The Poppy War – RF Kuang

the poppy war cover

“‘Take your clothes off.'”

Rin’s life as a war orphan, taken in by opium dealers and used as cheap labour, is far from happy. Rather than face a forced marriage, she studies – boy, does she study! – for the exams that will admit her to the elite national military academy. She shocks everyone, including herself, when she gets in.

But that’s just a beginning. Even the years of training, of new friendships and enemies, is only background to what she’ll learn about the nature of reality, about war, and about herself.

I feel a little ashamed of myself for a slight unconscious assumption that a young female author (having seen Ms Kuang in an online bookish chat) would likely write YA-ish fantasy. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that – and hey, I was very much looking forward to this book anyway! – but it is absolutely not YA. Gosh, is it dark!! Swearing, violence, war, torture – yup, dark with a vengeance!

But oh, it was also so engrossing! Rin is such a great main character. Flawed and then some, but interesting and believable and lost and strong. The world she inhabits is clearly influenced by history, but with added mysticism – who or what are these ‘gods’ that can grant such immense, terrible power?

The story starts with her not-great life with the Fang family, and her obsessive studying. It’s kind of nice to see – with the studies and the martial training later – no easy short cuts, nothing that comes a little too naturally (although she’s clever enough to have it believable). This girl slogs for what she achieves, and that’s rather good to see – even if she does take it a bit too far.

We then go on to the military school, and this falls into a familiar kind of a feel even as we’re in a very different world. But we have the schoolyard ‘mortal enemy’, the older boy who is hero-worshiped by all, teachers that hate Rin, teachers that no one takes seriously. 

It took me a beat to change pace for the later sections, as school is left rather far behind. The story picks up pace fast, but also this is where 99% of the darkness comes across. There is magic and gods and nothing as evil as people, of course.

I picked this up now as the third in the trilogy is published next month (Nov 2020), and I’m so so glad I did. It feels like a very long time since I read good high fantasy, and this is quite excellent! Onward with book 2.

Kindle: 644 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Poppy War book 1 (of 3)
Read from 19th-10th October 2020

My rating: 9/10

The Umbrella Academy (season 2)

umbrella academy season 2 poster

My love for The Umbrella Academy was clear from season 1, with its quirky, irreverent take on the superhero genre. Season 2 would finally solve the cliff-hanger ending, but would its appeal wane with the shifting story?

Well I’m delighted to report: absolutely not! In fact, there’s as much if not more to love here 🙂

Backing up a bit, and we’re still following the lives of the seven adopted Hargreeves siblings, each with a different super power: the ability to talk to the dead or to make people do what you say, teleportation, super strength, etc. At the end of season 1 (spoiler warning!) their attempts to save the world went a little awry, and the attempt then to save themselves ended up with Five’s time travel ability taking them all back to the 1960s – only, not the same part of the 60s.

And so we have the group split up and out of time, each facing challenges. Alison perhaps has it worse, horrified to find herself facing racial segregation. She and Vanya must both face less than ideal attitudes toward women. The boys perhaps fare a little better, with Klaus in particular… well, I’ll leave that to the viewer. Klaus is always my favourite, and his storyline here is a wonderful tonic to some of the darker things! Close second is Five, who is possibly the star of this season. As the youngest cast member, his ability to handle a complicated role is very impressive – and pretty amusing!

As the group start to drift back together, things are of course not perfect. The Commission is still after them. They may have brought a new apocalypse back with them. And then there’s the daddy issue…!

So yes: season two is still *fabulous* and bonus: it comes with a fantastic 60s soundtrack. The balance between the individual stories and the wider, Earth-destroying kind of issues, is played perfectly. By turns dark and fun, deep and wacky, there’s never a dull moment. If I had any complaints, I found one new main character rather grating, somehow, but oh – the way that could widen the story… bring on season 3!

First broadcast: August 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 2
Episodes: 10 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (season 1)

zoey's extraordinary playlist poster

When a strange experience in an MRI machine leaves Zoey able to hear people’s inner thoughts in the form of song and dance routines, her life becomes extraordinarily weird. Rather than a special power, it can be more of a hindrance in navigating her life as a developer in a hip software company. I mean, do you need to hear your boss’s heartache while you’re trying to go for a promotion, or discover that someone has feelings for you – when you may not feel the same?

I gave this show a go on a whim, and it ended up being one of the highlights of my week over the past few months. It’s quirky and funny and heartwarming – and heartbreaking. The last episode in particular absolutely broke me – take that as a warning, rather than a spoiler. The show deals with death, by suicide or degenerative disease, divorce, relationships, religion, gender identity – it could have been a heavy drama. But instead these are the anchor to Zoey’s fantastical new ability.

