Two Tribes – Chris Beckett

two tribes cover

“Harry Roberts describes a shallow valley, like an indentation in a quilt, with green pastures and tress on either side.”

When a 23rd century historian discovers journals from two people writing about each other and the same events in 2016, she’s inspired to try to tell their story, pieced together from writings and an abundance of social media records. Harry is an architect and ‘remainer’, Michelle is a hairdresser and pro-Brexit. Can two people from such different ‘tribes’ ever get along? And what of the alienness of life before the Warring Factions conflict, global warming, and all the other things that have changed life in our future?

To be honest, I didn’t really like this book. And yet, I didn’t hate it enough to stop reading. It was, despite the subject matter, easy to read and well enough written, with the exception of some very false-sounding, clunky dialogue near the beginning (not quite “Hey sis, you know our deceased parents who…” kind of level, but shades of it).

The sci-fi framing tale felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch for what turned out to be a particularly long diatribe about Brexit. Sorry, but yawn. Harry is dangerously close to a ‘Gary Stu’, having all of these revelations about how he must examine his default view, that there are two sides, it’s not pro-this and anti-that, middle versus working class, education versus prejudice, blah blah, aren’t I so reasonable and the only person actually thinking! This is balanced by making him somewhat of a pathetic character, and the main story is some tortured love affair that is probably meant to be very Romeo and Juliet, or at least West Side Story.

Meanwhile we get regular little glimpses into the future ‘now’ of the narrator, and discover that as well as obsessing over these two opposite characters, she’s decided to add a layer of fiction with groups of leavers and remainers who may or may not develop into those ‘Warring Factions’ that broke the country. Anything interesting in how things pan out, however, is covered in a few lines of exposition at best.

The last line almost makes it all have a point, albeit rather suddenly, but to be honest it just wasn’t that interesting getting there. I’m surprised it wasn’t more of a slog to read, although it was irritating rather a lot of the time. I’m sure the author was aiming for being impartial, and he does have a few good observations, and yet there are still not-quite-subtle prejudices in the viewpoints, some of which I’m not entirely sure weren’t slightly offensive to at least one group, if not all.

So… can’t recommend. There are interesting moments of how a future society might view our obsession with the likes of social media, or our unthinking privileges, but overall it’s a thinly dressed up attempt at expounding some ‘clever’ viewpoints, shoved into the mouths of some fairly unlikable characters who in the end I just really wished would shut up.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2nd July 2020
Series: none
Read from 25th-29th June 2020

My rating: 4/10

The Pale Horse (mini series)

pale horse poster

When the police find a list of names in a dead woman’s shoe, there first seems to be nothing linking them. But, does Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell) – the only name with a question mark – know more than he’s letting on? As he starts his own investigation, he’s haunted by dark tragedies in his past. Surely three ‘witches’ can’t really be responsible for the deaths of all the names on the list – but, if they are, is he next?

I’m partial to a good Agatha Christie retelling, although ‘good’ can be few and far between. This doesn’t quite hit the mark, alas, possibly because it strays a bit too far from its source material in a bid to add a modern update. I haven’t read the book (of the same name), but I’ve read that there are more than few changes and it doesn’t sound like they were for the best.

What’s good: Rufus Sewell is excellent in the main role, haunted by demons real and imagined. I liked the 1960s setting a lot, too, used subtly enough. And the reveal of the mystery is pretty satisfying, in solution if a bit less in portrayal. Mind, the good bits came from Christie!

I’m less sure about the supernatural elements woven through, which might have added a lot if not for the rather bizarre ending. When you’ve sat through 2 hours of drama, I’m not sure the ‘oooh, make up your own mind!’ twist tacked on the end can ever do more than frustrate.

I also took a large dislike to the second Mrs Easterbrook, which is a little problematic in terms of caring about her part in the drama. That felt like a theme: everyone here seemed a bit unlikeable, from the best friend to the police officer (although very well played by Sean Pertwee), to the somewhat cardboard ‘witches’. Hmm.

I made a mistake in dismissing the poor reviews of this, thinking they were Christie purists and I’d fare better not knowing the source material. Actually, they were probably right. Still, it was close: if the ending hadn’t been so odd, then I might have rated this higher.

First broadcast: February 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 2 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 6.5/10

The Angel of the Crows – Katherine Addison

angel of the crows cover

“When I left London in 1878, I intended never to return.”

