mystery

REVIEW: Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

What’s right is right. Sonya Kantor knows this slogan – she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation. Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives. Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past – and her family’s dark secrets – than she ever wanted to.

I’m not one who often comments on the writing style in a book so it has to be pretty bad or pretty different for me to notice it – I tend to be more focused on characters and how the story makes me feel. Veronica Roth has written a few adult books since her YA dystopian juggernaut series Divergent (which I read over a decade ago) but Poster Girl is the first I’ve read. I have to say, I did have to check a couple of times to see if Poster Girl was supposed to be YA or adult as the writing style is quite simplistic and it felt more like a YA story. Also, Sonya herself felt juvenile at times. Perhaps this was intentional as she was put in prison when she was a teenager and so has simultaneously been forced to grow up but everything in her life also stopped for the past ten years so she hasn’t matured in other ways. Either way, Sonya often felt younger than someone in her mid-late twenties.

It was interesting seeing how a society moved on after being a dystopian one for so long. So often dystopian stories are about the rise of the people and overthrowing the corrupt government and they end once they’ve succeeded in doing that. Having Poster Girl set ten years after the revolution was interesting as you could see how some characters attitudes have changed and how others were still stuck overthinking everything as they were so used to having an implant in their brain that automatically quantified if something they said or did was worthy of reward or punishment.

There is a romance element that is underdeveloped and just feels like it was added for the sake of having a romance subplot and added nothing to the overall story or to Sonya’s character. It’s kind of enemies-to-lovers but the transition from reluctant allies to lovers is far too rushed and there’s little chemistry when it comes to the romance side of things. I preferred the mistrust and jabs Sonya and her former acquaintance had before they started to be on the same page.

The case of the stolen child that Sonya is tasked with finding has its moments but the mystery isn’t particularly compelling and some of the twists can be guessed from a mile off. I think that is the crux of the problem with Poster Girl. While it is a pretty quick read at less than 300 pages, the case doesn’t have enough tension and Sonya isn’t that interesting as a character either. While the setting is a good and intriguing starting point, the story isn’t memorable or event that satisfying because so much was predictable. 2/5.

REVIEW: John Dies at the End by David Wong

Normally I’d give a general overview of the book I’m reviewing, whether that’s what’s on the blurb of the book or my own synopsis, but with John Dies at the End I’m not really sure I can. The blurb is weird and vague and gives now real information except warnings not to read the book, but now that you’ve picked it up bad things are going to happen and you can’t unlearn the fact there’s an “otherwordly invasion currently threatening to enslave humanity”. So needless to say, going into John Dies at the End I really did not know what to expect. I will say it’s about two friends, John and David (the book is from his perspective and parts of it has him recounting events of the book to a reporter), and how they can see things that aren’t there and go on adventures as they try and figure out what’s going on.

Even though I’ve now read John Dies at the End, I still can’t describe it. It’s a weird, creepy horror story with paranormal elements and drug-induced psychoses and a dog that’s perhaps immortal. At this point I’m not even sure I really liked it but there was something about it that was super compelling and kept me reading. Perhaps it’s because so much strange and/or unsettling things were happening all the time so I ended up feeling like I was just going along for the ride and was waiting to see what on Earth was going to happen next – and if anything was ever really explained.

There were some answers but not enough for me and the answers we did get often led to more questions. There’s so many moments when characters aren’t sure they can believe what they’re seeing and as this is being told from David’s point of view, you end up doubting things too. It’s really quite the strange reading experience.

I think I preferred the first third of John Dies at the End, mainly because that really set the scene in terms of the creepiness with horrifying creatures and the general unnerving feeling of something not being right. While I knew John Dies at the End was classed as a horror story, the kind of weirdness and horror it had was so unexpected that it was more shocking and interesting to begin with. There’s also a time skip about a third of the way though and I’m generally not a fan of time skips so that didn’t really do much for me, especially as the first third was so action-packed and interesting. As John Dies at the End is a 460-page book, variations of the same weirdness did get a bit repetitive over time and I did find the last 100 pages or so a bit more of a drag even though more and more things were being revealed.

Character-wise David seems to be a bit of a spectator to his own life and gets dragged into this situation by John and though he’s pretty resourceful, a lot of it comes down to dumb luck. The same can be said for John but pretty much everything that came out of John’s mouth was cringe-inducing as it often revolved around his penis or making himself seem more strong/smart/skilled than he was. These two guys are just average twenty-somethings and so there is the internet-related, kinda gross boys’ humour that you might expect which at times I did find myself skimming over.

