A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

princess of mars cover

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”

I have mixed feelings about classic sci-fi. It’s good to know the roots of your favourite genre, but it doesn’t always age so well. The Barsoom books, however, can be taken more as adventure stories that happen to be set on a fantasy version of Mars that might as well be Narnia. There’s an indulgence to stories from what seems like a simpler time, maybe a slightly patronising tone to the reading that lets you nod and play along and just enjoy the lack of complication.

John Carter is a Virginian gentleman and veteran of the American Civil War, who stumbles into a mysterious cave and wakes up on another planet. He’s promptly captured by the warmongering Tharks, the so-called ‘green men of Mars’. To say there’s a large amount of the Mary Sue to Carter would be an understatement. The lower planetary gravity gives him super strength and he easily beats many of the larger warriors, earning himself a stay of execution. He then picks up the language in about twenty minutes flat, before falling in love with a captured princess from the other of Mars’ main species, the ‘reds’.

The pace of this story is lightning. There’s little dwelling on anything, and big events happen in a sentence. That’s part of the appeal, really: it’s simple but it keeps moving so fast that if you can let go it provides a light distraction. Alas, it can also seem a little unsatisfying for the same reasons, plus the fact that you just know (the other) JC can never really lose…

Except, there’s a framing tale. Carter is telling his story – perhaps it’d be nice to think of them as an old man’s tall tales? – and not quite everything goes to plan. That’s why there are ten sequels, I suppose 😉

I’m glad I read this. It doesn’t feel like high literature, but it is one of the classics from its time, and despite its many flaws for a modern audience there’s a lot to like here. Definitely not sci-fi, but as a boys’ own kind of adventure, it’s quite fun.

As a final note, if – like me – your main knowledge of this comes from the somewhat disappointing movie, John Carter (2012), it’s clear to see both how much they had to leave out, and how much better the story is with just that bit more meat and context.

eBook: 202 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1912
Series: Barsoom book 1
Read from 12th April -10th May 2020

My rating: 7/10

The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel

glass hotel cover

“Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain-“

Vincent is the child of her father’s infidelity, leaving her with a strange relationship with her half-brother, Paul. The pair’s lives take very different turns, but again and again crossing paths. Drug addiction, stolen artwork, sham marriage, fame, ponzi schemes and the financial crash – all of these and more weave through this tale. And the Glass Hotel itself, in glorious isolation in the wilds of Canada.

I’ve been meaning to read the much-lauded Station Eleven for the longest time, and perhaps should have taken more care to read the blurb on this one before jumping at the request! Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good read – in fact, it’s brilliantly written with such a skill with words – but to be honest I found it all a bit too ‘literary fiction’ for my tastes. I prefer stronger plots rather than haunting imagery. Still, I found it a bit reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, which is no faint praise!

Vincent is the main character, mostly, although the story goes back and forth both in time and between her and other characters impacted by some of the same events. It was fascinating, seeing ripples spreading out from incidents large and small.

A large chunk of the narrative involves a thinly disguised version of Bernie Madden’s ponzi scheme and the global financial crash. I suppose I have more interest than most in such things (I worked in finance, albeit a tech side, during those events), but it’s still not quite what I was expecting. I think I would rather have spent more time understanding Vincent, or even Paul (not that I found him likeable). Or, actually, something that gave the amazing ‘Glass Hotel’ more reason for being the title.

Overall: I’m glad I read this, but not my preferred genre. If you like lit-fic more than I do, this seems like a stonkingly well-written slice of it!

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 30th April 2020
Series: none
Read from 16th-23rd April 2020

My rating: 7/10 – deserves better, but for my tastes

Misbehaviour (2020)

misbehaviour poster

Looks like I managed one last cinema trip before the COVID-19 lock down o.O Oh well. Here’s my review, in case you want to watch out for the movie on streaming…!

The 1970 Miss World Competition, held in London, was controversial for several reasons. The main one examined in the movie is how the parade of young women being judged ‘like cattle at market’ sat so poorly with the rising Women’s Liberation movement. Sally (Keira Knightly) doesn’t really want to join the politics of it, but every turn of her life shows her how much she needs what is being fought for. It’s hugely frustrating watching this intelligent woman being talked over by men, dismissed as lesser, and even having her own mother judge her harshly for living what we today would see as a fairly normal life: divorced, living with a partner who does the cooking while she studies. How radical!!

When she falls in with Jo’s (Jessie Buckley) group, the plan is hatched to protest at the symbol that is Miss World 1970. Interwoven with this plot is an inside look at the contest. Some contestants aren’t too happy with the media frenzy. Others see it as a way out of a harsh life. And for a few, they are making history: the first black South African to take part, in this time of Apartheid, for example.

The contrast of the two stories is perhaps what makes this so interesting: the clash between wanting to make a statement about women’s rights, and the ‘lucky’ few who needed the hope that winning the contest would bring them. The question is raised: should you fight so hard for women’s rights, when minority rights are still so far behind? There’s a hugely poignant moment when Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is told “you don’t think people like us can win, do you?” – ouch, but rings so true.