I’d never heard the term ‘wingfic’ until the afterword of this novel, where the author informs us that The Angel of the Crows ‘started’ life as wingfic of Sherlock Holmes. Started? It’s well written, it’s pleasurable enough to read, but AotC is absolutely a fan fiction retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – with added supernatural elements.

It does work, in the main. This is a world filled with angels – Nameless, or named after a building they patronise – as well as werewolves, vampires, and many more. Our Great Detective is a semi-outcast angel, explaining his social awkwardness and obsession with solving mysteries as something to do. His new flatmate and our narrator is Dr JH Doyle, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan where he was almost killed by a Fallen angel. We get to read about their meeting and growing friendship, against the background of some very familiar mysteries.

And that’s my main problem: it’s not a mystery when you’ve read the original or seen countless adaptations. The first case is not only completely familiar, but the supernatural elements barely seem to affect anything. That does change as the cases continue – the Hound of the Baskervilles has a different mood in a world where werewolves and hellhounds are part of society! – but it takes its time to expand the ‘new’ bits of the world. Throwing in the Jack the Ripper case was, shall we say, a bold choice and not one I’m sure could be resolved enough to bring any satisfaction – and missed opportunity not to show a link with the paranormal elements.

The real meat of the tale is the relationship between Holm- urm, Crow and Doyle, and that’s done well, with a few twists along the way. I would have liked a lot more exploration of the unique factors of the world: what’s the real difference between vampires and haemophages? Are hellhounds born or made? What precipitated the angels being on Earth, and what are the different kinds really about? It’s all background, not wholly explored for the reader, which felt like a missed chance to focus on perhaps more interesting elements?

Overall, I did enjoy the read but it’s not without its limitations and frustrations. That the author is passionate about the topic is clear, and that in itself makes for a decent read. Still, I wasn’t expecting fan-fic, however well written, and I think this will go down as quirky rather than standing out. I could perhaps see a sequel that expands the more novel elements – and I’d read that in a flash.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 30th May – 22nd June 2020

My rating: 7/10

Guns Akimbo (2019)

guns akimbo poster

Internet troll Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) messes with the wrong organisation when he prods the beast that is Skizm, a ‘game’ that pits strangers against each other in on-street, very real combat, while online spectators cheer for their favourites. Deciding to take revenge in their own unique way, Miles is kidnapped and wakes with guns bolted through his hands and the instruction: kill the top player, Nix, or else.

I can only describe this movie as a cross between Saw and Nerve by way of Doom and the likes. It is relentless: in action, in violence, in ick factor. It’s not awful by any means, and I feel a bit bad downrating it when it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. However, the whole forced surgery thing was a huge no for me, and the tone is just nasty.

Half-watching, I stuck with it and actually enjoyed the middle section a lot more. It’s not that anything lightens, more that the pace gets so manic that everything becomes very cartoony. I generally don’t have too much issue with movie violence, but turns out this ‘unreal’, computer-game quality is what I expect. Alas, things get worse again by the end, notably a man taking a hammer to a woman’s face. Urm, nope!

Daniel Radcliffe does seem to be determined to distance himself as far as possible from the spectre of Harry Potter with roles like this. He’s actually pretty decent in it – a ‘normal’ guy thrown into a nightmare. I think the plot could have been stronger, but clearly that wasn’t the point. It’s all about the visuals (was this based on a comic? Feels like it) and the madcap pace.

So no, not really recommended, but saying that there are times when ultra-daft, super-violent nonsense – with a pretty great soundtrack – can kind of hit the spot. If that moment occurs for you, have at it.

Released: 28th February 2020
Viewed: 19th June 2020
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

Chosen Ones – Veronica Roth

chosen ones cover

“The Drain looked the same every time, with all the people screaming as they ran away from the giant dark cloud of chaos but never running fast enough.”

Ten years ago, a group of teenagers saved the world from The Dark One, a shadowy figure wielding terrible magical powers. The discovery that magic was real had started to shake the world, but it still looks a lot like ours. More shaken were the lives of these five teens, drawn together by a shady government department willing to believe a prophecy. They might have succeeded in their task, but at what personal cost?

Our main character is Sloane, perhaps the most overly damaged by her experiences. She’s prickly and unfriendly and I can see why some might not warm to her as a lead. However, I liked her antisocial attitude, it felt refreshingly likely. The hints at darkness in her past are perhaps a little drawn out, but don’t disappoint in the reveal, and do make her subsequent actions make a lot more sense.

