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

The Ash-Born Boy – VE Schwab

ash-born boy cover

“Once, long ago, there was a man and a woman, and a boy, and a village full of people. And then the village burned down.”

I wasn’t wholly enamoured with The Near Witch, but this short prequel story fleshes out one of the characters to the point that I wish I’d read it first. ‘Cole’ gives a brief telling of his tragic backstory in TNW, but here we get to see how his not-so-normal life came to the end that leads him to Near.

Written just a year after TNW, the improvement in the characterisation and writing style is already apparent. Finally, I find myself caring a little about some of the players.

However, I still can’t wholly recommend this book, or say I enjoyed it. It’s well written, it’s a great little story, but I find the world that contains Near and Dale unpleasantly dark and cruel. Fear of witchcraft is one thing, but torturing a teenager – ‘cutting to the bone’, holding him down forcefully enough that his wrist is broken. No, no no – sorry, but this felt… icky. Added to the back of a book where the rapey would-be-suitor has no punishment and practically a happy ending – urgh, not for me.

So. Decent short story. If you’ve read The Near Witch this is worth dipping in to; if you plan on reading TNW you might even want to start with this to give one of the characters more oomph. But for my tastes, it’s just got a nasty streak for the sake of it that I can’t appreciate at all.

eBook: 61 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: short story prequel to The Near Witch
Read from 14th-15th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

The Near Witch – VE Schwab

near witch cover

“It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”

Lexi lives in the village of Near, on the edge of the wild moors. She’s grown up on tales of the Near Witch, and also with a great deal of freedom not usually allowed to girls. However, following the death of her beloved father, it seems that her uncle Otto is determined to force her into the mould of a respectable young woman, however much it chafes. Then there’s Tyler, a nice enough boy, but he’s assuming too much about Lexi’s future.

And then one night Lexi spies a stranger outside, a form that seems to blow away with the wind. The next morning the village discovers one of their children is missing…

I’m a huge fan of VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, but this is an earlier effort and it rather shows. It’s not bad, by any means, but there’s a little too much cliche, some repetitive language, and a pacing that just seems off – every time our main character heads home for bed the tension is wrecked.

Then there’s the main character herself. One of the things I loved about ADSoM was the strong female character, and Lexi just isn’t. I mean, she thinks she is, she has moments, but she’s rather buffeted about by events and I lost a great deal of respect when the whole ‘instalove’ obsession with a boy she’s literally just met kicks in. It really doesn’t help that she’s fighting against horrible sexism, and some male behaviour that had me wanting to throw the book across the room.

Still, it’s interesting to see how a person’s writing can grow so much. The story has some interesting elements, although it’s hard not to wonder how much more ‘oomph’ V could have injected into it if writing now.

Kindle: 320 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: none
Read from 4th-10th May 2020

My rating: 5.5/10

Trolls World Tour (2020)

trolls world tour poster

Following on from the surprise success of the even more surprisingly watchable and upbeat Trolls (2016), Poppy, Branch and the gang are back for more adventures. They’re joined by a new host of voice cameos, a paper thin plot, and the unenviable feat of making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. For, in these unprecedented days of COVID-19 and lockdown orders, TWT became one of the first movies to be released straight to streaming – which is fine, given the circumstances, but now has the distributor claiming it as such a huge success they plan to continue the practise, even when cinemas reopen. War may ensue…! o.O

All of which is a bit off topic, but also the most interesting thing about the movie – sorry! 😉

If you enjoyed the first one – and hey, no judgement: it was upbeat and happy and I did too – then there’s still a lot to like here. In fact, I hugely appreciated the lack of annoying Bergens, the whiny baddies from the first movie, in the cast list. Instead we discover along with Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) that her band of trolls are only one sub-species: Pop Trolls. Spread across the lands are the likes of Rock Trolls, Classical Trolls, Jazz Trolls – you get the drift. Once all were one big happy family, but then musical differences got in the way and the tribes were split. But now the Queen of the Hard Rock Trolls (because heavy metal is always ‘evil’, sigh) wants to bring everyone back together – and not in a good way.

The stereotypes for the different tribes were kind of fun, particularly the Country Trolls, and Poppy and Branch’s journey across the kingdoms does give rise to more lovely ‘patchwork’ scenery which I loved in the first movie. The quest mcguffin is daft, but the music is still the highlight, now in a few different flavours.

There’s not much more to say. It goes exactly where you think it’s going to go. Kids will love it, parents will not love the price gouging going on. They might, however, enjoy the voice cameos by the likes of Ozzy Osborne, Mary J Blige, Kelly Clarkson, and Sam Rockwell. Overall, though, it’s a slightly bland remake that while offering much of the lightheartedness of the first movie, doesn’t really do anything worth raving about.

And still, it kind of fit the mood – happy and pointless was exactly what the current (inter)national stress levels probably need!

Released: 6th April 2020 (online)
Viewed: 17th April 2020
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6/10

Death on the Page – Essie Lang

death on the page cover

“‘Did you just say that Savannah Page is staying overnight here, in the castle?’

