Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice cover

“The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it.”

I’ve been hearing amazing things about this book and its sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, for quite some time now. Me being me, it takes me a while to get ’round to things – but I’m rather glad I finally did!

Told from a first-person viewpoint, the unique selling point here is that the narrator isn’t exactly human: she’s an ‘ancillary’. It takes a little while before you find out what that means, but that’s okay. In the opening chapter, we meet her as Breq, a “piece of equipment, a part of the ship”, who has somehow gone from being a huge AI with hundreds of avatars and outlets to just one single, human, body.

Initially the story is divided into two separate timelines between alternating chapters. And so we have a ‘now’, with Breq, and at the same time begin to discover the events that have led to the more recent situation as well as the type of culture that has given rise to it all. Alongside that, there are hints of even older events, but as long as you pay a little attention (and if it helps: to whether you’re on an odd or even numbered chapter), it’s not too confusing.

Perhaps a little more confusing – and, deliberately so – is the default to a female pronoun. The AI and the Radch culture have little interest in gender, finding it puzzling how much store other societies place on it. For the modern Earth reader, it’s a purposeful challenge to see how calling everyone ‘she’ and then perhaps revealing them to be male forces us to face up to certain stereotypes. To be honest, I could be irritated at such obvious politics, but it actually works really well in adding to the ‘sci-fi’ strangeness of the story.

The story itself actually never quite reaches the dizzying scale of the world building, in my view, but it was still satisfying while at the same time leaving me more than keen to press on with the sequels. I also think it lends itself very well to future rereads, as there’s layers of depth here – just, wonderful!

Oh, and there are two prequel stories available to read online: Night’s Slow Poison, and She Commands Me and I Obey. Enjoy!

Kindle: 410 pages / 23 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Imperial Radch book 1 (of 3)
Read from 5th-25th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

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Odd & True – Cat Winters

Odd and True cover

“‘Tell me the story again,’ I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.”

Raised on stories about their mother and uncle’s monster hunting past, Trudchen Grey is still not inclined to believe her sister’s letters, telling of Odette’s adventures in the circus or even wilder escapades. But when Odette returns to their aunt’s house to whisk her little sister into an even bigger adventure, Tru has to make a choice to believe – or not. Either will have repercussions.

In alternating chapters, the narrator switches from Tru to Odette, who fills in some of the mysteries of the family’s past. Soon, the reader is left trying to figure out which half of the story – either side of the fin de siecle – is the bigger mystery.

You might be able to tell from my rating: I loved this book! I went in not knowing too much about it, but I suppose with expectations of a ‘Hansel and Gretel Witchhunters’ ya adventure – which would have been fine. But this is absolutely not that book. It is so much more!

I’m left not really wanting to spoil it all too much for any would-be readers, rather allowing you to make those discoveries for yourself. Suffice to say, this is a heart-pulling drama, a lovely historical slice, and sure – a l’il bit about monster hunting. It’s also a perfect book about the power of stories, and the bonds of family.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of the book, and the chance to discover Cat Winters.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters plus epilogue
First published: September 2017
Series: none
Read from 6th-12th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

Wonder Woman (2017)

The one shining light in the utter mess that was Batman vs Superman (2016) was the brief appearance of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). And with this release, she not only gets her own backstory, but also makes a bit of history with the first female-led superhero movie.

Usually I’m all about the entertainment, the story, the visuals, but I think it’s really quite important to see this movie as a bit of a Big Deal. Female superhero lead, female director – and if you think that’s not important (I just don’t think that it should be) then you only have to scratch the surface very gently to see what a difference it actually makes.

You might come away from a viewing with a sense that it was a bit different from every other action pic – not in terms of story, which is fairly run of the mill and predictable, but when you stop to ponder (or, just read any of the numerous reviews) then there is a shocking “why is this still a big deal?” feeling. Yes, 21st century, and this is possibly the first movie where the woman gets to be the hero full stop – she’s not there to be a token, she doesn’t pose with her butt facing the camera. The other Amazons are amazingly kick ass – and oh, they might actually be over 30, shock horror. It was a AMAZING!!

Now, I must admit it’s taken me a while to understand this. I came out of the cinema thinking, “Well, yes, easily the best thing DC has managed, but that was a low bar.” The lack of a ‘new’ storyline left me a little ‘meh’, but it was still rolicking good fun.

But then I started reading some of the opinion pieces. And my view changed from, “C’mon, it’s just a superhero movie!” to “Oh my god, why did I not see how much we needed this take on this flipped version of this story!?”. A woman being strong but real. Why the hell is that still such a big deal to see on screen?

Anyway. You don’t have to feel or think about any of this to enjoy the movie. It’s about an Amazon princess, Diana, getting her first glimpse of the outside world and refusing to let the injustice continue without trying to fix things. There are some brilliant action scenes. The opening location of Themyscira is something very different to what we’ve been given in these kind of movies before, which is ace.

You also don’t need to wade through the dull Superman, BvS, or Suicide Squad to see this one – a huge plus. The only link is the photo Diana is sent right at the beginning, which was used in BvS to show Bruce Wayne that Wonder Woman had been around, kicking butt, for longer than he had. The tone here is much lighter, if still not Marvel-funny, but all in all a very very welcome change, in so many respects. Absolutely recommended.

Released: 1st June 2017
Viewed: 3rd June 2017
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 9/10 – I can’t rave all of that above and not give it an extra point for cultural significance. From a freakin’ comic book movie o_O

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh – can we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

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