Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul poster

Everyone knows that Queen Victoria had a huge romance with hubby, Albert, and found a little relief from her loneliness following his death with ghillie, John Brown. In fact, Judi Dench played the monarch in the movie, Mrs Brown, showing us their friendship. It’s a nice touch, then, to have her back in the role for this next episode.

For the Queen’s golden jubilee, two men from India were rather randomly chosen to present the Empress of India with a token from her Indian subjects. The aging monarch took a shine to one of the men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) of the title, and recruited him first as a general servant, and then as a teacher – ‘Munshi’ – in the Urdu language, the Koran, and Indian culture in general. However, the rest of the court are far less keen on this ‘brown man’ taking a place so close to the elderly Queen, suspecting him of currying (hah hah!) favour, and her of losing her mental faculties.

One thing that shone through very well from the movie was a great grounding in making these unlikely events seem very plausible. Victoria was a willful woman, by all accounts, but also lonely and forced to maintain her regal duties well beyond the point where a quiet retirement would have been far kinder. As she dragged herself through her later years, the chance to relieve some of the boredom was presented in the form of an exotic young man who could fill her head with marvellous tales and new concepts.

There’s absolutely no faulting Dame Judi here, of course. She’s “willful and stubborn and overly attached to power” every beat of the way. Ali Fazal is charming as the young clerk, although I was ever so slightly ‘hmm’ about the way his character arc is portrayed – a flaw, I suspect, of being based on the man himself’s own journals. Still, it’s a lovely friendship, as much about age as class and culture.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It was sweet and heartwarming, with enough bite from the Queen’s stubbornness in the face of her court, filled with a stellar supporting cast. It’s a lovely companion piece to 1997’s Mrs Brown, although its cosy Sunday afternoon vibe is a little let down by the inevitably slightly downbeat events at the end.

Released: 15th September 2017
Viewed: 28th September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

Advertisements

American Assassin (2017)

American Assassin poster

When Mitch Rapp loses his new fiancee in a terrorist attack, he sets out to get revenge. Training himself in mixed martial arts, knife throwing, and shooting, his ability to infiltrate the jihadist terrorist cell also gets him on the radar of the CIA. Offered the chance to ‘fight with the big boys’, can Mitch put aside his personal vendetta and follow the rules?

I actually quite enjoyed this movie and its combination of a moody look, strong acting, and lots of action. However, I struggle to give it a particularly good rating: it’s just a bit bland. I suspect that in a month, this’ll be added to the list of action-thrillers I sort of vaguely remember going to see, without it having left much of an impression overall.

The big problem is probably the plot. It starts strong, but ends up a bit so-so and without much of an overall cohesiveness. The suspension of disbelief is also severely challenged, with Mitch a bit too much of a maverick to ever actually be allowed to continue – let alone be feted so highly by at least one superior. Yes, it adds tension, but it really hits the suspension of disbelief.

Overall: a diverting couple of hours (although it felt a bit longer at points – not a good sign!) but if you’ve got options for your cinema budget, probably aim them elsewhere.

Released: 14th September 2017
Viewed: 22nd September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 6.5/10

Odd & True – Cat Winters

Odd and True cover

“‘Tell me the story again,’ I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.”

Raised on stories about their mother and uncle’s monster hunting past, Trudchen Grey is still not inclined to believe her sister’s letters, telling of Odette’s adventures in the circus or even wilder escapades. But when Odette returns to their aunt’s house to whisk her little sister into an even bigger adventure, Tru has to make a choice to believe – or not. Either will have repercussions.

In alternating chapters, the narrator switches from Tru to Odette, who fills in some of the mysteries of the family’s past. Soon, the reader is left trying to figure out which half of the story – either side of the fin de siecle – is the bigger mystery.

You might be able to tell from my rating: I loved this book! I went in not knowing too much about it, but I suppose with expectations of a ‘Hansel and Gretel Witchhunters’ ya adventure – which would have been fine. But this is absolutely not that book. It is so much more!

