Hidden Figures (2016)

Once upon a time, the word ‘computer’ actually meant a person – someone who does computations. Before we had the electronic versions, even the ones that took up vast rooms of space never mind the power in your phone, calculations all had to be done by hand. And that includes the complex mathematics required to put a man in space – equations for speed and orbit and so many other life-threatening details, all requiring a human brain, pencil and paper.

In the early 1960s, a battle was going on between the USA and Russia to win the ‘space race’: being first was everything in launching satellites, putting a man into space, orbiting the Earth, reaching the moon. And while NASA struggled with such lofty goals, the people working for them were often facing much more fundamental struggles: to be fairly treated if they weren’t white men.

Hidden Figures is based on the true stories of three black women who not only worked for NASA, but were fundamental in the successes that included the famous “One small step” for Neil Armstrong in 1969. History tells of rooms of white males, and finally this movie is trying – albeit imperfectly at times – to point out that that is far from the whole story.

I absolutely *loved* this movie. It was heart-wrenching watching the snubs and struggles, and I felt so pleased to live in a world where my reality is to see that with a large dollop of ‘WTF?’ – shame we’ve still got a ways to go! The film has you rooting 100% for the three female leads – and quite frankly I’m shocked that there were no Oscars taken home – while keeping the story focused on the space race. Such is the power of the story-telling that, even more than half a century on and knowing how things turned out, I was still on the edge of my seat as the flimsiest of tech hurtled brave souls into space.

If I have any complaints about the film, it’s only that I think it still sugar-coated some of the struggles. I have read that the whole removing of bathroom signs was quite wrongly handed to a white character, for instance. It was fascinating – and a bit sickening – to see what life was like under segregation and when women were so openly second class citizens – but for every gain seen, I did find myself wondering if, for instance, the husbands were really so supportive of their ‘little women’, or if that had been brushed over for the sake of keeping the movie up-tempo and uplifting.

Still, absolutely recommended – best film I’ve seen in a long time!

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 28th March 2017
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A bookish young woman is captured by an enchanted prince. Only love can break the spell that transformed him into a beast – and his servants into various household objects. A tale as old as time, the song says – and sure enough, here we’ve got a pretty straight retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, although this time with real actors.

To be honest, while I do think this was a good updating – a few story elements are brushed up a little, and Belle is a bit more feisty – and I’m aware of quite a few people really loving it, if anything I was just a tad disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t quite the right age to totally adore the original either, so maybe that’s a factor.

The first issue I had is the cast. Emma Watson isn’t a favourite of mine anyway, and I’m not the only one who found her surprisingly wooden in this. So many times the expression on her face was disgust instead of fear, or fear instead something more complex. And while she has a sweet enough singing voice, it really lacks any oomph necessary for this role, and the technical shenanigans to get ’round that become a little too obvious.

It doesn’t help that her co-star is a CGI monstrosity, and I don’t mean that in a particularly good way. With modern tech, I think I’ve just come to expect something… better. Likewise with the supporting cast, all voiced well enough by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor, but I just felt the CGI lacked a bit of charm at times, or just couldn’t sit entirely comfortably in a ‘live’ setting.

The only cast member I did wholly like was Luke Evans as Gaston – he looked made for the role, and has quite the set of lungs on him! Of course, when you’re left only really liking the baddie of the piece… urm…! o_O

Which is a lot of complaining for a movie I’m about to rate 7/10, and to be honest it wasn’t all that bad – just, as I said, a little disappointing for me. On the plus side, it looks lovely, and the filmmakers took the wise choice to add to the familiar songs, rather than start over, so there was a lot of toe tapping smiles. If the story felt a little bloated in the expansion for me, I’ll bow out gracefully as not exactly being the target audience – new, or nostalgia-led.

If you do enjoy this, you might be pleased to know that live-action remakes are being talked about for all sorts of other Disney classics, including Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King! (you can read more on Cineworld‘s blog).

Released: 17th March
Viewed: 25th March 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

Life (2017)

Ultra-short view: Gravity meets Alien.

When a Martian soil sample is sent back from Mars for study aboard the International Space Station, excitement is global as the first signs of extraterrestrial life are discovered. Unlike anything on Earth, the collection of cells grows at a phenomenal rate. Just what you want to be stuck in a tiny confined space with, right?! o_O

It’s a little hard for me to be objective about Life, as I’m really not a huge fan of horror or monster movies, and this is firmly in that genre. That said, it would also include Alien and Sunshine, and while I’m not entirely sure where I’d rank this out of those three, it’s also not a total also-ran.

There’s not a great deal can be said without spoilers. Let’s see: the cast – including Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson – is reasonable, with some nice human asides before everything kicks off. Having watched a lot of the Tim Peake footage from the real ISS, this is making a reasonable attempt at verisimilitude, which I appreciated – things like the effect on the human body of being in space for over a year, or just the confined living spaces.

Possibly the reason this didn’t – hah! – really grab me is that it’s a pretty predictable, single-strand story, with plenty of added gore. If you like this kind of movie it’s reasonably slickly done, but I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it to everyone.

Released: 24th March 2017
Viewed: 24th March 2017
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

All Our Wrong Todays – Elan Mastai

“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

Tom Barren lives in a 2016 that looks a lot like 1950s sci-fi predicted it would. Following the invention of unlimited free energy in the 1960s, his timeline is full of everyday wonders – and yet Tom is miserable, useless and out of place. When a series of mistakes end up with him travelling back in time, Tom proves his worth yet again by fouling up the world’s biggest invention – and boomerangs back to 2016, but not the one he knows.

