Darien – CF Iggulden

Darien cover

“He was a hunter, Elias Post, a good one.”

A hunter with an uncanny knack. A thief who knows where an ancient, impenetrable tomb lies. An old man teaching forbidden fighting skills to a group of street waifs. A young woman who knows magic is a fake, ‘cos it’s never ever worked when she’s been there. A young boy who can mimic anything he sees. And the city of Darien: ruled by 12 families, each with their own ancient artifact to protect the city – from invaders, and from themselves.

Conn Iggulden is well known as a writer of historical fiction, which comes with such rave reviews that I’ve been meaning to read some of his work for years. So, when NetGalley had a copy of his new foray into fantasy fiction, I jumped at the chance!

The best bit about this book for me was the sheer multitude of ideas, different forms of magic and magical skills. The downside was therefore how little time we get to spend with each of them, following at least three main plot threads as they inexorably pull towards an explosive meeting.

Thankfully, this is the first in a series – there is so much more to discover about Darien, its ruling families, the Empire of Salt, and of course all of these characters we’ve barely met in this first instalment. While the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of something so much bigger, and there are far more areas to be explored still. Colour me intrigued to see where the rest of the series might take us.

 

NetGalley eARC: 341 pages / 23 chapters
First published: July 2017
Series: Empire of Salt book 1
Read from 10th-20th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

“Lydia heard the distant flap of paper wings as the first book fell from its shelf.”

Mystery set in a bookshop? Well, that’s me sold already! Small warning, though, that this is not a cosy mystery à la Elementary, She Read, but a fair bit darker. However, it’s firmly in the ‘mystery’ and not ‘thriller’ category, so nothing trying to make you jump – perfect!

We start off with the suicide of a regular patron – a ‘bookfrog’ (heh, it was meant to be reviewed here, wasn’t it!? 🙂 ) – of the titular bookstore. When Lydia finds the body, she also finds a 20-year-old photo of her tenth birthday party in his pocket. How? Why? And then another photo – a newspaper snap of her coming out of the bookstore alongside the stretcher – suddenly brings a rush of her long-avoided past to sweep her back up.

While most of the story follows the current interlacing mysteries, we get plenty of flashback chapters, taking us back to a time just after that first photo was taken, when Lydia lives through a huge trauma – no spoilers! – that is still impacting on her life today. Old friends, estranged parents – it seems like everyone is coming out of the woodwork, and Lydia will no longer be able to put her past behind her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, including the slightly darker tone. Lydia is a very well-written character, with just the right amount of fear and courage, and believable responses to things that (have) happen(ed). The other characters are kept more secondary, but not 2-dimensional, keeping the focus on the plot’s twists and turns. Okay, so the final denouement perhaps relies on a few too many coincidences, but for the main they are woven very organically into the story and kept me guessing the whole way.

I think, with this book, I’ve come to realise that I really like the mystery genre. I’ve dabbled in the past with more ‘thrillers’, but am rarely in the mood for that kind of ‘Danger! Danger!’ approach. MatBIB kept me mentally intrigued, without having to reach into the disturbing territory. More like this, please!

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 27 chapters plus epilogue
First published: August 2017
Series: none
Read from 5th-9th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

Baby Driver (2017)

Coerced into being the getaway driver for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and a revolving set of thieves (including Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal), Baby (Ansel Elgort) dreams of the day his debt is paid off and he can walk away. Oh, if only things were so simple! Unfortunately, Baby is too good to let go – but it’s not long before his yearning to escape starts causing things to go a bit wrong…

There’s not a great deal of plot here, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. It’s not about the plot – which is absolutely fine and solid – but the style in which it is told. And what style! Imagine the scene from Shawn of the Dead, with the zombies being beaten with pool cues to the beat of Don’t Stop Me Now – but take that ethic and apply it to a whole movie of car chases!

This isn’t a musical, don’t worry, but Baby’s ‘hum in the drum’ tinnitus leads him to listen to music all the time – and so the viewer also gets to hear the songs, cleverly choreographed with the action. Look, too, for an early scene of Baby using his soundtrack to enliven his coffee run, and the background graffiti, etc is tied in with it all.

