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22nd Sep, 2015

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Movie of the Week: The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner 2)

Scorch TrialsWhat a mess this movie is. I saw Maze Runner, but still spent the first half hour of this wondering what the hell was happening. I hope the book has more clarity. I suspect it does.

Visually it has some good outdoor settings, though it retreats to the obligatory derelict factory for a fair bit of the movie. And when will moviemakers read the Evil Overlord list? In particular the point that it makes: "When I am Evil Overlord I will not have air ducts big enough for a perspn to crawl through."

Plotwise, the kids who escaped the Maze in the first movie (all boys except for Teresa) now have a new set of trials to face. The good guys who rescued them at the end of the Maze Runner turn out not to be so good after all and they have to go on the run into the scorch - the wasteland peopled by zombie-like victims of a plague to which our kids are immune and therefore very valuable (biologically).

Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) plays the chief bad guy, channelling Gary Oldman. The lead character, Thomas is played by Dylan O'Brien and Teresa is played by Kaya Scodelario who looks like a bland version of Evangeline Lilly (who I like). Sadly, neither actor is memorable or even particularly noticeable. Thomas Brodie Sangster (Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall) is a more interesting actor, but gets little to do here, though the little he does, he does well. Sangster could probably have played the lead in this with one brain cell tied behind his back. Ditto Rosa Salazar as Brenda. Hopefully she'll be in the third movie in the trilogy (Please, gods, I hope they don't make the last book into two!)

In the current trio of teens-against-dystopia trilogies/quartets: Hunger Games, Divergent/Insurgent and Maze Runner, Maze Runner comes a very poor third. Pity because i would have so liked to like it.

The only upside was that the set of trailers they showed with this bodes well for the rest of the year: Star Wars (yay!) Bond - Spectre, Pan, The Martian and Mockingjay. in particular I've been waiting for the theatreical trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Hopefully Disney has done it justice and we can all forget about Episodes 1, 2 and 3 and reset to 4, 5 and 6 (i.e. the original three) and beyond.

21st Sep, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Man from UNCLE

ManFromUNCLEDespite a bad review from a friend whose opinion on movies I value, I enjoyed this much more than I expected to. It's true it bears next to no relationship with the original TV series other than the names Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo, but it's a fun romp for all that. It is what it is, and I guess it would be unfair to review it in the light of what it is not. Yes, I fall into the camp of 'Wouldn't it have been nice if they'd asked David McCallum to play Mr. Waverly?" but they didn't and that's that.

So this is an origin story as Solo, ex thief and con-man now working for America rather than wasting his talents in jail, is forced to work with Kuryakin, fearsome Russian agent with a slightly loose screw. It's set in the 1960s (and captures the era reasonably well).It's the height of the Cold War. A mysterious criminal organization plans to use nuclear weapons to destroy the fragile relationship between the USA and the Soviet Union. The pair have to find a missing German scientist, and their only lead is his beautiful and resourceful daughter (Alicia Vikander).

U.N.C.L.E. isn't mentioned until the end when Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant) finally makes his presence felt.

Henry Cavill plays Solo and Armie Hammer is Illya Kuryakin. One thing which does mirror the original show is that Kuryakin is a much more interesting character than Solo and Armie Hammer plays this version of Kuryakin to perfection. The story is pretty unremarkable, but in part it's balanced by the over-the-top set-pieces and underlying tongue-in-cheek humour
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Book Log 26/2015 - Kevin Hearne: Hexed - Iron Druid #2

HexedI thoroughly enjoyed the first Iron Druid book, Hounded, and Hexed did not disappoint.

Atticus O'Sullivan, the last (real) druid fought and killed Aenghus Óg: Celtic god of love, in the first book. Now he has to deal with the consequences. He still has Fragarach, a sword of unearthly power. His Irish Wolfhound, Oberon, with whom he can communicate telepathically, is his companion. Oberon is obsessed by sausages and French poodles, and gets all the best lines.

The death of Aenghus Óg has caused ripples throughout the Irish pantheon, the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Morrigan and Brighid are snapping at each other's heels and Atticus may well be piggy in the middle, but his immediate task is making peace with the survivors of a witch coven led by Malina somewhat tricky since he was (in her eyes) responsible for the loss of half her coven in the first place.

Malina is only the first of his problems; he's shown his hand by killing Aenghus Óg and there are those quick to take advantage of his skills. Coyote shows up and wants him to kill a demon (released in the Aenghus Óg fight and now preying on high school students), Then he has to deal with a strange priest and a rabbi whose intentions are not entirely clear, and Malina wants him to kill a bunch of dangerous Bacchants. But all these seem minor because a new coven has moved into town and is trying to take over the area. Atticus has tangled with them before and already has an old score to settle. It becomes personal when it becomes clear that their first objective is to kill him, his friends (including his new Druid apprentice Granuaile), his staff at the bookstore he owns, and Malina's coven. This is a fight he can't walk away from.

The second book in the Iron Druid series lives up to expectations as a fast-paced, engaging urban fantasy with mythic overtones. There are some loose ends which I trust will be dealt with in later books. Leif--Atticus' vampire lawyer--extracts a promise that Atticus will kill Thor. Yes, THAT Thor.

31st Aug, 2015

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Book Log 25/2015 - Ann Aguirre: Forbidden Fruit: Corinne Solomon 3.5 (novella)

Forbidden FruitA novella which is - according to the afterword - number 3.5 in the Corinne Solomon series, but since I picked this up at random and haven't read any of the others I just took it at face value. Corinne Solomon doesn't actually appear, so it seems to be more of a spin-off than a continuation, or an infill. I don't know whether these two characters are staples of the series or not.

It's pretty obvious there's something strange going on. Shannon communicates with the dead via an antique radio and Jesse is a cop who's looking after her as she resettles in Laredo. There's a hole in her memories, apparently the result of some sort of spell and Jesse, an empath as well as a cop - has the same gap in his knowledge. There are demons after Shann, buit we don't really find out why. I suspect that wuill be revealed in other books in the series. Basically this is the story of how two people's relationship changes. Sweet and sexy in turns this is a quick read and pacy enough for me to wish it continued. Okay - I guess I just have to start reading the Corinne Solomons. I'm already a fan of Aguirre's Sirantha Jax books. Like the Jax books this is written in the first person present, which is not something I'd generally say I liked, but it works for me in the Jax books, and it works here, too.
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Book Log 24/2015 - Terry Pratchett: the Shepherd's Crown - Discworld #41 - Tiffany Aching #5

Shepherds CrownAh, the very last Terry Pratchett and a farewell not only to the author but to one of his most endearing characters, Granny Weatherwax who sets her affairs in order, cleans the house, weaves her own coffin and meets Death as an old friend, leaving her cottage, her boots and her steading to young witch Tiffany Aching.

Tiffany is a powerful young witch, yes, but stepping into Esme Weatherwax's shoes (while not giving up her own steading on the chalk) is a very big step and there are some senior witches, particularly Mrs Earwig, who would deny her the opportunity. Indeed, people are always underestimating Tiffany. She's young, working class, she comes from the chalk, not from Lancre (and chalk is 'soft') and her kind of witching largely consists of going round the district dealing with births and deaths and cutting old men's toenails because that's what needs doing. And that's what a witch does. It's not flashy magic, in fact, it's not always magic, but it's what's needful.

Tiffany has allies. Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax's long time friend, knows that Tiffany wouldn't have been named as her successor unless she was worthy, and the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men of the first Tiffany book - a cross between miniature Scottish Nationalists, Glasgow boys on a Saturday night out, and Braveheart extras with double woad - are her staunch supporters and protectors. And then there's Geoffrey, the boy who wants to be a witch, and Tiffany's long distance boyfriend who is learning to be a doctor in Ankh Morpork at the Lady Sybil Free Hospital.

All this comes together when there's another major incursion from the Elves, those Lords and Ladies repulsed by the elder witches in the novel of the same name. Elves are nasty and dangerous. They live by their glamour and take delight in doing mischief from ruining beer to stealing children and tormenting and killing humans in various despicable and painful ways.

Needless to say Tiffany deals with the Elves in her own way and becomes her own witch in the end, not following exactly in Granny Weatherwax's bootsteps, but making her own.

This is a delightful book, a fitting end to Terry Pratchett's oeuvre. I have to say that right from the start there were moments when I could hardly read it dry-eyed. Tiffant has a lot to say about humanity, but she leads by example, working it out for herself as she goes.

When I finished the final page I was left with a hope that somewhere, in some reality, Terry Pratchett and Esme Weatherwax are sitting in the sun enjoying a substantial cup of their favourite tipple together.

25th Aug, 2015

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The Other Blog

I have a new post up on my Wordpress Blog about editing Winterwood, my upcoming third book. Please swing by and take a look. There's a partial of one of the potential cover images.
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Movie of the Week: Absolutely Anything

Absolutely AnythingWe had planned to see Man from UNCLE this week, but a particularly damning report from a friend sent us (almost at random) to see Simon Pegg in Absolutely Anything. A good choice as it turns out.

