The Shape of Water (2017)

shape of water poster

I’m a bit late to the game with this one, but at least I get to say “Yes, I know it won the Best Picture Oscar, but…”

I haven’t seen the other nominees, but I’m still finding it odd that this got the top honour. I mean, it’s a good movie, and there are layers to it, it looks amazing, and the performances are outstanding. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d have to go with “weird”.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a government research facility, and when they bring in a new ‘specimen’ (Doug Jones, once again under layers of aquatic prosthetics) she soon befriends the unfortunate creature. Tensions ratchet up when creepy project lead, Strickland (Michael Shannon), decides the research is going nowhere fast, and his preferred route forwards turns towards dissection.

The early 1960s time period setting works brilliantly here, adding in elements of Cold War paranoia, homophobia, racism, and dreadful sexism, all of which can be said to find parallels in the ‘alien’ treatment of the creature. Elisa’s muteness is also a fantastic device, allowing both the main characters to be completely silent while her friends – both from poorly-treated minorities at the time – give her voice. Not that she wholly needs it: the facial expressions and body language is a masterclass.

So, all good. But… well, hmm. I dunno, there was just something a little too bizarre to everything for me, I think, with a mix of elements that just seemed odd. In hindsight, yes I assume that no decision was made without due thought, but when you’re sitting at the start of a fantastical, cinematographically delicate, period-rich fairy tale, it was really really jolting to be left thinking, “Wait, was she really just masturbating in the bath – to an egg timer?!” o_O

I’m going to go with: yes, it’s a good film and very well worth the watch, but between the Academy Award and the rest of the hype, perhaps my expectations were just a bit too high. Still, what do I know – it did win Best Picture, after all!

Released: 14th February 2018
Viewed: 8th March 2018
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10


The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

Dark is Rising cover

“‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

Will Stanton is about to turn 11, and about to discover that he is one of the ‘Old Ones’: a group charged with protecting the Light throughout time. But over the darkest depths of winter, the Darkness is rising: can Will fulfil his role as Seeker of the Signs, six great parts of a symbol strong enough to overcome the Dark?

I’m a sucker for challenges, so when a Twitter announcement was made about a read-along for this book, starting as the story does on Midwinter’s Eve (aka December 20th), I couldn’t resist! And I was swept up into a winter landscape that I’m sure helped make it snow on Christmas in reality, as the struggle of good against evil raged through the centuries ūüôā

This is actually the second installment in the series, but the recommendation is to read this first: the earlier book was written a fair bit before, and doesn’t have quite the same tone (I’m told). I suppose it’s a bit like the Narnia books in that respect: chronologically¬†A Horse and His Boy¬†goes first, but no one ever starts anywhere but¬†The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!

Written before I was born, The Dark is Rising¬†hasn’t actually dated as badly as I might have expected. There is a nostalgia factor going on, I suppose, for a ‘simpler’ time: modern younger readers might find a lack of computers and mobile phones jarring. However, the mix of adventure and magic is pretty timeless, and there isn’t too much that really pins it to any one time.

This is intended for a younger audience, but it put me in mind of the aforementioned Narnia books, or The Snow Spider, or The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Рbooks I remember very fondly from childhood, and which still have an appeal to a more mature reader.

While it’s hard to be swept up in the same way coming to this for the first time as an adult, I found it charming and easy to read. I’m looking forward to continuing the series – with a first step back to the earlier volume,¬†Over Sea Under Stone, as per the recommendation! But oh: avoid the movie. It changes so much, it’s really not a good adaptation at all.

Kindle: 232 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 1973
Series: The Dark is Rising book 2 (but start here!) of 5
Read from 20th December 2017 – 2nd January 2018

My rating: 7/10

Bright (2017)

bright poster

Imagine if¬†The Lord of the Rings wasn’t fantasy, but actual history. Fast forward hundreds of years to the present day, and perhaps the first orc has joined the LA police department. He’d be facing terrible racism, of course, not to mention a great deal of suspicion as to where his loyalties lie: with the law, or to the Clan. And of course, orcs sided with the Dark Lord all those centuries ago, so it’s not like you can trust any of them. Not like the elves – they’re the best of the best, beautiful and rich and of course running the show. Us humans? Just somewhere in the middle, trying to keep the pest fairies out of the bird feeders.

In this reality, the law must deal with fanatics who want to resurrect the Dark Lord, and generally keep an eye on problems with magic. And what could be more dangerous than a magic wand – a ‘nuclear bomb that grants wishes’? So when one of those turns up it’s not long before everyone – law, gangs, humans, elves and orcs – all want to get their hands on it.