While I enjoyed all of the music and the action and even the simple story a great deal, I felt just a tiny bit ‘meh’ about both the ending and the romance plot line – the latter down to me not liking Lily James much, and finding the character far too drippy. But overall it was still a LOT of fun, and highly recommended!

Released: 28th June 2017
Viewed: 30th June 2017
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Gifted (2017)

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is guardian to his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), who just happens to be a mathematical prodigy. Theirs is a really lovely relationship: they clearly dote on each other, he talks to her like a person, and she is clearly flourishing in the laid-back parenting.

However, when Mary turns seven with no friends her own age, Frank decides it’s time she socialises with other school kids. Despite warnings, she’s unable to cover up her genius and soon the attentions of the authorities and her previously absent grandmother are threatening to break the duo apart.

This is a very gentle, sweet kind of a movie, told in a very gentle kind of a way. I was really impressed by the handling of the court case: no shouting and screaming, as would be Hollywood-norm, just two adults (Frank and his mother, played by Lindsay Duncan) trying to do what’s best, and capable of having a rational if bittersweet conversation from either side of the argument.

Which isn’t to say there’s no tension in this movie – there certainly is, it’s just done in a matter-of-fact, low-key way that I found really refreshing. The story unfolds with layers of revelation that you might not even notice as such, as they’re just ‘life’, not shoved in your face.

I was just as impressed with the acting. Mckenna Grace is a rare thing: a genuinely gifted (as an actor, I make no claims for her real life maths skills!) youngster who provides zero irritation factor. And if you think Chris Evans is nothing but bulked-up superhero fodder, his gentle portrayal of a brother, uncle, son, and human being in his own right might surprise you – the character of Frank, too. Heck, I didn’t even mind that he doesn’t take his shirt off! 😉

I wasn’t exactly raring to go see this movie, but as it worked out I am really glad that I did. I’m guessing it’s not going to set the box office on fire, but it’s an impressively mature and sensitively-told story that will reward viewers willing to let go of the need for fireworks.

Released: 16th June 2017 (UK)
Viewed: 12th June 2017 (preview)
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

“One for sorrow: Mary Tudor, a magpie queen – dress black, face chill white, pearls hanging in her hair like teardrops – stands in the pose of a woman with child, her right palm flat across her swollen belly.”

Imagine a little corner of England, a village snuggled away from the hustle and bustle, where modern life has been kept at bay for centuries. It’s not that technology doesn’t exist here – in fact, thanks to the highly intelligent population and the university, much of the modern world’s tech is actually developed here – but the pace of life is still ‘ye olde worlde’, somehow. Not that the people necessarily know this, as outsiders are discouraged, and learning any history prior to 1800 is outright banned.

Why would such a place need to be hidden away? What’s so wrong with teaching history? When two newcomers – a history teacher and a new lord of the manor – arrive, both seem destined to wrap themselves in yet more mystery, as they struggle to figure out this strange, other-worldly place.

My first praise for Rotherweird is that it’s a wonderfully original book, quite unlike most of the fantasy stuff out there. There are layers upon layers of mystery, and no way to guess where most of it is going – lovely!

If I’m being picky, I did find there were perhaps a few too many point-of-view characters, which I felt got a little confusing at times. Everyone has such weird names, too. The author is also clearly a very intelligent chap (he’s a lawyer by day-trade), and there were points where I felt I was playing catch-up on the clues and reveals, which took away a little from the impact.

However, overall this is just a fantastically weird and immersive world, which was amazing amounts of fun to visit. There’s a strong dose of humour throughout the writing, and some excellent mystery-building to keep you reading ’til the end. I particularly liked the historical interludes between each section, slowly revealing a little more of the enigma.

Delighted to read interviews that suggest this is the first part of a trilogy – thoroughly looking forward to seeing what’s next for the odd population of Rotherweird!

