Pocket Therapy for Stress – Claire Michaels Wheeler

pocket therapy for stress cover

“Stress robs us of so much.”

I think it’s fair to say that we are living in ‘Interesting’ times, and that brings more than its fair share of extra stress on top of the existing pressures of modern life. Anything I could take from this little book was going to be a bonus!

Part self-help workbook, part straightforward tips and suggestions, the book is split into ten main areas. After ‘assessing your stress’, you can dip into ideas around using food (as medicine, rather than shovelling doughnuts in your mouth, alas! ;)), exercise, creativity, and reaching out to other people.

Perhaps the most important line in the whole book for me actually comes in the introduction: “stress is determined by how well you think you can cope.” I mean – wow! It’s easy enough to say that self-help books like this can’t really help when your house is on fire, but actually that line shows the entire approach: have some tools in your kit, and let them raise your confidence that whatever you face, you can cope.

Which isn’t to suggest at all that the rest of the book isn’t very worth reading! Indeed, it gives you the range of possible tools. Maybe some will work for you better than others, but give it a go. As the book says, it’s a ‘mind-body approach’, and I’d suggest that there’s as much benefit in recognising the skills you already have as there is in exploring the exercises and developing new ones.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the short and easy-to-read nature of the book does by definition skate over the surface of some topics. The food section, for instance, neglects to mention that stress can cause undereating as much as overeating, or that ‘fish oils’ and ‘lean meat’ aren’t going to be good suggestions for everyone. It also lost big marks from me by a rather one-sided viewpoint on the chapter on spirituality, imo.

Still, well worth the read, and I think if you can take anything – even a single tiny thing – that will help with the overwhelming stress of current life, then it’s very very worth it!

NetGalley eARC: 176 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1st November 2020
Series: none
Finished 18th October 2020

My rating: 7/10

Julie and the Phantoms (season 1)

julie and the phantoms poster

Sometimes you’re in need of something a little lighter in your viewing – step forward this high school musical with added ghosts!

Julie is a gifted musician, but the death of her mother has left her too traumatised with the grief to return to the music they both loved. That is until she discovers a box of memorabilia in the garage that turns out to belong to the former residents – a band that met a sticky end (we get some non-traumatic flashbacks) before their chance and the big time.

And suddenly Julie’s life comes with a spectral backing group…

I’m probably three times or more the target age group for this show, and I did find the teenage leads a tiny bit grating at times, but as a light and easy watch it was pretty good. The entire series is about four and a half hours long, and there was a lot of room in my viewing for short, sub-half hour episodes of something I didn’t have to pay too much attention to.

That said, the story isn’t half-bad. The focus is split between Julie refinding her life and love of music while dealing with grief and her relationship with her family (I love her dad – nicely supportive!) and the band members’ new reality as ghosts. Tiny spoiler, but they’ve been in limbo for much longer than they realise, so there’s also a little bit of comedy from the ‘how things have changed in the world in 30 years’.

Fair warning, there’s a lot of singing in this show. It’s impressive that they tell the story they want in what’s left of the time, really, as every episode is padded with at least one big number. Thankfully the music is pretty good, and all the cast can sing really well.

It’s not for everyone, granted, but if you don’t mind a bit of teenage-y angst and maybe a little too much music, then this was the right balance of fun but not dumb.

First broadcast: September 2020
Series: 1 (so far?)
Episodes: 9 @ ~30 mins each

My rating: 7/10

Flex Your Mind – Rachel Bonkink

flex your mind cover

“Leaving ancient texts like the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Hatha Pradipika nicely where they are in history, as they are outside the scope of this book, I pick up with Patanjali, an intellectual and ascetic who lived in ancient India around 200 BCE.”

Although my practise has been interrupted in recent times, I’ve been a fan of yoga for many years. Like most Westerners, when I say ‘yoga’ I mean the physical exercise, the poses and stretches. But I’ve always known that there is a wider, more encompassing aspect that doesn’t so much veer as smash headlong into the spiritual side of things.

This book is a fairly gentle, not too preachy walk through the philosophy of yoga, one take – as she says herself – on explaining some of the theory. I wouldn’t say it manages to completely stay away from the whole ‘new agey’ tone that so many dislike, but it was warm and open enough that I found it very readable regardless.

For background, btw, I am not a fan of preaching to others. I look at all these kinds of philosophies as ‘self-help’ and a way of understanding the self that doesn’t necessarily required outside beliefs. This book managed quite well not to tread on that viewpoint, while at the same time shouldn’t (!) offend anyone who does follow a religion.

So, the book is split into ten chapters, each tackling one of the Principles of Yoga, designed to ‘bring peace of mind and an easier way to deal with the challenges of modern life’. They are ancient philosophies, and the strength of this book is the translation into modern speech and lifestyles – all very well having a set of guidelines for hermits and mystics, but the rest of us still have things to do in the real world!

