The End of the Day – Claire North

the end of the day cover

“At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”

Sooner or later, Death visits everyone. Before that, they meet Charlie.

So goes the intriguing tagline for The End of the Day, the latest book by the author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. This is a little bit of a departure from her style to date, I would say, and if I’m honest it didn’t appeal quite as much to me. It is a very well-written, very very thought-provoking book, but a shade too ‘literary fiction’ for my tastes, perhaps.

Charlie is an affable, entirely normal young Englishman, who goes to a job interview to be the Harbinger of Death. His role is to precede the Grim Reaper, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a courtesy. Death comes for ideologies and status quos as much as any individual, and Charlie soon learns that he is there to honour the living and also witness the passing of things.

And… that’s kind of it, plot-wise. Big concepts die. There is a LOT of political statementing, albeit done without much judgement (thankfully), but still. Some things do happen to Charlie, but I confess I was rather left by the end thinking, “And…?” As I said – literary fiction, where plot is not really the point. Hmm.

Still, as a thought-provoking exercise about society, about humankind, about perception, and of course about death – it’s definitely got a lot to offer. I was genuinely moved at several points. I read it in huge galloping gulps. I won’t not recommend it – but it does come with caveats: know what you’re getting in to.

Paperback: 432 pages / 110 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 27th November – 6th December 2017

My rating: 7/10

Advertisements

Ink and Bone – Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone cover

“‘Hold still and stop fighting me,’ his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark.”

Imagine a history in which the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria caused such an upheaval in the ancient world that it is knowledge, not religion, and the Library, not the church, that hold sway over humankind’s lives. In this environment, alchemy is pursued more rigorously, creating many marvels that are still used thousands of years later, and keeping the population in sway far more than any single holy book has yet managed. Still, maintaining rule is hard: the only way is ruthlessness.

Jess Brightwell is the son of a book smuggler. While any title can be read on a ‘blank’ (an e-reader, basically, powered by alchemy rather than technology – it took me a worrying long time to realise this!), possessing copies of actual books is strictly forbidden. For, if the Library isn’t the source of all knowledge, how can they curtail what thoughts people have?

I absolutely adored the premise of this book – well, books about books, and libraries are always appealing! Add in a society still heavily influenced by the Egyptian roots of the ruling organisation, and intriguing glimpses of how the development we know happened in our reality over 2000 years is either quashed or fitted in, and I’m giving high marks for the world building.

However, this is a YA (young adult) novel, and alas very quickly starts to follow a very well-worn path: hero is a bit of an outsider, cast into hostile territory and forced to undergo varying challenges highlighting the evils of the controlling system, setting up an inevitable future clash. Throw in the is he/isn’t he a baddy mentor, some diverse(ish) companions to form close bonds in times of high stress, knowing all might not survive – yup, fairly sure I’ve read this plot already!

Which is a bit of a shame, because I really did love the setting and the atmosphere created. I will continue with the series – it’s perfectly well-written – but with quite reduced expectations on the storyline, to be honest.

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: The Great Library book 1
Read from 16th-22nd October 2017

My rating: 7.5/10 – excellent premise, rather familiar YA plot

The Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb

dragon keeper cover

“They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present.”

Ask me what my favourite (fantasy) series of all time is, and odds on I’ll go with Robin Hobb’s Farseer (or Assassin) trilogy. I can’t remember a book that so caught me up, that even on a re-read I was walking along that odd black stone path towards such revelations, and the ending hitting me right in the gut even a second time. Thankfully, there are two further series with Fitz (The Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies), but between each, Hobb explores a different part of the world she has created.

To be honest, I found it hard to appreciate the Liveship Traders trilogy after falling so in love with the first books. It’s always a wrench when things are different, I suppose – although other readers apparently have exactly the opposite preference between the two strands! Still, as well as doing my usual spreading out of the books I most want to read, I was also not as keen to dive into the Rain Wild Chronicles, knowing they went back to the world of the Liveships and Rain Wilds. And, as much as I appreciate the wider picture of the ‘Realms of the Elderlings’, I’m not sure this was the book to sway me.

Before you read on, know that mentioning anything about the plot of this is likely to spoil some of the twists in the first (Liveship) series – you have been warned!

Dragons have returned to the world, following the events of the Liveship Traders, but for spoiler-heavy reasons, the first of the new clutch are not the majestic creatures they should be. Deformed physically and mentally, neither of the broods’ initial carers – the dragon Tintaglia, and the Traders she struck a bargain with – have much of a continued interest in looking after these weaklings. Seeing possibilities of discovering one of the Elderlings lost cities, plus ridding themselves of the least desirable, most-disfigured (as Rain Wilders are from their toxic environment) youngsters of their small society, the Traders send a party to accompany the dragons as they try to find a better, freer life for themselves in fabled Kelsingra.