And the music is such a joy! I didn’t recognise half the songs, but I am a fan of the kind of musicals this harks back to. Her new ‘quirk’ is almost like Zoey getting her own Bollywood movie world, and it never failed to amuse me to see her try to cope when friends, colleagues, or complete strangers suddenly break into choreographed routines – usually at highly inappropriate moments. I think the cast were picked for their singing ability, as all are very good, including that-bloke-from-Pitch-Perfect who was the only familiar face, bar Zoey’s parents and a few cameos.

I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s not light hearted enough to appeal to those who love the escapism of light musicals – think La La Land taking a darker turn, but far more natural. And conversely, the whimsy of the singing is going to be a turn off for those who prefer their drama more series, or their comedies less dancy. For me, however, it hit a sweet spot. I’m a little ‘argh’ at the way it ends, and so far no word of a second season, but otherwise, if you like a hefty dose of whimsy in your viewing, this is highly recommended.

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Deeplight – Frances Hardinge

deeplight cover

“They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south.”

Frances Hardinge has a wonderful skill with words, and an amazing ability to create strange new worlds. The Myriad is amazing: islands recovering from the pre-Cataclysm event, the war of the gods. And what gods! Behemoth sea creatures, capricious and cruel, living in a fearful ‘undersea’. Exposure to this strange not-water leaves people ‘marked’ with strange mutations, but people risk it to recover god remains, sold for huge sums for their amazing properties.

Orphans Hark and Jelt make their way in the world scavenging, and swindling traders come to the islands. The pair are like brothers; Hark owes his life to Jelt’s care when he might have starved as a young child. Now, however, Jelt’s recklessness is in danger of causing a rift between the two – not least when his latest scheme lands Hark in deep trouble. So when Jelt ends up in even straits, Hark’s loyalty is put to the ultimate test…

As we find out about the old gods and the islands of Myriad, the story revolves around the relationship between Hark and Jelt. It questions how much we owe our friends and family. I was screaming at how badly Hark is used and made to feel at points! A subplot mirrors the theme, between a fearsome gang leader and her deaf daughter. I was impressed with the way the disability was handled in the book, too.

Absolutely recommend this. It’s full of secrets and darkness. It’s hugely inventive. And it hits all the emotions along the way.

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 42 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 21st April – 3rd May 2020

My rating: 9/10

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon – Tan Dun (2000)

crouching tiger ost

A year after Chinese wire-fighting first made it to American big screens in a big way (in The Matrix), the Western cinema viewing world was wowed with something it hadn’t really encountered before. Familiar martial arts movies had been the kind that starred Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, high on the action and testosterone, with or without laughs. But then in 2000 we were treated to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a gorgeous, dream-like movie that added in a huge dollop of myth and fantasy. The scene that perhaps best sums it all up is the fight in the bamboo – with clever wire work allowing the actors (or stunt doubles) to dance impossibly across the thin, bendy stems. And, oh, that colour palette!

There have been several other movies that hit the box office in similar form, such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), but the score to CTHD remains my favourite. This review had to wait until I rewatched the movie, as I could remember very little of the story – I just knew I loved those heart wrenching strings. And then, oh, of course – CTHD is a love story! It’s so obvious, all the melancholic yearning in the score. But then we have so many staccato drums and sharp, stabbing dangerous sounds representing the fight scenes. But on screen, those fights scenes are as much a dance, and the music enhances them beautifully.

Yo Yo Ma’s cello haunts through everything, but the use of more traditional Chinese instruments ties the score perfectly to the early 19th Century setting. I’m not sure what instrument does the stabbing, rising-tone alarm, but it gives one piece a huge sense of urgency. And then it’s back to the cello, always, and that sad, yearning tone that matches so much of the onscreen tale. I’d truly forgotten how sad the movie was!

If I have any complaints it’s that this is a very truncated form of the score, and doesn’t follow the same order as the movie. That perhaps explains why I don’t mentally ‘walk through’ any of the movie when listening. Still, it’s utterly recommended – not your usual Hollywood score, this brings something different and magical, moods from wistful to triumphant.

My rating: 9/10

Genre: martial arts / fantasy / romance
Released: 2000
Length: 0:49:43
Number of tracks: 15

Track listing:

  1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  2. The Eternal Vow
  3. A Wedding Interrupted
  4. Night Fight
  5. Silk Road
  6. To the South
  7. Through the Bamboo Forest
  8. The Encounter
  9. Desert Capriccio
  10. In the Old Temple
  11. Yearning of the Sword
  12. Sorrow
  13. Farewell
  14. A Love Before Time (English)
  15. A Love Before Time (Mandarin)

Healthy As F*ck – Oonagh Duncan

healthy as f cover

“Have you ever heard of gluten? … I bet you can name three people off the top of your head who would rather eat nuclear waste than gluten.”