The premise: a bunch of poweful aliens are trying to decide whether the Earth is worth saving or whether it should be obliterated. As a test they select one person to be the recipient of a power which enables him to do absolutely anything. The power lands on the shoulders of mild-mannered British school teacher, Neil (Pegg) and we follow his discovery of the power, his inept usage for immediate personal benefit and his attempt to use it for the good of mankind. Imagine what a really twisted genie could do if it was granting you three wishes and you might imagine what happens to neil when the wishes he makes are granted literally.

Kudos to the voice actors, all of the surviving Monty Python team as the aliens and the much-missed Robin Williams in his last ever movie as the voice of Dennis the dog - a critical role as Dennis is a bit of a scene stealer.#

A very sweet movie, entertaining and funny - maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but it certainly offered lots of smiles. Well worth seeing.
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Book Log 23/2015 - Diana Gabaldon: Voyager - Outlander #3

Outlander VoyagerSPOILERS FOR BOOKS 1 & 2 AHEAD.

Nearly twenty years have passed since Jamie sent Claire back to her own time to save the life of his unborn child while he returned to the battlefield of Culloden, expecting to die, and there isn't a day when she hasn't missed him despite getting on with her life, training to be a doctor and having a rocky relationship with Frank (recently deceased) while raising Jamie's red-headed daughter Brianna.

Through a series of flashbacks we see what Jamie and Claire's lives have been in the years they've been apart. Yes, that's right, Jamie didn't die at Culloden, though he had a pretty grim time of it afterwards.

Through some judicious searching in Claire's present (1960s) she, Brianna and Roger Wakefield trace Jamie's family history, discover he's still 'alive' (in his own timeline) and Claire decides to go back. Jamie and Claire are reunited, leading to further adventures and an epic voyage.

This book is back to the top form of the first one. It's interesting in that there are viewpoint shifts, some of it being in third person and Claire's narrative in first, but this isn't jarring. It's a long book, but I galloped through it, unable to put it down.
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Book Log 22/2015 - Georgette Heyer: Cotillion.


I wanted something fluffy to read while editing my magic pirate book and Cotillion seemed like just the job. Kitty Charing has been raised by her irascible adopted uncle. Determined that he is dying of gout he summons Kitty's unwed male cousins-by-adoption and promises to leave his considerable fortune to whichever one of them will marry her, leaving nothing to Kitty in her own right. None of the cousins actually needs the money, being reasonably well-heeled. There's Hugh, a stiff and slightly pompous clergyman; Freddy, an empty-headed dandy more concerned about the knot in his neckcloth than acquiring a wife; Dolphinton, an Earl, but slow-witted, and Jack, a regular Corinthian, gamester and rake-about-town. It's Kitty's choice, but the one she really wants, bad-boy Jack is the only one who doesn't respond to his uncle's summons. So Kitty comes up with a scheme to get herself away from Uncle's restrictive country home, up to London, made fashionable, and introduced into society, to put herself in Jack's way. To this end she coerces the amiable Freddy to a sham engagement, is installed with his respectable married sister (whose diplomat husband is abroad) and is launched upon society. She enters into several matchmaking schemes for other people, but neglects to make progress with her own. The dashing Jack proves to be not all Kitty believed him to be and in the end it's dear, dependable, thoughtful Freddy who comes through, not quite as empty-headed as he thinks himself.
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Movie of the Week: Fantastic Four

Fantastic 4Is it me or are reboots coming so thick and fast that we all wonder why they bother any more? Or maybe why we bother. Spiderman, Superman and now Fantastic Four.

This is the origin story again with Reed Richards transitioning from child-geek to adult geek, making incredible scientific discoveries and learning how to transport organic matter to another universe by playing with bits of junk from his friend's scrapyard. Yeah, right. I can believe in kryptonite, but interdimensional travel via junkyard parts? Not so sure.

FF may be one of my least favourite comic book stories.Is it because the superpowers that our heroes get are a bit lame. Mr stretchy-man? Really? It's not very sexy, is it? As a movie this version was more than a little bland with no stand-out performances. I wasn't all that fond of the 2005 Fantastic 4 but at least Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis had a bit of charisma. I've already forgotten the names of the actors in this.
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Movie of the Week: Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation

MI Rogue NationTom Cruise is always watchable and this Mission Impossible installment delivers what it says on the tin, Lots of excitement, edge-of-the-seat set pieces, twists and disguises. A nice turn by Simon Pegg as Benji and Jeremy Renner as Brandt. Ethan and crew have to take on the Syndicate, a team just as clever and well equipped as they are, and at the same time are disowned and disbanded by their own side. Hounded by both the good guys and the bad guys, Ethan has to go rogue to achieve the impossible.

And yes, I'm sure Tom Cruise has a picture in the attic.
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Movie of the Week: Ant Man

Ant ManI'm not a comics reader, though I generally like marvel movies and this is no exception. I had no prior knowledge of Ant Man, so the movie came as a very pleasant surprise. Paul Rudd is a very engaging Scott Lang/Ant Man, an ex-con, drived to become a small-time burglar, who dons the Ant Man suit in which he shrinks in size while growing in strength. Michael Douglas is Hank Pym, his mentor and Evangeline Lilly, Pym's spirited daughter and (predictably) the love interest.

There are some nice human touches, some finely judges humour combined with full-on action adventure. Pym sends Scott to steal back Pym's technology that he fears will be used to the detrement of mankind.
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Movie of the Week: Inside Out

Inside OutAn animated psychology text book. Sweet in places and quite insightful. I would expect some of this is a bit scary for children. I'm not sure who this movie is aimed at. Parents will probably appreciate it most, I guess. There are some very funny moments (especially Dad putting his foot down) and a useful message: it's OK to be sad.

24th Aug, 2015

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Book Log 21/2015 - Diana Gabaldon: Dragonfly in Amber - Outlander #2

Outlander Dragonfly in AmberWARNING SPOILERS AHEAD
Apologies, it's impossible to blog this without spoilers for either earlier books in the series, or twists in this book.

The continuing adventures of Jamie Fraser and his wife, Claire, an ex-army nurse from World War Two catapulted back (via a magical stone circle) to the time of the '45 (that's 1745) the Highland rising which culminated in the battle of Culloden when the English army crushed the Scots decisively.

With Claire's foreknowledge if how disastrous Bonnie Prince Charlie's return to Scotland will be for the Highland Clans, Claire and Jamie journey to France to try to prevent the prince from returning to Scotland, but their attempts to change history fail and Jamie is embroiled in the ill-fated campaign on Scottish soil, knowing that it will lead to the  end of the Highland Clans and cruel persecution by the English.

No matter what Claire and Jamie try it seems that history is going to take its course, so with Claire pregnant and Jamie convinced that he'll die at Culloden, he sends her back through the stones to save her life and the life of his child.

Though an excellent read, this second book in Gabaldon's Outlander series wasn't quite so gripping as the first, but it was still plenty good enough to have me reaching for the third book. There are few series that have gripped me enough to make me read three very hefty tomes in a row. Excellent characters and a real page turner.

4th Aug, 2015

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BOOK DAY! Crossways is out today.

CrosswaysIt's BOOK DAY! Crossways, my second novel, is out today.

What starts out as a search for survivors turns into a battle for survival. Space stations, corrupt corporations, telepathy, relationships and something moving in the depths of foldspace.

Not read the first one yet? Empire of Dust is still available, of course. Empire made the Locus Best Seller list in the month it was published. For Crossways to do the same it would be great if those of you who are going to buy it (if you haven't already, do so today or within the next few days. That would be fab. (No pressure, just if...) One small step for readingkind - one giant leap for Jacey!

Where to get it. If you're in the USA/Canada then all good bookstores,  Amazon/ Barnes & Noble etc. It's available as paperback or electronic version (Kindle Nook etc.). If you're in the UK then it's a bit more limited due to it being an American import, but Amazon.co.uk has it.  or Forbidden Planet if you're lucky enough to have a branch in your area.'re lucky enough to have a branch in your area.

If you want some background on the Psi-Tech universe then there's a page on my website here: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/psi-tech.htm

And a reminder, not just for my book, but for all books. If you like a book, talk about it, post to facebook, twitter, your blog. Tell your friends. Make recommendations. With fewer and fewer bookshops on the High Street, browsing is limited, so the best way for news to get out about new books is by word of mouth.

Thank you, readers, reviewers, bloggers, retweeters, facebookers. Without you...

21st Jul, 2015

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Time Out

Jacey Crossways 3I haven't been around LJ much for the last month or two because I'm flat out in the middle of editing Winterwood, which is the book after next, due in February 2016. This is the magic pirate book that was the one I actually made the first sale to DAW with but due to publishing schedules is the third book to be published.

