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

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…

Graze – Paul Dowling

graze cover

The concept of ‘grazing’ – eating the same calories, but spread throughout the day as more, smaller meals – seems a little less faddy than some other diet plans. I can see the point the author is making about blood sugar levels and metabolism, although am slightly dubious about the science of whether this is the best thing or not, given our ancestors probably ate one huge meal when the hunt was good, and a lot less at other times.

The bulk of the book is recipes, grouped by suggested time of day for eating. There’s a nice mix, and several looked very appealing as light meals whether you’re following the plan or not. I did have to take a moment to remember that this isn’t your classic diet plan, as there is plenty of butter and other less ‘diety’ foods! Tonally, it hits the sweet spot: not at all condescending, but with a few extra hints for those who aren’t already chefs. It’s a shame there were no photos, though.

While the idea is presented well enough, I’d rather have seen a lot more information about the practicalities of all this. It’s probably all going to work fine while we’re all working from home and have time to prep and cook extra meals (there’s a throwaway line about preparing ahead, but I think this could have been explored more), but I suspect the sheer amount of work would put most people off – this could have been overtly addressed and made for a more compelling book.

Overall: interesting, and some appealing recipes, but just scratches the surface of an idea I think needs more exploration to tempt me.

NetGalley eARC: 165 pages
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read: April 2020

My rating: 5/10

Dolittle (2020)

dolittle poster

Following the death of his beloved wife, Dr John Dolittle has no heart left in him to continue treating the animals to which he can speak. Locked away in his home-come-nature reserve, surrounded by animal friends, what will it take to bring Dolittle back into the world?

I had very little interest in seeing this movie, to be honest, but it was a bit of a group compromise. And hey, Robert Downey Jr. And some excellent special effects with talking animals, all voiced very well by a starry cast that includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, and Tom Holland. And, urm… yeah, no, it did nothing for me.

Where to begin? Most of all, I just didn’t really care – not for the lead, nor the youthful hangers on, or even much for the animals (!) somehow (the squirrel lost me as soon as it opened its mouth). I most identified with the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), stroppy and not wanting to be part of things.

Visually it all looks pretty great, sure. And yet I never had a real ‘wow’ moment. Tonally, throwing in something utterly fantastical kind of felt for the sake of it, than part of the plot. And don’t get me started on the ‘exotic’ island ruled by pirates.

The voice actors and RDJ – although not his ‘hmm’ Welsh accent, that to my ears wasn’t just off (and frequently slipping) but sapped a lot of performance oomph – can probably walk away okay, but I’d suggest the rest of the human cast, including Jessie Buckley, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Sheen hamming it up to heaven, possibly just omit this one from their CVs.

I dunno. Maybe the kids will love it. Personally, while it wasn’t (as half-expected, utterly) awful – in fact, after a tough day, I did sort of appreciate the sweetness and a few of the attempts at humour – I can only suggest that you don’t bother. Overall: meh.

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 14th February 2020
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10

Ash Princess – Laura Sebastian

ash princess cover

“The last person who called me by my true name was my mother, with her dying breath.”

Theodosia watches her as her mother’s throat is cut, then her kingdom occupied by the invading Kalovaxians. Their leader, the Kaiser, is particularly cruel, delighting in keeping Theo – renamed Thora via repeated torture – as a trophy of his conquest and whipping girl for any rebellious acts by the enslaved local population.

Meek and dutiful Thora, however, is pushed too far when the Kaiser forces her to execute the leader of the rebels and her last best hope for rescue. Soon, she’s neck-deep in plotting to free her people and become the queen she was born to be. But it’s not so simple to pretend to seduce a ‘prinz’ – that is, the pretense bit. Oy.

If you can think of a trope in a YA fantasy, chances are you’ll find it here. Young woman, possibly with untapped magical potential, going from rags to rising up to claim her true destiny? Check check check. Love triangle? Of course. Cruel pantomime villains starting to leer at the burgeoning womanhood? Oh yes. And a large shout out to the ridiculous fantasy names: Theodosia, Crescentia, and changing ‘prince’ to ‘prinz’, among other painful tongue twisters.

