Red Sister – Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

Given away by her mother, sold into a pit fighting ring, and saved from the gallows by a nun – at 8 years old, Nona’s adventures have only just begun! Taken into the convent for training in fighting and ‘magic’ and poisoning, she’s not safe from external politics or threats from her classmates.

I’ve said it before, fantasy fiction can become quite ‘samey’ if you read a lot of it – and it’s therefore a double joy when you pick up something really really good, and this is.

Mark Lawrence – another author I really should have discovered earlier, it seems! – has created an immersive and intriguing world. With hints of a sci-fi ancient history, the planet is near ice-bound, with only sunlight reflected off the ‘focus moon’ keeping a 50-mile-wide corridor free for habitation.

Into this setting is set a school days tale as far from Mallory Towers as you could imagine! It’s sometimes difficult to remember that the characters are children – or nuns! – as the wider intrigues thicken around Nona and her classmates. Caught between the challenges of deadly school lessons and mysterious goings-on outwith the convent, there’s no shortage of action or blood or high drama – all written with great style.

There’s a nice framing technique used in the prologue, epilogue, and mid-way break, using a ‘flash forward’. To be honest, I sort of guessed some of the ‘reveals’, but it really didn’t matter. And while there’s a lot of completeness to the story told here, the scope for continuing the story is appreciated.

Recommended for fantasy fiction fans.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages / 41 chapters
First published: April 2017
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 1
Read from 27th March – 9th April 2017

My rating: 9/10

Hidden Figures (2016)

Once upon a time, the word ‘computer’ actually meant a person – someone who does computations. Before we had the electronic versions, even the ones that took up vast rooms of space never mind the power in your phone, calculations all had to be done by hand. And that includes the complex mathematics required to put a man in space – equations for speed and orbit and so many other life-threatening details, all requiring a human brain, pencil and paper.

In the early 1960s, a battle was going on between the USA and Russia to win the ‘space race’: being first was everything in launching satellites, putting a man into space, orbiting the Earth, reaching the moon. And while NASA struggled with such lofty goals, the people working for them were often facing much more fundamental struggles: to be fairly treated if they weren’t white men.

Hidden Figures is based on the true stories of three black women who not only worked for NASA, but were fundamental in the successes that included the famous “One small step” for Neil Armstrong in 1969. History tells of rooms of white males, and finally this movie is trying – albeit imperfectly at times – to point out that that is far from the whole story.

I absolutely *loved* this movie. It was heart-wrenching watching the snubs and struggles, and I felt so pleased to live in a world where my reality is to see that with a large dollop of ‘WTF?’ – shame we’ve still got a ways to go! The film has you rooting 100% for the three female leads – and quite frankly I’m shocked that there were no Oscars taken home – while keeping the story focused on the space race. Such is the power of the story-telling that, even more than half a century on and knowing how things turned out, I was still on the edge of my seat as the flimsiest of tech hurtled brave souls into space.

If I have any complaints about the film, it’s only that I think it still sugar-coated some of the struggles. I have read that the whole removing of bathroom signs was quite wrongly handed to a white character, for instance. It was fascinating – and a bit sickening – to see what life was like under segregation and when women were so openly second class citizens – but for every gain seen, I did find myself wondering if, for instance, the husbands were really so supportive of their ‘little women’, or if that had been brushed over for the sake of keeping the movie up-tempo and uplifting.

Still, absolutely recommended – best film I’ve seen in a long time!

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 28th March 2017
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Twenty years ago, a little movie about the most unlikely of subjects – an Edinburgh youth with an on/off heroin addiction – become something of a cultural phenomenon for Scotland. In preparation for viewing the sequel, I rewatched the original and was amazed at just how iconic 90% of the scenes had become and still remain.

