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

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The Witch at Wayside Cross – Lisa Tuttle

Witch at Wayside Cross cover

“The man was dead, and although he had not cut a particularly large or imposing figure when he was alive, his lifeless body seemed to take up more space in our entranceway than a whole crowd of living, breathing visitors.”

The first book in the Casebooks of Jesperson and Lane, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thieffinishes one mystery only to tease us with the start of the next: a frantic late night visitor who drops dead in the investigative duo’s front hall. So of course this follow-up installment picks right up where we left off.

Billed as a paranormal-ish take on a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, this time we follow our detectives out of Victorian London and into the Norfolk countryside. It seems the dead man was a devotee of a pagan-like cult, keen to bring back ‘natural’ British magics to rival the mysticism coming from the East. However, it’s one thing saying that ‘witch’ simply means practitioner of herbalism and the like, and another to avoid the age-old fears, especially when a baby goes missing.

I still love the ideas of this series, from the Victorian setting to the smart female detective. However, while I do think this improves on a few of my irks from the first volume, it’s not quite perfect. Ms Lane narrates a little less of her feelings, which is great, but if anything Jasper Jesperson is becoming more annoying: certainly, to drag his supposed partner across country but refuse for the whole trip to reveal a single thing about his suspicions, would have earned him a swift kick in the shins from me!

Perhaps that is the problem: it’s nice getting a female co-lead, but she has then either to act very out-of-time, or feel very old-fashioned. This is only highlighted in these pages, when Ms Lane has to defend her choice of being a woman and employed, and more scandalously, to traipse about the country with an equally unmarried man. Heavens!! *fans self* I do applaud the author for trying to walk that thin path, and mostly successfully, at that.

Another path to be carefully trodden is the balance between the detective mystery and the supernatural. You do have to go into these books knowing that it has that supernatural twist, otherwise it might feel a bit strange when not all of the mysteries – which develop nicely in layers here – are solved by logic! This mix is fairly well handled, putting me in mind of something of a cross between The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (the real life case behind which is actually referenced here) and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, with folklore being very real.

Minor grumbles aside, this was an enjoyable, fairly easy read, with a great period setting plus a darkly gothic atmosphere. I’ll be looking out for the next ‘Curious Affair’ 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: The Curious Affair of / Casebooks of Jesperson and Lane book 2
Read from 13th-16th August 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde poster

November, 1989. The Berlin Wall is about to come down, but there are still East Germans desperate to defect. One – codename Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) – has a list of covert operatives to sell for his freedom. French, Russian, American, and British agents descend on the city-in-chaos, all trying to get their hands on the list first.

One such spy is Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), sent to rendezvous with the embedded section head (James McAvoy) and retrieve the body of the colleague who last had the list. However, it seems that someone is spying on the spies – and she’s soon punching, kicking and shooting her way across the city, searching for the list, the defector, and possibly a double agent. As her superiors warn her: trust no one.

The first thing to really love about this movie is Charlize Theron, kicking ass like a demi-goddess. The action is brutal: no punches pulled – pun intended – in showing the reality of being in a fight. No one shrugs off blows to the head as in so many action-lite movies: this is more Bourne than Bond, with a large dash of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Of course, this also means that there’s a fair bit of flinching for the not-so-hardened audience – surprised this is still a 15, and that’s before we get to large amounts of naked flesh!

The music is another big plus. I’m a little weirded out that the era of my childhood is now ripe for ‘period’ settings – ouch, quite frankly! – but the 1980s soundtrack is just brilliant. There’s a mix of original and remixed songs from the era, the latter giving a darker tone to some pop classics, and very appropriate to the piece.

The assembled cast is rather impressive, too, from those already mentioned to Sophia Boutella, John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Bill Skarsgard. My only complaint here would be Theron and McAvoy out-plumming each other with their respective English accents.

And finally, this is another movie that just looks amazing. The colour palette switches between drab, bleached-out misery and eye-popping neon glow, often thrown across the face of a Debbie Harry-esque leading lady.

