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

A Dog’s Purpose (2017)

As soon as I saw the trailer for this, I knew exactly what would happen if I watched it – and I was right! I needed pretty much a whole box of tissues, as I’m an absolute sap for dogs, and a movie with half the purpose being the damn dog dying – repeatedly! – was never going to go dried-eyed.

Which isn’t really a complaint! A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully sweet little movie, told with a voice-over from a dog questioning his purpose through a handful of lives. He seems quite bemused at finding himself a puppy again and again, but the narration isn’t allowed to stray too far from a canine perspective. So, for instance, he thinks his people kissing must be a search for food hidden in the mouth, and the donkey is re-labelled ‘horse dog’. Sure, it can be a little cliched, but it fits.

Despite stints as a police alsatian and over-fed corgi, the initial and main part of the story is as much about owner Ethan’s life in a small town in the 1960s, growing up, and how hopes and dreams ebb and flow. I liked that there is a sense of each successive life revealing a little more of the ‘big picture’ to the pup, and – as the trailer very nearly spoils – how that circles back to the beginning again.

To be honest it’s sweet and familiar rather than particularly meaningful, and what depth there is is more than a little well-worn. But if you manage not to shed a tear over the course of the movie then – well, you must be a cat person – and hiss to that 😉

PS I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding this movie, but as far as I can read it was a claim that the dogs had been mistreated in the water scene and was proven false.

Released: 5th May 2017
Viewed: 10th May 2017
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG – the small child at the end of my row seemed entirely fine; it was just me crying like a baby!

My rating: 7/10

Their Finest (2016)

The Second World War was a time of enormous social change, not least because – as one character in the film puts it – women and old men get opportunities they wouldn’t normally, since all the young men are off fighting and dying.

One such opportunity arrives for Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) when she’s recruited to write ‘slop’ – i.e. women’s dialogue – in the Ministry of Information’s propaganda films. She’s soon working as part of a scriptwriting team to write an “authentic and optimistic” movie to inspire the beleaguered nation to continue to support the war effort – and, perhaps, persuade the Americans to join in to what they’ve been viewing as a European issue.

As the movie-within-the-movie progresses, we get to watch often prickly relationships develop into friendships, all against a very un-cosy backdrop of the realities of the ongoing war. Far from the sweet and gentle movie I was expecting, people do die, or see their lives buried in rubble, or just cower in the tube tunnels as the air raids go on night after night. And yet, still, people get on and the movie goes on, and overall there is hope.

Based on a novel with the much better and more illuminating title, Their Finest Hour and a Half, this is worth a watch for romantics and realists, and those who will – like me – smile the broadest at the scenes of how a ‘real life’ event is taken apart and put back together to tell a story more ‘worth telling’.

Released: 21st April 2017
Viewed: 25th April 2017
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 12A with a surprising (although not exactly gratuitous) amount of swearing, and some quite dark and potentially upsetting deaths

My rating: 7.5/10

Children of Thorns, Children of Water – Aliette de Bodard

“It was a large, magnificent room with intricate patterns of ivy branches on the tiles, and a large mirror above a marble fireplace, the mantlepiece crammed with curios from delicate silver bowls to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain figures: a clear statement of casual power, to leave so many riches where everyone could grab them.”

It would make sense to have read House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, before requesting this between-first-and-second-book short from NetGalley. But, I’d read the opening of the original, liked the premise, but been a little put off by the reviews, so what better way of giving the writing style and story elements a chance?

I love the premise here: in a futuristic yet olde-worlde Paris (huzzah for slightly different locations than the ‘norm’), the survivors of a war in Heaven are divided into Houses vying for power over the shattered city. Scavengers ‘loot’ the bodies of Fallen Angels – literally, as in, stripping the flesh off of fingers, to mine for magic. Ick.

Without wanting to give too much away – you might be more inclined to read things in the proper order, after all! – Children of Thorns shows two applicants to one of the great Houses, masquerading as ‘houseless’ ones to infiltrate a rival power. The application process is perhaps a little unusual, but when strange magical eddies start to swirl, the test becomes more global…

I can see how this would lead into the next book, The House of Binding Thorns. Indeed, this was released as a bonus for pre-ordering the second installment, and was previously not available in any other way.

I was reasonably impressed. There’s a darkness here, and also enough of a difference from most fantasy-type fiction to pique my interest. I’m fully planning on allowing my to-read list to groan some more, and start back at the beginning!