That two decade wait is a genius move for this follow up, with the aging of the characters playing a huge role in the story. Renton’s been living clean – and hiding out – in Amsterdam since the events at the end of ‘T1’, but when events send him home to Edinburgh it’s not long before his old friends – Spud, Sickboy, and Begbie – are once again turning his life upside down.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did. Although I was glad for the rewatch of the original – there are flashbacks and references that do benefit from a familiarity – it’s not an easy watch. The sequel, however, really has moved on twenty years. Sure, there’s still some drug-taking, sex, a lot of violence, and the dialogue is surely 90% swearing 😉 but there’s just so much more depth to this story. As one of my equally-impressed colleagues put it, you don’t often get to see a (serious) “coming-of-middle-age” tale.

So T2 becomes about these men facing middle age, their lives not what they’d hoped. Heroin might be (more or less) behind them, but as the new – and quite brilliant – “Choose Life” speech shows, the world has only changed so much and not all for the best. Throw in some revenge story lines, the attempt to reforge friendships and find… not purpose, but just something to do – through all of this, the character studies are done brilliantly and yet subtly. I came out feeling this movie had twice the content of the 2-hour running time, which is absolutely not something I was expecting – nor the bits where I was almost crying with laughter!

Of course, chuck in the extra layer of seeing my hometown on screen – including my bus stop, yay! – in the same cinema as the premier was held, of seeing twenty years pass not just for the characters but also in my own life… your mileage may vary, but I was wowed.

Released: 27th January 2017
Viewed: 10th February 2017
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 9/10

Arrival (2016)

This is a movie that’s worth knowing as little as possible about until you see it. And you should see it. It’s not flashy action sci-fi, like Rogue One, it’s quiet and builds slowly. You’re not sitting there wondering what the ‘twist’ is, or thinking ‘ahah, I bet it’s…’ – because it’s not that kind of movie. By the time you find out what’s going on, it’s just ‘oh’, and because the story has been revealed at just the right time.

I confess, the trailers left me cold. Alien spacecraft arrive on – or rather, hovering just above – the Earth. A linguistics specialist (Amy Adams) is called in to try to make contact, to find out what the aliens want.

To say much more would be a crime. I avoided this for ages, until reports started filtering in about how good the movie was, and the fact that it was still in the cinema over a month on was another excellent sign. Take it: this is a measured, considered story (based on a short work by the marvellous Ted Chiang), and a film with the other kind of wow factor than all of those big showy action-filled blockbusters.

Released: 10th November 2016
Viewed: 17th December 2016
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: 12A, but very slow and measured so unlike to appeal to youngsters

My rating: 9/10

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Kubo lives in a cave with his mother, who he cares for in her semi-catatonic state. For short periods she revives and tells wonderful stories about warrior heroes on brave quests, stories acted out by origami figures. Life is hard, but good – until Kubo breaks the one rule: he must always be back in the cave by nightfall.

He has never known why this rule was so important, but now he discovers what he was being protected from. Now that protection is gone, Kubo must set out on a quest of his own, accompanied by a magical monkey figurine that comes to life, and a warrior cursed to be a (six foot!) beetle, but stripped of his memory so he remembers nothing of why he was cursed or how he might break it.

I had completely assumed that this was an English-language version of an existing movie, which made it very confusing that the amnesiac beetle looked a bit like Matthew McConaughey – but of course, I was wrong and this is the original version. I think that’s all the more impressive, as I have to say, this movie is gorgeous. Every scene is just so well drawn, the imagery just lovely. My particular favourites were the origami battles, and the ship made of leaves, mirroring the origami, both just lovely to look at and so well done.

The plot is also far deeper than we tend to expect from a ‘mere animation’. You might guess where we’re going to end up, more or less, but there are enough layers to keep interest.

Absolutely recommended!

Released: 9th September 2016
Viewed: 12th September 2016
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

“The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.”

Occasionally a book comes with just so much praise that it can only be a disappointment – right?  And so I started the much-hyped The Lie Tree with a little trepidation.