The first part of the book deals with everyday lives for these half-unwilling celebrities (one at least is a full-on ‘influencer’ on the back of her fame!), continuing to deal with the aftermath. It wasn’t the most action-packed section, but I’ve always been a fan of world building. However, part two – still heavy on the world-building – takes a swerve I didn’t see coming. This is not quite the story part one seems to be taking you down!

The action levels do pick up as the book progresses, and the larger divergences from ‘our’ reality are done very well – out there, but logical progressions from a point where magic seemed to be released into the world. The big denouement didn’t feel particularly well set up, it sort of arrived from next to nowhere with a detached flashback, but it didn’t ‘ruin’ the rest of the story, so fine.

Chapters are interspersed with memos and newspaper articles, and I know at least one person who hated these – I quite liked the ‘verity’. Well, apart from the opening one: it’s done in the style of a hugely sexist reporter, and had I picked this up for a browse in a shop I probably would have put it straight back down – I get that it was a character speaking, but the tone was just icky and beyond.

Overall, I think it’s a shame so many people are taking a dislike to this for not being Divergent. I enjoyed that series, but I far prefer the non-YA tone here (although there are bits where it leaks in ;)) and the darker story. It’s not perfect, but I hope Ms Roth continues to write for adults – in fact, I believe there are supposed to be sequels to this, which intrigues me. The story is pretty complete, but yes, I can see there is a new world to explore…

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 45 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: The Chosen Ones book 1
Read from 4th-15th June 2020

My rating: 8/10

Artemis Fowl (2020)

artemis fowl poster

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a 12-year-old genius, who’s about to find out that his father (Colin Farrell) might not be all that he seems. Can he use his over-sized brain to rescue Fowl senior when he’s kidnapped? More to the point, can he do so when it turns out dad’s stories of fairy folk and magic aren’t exactly stories…

I’ve read a couple of the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer, and found them entertaining enough. That I’m not a huge fan of the books might have allowed me to enjoy this lacklustre adaptation a little more than I might otherwise, but it’s still got more flaws than not.

Where to begin? Production values were obviously high from the House of Mouse, so it does look pretty good – Fowl Manor is a house to drool after. The fairy world isn’t quite as impressive, and we spend so little time there that if you haven’t read any of the books it all might feel a bit baffling.

And yet, if you have read the books then I suspect you’re going to be either disappointed or just a bit perplexed at some of the translations on screen. We are pointedly told that Artemis is a genius, but very little of that comes through in his behaviour, and absolutely none of the ‘criminal mastermind’ that the books and movie poster led you to expect. Dom Butler doesn’t get enough backstory, but then again, neither do any of the other characters.

I’m not sure any of it quite hit the mark. Things are just so bland, poorly introduced, and never quite capturing a sense of why I should really care. None of the cast stood out well, but Dame Judi Dench has an awful ‘Oirish brogue’ and the huge misstep of actually, pointlessly, announcing “Tawp o tha murnin'” for absolute cringe value.

It’s not unwatchable, but it is a large amount of “couldn’t you have done any better with the material?” and overall felt largely pointless and oddly dull. Shame – and, advice is to swerve.

Released: 12th June 2020 (streaming)
Viewed: 12th June 2020
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 4/10

Lockdown A-Z challenge part 1

Ah, lockdown! The biggest thing to have shaken up all our lives pretty much ever. Hope you’re all coping. I’m a huge introvert, so it’s not been too bad. But, like most, I’m looking for ways to keep myself entertained. A challenge, you say? What kind of a challenge? Why, a movie-viewing challenge!

Early on, I realised I’d managed to watch a movie a day for over a week and so decided to make (a) the decisions ‘easier’ and (b) sticking to it harder 😉 I’ve managed to get halfway through the alphabet, one movie per letter, and thought I’d give the update in an attempt to spur me to pick it all back up again.

My choices have been… eclectic? It started as an excuse to rewatch DVDs or finally get to those titles I’ve been meaning to get to for ages. And then I hit ‘problem’ letters and it gets a bit more random… fun, eh?!

With no further ado, then:

A – Alien (Director’s Cut) (1979)alien poster

It’s been ages since I last saw this, and I’d never seen the Director’s Cut, so here we are – might as well kick off the challenge with a classic! It still works: the performances are great and the atmosphere is amazing. I can see why there have been so many sequels, attempting to capture more… sadly, not too successfully as time went on, imo.

