Bonfire – Krysten Ritter

Bonfire cover

“My last year of high school, when Kaycee Mitchell and her friends got sick, my father had a bunch of theories.”

Barrens is a small town revitalised by the big company at its heart. Optimal provides not just employment, but scholarships, grants, and donations until it’s woven through the entire town like ivy. Or, like a cancer: perhaps literally, if the pending lawsuit against the company’s pollution is proven true.

Ten years ago, Abby Williams escaped from Barrens, and from high school bullies. Coming back to find evidence against Optimal, she soon finds herself unable to stop investigating the mystery of her teenage years, when several of her classmates faked illnesses – or, did they?

There was something dark and claustrophobic to this story, which rather appealed in the same vein as The Chalk Man: something that drew not just the character but also me back to teenage years and a love of creepy atmospheric reads, albeit mystery here rather than horror. And, of course, a hefty dose of curiosity about an actor turning their hand to writing – hmm!

Actually, I think Ms Ritter has done well here, although it is kind of hard not to visualise Jessica Jones as the cynical, damaged lead character. She’s written her next role, if she so wishes, I’m sure.

Overall, the story is pretty good, if not the most original in the world ever. There are a few attempts at twists and turns which sort of almost work, although get perhaps just a little muddy as the story gets to the end. And, while I rather enjoyed the journey, the destination (ie ending) could have been a little stronger, imo. Still, a pretty darn good debut and cautiously recommended for thriller fans.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 44 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 13th November 2017 – 28th March 2018 (after putting it down after the first 10% and getting very distracted…!)

My rating: 7/10

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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

Geostorm (2017)

geostorm poster

Geostorm starts with the kind of cutesy, hopeful voice over that instantly made me fear I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake. Truth is, I avoided this movie for most of its release run, expecting awfulness. I’m pleased to report it was far from the worst thing I’ve ever seen – but, still in no way shape or form a good movie! Knowing that, relax and enjoy the spectacle.

So… in 2019 (that voiceover helpfully informs us), the scale of destruction caused by global warming-related extreme weather is such that all the nations of Earth band together to do something about it. Enter the highly unlikely casting of Gerry Butler as a top scientist, who leads a team in creating ‘Dutch Boy’ (after the tale of the one who stuck his finger in a… urm… dam, and saved the town from flooding), a system of satellites that can interfere in weather patterns before they become catastrophic. Of course no one would ever attempt to use that kind of power for evil, right?! o_O

What follows is every disaster movie trope you’ve ever seen before, plus every someone-high-up-is-behind-the-sabotage ‘thriller’, and a pretty cringeworthy rehash of every estranged-family-thrown-back-together stuff. Overly bright teenage offspring are on hand to give ‘meaning’ to saving the planet (!) and to sob pitifully for your heart string tugging needs. Cute animals are imperiled by tornados! Lots of scantily-clad beach people are frozen to icicles!!!

If I’m not being clear, this is daftness turned up to, oooh, about eight and a half? If, however, you manage to actually see any of the movie between bouts of eye-rolling, then the visual candy is quite nice. I did love the new and improved ISS – space geek that I am – and the balance tipped in favour of ‘space stuff’ over too much CGI natural disaster footage.

To say there’s absolutely nothing original about this is putting it mildly. If I had paid for the experience, I might be feeling ripped off. However, a quiet afternoon’s excuse for leaving my brain switched off, it really wasn’t as dreadful as I feared – which is about as high praise as I can manage. Still, in terms of meeting expectations, it was into the positive. Go figure!

Released: 20th October 2017
Viewed: 9th November 2017
Running time: 109 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

American Assassin (2017)

American Assassin poster

When Mitch Rapp loses his new fiancee in a terrorist attack, he sets out to get revenge. Training himself in mixed martial arts, knife throwing, and shooting, his ability to infiltrate the jihadist terrorist cell also gets him on the radar of the CIA. Offered the chance to ‘fight with the big boys’, can Mitch put aside his personal vendetta and follow the rules?

I actually quite enjoyed this movie and its combination of a moody look, strong acting, and lots of action. However, I struggle to give it a particularly good rating: it’s just a bit bland. I suspect that in a month, this’ll be added to the list of action-thrillers I sort of vaguely remember going to see, without it having left much of an impression overall.