The Principles themselves are non unfamiliar. Non-violence, truthfulness, non-attachment, self-discipline and more. Yes, at times – particularly as the book progresses – I did have a vague sense of dipping more into spirituality, but for the main it’s a pretty good explanation of what, for example, ‘non-stealing’ actually means: not just the obvious, but it could also include not ‘stealing’ your own rest and ability to have a happy focused day by doom-scrolling on social media into the early hours.

I enjoyed the book. As I say, it’s still a little on the ‘new age’ side, but that’s hardly surprising and the amount of common sense along with it keeps everything very readable. However simply things are explained, though, these are not going to be easy ways to change your life – as much as I can see the appeal. But, as something to dip in and out of, to revisit on occasion, as part of an effort to a ‘cleaner mind’, then yes.

NetGalley eARC: 147 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 28th June – 20th September 2020

My rating: 7/10

Project Power (2020)

project power poster

There’s a new drug on the streets of New Orleans. This one doesn’t just make you feel powerful: it literally gives you superpowers. However there are catches: it will only last for 5 minutes, and you have no way of knowing what power you’ll get. Invulnerability is great, turning into a human torch might have it’s uses, but then again you might just be one of the unlucky ones that just explodes. Messy.

Into this set up throw a teenage drug dealer, a cop who isn’t above fighting fire with fire, and a dangerous man on a mysterious mission.

I do like my superhero movies, especially those that are trying something a little bit different. This almost manages that. The device of the pills, the random effects, and the time limit are highly intriguing. Are they used as well as they could have been? Hmm.

Full marks for the cast. Jamie Foxx is always excellent, and Dominique Fishback steps up strongly into a surprisingly big role. I say surprising, because marketing had led me to believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have a bigger part, but he’s a little in the background.

What works: the SFX are well done, the acting is good, and the action is high. What isn’t quite as strong: the plot didn’t feel that original, and the mechanics of the superpowers are allowed to be a little fuzzy when it suits. The attempt to add logic of a sort never, ever works well in these kinds of stories, either.

Overall, this was a pleasantly diverting, fun and daft kind of a Friday night action flick. If you have Netflix and a liking for that sort of thing, you could certainly do worse.

Released: 14th August 2020
Viewed: 21st August 2020
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Checked Out For Murder – Allison Brook

checked out for murder cover

“‘More coffee?’ I asked Dylan as I got up from the table to pour us both a refill.”

We’re back with Carrie Singleton, head of events at Clover Ridge library – which just happens to be haunted by a friendly ghost, Evelyn, only Carrie can see and hear. When a self-declared psychic comes to town, Evelyn’s knowledge of the town’s past might prove invaluable. Even more so when when of the cast of the movie being filmed in the small town is found murdered.

Carrie may have sworn to stay away from the drama after her sleuthing put in danger in Death Overdue, Read and Goneand Buried in the Stacks, but when her mother turns into the prime suspect she has no choice but to try to find the real killer.

Of all of my dabbling in the cosy mystery genre, this is one of my favourite series. Carrie is relatively sensible and comes across very well, and her relationship ‘dramas’ are kept more to the background that some in the genre. There’s something quite wholesome and healthy about her relationship with Dylan, making for a very pleasant change. Her relationship with her mother is a lot more strained, but again, there’s a sensible lack of melodrama – well, apart from the murder, the way everyone tries to involve Carrie, and of course the library ghost.

I still think the ‘haunted’ part of the series title is very underplayed, but otherwise this was a decent enough read. I like spending time with these characters, even when Brianna-nee-Linda is being a diva. But it suits me perfectly that the plot keeps focus on the mystery, with the personal aspects adding strength not overwhelming everything else.

I did find the ending just a little abrupt – I usually do with cosy mysteries, it seems – so a mark off for that. Otherwise, a sweet diversion of a read, and I’m all for that.

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Haunted Library book 4
Read from 23rd-29th August 2020

My rating: 7/10

Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)

bill and ted poster

I absolutely adored Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) when I saw it as a young teen, and it made a lot more sense when I finally caught the equally fun Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) some time afterwards. The idea of a third movie, some 30 years later, was both intriguing and a bit worrying. I mean, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Bill and Ted know that it is their destiny to write the song that unites the whole world – some bodacious dude from the future told them so! But now middle age has arrived and the pair are still, quite frankly, losers. Their brief taste of fame and adulation at the end of the last movie, after winning the Battle of the Bands, clearly didn’t stick, and now it seems we might all be out of time.

With just hours left before their date with destiny (although how that works given, y’know, time travel?), the slackers hatch the obvious plan: travel forward to a point in time where they have already written the song, and bring it back. Of course, they also have to deal with a murderous time-travelling robot, Medieval Princess Babe wives who might or might not be leaving them, and two teenage daughters who have so much in common with their dads.