NetGalley eARC: ~34 pages
First published: April 2017
Series: Dominion of the Fallen book 1.5
Read from 13th-15th April 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

Free Fire (2016)

Two Irishmen, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) go to a warehouse in Boston to buy guns for the fight against the English (this is 1978). Brokering the deal is Justine (Brie Larson), who brings these IRA members together with gun runner, Vernon (Sharlto Copley), and his hired help including Ord (Armie Hammer) and Martin (Babou Ceesay).

With high levels of aggression on both sides, the opening of the movie is a teeter-totter of anticipation as to just what it will take to set things off – and from trailers and title, you know that things ARE going to go off – quite literally with a bang!

I’m in two minds about this film. On the one hand, if you don’t like it you’re going to really hate it as it’s one set, practically one scene – well, one long gunfight. On the other, it’s a rather fascinating masterclass at how something so slight can be drawn out into a full 90 minute film, constantly ebbing and flowing on the tension. Throw in a lot of laughs, spiced with several out and out ‘urgh! Gross!’ moments, and more swearing than a response to a Trump tweet, and this is a much more entertaining piece than the slender set-up would have you believe possible.

Released: 31st March 2017
Viewed: 12th April 2017
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A bookish young woman is captured by an enchanted prince. Only love can break the spell that transformed him into a beast – and his servants into various household objects. A tale as old as time, the song says – and sure enough, here we’ve got a pretty straight retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, although this time with real actors.

To be honest, while I do think this was a good updating – a few story elements are brushed up a little, and Belle is a bit more feisty – and I’m aware of quite a few people really loving it, if anything I was just a tad disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t quite the right age to totally adore the original either, so maybe that’s a factor.

The first issue I had is the cast. Emma Watson isn’t a favourite of mine anyway, and I’m not the only one who found her surprisingly wooden in this. So many times the expression on her face was disgust instead of fear, or fear instead something more complex. And while she has a sweet enough singing voice, it really lacks any oomph necessary for this role, and the technical shenanigans to get ’round that become a little too obvious.

It doesn’t help that her co-star is a CGI monstrosity, and I don’t mean that in a particularly good way. With modern tech, I think I’ve just come to expect something… better. Likewise with the supporting cast, all voiced well enough by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor, but I just felt the CGI lacked a bit of charm at times, or just couldn’t sit entirely comfortably in a ‘live’ setting.

The only cast member I did wholly like was Luke Evans as Gaston – he looked made for the role, and has quite the set of lungs on him! Of course, when you’re left only really liking the baddie of the piece… urm…! o_O

Which is a lot of complaining for a movie I’m about to rate 7/10, and to be honest it wasn’t all that bad – just, as I said, a little disappointing for me. On the plus side, it looks lovely, and the filmmakers took the wise choice to add to the familiar songs, rather than start over, so there was a lot of toe tapping smiles. If the story felt a little bloated in the expansion for me, I’ll bow out gracefully as not exactly being the target audience – new, or nostalgia-led.

If you do enjoy this, you might be pleased to know that live-action remakes are being talked about for all sorts of other Disney classics, including Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King! (you can read more on Cineworld‘s blog).

Released: 17th March
Viewed: 25th March 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

All Our Wrong Todays – Elan Mastai

“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

Tom Barren lives in a 2016 that looks a lot like 1950s sci-fi predicted it would. Following the invention of unlimited free energy in the 1960s, his timeline is full of everyday wonders – and yet Tom is miserable, useless and out of place. When a series of mistakes end up with him travelling back in time, Tom proves his worth yet again by fouling up the world’s biggest invention – and boomerangs back to 2016, but not the one he knows.

Can Tom fix the timeline and get back home? Can he survive in our version of 2016, with pollution and wars and all the bad stuff? But, what about the good stuff he finds – like, a sister never born in his timeline, or a love of his life?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I do like time travel and alternate reality stories, and this one has quite the intriguing premise for those. On the other, it takes almost half the book to really get going on those things, and prior to that we get a lot of whining from the narrator about how useless he is, etc etc. Which is why I put the book down and went and read something else.

However, I am glad I came back to it, as the good bit of the story is very definitely the second half. Suddenly, we have proper action and ‘oh no!’ moments and the need to find out what will happen next – and, of course, time travel conundrums a-plenty.

It’s tough to suggest slogging through the first half, but there are plenty of reviewers who didn’t seem to mind so much. It is, I’ll confess, quite a relief to have a flawed, very human lead character. For the ideas, the imagination, and the wanting to know what happens – yeah, glad I stuck with it!

NetGalley eARC: 393 pages / 137 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 3rd February – 24th March 2017

My rating: 7/10