The big problem is probably the plot. It starts strong, but ends up a bit so-so and without much of an overall cohesiveness. The suspension of disbelief is also severely challenged, with Mitch a bit too much of a maverick to ever actually be allowed to continue – let alone be feted so highly by at least one superior. Yes, it adds tension, but it really hits the suspension of disbelief.

Overall: a diverting couple of hours (although it felt a bit longer at points – not a good sign!) but if you’ve got options for your cinema budget, probably aim them elsewhere.

Released: 14th September 2017
Viewed: 22nd September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 6.5/10

Free Fire (2016)

Two Irishmen, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) go to a warehouse in Boston to buy guns for the fight against the English (this is 1978). Brokering the deal is Justine (Brie Larson), who brings these IRA members together with gun runner, Vernon (Sharlto Copley), and his hired help including Ord (Armie Hammer) and Martin (Babou Ceesay).

With high levels of aggression on both sides, the opening of the movie is a teeter-totter of anticipation as to just what it will take to set things off – and from trailers and title, you know that things ARE going to go off – quite literally with a bang!

I’m in two minds about this film. On the one hand, if you don’t like it you’re going to really hate it as it’s one set, practically one scene – well, one long gunfight. On the other, it’s a rather fascinating masterclass at how something so slight can be drawn out into a full 90 minute film, constantly ebbing and flowing on the tension. Throw in a lot of laughs, spiced with several out and out ‘urgh! Gross!’ moments, and more swearing than a response to a Trump tweet, and this is a much more entertaining piece than the slender set-up would have you believe possible.

Released: 31st March 2017
Viewed: 12th April 2017
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

Split (2016)

“Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed.”

I confess, I spent the first few minutes wondering if I was in the right movie screen – no James McAvoy, unless one of his distinct personalities really looks like a teenage girl. Serves me right for trying to know as little as possible about the film before going in, as it turns out this is as much a kidnap horror/thriller as it is a psychological drama – or is it a bit of a supernatural something-or-other? Knowing that the director is M. Night Shyamalan (6th Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, etc) might give you a few clues…

Perhaps with better expectations I might have liked this movie more. Certainly, McAvoy gives a strong set of performances, easily distinguishing between his different personalities and oozing menace, when appropriate, or childlike innocence at other times. There’s a lot to find fascinating in exploring disassociative identity disorder – which unfortunately this movie only touches on the edges of.

For me, both the thriller and supernatural elements rather took away from giving any real ‘meat’ to the psychology. Three genres is just too many; none get to really shine, and indeed I felt by the end that they were treading on each other’s toes, so to speak – one providing a lazy get-out for another, etc.

Biggest flaw, though, was the ending – or rather, lack of. As the story started to come to a climax, I had at least three different ‘guesses’ on what we might get thrown at us. I don’t mind that I was wrong – in fact, that’s best! – but I didn’t feel we then had any kind of proper resolution.

Not awful, definitely watchable, but largely disappointing.

Released: 20th January 2017
Viewed: 27th January 2017
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10

Nerve (2016)

Are you a Watcher or a Player? Watchers pay to watch the Players take on dares, in this game which is like Truth or Dare without the truth. Kiss a stranger, try on a $4000 dress… but as the dares get crazier the urge to break the one rule – don’t tell! – gets stronger. And then… well, you’ll have to watch to find out!

In my weekend of binge watching movies at the cinema, Nerve ended up being the stand out film. My expectations weren’t high, and yet it impressed me: yes, skewed towards a more teenage audience, but then that urge to do something drastic to shake your life up never really goes away, I reckon.

The quiet little girl needing to become more adventurous is Vee, played by a doe-like Emma Roberts, with Dave Franco helping her navigate the world of the Nerve game. They make a charming enough pair, although Roberts felt a little whiny as the stakes get higher. What surprised me more was the story telling hangs together better than I would have expected, allowing the showy on-screen graphics (simulating the tech world) to impress rather than be the only substance.

I found Nerve a pleasant surprise: a well-thought out near-future (if you watch closely, you’ll see the clue that it’s 2020, as well as a cheeky headline about Franco sibling the senior ;)) and good levels of tension, while at the same time a rather damning cautionary tale about social media and anonymous internet interactions dulling our humanity. Worth the look.

Released: 11th August 2016
Viewed: 28th August 2016
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10