The Handmaid’s Tale (season 1)

handmaids tale poster

It’s been well over a decade since I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and over 30 years since it was first published) but the power of the story stayed with me. It was enough to make me a little cautious about this adaptation, too: both for the usual reason (what if it’s not well done?) and just the feeling of not wanting to go into too dark a place with my viewing. I’m so so glad I gave this a go, though, as it’s one of the best bits of television from 2017!

Set in a not-too-distant future, attacks on America’s government have opened the way for a new regime: a back-to-basics, fundamentalist Christian one, with more than a few ideas that are very unsavoury. The Handmaids, for instance: faced with plummeting birth rates, fertile females are rounded up, tagged, and sent to breed with the most powerful men – whether they like it or not.

The Handmaid of the title is June (Elizabeth Moss, perhaps best known from Mad Men), who we follow as she is ‘placed’ in the home of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski, formerly of Chuck), expected to produce a child for them. You’d perhaps think that she’d be well treated in between times, given the importance of her role, but she’s a prisoner and an object, and treated accordingly. Still, nothing quite as awful as is revealed in the flashbacks, explaining how this bizarre and awful regime not only gets started, but how on earth it can continue.

Although massively shocking, I think there’s actually a little less graphicness on the screen than there was in the books, which is a bit of a relief to be honest. That said, there is more than enough here to make anyone feel powerfully uncomfortable – and that’s kind of the point. The kicker for me wasn’t the horrendous treatment of women – not just the handmaids, but all the women – which I was expecting from reading the book, but that as the series progresses and we piece together all the flashbacks, that there is a perverse kind of logic in how this new political systems starts. Tying in things like climate change brings the whole thing more into the present day, only adding to the oomph factor.

Add in fantastic performances from the entire cast, high production values, and some amazing if un-flashy visuals, and this was just compelling from start to finish. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger (as does the book, if I recall), but hurrah – we’re getting a second series! Bring it on!

First broadcast: May 2017
Series: 1 (renewed)
Episodes: 10 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10


The Chalk Man – CJ Tudor

chalk man cover

“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Short version: It, without the demonic clown.

Eddie Adams thinks his past is tightly locked up in his head. But as childhood friends and old memories start to come out of the woodwork, is it finally time to face up to the past? Because in 1986, five pre-teen friends have their idyllic summer holiday shattered first by a horrific accident, and then the discovery of a dead body. But the chalk stick figures – they were just a game. Who, then, has sent each of them a letter 30 years later, with just that single stick figure drawing?

There was something in the description of this that called to me, despite the fact that I rarely read dark thrillers these days. But, oh, this spoke to the teenage me who adored Stephen King books – and it really is somewhere between Stand By Me (aka The Body) and It – although as I say, without those supernatural elements. They aren’t missed: this is a gripping enough mystery without bringing in anything other worldly.

The chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, and both strands follow Eddie as his life goes from perfect childhood to tinged with terror and darkness. It’s very well done: both plotlines are equally intriguing, adding to the other, so the flip back and forth never left me wishing for the other segment. I did prefer the earlier segments, though, as the mood that’s conjured is just brilliantly evocative of those 1980s childhood summers that some of us remember (albeit with less, y’know, dead things!), and some have grown to love from watching Stranger Things.

I did think I’d guessed the ‘whodunnit’ early on, only for the whole thing to swerve in an unexpected direction – hurrah! Still, as the mysteries start to be unravelled at the end, there were just a few bits that seemed perhaps a little too coincidental, so I’m knocking a mark of for that.

Otherwise, though, I gobbled this in just two days – it really was that gripping! Absolutely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 342 pages
First published: January 11th 2018
Series: none
Read from 6th-7th January 2018

My rating: 9/10

The Greatest Showman (2017)

greatest showman poster

There’s nothing like a rousing, feel-good musical to kick off a year’s cinema – and this is absolutely that!

It’s perhaps a little odd, given the subject matter: the real PT Barnum was a lot less ‘nice’ than portrayed here. While that might kick up some controversy, I say: keep in mind that this is fiction, a story to entertain and uplift, and don’t take it as truth just because of the inspiration.

