The Magicians – Lev Grossman

magicians cover

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

Quentin grew up obsessed with the Fillory (think, Narnia) books, full of talking animals and important quests, and a set of siblings who only travel to this magical place when it decides to summon them. So when Quentin (‘Q’) is invited to Brakebills, a school for magic – real magic – his head is already halfway there. But, this isn’t Narnia. Or Harry Potter (and definitely not ‘HP goes to college’!). Because Q isn’t a character in a book (urm, in the book… o_O), he’s a teenager with all the usual problems and neuroses and misery, and no amount of magic is going to change that.

The reviews of this book show it to be something like marmite: people either rave about it, or are throwing the book out of a window in a rage at how irritatingly annoying the main character, Quentin, is. Not that the rest of the cast is much better, but I half think that might be the point.

For those of us who, like Q, grew up reading Narnia and The Magic Faraway Tree, and other such books, the message that discovering magic solves all your problems is a bit ‘hmm’. The characters who go to these places are always semi-perfect, and find themselves able to cope with whatever oddity the world throws at them, more or less. They are handed vast power, and wield it responsibly and wisely – or are the baddy, to be stopped. Instead, here we’ve got a bunch of alcoholic depressives who don’t really know what to do with the freedom they’ve been granted, let alone the power. Q is thus antithesis of all those characters we’ve read about. He’s not more interesting or special or smarter than his friends, never mind the rest of us. How does that interact with unbelievable marvels?

Shortly: the story isn’t really about magic or adventures. It’s about human psychology, about grounding the fantastical with real people.

Like many people, I suspect, I picked up the book after really enjoying the TV series. The two are very different, in tone and in pace and even in the message of the story. And to be honest, I much preferred the adaptation: it smoothes over a lot of the ‘hmm’ parts to the book, makes it a bit less cynical, and focuses a lot more on the magic.

Still, I’m really glad I read The Magicians, and will happily be going on to the rest of the series. It might not have been an easy read to get into – my long reading time (see below) reflects starting and putting the book down for a long spell (no pun intended!), finding it tough going (and, perhaps, a bit too same-y to the plot from the show at that point, but less fun). However, I was never tempted not to finish, and ended up reading the second half in a few days, rather more enthralled.

I still think I prefer the TV version, but it’s such a different beast (again, no pun intended – which makes sense if you know either version 😉 ) that I want to de-tangle my thoughts of them being linked, and enjoy them both on their own more unique merits. And a fantasy story with this much angst is definitely a bit different!

Kindle: 410 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: The Magicians book 1 of 3
Read from 13th March – 12th August 2017

My rating: 7/10

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian poster

Based on a French comic book, Valerian and Laureline, this movie sees these two Special Agents trying to save the titular City of a Thousand Planets – that is, a space station peacefully hosting hundreds of different alien species – from a mysterious threat.

Reviews have been pretty scathing about Valerian, and I would have to agree with most of them: the plot is both weak and convoluted, the acting is barely adequate, and even the title is insulting, leaving out the other main character who turns out to be probably more kick-ass than her male counterpart. Pfft. And as someone said: removing the painful attempts at ‘romance’ would have made for a far superior movie – it’s borderline creepy at points, tbh.

And yet, it’s still worth the watch. In fact, despite saying all of the above, I’d still go back to see it tomorrow – because it looks gorgeous. So yes, I can put up with a so-so plot and meh characters, and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Knowing this comes from Fifth Element director, Luc Besson, perhaps explains some of the visual marvel. I don’t think this is anywhere near as good – mind, I do love FE – but it’s definitely going to be one I leave on when it’s on the telly, purely to look at.

The one part of the movie I did think they nailed absolutely is the opening montage. Perfectly accompanied by the wondrous Space Oddity (David Bowie), we see the next 800 years of human space exploration encapsulated in a series of meet’n’greets aboard the growing ISS. It’s a hugely touching reminder than humanity can be non-jerks, at times.

The rest drifts off a little into a series of semi-random adventures for Valerian (a wooden Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne and her power eyebrows), including a subplot about a dream that feels like it’s from a different draft of the movie. Still, there are some fun alien species along the way, some well-realised (virtual) sets including a marketplace in another dimension (the future of Amazon, perhaps?), and a pretty good score to keep the feet tapping.

Go in – as I did – with low expectations, and have a little fun!

