Saturday, 21 September 2019

Brittney Morris's Exciting Debut 'Slay' ★★★★☆

Slay by Brittney Morris | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review

I was hooked the minute I read about Brittney Morris's debut novel Slay. A story about a teenage developer of an online role playing game, the murder of one of their players and infiltration by a troll? It sounded fascinating and I signed right up. The book couldn't have come at a better time too, for I was struggling to get into anything after reading Kathleen Glasgow's How to Make Friends With the Dark and Slay drew me in and entertained me from the very first page.

Slay is the name of the game that seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson has developed and it boasts over 500,000 users. It is a virtual reality game that is part-card-game, part-combat that celebrates Black excellence, history and culture. The game is admittedly slightly US-centric but focuses on aspects non-American Black culture too.

A central theme in Slay is the experience of blackness and how this differs between individuals. There are many diverse opinions in the book and the book highlights that although society likes to tell Black people how to act and what the correct experience of blackness is, it is up to each individual to define their future and to live in an authentic way. This is an incredibly strong message to be going out to young readers.

The events in Slay centre around the murder of a young player in a dispute over the game's currency. A media storm ensues, with the normal talking heads seeking the game's creator, declaring the game racist and calling for legal action.

It provides the perfect storm in which an online troll can flourish. This troll threatens the entire Slay community and puts everything Kiera has worked so hard for at risk. Can she protect her virtual world?

Slay by Brittney Morris | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review I thoroughly enjoyed Slay and was quite happy to have been drawn into such an engaging story. I enjoyed the tournaments and matches in the book, the descriptions of the Slay gameplay and the detail behind each of the cards. I also loved the celebration of what it is to be Black and the exploration of how different that experience is for people across the globe.

My primary criticism of the book would be that the game and developer side of the story needs a reality check. Slay is a complex virtual-reality MMORPG, has over half a million users, is run for free on six university servers, has two mods and depends on donations or cheap purchases of backgrounds and images for the various parts of the game. The logistics of running a game of this calibre would be astounding if you imagine that local Facebook groups require far more than two mods or they descend into chaos or that 6,000 employees at my company require more than six servers to do our work. It just doesn't add up and it's unlikely that a teenager managed this without considerable capital input.

In my mind, I got around this by suspending disbelief and taking Kiera at her word that there are virtual-reality kits that make this sort of stuff simple for tech-savvy teens.

I also thought the resolution of the events in the novel were a little too easy and fell too comfortably into the skill set of those who triumphed.

Despite these reservations, I enjoyed Slay a lot and give it an excellent four out of five stars. I cannot wait to see what Brittney Morris delivers next and hope that she doesn't make us wait too long.

★★★★☆

Slay is published by Hodder Children's Books and will be released on 3 October 2019 in the UK (affiliate link, I will make a very small commission if you purchase using this link).

I received an electronic copy of this book from Netgalley. In my search for superior young adult fiction, I will always provide an honest review, whether books are provided to me or purchased by me.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2019

TV Review: NOS4A2 - "Scissors for the Drifter"

AMC NOS4A2 | Rarmian Newton is Drew and Ashleigh Cummings is Vic | TV Review

"Scissors for the Drifter" begins with a nightmare, a ringing phone that only Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) can hear and Christmas music which has taken on a whole new sinister meaning since NOS4A2 hit our screens this summer. Vic receives a chilling phone call from Haley (Darby Camp) and her merry band of menacing Christmasland kids. What the hell is “scissors for the drifter”?

After two slow-moving episodes, the events in NOS4A2 kick off in "Scissors for the Drifter" which is interesting because Vic isn't going anywhere. Vic's mother Linda (Virginia Kull), official parent of the year, has sold Vic's bike and with no knife, Vic has no way of accessing her endscape. Stuck in the real world, Vic is like a caged animal and she's ready to bite anyone who comes anywhere near her.

Her first victim is Drew (Rarmian Newton). Vic and Drew's entire conversation is brilliant. It starts off innocently enough, without any fireworks...

