The Shape of Water (2017)

shape of water poster

I’m a bit late to the game with this one, but at least I get to say “Yes, I know it won the Best Picture Oscar, but…”

I haven’t seen the other nominees, but I’m still finding it odd that this got the top honour. I mean, it’s a good movie, and there are layers to it, it looks amazing, and the performances are outstanding. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d have to go with “weird”.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a government research facility, and when they bring in a new ‘specimen’ (Doug Jones, once again under layers of aquatic prosthetics) she soon befriends the unfortunate creature. Tensions ratchet up when creepy project lead, Strickland (Michael Shannon), decides the research is going nowhere fast, and his preferred route forwards turns towards dissection.

The early 1960s time period setting works brilliantly here, adding in elements of Cold War paranoia, homophobia, racism, and dreadful sexism, all of which can be said to find parallels in the ‘alien’ treatment of the creature. Elisa’s muteness is also a fantastic device, allowing both the main characters to be completely silent while her friends – both from poorly-treated minorities at the time – give her voice. Not that she wholly needs it: the facial expressions and body language is a masterclass.

So, all good. But… well, hmm. I dunno, there was just something a little too bizarre to everything for me, I think, with a mix of elements that just seemed odd. In hindsight, yes I assume that no decision was made without due thought, but when you’re sitting at the start of a fantastical, cinematographically delicate, period-rich fairy tale, it was really really jolting to be left thinking, “Wait, was she really just masturbating in the bath – to an egg timer?!” o_O

I’m going to go with: yes, it’s a good film and very well worth the watch, but between the Academy Award and the rest of the hype, perhaps my expectations were just a bit too high. Still, what do I know – it did win Best Picture, after all!

Released: 14th February 2018
Viewed: 8th March 2018
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10


Provenance – Ann Leckie

provenance cover

“‘There were unexpected difficulties,’ said the dark gray blur.”

Set not long after Ancillary Mercy, but following new characters, Provenance is a chance to look at a part of that universe outside Radch space. We follow Ingray, a foster-daughter of an important ‘politician’, trying to prove herself worthy of – literally – her mother’s name. Driven to extremes to beat her golden-boy brother, engineering a prison break – from an impossible-to-escape prison – is only the first step and she’s soon caught up in intrigue that affects at least three species and which may threaten her entire world’s sense of identity.

The Ancillary trilogy was on my top reads of last year, and I was hugely excited to revisit the universe. Of course, with such a background, it was always going to be tough for this to live up to – and for me, it doesn’t quite hit it. And yet, it’s still a good book – comparisons can be killer! o_O

Ingray is okay as a main character, but to be honest she’s a bit, well… teenage? Prone to tears and a bit bumbling, she’s at the same time refreshingly different from the ‘strong female lead’, and somehow displaying a quieter strength even as you think she’s a bit lost. The story is a lot about politicking and jostling for position, and the weird ways in which we ‘prove’ our worth, which is made about as interesting as it can be but still feels a little small in comparison to some of the events of the previous books – even when we start bringing in intergalactic peace treaties.

So, while very very well-written, and still pretty fascinating, this is more of a “aren’t some alien species funny?” kind of a tale, not quite played for laughs but almost, rather than anything like a typical space-opera. It doesn’t hurt Leckie’s reputation one jot, but I did find myself thinking this was more of a ‘message’ book than a riveting story that needed telling, at times.

Hardback: 438 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: set in Imperial Radch universe, but not part of Ancillary series
Read from 18th February 2018

My rating: 8/10

Elysium Fire – Alastair Reynolds

elysium fire cover

“From a distance it almost looked natural.”

For a police force tasked with maintaining democracy and voting rights, the Prefects of Panoply seem to get involved in an awful lot of rather more gory crimes. Such as the sudden outbreak of Glitter Band citizens having their brains boiled from the inside. Faulty implants, or something more sinister? Could it have anything to do with Aurora or the Clockmaker (see The Prefect aka Aurora Rising)? And isn’t it convenient that such a mysterious disaster is pending just as the demagogue-like Devon Garlin is stirring up trouble, encouraging habitats to break away from the care of Panoply and go it alone.

That last made me chuckle – it’s just so Brexit, reminding you that Alastair Reynolds is British and sci-fi is a lot about current events, even when it’s hidden in stories about virtual realities and space faring and, urm, hyperpigs. Go with it!

Still, that’s rather an aside. What we’re really looking at here is a murder mystery with added layers of reality-bending capabilities and some very cool tech. I rather want a material that self-cleans, used for clothing or floors that do the recycling for you!

Again, that doesn’t do this justice. Having already set several books in this universe, Reynolds has a firm grip of his world building, and a rich sense of history even though this duology (so far) is set prior to Revelation Space. Events aren’t just happening to further this plot, but have roots in events that have been mentioned before.

I’m still not 100% sold on the characters, to be honest, although I think there is an improvement from 2007’s The Prefect. Having only just read that, the glimpses of change in the real world are more telling, from little background details like the non-gendered person near the beginning.