Released: 2nd August 2017
Viewed: 9th August 2017
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Iain M Banks – Paul Kincaid

Iain Banks – with or without the ‘M’ initial to separate his sci-fi – is one of my favourite authors. Crow Road has the best opening line ever (“It was the day my grandmother exploded” – perhaps influencing my habit of collecting opening lines in fiction reviews here); Player of Games remains one of my favourite books of all time, and it was fascinating to get another viewpoint on it and the rest of the collection.

And here it is: a discussion of the man’s work, looking at themes and motifs in the novels, alongside briefer discussion about the political landscape and literary scene at times of writing, with the overall aim of showing the importance Banks had in the revitalisation of the sci-fi genre. Various interviews with Banks are used to add depth to the discussion, including a long reprint at the end.

Although Paul Kincaid mentions all of Banks’ books, the dissection-level is primarily aimed at the sci-fi – the ‘M’ – books. Given that these are sometimes multi-layered affairs, playing with structure and time lines, there were a few points of this book that had me going “Oh!” – and for that alone, I thank it. Perhaps not enough of those, as given the quantity of work to cover and fairly short length of this book, most are kept more to the overview plus a few random observations.

Also worth noting: this is a book for people who have already read Iain Banks’ work. There are a few of the later tomes that I am still saving/savouring (or, eking out so I don’t finish altogether!), and I did have to skip or at least skim the sections on those to avoid spoilers – obvious, given this is a book discussing those books, including the endings!

It was really great to read someone taking a body of work I love and looking at it with such care and attention. However, I’m not entirely sure about the tone: on the one hand, it’s very readable, but it tries to stay quasi-scholarly, whereas I think a bit more personal, heartfelt “I love these books!” (except for the ones he didn’t – no shying away from some being less than brilliant, if still always intriguing!) might have connected with the reader a little more. On the other, perhaps going a little more academic would have tightened the structure, maybe having topic sections instead of just a book-by-book approach with surrounding discussions feeling a little meandering.

Overall, this book is a great look at some fantastic works, and if nothing else has left me desperate to re-read most if not all of Iain Banks work – and quite possibly refer back to what was written here about it.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages
First published: 2017
Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction
Read from 18th June – 29th July 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Whispers Under Ground – Ben Aaronovitch

whispers under ground cover

“Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living.”

What could be more London than the underground? Ben Aaronovitch picks up those myths surrounding the oldest railway tunnels, and hands them to cop turned trainee magician, Peter Grant. Starting with a body on the tracks, of course!

Despite my love for this series, the third book in the installment felt a little bit of a filler for me, somehow. There is a sense of the series being ‘secure’ now, established, and this means the pace slips in favour of just enjoying being with the familiar characters. Which is great – especially Leslie, still fighting – but lost some of the tension for me. I found the new characters a little flat (although at least two of them will return), as is the overall mystery – again, your mileage may vary – with the pacing just a bit… hmm.

But, my complaints are really only testament to how great I find the series as a whole. They really are about the characters – Peter, Leslie, Nightingale – and I loved little snippets about the latter starting to slip out. He’s in danger of being more interesting than our lead and narrator, but then Peter is so self-deprecatingly funny and puts a lovely scientific head to work on his magical studies that the pairing is too perfect to complain.

I finished this and immediately picked up book 4 in the series, despite my usual ‘eke them out’ mentality. I’m glad I don’t have to wait for the next one – at least for a few more books – so taken as a slowish bit in the middles of the series, this is still a lot of fun.

Kindle: 419 pages / 29 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: Peter Grant/Rivers of London book 3 (of 6 to date)
Read from 20th-25th July 2017

My rating: 7.5/10 – not quite up to the standard of the rest of the series, imo

Despicable Me 3 (2017)

Gru (Steve Carell) might have sorted out his family life over the previous two installments, with Lucy (Kristen Wiig) now step-mom to the ‘gurrrrls’ (girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes), but work isn’t going so well – the pair have just been fired from the Anti Villain League for failing to capture 80s child TV star turned baddy, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker).

Gru then discovers he has a long-lost twin brother, Dru. Dru is desperate for his sibling to show him the dark side of villainy – something Gru has, of course, put behind him (much to the displeasure of the Minions, who walk out in disgust). However, what better opportunity to steal back the diamond Bratt has already stolen – and use it to get his job back.

I do love the Minions movies. This one has been getting mixed feedback, but I liked it better than the middle installment if not quite so much as the original. I think what worked well for me was all the 1980s references from the Bratt character, still stuck in the era of his glory days. I was just in the right mood for a Michael Jackson-themed ‘dance fight’, and all the cheesy hits of the day.

