Review: Wonder Woman

5 stars

DC doesn’t often compete when it comes to superhero movies but with the latest release Wonder Woman it has truly outdone Marvel.

Wonder Woman is the superhero movie we have been waiting far too long for. However, the first female-led superhero movie, directed by a woman, has landed in cinemas with a bang. It has been a critical and commercial success and if you haven’t already you absolutely need to go see it now.

Wonder Woman stars the truly amazing Gal Godot in the lead role as Diana, an Amazon, one of a tribe of female warriors, put on Earth to defend mankind from the influence of the God of War. The visuals on Themyscira are stunning, and it seems to be a feminist utopia, full of strong women – where being a warrior is normal. Unbeknown to them however, the world is already waging war, which they only discover when Steve Trevor’s plane crashes into the sea by their island. Diana and Steve connect, and a number of jokes about Diana meeting a man for the first time ensue in the most brilliant fashion.

However, Steve’s disaster brings war to Themyscira’s doorstep. This realisation inspires Diana to take up arms and hunt down, Ares, the God of War himself, in the midst of the First World War.

The film is a classic superhero origin story, with plenty of action, but also a great plot and well defined characters. Diana is not only a badass warrior demi-goddess, but she is true superhero material, making it her mission to see the good in humanity and stop us from being corrupted by the hate Ares spreads; it is truly the movie we need for 2017. Diana is constantly underestimated and even treated like she is crazy, a feeling 50% of us can definitely sympathise with, but this doesn’t stop her. She is determined and resilient, pushing forward and making strides for women everywhere – whether it is in her stunning modernist suit in Edwardian London, battling army bureaucracy, or striding across No Man’s Land to save local villagers from the ravages of war. The movie is not only funny and heartwarming, but full of action, Diana’s fight scenes are no easy feat – she goes up against a Greek God for goodness sake.

The film doesn’t fall into the misogynistic traps that other superhero films do, with cheap sexist one liners or an overt sexualisation of its women. Every joke in the film is appropriate, and it is actually funny – proving that you don’t need to be needlessly provocative to have fun. The film also nods its head in a few intersectional directions, with a diverse cast and acknowledgments of racial issues – from how difficult it is to be cast as an actor if you aren’t white to the seizure of Native American land by Europeans. It isn’t perfect – we could certainly have seen more black women with bigger speaking parts, but it goes further than many other superhero films – or films in general for that matter.

But all in all this film is empowering, it is pushing boundaries and it is forging paths for the future of women in film. And it is also simply just a great film.

Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

4-stars

Arundhati Roy’s second novel has been long awaited, coming 20 years after her first. This highly anticipated book will have garnered high expectations from fans, and for me it didn’t disappoint.

This novel is expansive, exploring geographical issues surrounding Kashmir, the religious tensions in the region, ideas of revolution, gender identity, and identity politics in general – all issues which couldn’t be more relevant or important in 2017.

Anjum is a ‘hijra’ a term used to describe transgender women in South Asia. The novel depicts her life and struggle, and where her life intersects with others who are outcast, alone or in need of a home.

Anjum bridges the gap between Muslims and Hindus, between old and young, men and women, Indian and Kashmiri, through Jannat’s Guest House, which she gradually builds from a tin shack in a Delhi graveyard. The novel seems to be haphazard, jumping in narrative voice and focalisation. However, eventually these strands do pull together to meet, making the novel complete, whole and rewarding.

Roy’s prose is utterly exquisite, and the presence of India behind the novel isn’t just a ‘character’ in the way we sometimes metaphorically speak of the depictions of countries and cities in books. Roy very literally makes Delhi real, living and breathing; a ‘thousand year old sorceress, dozing but not asleep, even at this hour.’ Passages such as this one are the kind of literature that takes your breath away, which you reread over and over.

Despite being 20 years in the making, it feels as though the novel lives in the here and now. It preaches tolerance in the light of religious and transgender persecution, something which has never been more relevant with the rise of extremist politics in the last year. It presents an India in the age of video and selfies – with the videos on phones that characters obsess over mirroring an age obsessed with live streaming and on the go access.

For me the only fault lay in that the multiple narratives and wide-ranging nature made the book feel less polished than it could have and a bit like hard-work, to keep track and keep up with all the different strands of the story. But even this didn’t ruin such a beautiful novel, which not only evoked a sense of India, but managed to balance the death, suffering and misery, that features all of the way through, with kindness, tolerance and hope.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness couldn’t have arrived on our shelves at a better time and I hope Roy’s novel inspires some of the sentiments that she achieves in her novel.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Miraculous Mysteries

4-stars
Miraculous Mysteries is a wonderful little collection of impossible crimes by some of crime fiction’s best loved writers.