The second book, Crossways, is due on 4th August - eep, just a couple of weeks away - and I just got my author copies. The cover is (once more) by Stephan Martiniere and I've done an analysis of why I love it here on my Wordpress blog: https://jaceybedford.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/book-cover-crossways/

In the meantime - apart from having my nose down to the keyboard, I spent a couple of days in London to attend the Science for Fiction Writers course, at Imperial College (organised by Dr Dave Clements who I met throiugh Milford). Some fascinating items delivered by top scientists in a way that wasn't too hard to follow for us non-scientists, though I'm still a bit boggled by the concept that time doies not exist and constantly retreat to the Douglas Adams lline of : Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so. I was fascinated by the account of Rosetta and the Philae Lander. I mean - landing something the size of a washing machine on a tiny rock zooming round space, after a ten year journey. Wow!

Since Imperial College is in South Kensington, just a spit from the museums, I also managed a trip to the Victoria and Albert to check out their Regency costume for the Winterwood book and a dash into the Science Museum to look at spacesuits.
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Book Log 20/2015 - Georgette Heyer: An Infamous Army

An Infamous ArmyThis is almost more non-fiction than fiction. Ms Heyer delves into the social history immediately preceding the Battle of Waterloo, thunders through the battle itself and it's only in the aftermath that romance and history truly meet. It's a fictionalised and extremely well-researched account of Waterloo built around what seems to be a doomed romance between notorious widow, Lady Barbara Childe a heartbreaker at the centre of the social whirl in Brussels where the English have set up their own fashionable society while waiting for Wellington's army to arrive, and the very decent (and hugely forgiving) Colonel Charles Audley, one of Wellington's aides-de-camp.

I tend to read Heyer for a bit of light relief, not a history lesson, though I usually take her research for granted. This book had a huge cast of genuine historical characters - possibly rather more than I wanted to deal with, so all-in-all not my favourite Heyer, though I can understand why it's the book that she was most proud of writing.

On a secondary note - with no bearing on the quality of the story whatsoever - this particular cover bears absolutely no resemblance to any of the major characters in the story.
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Book Log 19/2015 - Diana Gabaldon: Outlander - Outlander #1

OutlanderOutlander was originally published as Cross Stitch in the UK, but I bought it from Amazon as Outlander in ebook form. It's difficult to review this as a book because I confess I watched the firsat season on TV, courtesy of Amazon Prime, before reading the book, so first of all, the book was very close to the TV series, though, of course, that should be the other way round. I greatly enjoyed revisiting the story and perhaps getting a li8ttle more depth and explanation via the text.

The story is of Claire, a Second World War army nurse reunited with her husband, Frank Randall, shortly after the war's end. They are trying to reconnect after many years apart and they go to Scotland on a second honeymoon during which Frank does a little family history, learning, in particular, about his many times great-grandfather Black Jack Randall, a British redcoat captain stationed in Scotland with a reputation to match his name.

When Claire visits a ring of standing stones she finds herself whisked back two hundred years to the time of Black Jack Randall and the time very shortly before Culloden. Randall is the first person she meets, and not in a good way. Startled to find he's the spit of her husband in looks and then horrified to find he's nothing like Frank in temperament, she ends up falling in with a tough band of kilted highlanders. Taken first as an English spy, she proves her usefulness as a healer and finds herself drawn to James Fraser, an outlaw with a price on his head and history - very bad history - with Randall.

Claire and Jamie end up married as an expedient move to make her a Scot by marriage and therefore outside of Randall's immediate jurisdiction. Despite her feelings for Frank and her longing to return to her old life - if she can - she finds herself falling for Jamie, an exasperating, red-headed, stubborn-as-an-ox highlander whose bravery, honesty and sense of honour are amongst his redeeming features. He's not a twentieth century man, however, he's a product of his time, and Claire a product of hers. Clashes are inevitable. He's a soft heart, but a hard head, and his history with Randall is going to cause painful problems for both of them.

I'm not overly familiar with Scottish history, but this feels very well researched. There's a tiny bit of dialect, but only enought ot make it feel authentic. The writing style is beautifully transparent, letting you get on with the story. Nicely done considering this was Ms Gabaldon's first book.

No more spoilers because if you like rollicking historical adventure, more than a touch of romance (and sex) and a dollop of time-travel thrown in this is the perfect book for you. I apologise now to my friend Mary-Anne who told me to read it twenty years ago. I should have taken her advice. But now I have the pleasure of seven more books to look forward to. (And another in preparation, I understand.) Highly recommended. I just ordered the second book, Dragonfly in Amber.

29th Jun, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Minions

MinionsThe minions, having evolved to serve supervillains, can't find one bad enough, at least, not one that survives for long, so after falling into terminal depression, hiding out in an ice cave for a couple of centuries, minons, Kevin, Stewart and Bob set off to find the perfect supervillain, which they do, eventually, after adventures trying to steal the crown jewels. The best jokes are in the trailer, but even so it's a sweet movie for an otherwise dull Monday afternoon
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Movie of the Week: Jurassic World

Jurassic WorldThis is everything everyone says it is, good and bad. Leave all sense of logic at the door and collect it again on your way out of the movie theatre and you'll probably enjoy it a hell of a lot. Chris Pratt makes a decent hero. There are nods to the old Jurassic Park movies and the heroine manages to stay looking reasonably clean for way longer that you might expect. There's a lot of gratuitous violence, but if you didn't expect that to begin with what the hell were you doing going to see this movie anyway? Trained raptors? Well... OK, if you must!

18th Jun, 2015

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Book Log 18/2015 - Lia Silver: Partner

PartnerPartner by Lia Silver is a direct follow-on from Prisoner. The second half of the same story, in fact. Not just action and adventure (though there is that) but also a lot (maybe too much?) exploration of PTSD and combat stress. Though this is something hardly ever tackled to this depth in what appears on the surface to be a lightweight novel, so it certainly adds something. The author certainly knows what she's talking about, being a professional therapist in her other life.

A combination of thriller with supernatural romance. DJ Torres is a 'born' werewolf and a marine who, after being injured in Afghanistan, has been imprisoned by a shadowy government agency somewhere out in the desert. There he's partnered with tough-as-nails superspy and assassin, Echo, one of two surviving experimental clones.

Though they try to hide it because they know that their captors will use it against them, Echo and DJ have bonded. In this half of the story they have to figure out how to escape the secret base, rescue DJ's former marine buddy, Roy, whom DJ bit to save his life when he was dying of wounds. They also have to bring Echo's dying clone sister out with them and liberate the pack of made werewolves who have been experimented on.

Packed with emotion, this book is more about relationships than action (though action is certainly not absent). Echo must learn how to deal with newly awakened emotions when her feelings have been in lockdown mode for many years. DJ has to deal with a new mate bond. The thrust of the story, the escape and the search for Roy, almost plays second fiddle to the psychology. Some of the urgency of the must-rescue-Roy part of the story is weakened.. The solutions, when they come, are maybe a little too easy, though the main characters don't get out unscathed. There's a missed opportunity in that much of Roy's story happens off the page (and is possibly covered in a third book which centres on Roy, which I have not read). But that's me being nitpicky, the whole thing carries you along and it's one of those stories to gulp down quickly while it's hot. It also looks as if there's another book about Echo and DJ which i look forward to reading.

15th Jun, 2015

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Phone Woes

I have a new phone. A smartphone, no less, Motorola G. Bought by doubling up my Tesco clubcard points, so I didn't actually buy it with real money, but still, it seems like a nice piece of kit... I've dowloaded some nice apps and I'm getting good wifi connection at home.

But I haven't used it as a phone yet. I was going to go with Tesco because you get triple credit. Pay a tenner, get £30. Then I realised that the extra £20 evaporates after a month if you don't use it, and since I'm a low user... no point...

So I decided to stick with Orange since I've been with them forever and I get 14p minute phone calls, but this new phone needs a mini sim, so I can't just swap my sim card over from my old phone. And that's where it all falls apart. Has anyone ever tried to talk to a real person at Orange/EE customer services? It's next to bloody impossible. It took five tries to get to someone last week - the line kept cutting off to a long bleep right after: 'We'll put you through to someone who can help you,' And this after going through several frustrating menu choices on the automated systen, none of them seeming quite adequate for what I needed. Anyhow, eventually i got a real person who arranged to send me a new mini sim. All I had to do when it arrived - he said - was to phone on _this_ number to port the number over and activate it.

So today the new sim arrives. It's EE not Orange (contrary to what I'd been told) but it's just a plastic sim with a paper label cointaining the sim number stuck to it and no phone number or instructions attached. There's a printed impersonal Welcome letter and a number to call,

I called the number. Jumped through all the menu choices and... BEEEEEEP. Cut off, just like last week. Tried again. Same. Tried Customer Services number - got someone who couldn't help me. Call the shop. Called the shop. What's the phone number on the new sim? they ask. There isn't one, I reply. But what's the phone number they ask again. I describe what's in the envelope I've been sent. One bit of plastic, one welcome letter, no packaging, no phone number. Hmm, that sim seems to be a blank one that's not active, they tell me. You need to call the PAYG helpline. Called the PAYG helpline. No. No. You need to call the shop. THIS IS MY SIXTH PHONE CALL. ALL I WANT IS A NEW SIM THAT WORKS!!!!! (Yes, I'm getting a little tetchy by now.)