The bulk of the initial story only half-deals with setting up the above, rather more concerning itself with the life of a Trader’s daughter, Alise. Hers is not a happy lot, and to be honest I was for grinding my teeth reading some of the casual sexism of her young life – I know, it’s fiction, but generally I’d like to read to escape from this kind of nonsense! So, from the get-go, I wasn’t wholly warming to this side of the story.

As things progress, the rather glacial pace of the whole thing becomes rather apparent. Part of the appeal of Hobb’s writing is, I suppose, the detail and how much she draws you into the lives of the characters. Still, that nothing much actually really happens is just a little bit of a draw back. I was forced to abandon reading this for quite some time due to external events, and picking it back up again I was at no point left struggling to remember what had happened – because nothing really had. Eeep!

Still, the whole thing is rather gorgeously written. I adore the world building, and while the story itself is slow, there is no sense that the rich, immersive descriptions are what’s holding things up – they’re a plus, not a negative, all the way.

There are another three books and 1500 pages in this series, which is plenty of room for more to happen – so, onwards!

Paperback: 553 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: Rain Wild Chronicles book 1 (of 4) / Realms of the Elderlings book 10 (of 16)
Read from 6th August – 22nd October 2017 (with a massive gap in the middle cos life)

My rating: 7/10 –  love Hobb’s writing, but story-wise this is just a bit too slight and slow

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

Kingsman Golden Circle poster

I thoroughly enjoyed the mad romp that was Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), turning the spy genre (which was particularly over-represented in the cinema for a couple of years) into a much more fun and madcap place. This sequel attempts to take that pace, that irreverence, that sense of out and out fun, and turn it up to eleven. Million!!!!

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) seems to be settling in to his new life nicely, taking over the Galahad title from poor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and all loved up with his Swedish Princess, Tilde (Hanna Alström). But when the world’s biggest and most successful drug dealer ever, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) decides she’s no longer happy hiding in the shadows, her first step is taking out those pesky Kingsmen.

And so, with only Merlin (Mark Strong) to keep him company, Eggsy must turn to the American branch of the private spy world: The Statesmen. Can they help – will they? And, in fact, can they be trusted?

There is a lot of gleeful, romp-worthy, tongue in cheek nonsense going on here which makes Kingsman 2 a heck of a lot of fun. The action sequences are top notch, the way everything pokes fun at Bond is a delight, and then there’s the Bigger Location budget. Bigger Stars budget. Bigger EVERYTHING – yee haa!! – all of which is very obvious on screen.

BUT I think this is possibly the problem. All those big names seem to be practically cameos – I was left a bit confused, as I thought (from the trailers and interviews) that e.g. Channing Tatum was actually in this movie, not just, y’know, in it a little bit. Jeff Bridges’ role is even slighter, and while Halle Berry’s character gets more screentime, it’s a little meh. The actual cameos – Keith Allen and a having-a-fabulous-time-of-it-darling Elton John are a lot of fun, but overall there’s just too many familiar faces with not a great deal to do.

Talking of familiar faces, it’s no secret that Colin Firth manages to reprise his role despite the end of the last movie. I suppose it’s not the most ridiculous come back in cinema history o_O However, while the movie would not have worked without him, the character didn’t quite seem to… fit… somehow? Hmm. Perhaps if there’d been less distraction with all the shiny new Big Names?

Overall, I’m left having really quite enjoyed K2, even at the longer-than-it-should-have-been running time (which, I will admit, allows for quite a rounded story and not just the usual ‘make everything faster’ blur), but at the same time a bit disappointed. Just because you can throw everything and everyone in, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Still, would I go see a third installment? Ye hah, darlin’ – lasso it on it over! 🙂

Released: 20th September 2017
Viewed: 2nd October 2017
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul poster

Everyone knows that Queen Victoria had a huge romance with hubby, Albert, and found a little relief from her loneliness following his death with ghillie, John Brown. In fact, Judi Dench played the monarch in the movie, Mrs Brown, showing us their friendship. It’s a nice touch, then, to have her back in the role for this next episode.

For the Queen’s golden jubilee, two men from India were rather randomly chosen to present the Empress of India with a token from her Indian subjects. The aging monarch took a shine to one of the men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) of the title, and recruited him first as a general servant, and then as a teacher – ‘Munshi’ – in the Urdu language, the Koran, and Indian culture in general. However, the rest of the court are far less keen on this ‘brown man’ taking a place so close to the elderly Queen, suspecting him of currying (hah hah!) favour, and her of losing her mental faculties.