The collection is varied, with all sorts of mysteries which all have one thing in common – they are seemingly impossible to solve. The book opens with a gem from Conan Doyle ‘The Lost Special’ which was probably the best story of the whole book. Other highlights included ‘Diary of Death’ and ‘Death at 8.30’ by relatively unknown authors.

Impossible Crimes are perfect for mystery lovers because of the challenge they offer and the intelligence and wit that goes into them. Think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and it is easy to understand why these stories are popular.

This mix of authors, some of who were lesser known,  and their different styles was refreshing. The stories were fun, with some that were completely impossible and others which you could have a good stab at working out. This is the perfect combination, as you don’t want to have to be working things out constantly as you go, so it allows you to sit back and relax and just enjoy the novels too.

My favourite stories were the ones that built up more context and scenario around the crime, allowing me to get a little more caught up in the action, for example like in ‘Too Clever by Half’. I also enjoyed having a bit of background about the writers as this helped me learn a bit more about them, or even recognise them from characters that I am culturally aware of.

The thing that did grate on me slightly was that despite the effort to include a few female writers in what is clearly a white male dominated genre – none of the ‘detectives’ whether officially in the role of detective or not, was female. I felt like there surely could be a good Miss Marple or other witty female out there solving impossible murders, however as they were classic short stories they are drawn from a time period where such stories were in short supply.

Overall I did really enjoy this book, and it is absolutely perfect for when you want a quick crime to solve with a cuppa and some cake – because that is the only way you should read these stories.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: The Dark Circle

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 2 stars
Two teenagers are admitted to a sanatorium with TB in the 1950s in Linda Grant’s newest book The Dark Circle. Grant is a previous Women’s Prize for Fiction winner and the buzz suggests she is a contender on the shortlist.

Lenny and Miriam are admittedly far more interesting characters than I expected from the initial blurb, and I particularly love how they fall in love with literature, and connect with other patients during their stay at the ‘Gwendo’. The novel explores the phenomenon of TB from a number of perspectives, and looks at postwar life from the experience of the Jewish protagonists, to the implementation of the NHS. I really enjoyed how the novel transported you to a forgotten past, and felt that it did really evoke the early 50s.

However, for several reasons, I still didn’t really get on with this book. While Lenny and Miriam’s experiences are significant, and a story that needs to be told, the whole book felt like their experience in the sanatorium – stifled, monotonous and slow. Nothing really happens over the course of 320 pages. The switching points of view made it difficult to focus on which character was focalising at the time, and occasionally the prose just felt odd, with jarring metaphors. I couldn’t tell whether this was an attempt at originality or quirkiness to avoid cliches – however there was more than one turn of phrase which didn’t really make sense or made me question what it meant.

I could identify and sympathise with some of the characters, though others just felt flat and not fleshed out enough. I like the idea of the novel, in terms of the exploration of how the patients were not just medically treated, but socially, politically and on an individual level. It explored a range of human emotions with great nuance and it really did make me feel for the patients. However, because of the lack of pace and plot, and the writing style in general,  I struggled to immerse myself in it or really enjoy it.

Review: Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Have you ever wondered what happens to minor characters in a play when they aren’t on the stage? Ever dreamed of a bit of back story?

Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead does exactly that –  but with a bit of a twist. The two minor characters – who serve minor purposes and achieve nothing in the play, exist only for the play. So rather than backstory, we get existential crisis and a whole lot of comedy.

Radcliffe was made for the stage and is a hilarious presence as the Rozencranz who is so lost and confused that he doesn’t even remember which one of the two he is. Along  with a similarly statured Joshua McGuire, the two men are dwarfed by the expansive stage, compounding their smallness and insignificance.

This production was the 50th Anniversary production of the original play. I can’t vouch as to whether it has done it justice, because it is the first time I have ever seen it. However, for a play that is so clever, intellectual and complex, it was abundantly clear in its purpose and it’s comedy – with the fast-paced interactions between the two eponymous characters always witty, humorous and never missing the mark.

The hammed up production of Hamlet in the background was incredibly effective in achieving the meta-theatre the production aims to, and the ‘play-within-a-play-within-a-play’ was superbly achieved by the travelling players who acted out the fates of the poor protagonists. You might expect such complex, high-flying ideas to be mind boggling, however there was an accessible and easy simplicity in the comedy of these scenes.

You will need a working knowledge of Hamlet to really get anything out of this play, but that is just the nature of the beast. However, there is enough comedy in the physical acting and dialogue to allow you to relax, and enjoy it rather than treating the whole thing as an intellectual exercise.

The play equally has its elements of tragedy – these characters, who have no lives outside of the story they are confined to, face a not dissimilar crisis to anyone else who may feel they are trapped in a certain kind of life, or simply just lost without clear direction. The idea then that they are doomed to repeat this tragedy forever is almost heartbreaking – I nearly condemned Shakespeare for such callous treatment of the two men. Of course this is Stoppard’s crowning achievement – that his play is so emotive he draws such reactions out through a story which you know is not real, and which constantly tells you it’s not real. And hats have to be tipped to the two leads here who so brilliantly achieve this in their performance also.

