The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmuska Orczy

scarlet pimpernel cover

“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”

During the French revolution, c1792, a band of English noblemen make daring raids across the channel to save French aristocrats from Madame la Guillotine. This group is led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, so known from the picture of the small, wayside flower symbol his communications are signed with.

When Marguerite Blakeney, a French actress recently married to Sir Percy Blakeney, is approached by the Revolutionist, Chauvelin, her quiet life of parties and spending money is thrown upside down. For, Chauvelin has proof that her beloved brother, Armand, is in league with the Pimpernel. And so Marguerite is tasked with aiding in the unmasking of France’s great enemy, or her brother will meet Mme la Guillotine instead!

The author’s title, Baroness Orczy, is a good clue that her sympathies lie with the aristocrats and not (see the opening line) the plebian pursuit of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

My own interest comes from the 1982 movie, staring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, which I absolutely loved as a kid. It’s hard not to make comparisons: indeed, from what I can remember the stories are very similar. However, while the movie focuses on the action and daring of the Pimpernel more, the book is told largely from the point of view of Marguerite. Although dragged into the plots, she’s still more of a bystander, and the action levels suffer for that.

Instead, this book is a romance with a bit of adventure thrown in. That’s not awful, but I think I mostly enjoyed picturing the actors and remembering scenes from the movie, more than the actual read. And, I’m very glad that the absolutely awful anti-semitism towards the end was left out of the movie!

As a story, there’s a lot here to like – as well as a lot that requires eye-rolling suspension of disbelief – but I have to suggest that the original text maybe didn’t tell it quite at its best. SerialReader was an excellent way to make it more palatable, though, and I rather enjoyed my daily chapters. I could quite fancy digging out a copy of the film version now… !

SerialReader: 321 pages / 31 chapters
First published: 1905
Series: Scarlet Pimpernel book 1
Read from 10th July – 10th August 2019

My rating: 6/10

Yesterday (2019)

yesterday poster

When the entire world suffers a mysterious power outage, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is unfortunate enough to get hit by a bus. As he recovers, he slowly starts to realise that somehow the world has forgotten various, every day things: certain brands don’t exist any more, certain ideas. But, most excitingly for a struggling musician who’d been on the brink of giving up, no one else seems to remember The Beatles.

As Jack starts to exploit his suddenly rise to the world’s best songwriter, not everything goes quite according to plan…

I’d been looking forward to seeing this since I saw the trailer. I’m a huge Beatles fan, and I love this kind of ‘what if’ concept. I was also thoroughly in the mood for something light and fun, and just nice, and that’s exactly what I got.

To say the outcome is all pretty predictable is fair enough, not least with Richard Curtis involved in anything. Thankfully this is not as saccharine as Love Actually or Notting Hill. And actually, to my amazement, it managed to surprise me at least once…!

I’d point out that this is not in the vein of e.g. Rocketman, as the music is more the character and a guitar doing cover versions. That’s perhaps a slight negative, although they are genuinely very good covers! My other negative would be Kate McKinnon, playing the less than pleasant record manager – I’ve gone from thinking she can do no wrong, to being disappointed in her roles of late, finding them not very funny at all.

Still. The rest of the cast is great, including Ed Sheeran (I’m not a fan, really) playing himself with surprising self-deprecation. The songs are of course amazing, in any version. Except perhaps ‘Hey Dude’… 😉

Overall, an uplifting feel-good movie, and don’t we all need those once in a while? 🙂

Released: 28th June 2019
Viewed: 11th July 2019
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

The Binding – Bridget Collins

binding cover

“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

Imagine a world where you can have memories taken out of your head, bound into a book and no longer troubling you. Novels are merely cheap fakes, the real stories are people’s lives and will catch you up in their once-reality.

Emmett Farmer is recovering from a long, mysterious illness when he approached to be an apprentice to the local Binder. She teaches him how to make and cover books, each a work of art, but he still doesn’t understand what she does with the visitors who come asking for her help.

I really loved the idea of this world, the books that are so beautiful often housing very dark secrets. The sense of mystery in the opening chapters is just enough to hook you in, waiting to find out what’s going on.

Alas, once we’ve got the world building out of the way, the story takes a turn and I really wasn’t impressed. You have Binding and memory removal – and you turn it into a love story? Urgh. I am not a fan of romances, to be honest. And I’m increasingly not a fan of fantasy that picks up real-world prejudices. I’d rather read about worlds where it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, gay or straight, black or white. To have the whole story hinge on at least one of those being a Huge Bad Thing just soured it all for me.

That said, the writing is good, and the story is very well presented – although I did get confused, repeatedly, by the switch of first person point of view for the third part. Somehow that never quite clicked in my brain. Still, that it wasn’t the fantasy wonder I was hoping for didn’t stop me reading and enjoying what was there.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 12th-30th June 2019

My rating: 6/10 – well enough written, but not my cuppa

Tolkien (2019)

tolkien poster

It seems crazy that there hasn’t been a biopic of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, almost certainly the most famous fantasy author of the 20th Century (if not all time, but only because these young folk have no sense of history ;)). Then again, his life wasn’t the most gripping of sagas – his ‘jam’ (as those young people say) largely involving making up languages. Kudos to the writers here for coming up with a way to blend history, poetic license, and a bit of raw imagination to come up with a movie I rather enjoyed.

What I really loved was the attempt to portray inspiration, the way ideas meld from a half-dozen different sources. Cleverly, the film jumps back and forth through time, showing us Tolkien’s early life, orphaned young, falling in love with a fellow orphan; school days; and experiences n the trenches. Fans of Lord of the Rings have long known that those experiences of war fed directly into the book. But here we also get suggestions of where the magical concepts may have come from, and impressively those moments aren’t just jammed down the viewer’s throat: no, there’s a subtlety, that again mirrors how I think of ideas formulating.