I’m left not really wanting to spoil it all too much for any would-be readers, rather allowing you to make those discoveries for yourself. Suffice to say, this is a heart-pulling drama, a lovely historical slice, and sure – a l’il bit about monster hunting. It’s also a perfect book about the power of stories, and the bonds of family.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of the book, and the chance to discover Cat Winters.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters plus epilogue
First published: September 2017
Series: none
Read from 6th-12th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

Body on Baker Street – Vicki Delany

Body on Baker Street cover

“‘Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium, Gemma speaking.'”

Elementary, She Read introduced us to Gemma Doyle, Sherlock Holmes-themed bookshop owner, possibly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and very definitely living up to the famous character in her deductive skills.

Following on from the mysterious death and subsequent investigations in the first novel, Gemma and best friend, Jayne Wilson, are back to happily running their Baker Street, Cape Cod, shop and tea room. To her surprise, Gemma is asked to host a book signing for popular if controversial writer, Renalta Van Markoff, as she publishes the new book in her ‘Hudson and Holmes’ mystery series.

Renalta has already been accosted in a local restaurant by a woman accusing her of stealing her work; Gemma knows that several of her regular patrons hate the way the books ‘taint’ the purity of the original Sherlock stories. Trouble is half expected at the book signing – trouble, but not murder!

I really enjoyed this ‘cosy mystery’, finding it fun and untaxing, with enough to keep me guessing. The characterisation builds well on the first installment, and I warmed a bit more to Gemma, after finding her a bit too unaware of her own annoyance factor in book one. There are still some of the ongoing personal side-plot elements, but largely these are on the backburner with the juicier mystery definitely at the fore.

My enjoyment of this series is growing, so I’m rather looking forward to book 3 – The Cat of the Baskervilles – due in February 2018 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 12th September 2017
Series: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery book 2
Read from 2nd-3rd August 2017 (yup, it’s that kind of book 🙂 )

My rating: 8/10 – it’s not high literature, but it’s a very fun example of what it is 🙂

Bryony and Roses – T Kingfisher

“She was going to die because of the rutabagas.”

Bryony may just have found herself trapped in a magical manor house with a surprisingly eloquent Beast, but if there’s one thing she’s not it’s a ‘beauty’. She is, however, a gardener, and as things in the House take ever darker turns it might just turn out to be far more useful to have skills over looks. Can she figure out what’s going on in an abode that creates dresses and gardening tools out of thin air, and which throws a strop if the other resident – the mysterious Beast – tries to answer any of her questions?

I’ve loved Ursula Vernon for years, following her from her time on the art site, Elfwood, to her own blog (recommended – it’s a lot of fun) and from artist to writer. One of her skills is telling gentle, fairy-tale-like stories that are somehow so much more. And, along the way, she’s done a few ‘retellings’ of classic fairy tales, like Bluebeard, The Snow Queen, and this version of Beauty and the Beast.

One of the strengths of all of these books is the sensible, no-nonsense heroine. Bryony reacts to the magical house and resident Beast in ways that seem much more likely than most fairy tales. And while the dangers faced are fantastical, the solidity of the garden (which the author knows more than enough about to have read very authentically) is a great counterpart.

Of the three retellings mentioned, this is my absolutely favourite – I absolutely loved it! Okay, there’s no talking hedgehog (always a great feature in a book!), but Bryony is so pragmatic and real and just had me rooting for her from the get-go – not to mention getting twitchy green fingers! The Beast, too, is rather more relatable than some other versions, particularly as his story very slowly reveals itself

The plot has a few subtle twists on the classic version, more than enough to keep interest, even had it been a much longer book. At around 200 pages, this is a perfectly sweet, lovely little volume which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Kindle: 216 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2015
Series:  none (although could be loosely linked to The Raven and the Reindeer and The Seventh Bride fairytale retellings)
Read from 29th August – 1st September 2017

My rating: 10/10

Rough Night (2017)

Rough Night poster

Combining a 10-year reunion with a hen do (bachelorette party, for American readers), a group of best friends from university find their night going from bad to worse. Accidentally killing the stripper is only the beginning, compounded by the craziest, worst choices imaginable. Meanwhile, the groom-to-be gets his wires crossed, and is on a mission of his own to win back the bride. She’s a little too preoccupied with trying to dump another man – or, his body, at least!