Eventually gent with heavy non Brit accent who was obviously having as much trouble with my Yorkshire as i was with his whatever, calls me back. They are sending me a new SIM. Great, what next?

When you get it call this number...


And then to add insult to injury I look online... Why do all the PAYG have 'packages' that expire within a month if you don't use them, and which you have to commit to paying a minimum of £10 per month? If I wanted to commit to a specified amount each month I'd have a bloody contract. The whole point of PAYG is that you buy minutes and when you've used them you buy more. Doesn't that make sense? It makes sense to me.  Ah, but you get 500 free minutes if you agree to buy £10 of credit a month. Scuse me? Those minutes are not free. I'd be paying £10 for them. And £10 for 500 minutes is not such a good deal when I only use five of them and then i lose them because my month is up. What is it about LOW USER that EE doesn't get? I'd be hard pressed to use 500 minutes in a year let alone a month. Why? Because we have rubbish signal at home and the only way I can use my mobile is to hang out of the front door. It's something I have for emergencies only. The only time I make use of it is when I'm at SF conventions, to keep in touch by text with my conbuddies.

Dear Orange, I promise to buy £10 of credit a year whether I need it or not. Stop trying to sell me stuff I don't need and can't use. just send me a sim that, yanno, actually works and give me my old number. And also send me a new sim for my old phone because though I only paid £20 for it and have had it for three years, it still works a treat. Thank you Rio.

12th Jun, 2015

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Book Log 18/2015 - Firefly: Still Flying (Various authors.)

FireflyA book of Firefly trivia, nicely produced with excellent illustrations and the added advantage of four new pieces of short fiction by Ben Edlund, Jane Espenson, Brett Matthews, and Jose Molina. It's for fans, but that's OK. Shiny, in fact.
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Book Log 17/2015 - Lia Silver: Prisoner

PrisonerSherwood Smith's review pointed me at this one (two, actually because 'Partner' is a direct continuation of the story and takes up where Prisoner leaves off. (I'm only just starting on that one). This combines adventure thriller with supernatural romance. DJ Torres is a 'born' werewolf and a marine who, when his helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan goes against everything he's ever been taught and bites his badly wounded best buddy, Roy, to try and save his life. Having given away his secret, DJ finds himself imprisoned by a shadowy government agency somewhere out in the desert where he's partnered with tough-as-nails superspy and assassin, Echo, one of two surviving experimental clones. Echo has superstrength and lightning fast reflexes. DJ and Echo are both physically capable of escaping but Echo is held back by her frail clone sister who is gradually succumbing to the defects of her body, and DJ is held back because the bad guys have Roy stashed in some secret lock-up and threaten him with torture if DJ steps out of line. Things are complicated by a pack of unhappy 'made' wolves, each one of them with a power and a problem.

What could be a fairly standard adventure romance is lifted above the average by the exploration of dyslexia, and PTSD and the psychological effects of warfare and violence. (The author is a therapist in real life, specialising in PTSD.) DJ has been shaped by marine culture: never leave anyone behind and pack principles. Echo, born in a test tube, raised by carers, bottles up her emotions and is used to working alone. She's watched three of her close sisters die as their bodies failed them, now her last sister, the only person she cares about, is a fragile invalid. When the sister dies her controllers will lose their last hold on Echo, so they try and team her up with DJ to give her something - or someone - else to care about.

This is slight in terms of page count, but high in emotional intensity. Lia Silver is a pen name. The author also writes as Rachel Manija Brown. I've been hearing good things about her books from a number of people. This one certainly didn't disappoint.
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Book Log 16/2015 - Winston Graham: Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall 1783 - 1787

RossPoldarkI'm not sure why it's taken me the best part of forty years and two TV dramatisations to read this book. Perhaps because it was written in the 1940s I assumed the prose style would be a little stodgy, but not a bit of it. This reads like a much more modern novel. Winston Graham had a light touch

In 1783 Captain Ross Poldark, a gentleman, returns to his Cornish home from the American wars. Headstrong and volatile when he left, he's now more seasoned and prepared to take on the near-derelict family home, Nampara, after the death of his father. He's anticipating that Elizabeth, the love of his life, will be waiting for him to sweep her off her feet and marry him, but arrives to find her on the point of marrying his wealthier cousin, Francis.

He buries himself in work, repairing the house, cultivating the land, with only his plain cousin, Verity, as a friend. But Ross has the common touch. Despite the Poldark name, he's always been equally comfortable with the common folks who work the land and the tin and copper mines. He rescues a waif of a girl, Demelza Carne, and takes her in as a kitchen maid, not realising until several years later that she's grown into a lovely (and loving) young woman. marrying beneath his class causes scandal in the neighbourhood; the Poldarks are considered to be Cornish aristocracy while Demelza is the daughter of a drunken miner.

The story will not be new to anyone who has seen either the Robin Ellis TV version or the current Aidan Turner one. The first season of the current televised version takes incidents from the first two books in the series (there are 12 altogether), but this book ends before the birth of Ross and Demelza's first child.

Themes include love and loss, class struggle and rivalry, both personal and industrial. (Though in the first book the enmity between Ross and George Warleggan seems relatively unimportant.  Graham's historical background and setting is well-researched. He captures the world of eighteenth century Cornwall well.

poldark-aidan-turn_3257153bAnd yes, I did resist using the TV tie in cover with Aidan Turner's face all over it. Disappointed? Well, here you are then. Ross Poldark as played by Aidan Turner. You're welcome.

2nd Jun, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Tomorrowland - A World Beyond

TomorrowlandSpolers ahead.

Tomorrowland is a curate's egg of a movie, i.e. good in parts, but if you think about it too much the theme, which seems to be 'hope overcomes all the bad stuff' is actually not played out to its logical conclusioin. Should I be looking for logical conclusions in all of this? Well, i'd like to.

Start off with the old Cherokee tale of two wolves fighting it out inside your head. One is dark, the other is light. Which one wins? The answer is: the one you feed.

OK, so it's a Disney movie aimed at kids, which means that on the surface it's fairly simplistic. There's a place in another dimension called Tomorrowland - created by Tesla and the best minds of his age -  where some of the brightest and best have been recruited to create a perfect world.

There's a framing device which is the older Frank (George Clooney) and teenage Casey (Britt Robertson) speaking straight to camera addressing us (or so it seems) and telling a story which begins with Frank as a child - a whizz kid, ever hopeful child inventor, being recruited to Tomorrowland at the 1966 World's Fair in New York by a pretty child called Athena. Skip forward to the present day and Casey is indulging in a bit of honest terrorism, trying to prevent NASA from demolishing its own launch pad (and presumably ending any pretensions to accessing space). Her dad is one of the NASA engineers employed on the demolition project. Inevitably she gets caught, spends a night in jail and is bailed out in the morning. Amongst her belongings is a strange button which, when touched, gives her a wonderful vision of the utopian Tomorrowland. Full of hope she goes in search, but it turns out that it's not going to be so simple. The utopia has failed and together with Athena (who has not aged), Casey (chased by robots) goes in search of Frank, now old and embittered. Athena thinks that Casey can prevent the end of our world and change the world of Tomorrowland if only they can get back into it.

OK, with me so far? It's impossible to explain this without spoilers, so I'm going to stop right there. Actually watching this with a hefty chunk of WSOD is the only way that it can work because when you think about the themes too deeply the ending is somewhat unsatisfying. Yes they do what they set out to do and that's OK for Tomorrowland, but kiunda sucks for Earth-as-we-know-it because, although the world does not end as predicted, nothing changes except that the brightest and best are sucked away into the utopia where they can fulfil their potential.

The good includes Clooney's performance and that of all the major characters - all the rest of them youngsters except for Hugh Laurie as Nix. The imagery of Tomorrowland itself is fantastic (literally) and i could have done with a bit more of that. The bad--well--it's a really slow start. Despite being called Tomorrowland much of the plot takes place on Earth-as-we-know-it and there are times when you wish it would chage gear and take us somewhere else. There's some snappy dialogue between old Frank and Casey, but the script is otherwise pretty forgettable.

Passing note for SF fans, one of the villains of the piece is a comic book store owner in the present day called Hugo whose surname, mentioned only once, is Gernsback. Homage? In-joke?

This didn't do well at the box office and I can't say I'm surprised. It's a mish-mash and for all its promise, it doesn't really deliver.