B – Bumblebee (2018)

bumblebee posterTo be honest, I don’t think I was wholly in the mood for a movie – it might have only been day 2 of the challenge, but my 9th or 10th movie on the trot. So, following the intensity of Alien, I decided to go lighthearted – and get this off my tivo, at any rate. To be fair, it wasn’t as awful as I’d half expected and about a million times better than  Transformers: Last Knight. Damned with faint praise, eh? It was only the following day I realised I could have rewatched Batman Begins, sigh.

C – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)crouching tiger movie poster

First of the DVDs I’d been meaning to rewatch for ages (in no small part to enable me to write up my review of the score, tbh!). I remembered so little of this movie! It’s gorgeous, and haunting, and so much more than just the fight scene in the bamboo that’s the only thing most people can recall. And my appreciation for the music increased, so success!

death of stalin movie posterD – Death of Stalin (2017)

This was about to leave Netflix and I’d meant to get around to watching it, so – timely! Armando Iannucci brings his darkly ridiculous sense of humour to the harsh times of Stalin’s dictatorship, and more to the point the chaos following his death. It’s almost inappropriately funny, but as with JoJo RabbitI approve of making figures of fun out of history’s most evil.

E – Equilibrium (2002)equilibrium poster

Another DVD rewatch. I occasionally hear people saying something dismissive about this, usually calling it a sub-class Matrix. I vaguely recollected enjoying it, though, so time to see if that was the case. Spoiler: it was. I don’t think the Matrix comparison is remotely fair, this stands on its own merit, albeit without the same kind of impact. I think of it as a sort of more sci-fi Fahrenheit 451.

fargo posterF – Fargo (1996)

Would you believe I’d never seen this? I knew all the ‘memes’ (predates that, doesn’t it?!), with heavily pregnant chief of police, Marge Gunderson, and those laid-back Minnesotan “Oh, yaa”s 🙂 It’s the blackest of comedies, with a man arranging his wife’s kidnapping to try to extort money from his rich father-in-law. So many now-famous faces, too. Glad I finally saw it!

G – Galaxy Quest (1999)galaxy quest poster

I’d meant to rewatch this last year for the 20th anniversary (!), but better late than never! It is just so much fun. As an aside, usually I’m very against the idea of remaking ‘classics’, but I do wonder (a) if this would benefit from a version without Tim Allen, and (b) if Sigourney Weaver is still available? Wouldn’t be the same without Alan Rickman, though, sigh.

hunt for the wilderpeople posterH – Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

My actual plan was to finally see Hateful 8 but apparently it left Netflix a few months ago… oops 😉 I’d been looking forward to this after Taika Waititi’s humour impressed me in Thor Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit, and I know some people rave about this one. I… thought it was okay. Quite gentle humour, quite nice, but didn’t blow me away. Great performances, though.

I – Independence Day Resurgence (2016)independence day resurgence poster

First real problem letter. Oh, there are loads of very good ‘I’ movies: Interstellar, Inception, Iron Man, Indiana Jones – all of which I’ve seen relatively recently. Oh well – here’s another chance to clear some Tivo space, as I’d recorded this for some unknown reason. It was … well, it was on in the background, mainly. It wasn’t awful, it probably wasn’t that much worse than the original, but meh.

josie and the pussycats posterJ – Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

I saw this years back and rather loved it: it’s daft, it’s got those knowing nods, and oh it is so poppy and fun. A full 15 years or so before Riverdale gave me any real context, I first met Josie and the Pussycats and had several songs wedged happily into my brain. Add in scenery-chewing performances by Alan Cumming and Posie Parker, and quite frankly I still love this. Was just the dose of happy I wanted 🙂

K – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)kiss kiss bang bang poster

Another DVD rewatch, and another movie I just think is perfect fun. I believe Robert Downey Jr got the Iron Man gig off the back of this performance, and it’s the last time I remember the once-wonderful Val Kilmer having so much fun with a role. Had it in my head that this might be my (other) favourite Christmas movie, and this viewing didn’t prove me wrong.

lost boys posterL – Lost Boys (1987)

Ended up a bit stuck with L, oddly enough – wasn’t in the mood for anything too heavy. Thank my trigger-happy Tivo record finger, as found this in the stacks. Time for a hefty dose of nostalgia! What a fab soundtrack. What awful hair and fashion! Possibly still one of my favourite vampire movies, despite (because of?) the hefty dose of cheese (wait, no – it’s grated garlic, argh! ;))

M – Moon (2009)moon poster

I think when I set up this challenge for myself this was one of the movies I was making an excuse to rewatch. Sam Rockwell is brilliant. The set up is so simple; I love this ‘low budget’ sci-fi stuff. And oh, kind of appropriate for the times, given he’s going a little stir crazy after 3 years in isolation?! It didn’t have quite the impact as first viewing, but it’s still creepily atmospheric.