I’m a little amazed that I got past the opening chapters with all of that ringing large alarm bells, and I have mixed feelings that I bothered. On the one hand, this is a decent enough book – well enough written, good pace and holding of attention. On the other, it is so very very familiar. I hated the first-person narrative at the beginning, and only grew to be so-so about it. And I cannot, cannot stand the love ‘triangle’.

Oh – and then there’s the violence. Teenage girl gets regularly whipped, for a *decade*, with quite frankly too much detail at certain points – YA should not stray into torture porn, even briefly o.O

Urgh. It wasn’t awful. You might enjoy it a lot more. But I didn’t need another rehash of this kind of story, I’m afraid.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages
First published: 2018
Series: Ash Princess trilogy book 1
Read from 3rd-10th January 2019

My rating: 5/10

Cogheart – Peter Bunzl

cogheart cover

“Malkin pressed his forepaws against the flight-deck window and peered out.”

Lily is not cut out to be a proper Victorian girl, preferring the adventures in her penny dreadfuls. But when her father’s airship crashes and he goes missing, Lily’s life is thrown into dangerous chaos.

Aided by her pet mechanical fox, Malkin, and watchmaker’s son, Robert, Lily must navigate a world of airships and clockwork servants, pursued by sinister men with silver eyes…

I so wanted to love this book. It had all the elements to whisk me away into a magical steampunk world of whimsy. Alas, while not a bad story at all, it just failed to really capture my attention. Partly due to the tone – I frequently enjoy books aimed at younger readers, but this one missed the mark for me. Something in the writing style failed to really possess any sense of danger. Obstacles are overcome either easily, or are given three sentences when it’s nothing more than a stuck window catch. It made it somewhat difficult to grow much of an attachment to the characters, however many tragedies they face.

Overall, I think I just found it a bit flat and every so slightly… moralising? Which is a shame, because I wanted fun and adventure and magic.

NetGalley eARC: 235 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Cogheart Adventures book 1 (of 3)
Read from 8th February – 21st December 2019 (yup, put it down for a loooong break!)

My rating: 5/10

The Aeronauts (2019)

aeronauts poster

In 1862, the idea of meteorology – the science of weather – was a laughable thing (as opposed to 2019, when it’s still largely laughable? Hmm). Scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is determined to prove otherwise, but to do so he needs the help of a hot air balloon pilot. In real life, this was Henry Coxwell, but the movie makers have decided to sex up the story (hah!) and so we have the fictional Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) instead.

The quest to ‘go higher than anyone before’ is portrayed, I believe, in real time – which I didn’t know at the time, but is interesting. Interspersed we have a lot of flashbacks, to Glaisher’s struggle to be taken seriously, Rennes’ tragic backstory, and the pair’s less than smooth path to their record breaking flight.

There is an interesting story here, however slight (two men float up for a couple hours – yes, scientifically important, but… hmm), but it isn’t really enough to make a whole movie out of, I think. So instead the filmmakers have crammed in fiction, and tried too hard to make drama out of very little – and as a result, rather missing the point. If they’d kept the focus, actually let the viewer ride along, it could have rivalled Gravity, perhaps?

Occasionally, the whole thing looks spectacular. The balloon adrift in a huge expanse of sky is ‘wow’. I liked the Victorian period details. I was very glad that we didn’t get some silly romance subplot. And… that’s about it, I’m afraid. I was quite frankly bored through most of it, with even the moments of high drama rather failing to lift the whole piece.

I don’t know what the point of this was, to be honest. A few pretty scenes, an impressive enough cast. But, just no, overall.

Released: 4th November 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 9th November 2019
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10

Dracul – Dacre Stoker

dracul cover

“I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

“The prequel and continuation of the classic work “Dracula” by Bram Stoker written by his descendant Dacre Stoker”.

What if the classic Dracula (1897) was based on the real life of the author? Indeed, Bram Stoker was a sickly child before making a rather miraculous recovery – an infusion of vampiric blood? And so this book affects to be written by his descendant, who has ‘discovered’ notebooks and such telling the ‘real’ story.

