felt… icky. Added to the back of a book where the rapey would-be-suitor has no punishment and practically a happy ending – urgh, not for me.

So. Decent short story. If you’ve readĀ The Near Witch this is worth dipping in to; if you plan on reading TNW you might even want to start with this to give one of the characters more oomph. But for my tastes, it’s just got a nasty streak for the sake of it that I can’t appreciate at all.

eBook: 61 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: short story prequel to The Near Witch
Read from 14th-15th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

The Near Witch – VE Schwab

near witch cover

“It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”

Lexi lives in the village of Near, on the edge of the wild moors. She’s grown up on tales of the Near Witch, and also with a great deal of freedom not usually allowed to girls. However, following the death of her beloved father, it seems that her uncle Otto is determined to force her into the mould of a respectable young woman, however much it chafes. Then there’s Tyler, a nice enough boy, but he’s assuming too much about Lexi’s future.

And then one night Lexi spies a stranger outside, a form that seems to blow away with the wind. The next morning the village discovers one of their children is missing…

I’m a huge fan of VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, but this is an earlier effort and it rather shows. It’s not bad, by any means, but there’s a little too much cliche, some repetitive language, and a pacing that just seems off – every time our main character heads home for bed the tension is wrecked.

Then there’s the main character herself. One of the things I loved about ADSoM was the strong female character, and Lexi just isn’t. I mean, she thinks she is, she has moments, but she’s rather buffeted about by events and I lost a great deal of respect when the whole ‘instalove’ obsession with a boy she’s literally just met kicks in. It really doesn’t help that she’s fighting against horrible sexism, and some male behaviour that had me wanting to throw the book across the room.

Still, it’s interesting to see how a person’s writing can grow so much. The story has some interesting elements, although it’s hard not to wonder how much more ‘oomph’ V could have injected into it if writing now.

Kindle: 320 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: none
Read from 4th-10th May 2020

My rating: 5.5/10

Firewalkers – Adrian Tchaikovsky

firewalkers cover

“The Masserey-Van Bults were coming in all the dry way down the Ogooue Road, and, as Hotep would say, there was much rejoicing.”

In a not-so-distant future, the Earth has become a scorched hell zone. The very rich have escaped to orbiting habitats, accessed by space elevators. At the base of each, service townships (Ankara – not the Turkish capital, to save you my confusion!) have sprung up, populated by the likes of Mao. Mao is a young Firewalker – someone who will head out to the sunstruck wastes to fix the solar panels and tech that keeps the Ankara viable. It’s a deadly job, but when his other option was facing the bugs of the protein farm…

Adrian Tchaikovsky has a thing for bugs, as his previous works have shown – slight trigger warning for that, I suppose, but I loathe wriggly things and coped just fine.

In this novella, he manages to create a highly believable world, a set of intriguing characters, and switch direction at least twice. The pace is almost a little too much, but it certainly keeps the interest! I did wonder if the use of slang and dialect was going to be irritating, but very quickly I settled into it and it adds plenty of atmosphere – another way to create this world in a truncated way.

Mao pulls in a couple of skilled friends to head out to discover why the power to the township is failing. We get a sense of their lives, the new ‘world order’, and the results of a couple of hundred years of continued climate change. The timing is so coincidental: young people heading into life-threatening danger, the only way they can scrape a living, to save the privileges of the super-rich.

I won’t spoil the huge twist in direction, but it wasn’t what I was expecting! It wasn’t what the group were expecting to find in the middle of a barren desert, either…!

As I said, there’s a lot packed in to a fairly short tale. Well worth the read, and all too relevant for our times, in many ways… let’s hope we don’t head quite the same way, eh?!

NetGalley eARC: 185 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 12th May 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-12th May 2020

My rating: 8/10