I’ve been looking forward to this and slightly dreading it in equal measures, so first thing: this did not poop all over my fond childhood memories! Made with a clear love of its roots, part three is an overall sweet and gentle kind of affair, which I think was the right call, especially in this day and age.

And there’s plenty to like. The duo are still being excellent to each other, still have that sense of innate goodness. There are nods back and easter eggs a-plenty. The various future versions of themselves they visit are a whole lot of fun. And the female versions of B&T, Billie and Thea, are exactly as you’d imagine them to be.

However, while I enjoyed the movie and liked a lot of it, it’s not… well, it’s not ‘excellent’. It’s fine, okay. I’m glad I saw it, and it hit enough buttons. But… hmm. Hmm. It was slightly disconcerting seeing these ‘teenage’ slackers grown to middle age, I suppose. And while they’re obviously having fun, there’s a lack of much newness here – while at the same time the things that are new feel ever so slightly out of place. I dunno, I would have been disappointed to switch the focus any more off Bill and Ted onto the daughters, for example, and yet the latter needed some more time spent with them to seem like more than just weird imitations?

All of which is asking a lot from the third in what has always been a gently dumb, fun kind of daft series. This one fits, and after such a long gap that’s quite an achievement! Still, it feels more like a loving homage to the first two movies than anything new, and to be fair, I suspect that’s probably what a lot of the audience actually wanted.

Overall: it’s as daft as expected, plays to the fans of the original, and provides a sweet and fun little break from the realities of the world. If there’s a little added pathos in there from watching cute young things remind you that life doesn’t always play out the way you expect – well, bonus.

Released: 23rd September 2020
Viewed: 31st August 2020
Running time: 91 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7.5/10

Every Sky a Grave – Jay Posey

every sky a grave cover

“Elyth held the earth loosely clasped in her left hand, felt its damp weight, its sponged texture cold with the night.”

Language is power. Literally. Discovering the fundamental language of the universe has allowed humankind to spread out across the galaxy, to bend reality to suit their needs. Carefully controlled, this power is held by the First House of the Ascendance. An agent of the First House, Elyth, is sent out on planet-killing missions when the worlds – and the Words – become too corrupted to save.

But when she’s sent to the planet Qel, nothing goes to plan. Struggling to understand what she senses deep within the planet, the Deep Language itself doesn’t work as she expects. Who or what is going on with Qel? What was the real mission the Paragon intended for her, hidden not just from the opposing Hezra, but perhaps from Elyth herself?

I was utterly intrigued by the concept of this book: language as literal power is a great premise. However, if I’m being honest then the way it’s used – to kill planets – was a bit of a turn off. Part of the eventual plot does hang on this but still, when you’re introduced to such a grand concept being used so… illogically? … it kind of spoils the enjoyment. So, apologies for the minor spoiler but I think it’s worth it to encourage you to stick with things.

We follow Elyth as she tries to discover what’s going on with Qel and some of its inhabitants. She’s a great character: powerful, kick-ass, independent. Her character development flows very well. When she meets a mysterious messiah-like figure, the scale of the puzzle only ramps up a hundredfold!

Most of the book takes place in various wilderness settings, and environmentalism seems to be a strong theme. But we also have the cold logic of the First House, and the dark military presence of the Hezra as well as Elyth’s own combat skills. There’s a lot of advanced tech to have fun with, too. The world building is a big strength here, although I would have liked to see more of the cool things.

The story is perhaps a little simple given the scale of possibilities – more action than sci-fi. It feels a lot like an opening chapter, with an awful lot more to be revealed. I think the subsequent stories might be exceptional and I’m looking forward to finding out!

Overall: intriguing, well enough executed, but was a little too opening-chapter for higher marks.

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 24 chapters
First published: July 2020
Series: Ascendance book 1
Read from 5th July – 9th August 2020

My rating: 7/10

The Vast of Night (2019)

vast of night poster

In the late 1950s, small town life had a slower pace, more of a sense of community. The entire town would attend the local high school basketball game, for instance. And while almost everyone is gathered in one place, strange things might happen in the quiet streets.

16-year-old Fay is covering the telephone switchboard while listening to her friend, Everett, broadcast his radio show. A strange noise on the line, a stranger call to the show… this small town in New Mexico has seen odd things before.

I liked this movie on several levels, but my first observation – and warning – would have to be that it is slow. It’s not a bad thing, and in fact fits the time period and sense of a slower kind of living very well. The evocation of the 1950s is excellently done, overtly with the old-time tech (switchboards, radio equipment, etc) and a little more subtly with just the way of life portrayed – community, trust. With no big ‘names’ in the cast, it’s all impressively acted, too.

As the mysteries unfold, the sense of unease is done very well, too. That’s increased with some fascinating cinematography. Drone camerawork gives a long, low-level sweep through the town, before cutting to watching our characters as if on a very, very old tv set. The screen frequently goes black, too. It’s a bit creepy, in a good way.