30th May, 2015

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Book Log 15/2015 - Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway: Modesty Blaise - The Gabriel Set-Up

Modesty Blaise-Gabriel Set UpI've always been a big Modesty Blaise fan, coming to the books first, long before I realised that the character originated from the serialised graphic strip which first appeared in The Evening Standard (one of the Beaverbrook newspapers) in 1963. This collection of four stories reprinted from the original newspaper strips features black and white artwork by the late Jim Holdaway. (Literally black and white, not greyscale.)

I've said before that I often have trouble with graphic novels because I'm not used to the style and I find some of the artwork difficult to 'read'. Whether that's my fault for poor interpretation, or the artist's fault for poor execution, I don't know, however with this simple line-drawing style I have no trouble at all. Holdaway's characters are very easily differentiated from one another and the action is crystal clear.

The stories: La Machine, The Long Leaver, The Gabriel Stt-Up and In the Beginning are typical Modesty stories. La Machine is her first introduction to the British Secret Service's favourite civil servant, Sir Gerald Tarrant and his sidekick, Fraser.

Modesty is a capable female protagonist in her own right, kick-ass but feminine, sexually independent, fiercely intelligent and with a background in organised crime but a sound moral compass. Her sidekick, the equally capable Willie Garvin has been reborn in Modesty's service. Starting out a a mean fighting machine, Modesty has given him her trust and he's picked it up and run with it, turning into her loyal right-hand man. Their non-sexual love story underpins the whole Modesty Blaise oeuvre. They are partners who trust each other totally, but they are capable of working independently and they don't own each other. There is no hint of jealousy when they take partners, long term or one-night stands. They love each other, but they are not in love, neither are they lovers. (Their adult attitude and relationship puts Bella and Edward-Sparkly-Vampire to shame. Just sayin' because I read these books at about the same age as millions of teens read Twilight.)

Three of the stories are set in Modesty and Willie's present, but In the beginning is Modesty's origin story as a refugee child walking through the Middle East in the aftermath of war, educated by life and a displaced professor whom she protects. Modesty ends up running a crime network and for six years Modestly and Willie fight and scheme and bleed together, tending each other's hurts and growing very rich. The Modesty Blaise stories are set after Modesty and Willie have retired from their life of crime and realised that settling down is difficult for a pair of adrenaline junkies.

I recommend the novels heartily and this reproduction to the early comic strips is a lovely way to revisit Modesty's adventures.

17th May, 2015

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Book Log 14/2015 - Judith Tarr: Forgotten Suns

Forgotten SunsOn the deserted world of Nevermore, a family of archaeologists labours to uncover ancient mysteries despite the threat of funding cuts which will lead to the United Planets stripping the planet's resources in a legal invasion.

Nevermore presents a conundrum. If the people of this world had suffered a wipeout after some apocalyptic upheaval there would be evidence, but there isn't. The buildings have crumbled, but all the records, statuary, art and artefacts have all disappeared. There are no skeletons, nothing to say whether the inhabitants were humanoid or alien. While her parents struggle to understand the mystery of the ruins and fight to retain the funding that will protect the project, and the world, Aisha accidentally blows the top off a mountain revealing a strange being, a living treasure. Human in appearance, Rama is even stranger than he first appears. Dressed in rags, but wearing enough gold artefacts to stock a small museum, and quite mad in a compelling way, he begins a quest to find Nevermore's missing population. They've only been gone for five thousand years, so that shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Aisha's Aunt Khalida, a Military Intelligence officer is on leave after a mission that broke her. She's living with the burden of guilt too big for any one person to carry and Psycorps patent fix hasn't taken. Now both the MI and Psycorps want her back on duty. She's forced to return to Ariceli, the world where she committed the ultimate war crime, to negotiate a peace - at least that's what they say. It just happens that Ariceli is also Rama's first port of call… and Aisha is not letting him go gallivanting round the universe without her. She's desperately trying to find a justification for the continued funding of the Nevermore expedition and Rama is the likely key.

The question of who is Rama? turns into the question of what is Rama? Aisha may be the only person tying together disparate strands which all belong to the same puzzle.

Of course it's all a lot more complex than that. Everyone has their own agenda: Rama is still searching, following a trail of breadcrumbs; Khalida has to prevent one of the factions in her peace negotiation from blowing the whole planet of Ariceli apart; Aisha is searching for anything that will help her parents.

When they rescue an enslaved sentient ship a chase across the universe ends up as a journey through the multiverse. Rama must not only find his people but must also fulfil an ancient prophesy, one that's likely to kill him and anyone who helps him.

Psionic powers and magic mesh with science in this enthralling adventure. Characterisation, human and non-human, is complex and layered. Determined Aisha. Cocksure Rama. Damaged Khalida. They all have a part to play. The setting is a multiverse full of diverse worlds from Nevermore to Ariceli and Starsend via a free-trader's hub in the company of a worldly wise opera singer, a renegade Psychorps lieutenant and a boatload of angry scientists. The writing is often lyrical without being overblown, the tension is well-wrought and the pace fairly rattles along.

Highly recommended.

14th May, 2015

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Crossways Page Proofs

Crossways-cvr-400I've had my head down working my way through five hundred and thirty six pages of page proofs for the upcoming novel, Crossways. My good friend and cinebuddy, H, is also reading the page proofs because she's brilliant at finding typos. This afternoon she sent me the corrections for the first 300 pages. I expected we'd have some overlap, but there are hardly any typos that we both spotted, yet we each found a few. (Maybe only five or six per chapter - sometimes fewer.) I'm combining them into one list now.

This leads me to wonder how individual brains work when it comes to spotting typos.

Hell, if I knew that, I probably wouldn't make the typos in the first place.

Have a picture.

13th May, 2015

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Movie of the Week: The Age of Adaline

Age of AdalineSlow-paced tale of a 29 year old woman who due to some scientific technobabble comparable to introducing midichlorians into the Star Wars prequels ceases to age. There's a lot of initial exposition before we get to meet Adaline who is geting through life by changing identities every ten years, with only her daughter (who by now loooks like her grandmother) as a constant in her life.

The image on the poster says it all. It's an angsty romance with none of the other aspects of not aging explored except in a very cursory manner.

Blake Lively and Michiel Huisman are somewhat instantly forgettable as the angsty lovers, but the whole thing is saved somewhat by a good turn from Harrison Ford as ... well, if I told you that it would be a major spoiler... and Ellen Burstyn as the aged daughter.

I can see this eventually becoming one of the staple afternoon movies on TV on some obscure channel.
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Movie of the Week: Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding CrowdMy cinebuddy, H, has a far better memory of the 1967 Julie Christie version of this and she had quite a lot to say about the loss of dramatic moments, particularly the ending. I wasn't as critical of it as she was. I particularly liked measured take on Gabriel Oak (never having been much of a fan of Alan Bates) and I like Carey Mulligan, though to be fair I also liked Julie Christie in the Bathsheba Everdene role. There's no comparison between Sergeant Troys, however. wins by a mile, leaving Tom Sturridge standing at the starting gate. As for Farmer Boldwood, yes I think I like somewhat better than Peter Finch. If there was drama lost at the end it was a directorial quirk not an acting one.

No spoilers for anyone who hasn't been forced to read the book at school (and I have to say that I hated Thomas Hardy, though this does seem to be one of his more cheerful books, despite the body-count.) Bathsheba Everdene turns down a marriage proposal from one man, comes into some property, is proposed to by another, marries for lust and... well... no spoilers. One woman, three men and eventually a satisfactory ending (for Bathsheba, at least, with a few trials and tribulations along the way.

The 1867 version was interesting in its choice of folksongs: Julie Christie (dubbed by Isla Cameron according to IMDB) singing Bushes and Briars as compared to Carey Mulligan's Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. I stuck around for the music credits to see if i could catch on to who did the actual singing but although Eliza Carthy and saul Rose were heavily mentioned in the credits they flashed by too quickly for me to be sure and seemed to be mostly for arrangements. Though there was a version of Lay Me Low straight out of the John Tamms songbook. His version to a T. Though to be fair it is a Shaker song from the 1830s. I was amused by the fact that IMDB says: "The song sung by Carey Mulligan in the teaser trailer is a cover of "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" (traditional) by Pentangle" Oh dear, IMDB, yes I'm sure Pentangle did sing it, but so did an awful lot of other people, What don't you get about 'traditional'?

Anyhow now I suppose the only thing I can do is to go and order the remastered DVD version from 1967.

12th May, 2015

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Book Log 13/2015 - Terry Pratchett: Raising Steam - Discworld #40

Raising SteamI so wanted this to be the best Terry Pratchett ever. It isn't, but it ticks several boxes for me. It more or less rounds off the history of Ankh Morpork's ascent to the modern era with the arrival of the steam railway. Though Moist von Lipwig is the central character (and he's never been my favourite) there are glimpses of Vimes (who is my favourite) and a fair bit of Vetinari (and Drumknott). As the railway travels across the face of the Discworld we briefly see landscapes we know and love. It's a farewell piece. We don't get to say goodbye to the witches, however. Maybe that will happen in the, as yet unpublished, fifth Tiffany Aching book.