Alas, for all those positives, there is a large dollop of style over substance here. I really wanted to come away feeling entertained, but was rather more confused and/or a touch disappointed with the somewhat messy plot. As it becomes increasingly convoluted, I did feel attempts at twists were there because they could be, rather than making the story any stronger – or making sense for the character development we don’t quite see.

Still worth a watch, but don’t do what one person did in my screening and run out the first time the screen goes dark! 😉

Released: 9th August 2017
Viewed: 15th August 2017
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft – Mindy Klasky

girls guide to witchcraft cover

“They don’t teach witchcraft in library school.”

Every once in a while I feel the need for some light reading – often while I’m slogging through something heavier – and recently I’ve been more inclined to dabble with genres I would previously had recoiled from in horror: namely, chicklit and paranormal romance. Yeah o_O

GGtW was an Amazon freebie I must have downloaded ages ago, attracted by the mix of magic and libraries. If I have to put up with some soppy girlie stuff along the way, so be it, right?

Jane is a librarian, and a bit of a mouse. I’m sad to say she actually does the whole removes-glasses-gets-haircut-becomes-hot (and fyi you do NOT start wearing contact lenses without weeks of pain!) over the course of the book (hardly a spoiler), but at least it’s through her own volition, more or less.

Viewed in the right frame of mind, it is actually quite nice to see her starting to like herself more and develop some confidence, as she is a bit sad at the start of the book, pining after her ‘Imaginary Boyfriend’ (her words) a year after being dumped by her fiance. She has the cheek to be a bit catty about her best friend’s military-like plan for churning through first dates, especially as bf is in the story mainly to be there every single time for our ‘heroine’.

Talking of, it’s not long before Jane discovers the collection of magic books in her new basement, summons a familiar by mistake, and goes on to have a few magical disasters over the course of the book. First mistake? Casting a love spell…! o_O

It’s hard to be wholly positive about this book, as it is utter fluff, but I confess I did rather enjoy it. It’s very daft, very VERY light reading, and exactly what I was looking for to balance the slog of the other tome I’m currently struggling with. Are there flaws? Of course – and a whole heap of cliches too!

Recommended? Urm, probably not to the tastes of anyone I know – although, I suspect y’all would be keeping this as a guilty secret anyway 😉

Kindle: 432 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2006
Series: Jane Maddison book 1
Read from 25th June – 3rd July 2017

My rating: 6/10

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – James Runcie

“Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective.”

An unconventional young vicar finds a bit of excitement in an otherwise quiet life by investigating crimes with his police detective best mate. His dog collar gives him a great way to poke about where the police might not be welcome, and generally gets people to open up to him. Set in 1950s Cambridgeshire (Grantchester is an actual village not far from the university city), the prospect of a cosy (urm, I was a bit wrong!) period mystery and if I’m honest a dishy leading man somehow got me watching the TV adaptation rather compulsively. When I ran out of episodes, I turned to the original books.

The first story, The Shadow of Death, is familiar as the opening episode of the TV adaptation – very familiar, in fact, as a pretty straight transfer. The next three are also familiar, but have been given far more drama for the screen, and so can feel a little odd reading them after viewing. And of the last two, I wasn’t entirely surprised the scriptwriters decided to skip them, not least because of the odd tone of the sexualised kidnapping, quite out of place with the rest of this book.

If I’m being even more honest, without the eye-candy of both leading actors and rather lovely period setting (yes, I’d love to cycle down empty country roads with a pet labrador!), the books aren’t quite so appealing. This book is definitely more on the cosy side (apart from a few moments, as above), but also lacks some degree of the drama. The romantic story is also completely changed, and without that there does feel to be something a bit flatter in the writing – Sidney-in-text is so much less driven, more realistic, and a tad less interesting.

I also found the writing style, particularly the dialogue, to be a bit stilted. Perhaps it’s a ‘period’ thing, but the lack of contractions (so, all “I am” not “I’m”, “I do not”, etc etc) feels quite stiff. The extra time spent in a vicar’s head is also less than fascinating, tbh!