John Dies at the End was an interesting reading experience. As I said, I preferred the beginning when it was all new and unexpected (one of the first sequences inside a supposedly haunted house was genuinely suspenseful and surprising) and as the plot progresses it gets more and more wild which some may love while others may find ridiculous – I was on the fence about it. I didn’t like John but being in David’s head wasn’t so bad and his sense of imagination really did paint a vivid picture when it came to some of the creatures they encountered or horrifying (and sometimes really gross) situations they found themselves in. 3/5.

REVIEW: Confess, Fletch (2022)

After arriving in Boston to try and find stolen paintings belonging to his Italian girlfriend’s rich father, Fletch (John Hamm) encounters problems straightaway when he finds a murdered young woman in the house he’s renting. With the police convinced he’s the murderer, former-investigative reporter Fletch strives to prove his innocence while simultaneously searching for the missing paintings.

Confess, Fletch is a reboot/adaptation but as I’d never seen, read, or even had heard of the books/films before I saw the trailer for this film, it’s safe to say I took this film on its own merit and have no reference point for it. I think that’s a good thing as Confess, Fletch is an old-school mystery in the best possible way and I had a thoroughly good time with it.

It’s the dry wit and sharp script that makes Confess, Fletch so much fun. There’s so many quips but they never undercut any drama of the moment and Confess, Fletch is the sort of film that rewards you when you give it your full attention. Fletch, as a character, is brilliant. He’s charming, quick-witted and can talk himself out of (or into) just about anything. He’s almost annoying with how smooth and confident he is, but he does it all with a smile so you can’t stay mad at him. It’s easy to see why the two detectives on his case (played by Roy Wood Jr. and Ayden Mayeri) get so frustrated nearly every time they talk to him.

The mystery has a lot of avenues and it’s fun to see how it all plays out and if and how all these eccentric people Fletch encounters are connected at all. John Hamm has great comedic timing and is a brilliant lead here but Confess, Fletch thrives because the supporting cast is just as good. Fletch’s girlfriend Angela (Lorenza Izzo) has a rivalry with her father’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden), then there’s John Slattery playing Fletch’s old boss and Kyle MacLachlan as an art dealer. Everyone has their own eccentricities and agenda and the dialogue between them and Fletch is often top-notch.

The humour in Confess, Fletch comes from the characters and it it’s really a funny and charming film. I’d love to watch many sequels with John Hamm in the lead role as these sort of clever but fun mysteries are truly timeless. I hope I’m wrong but due to the release and lack of promotion I can see Confess, Fletch going the same way as The Nice Guys – a funny mystery that’s ripe for sequels never getting them as it doesn’t find the audience when it’s first released. 4/5.

REVIEW: Enola Holmes 2 (2022)

Now a detective in her own right, Enola Holmes’ (Mille Bobby Brown) detective agency is struggling as she tries to make it out of her older brother Sherlock’s (Henry Cavill) shadow. That is until she gets asked to find a missing girl by her little sister, and soon Enola is entangled in a dangerous conspiracy and her case may even be related to Sherlock’s case and they both will need all the help they can get.

I was a big fan of the first Enola Holmes film and I’m very happy to say the sequel is just as fun and delightful as the original and expands on the characters in an engaging way. In many ways Enola Holmes 2 is incredibly similar to the first film as it may be a different mystery but there’s still the undercurrent of political/feminist themes and the same fourth wall breaking with a wink from Mille Bobby Brown but what this sequel does well is not make these elements seem tired or boring. Look sometimes it’s nice for a sequel to do something vastly different, while other times it’s nice for a sequel to embrace what made the original so entertaining and just do that again. With a lot of Netflix’s action output being stoic, it’s nice that they’re investing in the fun adventures of a plucky young girl in Victorian London.

Mille Bobby Brown continues to shine in Enola Holmes 2 and the referential humour could become grating in lesser hands but with Brown as our lead, she plays Enola as charming and resourceful as ever. Though it is the moments when she is out of her depth, like attending a ball and having to ask young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) to teach her to dance, that are really interesting as while Enola comes across as self-assured, her independence doesn’t fit into what society deems fit for women and there are some things that she is clueless about.

The mystery itself loses its way a bit in the middle and all the loose ends aren’t tied up particularly neatly but the inclusion of new adversaries – David Thewlis’ Superintendent Grail is fun as it appears that every Holmes has a problem with him, including the matriarch of the family Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) – old friends, and some young romance and rebellion makes it an enjoyable ride.