Vic: "Simpler times..."
Drew: "Were they? You know, nostalgia’s a funny thing. Makes the past seem better, like something it never was"

... but then it gets pretty deep with Drew telling Vic she deserves better than her dad and Vic telling Drew it's easier to be a better parent when you're rich and comfortable as opposed a pregnant teenager and dirt poor.

Drew: "You don’t have to be a doctor to show up when your kid is in hospital"

Sadly, Drew is not reading Vic's cues and she absolutely reads him the riot act in return. The thing is, Drew might be privileged and more than a little unkind but nothing he said was wrong.

Vic's next victim is the very deserving Chris McQueen (Ebon Moss-Bacharach). After inhaling far too much beer, Vic tells her dad that she knew her original bike was a guilt gift, bought for her because Vic had witnessed a particularly nasty fight between her parents. She tells Chris that ultimately it's not her job to parent him and he retorts with a clanger of his own.

Dad: "I hope that you never have to feel what it’s like to disappoint people that you love. You keeping drinking like your old man here? I guarantee, you will find out"

Vic's not the only one who is impaired and Maggie has slipped back into her substance addiction now that her hospital meds have run out. I'd forgotten how incredible her relationship with Sheriff Bly (Chris McKinney) was but the scene with Maggie on the park bench was heartbreaking. I have a feeling a lot more heartbreak will be coming her way soon.

Despite Vic being grounded in Havering, Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) is clearly not and he's found a way to repair the Wraith and get back to Christmasland. For a long moment I really thought that Judith Miller and Sheriff Bly would get the better of him but of course I was wrong. It's becoming increasingly clear that neither Charlie Manx nor Bing Partridge has a redeeming bone in their bodies and no amount of exposition of their traumatic childhoods will make up for the fact that they are just plain evil.

As the episode draws to a close, everyone is wrecked from Chris's girlfriend Tiffany to Maggie to Craig's mother. Ultimately, Craig (Dalton Harrod) and Vic get wrecked too yet somehow he manages not to take advantage of her, which is magical. I still think I prefer Drew though as I'm not sure how normal it is that Craig keeps a second grade photo of Vic on his bedside table. Sometimes holding a lifelong torch for your best friend is creepy and a betrayal of your friendship and not as romantic as people seem to think.

AMC NOS4A2 | TV Review

The episode ends with some answers; we learn in sickening detail what scissors for the drifter is. But there are questions too, specifically who is Millie Manx and what the heck has Manx created? With just three episodes to go, I very much hope we find out this season.

You can catch NOS4A2 on Shudder (US) with new episodes added every Thursday and AMC UK (BT TV 332 Sky channel 186) with new episodes added every Tuesday at 9pm.

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Saturday, 14 September 2019

Stephen Davies's Smashing 'Chessboxer' ★★★★☆

Chessboxer by Stephen Davies | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review

The world of YA needs more girls' boxing and fierce girls with an unbreakable attitude. I arrived at this opinion after reading Chessboxer, the brand new novel by British YA author Stephen Davies.

Chessboxer is about Leah Baxter, a young chess champion who is just a few games away from becoming a grand master. The only problem is that Leah is crumbling under an insurmountable burden of grief and she needs some timeout. Following a humiliating loss at the Pune Open Tournament in India, Leah decides to give up chess tournaments altogether, much to the dismay of her mother and coach.

Without professional chess in her life, life back in Manhattan is very different and ultimately chaotic. Leah finds notoriety and trouble before eventually tumbling into the world of chessboxing, a violent, hybrid sport that combines chess and boxing.

Chessboxer by Stephen Davies | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review Chessboxer is fast-paced and energetic, combining the therapeutic violence of boxing with one girl's struggle to cope with the twin pressures of grief and being a child prodigy. At times it is not an easy book to read; Leah is angry and processing a complex web of emotions and it doesn't exactly make her the most likeable protagonist I've encountered in a YA novel. It does make her realistic, having experienced complex grief myself, I can attest to how unpleasant it can make you.