That said, the basic facts are all real enough, if much mixed up in timelines and intentions. ‘Inventor’ of showbusiness, Phineas Taylor Barnum, did indeed start a circus of ‘freaks’, and he did finance a tour for a singer he had never actually heard sing. The rest perhaps owes more to providing a fulfilling story than reality, but hey: this is showbusiness!

Hugh Jackman might be best known for playing Wolverine, but his heart clearly lies on the stage, belting his lungs out (see also: Les Miserables (2012) and Oklahoma! (1999)). He was made for this role, really, and I thought he shone in it. The rest of the cast also seems – thankfully! – picked for strong singing abilities: no Pierce Brosnan moments here 😉

Ah, the music! The bulk of the movie is spoken, with regular show song moments. The song used in the trailer, This is Me, has been stuck in my head for absolutely months. It’s a belter of a tune, and a perfect summing up of the core message: that those marginalised by society can and should stand up for themselves. While that was the standout track for me, several other songs were close and only a couple were a little unmemorable.

Overall, I absolutely loved this film. It absolutely shines with heart, and is possibly the best musical we’ve been treated to in years, avoiding the pitfalls of so many others: it’s more feel-good (if a little more predictable) than La La Land, better performed than Mamma Mia!, and the story works perfectly, unlike Into the Woods. So, finally – look out, here it comes! 🙂

Released: 26th December 2017
Viewed: 2nd January 2018
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

“The reader was at first surprised, then shocked, as the criminal Raskolnikov was abruptly slain in the middle of the street, right before her eyes.”

Rabbit Back is a small town with a large literary heritage. World-famous children’s author, Laura White, is not only from the town but once set up the tituar Literature Society: nine young children taught how to be successful authors.

Decades later, and an observant eye might notice that the nine – all successful – seem to avoid each other. It might also notice the strange behaviour of all the local dogs, running away and congregating in packs of strays. There have been strange things afoot for years in this town, but the combination of the announcement that there will finally be a tenth Society member, and the mysterious disappearance of a resident, is set to rock the whole town.

And as the new member discovers The Game, and the books with text that mutates overnight, we delve deeper into the mysteries of Rabbit Back and the Literature Society…

Views on this book seem really mixed, with no shortage of 5 or 1 star reviews. I fall firmly into the former category: I loved this book! The mix of mystery and the supernatural, the latter fully supported by twisted human psychology, was just perfect to keep me glued to the pages. I do like fantasy fiction, which perhaps helped on some of the stranger elements of the story. I’m also less than easily shocked, which definitely helped with the scenes of mild torture and/or some sexual content. I suspect the mix is enough to put different people off for differing reasons, though.

However, if you are willing to brave all those factors, I thoroughly recommend this. The mix of human and magical, past and present, mysteries completely set my imagination alight, and I was more than sorry to see this one end.

Paperback: 344 pages / 39 chapters
First published: 2006 (2013 for English translation)
Series: none
Read from 8th-13th December 2017

My rating: 9/10

The Last Jedi (2017)

Last Jedi poster

Phew – I can relax, no one can ‘get’ me with spoilers for the Biggest Movie Event of the Year (TM) now that I’ve seen it! I’ll provide none of my own, don’t worry.

I’ve always felt I was just the wrong age to be a huge Star Wars fan, and while I’m a huge (wannabe) geek I’ve always had that feeling that I’m just not into it enough to appreciate all the hype. I missed out on the original trilogy largely, I was less than enthused by the prequel trio, and while I rather enjoyed 2015’s The Force Awakens (aka episode 7) it felt more like a rehash of the original – yes, it was fun and I liked it but… it was missing something, some spark of originality or soul, perhaps?