Having Sherlock involved more in this mystery works without him taking control and pushing Enola out of her own story. He has his own case and while he does help Enola, she helps him too and their awkward personal relationship is more compelling than their working one. Also Cavill’s dry sense of humour as Sherlock while still being very protective of his little sister is brilliant.

I honestly would happily watch Enola and her friends and allies go on many more adventures. A casting choice in a mid-credits scene makes me hopeful that there will be a third film as I need to see more from that person than a cameo. Plus, these films are just fun, lightly feminist, teen girl power escapism and are really enjoyable to watch and we all can use some light, charming fun these days. 4/5.

REVIEW: Werewolves Within (2021)

After a snowstorm traps a group of eccentric townspeople in the local, secluded inn, new ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) tries to keep everyone calm as he looks for the mysterious creature threatening the community

Werewolves Within is based on a videogame but it’s not a game I’ve played, or had even heard of before I heard about this film, so I can’t comment on how well it works as video game/movie adaptation though historically they’ve been kind of hit and miss (and mostly miss). Werewolves Within as film though, is definitely a hit.

Finn is the new guy to town and with postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) acting as his guide to the town and its people, he soon learns that everyone has their own quirks and there’s bubbling tension as developer Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall) wants to knock down homes and businesses to put down a gas pipeline and the town is divided between those who want to sell their homes to make it happen, and those who don’t. So naturally, when something appears to be stalking the town the people are quick to point fingers and tempers fray.

Werewolves Within is a horror/comedy but it mostly feels like a really fun whodunit! There are some scares, including some pretty funny ones, but it’s the mystery and the characters that made Werewolves Within really work for me. There’s a lot of interesting characters and the script is great as a lot of the time, things that are mentioned in passing at the beginning have an alternate meaning as the film progresses. It’s fun to try and figure things out alongside Finn as he’s the perfect person to take on this case as an outsider – however, being an outsider can also be to his detriment as these people have known each other for a lot longer.

Werewolves Within is just a lot of fun. It has a great script along with great performances – the whole cast are perfect for their roles but it’s Richardson who is a solid lead performance, grounding any and all of the absurdity that ensues – and with a 90-minute runtime, Werewolves Within is an entertaining horror/comedy/mystery hybrid. 4/5.

REVIEW: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Shortly before Halloween, twelve-year-old Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.

I haven’t read a middle grade or children’s book since I was the intended demographic for such a book, but when I heard about Ghost Squad, I knew I had to check it out and I’m very pleased I did. Yes, the humour is naturally more juvenile than my kind of thing as an adult but there’s still some moments that made me smile to myself and Syd especially had some witty observational one-liners.

I read Ghost Squad in two sittings and it was a great way to spend some time. I got pulled into the story almost immediately and Lucely and Syd’s friendship was so great. I liked both girls a lot and they have a proper ride or die friendship and there’s pretty much nothing they can’t say to one another. I liked that a lot actually, that they weren’t afraid to ask each other tough or potentially personal and uncomfortable questions and the other never getting upset with those questions. Instead, it was a sign of how deep their friendship was as they could be so open with one another even when it was about something that could hurt them.

I really liked how present the adults in Lucely and Syd’s life were. Yes the girls go on a lot of adventures on their own and figure things out together, but it’s nice that when adults are made aware of what’s happening, namely Syd’s grandmother Babette and Lucely’s dad Simon, they’re supportive and help the girls solve the problem. As I said, I haven’t read much middle grade but with YA there’s often a lot of dead, abusive, or emotionally or physically absent parental figures in the main characters lives. This tends to be so the main characters can have their adventure and story without worrying about the pesky adults getting in the way but Ghost Squad shows how your child hero characters can be the heroes of their story but still have love and support from the adults in their lives when they need it.

The ghosts themselves and the monsters they can create were excellent and suitably spooky. The action sequences and the magical items the girls and Babette use to capture and fight the ghosts were fun too. Ghost Squad really captured the sort of childlike wonder of a situation full of ghosts, like the items used to fight ghosts could only be found in a children’s book and it was great.