6th May, 2015

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For all my UK friends as the election draws near. This is my one and only political post. Skip it if the election is driving you nuts already.

I come from Barnsley, Labour heartland, so it's not surprising that I want the current Con-Dem government OUT! Their record is appalling, and their outright lies about Labour causing the economic collapse are simply shameful and their dismembering of the NHS is, frankly, terrifying.

I want:

  • A Britain that's humane, i.e. fairer for all, including the disadvantaged, the underfunded and the sick. (I want an end to the scroungers and the immigrants rhetoric! People on benefits and immigrants are not the problem, and never were.)

  • I want a strong, expanded NHS with all elements of profit for private companies removed from the equation.

  • I want education to return to child-centred-learning, not accountant-centred-learning or 'academies'.

  • I want an end to the kind of austerity that clips the wings of the poor and lets the rich fly high.

  • I want a re-nationalised railway system with fair, affordable ticket prices.

  • I want Generation Rent to be able to afford houses at a sensible price (whether rented or purchased)

  • I want a sensible, sustained approach to renewable energies with a 1 kilometre standoff from housing for wind turbines and subsidies that profit developers reduced and instead offered to householders to make home solutions affordable (ground source heat pumps and PV glass roofs for instance).

  • And I'd really like it if we didn't get involved in any wars for the next few hundred years, please.

OK, I'm not going to get that from any one political party (and, no, I'm not going to start my own), but I'm certainly not going to get it from the Conservatives. They've already proved that, and that particular leopard is unlikely to change its underpants spots. Since none of the other parties is likely to be in a position to form a government I'm voting Labour, even though they don't tick every box on my list. Labour SNP coaltion? Not a problem. Labour/Green? That's OK, too.

Whatever your choice, please, please, please use your vote on Thursday, otherwise you'll get the government you deserve, not the one you want.

28th Apr, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Avengers - Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterIt's been a bit of a dry spell at the movies for most of April with hardly anything worth spending money on, especially now we don't get the Orange twofers. When we could see a film on a two-for-one offer then we were more inclined to risk the occasional movie that was outside our usual genre/parameters with the predictable patchy result from the excellent Chef to the appalling A Million ways to Die in the West.

So H and I have been waiting for Avengers - Age of Ultron with some impatience. I'm pleased to say that we were not disappointed. I've said before that I'm not a comic book reader, so though I know the characters I'm not hampered by knowledge of comic-book back-stories or the desire to see those stories faithfully reproduced on screen. If you are a comic book reader, your mileage may vary.

It's always nice to have the characters fleshed out while the action is zooming across the screen. Ultron has plenty of action. It's a mad-scientist-creates-something-bad-by-accident' story. In this case Tony Stark's attempt to invent an artificial intelligence to protect the world goes horribly wrong. But it's not a Tony Stark movie. Joss Whedon manages to give all the major players screen time and character development. It's particularly nice to see Hawkeye, who was largely sidelined in the first Avengers movie, get a life outside of his bow-and-arrow role. Good, too, to see some development for Bruce Banner and Natasha. (But there's no cross-reference to Agents of Shield/Agent Coulson.)

The movie drops us right into the action with the Avengers attacking a Hydra stronghold to retrieve Loki's staff and pretty much goes from set-piece to set-piece with all the usual battle scenes you might expect. There are some new characters introduced to the Avengers universe. (New to me, anyway. Comic book readers will be familiar with them, I believe.) It's darker than the first Avengers movie, but the witty Whedon script delivers a series of excellent one-liners, many in the voice of Ultron (nicely played by James Spader).

Sad that this is (apparently) Whedon's last Avengers/Marvel movie.

27th Apr, 2015

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Book Log 12/2015 - C.E Murphy: Heart of Stone - Negotiator Trilogy/Old Races Universe #1

Heart of StoneLoved this.
Margrit Knight, a lawyer and negotiator in New York City gets involved with a world she never knew existed when she meets Alban - a gargoyle and one of the Old Races.

Someone is killing women in Central Park and Alban has been framed. Who and why? That's the big question. Margrit's homicide detective off-on lover, Tony, thinks he has the answer. Margrit helped to give it to him, but when she listens to Alban's side of the story she realises that she was too hasty. She also realises that she's powerfully attracted to the gargoyle (no, he's not always made of stone) and her rocky relationship with Tony is going to suffer even more.

This is a whodunit and a whydunnit, but it's also about race and acceptance. Margrit is black, from a privileged family and has to examine her own prejudices when she discovers beings in NYC who may not be human but dammit, they're still people. The characters are powerfully drawn, Margrit is a compelling heroine, fiercely intelligent, dedicated to her job (and her clients) and fearless in the face of danger (even when she probably shouldn't be). The setting and set-up is fascinating and though I'm not usually a sucker for police/lawyer type crime novels the urban fantasy aspects of this drew me right in. I'd like to read more about Margrit and Alban.
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Book Log 11/2015 - Ian Whates: Pelquin's Comet, The Dark Angels #1

Pelquins-ComeSpace opera, adventure, treasure hunting, a motley crew, aliens and some corporate intrigue are the building blocks that form this science fiction tale from Ian Whates. Pelquin is a free trader/ The Comet, his ship, and motley crew, bear some resemblance to the Fireflyesque scenario (no bad thing in my book) in which a rag-tag bunch of adventurers skirt the barely legal side of free trade amongst a collection of worlds. Pelquin, the captain has a lead on a cache of valuable alien artefacts, but to get at them he needs to finance his expedition with a hefty loan from the First Solar Bank. He gets the loan, but also acquires a sharp-suited banker, Drake, who is a lot more than he seems to be, and, when his engineer, Monkey, is injured, Pel casually acquires a young woman replacement who's not quite sure who or what she is, but super-soldier wouldn't be far off the mark.

This is a set-up book for more adventures and so there are a lot of potential avenues unexplored, but on this first showing I'd be happy to read more books set in the dark Angels universe. Some questions are answered, more are asked, so if (like me) you like your spaceship crews a little rough and ready. Morally ambiguous while retaining the general designation of good-guys, this is for you. It's well-paced, twisty and gives a good glimpse into the possibilities of Pelquin's universe. Oh, and it's got a gorgeous cover - art by Jim Burns.

30th Mar, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Cinderella

Bad timing. We arrived at the cinema to find it's half term week, so instead of the usual audience of half a dozen we were surrounded by tiny girls, some in fairy outfits. Ah well, at least they were well behaved.

Cinderella_2015This was a little girls' film despite being directed by Kenneth Brannagh. No surprises and few deviations from the Perrault fairy tale (though no cutting off of heels). I still have a sneaking liking for Ever After - A Cinderella Story (1998, Drew Barrymore) and, of course The Slipper and the Rose (Richard Chamberlain/Gemma Craven, 1976), but this is a perfectly servicable Cinderella interpretation with Lily James as Ella and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as Kit, the prince. Helena Bonham Carter is the fairy godmother while Cate Blanchett chews scenery as a suitably nasy stepmother, with her two dim, but not unattractive, daughters. Derek Jacobi steals the show as the ailing king with barely five minutes of screen time.

Richard Madden is allowed to flesh out the role of Prince Charming a little more than usual, though since the last screen wedding he attended was the Red Wedding I wanted to warn Ella that things might go awry and not to invite Walder Frey to the nuptuals.

Verdict? Perfect for eight year old girls in fairy dresses.
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Movie of the Week: Home

Home_(2015_film)_posterA Dreamworks animated adaptation of Adam Rex's children's book, The True Meaning of Smekday featuring the voice of Jim Parsons (Sheldon from Big Bang Theory) as Oh, a somewhet incompetent but endearing alien. Given that the alien Boov have taken over Earth and moved all the humans to encampments in Australia Oh is starting several points down in the popularity poll when he meets a surviving free human girl, Tip (voiced by Rihanna), who's mother has been kidnapped along with all the other humans.

Much of the humour comes from the unlikely pairing of human and alien. As alien invasion movies go it's pretty benign, but pleasant entertainment. There are some sweet moments.
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Movie of the Week: Insurgent

Insurgent 2015I continue to be impressed by the Divergent/Insurgent franchise.  Presumably this is the middle film of three (though since trilogies seem to be expanding into four movies these days, maybe all bets are off on that one, especially since there's already a collection of short stories focusing on hero of the piece, Four.). I think Insurgent holds up pretty well as a second movie. There are bound to be parallels drawn with Hunger Games and for my money this is better.

With Hunger Games I read the books first and then saw the movies. This time I'm doing it the other way round. I read Veronica Roth's Divergent after seeing the first movie and was struck by the adherence to book-plot. I can't say whether that's the case this time because I haven't read the book yet.