Faith is in that awkward phase – no longer quite a child, not quite a woman. She also rather awkwardly has a brain, not something that’s looked kindly upon in the times that she lives in, and far more of a taste for adventure (i.e. any) than her class breeding allows for. She’s caught between a mother who seems self-centred in the extreme, and a father who’s cool and distant – and apparently in some kind of trouble, as we start the book with the whole family being moved away from society to escape some unnamed disgrace.

But since “All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen”, it’s not too long before she figures out what’s going on, and that at the root of it all is a tree. A fantastical, impossible tree, which shuns daylight and feeds on lies whispered to it. Feed the tree, and the fruit it bears will show you a truth – the bigger the lie, the bigger the revelation. How far would you go to uncover the ultimate truth?

I’m not going to suggest that this book is perfect, by any means, but boy does it give it a good go at getting there! If anything let it down just a little, it was perhaps that the overall story couldn’t quite live up to my expectations – not from others raving about the book, but from the amazing tension and darkness and mystery that builds up over the course of the telling.

It’s a deliciously dark book, full of the frustration of being a young girl/woman in a century that is more constricting than the corsets Faith is ‘training’ to wear. The way that she’s dismissed as less – well, everything – than her young brother left me wanting to claw someone’s eyes out! It’s so fitting, then, that it is Faith who gets to make the discoveries, to seek out the truth – even if she has to do it behind everyone’s back and by telling the blackest of lies.

While the story is only 90% there for me in the end, despite or possibly because of some of the later twists and turns, the world building is spot on. I was utterly sucked in to the atmosphere the author creates. This is not a book you can read in small doses – it’s the kind that demands a curling up on the sofa with plenty of refreshments, while you devour as much as you can in long sittings!

Recommended. Duh! 😉

Paperback: 410 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: none
Read from 26th-29th August 2016

My rating: 9/10

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

“Adrana had always hated Doctor Morcenx.”

Arafura Ness doesn’t mean to go on an adventure. No, it’s her older sister with the thirst for experience beyond their cosy little planet, and escape from the somewhat stifling atmosphere at home. But it only takes one step, and then another, before a far greater and more dangerous adventure than either could have anticipated finds them both.

It’s been far too long since I read any of Alastair Reynolds’ books, and to begin with this threw me just a little by being skewed more towards a younger audience, perhaps – just something that shows up in the pacing, I think, as otherwise the richness of the world building here could have pushed this into a vast trilogy. Pros and cons to that, as it makes for a tighter story but also leaves me wanting to know so much more about the history – and future!

Revenger seems set in our own very distant future, with talk of ‘the Old Sun’ but also 50 million worlds (man/alien made?) between it and ‘the big swirly’ (which I take to be the Milky Way). Multiple alien visitations, or occupations, have swept across the system, most pushed into near-forgotten distant pasts. At some point, many of the worlds have been enclosed in protective spheres or ‘baubles’, and much of the storyline occurs on ships designed to scavenge ancient tech and trinkets from planets during the short windows the bauble-shields come down.

One kind of alien ‘tech’ these ships use is beyond-ancient alien skulls, long dead but still capable of making connections to other such skulls. The skill it takes to be a ‘bone reader’ is rare and limited to the young, giving the Ness sisters an ‘in’ to get hired aboard a ship. But of course, their plan to work for 6 months to make enough money to pay off their father’s debt isn’t going to go quite to plan…!

My only complaint about the book would possibly be that there is so much crammed in here. Everything slots into place, but it’s a bit dizzying going from scavenging to family woes to robots to financial crashes! But, I think I’ll use the word ‘rich’ to describe this action-packed story! And dark: for a think-it-might-be-YA, there is a great deal of blood and torture.

Overall, there are an abundance of wonderful ideas backing up a really great story. There’s easily a series in here, picking up threads from the backdrop and giving us more glimpses into the world(s) of Fura Ness. Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: ~432 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 15th September 2016
Series: none (yet?!)
Read from 18th July – 25th August 2016

My rating: 9/10