There’s definitely scope for more books in this series, and I’ll happily be reaching for them. I really like this world, and I think we’ve yet to read the best story set there.

NetGalley eARC: 488 pages / 23 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Prefect Dreyfus Emergency book 2 / Revelation Space universe 0.2
Read from 24th January – 1st February 2018

My rating: 8/10

The Prefect (Aurora Rising) – Alastair Reynolds

prefect cover

“Thalia Ng felt her weight increasing as the elevator sped down the spoke from the habitat’s docking hub.”

Tom Dreyfus is a Prefect, a member of the policing force for the Glitter Band: ten thousand habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, housing millions of inhabitants. It’s not a regular kind of policing, though, as the only thing in their remit is ensuring voting rights across the Band. Each habitat is free to live as they please: immersed in virtual reality, back to an agricultural rurality, or even something resembling one of the seven circles of hell. As long as democracy is intact, just about anything goes.

There is such a richness to the world-building here, layers of technology and alienness and past events that we don’t need to know about, but which add that sense of history. Dreyfus himself has his demons, and we’ll learn about those through the book, but he’s dedicated to his job. As The Prefect starts, that job gets a little harder when an entire habitat and all its inhabitants are destroyed. It seems like a pretty obvious case – but a bit too obvious. But Dreyfus has no idea that he’s about to kick off a chain of events that make this mass murder seem like a playground robbery…

I’m a big fan of Alastair Reynolds’ brand of ‘space opera’, but quite a few of his books have been in my ‘must get round to reading that’ pile for too long. The forthcoming publication of the sequel to The Prefect (rereleased under a new title of Aurora Rising)Elysium Fire, made it high time to pick this one up.

While set in the same universe as the Revelation Space books – and indeed, references the location of Chasm City quite a lot – this doesn’t require any of the other books to have been read first. I did have to check that a couple of times, as there is a huge bit of backstory hinted at throughout this book, but it’s not actually referencing anything previously published – all with be revealed as we read on!

To be honest, I wasn’t desperately gripped by any of the characters here – the outstanding, should-have-been-promoted veteran cop, his something-to-prove young protege, and other stereotypes – but the story was so full of ideas that I didn’t mind too much. So much is just used as another layer of the richness: people’s consciousnesses uploaded to simulations, questions around their humanity; those choosing to spend life plugged into simulations; and then there’s the aliens: modified humans, weirder things still. It takes most of the book teasing us to find out what exactly ‘The Clockmaker’ is, and why it attached a device to the Supreme Prefect’s spinal column, turning her into a living bomb, incapable of sleeping – for eleven years…! All of this bubbles under a noir-ish detective story with plenty of twists and horrors.

Reynolds knows how to tell a story, that’s for sure, and there’s plenty here to keep you reading. And from a bit of ‘meh’-ness at the beginning, I’m really glad there’s only a few days to wait until I can catch up with Dreyfus again, in Elysium Fire.

If even those few days are too long, a short bridging story between the two novels is available for free online here.

Paperback: 502 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2007
Series: Prefect Dreyfus Emergency book 1 / Revelation Space universe 0.1
Read from 27th December 2017 – 21st January 2018

My rating: 8/10

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword cover

“‘Considering the circumstances, you could use another lieutenant.'”

Usual vague spoilerish warning: this is the second in a series, so even mentioning a character from this book might serve as a small spoiler for events in the previous installment. But hey – Ancillary Justice is marvellous, so stop reading this and go read that first! 🙂

Following on from events at the end of Ancillary Justice, Breq finds herself in a very odd position. Whose orders is she ‘supposed’ to obey? Who is pulling the strings – of herself, or anyone else around her? Which side is ‘right’ – if any, of course?

Being given command of a ship, Mercy of Kalr, is a blessing and a curse. It’s a little closer to her old self, but always with that ‘not quite the same’ dagger to the heart. No one quite knows what to make of her, either, as she arrives in Athoek Station still trying to win over her own crew, with a very personal mission in the face of galactic mayhem, and ready to take on any perceived injustice in the isolated system. War may be raging further afield, but here things are cut off and proceeding as normal. But can Breq leave ‘normal’ alone, when it seems so very corrupt?

Following the brilliance of the opening volume of this trilogy, introducing a universe with a default female pronoun to challenge our little brains, and a character trapped in a single human body after millennia as a ship’s AI, Ancillary Sword is perhaps unsurprisingly a little less loved. The main complaint is that the scope of the story is quite a lot smaller. It’s a much more personal tale, in a rather constrained space given the scope of the whole.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I was still hugely impressed reading the book, still loved the writing and the world building. But on reflection, it is harder to give it quite as high as mark, as the events are just a little less impressive and a little more… preachy?

For, Breq is apparently on a mission, even if she doesn’t entirely mean to be. There is a touch of self-indulgence from the author, I think, in setting up a character with just enough power to stomp all over every injustice she sees, and of course her logical ex-computer brain sees everything so black and white. Indeed, all the situations are rather written as black and white, so…!