Shailene Woodley and Theo James are an attractive pair of leads with good on-screen chemistry. The story takes up just a few days after the close of Divergent with Tris and Four and the escapees taking refuge in Amity - the agricultural area outside the city proper (but still inside the fence). The plot centres of Janine (the antagonist) trying to open a message from the past and finding she needs a divergent to do it - and not just any Divergent either, it has to be Tris.

No more plot spoilers. Well worth seeing if you saw the first one. I'm not suire whether it's a good entry point if you didn't. My recommendation is to get the DVD of Divergent before seeing this.
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Lessons Learned and Applied - The Parallels Between Singing and Writing.

I've contributed a blog post to Gill Polack's Women's History Month blog. This is a slightly rejigged and expanded version of the one that appeared on Ruth Booth's blog last year. http://www.gillianpolack.com/jacey-bedford-womens-history-month/ and on LJ http://gillpolack.livejournal.com/1373839.html

17th Mar, 2015

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Book Log 10/2015 - David Barnett: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

Gideon Smith & the Mechanical GirlGideon Smith, son of a Whitby fisherman from Sandsend is an aficionado of the true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the British Empire, so when his father's fishing boat is found floating, abandoned, with all the crew lost, Gideon goes looking for answers. There's a strange creature walking the night, one that's scarily reminiscent of a mummy described in one of Trigger's tales, and strange goings on at Lythe Bank. He meets writer Bram Stoker, himself investigating another unexplained abandoned ship and the strange tale of a fierce black dog that came ashore. Unconvinced that Stoker's quest (with Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Dracula's widow) is tied to his own Gideon heads for London to seek help from the redoubtable Captain, on the way rescuing Maria, an automaton powered by pistons, but with a human brain. Once in the capital, a city of stinks, mechanical marvels and plenty of reminders that the British Empire is enormous following the failure of the American War of Independence, he and Maria seek Trigger with the dubious help from a potty-mouthed Fleet Street journalist, Bent. They are bound for disappointment, but gradually a story unfolds that draws all the separate strands together.

A super, steampunky romp with vampires, mummified beasties, airships and automata that starts in Whitby, moves to London, Egypt and back to London again. Well-paced this is obviously only the start of Gideon's adventures due to a large dangling thread at the end. And, indeed, checking up, there's already  one more Smith book published and another to come in September 2015. Highly recommended.

11th Mar, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Chappie

ChappieA Neill Blomkamp movie set in a near future Johannesburg with a robotic police unit designed by Deon (Dev Patel). Deon is working on true artificial intelligence on his own time, and when his boss (Sigourney Weaver) turns down his request to experiment on one of the police robots that's been damaged beyond repair, he does it anyway. Unfortunately the robot, still a naive infant, though in a poerful shell, falls into the hands of Ninja and Yolandi, a pair of criminal thugs invested in gang culture and in desperate trouble with the violent local gang leader. They are planning a heist and the robot, named Chappie by Yolandi, is a likely candidate to help them.

Just to confuse you totally, Ninja and Yolandi are played by husband and wife team Ninja (no surname) and Yo-Landi Visser. Both are members of the South African rap/rave group Die Antwoord with only mild previous brushes with independent movies, however both are excellent as the developing 'parents' of the childlike robot.

But if you think this sounds like a South African version of Short Circuit, think again. This is Neill Blomkamp, South Africa and a 'fifteen' certificate. Chappie is soon being taught to say motherfucker, slouch with an attitude, and steal cars. When he refuses to shoot at humans his ned 'dad' tells him that knives are OK because they only make people sleep. (Yes, 'Dad' is a nasty piece of work.)

Despite having been kidnapped and almost killed by Ninja's gang Deon comes back time and again to try and educate Chappie..Chappie's education, gang culture and the gradual change in Yolandi and even in Ninja as they have to learn to moderate their behavious for the sake of the  new child in the family are fascinating, but there's a major plot bunny in the shape of Deon's jealous fellow robot designer (Hugh Jackman) whose own pet project, a giant battle-robot remotely controlled by an operator, has been shelved. Jackman's robot looks like a cross between an At-At and a dumpster, but it's big and powerful and as mean as the brain behind it - which unfortunately is Jackman's character.

Cinematography is gritty and grim, entirely in keeping. The robot design is intriguing. Though it has a human-shaped body, the face is not designed to bring forth a chorus of aaahhs and awws from the audience. Mistakes are made. Stuff happens, and I'm not going to offer any more spoilers. It doesn't have a fairy tale ending, but it does have a satisfying one. Watch it for yourself. Highly recommended.
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Movie of the Week: Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

MarigoldIf you liked the first Marigold Hotel movie (which I did) you'll love this. The venerable cast on British thesps are on top form, though Richard Gere seems a little out of place (but does add eye-candy, for a certain value of eye-candy). Sonny (the excellent Dev Patel) is hoping to expand his business and buy another hotel, so is courting American backers. Things start going haywire when he makes assumptions about a guest (gere) whom he believes to be the 'guy' who has been sent to check out the hotel. With his wedding looming over him it seems that Sonny can't get anything right, though, of course, his guests always rally in support.

There's a sweet romance going on between characters played by Judi Dench and Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith is her usual redoubtable self. The cinematoography is excellent capturing the vivid colours and the heat of India.

Yes, I'm a sucker for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - and though you can never quite recapture the pleasure of seeing the first one for the first time, the Second Best is not really second best. Highly recommended

7th Mar, 2015

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Book Log 09/2015 - Peter Dickinson: The Changes trilogy

The Devil's Children
The Weathermonger

Changes TrilogyThe big dilemma in reading The Changes is whether to tackle the books in publication order or in internal chronological order. The three books are all snapshots in time and don't feature the same characters. Wisely the omnibus version goes for internal chronology, beginning with The Devil's Children in which we are introduced to a post apocalyptic Britain in which everyone has suddenly developed a horror and hatred of machines. Society has broken down. Even simple machines such as locks have suddenly become ineffable and working machines engender a murderous rage that doesn't stop until the machines have been destroyed. Even the language of machines

We see events through the eyes of Nicky Gore who has sensibly returned home to her house in London to await her parents--parents who never come. After a wait of 28 days, devastated by her abandonment, she takes refuge with a party of Sikhs, strangers and strange to her in their culture. Here she believes she can find succour without the danger of emotional involvement. These people are unfamiliar enough that she will be able to remain aloof.

But the Sikhs haven't been affected by the anti-machine madness as Nicky herself has, so Nicky becomes their canary, able to warn them if they are in danger of drawing attention by acting against what has become the new norm. They travel through the English countryside and eventually find a farm to settle on. The exploration of Sikh culture through Nicky, who seems to have forgotten what she knew about a lot of things (a symptom of the machine-madness), is fascinating and for its time (first published in 1970) made it unusual amongst its contemporaries. It explores xenophobia and the descent into feudalism in a fairly simplistic way

There follows Heartsease, which is set in the 'witch hunt' era of the Changes, and finally The Weathermonger, which sees the solution to the original problem

I was impressed by these books when they were first published and I think they've stood the test of time reasonably well. I note that reviewers are talking about them as YA novels, but their original publication dates them to the timer when YA was barely developing as a concept. Originally these were just classed as children's books and as such I think they are accessible to a wide age range. This is a re-read courtesy of the electronic version from Netgalley, though I still have the original paperbacks on my bookshelf.

4th Mar, 2015

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Goodreads Starry Update

Five stars to Goodreads for their customer service. Yesterday I queried and today got this email.

"We did recently migrate our database to bigger servers, and that change did cause some unexpected problems. One of the errors that we noticed at the time was that some ratings weren't being updated automatically and we had to manually update it. Unfortunately, this did cause some confusion around ratings at the time and I'm sorry if you were affected by this.
"Zero star ratings have never been an option on Goodreads and I'm sorry that it affected you in this way. We have since solved all the problems that was caused by the move, so it definitely shouldn't happen again."

So that should be OK now, right?

3rd Mar, 2015

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Stars in Your Reviews - the Goodreads Conundrum

This is for all you people who read and review or add star ratings on Goodreads.

I just read a review of Charlie Stross' first Laundry book on Goodreads and I noticed that though the review was positive the reviewer hadn't given it a star rating. I was talking to another author after my first book came out and she said she was happy to review books on Goodreads, but she didn't feel it was fair for her - as an author - to give star ratings. I can thoroughly sympathise with this feeling. When your own books are up there for comments and reviews, you suddenly lose your taste for slamming some poor fellow author with a stinker, however what she hadn't realised was that not giving a star rating when you review effectively means you've given the book zero stars.

I don't think Goodreads explains this, and I only realised when I added it up. As a very new author I had so few starred reviews that it was obvious the reviews that hadn't been starred had pulled down my average rating as if they were zeroes (despite the reviews being positive.)

My feeling is that Goodreads should be asked to display a warning that says: Please note any review without a star rating effectively counts as a zero stars review. This would actually be a bonus to some folks who begin reviews with: "I'd like to give this book no stars at all..." Effectively you can do that.