I liked the setting of the novel best of all - New York City. From chess in Washington Square Park, to donut shops, tattoo parlours and boxing gyms, I loved spending time in one of my favourite cities on earth.

I give Chessboxer four out of five stars and recommend to all readers seeking a fierce female protagonist.

★★★★☆

Win a copy of Chessboxer

Enter here to win a copy of Chessboxer. Competition ends tomorrow 15 September 2019 at midnight.

Chessboxer is published by Andersen Press and will be released on 3 October 2019 (affiliate link, I will make a very small commission if you purchase using this link).

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher. I will always give an honest review in my search for superior young adult fiction.

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Tuesday, 10 September 2019

TV Review: NOS4A2 - "The Dark Tunnels"

AMC NOS4A2 | The Dark Tunnels | Ashleigh Cummings is Vic McQueen

Oh, Jolene! I'd expected NOS4A2 to ramp up a bit after the slow pace of "The Wraith" but "The Dark Tunnels" was another slow-moving episode. That's okay because this week it's all about Jolene July (Judith Roberts), the strong creative that we met in "The Gas Mask Man".

Saugas, Massachusetts, 1954. Charlie and Jolene, a proposal and a refusal. Jo sees straight through Charlie Manx, she can't explain why but she knows that something is definitely not right about him.

Haverhill, Massachusetts, present day. Vic McQueen is in a psychiatric ward and we learn that Vic's mother Linda McQueen is a fellow parent-of-the-year contender, challenging Chris McQueen for his title with a history of being abusive and hitting Vic when she drank. But hey, at least Chris didn't ever hit Vic, so I guess it's alright.

Despite her best attempts to leave the psychiatric ward, Vic is committed and roomed with none other than Jolene July and of course Vic decides to jailbreak her.

They land up in the Dark Tunnels where Jolene can walk! The scenes in the Dark Tunnels are pretty momentous. We learn that the wheelchair is Jolene's new knife (after Charlie stole her roller skates) except she needs help getting it to speed, which is why she needed Vic.

Jolene leads Vic into a room which is full of missing child posters on the walls, all of the children Charlie Manx has stolen since Jolene began tracking him in the 50s.

AMC NOS4A2 | The Dark Tunnels | Zachary Quinto is Charlie Manx and Ashleigh Cummings is Vic McQueen

And then we learn about Jolene's gift and what a fine gift it is. There is a fantastic scene where Manx is terrorised and I find myself wondering why do I want it to stop? That would be because aged and withered Charlie Manx is the epitome of ugliness.

Now that the episode has gained momentum, the revelations come thick and fast. We learn so much about Charlie, Vic and her abilities in the final scene with Jolene. Everyone pays a price for their abilities but Charlie paid with his soul - the greatest price of all.

Jolene: I don't need to know what you can do. I saw it in Charlie's eyes, he fears you.

Despite attempting to mislead the doctor when she says it, there is great poignancy when Vic admits that Haley is gone, Maggie was run over and nearly died, and Vic doesn't have power to save anyone. As if Vic isn't down enough, the doctor then kindly tells her she can't even save her father and she needs to move out his home. What a champ!

And then there are the final scenes. For the second episode running, I find myself screaming, "no, Maggie, no!" at the screen. Why do I get the idea this isn't going to end well?

"The Dark Tunnels" started off slowly but I think it might be one of my favourites in terms of the NOS4A2 mythology and story. The scene with Joelene's bridge was especially brilliant.

You can catch NOS4A2 on Shudder (US) with new episodes added every Thursday and AMC UK (BT TV 332 Sky channel 186) with new episodes added every Tuesday at 9pm.