It’s really really easy to knock Rough Night. It is very far from brilliant, nor is it as funny as it thinks it is. It is, however, very daft and a bit of light-hearted fun, which was exactly what I needed when I when to see this.

In its favour, at least for me, was a lot less ‘gross-out’ in the comedy than, say, Bridesmaids or similar movies, despite the large amounts of swearing and sexual overtones. I hated Bridesmaids, btw, finding the bitch fake friends outdoing each other cringeworthy. There is an element of that at the start of this – very, very similar, in fact – but it’s just not taken to the same dire level. This, however, is probably part of some people’s complaints about it not being really that funny – it doesn’t keep pushing to find the point where you laugh or want to – well, maybe ‘cry’ isn’t the right word. Anyway, I was glad that the movie let me be amused rather than feeling it HAD to make me hysterical.

The cast is a bit so-so. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t strike me as cut out for comedy, but playing the straight woman gives her an out. Kate McKinnon was my new hero after Ghostbusters, but while she is amusing here there is something distracting about the accent forming the larger part of the performance. Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer add a mid-layer with the added twist of being a former couple (which works well). However, Jillian Bell’s character is seriously annoying, for many of the same reasons I hated Bridesmaids.

From the trailers I was expecting a twist on Weekend at Bernies, but was well off the mark. There is a point where I couldn’t see where else the movie was going to go, before it chucks in a couple of outlandish elements – again, just staying on the right side of too over the top, unlike, say the absolutely dire Snatched.

Overall, I can’t really recommend this but it’s not actually as awful as many reviews make it out to be. If you want something that straddles a line between those gross-out comedies I hate and something almost a bit sweet by the end, then a pizza and a glass of wine on the sofa would just about make this watchable of a quiet evening.

Released: 25th August 2017
Viewed: 27th August 2017
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

MAD Librarian – Michael Guillebeau

MAD Librarian cover

“Serenity tried.”

Just because the budget for her public library is being slashed again and again, doesn’t mean head librarian Serenity Sweetwater Hammer doesn’t have big dreams about what they could do for the local community if only they did have the money. When the all-important internet bill needs paid, her desperate search for cash uncovers something… strange. Fortuitous. Dangerous?

When money becomes no object, what does a librarian do?

I really wanted to like this book. I love books about books and libraries, and handing power to a librarian sounds like a good idea 😉 And of course, it’s a lovely idea that half of the book’s profits go to a library charity. But, alas, concept and reality just didn’t gel for me.

To begin with, the opening chapters – the setting up of the ‘norm’ – are actually quite depressing. Yup, librarians are underfunded. Yup, politicians are vile. But oy, the sexism, the over-the-top aggressive dismissals Serenity faces as she’s expected to produce miracles, just made me grind my teeth. Probably the point, but to be honest I didn’t need to read it again and again.

Nor, actually, did I need the rather out of place sex scene near the end. It’s not too graphic, but it felt very voyeuristic and out of place. Serenity’s marriage subplot really didn’t work all that well for me at all, there was just something clunky about the relationship as written, with overly-perfect cop hubby, Joe Hammer (I mean, really!).

Anyway, the early depressive tone changes to more of a mystery, which does help, but things escalate rather to the point of ridiculousness. The supporting characters don’t help: you’d think distinguishing between the one very young and one very old under-librarians would be easy enough, but to be honest… urm? One had tattoos, one insisted on being called ‘Doom’ – both were very OTT in the ‘anything for the library!’ message.

Overall, I think it was a nice idea, and it was a very quick and easy read. Chapters were very short, a few pages at most, so I suspect a fair amount of those 400 pages were whitespace. However, while I don’t begrudge the reading time, I felt very disappointed that things were only 90%-ish wrapped up, with the first chapter of the sequel included at the end – which I really don’t see me picking up.

NetGalley eARC: 404 pages / 70 chapters
First published: December 2017
Series: first of something, given the sequel’s opening chapter was included at the end
Read from 1st-4th September 2017

My rating: 5/10 – nice idea, but didn’t hit the mark for me