My point is, however, that it would be useful for people to know that declining to give stars at all is the same as awarding zero out of five to a book you may have quite liked.

25th Feb, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Big Hero 6

HeroWhat a delight this movie is - well worth its Oscar. I'd seen a few mixed reviews, but today is the last Orange Wednesday, so there was no way H and I were going to miss our cinema trip. With Fifty Shades of Domestic Abuse showing there really wan't much choice, so Big Hero 6 it was, and it would have been a shame to miss it. Funny and serious in turns the manga/anime style is attractive without being over-exaggerated and the setting (a Japanese version of San Francisco) works well. The story is tight, the characters appealing and the moral is obvious without being heavy.

Ostensibly it's about the bond that develops between robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada and blimpish inflatable robot Baymax, a medical robot created by his dead brother, but it's about much more than that. It's about the effects of loss, the emptiness of revenge, and the value of friendship (and also the value of nerdship).

After the death of his bother Tadashi in a fire, Hiro is rescued spiritually (and often physically) by Tadashi's robot creation Baymax, and Tadashi's nerd-college friends, as he investigates the fact that the fire may not have been an accident after all.

Highly recommended.

24th Feb, 2015

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Book Log 08/2015 - Jill Schultz: Angel on the Ropes

Angel on the RopesThere's a lot in this book, inventive world building, a three-dimensional heroine with inherent conflicts and a multi-strand plot which includes class structure, bankruptcy, personal jeopardy, health care, ecological disaster, political unrest and a love triangle. Yes, that's a huge amount for one book to cope with and at times it seems almost too much, and not all the strands are resolved.

The setting is a human colony on Penance, a Dyson Sphere created by (now long-gone) aliens. Amandine is three things, a pacifist Seeker, a circus trapeze artist of extraordinary skill, and a leopard, a human born with a gene mutation that causes spot marks on her skin. Unfortunately it's a common belief that leopards are plague carriers (they aren't) so a zealous sect of Plaguellants is in the business of tracking them down and murdering them, apparently with the approval of the authorities.

Penance society is somewhat bent out of shape. Not only does it allow the indiscriminate persecution of leopards, it has a highly divisive class system whereby the haves, Titans, basically make all the rules to suit themselves. (Hmm, this is sounding familiar.) There's a twisted universal healthcare system which allows (ordinary) folk to insure only one organ, so woe betide if you have a kidney complaint when you chose to insure your liver. Additional healthcare is also available via casinos - you need win the jackpot if you or your loved one needs a medical procedure that you're not insured for. Lose and you're indentured for a number of years to work in any one of a number of menial tasks. Of course the system is stacked against you.

Amandine is a trapeze artists, but she is also part of the Seeker network. In her role as a Seeker she acts as a guide to take endangered leopards to a hidden sanctuary. As the book opens she makes a mess of her assignment. Leopards are killed and she comes to the attention of Brother Sterling, the chief Plaguellant. In the meantime Cristallo, the circus that has sheltered her for seventeen years, is on the verge of bankruptcy and her long term lesbian relationship with Malaga (who runs an Exotica shop) is breaking down. Out in wider society there's a backlash from the Spots, a radical bunch of leopard terrorists who are protesting the situation with indiscriminate violence.

The circus research is impeccable and the descriptions of Amandine's trapeze routines with her catcher, Jango, her heart-brother, are lovingly and viscerally realised in great detail.

Gender roles are open, relationships are bisexual with single or multiple partners. The romance angle is beautifully written, Amandine after breaking up with Malaga meets Nikos, and it's love at first sight. They are soul mates and a pair bond made in heaven. Their love is thrilling, sensual and utterly believable. The reader meets Nikos, a Titan and a healthcare reformer, early in the book without realising the importance of his character (to Amandine) I wish she'd met him earlier because we're halfway through before their relationship starts and I would have liked to see more of that.

The physical world is fascinating though some of the world building is detailed while other bits fade to grey in the distance. Dyson spheres are problematical for human colonisation, but we don't get detailed explanations of how this works technically, just hints about its size and the fact that only some of its atmosphere is human-friendly.

If this review is a little jumbled it's perhaps because there are many facets to address. It's a self-published book and, for me, seems to spread itself too widely, tries to do too much and because of that lacks a little focus. It comments on contemporary society's healthcare issues, radicalisation of the disaffected, the dangers of religious extremism, class structure, and the beneficent effects of art. Any one of those would make a book in itself. There's enough material here for a trilogy.

This book came highly recommended. Perhaps I was expecting too much because I didn't immediately engage with it as well as I had hoped. It took me almost to the halfway point to really get into it and then I found the ending was a bit of a let-down which either went on for too long after the main story arc had finished, or didn't go on for long enough, because though resolution is in sight, it is not achieved. The character that goes through the greatest change is Brother Sterling and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. There are some loose plot threads (The snakehead fish? Malaga?) so I wonder if Ms Schultz is planning to revisit this world.

Downloaded from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

17th Feb, 2015

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Book Log 07/2015 - Octavia Butler: Dawn - Exogenesis #1

Dawn-ExogenesisI've been aware of Octavia Butler's writing for some time, but somehow never managed to get round to reading one of her books. My loss. This won't be my last Butler book..

A devastating nuclear war all but wipes out humanity and the few scattered survivors are rescued by extraterrestrials, the Oankali, a species driven to blend their genes (fairly indiscriminately, it seems) with other intelligent species, changing both species permanently. The first book serves as a first contact book. Lilith wakes from a centuries-long sleep and is gradually introduced to her saviours. At first she finds them terrifying and repulsive. They look like ugly sea-slugs with sensory tentacles all over their bodies instead of eyes/ears/noses. Gradually she gets used to them and comes to understand them a little.

The Oankali have three genders, male, female and the strange ooloi, genderless individuals with the power to manipulate genes, and also with consciousness sharing powers which include mental sexual stimulation between male and female partners of any species. (Threesomes being fun in this case.) After initial tests and acclimatisation to the Oankali, Lilith is charged with the task of waking forty human adults and training them to return to Earth to a rain-forest environment..

What she doesn't tell them at first, because she can hardly bear to think about it herself, is that the Oankali intend the next generation of human children to be Oankali-Human hybrids - a 'better' organism for survival on the recovering Earth.

This book contains a mixture of interesting ideas, weird sex and a deep examination of alienation and 'the other'. The conflict comes between Lilith's desire to remain human and preserve humanity in its original form, and her need to survive. The Oankali believe that humans, left to themselves, will self-destruct. Their controlling, paternalistic, Oankali-know-best attitude gives the humans little choice in the matter, so, of course, they rebel, leaving Lilith caught between her own species and the Oankali who have become her family.

There are several points to make about this book being a product of its time. Octavia Butler was the pioneering American black female writer who wrote about black female characters and paved the way for other writers of colour. Also, this book, published in 1987 was written before Stockholm[*1] Syndrome was a widely recognised phenomenon, but Lilith certainly develops sympathy for the Oankali whom she first sees as her captors, while they see themselves as her rescuers. It's a post-apocalyptic version of Beauty and the Beast, maybe.

[*1] The incident Stockholm Syndrome was eventually named after took place in 1973, but originally went under the catchy name of Norrmalmstorgssyndromet, only later becoming Stockholm Syndrome.

12th Feb, 2015

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Movie of the Week: Jupiter Ascending

JupiterThis is a film that poses one huge question: how will Sean Bean die?

I read a couple of bad reviews of this which almost put me off going, but that would have been a pity because although it's fluff, it's entertaining fluff with gorgeous visuals and a sequenmce of events (maybe i won't call it as plot) that fairly zip along. The bad review complained of the plot being hackneyed - poor earth girl, Jupiter Jones, is actually alien royalty: hijinks ensue - but it works on an entertainment level, which is exactly what I was after on a chilly Wednesday afternoon. Yes, Jupiter has to be rescued a few times, but to be fair she's not set up as a kick-ass heroine. She's an illegal immigrant in Chicago who cleans toilets for a living. And when it comes down to it she does manage to rescue herself a couple of times.

There's a lot of explody chase sequences and not too much soul searching even though it's mostly about Jupiter trying to stop her inherited family from harvesting Earth's humans for less than great reasons.

Eddie Redmayne is the scenery-chewing pantomime villain, only slightly worse than his two screen siblings. Mila Kunis does well enough as Jupiter. Channing Tatum is the hero/space cop/love interest, which is a pity because, well, Channing Tatum. Sorry, but personality-wise and everything else-wise he doesn't do it for me, but Sean Bean just about rescues it as Tatum's one time seargeant in the military. He still has a Sheffield accent of course, and I'm reminded of the Dr Who episode in which we were reminded that: 'Every planet has a north!'

So this is a Wachowski sibling movie, so Jupiter's life changes, but ultimately she has a choice of whether to buy into that or to go her own way.

And the big question? Does Sean Bean die? Sorry, you'll have to go and see it for yourself.

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