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Saturday, 7 September 2019

It Chapter Two - Cineworld, The O2 London, 4DX review ★★★★☆

It Chapter Two | 4DX | Horror Film Review

Horror films can feel like you've run the gauntlet - with your heart beating out of your chest and your mind taking a beating - do you really need to be more scared? Yes, as it turns out. After an exhilarating ride watching Hobbs & Shaw in 4DX, I decided to give Cineworld 4DX another chance with It Chapter Two. I'd been reliably informed that 4DX is perfect for the horror genre, that it heightens the experience with an interactive, multisensory experience including advanced motion seating and wind, mist, fog, lighting and smell effects. I was very wary considering It is about a sewer-dwelling clown.

IT Chapter Two

It (2017) was a lot of fun. It was a lot like Stranger Things but with bullies being destroyed instead of the Demogorgon. It Chapter Two is immediately different in tone; all of the Losers have grown up and moved away and most interestingly, none of them remember the events in Derry in 1989 except for Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) who never left the town. When Mike discovers a particularly gruesome dismemberment following a homophobic attack in town, he learns that Pennywise is back and somehow convinces a bunch of grown adults, who remember nothing of the events of 1989, to return back to Derry.

It Chapter Two | 4DX | Horror Film Review

The casting in IT Chapter Two is superb especially James Ransone, Bill Hader and Jay Ryan who play the adult Eddie Kaspbrak, Richie Tozier and Ben Hanscom. Of course Ben was going to grow up to be the heartthrob of Derry, he was already the best character! Despite their divergent paths in life, their core personalities remain and the chemistry between them all was still there, even that awkward not-quite-right vibe between Bill (James McAvoy) and Beverly (Jessica Chastain).

I didn't think Bill Skarsgård could get any more perfect as the entirely horrible Pennywise but he outdid himself in IT Chapter Two with a grotesque and very chilling performance. Look out for the Stephen King cameo in the film; it was very funny and provided some much-needed levity.

The Horror

IT Chapter Two seemed to trip over itself with every phobia known to humankind and there was plenty of blood, gore, decapitated heads that sprout arms and legs, and the ever-present giant maw. I don't find Pennywise particularly scary in and of himself but there was an obvious coulrophobe sitting next to me who screamed her head off every time he came on screen (yes, it's a film about a clown and yes, she appeared hoarse by the end of the film).

The film was psychedelic in parts, with distorted, demon-like monsters with body parts that didn't quite work. It was very trippy and a lot of fun.

The one thing that IT Chapter Two didn't get quite right was the balance of identity violence to resolution. The film begins with a harrowing homophobic attack and there is also a shocking scene of domestic violence. Neither of these events is resolved in the film which makes their inclusion almost gratuitous. IT Chapter Two lacked the satisfying edge of seeing the bullies get punished, like they were in It, and even Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) gets off too lightly. I would have like to see the homophobic gang pay for their crimes but as in real life, those who need it most often don’t get what they deserve.

It Chapter Two in 4DX

I'm pleased to say that there were no sewerage odours in the auditorium although there was the faint scent of perfume which made one scene especially creepy. The moving seats definitely heighten jump scares, even when you know they're coming, and there was that ever-present sense of gloominess and fog. I still believe that 4DX isn't for every film but it can be a fun and different experience every now and again. It's also a good thing that you can switch the water off!

It Chapter Two was a lot of fun and despite my reservation about the unresolved violence, I give it an excellent four out of five stars. The next big screen horror film I'm looking forward to is Stephen King's Doctor Sleep.

★★★★☆

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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

TV Review: NOS4A2 - "The Wraith"

AMC NOS4A2- The Wraith | Ashleigh Cummings is Vic McQueen | TV Review

After the creepshow that was "The House of Sleep", I was a little wary about what the next episode of NOS4A2 would deliver and whether my fragile mind could take more of Joe Hill's particularly sick brand of horror and betrayal. Thankfully, "The Wraith" is slow-moving for the first 39 minutes, allowing the audience a welcome chance to take a breath and learn more about the characters and the world of inscapes, bridges and knives.

