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 down 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! ūüėČ

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

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitl√≠n R Kiernan’s novel,¬†The Red Tree,¬†following a recommendation based on the terrific¬†House of Leaves¬†(Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking.¬†Agents of Dreamland has¬†quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little Рso you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here Рrevealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story.¬†It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a¬†great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks¬†and¬†The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

“The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.”

Okay, first question: WHY HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING BY JOHN SCALZI BEFORE?!

By which I mean, oh boy did I enjoy this book! It’s not perfect, but it was a LOT of fun!

In the far-flung future, mankind has expanded far beyond the Earth – and subsequently lost touch with its home planet. This happens after the ‘Flow’ to Earth – the path that allows for travel between vastly remote locations within a sensible time span – collapses. Without that pathway, the journey could take millenia.

So, civilisation now consists of what is called the Interdependency: a highly structured, convoluted system of¬†guild-owning families, each with a set of monopolies on certain trade items. The theory being, if everyone absolutely¬†needs to rely on everyone else, peace and prosperity will reign.¬†Well, it’s a nice theory…!

The Collapsing Empire is a fast-paced story following several characters, including the woman who has just discovered she’s unexpectedly about to become the new Emperox, or supreme ruler. The action takes place between her home, Hub, and the¬†most remote planet in the Interdependency, End.¬†With trouble in the Flow, and scheming nobles on both worlds, the new Emperoxy is certainly going to be an interesting time.

What I loved about this book was the cast of characters, particularly the thoroughly amoral, self-serving, foul-mouthed Lady Kiva. She seems incapable of not using the f-word in every sentence, so do be warned – about that, and also her obsession with having sex with anyone who wanders into view! This might not be to everyone’s taste, but the absolute hedonism (or, actually, sybaritism– hedonism is a little bit less self-centred ;)) with which she lives her life is kind of refreshing.

Tales of the future are so often dark and miserable these days. In fairness, we’re only seeing the higher echelons of society here, but while lives are not perfect at least it feels like society has made¬†some¬†improvements. Like, the utter irrelevance of gender, it would appear – loved that! Although it might be said that the author possibly drove these views just a little, whereas just having that the reality would have been enough and more subtle.

Talking of, there is a very obvious correlation between the events unfolded in the story, and a real-world analogy. It’s not rammed down anyone’s throat, but some people do find that sort of thing annoying. And no, as the author’s note at the end is at pains to point out, it isn’t the title linking to any political landscape of the past 12 months!

Back to the story, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the romp of a read, I did find it a little, hmm – shall I say, unsurprising? I’m not sure if there was meant to be a twist, or revelation, but it felt just a teenie bit flat for lacking that, which felt odd given the story coming from several different aspects. I’d also suggest the opening is a bit¬†off,¬†starting with characters who subsequently¬†aren’t that important, although the snippet of their story is sort of background to events much further along.

I was wondering as I approached the end if there was actually a good case for a sequel, let alone a series, but the last few lines do add an intriguing hook – and I can’t wait for volume 2! I just have to hope that the¬†author’s back catalogue – shamefully overlooked in my reading to date – is half as much fun as this ūüôā

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 24th March 2017
Series: The Collapsing Empire book 1
Read from 17th-21st March 2017

My rating: 8/10

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – various

There’s something entirely enticing about a themed short story collection, especially when the theme is one as intriguing as djinn (or jinn, or genies). Although I’m not overly familiar with most of the authors included here – bar Neil Gaiman, with an American Gods excerpt, Claire North, and KJ Parker – the range of approaches towards this shared theme would itself be worthy of the read. Luckily, you also get a bunch of really great stories!

My one complaint (let’s get it over with!) would be the limitations of the short story format: on more than one occasion I wanted the story to continue, or felt that it ended just a little too abruptly.

Otherwise, I loved the range here, from the very traditional through to myriad modern and even a sci-fi futurist twist on the old rub-a-lamp, get-three-wishes story. My favourite, Sami Shah’s Reap,¬†was actually very dark, combining the Middle Eastern myths with the more familiar modern view we tend to be shown by the media of the region, i.e. spy drones and terrorist surveillance. Not necessarily two things you might have put together, which makes for quite a gripping tale.

Not all of the stories are set in ‘traditional’ locales, but most are which gives a lovely exoticness (from my chilly Northern European perspective!) to the proceedings. I also really enjoyed the stories told from the djinn’s point of view – and more so when it wasn’t always obvious from the get-go. Djinn are eternal tricksters, after all!

Word of warning: this is not for children! At least two of the stories feature sexual content I’d suggest was at least 15+.

Overall, while a lot of fun to read, I think I appreciated this even more for the insight into writing styles and ideas. Recommended for both readers and writers!

NetGalley eARC: ~356 pages / 21 short stories (curated by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin)
First published: 14th March 2017
Series: none
Read from 7th- March 2017

My rating: 8/10