I found how Ghost Squad delt with death and family really interesting and effective. Lucely can still see pretty much all of her dead family members thanks to their spirits being connected to her home while her dad has lost that power and can only see them as fireflies. So, for Lucely no one is truly dead and gone so when something threatens them, and her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins start to get almost sick even though they’re already ghosts, it’s a really scary time for her. On the flipside to that, her mother left Lucely and her father and that grief and sadness is there unlike the grief of losing a loved one to death. It’s a really interesting parallel and shows the difference between losing someone due to something out of their control, and losing someone due to their own choices.

I’m really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Ghost Squad considering middle grade isn’t something I read. I liked the characters, the adventure, the spooky vibes, and that there was a fat cat called Chunk that was more than meets the eye. It’s a fast-paced and fun story that has some depth to it. It’s definitely a book well-suited to Halloween season. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Luxembourg: Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques

Translated by Lillian A. Clare.

Set in 1920s Germany, Dr. Mabuse is a greedy anarchist who assumes many guises and controls a legion of henchmen (both willingly and unwillingly) through money, power, and telepathic hypnosis. State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk gets put on Dr. Mabuse’s trail after strange things happen at gambling halls and so begins a game of cat and mouse.

Dr. Mabuse is a great villain. He’s truly evil and is a power-hungry master-manipulator. He can hypnotise people to do what he wills, whether it’s cheating at a game of cards or even taking their own life. The way the hypnotism is described by one of he’s victims is very unsettling and uncomfortable, especially when he’s forcing his will upon a woman. It is for all intents and purposes rape of the mind and body. He’s also great at disguises and putting on different personas so at times von Wenk and Dr. Mabuse are in the same room and may even be talking to one another but von Wenk has no idea that it’s the man he’s after until later.

The writing style of Dr. Mabuse is that typical late nineteenth century style. The language, the mystery, and the action reminded me both of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles at times. If you like stories about those characters – though they’re both far more heroic than Dr. Mabuse – then you might like this one too.

Dr. Mabuse is a fun, pulpy, mystery. It’s full of twists and turns and though some of them are unbelievable – how this man manages to evade capture at some points incredible – but it just goes to show how Dr. Mabuse is the kind of criminal mastermind that’s always a few steps ahead. Though it goes to great lengths to show how smart Dr. Mabuse is, it doesn’t do so at the detriment of von Wenk. He’s a pretty smart and capable man himself, and has enough pull with the law to get police officers (and a lot of them) where he needs them quickly. It is fun seeing von Wenk put things together and try and solve the case. There’s a lot of surprises and when some of Dr. Mabuse’s accomplices would rather die than say anything about him, von Wenk faces a lot of dead ends.

Dr. Mabuse is a pretty enjoyable read and being set in 1920s Germany it’s interesting to see the effects of the First World War on the German citizens and society. They were often only passing mentions but it helped make me understand the place that Dr. Mabuse was operating in. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bahrain: QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed

Guy Kelton is a young man with a troubled mind. His shattered dream and the relentless mundane life he’s been living, alone and broken away from his family, takes an unexpected toll on him, driving him to violent, reckless extremes. He falls deeper and deeper into a bloody abyss; through extremes that would eventually lead him to the most devastating discovery about his existence. Going through his mid-twenties, Patrick Roymint, lost and confused, still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his whole family many years ago. But soon as he decides to change all that and try to rebuild the future he’s not had, he is dragged into the unseen, disturbing and filthy underworld of the little, diminishing Okay County. As both men go through a series of mysterious and bizarre events, their lives take dramatic turns that lead them to new revelations about their past, present and future. They somehow find their fates connected by some mystic, unfathomable power.

At second time of trying, I managed to read QuixotiQ. I think there’s a few reasons why I struggled with this book even though it’s pretty short at less than 200 pages long. The first is the translation/editing. It’s a self-published novel and I believe the translation was done by the author, or the author wrote it in English but that was their second language. I say that as there were a few instances where it didn’t quite read right to me, a native English speaker. Sentences were phrased awkwardly or adjectives were used which didn’t really fit the context of what was going on.

Then there was the plot itself. It was a bit difficult to figure out what was happening with Guy and Patrick. Guy especially has a lot going on in his head and he has dreams or visions where both he and you as the reader can’t really tell what’s real and what’s not. It makes the story kind of hard to follow and you’re unsure if he’s going mad, just having vivid dreams or if QuixotiQ has some surreal fantasy elements.

The chapters are short and there’s sometimes point of view changes between the chapters and in the chapters, shown by a line break. However, it can sometimes be hard to tell whose point of view your in to begin with as the first three or more paragraphs just use “he” or “she” rather than a character’s name so it can be disorientating. Mandy, Patrick’s girlfriend, and Christina, her friend and former co-worker, also have chapters from their points of view.