I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the second volume – this wasn’t bad at all, but as I say, it turns out the character’s biggest appeal is probably the amount of time he spends (on screen) taking his shirt off 😉

Kindle: 400 pages / 6 stories
First published: 2012
Series: Grantchester Mysteries book 1 of 6
Read from 30th April – 21st June 2017

My rating: 6/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

Take one washed-up pirate, two young people who can bicker at each other until the inevitable get together, and a host of CGI nasties chasing our ‘heroes’ as they go questing for a mythical object. I’m not entirely sure which of the Pirates franchise I’m talking about, to be honest – but let’s be generous, and say this one is a nice, ‘soft reboot’ of the first movie o_O

The fifth instalment, known as either Salazar’s Revenge or Dead Men Tell No Tales, depending where you live, is getting very mixed reviews. To be honest, I’m not sure where the out-and-out hatred is coming from, because if you liked any of the previous movies then there’s very little of difference here to find so disappointing. That of course could be the disappointment, but hey – you know what you’re getting in to!

I actually quite liked Johnny Depp here. It’s a damn shame that Captain Jack is the only thing he’s been watchable as in ages, but it’s a nice return to the character – I didn’t quite think it slipped into parody of earlier performances, although some have argued this.

The new would-be couple, replacing (well…!) Orlando and Keira, are fine – nothing extraordinary (although the whole “I’m a horologist!” scene might have been a highlight of mine!), but equally not irritating (hey, I have low asks in these situations!). Predictable? Well, of course, but then so is the whole movie!

The main difference is the baddie, this time played by Javier Bardem, who is a pirate-killer tricked into a living death and now out for revenge. Some people are hailing him as the one good part of this movie, but to be honest I’ve always found the villains a little pantomime, and I’m not 100% swayed from that here. YMMV, of course. Either way, the CGI is a spectacle to behold.

Overall, this does have to lose points for being entirely unoriginal, completely predictable, and borderline hamming itself up. On the other hand, it was 2 hours of big screen nonsense done pretty well, and entirely fun for it.

I managed to miss the post-credit scene (d’oh!), but to be honest I rather do have mixed feelings about its supposed setting-up for an instalment 6. Hmm!

Released: 26th May 2017
Viewed: 30th May 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10

The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – Lisa Tuttle

“I admit I did not plan my escape very well, but the fact is that I had not planned it at all.”

There is something enduringly appealing about the Victorian mystery, which is probably what caught my eye on this one – along with the title I’ve been misspelling all over the place! 😉 Think Sherlock Holmes – mentioned in-novel as a fiction, with Arthur Conan Doyle a contemporary figure – but with a female Watson narrating. Indeed, Miss Lane (she does have a first name, but the reveal is one of the mysteries of the book 😉 ) has an excellent detective mind in her own right, but she’s a little more down to earth than her ‘Sherlock’, Jasper Jesperson.

The case(s) told here are strongly linked to Miss Lane’s past as a debunker of psychic frauds. When faced with what could well be the ‘real thing’, the crime solving duo must also deduce any links to the disappearing mediums in the city, while trying to set up their new partnership with more mundane cases, like the mysterious sleepwalking of their landlord’s brother in law. And there’s still the shadow of Miss Lane’s previous partner to be dealt with…

I did enjoy this book, but there were a few things that irritated me a little. Firstly, the first person narrative is just a little too… well, full of moans about emotions and doubts and feelings. I don’t want to say it’s ‘girly’, but I’m struggling to find another phrase. There is something just ‘meh’ about a lead character voicing their doubts and fears every few paragraphs.

The other main character, Jesperson, is the opposite: head first into everything with an enormous sense of adventure – which, alas, ends up coming across as childish, not least because he still lives with his mother (the Mrs Hudson of the piece) and acts out like a spoiled brat once or twice. Oh, and of course he’s a martial arts expert, master hypnotist, and not quite as differentiated from the ‘Great Detective’ as I imagine he was supposed to be. Hmm.

Overall, though, the story was intriguing and fun and the period mood remained appealing, so it’s rather a shame I didn’t get on too well with the characterisation. That said, this looks like it might be the first in a series, and I’d quite like to see where it all goes next.

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 32 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: The Curious Affair Of book 1
Read from 7th-14th May 2017

My rating: 6.5/10