The story is not unfamiliar, and indeed there are myriad nods to things like The Twilight ZoneWar of the Worlds, and even a bit of an X-Files vibe going on. Indeed, I could see this being an episode of that show – but, with more understated elegance. But while it might be a story that’s been done before, I like the attempt at telling it in a different way. That plus the experimental visuals make this a highly intriguing bit of cinema.

Still, I’m a little on the fence. It remains quite slow, mysteries aren’t necessarily answered – or, maybe shouldn’t have been? – and I’d recommend that you do have to be in the right mood for that, and for a little style and atmosphere over substance.

Released: 29th May 2020
Viewed: 17th July 2020
Running time: 91 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7.5/10

The Constant Rabbit – Jasper Fforde

constant rabbit cover

“Somebody once said that the library is actually the dominant life form on the planet. Humans simply exist as the reproductive means to achieve more libraries.”

I’ve long been a fan of Jasper Fffffforde and his madcap sense of whimsy. The Thursday Next books could hardly have appealed to me more, with books acting as portals into their own stories. The opening quote of the new, non-series book, gave me false hope of more bookish fun – actually, ‘speed librarying’ suggested only anxiety, and plays little part in the story beyond the opening chapter.

Instead, we enter an alternate Britain which is about to mark the 55th anniversary of ‘The Event’: the time when several handfuls of rabbits anthropomorphised overnight. DNA tests cannot distinguish them from normal bunnies, but you wouldn’t get confused: the new lot, and several generations of their offspring, are tall as humans,  vaguely human-shaped, walk upright, and can talk and think better than most of the people currently going to pubs in a global pandemic. Ahem, sorry 😉

The allegory isn’t particularly deep as we delve into rabbit-phobia and political parties gaining power by playing on the fears of the human population that the Rabbit is trying to take over, sideline our human way of life, breed us into a minority, etc etc. In fact, to begin with I wasn’t sure I was really up for this kind of story. However, sticking with it and Ffffforde’s storytelling is its usual wonderful self, mixing the wacky with the serious message, even if the latter does get a bit heavy especially towards the end.

This isn’t my favourite of the author’s work by a long stretch, but it was a lot of fun to read. And if he has a slightly more serious message under than capers than usual, well, I think we’re living in those kinds of times. Life probably would be better following the Rabbit Way – although I’ll hold on to my thumbs, thank you very much!

Recommended, but with that caveat that it isn’t wholly lighthearted, despite the 6ft rabbits.

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages
First published: 2nd July 2020
Series: none
Read from 28th June – 4th July 2020

My rating: 7.5/10

The Angel of the Crows – Katherine Addison

angel of the crows cover

“When I left London in 1878, I intended never to return.”

I’d never heard the term ‘wingfic’ until the afterword of this novel, where the author informs us that The Angel of the Crows ‘started’ life as wingfic of Sherlock Holmes. Started? It’s well written, it’s pleasurable enough to read, but AotC is absolutely a fan fiction retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – with added supernatural elements.

It does work, in the main. This is a world filled with angels – Nameless, or named after a building they patronise – as well as werewolves, vampires, and many more. Our Great Detective is a semi-outcast angel, explaining his social awkwardness and obsession with solving mysteries as something to do. His new flatmate and our narrator is Dr JH Doyle, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan where he was almost killed by a Fallen angel. We get to read about their meeting and growing friendship, against the background of some very familiar mysteries.

And that’s my main problem: it’s not a mystery when you’ve read the original or seen countless adaptations. The first case is not only completely familiar, but the supernatural elements barely seem to affect anything. That does change as the cases continue – the Hound of the Baskervilles has a different mood in a world where werewolves and hellhounds are part of society! – but it takes its time to expand the ‘new’ bits of the world. Throwing in the Jack the Ripper case was, shall we say, a bold choice and not one I’m sure could be resolved enough to bring any satisfaction – and missed opportunity not to show a link with the paranormal elements.

The real meat of the tale is the relationship between Holm- urm, Crow and Doyle, and that’s done well, with a few twists along the way. I would have liked a lot more exploration of the unique factors of the world: what’s the real difference between vampires and haemophages? Are hellhounds born or made? What precipitated the angels being on Earth, and what are the different kinds really about? It’s all background, not wholly explored for the reader, which felt like a missed chance to focus on perhaps more interesting elements?

Overall, I did enjoy the read but it’s not without its limitations and frustrations. That the author is passionate about the topic is clear, and that in itself makes for a decent read. Still, I wasn’t expecting fan-fic, however well written, and I think this will go down as quirky rather than standing out. I could perhaps see a sequel that expands the more novel elements – and I’d read that in a flash.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 30th May – 22nd June 2020

My rating: 7/10