All four of the characters are going through tough times and their thoughts and motivations are often jumbled. I supposed it’s a good way at showing how lost these characters are, but it does make things hard to read at times and I didn’t particularly like or connect with any of the characters. Especially as things spiralled out of control for Guy, I just couldn’t comprehend why he was acting that way or see what had tipped him over the edge. The writing style and the story made character motivations unclear to me.

QuixotiQ is the only book I found by a Bahraini author in English. If I wasn’t doing my Read the World Project I would’ve probably DNF’d it as I found it muddled and uninteresting. The bright side was that the chapters were often very short so it was easy to pause and take a break when the strangeness and unclear character motivations got too frustrating.

T is for The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead and, while no one really minds, everyone feels responsible. After Harry’s body is found in the woods, several locals must determine not only how and why he was killed but what to do with the body.

Because some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well know films like Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window (only one of which I’ve seen but their reputations precede them) are horror or thriller films, I always get a bit surprised when I watch one of his films and find it’s a comedy. There’s still a dead body and the mystery of who killed him, but The Trouble with Harry is a much more light hearted film than I expected.

While everything does revolve around a murder the dialogue is often quite witty. As the characters try and figure out what happened to Harry and who was really to blame, the situation surrounding Harry’s body gets more absurd as by trying to save themselves, they might actually be making themselves look more and more guilty.

The Trouble with Harry is Shirley MacLaine’s first feature film and it’s so interesting to see her in a role like this when all the films I’ve previously seen her in she’s been a cranky and/of humorous older lady, granting wisdom or causing mischief. It’s clear she had her comic timing from the beginning and she has good chemistry with John Forsythe – even if their characters romance seemed a bit rushed. Though that’s probably because the events of The Trouble with Harry all take place across just a couple of days, meaning any reveals or blossoming romance between characters does feel a bit quick.

Even though there’s a corpse at the centre of The Trouble with Harry, thanks to where it’s set and all the scenes outside, it feels like a very autumnal film. It has a charm to it that I wasn’t expecting and is a very family friendly murder mystery. 3/5.

REVIEW: Boss Level (2021)

Retired Special Forces officer, Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), is seemingly trapped in a never-ending time loop that restarts as soon as he dies.

I shall start off this review by saying perhaps you shouldn’t read this review. Because Boss Level is one of those films that is truly a delight and perhaps works even better when you know nothing about it. All I knew was that it starred Frank Grillo (an actor I always like) and I’d seen some positive buzz about it on my Twitter feed. But I enjoyed this film enough to want to write about it so do read on if you fancy learning about why Boss Level worked for me.

Boss Level begins by throwing you right into the time loop with Roy. By this point he’s died over 100 times and can predict and counter the moves of his attackers. His dry narration sets the tone of the film and shows just how bored he is of going through the motions. People are trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why and sometimes he doesn’t even care. By starting the story after Roy is used to his predicament, you’re learning about any new occurrences as he does and it adds to the mystery of it all.

Boss Level is also really fun and often funny. The fights, car chases and shootouts are great, and as there’s so much trial and error for Roy as he goes through certain scenarios (the error leading to his death again) you get to see how his skills grow as he learns what works and what doesn’t in a fight. The editing between the different loops as Roy gets further and further before dying is great too. How the film never over explains things and manages to briefly show you the steps Roy has taken since waking up without it ever getting boring is impressive. It trusts the audience to understand the time loop scenario (as there’s been many a time loop film) so if we join Roy in a loop further along, we have a good idea of what he’s already had to do since it’s pretty much the same every time.

The humour comes from Roy’s attitude to this situation he’s in, and from a lot of his deaths. Some are so sudden and unexpected while others he just sighs and waits for it to happen. Frank Grillo’s voice suits the almost wry narration style perfectly and he looks good doing a lot of the fight sequences himself. There are times where the tone gets more sombre, almost naturally there’s a lost love, but Grillo handles those moments well too.

Boss Level is action packed and innovative. The reasoning why Roy is stuck in a time loop is slowly revealed and the action and fights are always entertaining. Boss Level is just a real good time and it’s one of the first new-to-me films I’ve watched in a while that I’ve fully enjoyed and not just thought was simply fine. Honestly, I was starting to think I didn’t know how to like films anymore! 4/5.