Let’s cut to the chase: in a world with no shortage of advice on healthy living and every faddy diet under the sun, this is *the* best book on the topic I think I’ll ever read! It’s no-bull common sense, written clearly and with a great deal of humour – and, as the title may give away, a lot of swearing. As long as you don’t have an issue with the latter, then this book is genuinely the only one you really need to read on the topic.

I absolutely love the dismissal of any and all faddy diets. The industry does not work, people, or we wouldn’t be growing grossly fatter as a population! And yes, the slant is a little more towards weight loss, but I actually picked this up looking for all-round healthy living ideas – and that’s exactly what the book is aiming at.

Why do you want to lose weight, the author asks? To be skinny? Why? To be fitter, healthier? Why? What do you imagine you’ll feel like when you hit that ‘magical’ number on the scales? Oh, happy. Well, why don’t we just start there – why not look at how to be happy first, because odds on it will make the weight loss stuff easier. Nothing good comes from a place of self-loathing. And before you think otherwise, the difference is made clear between long-term ‘happy’ and short-term pleasure e.g. eating more doughnuts.

There’s a great deal of joy in the no-nonsense approach. Part one is titled “Get your head out of your ass.” It is so true that we get to choose the balance of effort we’re willing to make, for the result we want to get. In other words, six-pack toting supermodel is a nice dream, but be realistic: do you *really* want to put in that much effort – because you’d have to rejig your entire lifestyle. And on the flip side, if you’re unwilling to stop buying and scoffing family-sized packs of biscuits, there’s no point in bemoaning the layer of blubber.

Duncan pushes for the approach of setting up healthy habits that become second-nature, thus removing all the aggro and wasted mental space of ‘dieting’. It’s a good follow on from previous reads I’ve enjoyed, such as Tiny Habits. She also tells us to avoid the ‘perfectionism’ trap, and just work on slow and steady improvements.

I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who’s remotely interesting in improving their lifestyle, including but not just losing weight. It’s such a tonic from all of the ridiculous fads – keto, or gluten free, or whatever is this month’s marketing trick – and I love the simplicity of it. The focus is psychological, and yes, eating more vegetables. But this is the first time I’ve read a book like this and gone ‘yes!’ rather than ‘hmm (I wish that kind of nonsense worked/wasn’t more harm than good in the long term)’.

NetGalley eARC: 272 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 20th March – 5th April 2020

My rating: 9.5/10

The Last Emperox – John Scalzi

last emperox cover

“The funny thing was, Ghreni Nohamapetan, the acting Duke of End, actually saw the surface-to-air missile that slammed into his aircar a second before it hit.”

Well, that was a rollercoaster ride – I *loved* it! 🙂

The first book of the Interdependency, The Collapsing Empire, was one of my best NetGalley ‘finds’. It surprised and delighted me, and I’ve been looking forward to continuing to the end of the trilogy while at the same time a bit sad that it’s over.

Usual warning – if you haven’t read the first two books, put this review down and go start at the beginning before talking about the third book gives earlier plot spoilers!

The full scale of the catastrophe of the collapsing flows is now a reality for Emperox Grayland II, but her attempts to save billions of lives is distracted by repeated assassination attempts. Can she best the scheming Nadashe Nohamapetan? Can science beat the end of this amazing civilisation spread across galaxies of space habitats?

Really, it was just a joy to be back in this universe and catching up with all the characters, but with the added bonus of bringing all those threads of story together. I loved the character arcs for Cardenia, and was delighted that Kiva – my favourite foulmouthed hedonist – got a bigger part again after being very slightly sidelined in book 2. And it’s fabulous to see morally corrupt characters that aren’t just pantomime baddies – but I’ll leave it to the reader to find out if any of them get their just comeuppance! 😉

Alongside the fun, though, I did think there was something quite timely about this book. Collapse of civilisation, you say? Characters willing to see billions die as long as they can still turn a profit? I mean… ouch o.O

This was just the perfect end to a brilliant series. There is SO much fun, but also a lot of heart – I dare you not to be ‘hit in the feels’ by at least one part. Very recommended – as long as you can cope with the swearing 😉

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 24 chapters
First published: 16th April 2020
Series: Interdependency book 3
Read from 26th March – 5th April 2020

My rating: 9/10 – being miserly with that last point, as feel like I could have spent another trilogy in this world, exploring!

Good Omens

good omens poster

Throughout the history of the Earth (not as long as some scientists might have you believe), an angel – Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) – and a demon – Crowley (David Tennant) – come to a bit of an arrangement. Realising that their efforts largely cancel each other out, wouldn’t life just be easier if they didn’t… well, try so hard? I mean, as long as their respective Head Offices are getting all the right paperwork, will anyone really even notice?

The ‘bromance’ between these two characters is what lifts this story from fun to something a bit more special. Their friendship has formed over hundreds of years, each happily doing what they like on earth. Aziraphale loves human food. Crowley looks and acts like a rock star.