Bright is an intriguing concept – high fantasy meets gritty police action – not particularly well executed overall, but actually turned out watchable enough. Will Smith is the big draw, of course, but he’s doing his bruised and damaged persona which is a lot less fun than his other character. Joel Edgerton is unrecognisable under the orc makeup, and to be honest the slow-witted character is just a bit too dim not to be a touch annoying, I felt. Elves get a bad rap, of course, but Noomi Rapace and Edgar Ramirez look great in their pointy ears.

Plot-wise, this is whip thin: everyone chasing and killing for that magic wand. The action pace tries to distract from that, and the special effects are pretty good, but without a character I actually liked (oy, the elf girl is annoyingly drippy!) there just wasn’t enough here to take ‘oddly intriguing’ into ‘liked’.

Of course, the big ‘thing’ about this movie is that it was released on Netflix, not in the cinema – smart move! Apparently it attracted an impressive 11 million curious viewers in its opening weekend, pretty much guaranteeing a sequel. And while I wasn’t exactly impressed with¬†Bright, the fact that it will arrive on my TV without additional cost or effort means I’ll probably watch it – just, hope they can improve a bit on the plot and characters, tbh!

Released: 22nd December 2017
Viewed: 23rd December 2017
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari J√§√§skel√§inen

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 Рall successful Рseem 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 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

Paper and Fire – Rachel Caine

Paper and Fire cover

“Every day, Jess Brightwell passed the Spartan warrior statue on his way to and from his quarters.”

I’m still utterly in love with the idea of The Great Library: the upswelling of knowledge as the driving and ruling force over the past two millennia, following the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, rather than, say, religion. The dark machinations that came to light through the course of the first book,¬†Ink and Bone, only added to the intrigue and danger.

Alas, something in that amazing mix gets lost through the course of the novel, and very definitely by this one. Instead, we’re plunged rather too much into a series of YA tropes, from the burning love of two teenagers who’ve spent all of five minutes together, to – well, actually, that one was enough to turn me right off.

I’m hoping this is all just a case of middle book syndrome. The various perils go from decent twists to starting to feel a little repetitive for constantly being twists, and I really started to notice little picky things to get annoyed with. For example, the group being stuck together through most of this, there are more times than not where the scene focuses on just two, then suddenly reminds you that the others must all be standing around the edges like mannequins. The YA element means, too, that the teen lead characters far too often seem to outshine and/or half-ignore the few adults about, and again this just jarred a little.

I’ve already got book three lined up, with some trepidation now. I just hope we can go back to the story and more of the magnificent premise, rather than more teenage Romeo and Julietting o_O

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: The Great Library book 2
Read from 22nd October – 1st November 2017

My rating: 6/10

Ink and Bone – Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone cover

“‘Hold still and stop fighting me,’ his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark.”

Imagine a history in which the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria caused such an upheaval in the ancient world that it is knowledge, not religion, and the Library, not the church, that hold sway over humankind’s lives. In this environment, alchemy is pursued more rigorously, creating many marvels that are still used thousands of years later, and keeping the population in sway far more than any single holy book has yet managed. Still, maintaining rule is hard: the only way is ruthlessness.

Jess Brightwell is the son of a book smuggler. While any title can be read on a ‘blank’ (an e-reader, basically, powered by alchemy rather than technology – it took me a worrying long time to realise this!), possessing copies of actual books is strictly forbidden. For, if the Library isn’t the source of all knowledge, how can they curtail what thoughts people have?

I absolutely adored the premise of this book – well, books about books, and libraries are always appealing! Add in a society still heavily influenced by the Egyptian roots of the ruling organisation, and intriguing glimpses of how the development we know happened in our reality over 2000 years is either quashed or fitted in, and I’m giving high marks for the world building.

However, this is a YA (young adult) novel, and alas very quickly starts to follow a very well-worn path: hero is a bit of an outsider, cast into hostile territory and forced to undergo varying challenges highlighting the evils of the controlling system, setting up an inevitable future clash. Throw in the is he/isn’t he a baddy mentor, some diverse(ish) companions to form close bonds in times of high stress, knowing all might not survive – yup, fairly sure I’ve read this plot already!

Which is a bit of a shame, because I really did love the setting and the atmosphere created. I will continue with the series – it’s perfectly well-written – but with quite reduced expectations on the storyline, to be honest.

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: The Great Library book 1
Read from 16th-22nd October 2017

My rating: 7.5/10 – excellent premise, rather familiar YA plot