Still, something didn’t entirely click for me. It’s a nice movie, and I’m not sure that was the right tone – too much is left hinted at, or stated and not really examined. Which doesn’t make it a bad movie by any stretch, and indeed it was enjoyable and watchable, but given the anger I felt at how women were treated not that long before I was born and hell that some of it hasn’t changed now (I get spoken over *so* much, still; one of my colleagues has noted that if I answer a tech Q I get challenged far more often than one of the more junior boys), it just felt a little ‘lite’.

The subplot with Bob Hope (a great impression by Greg Kinnear) felt a bit flip on top of everything, but in hindsight it fits the themes perfectly. The relationship between Miss World organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife, Julia (Keeley Hawes), could have done with more development to make a similar message stick, but maybe that’s the problem: too many issues, too many viewpoints, nothing that hammers home.

Still. If it went too far into ‘radical feminist’ territory, it would probably be less watchable. Like over half the human race, we just can’t win 😉

Recommended, although didn’t require the big screen per se (probably a good thing in this testing time!). The performances are great, the music and fashion is wonderful, and there are threads of several very decent stories going on. And the ending, with some of the real people involved and updates on their lives – well, that was the uplifting message that we needed!

Released: 13th March 2020
Viewed: 13th March 2020
Running time: 106 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Made to Order: Robots and Revolution – various

made to order cover

“Robot: a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.”

Robots and automatons are a staple of science fiction, but in the age of AI, internet, and virtual reality, it’s nice to get an updated take (or several) on the sub-genre.

My only complaint about this collection is that sci-fi (and fantasy) is a difficult genre to do justice to in short story format. There’s not enough space for world building, so the writers have to either take shortcuts – use a familiar-ish kind of setting – or as sadly too often happens here, leave the reader a little frustrated with the brevity of the whole thing. But hey: wanting more isn’t the worst complaint! 🙂

My favourite of the lot is Peter Hamilton’s Sonnie’s Union, in which humans can pilot fearsome biomech units – a bit Avatar, a bit Real Steel, all brought together perfectly. I was amused by what I assume is an in-joke, having the baddy a Welshman called Alastair (Reynolds?) 😉 I also very much liked Fairy Tales for Robots, which briefly looks at a dozen familiar stories and points out the ‘robot-ness’ of them.

There’s a huge variety of approaches taken across the sixteen tales. From the light-hearted ice-skating robot, to the extremely dark, including mistreated child robots, the horror of video surveillance from the watcher’s point of view, and even a take on religion – wasn’t entirely sure about that last one, tbh, might skirt a little close to … something ‘hmm’.

Different tales are told from the robot/AI’s POV, or a human’s, and there’s even a second-person POV that feels like a video game, with a very dark twist.

Overall, it’s a fun and intriguing mix. As I said, perhaps a little frustrating to only get little slivers of the better stories, and if I’m being honest not many really jumped out and wowed me, but still a decent collection and worth dipping into.

Collection curated by Jonathan Strahan, containing:

  • A Glossary of Radicalization – Brooke Bolander
  • Dancing with Death – John Chu
  • Brother Rifle – Daryl Gregory
  • Sonnie’s Union – Peter F Hamilton
  • The Endless – Saad Z Hossain
  • An Elephant Never Forgets – Rich Larson
  • Idols – Ken Liu
  • Sin Eater – Ian R MacLeod
  • The Translator – Annalee Newitz
  • The Hurt Pattern – Tochi Onyebuchi
  • Chiaroscuro in Red – Suzanne Palmer
  • Bigger Fish – Sarah Pinkster
  • A Guide for Working Breeds – Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Polished Performance – Alastair Reynolds
  • Fairy Tales for Robots – Sofia Samatar
  • Test 4 Echo – Peter Watts

NetGalley eARC: 273 pages / 16 short stories
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 22nd February – 15th March 2020

My rating: 7/10

Bone Silence – Alastair Reynolds

bone silence cover

“It had begun as a distant glimmering dot; now it was unmistakably a world.”

Following on from Revenger and Shadow Captain, we rejoin the Ness sisters in the final part of the trilogy. Usual warning that merely mentioning characters in the third instalment could be spoilers for who survives the first two, etc.

Fura and Adrana ran away from home, have survived horrors, and now are in charge of their own ship and free to pursue the questions that haunt them: what are quoins, really – seemingly more than mere currency. And why do Occupations (re-populating the solar system) happen with the odd irregularity that they do – is something responsible for starting them… or, ending them?

But the rest of the Congregation seems intent on blaming the Nesses for crimes they didn’t commit. Answers might prove a harder fight than they want…

From the get-go, I’ve enjoyed these books but not in the same way as Alastair Reynolds’ other, less-YA, work. The story is interest rather than gripping, the characters not entirely involving, somehow. Perhaps because the narration has shifted once again, from Fura in book one and Adrana in book two, we now get a third person narrative, highly necessary as the stories diverge.