Everything’s great… until the birth of the Antichrist heralds the start of Armageddon…

I absolutely loved the book, co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and I think the reason this adaptation works is that Gaiman was brought on board to write the screenplay – something he has experience with, and also means that no one is straying too far from the beloved original version. The differences felt largely positive: the addition of a bullying Angel Gabriel (Jon Hamm), for instance.

Otherwise sticking quite closely to the book, I have to admit that the main plots – the switch-up at the maternity ward, an otherwise normal 11-year-old with the powers of the devil, and the ‘Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter (Witch)’ – were merely nice and totally overshadowed by how much I loved watching Tennant and Sheen having such fun with their respective characters.

As Crowley says, “I didn’t so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards.” Love it 🙂

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1 (and no, not likely to be more, it’s covered the whole book perfectly!)
Episodes: 8 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Tiny Habits – BJ Fogg

tiny habits cover

“Change can be easy (and fun).”

Have your New Year’s Resolutions fallen by the wayside already? Or, are you gritting your teeth and battling on, quietly unsure that the goal is bringing any benefits? I’ve been in both places; I’ve learned what doesn’t really work for me: grand goals, constant need for willpower, all the advice about joining a group, and many many other things. I’m guessing a few of you might well be in the same boat.

Step forward Tiny Habits. I cannot begin to tell you the ‘yes!’ I had when I started reading about this approach: if I could have condensed my own thoughts about life improving habits I could only have hoped to have written this book!

The author, a researcher at Stanford University, has developed the Fogg Behavior Model, where Behavior (or, the habit you want to develop) = motivation + ability + prompt. BMAP. Fogg Behaviour Model graph of ability against motivation

Simply put, the harder you find something to do, the more motivation you’re going to need, and conversely you won’t need to find as much motivation to do a task you find easy. To get a habit to form, you need the behaviour to be above that ‘action line’.

I can’t do the idea justice, but the book walks you through it wonderfully. Motivation isn’t going to work long-term, so finding ways to make the behaviour easier is key – and making the habit ‘tiny’ is an excellent approach. For instance, do just 2 push ups. That will most likely grow, but as long as you do 2 the habit will form – far more likely than if you set the bar as, say, 50, and watch as you make excuses to get out of it.

The book opens with some great insight into why we find it hard to do things, what drives our behaviour in general. It then breaks down the elements of the BMAP – motivation and matching, ability, using different kinds of prompts to remind yourself to carry out the habit.

As well as loads of useful, chatty case studies, there are several exercises such as the ‘Swarm of B(ehaviour)s’ designed to help you set up your own experiment in behaviour design. And that mindset of ‘experimentation’ is pushed strongly: no beating yourself up when something doesn’t work, you just have to modify the experiment design. It’s refreshingly helpful and kind.

Later chapters cover growing or multiplying your habits, changing with others – family, colleagues, groups (whether overtly or in a more ninja-style ;)), and for me an important chapter on reversing some of the approaches to tackle bad habits.

Overall, I loved this book. I tried not to rush through it, and already want to read it again taking notes (tough to do on the bus!) and rather than just trying bits and pieces (working so far!) absolutely give the entire process a go to see how far it can take me in improving my habits! I have very high hopes – it’s my kind of book!

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 8 sections
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 5th January – 7th February 2020

My rating: 9/10

Highfire – Eoin Colfer

highfire cover

“Vern did not trust humans was the long and short of it.”

Vern might live in the Louisiana swamps, but he’s not short on luxury: vodka, cable tv, his beloved Flashdance t-shirts. The ‘gators bother him from time to time, sure, but any people who do likewise tend not to make it back out of the swamp. Which might be because Vern is short for Wyvern, Lord Highfire, last of the breed of dragon lords.

Still, even Vern might not be a match for 15-year-old ‘Squib’ Moreau, troublemaker and entrepreneur, constantly on the run from Louisiana’s most bent cop – who happens to be sweet on Squib’s mother. When these three combine, it might just get explosive…

Eoin Colfer is probably best known for the Artemis Fowl books. This isn’t his first book for adults, but it is for grown ups: yes, the main character is a talking dragon, but his language isn’t always clean and the violence is often spectacularly gory.

Still, if neither of those things put you off, then this book is huge amounts of fun. Well, there’s a sarcastic dragon with a passion for pop culture, for a start! Squib is also a great character, a bit surprising given he’s a teenager, and their developing friendship is done very well. Ooh, and I loathed the psychopathic Constable Hooke just as I’m sure I was supposed to – he’s a nasty one, but never pantomime-baddy.

Big shout out, too, for the descriptions of the setting. They plunge you completely into the mosquito-heavy atmosphere of the bayou, even if New Orleans seen from a dragon’s point of view isn’t exactly vacation-appealing!

Recommended – a full Squib-fingered score from me! 😉

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 22nd-28th January 2020

My rating: 9/10