Can Tom fix the timeline and get back home? Can he survive in our version of 2016, with pollution and wars and all the bad stuff? But, what about the good stuff he finds – like, a sister never born in his timeline, or a love of his life?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I do like time travel and alternate reality stories, and this one has quite the intriguing premise for those. On the other, it takes almost half the book to really get going on those things, and prior to that we get a lot of whining from the narrator about how useless he is, etc etc. Which is why I put the book down and went and read something else.

However, I am glad I came back to it, as the good bit of the story is very definitely the second half. Suddenly, we have proper action and ‘oh no!’ moments and the need to find out what will happen next – and, of course, time travel conundrums a-plenty.

It’s tough to suggest slogging through the first half, but there are plenty of reviewers who didn’t seem to mind so much. It is, I’ll confess, quite a relief to have a flawed, very human lead character. For the ideas, the imagination, and the wanting to know what happens – yeah, glad I stuck with it!

NetGalley eARC: 393 pages / 137 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 3rd February – 24th March 2017

My rating: 7/10

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

“The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.”

Okay, first question: WHY HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING BY JOHN SCALZI BEFORE?!

By which I mean, oh boy did I enjoy this book! It’s not perfect, but it was a LOT of fun!

In the far-flung future, mankind has expanded far beyond the Earth – and subsequently lost touch with its home planet. This happens after the ‘Flow’ to Earth – the path that allows for travel between vastly remote locations within a sensible time span – collapses. Without that pathway, the journey could take millenia.

So, civilisation now consists of what is called the Interdependency: a highly structured, convoluted system of guild-owning families, each with a set of monopolies on certain trade items. The theory being, if everyone absolutely needs to rely on everyone else, peace and prosperity will reign. Well, it’s a nice theory…!

The Collapsing Empire is a fast-paced story following several characters, including the woman who has just discovered she’s unexpectedly about to become the new Emperox, or supreme ruler. The action takes place between her home, Hub, and the most remote planet in the Interdependency, End. With trouble in the Flow, and scheming nobles on both worlds, the new Emperoxy is certainly going to be an interesting time.

What I loved about this book was the cast of characters, particularly the thoroughly amoral, self-serving, foul-mouthed Lady Kiva. She seems incapable of not using the f-word in every sentence, so do be warned – about that, and also her obsession with having sex with anyone who wanders into view! This might not be to everyone’s taste, but the absolute hedonism (or, actually, sybaritism– hedonism is a little bit less self-centred ;)) with which she lives her life is kind of refreshing.

Tales of the future are so often dark and miserable these days. In fairness, we’re only seeing the higher echelons of society here, but while lives are not perfect at least it feels like society has made some improvements. Like, the utter irrelevance of gender, it would appear – loved that! Although it might be said that the author possibly drove these views just a little, whereas just having that the reality would have been enough and more subtle.

Talking of, there is a very obvious correlation between the events unfolded in the story, and a real-world analogy. It’s not rammed down anyone’s throat, but some people do find that sort of thing annoying. And no, as the author’s note at the end is at pains to point out, it isn’t the title linking to any political landscape of the past 12 months!

Back to the story, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the romp of a read, I did find it a little, hmm – shall I say, unsurprising? I’m not sure if there was meant to be a twist, or revelation, but it felt just a teenie bit flat for lacking that, which felt odd given the story coming from several different aspects. I’d also suggest the opening is a bit off, starting with characters who subsequently aren’t that important, although the snippet of their story is sort of background to events much further along.

I was wondering as I approached the end if there was actually a good case for a sequel, let alone a series, but the last few lines do add an intriguing hook – and I can’t wait for volume 2! I just have to hope that the author’s back catalogue – shamefully overlooked in my reading to date – is half as much fun as this 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 24th March 2017
Series: The Collapsing Empire book 1
Read from 17th-21st March 2017

My rating: 8/10

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – various

There’s something entirely enticing about a themed short story collection, especially when the theme is one as intriguing as djinn (or jinn, or genies). Although I’m not overly familiar with most of the authors included here – bar Neil Gaiman, with an American Gods excerpt, Claire North, and KJ Parker – the range of approaches towards this shared theme would itself be worthy of the read. Luckily, you also get a bunch of really great stories!

My one complaint (let’s get it over with!) would be the limitations of the short story format: on more than one occasion I wanted the story to continue, or felt that it ended just a little too abruptly.

Otherwise, I loved the range here, from the very traditional through to myriad modern and even a sci-fi futurist twist on the old rub-a-lamp, get-three-wishes story. My favourite, Sami Shah’s Reap, was actually very dark, combining the Middle Eastern myths with the more familiar modern view we tend to be shown by the media of the region, i.e. spy drones and terrorist surveillance. Not necessarily two things you might have put together, which makes for quite a gripping tale.

Not all of the stories are set in ‘traditional’ locales, but most are which gives a lovely exoticness (from my chilly Northern European perspective!) to the proceedings. I also really enjoyed the stories told from the djinn’s point of view – and more so when it wasn’t always obvious from the get-go. Djinn are eternal tricksters, after all!

Word of warning: this is not for children! At least two of the stories feature sexual content I’d suggest was at least 15+.

Overall, while a lot of fun to read, I think I appreciated this even more for the insight into writing styles and ideas. Recommended for both readers and writers!

NetGalley eARC: ~356 pages / 21 short stories (curated by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin)
First published: 14th March 2017
Series: none
Read from 7th- March 2017

My rating: 8/10