Still, there was no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and hopefully get some answers. And we do, and they aren’t bad, and yet I didn’t feel entirely satisfied somehow. One ‘reveal’, about the alien race of Clackers, seems accepted by all based on evidence I wasn’t sure might not have meant something else – at least enough to provoke at least one character to questions? And on the bigger mysteries, we’ve scratched a surface but there’s clearly much, much more going on – and that’s almost more infuriating than knowing nothing.

It’s well-written, I don’t regret picking up the series, but tbh I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it. Go read Revelation Space instead!

Hardback: 602 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Revenger book 3 (of 3)
Read from 12th February – 8th March 2020

My rating: 6.5/10

Birds of Prey (2020)

birds of prey poster

Being the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn 🙂

Following the events of Suicide Squad (2016), ‘Mr J’ (Joker, but not the Joaquin Phoenix one!) and Harley Quinn have split up. She’s taking it well (!): time to adopt a new pet (hyena) and blow some stuff up. But, her party days of doing whatever she wants to whomever she wants are over – without the Joker’s protection, she’s fair game to everyone with a grudge. And there are more than a few of those…

I swithered so hard on this: DC haven’t captured my heart with their movies, and the reviews were mixed. It seems to me that audiences are split on this one more or less down gender lines. Every review I’ve seen that says, “meh, it’s not great” was written by a bloke. And every one that goes “wheee that was fun!” was by a woman. Oversimplification, perhaps, but it kind of makes sense. The women in the movie are having fun; the men are cannon fodder, idiots, or just deranged. Are male audiences just failing to find anything to identify with here? Possibly. Probably, even. Well, welcome to the flip side of the coin!

I’ve described this to a friend as a sort of all-girl version of some daft action movie, like The Expendables or Hobbs and Shaw it’s not deep, it’s not meaningful, it’s just a glorious riot of kicking ass. And there is nothing wrong with that. I say, if there’s room for a dozen mindless action movies for/with the boys in any given year, there is more than enough room for this!

That said, it’s maybe a little mean calling on such daft comparisons. Because while it is largely loud and colourful daft fun, it’s well made, decently acted, and there are a few clever little bits. For instance (tiny, non-important) spoiler: someone pointed out that the ‘fridging’ of the egg sandwich Harley is making goo-goo eyes over is exactly the kind of inciting incident the random female love interest is so often used for in these kinds of movies. Hah!!

The storytelling is also done quite cleverly, dashing back and forward on the narrative as we get the plot through Harley’s not entirely sane mind. She’s ditsy, but not dumb: the odd moment of her using her psychology degree are a nice reminder that she’s damaged, not stupid.

There are going to be those who say that if a case can’t really be made for men enjoying this more, then it’s not a great movie. Well, no it’s not ‘great’. It is a LOT of fun, though, and for once it’s more relatable to a different audience. Getting dumped and getting revenge, hitting back – literally – at catcallers and the like. Being a girl and doing whatever the F you feel like – hells, yeah!!

So. Not a masterpiece, but for the female audience, at least, a huge dollop of fun and exactly the kind of OTT wish fulfilment that the boys have had for more than long enough!

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 4th March 2020
Running time: 109 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

The Call of the Wild (2020)

call of the wild poster

Based on the classic novel (which I’ve not read – yet!) by Jack London, The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a pampered pooch who is kidnapped and sold into a sled team in the frozen wilds of the Yukon in the late 1800s. The book gives us Buck’s voice and viewpoint, but the film merely follows this intrepid pup through several adventures, instead giving us a voiceover from human co-star, Harrison Ford.

This is another movie that wasn’t really on my radar to go and see, but this time I ended up pleasantly surprised. I was quite worried about the CGI dog – how was that going to not be awful?! But animating the dogs allows for a great deal more facial expression, as well as danger and nuance. Yes, the former is ever so slightly cartoonish, but kudos to the animators, it never strays into the ‘uncanny valley’. Buck is never ‘humanised’, he remains very dog-like, and thus it all seems to work.

I wasn’t familiar with the story, but I can see why it’s a classic boys-own kind of adventure. The wilderness of gold rush Canada is exquisite, wild and empty and free, and the perfect setting for the twin stories of Buck and John, the human he forms a bond with, seeking his own very different kind of freedom.

I was impressed with the human cast, acting against presumably nothing or at least nothing completely dog-like. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, but I might be alone in quite enjoying Dan Stevens’ pantomime baddy, and got a bit of an ‘oh’ when I finally recognised Karen Gillan (she was neither blue nor Scottish, so I think I can be forgiven ;)). Omar Sy’s character was a nice ray of positivity in Buck’s otherwise tough life.

Overall, it’s an adventure tale that has stood the test of time, and made for a lovely evening’s viewing.

Released: 19th February 2020
Viewed: 21st February 2020
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7.5/10