And, of course, the Minions! Their subplot had me in stitches, again with a bit of a dance theme at one point – but I will say no more 😉 The other subplot, with Lucy learning how to be a mom, is a lot weaker, but I did think added a little warmth to the movie.

Overall: lots of daft fun, and I’d happily watch it again – my measure for animated movies. Banana! 🙂

Released: 30th June 2017
Viewed: 10th July 2017
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated: U

My rating: 7.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

We’ve had a couple of takes on the Spider-Man movies – first Toby Maguire, then Andrew Garfield – and then last year’s Captain America: Civil War introduced us to Tom Holland’s version, as the rights between Sony and Marvel got a bit (more?) less complicated and the web-slinger was allowed to join the Avengers.

Well, not quite join. In Homecoming, Peter Parker returns from helping Tony Stark aka Iron Man keen to get the call for another mission. However, Tony rightfully sees a 15 year old school kid as having no place out fighting real bad guys (as opposed to stopping misguided good guys!) and instead sets Peter the task of first mastering being a ‘friendly neighbourhood spider’. Of course, teenagers always think they know best…

Spider-Man has never been my favourite hero (and not just because I’m an arachnophobe!), and while I reasonably enjoyed the previous movie versions I wasn’t turned into that big a fan. However, I *am* a huge fan of the Marvel MCU (yes, including the bit where you have to see ALL the movies! 😉 ) so seeing where they could take the character was always going to be intriguing.

And so, yes, we get something that is much closer to being an Avengers movie – good. But we also have a John Hughes-influenced highschool story going on, which is… less good. Fine, but, well, y’know. I’m old now, okay?! 😉 And suddenly it makes a bit more sense why I was never the biggest fan of the character.

I did like the pick of Vulture (no, I’d never heard of him before either!) as the baddie: a working class guy bitter at the rich guys having all the luck and power, using salvaged alien technology to steal more. So, no radiation or experiments or innate superpowers. It’s actually quite a clever reflection of Tony Stark, one set either side of Spider-Man. And the character, played by Michael Keaton (surely something in there about Birdman, referencing Batman…!), gets both a hint of pantomime baddy but also a surprising underlying set of morals. One of the better villains, if a little less flashy.

I was very pleased that we skipped the whole origin story again – this Peter has been putting on the mask for quite a while before Stark finds him – but there’s still a feeling of setting things up a bit here (there’s a whole ‘thing’ near the end that you should google for after seeing the movie – it went right over my head, tbh) while at the same time expecting you to know a bit about the character already.

So overall we end up with a perfectly reasonable installment in one ongoing franchise, if a slightly less satisfying set up of a new branch of it, and actually no you probably don’t need to have seen many/any of the others. There are a few clips of the big Civil War fight to let you know that happened, but Spidey didn’t get so involved that it really matters too much. And while I’m not a huge fan of teenage crushes and school woes and all that, it was appropriate to the character, and nice to see him being played by an actual (just!) teenager instead of a 30-year-old 😉

Released: 5th July 2017
Viewed: 7th July 2017
Running time: 133 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7.5/10

One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

“A sex tape. A pregnancy scare. Two cheating scandals. And that’s just this week’s update.”

Imagine if The Breakfast Club didn’t get the chance to spend detention coming to deep and meaningful revelations about themselves, because one of them dropped dead. The brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal – all four of them were about to have some shocking secret revealed by the dead boy, Simon, the outcast and creator of a nasty little gossip app. Which means all four had really good motives for murder…

The book is told from all four points of view, with the switch between characters clearly marked with the name and a timestamp. So, as we see inside all four heads, it means one of the narrators must be lying, as they relate the events after Simon’s death, including the police interviews, sensationalist journalists hounding them, and deepening relationships as the four become the ‘murder club’, shunned by classmates who can’t believe any of them are innocent.

I really liked the idea of this story, but felt that the different voices could have been a little more disparate, and the stories told with a little more tension. There’s something just a little too cosy about the tellings of watching movies and getting haircuts, in the midst of all the drama – yes, it’s normal life going on despite everything, but it did lessen some of the potential impact for me.

The mystery unfolds well enough, but the real ‘message’ of the story is more about the secrets and lies, and the impact these have on all five lives, not to mention those around them. Go in knowing that and not just looking for a straight murder mystery, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

NetGalley eARC: 358 pages / 30 subdivided chapters plus epilogue
First published: June 2017
Series: none
Read from 29th May – 4th June 2017

My rating: 7/10