I must confess, I’m no wiser as to whether Dacre Stoker is real or a vaguely elaborate creation, nor do I think it matters – the conceit of the ‘reality’ of it all impresses me not one jot. If the story is good, then that’s all that matters.

And indeed, it starts out well enough. There’s a subtlety to the first part, dealing with the life of young Bram and his siblings, as they first encounter what may or may not be a vampire. However, as the author reaches adulthood, the tale felt like a ‘retelling’ of the classic, using historical figures to stand in for the known cast: Mina, Lucy, Van Helsing, et al.

To be honest, I found it a bit dull, perhaps supposed to have an extra chill from being ‘real’ (I can’t help but scoff, I’m sorry!). I felt we hit quite a few cliches, particularly the ‘friendly vampire’. It also seems to lift heavily from the visuals and perhaps even the motifs of Frances Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

So, overall something here just didn’t work for me, at least after that first section. The story feels derivative and unsatisfying, adding nothing new to the sub-genre. Worse, I think it actually cheapens the original book by suggesting it’s a journal and not a well-written piece of excellent imagination.

Ack. It’s not an awful read by any stretch, but it just didn’t click for me at all.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages
First published: 2019
Series: Stoker’s Dracula book 1
Read from 12th-31st August 2019

My rating: 5/10

The Lure of the Ring – Alan James Strachan

lure of the ring cover

“Tom Bombadil is the prevailing mystery in Tolkien’s work.”

This is an odd little book. It’s basically a treatise on spirituality, using The Lord of the Rings as an example. Not entirely what I thought I was getting, and probably not going to find a wide audience – Tolkien fans will be disappointed that it’s not really about LotR, and if you’re looking for the spiritual stuff the fantasy-source might seem flippant.

Still, I started off rather enjoying it – someone talking about LotR can’t be all bad, after all! But, after a while, the tone really started to grate on me. I would have preferred an approach of “I think”, “my translation is”, “to me, this suggests…” rather than the quasi-academic sense of certainty. Writers rarely ‘mean’ what future studies try to pin on their stories; indeed, at the end of this the author even admits that Tolkien’s letters reveal the multi-layers of allegory and meaning didn’t appear until years later.

The lecturing tone can be a little patronising, I found – or, perhaps that’s the increasing density of the subject. From easy-to-grasp concepts – what Galadriel’s refusal of the Ring says about her character, for example – by the end he’s quoting quasi-religious texts, talking about the Self that is no-Self, and at times my head was just spinning!

If this is your cup of tea, by all means give it a go. Personally, I don’t think I was fully expecting the build up to full-on ‘nondual spirituality’ and self-actualisation, and while it might have been interesting getting there I didn’t wholly appreciate the feeling of being preached at, even if the author does back away from that by the end again.

The message, though, is nice enough, and it is interesting seeing ‘just a fantasy story for kids’ (hah!) providing such rich source material.

NetGalley eARC: 87 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 23rd-28th September 2019

My rating: 5/10

Simplify Your Life – Sarah O’Flaherty

simplify your life cover

“Frustrated with the old processes of goal setting and outmoded self-help techniques, I’ve developed a new, simplified approach to personal development.”

There’s nothing wrong with this book, but there’s nothing new or desperately interesting about it either. And the title felt a bit misleading: there’s a lot of very generic improve-your-life stuff (mainly pretty obvious), and very little about actually simplifying through the first part.

The first two sections are ‘About You’ – self awareness, on different levels – ‘About You and Me’ – relationships and ‘tribes’. So far, fine but much as will be found in any self-help tome. The third section is about relating to the world and your environment, creativity, purpose – again, not awful, but still had me shouting “Get to the simplicity!”

Section 4 is ‘Essentials’: being present, gratitude, giving, and – FINALLY! – simplicity. Seriously, one short chapter in a book of 23 that deals with the topic I was here for?!

So yeah. Being harsh for not being what it called itself, although otherwise it’s a perfectly fine (if nothing wow) self-help 101. This ‘new, simplified approach’ really wasn’t apparent to me, just light reading on basic topics.

NetGalley eARC: 136 pages / 23 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th May – 4th June 2019

My rating: 5/10