"The Wraith" begins with Vic and her creative explosion all over her dad's girlfriend's garage. It's easy to forget that Vic is a creative but that's the point of NOS4A2, that she is a creative capable of creating a rich alternative world with her mind. I loved her Charlie Manx linograph but not surprisingly, the girlfriend isn't too keen on Vic using her home improvement supplies for her art.

There is a great scene where a clearly rattled Steve McQueen (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) tries to talk PTSD and mental health with his daughter by sharing the horrors of war which he experienced at Vic's age. Don't worry, he's soon back to his old tricks, displaying those awesome parenting skills we've come to love him for and by the end of the episode is a sure contender for the absolute worst parent in the world award.

AMC NOS4A2- The Wraith | Zachary Quinto is Charlie Manx | TV ReviewThere's a lot of police action in this episode with the introduction of Tabitha Hutter (Ashley Romans) who shockingly doesn't believe Vic's entirely plausible story. The creepiest moment in the episode comes with Hutter's cringeworthy interview with Bing Partridge. I can't believe I liked that man; I just want to take a bath every time he's on screen.

Of course, Bing's so far gone now, he'll sell anyone down the river to protect himself in his stilted, inadequate way and so he has no problem in delivering Manx's invitation to Christmasland to Vic.

We get to learn more about the bridge in "The Wraith" and Maggie suggests Vic can only get to a fixed point, not a moving vehicle. This makes sense but how will Vic ever track Haley down? Whatever the case, Maggie tells Vic that she cannot go alone to her meeting with Manx because if he gets his hands on her knife (the bike), she won't be able to use the Shorter Way anymore.

In fact, the best parts of "The Wraith" are when Maggie is on screen, especially Maggie schooling Willa on privilege and then going all Weird Science on her. Maggie's backstory on how her parents disowned her for being unholy is pretty horrible but explains a lot about her.

Elsewhere at Willa's party, Vic is getting closer to Drew (Rarmian Newton) and a barrel of punch. I like Drew, please don't let him turn out to be a sick predator like Bing.

And then there is Charlie Manx and a series of questionable choices on the part of Vic and Maggie. Ugh. Manx really is vile (sorry Zachary Quinto). He can definitely take his warped offer and do one. He does have some of the best lines though, delivered with trademark Quinto menace.

Manx: The bats. You'll want to be careful of those bats. Our inscapes are manifestations of our minds so if all the bats fly out of your bridge... well you understand the metaphor.

We're halfway through the first season of NOS4A2 now and I'm loving the show so far. I'm almost ready for whatever awful things the show is going to come up with next, and I have no doubt they will truly be awful.

You can catch NOS4A2 on Shudder (US) with new episodes added every Thursday and AMC UK (BT TV 332 Sky channel 186) with new episodes added every Tuesday at 9pm.

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Sunday, 1 September 2019

Win: 'Chessboxer' by Stephen Davies

Giveaway | Win a copy of Chessboxer by Stephen Davies

It's September which means that schools are back and we get to look forward to everything autumn has to offer including jumping in fallen leaves, Halloween and the release of Stephen Davies's brand new novel Chessboxer.

Stephen Davies is one of my favourite young adult authors and I loved Outlaw, Blood & Ink and Survivor: Titanic.

His new novel Chessboxer is about child prodigy Leah Baxter who is a few wins away from becoming a chess grand master when she decides to quit chess completely. Grieving for the loss of her father, Leah is feeling lost and angry when she discovers chessboxing, a fierce hybrid sport that combines chess and boxing.

Has Leah finally found a platform that she is proud to be the champion of?

As we speak, I'm half way through the novel and racing towards the end but the good news is that Stephen Davies and the team at Andersen Press are giving away a generous five ARCs of Chessboxer to five lucky people, meaning you'll get the chance to read the book before anyone else does!

Enter using the Gleam widget below and remember that the competition is open to UK resident only.

Giveaway: 'Chessboxer' by Stephen Davies

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