The other aspect that comes across well is how the long process of getting all those elements to gel can be. That’s still probably downplayed a bit, but glad it isn’t all “boom” and the story lands fully fledged. Much 😉

Away from writerly themes, the film mixes romance and its period setting. I’m a big fan of the latter, and all of those dusty schooldays at Oxford bits appealed to me somehow. The romance is handled well enough, as is the sense of comradeship that is at the core of it all.

I can understand that non-Tolkien fans might be less gripped by this, but it’s lovely to see biopics of writers – and who, really, can claim quite the impact of JRR? I’m sure he didn’t actually see dragons rising through the smoke on a battlefield, but as poetic images go, it fits perfectly.

Released: 3rd May 2019
Viewed: 3rd May 2019
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7.5/10

A Star Is Born (2018)

a star is born poster

There are films that no one should ever, EVER attempt to remake (ahem Princess Bride ahem) and then there are movies on their fifth version and (apparently) stronger than ever. Having only seen this latest version, I’ll take someone’s word for it – because this is a very strong movie, remake or not.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a successful singer/guitarist, but fame has brought issues. Tormented by tinnitus, he’s increasingly drunk and/or high. By chance he stumbles across Ally (Lady Gaga), who is all talent and little confidence. The pair are drawn to each other, and the movie charts her rise, his fall, and the tumultuous relationship between them as their positions switch.

I was utterly impressed by this movie. I went in relatively blind, and not expecting much – I’m not a fan of romances, or real life type dramas, and this offered plenty of both. But, oy, does it do them well.

I’m not a huge fan of Lady Gaga, and she was the weak point for me – not always, but just occasionally she can’t hide her talent and confidence when she’s playing a shy little thing. Still, her voice is amazing. And to be fair, Bradley Cooper holds his own – that was a surprise and a half! It doesn’t overshadow the amazing job he does acting, though, which was also something of a surprise given he more or less started as the ‘pretty one’ from the Hangover franchise.

Reader, I confess I sniffled rather a lot through this. The music is great, but the story is heartbreaking. Take tissues, but do see it.

Released: 5th October 2018
Viewed: 13th October 2018
Running time: 136 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

mamma mia 2 poster

Five (movie; 10 real) years have passed since the events of Mamma Mia! It’s a year since (spoiler only if you haven’t seen the trailer!) Donna died, and Sophie has dedicated herself to her mother’s dream. As we join the run-up to the big hotel launch, we also dip back in time to see Donna’s discovery of both the island and her self – and, of course, the events that led to the big ‘who’s the father?’ mix up of the first movie.

Mamma Mia! is one of my slightly embarrassing, go-to feel-good movies. Abba’s music is wonderfully catchy, and the sense of fun the cast are having is contagious. And the gorgeous sunny location doesn’t hurt either!

I was therefore a little dubious going in to the sequel: was it going to tarnish my fun? Nope! 🙂

I still had a few mixed feelings after my first viewing. The songs are less well known, and I felt they were a lot more shoe-horned in (there are a few too many ‘performance’ scenes with the characters hitting a stage) rather than quite as organically telling the story. I also didn’t really feel the need to have Donna’s encounters with Bill, Sam, and Harry ‘justified’, almost as if there’s an apology due somewhere.

But… y’know what, I had to go back and see it again. And I did relax from the scrutinising and just bloomin’ enjoyed it! This is an utterly joyful romp of a musical movie, but also quite affecting: the message of grabbing life by the horns (so to speak) is pretty well done. There is also scope for a need for tissues: there are a few scenes that just ‘hit the feels’, probably more so because the rest of the movie is so bouncy.

Don’t think about it too much. It’s daft. It rocks. Have fun! 🙂

Released: 20th July 2018
Viewed: 24th July 2018 / 14th August 2018
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 8/10

Shelved Under Murder – Victoria Gilbert

shelved under murder cover

“One thing every librarian learns is that people rarely ask the question they actually want answered.”

Several months have passed since small-town librarian Amy Webber was caught up in the events of A Murder for the Books. Usual warning: if you read on, mention of events in book 2 might spoil some of book 1!

Taylorsford is preparing itself for the annual Heritage Festival, an arts and crafts spectacular. Art becomes the theme for the book, as the discovery of a dead artist seems to tie in with forgery rings and organised crime. Could it be that Amy’s late uncle, himself a struggling artist, might have been more connected to these events than anyone would wish?!

I’ve heard cosy mysteries like this described as ‘palate cleansers’ (or should that be ‘palette’, given the topic? ;)) and this is indeed just that. Light and easy to read, nothing too taxing on the brain, this was a sweet little romance with added murder. Urm…! 😉

I thought the story felt a little more assured than the previous book, or perhaps it was just that less setting up was required. We’re assumed to know who the main cast are, from the first book. Of course, this does mean that new players stand out like sore thumbs, and it was pretty obvious who was going to turn out to be the bad guys. The bigger mystery elements are more reveals about the main characters’ pasts, rather than the more obvious crime of the day.

Still, it served its purpose.  I like that this series is a little less ‘fluffy’ than some cosy mysteries, but it’s still a bit heavy on the romance for my tastes. There’s also the merest hint of something supernatural, which I’m not sure about: I think the author needs to commit to including/explaining some of it, or leave it out. Ymmv, as they say!

NetGalley eARC: ~327 pages / 28 chapters
First published: July 2018
Series: Blue Ridge Library Mysteries book 2
Read from 5th-9th July 2018

My rating: 6/10