Trouble on the Books wasn’t my favourite cosy mystery of last year, but I thought I’d give the series another chance. I think book 2 is a bit stronger, although still not my favourite in the genre.

Shelby Cox is settling into her life helping her aunt run a bookshop in a castle tourism site. She’s got friends, a steady boyfriend, and is finding out a little more about her absent mother. However, when a true crime writer negotiates a stay in the castle for research, things take a dark turn. Can Shelby keep her nose out of yet another murder?

Well, of course not, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a mystery! While it provides the main plot, it feels fairly secondary to elements of Shelby’s life, which is the wrong balance to firmly capture my attention.

Still, a sweet and decent read; a perfect palate cleanser 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 226 pages / 38 chapters
First published: 10th March 2020
Series: A Castle Bookshop Mystery book 2
Read from 20th February – 1st March 2020

My rating: 6/10

Dracula (mini series)

dracula poster

There are sooo many adaptations of the Dracula story, different takes on vampires in general. Can the duo behind BBC’s excellent Sherlock reimagining do similar with this old myth? Auntie Beeb was more than willing to let them try, giving them a 3-part mini series over New Year’s.

So, can they do something different? Yes, and then again, not so much.

To be honest, the opening episode – and by that I mean 90 mins of viewing – didn’t wholly grab me. The aging makeup was almost as bad as the accent. It felt very like a poor rip-off of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Sarcastic nun, Agatha, was a welcome addition, but still…

I persevered, and glad I did: episode 2 was excellent. In the claustrophobic setting of the Demeter, sailing for England, a newly youthful Dracula plays games worthy of a Poirot novel, and I thought it worked brilliantly. Claes Bang as Dracula – now free of the wrinkles and awful accent – was a joy. He’s smouldering without being pretty-sexy, and devious and obviously enjoying it. Put me a little in mind of the swagger of Lucifer. And then – omg, the ‘twist’ right at the end of ep 2! We are three hours, and two thirds, into this, and NOW you do that to us?!

Alas, I can’t really discuss the third ep for spoilery reasons. Suffice to say, there are a few familiar names and the story disappointingly goes back to some well-worn plotlines. It’s a real shame, as there are glimmers of doing something ‘different’ and interesting, especially in this ep, but overall it felt a bit wasted. The ending is rather abrupt, too, which is always a shame when then story has been more carefully paced previously.

Do I recommend? Hmm. Overall and in general not hugely. However, if like me you’re rather fond of the vampire myths, and seeing what novelties people keep trying to come up with (nothing has ever matched the whole Judas thing in the awful Dracula 2000, right enough!), then there is a lot to enjoy here. Just, lower expectations for the last ep. And warning for gore, too – I’m not sure I really should have watched small child corpses trying to play peekaboo just before bed o.O

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 3 @ ~90 mins each

My rating: 6/10 – for each ep I’d say 7/8/6, but marks lost overall for the ending

Boneland – Alan Garner

boneland cover

“‘Listen. I’ll tell you. I’ve got to tell you.'”

One of the books I remember fondly from my childhood is The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a dark children’s adventure first published in 1960, that pulled in elements of mythology and horror. A few years ago I discovered the author had penned a couple of sequels, and tried The Moon of Gomrath, written some 3 years later. While not as ‘good’ as WoB, it carried the story of Susan and Colin forward.

Completing the ‘trilogy’ comes Boneland, a book written almost 50 years on. First point to note is that it is not a children’s book. Instead, we find an adult Colin now a rather damaged individual. It sort of fits, doesn’t it? What happens to the children who have strange, magical adventures, when they find themselves back in the ‘real world’ to grow up?

To be honest, calling this part of the trilogy doesn’t quite sit right. It is just too different, tonally and intended audience. It’s more of an afterword, a coda – the author’s farewell to characters he created half a century ago.

It’s not a particularly plot-driven story, either. We switch back and forth – with no chapter breaks – between Colin and his mental health issues, talking to a psychotherapist, and prehistoric, stone-age slivers of a tale steeped in myth and superstition. When resolutions are reached… well. Are they? Yes? But.

It’s tough to recommend this book. On the one hand, I love the idea of seeing what happens when children grow up after magical adventures. But this isn’t quite the story I would have wanted from that. It is magnificently written, it has a lot of power – but it is not a simple read. Colin’s intelligence spans history, mythology, astronomy, and so much more. It’s a heady mix, a swirl of concept and feeling that I’m just not sure I grasped enough of.

Perhaps I just didn’t ‘get’ enough of it. Or perhaps, like many readers, I was taken by surprise that the final part of a trilogy could be so very very different. I’m glad the end of the decade pushed me to finish the series, but overall I guess I’m not entirely sure what I just read!

Kindle: 165 pages / no chapter breaks
First published: 2012
Series: Alderley Edge book 3 (of 3)
Read from 21st-26th December 2019

My rating: 6/10