I was a little surprised, then, when The Last Jedi side-swiped me into being the film that is finally making me geek out a LOT over this whole franchise! 🙂

Without mentioning specifics, this has a lot going for it: a more original storyline, lots of character development all ’round, cute critters in the form of porgs, some familiar faces, some new blood adding positively to the film. I laughed more than I expected – there are some genuinely funny moments, and it’s a huge boost to see a juggernaut like this not taking itself too seriously. And of course it looks spectacular, and is just chock-full of adventure and action and everything that makes Star Wars Star Wars!

It’s not perfect. I was a little puzzled by some of the plot threads, which were perhaps a little bit… pointless, dare I say? There were a few moments of “Why didn’t you just do that in the first place?!?!” and other slight logic flaws. The things that were maybe waiting for an explanation that either didn’t happen, or just were a bit underwhelming.

And then there are the visuals that make all of that just melt away. The eye candy is everywhere, from background details to fantastic wildlife: crystal foxes and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous porgs. The use of the colour red is particularly ‘wow’, from Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room to the planet where the very ground seems to bleed.

I had thought going in that 2.5 hours was going to feel like a long movie, but it really didn’t. I was genuinely swept up in the fun of the adventure, and the sense that there is a lot more story still to come. Finally, I think, I might be starting to understand a bit about the huge appeal of this universe!

Released: 14th December 2017
Viewed: 16th December 2017
Running time: 152 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8.5/10

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy cover

“One moment asleep.”

And so we come to the closing of the wonderful Ancillary trilogy, some of the most impressively engaging sci-fi I’ve read this year. As ever, if you don’t want even a hint of what might have gone before, I’d suggest not reading a review of the third installment 😉

Book one, Ancillary Justiceintroduced us to Breq, a ship’s AI mind now trapped in a single ‘ancillary’ body. The second chapter, Ancillary Sword, saw Breq more or less avoiding the galactic war raging as she (and, must mention, everyone is a ‘she’, male or female – still adds to the otherworldly feel, even as I get used to it!) takes command of a warship and goes about setting right the wrongs she perceives in the civilisation at Athoek Station.

Mercy was criticised somewhat for taking the story down very small after such a grand opening, but here we see the larger picture come crashing in to the smaller stage – and it works very well, more so for having had that time to connect on an intimate scale.

It’s a lot to ask for this book to wrap up a galactic tyrant at war with herself, a civilisation being forced to abandon old prejudices, and a handful of broken soldiers serving under the command of an even more broken AI. And yet, it delivers: I’d say with satisfying resolutions all ’round, even while giving that sense of a much, much wider story continuing on.

I’m kind of sad to say goodbye to these characters – but can’t wait to visit another part of the universe in Provenance.

Paperback: 328 pages / 19 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Radch book 3
Read from 3rd-10th December 2017

My rating: 9/10

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

raven boys cover

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”

Blue is an oddity in her family: a non-psychic amongst clairvoyants. She is surprised, then, to finally see a spirit – a future-ghost, a forewarning of death ahead. Why now? Well, it must be either because he’s her true love – or she’s the one who’ll kill him.

The shade belongs to Gansey, a pupil at the local private school, heir to a vast fortune, and utterly obsessed with finding a mythical king buried on a local leyline and able to grant wishes. And while Gansey may or may not need one of those wishes, one or more of his closest friends might: troubled Ronan, close to being expelled; scholarship student Adam, desperate to escape his abusive father; or sickly Noah, always lurking in the shadows.

When Blue crosses paths with these ‘Raven boys’ (so-called because of the school emblem), her already strange life gets weirder than she could possibly have imagined.

I think one of the reasons I was so wowed by this book was that I hadn’t even really meant to read it – YA, teen angst, forbidden romance? No thanks! But it was selected for a group challenge, the library had an e-copy, oh – why not? And thus, when it turned out to be very well written, full of twists and magic and so many mysteries added in increasing layers – wow indeed!

The only real downside is that this is very much an opener for the four-book series, so there’s a limited number of answers to the many, many puzzles set up along the way. Hand me book 2 immediately!

Kindle: 468 pages / 48 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: The Raven Cycle book 1 of 4
Read from 7th-15th November 2017

My rating: 9/10