One thing that shone through very well from the movie was a great grounding in making these unlikely events seem very plausible. Victoria was a willful woman, by all accounts, but also lonely and forced to maintain her regal duties well beyond the point where a quiet retirement would have been far kinder. As she dragged herself through her later years, the chance to relieve some of the boredom was presented in the form of an exotic young man who could fill her head with marvellous tales and new concepts.

There’s absolutely no faulting Dame Judi here, of course. She’s “willful and stubborn and overly attached to power” every beat of the way. Ali Fazal is charming as the young clerk, although I was ever so slightly ‘hmm’ about the way his character arc is portrayed – a flaw, I suspect, of being based on the man himself’s own journals. Still, it’s a lovely friendship, as much about age as class and culture.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It was sweet and heartwarming, with enough bite from the Queen’s stubbornness in the face of her court, filled with a stellar supporting cast. It’s a lovely companion piece to 1997’s Mrs Brown, although its cosy Sunday afternoon vibe is a little let down by the inevitably slightly downbeat events at the end.

Released: 15th September 2017
Viewed: 28th September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

American Made (2017)

American Made poster

In the late 1970s, pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is approached by the CIA to take aerial reconnaissance photos over South American’s less-than-stable regimes. Picked up by a drug cartel after stopping to refuel, Barry might be forgiven for thinking he’s in hot water – but instead, the cartel offers him a ton of cash to use his CIA status to help smuggle their drugs back into the USA.

Playing both sides keeps Barry a wealthy man, and indeed, the most fun moments come as the character struggles to find places to stash his cash. However, while his life is on the up, you can’t help but know there’s likely to be a cliff-drop at some point – and possibly no plane to keep Barry aloft.

This is a fun movie, no doubt, but I have to admit to being a little bored during the opening half hour or so. I can only suggest that perhaps the film makers left in a few too many of the “based on a true story” details at the expense of pace. Still, things do get more exciting as the film progresses, although there was just a sense of predictability for me.

It’s an odd time for cinema, methinks: I seem to spend my time rating movies as slightly-better-than-average, but either talking up ones that have been otherwise slated (Dark Tower, Valerian, Hitman’s Bodyguard) or finding myself disappointed with things that sounded like they were doing better (Atomic Blonde). This, sadly, falls into the latter category: high hopes of fun, turned out just a little ‘meh’.

That said, it is very well made, and the actors all seem to be having fun. There are a few stylistic additions, from the 70s-esque opening credits to a few fun maps animations, which I thought added something positive in small doses. Oh, and try to count future presidents 😉

Overall, a decent enough, fun flick, but I personally thought it took a while to get the wing flaps up and get going.

Released: 25th August 2017
Viewed: 26th August 2017
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

The Year of Saying Yes – Hannah Doyle

“If I cock up the next few hours of my life then I’m going to have to admit defeat.”

I’ve definitely been in the mood for some light’n’fluffy reading (and viewing) of late, and the optimistic title of this caught my eye on NetGalley. I was expecting something of a cross between Yes Man and a self-help book – and after a bit of a shaky start, plus a giant dollop of Bridget Jones, I’d say that’s almost exactly what I got!

The opening wasn’t great – in fact, my heart sank as I thought I’d picked up ‘Bridget Jones’ Little Cousin’ or something. We find our main character, Izzy, prepping for her family’s New Year’s Eve party, bemoaning the amount of food and drink she’s consumed, and trying far too hard to attract the eye of her brother-in-law’s brother – pretty much the same thing she does every New Year *eye rolling*

Thankfully, it all get a little bit more interesting, although remains pretty predictable. The strength is in the likeable main character, Izzy, as she sets about undertaking 12 dares over the course of the year, designed to improve her life and make her more confident.

Biggest complaint would have to be how easy it all is. Izzy works for a magazine, so of course she’s got a team of makeup artists and free reign over the ‘fashion closet’ – oh yeah, and of course she’s a size 10, but manages to slim-without-trying into an eight, etc etc. There’s a transformation, but no effort. It’s more than a little grating at times. Likewise, when set some seemingly impossible challenge, events simply line up in a way that no mere mortal could ever have arranged *more eye rolling*

Still, it’s Izzy’s relationships – with men, with her friends and colleagues – that form the backbone of the piece, and that doesn’t always run quite so smoothly. And most of the transformations in her life are about attitude – and while this is fiction all the way, that was actually quite inspirational to read.

NetGalley eARC: 363 pages / 12 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 20th-28th August 2017

My rating: 7/10 – I’m probably going to have to stop saying ‘not my usual cuppa’, but a pretty good example of the fluffiest of genres