 

So… 13 down, 13 to go – what will tonight’s movie be as I (finally!) continue? And I already have second (third and fourth) choices for most letters, should I choose to do it all over! Care to join me? What would you watch in an A-Z movie challenge?!

The Name of the Rose (season 1)

name of the rose poster

Back in the late 1980s, a movie adaptation was made of Umberto Eco’s historical mystery, The Name of the Rose. Starring Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater in one of his first roles, I rather loved it and enjoyed the book on the back of it. So when I saw there was a new adaptation for the TV, I dutifully set the series link… and struggled to get more than 10 minutes into it. Fast forward several months, and I’m glad I gave it another go, as this time I was hooked back in to a mystery around books, at least for a while. What can I say, it perhaps suited the slower pace of life these days?

William of Baskerville (John Turturro) is a natural sleuth with skills of logic and deductive reasoning that would give Sherlock a run for his money. He’s also a Franciscan monk and was once a member of the feared Inquisition. Arriving at an abbey to attend a theological debate, he’s soon caught up in a murder mystery, as the abbey’s monks start being picked off one by one. But why? Could it have anything to do with the secrets in the library – a labyrinth no one is allowed to enter, bar the librarian?

It doesn’t sound like much, but I do love the story and the mystery, even though by now – several adaptations in – I fully know what’s going on. This version obviously has a lot more time to stretch out events than the movie, and thus we get several subplots about religious unrest and William’s new apprentice, Adso. I can see why these are included, and yes they round out the story a lot (giving a lot of wider historical context, for starters) but to be honest I thought they slowed down the pace of the mystery a little too much. Every flashback or aside to Adso’s wild girl love interest started to make me restless, and to be honest really came close to spoiling the big reveal.

Acting… John Turturro generally takes roles I find rather unlikeable, but this suited him perfectly – even the accent was spot on. It’s his show: other actors are good, but few really stood out for me. Michael Emerson is always good, but the drippy wide-eyed mania gets old. Rupert Everett is a little on the scenery-chewing side as the evil head of the Papal delegation. I really missed Ron Perlman’s take on the animalistic Salvatore, but as Hellboy showed, his are tough boots to fill.

The real winner for me was the sets and scenery. I mean, labyrinth of old books – c’mon! Drooling. The mystery of the library, anything involving books – that’s what I was here for, and it looked amazing. Slight shame they didn’t stick as well to the story that didn’t need as much padding as it got.

Really want to find a copy of the original movie now!

First broadcast: January 2020 (UK)
Series: 1
Episodes: 8 @ ~52 mins each

My rating: 7/10

Plan Your Novel Like a Pro – Beth and Ezra Barany

plan your novel cover

“It’s your dream to be a novelist, to touch readers’ hearts and minds, to excite and wow them, to transport them.”

As lock-down rumbles on, are you revisiting a long-held dream of writing a novel – but, not quite sure where or how to start? Perhaps this book will indeed ‘get you excited to plan your novel’. Broken down into topics and designed as a four-week course, it has the huge benefit of not demanding hours and hours of time you don’t really have. Easy to dip in and out of, a single exercise could take as little as 15 minutes. Personally, I find that far more manageable than needing to carve out a couple of hours each evening – and thus, I’m more likely to give it a go!

The book is organised into four sections, with topics including creating your elevator pitch and synopsis, characters, plot points, and storyboarding.

My favourite section was getting to know your characters. It’s not ‘new’ information, per se, but it’s very well presented and very usable. In fact, I used it to sketch out my first ever D&D character – a new lock-down hobby 😉 – and it worked brilliantly. It really helps that everything is kept light and easy, so you can spend five minutes doing a rough sketch, or half an hour fleshing out more details, whatever suits your needs at the time.

The writing style is very chatty – perhaps a little too much at times, as the co-authors ‘handover’ chapters as if it were a powerpoint presentation, which felt a little odd in print! But still, I liked the laid-back, friendly approach. The ethos seems to be: have fun! Writing should be enjoyable!

Overall, then, I was pretty impressed and would recommend this especially for beginners. It’s quite a short volume, but there are plenty of recommended further readings, and an online workbook to further the exercises.

NetGalley eARC: 128 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 9th April – 30th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

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! 😉

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

My rating: 6/10