This is still one of the best books I have read this year, so it’s pretty churlish to pick too many holes. I think expectations after the first book were very hard to meet. However, while not quite hitting those highs, I did still very much enjoy reading this and am about to pick up the final book of the series. And waaaa at it being the final book, tbh!!

Paperback: 356 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Imperial Radch book 2 (of 3)
Read from 20th-26th November 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

BladeRunner 2049 poster

I’m finding this such a hard movie to review, I can barely imagine how difficult it must have been to make! The original Blade Runner (1982) has become one of the cornerstones of science fiction cinema. The look, the noir-ish feel, the music – all iconic. So, first rule of sequel: don’t destroy that kind of legacy!

And – phew! – BR2049 doesn’t. In fact, it does a lot of things very right. However… I dunno, perhaps my expectations were set too high, but while I thoroughly admire what they’ve done here, I’m giving it a lower mark (still 8/10!) than I thought I would.

First off the good stuff: it looks fantastic. I means, the world is a bit grubby and not-nice, and yet the visuals are still mindblowing. Cinematography Oscar, surely – and given the man responsible is Roger Deakins more than overdue, too!

The cast were all really great, too. I’ve never wholly understood the massive appeal of Ryan Gosling, but his slightly blank approach here works very well for the character. It’s his movie: Harrison Ford doesn’t show up until well through the extended running time, and to be honest it would have been great if they could have left that as a surprise.

Ah, yes: avoiding spoilers! This is definitely one of those movies where going in as un-informed as possible is a plus, which only adds to the difficulties in reviewing! So, no plot details from me, just the vague: Blade Runner Ryan Gosling is sent on a mission that might have a far bigger consequence than anyone could know. Along the way he has to deal with Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the new owner of what was the Tyrell Company, who has his own agenda and one of the new, ‘obedient’ replicants, Luv (Syvia Hoeks), to push it.

So why didn’t this hit quite as many buttons for me as I’d hoped? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest – quite frankly, it should have. Perhaps the plot wasn’t as surprising as it was for others, given that a few threads of it have appeared (and not desperately well handled, tbh) in the KW Jeter ‘sequel’ books? I suspect it might be more to do with the ten million different versions of the original movie – with rather different views on a certain Big Issue – leaving this one with a slight dilemma on which to follow. And while many reviewers are praising the way this, too, leaves that ambiguity, I actually felt that only one version actually makes sense – given a few lines, and the overall plot – and it’s not the one I was a fan of. Ho-hum.

Another slight discomfort for me was the sheer amount of female nudity and sexualisation. It’s not the film’s fault to have opened in a time where this is such a trigger issue, but still: it feels like every variation of subservient womanhood is portrayed here, from the virtual and porn-esque representations, to the actual prostitute and the unappreciated ‘secretary’-type. It was all just a bit ‘off’, somehow, given the present culture of Hollywood and beyond.

That said, don’t think I didn’t enjoy this because I did. Flaws aside, the visual spectacle alone is worth a watch, and unlike some other recent eye candy, this has a great deal going on underneath that. The main character’s story arc is handled extremely well, the baddies are a delight, and there’s enough left unsaid or unexplained (black out, anyone? Oh, but how perfect to explain the retro-tech!) to add a layer of intrigue and imagination stimulation.

So: 8/10. Excellent, but not perfect, ymmv and all that, but sooo worth seeing on the big screen for the wow-factor.

Released: 5th October 2017
Viewed: 18th October 2017
Running time: 163 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

A Pocketful of Crows – Joanne M Harris

A Pocketful of Crows cover

“The year it turns, and turns, and turns.”

Taking inspiration from The Child Ballads (which I’ll confess I’d never heard of, but turn out to be a collection of traditional ballads collected by Francis Child, rather than songs about children!), A Pocketful of Crows is a lovely, if dark, fairy tale-esque story of the magic of nature, and love, and revenge.

Set over thirteen chapters, one for each month and back to the beginning again, the use of the seasons is really wonderful. We follow a nameless wildling girl, a creature of the forest, who risks her innate magic for the love of a young man from the town. The outcome of this has a real sense of dread and inevitability through the first third or so of the book, with the remainder taken up with consequences.

I really enjoyed this. It’s very immersive for a relatively short book, catching up my emotional response almost from the get-go. My only minor complaints would be the use of the terms ‘folk’ and ‘travelling folk’ for the two kinds of people in the story, which I found a little confusing at first, and the ending just seemed ever so slightly abrupt.

Perhaps another few paragraphs could have lightened the mood a little, as overall it’s quite a dark tale, and I must confess I love the slightly more whimsical nature of T Kingfisher in her fairytale retellings. That’s a personal thing, though, as the cold indifference of nature, or at least its mix of dark and light, is perhaps one of the themes here.

Recommended, particularly for those who enjoy their fairy tales but are perhaps looking for something a little more unique.

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 19th October 2017
Series: none
Read from 28th September – 6th October 2017

My rating: 8/10