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / ~60 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: Rotherweird trilogy, book 1
Read from 15th-29th May 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

“‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night,’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette. ‘That sounds like a riot’.”

Big Little Lies centres around three women in the Australian town of Pirriwee, each with a child starting kindergarten, each with their own troubles to contend with. Madeline has to come to terms with her ex husband moving back into the area to be in their teenage daughter’s life, while his new daughter is starting the same class as Madeline’s youngest. Celeste is half of the most glamorous couple in town, but she seems to struggle with her rambunctious twin boys despite a seemingly perfect, charmed life. And newcomer Jane is a single mother also hiding dark secrets, facing a new struggle when her son is accused of bullying on day one.

Interspersed throughout the book are interview snippets, comments from fellow parents as the town is caught up in a murder investigation, while the bulk of the book takes us back six months and explores the build up to that fateful night. So never mind who did it – we’re left on the edge of our seats wondering who died, and why.

Unusually for me, I actually ended up watching the truly excellent TV adaptation first, picking the book up a few episodes in. That probably worked in the book’s disadvantage, to be honest, as while I really enjoyed it, I could also see all the places where the adaptation took the tension and racked it up several notches. The character of Maddy, for instance, is given a much meatier storyline in the TV show, whereas in the book she’s not quite hitting the same drama levels as her two co-leads, Celeste and Jane. Would I have noticed if I’d read the book first? Hmm.

That said, I’d still fully recommend the viewing AND the read – in either order! There is a longer ‘epilogue’ in the book, which explores the motivations for the murder in a little more depth and feels a bit more satisfying. The TV show is a bit darker, too, which may or may not suit some people.

Definitely going to look out some more of Liane Moriarty’s work now!

NetGalley eARC: 465 pages / 84 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 17th-27th May 2017

My rating: 8/10

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“Shadow had done three years in prison.”

Shadow Moon is due to be released from prison, sustained over the years of his sentence by thoughts of home and his wife, Laura. But when tragic news reaches him, he allows himself to be caught up in the schemes of the odd and disreputable Mr Wednesday. Soon employed as a driver and general aide de camp, Shadow meets strange people, witnesses improbable events, and generally experiences the weirdest shit he’s never thought of.

And meanwhile, ‘Somewhere in America’ (as the between-chapter interludes are called), other powers seem to blossom. From an embodiment of every fertility goddess statue you’ve ever seen, funeral home directors who are part of a long tradition, and a middle eastern ifrit working as a taxi driver… America is a melting pot of cultures. Almost every part of the world has sent people to its shores over the centuries, and in this book the question is: did they bring their gods with them? We are aware of the Norse gods, for instance, but when the first Vikings came to the Vinland shores and offered sacrifice, did they call across the oceans? And when the explorers left, what then of these American gods?

This was my second reading of American Gods, spurred by the upcoming TV series and getting my hands on the extended anniversary edition. It had a lot to live up to, as my memories of my first read were hugely positive – in fact, I’d touted this as easily my favourite Neil Gaiman book (although as a friend pointed out, his books are all so different that ‘favourite’ can mean many different things). Alas, those high expectations made for a slightly less than ideal reread. It’s still a good book, but…

I think my main issue was the pacing, probably not helped by the reintroduction of however many thousand of previously edited out wordage (nothing fundamental changes, some scenes are just more fully fleshed out). Which, to be fair, shouldn’t be a complaint – and indeed wasn’t on the first reading. However, having remembered only the highlights, I was a little frustrated with the diversions.

Overall, though, American Gods is a book of some quite brilliant ideas. The gods of the piece, old and new, pose questions for both faith and cultural mixing, as well as the differences in modern life. I think I was wanting something just a little more concrete, and this is not that: this is ideas, and a meandering story (I do wonder how they’ll tackle some of this in the TV adaptation!), and very much something that will stick with you. It might still be my favourite work of Gaiman, through all that.

eBook: 674 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2001
Series: American Gods book 1 (followed by Anansi Boys)
Read from 10th April – 6th May 2017 (reread)

My rating: 8/10