Overall, this play does what all the best tragedies should: it makes you think. It also does what all the best comedies do: it stops you overthinking and makes you simply enjoy it. As a combination of the two it is the quintessential tragicomedy and this anniversary production is truly worthy of that title.

Review: Fever Dream

mbi2017-logo Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), and translated by Megan McDowell (US), is a Man Booker International Prize 2017 nominee.

4-stars

Fever Dream is more like a novella than a novel, but for its brief 151 pages it still packs a punch. The writing style is experimental and intriguing and it deals with some pretty big themes.

The novel opens with a women in the Emergency Room talking to a child although this is not immediately clear – the conversation allows their identities and the events that led to this moment. The style is unique, with the ‘child’s’ voice in italics, giving it an ethereal quality – making us question whether it is real.

It is difficult to review without giving away key details that make the novel so important, so here is as few spoilers as possible in looking at what the novel is about. The woman has taken her young daughter on holiday to a rental home where she meets Carla whose son was poisoned. This poisoning sets up a theme of environmental damage and also that of caring for children.

Schweblin evokes exactly the feeling that the title gives – like a feverish dream. The atmosphere is oppressive, with the interview-esque conversation being directed and redirected over small details. The nature of the conversation itself is a dream-like and as readers we constantly question the reality of it – is it a dream, can it really be occuring? Paired with the magical realism so popular in Latin American literature which the book employs, this truly makes the book feel illusive.

The book is uncomfortable and really makes you think and question about what you would do, or would be able to do in a similar situation. My only issue with the book was that it was so brief, I feel like perhaps it could have been fleshed out a little more to add dimension to the story. But it is also possible that the style would have been difficult to sustain over a longer book.

I very much enjoyed this book and I think it could be a real contender for the Man Booker International Prize.


I am reading Fever Dream with Book and Brew as one of the official Reading Groups for Everyone shadowing groups.

Review: Hag-Seed

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood is based on The Tempest.


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 5 stars
If you thought a play within a play was Hamlet’s domain, think again. In Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest Prospero is a famous theatre director, Felix Phillips, who is ousted from his role and ends up putting on plays in the ‘Literacy through Literature course’ at a local prison under the name of Mr Duke.
Hag-seed is an incredibly clever exploration of the themes of this play, namely the role of prisons within it. As Felix enacts his revenge using the inmates he directs, the other characters are complicated – we have the Ariel he casts 8Handz, as a kind of Ariel, but he is also haunted by his daughter Miranda who died age 3, and so becomes a kind of spirit like Ariel.
Equally, the death of Miranda complicates who takes on this role in the play. Lady Luck, or the Auspicious Star is cleverly personified in Estelle – showing how Atwood’s attention to detail is faultless. The play is modernised both as Atwood’s tale and in the performance of The Tempest that Felix stages which features rap-numbers, dance and significant reinterpretations.
Atwood’s invented world of the play is clever and complex, making you think twice about the play you thought you knew. It deals with issues of revenge, justice, imprisonment and mercy in whole new ways, rethinking the ways in which we perceive these. We get to know the inmates and can sympathise with them,  they are funny, real understandable people.
The depths which Atwood reaches with Felix explore the character in completely new ways, we see his motivations, emotions and manipulations but also a softer and more vulnerable side. The references, allusions and explorations within this are an English student’s dream and it feels as though it may have been an exercise of intelligence for Atwood, who lists off a dozen different sources for reference in her acknowledgements. I can’t say how good this book would be if you weren’t aware of it’s heritage – but the story was good with an interesting plot and was well-paced, reaching an exciting climax. However most of the fun came from knowing what the hidden references and meanings were, so a knowledge of the play was important here.
I studied The Tempest for four years in a row at school and was frankly pretty sick of it – I’ve never seen or studied it again since. If this book could make me enjoy a play which I’m not a huge fan of then it really did its job. Atwood’s retelling was everything a retelling of Shakespeare should be – an accessible, exciting and engaging update to the Bard’s words.

Review: The Power

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 5 stars

A feminist dystopian by a Margaret Atwood mentee, nominated for the Bailey’s Prize. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Well it isn’t. The Power by Naomi Alderman is everything I wanted it to be. The book is simultaneously a deeply personal and epic exploration of the gender-power dynamic in the modern day.

The premise is fairly basic: what if, overnight, the power shifted? What if one day, the literal power was in the hands of teenage girls?

In Alderman’s future the ‘Day of the Girls’ sees women gaining a superhero-esque electric power, giving them the physical means to not only equal men, but to overpower them. However, Alderman is far too clever to make this a simple ‘girls run the world’ story, instead reflecting the complexities of patriarchal society in her dystopia.

The story is told through multiple focalising characters, giving an expansive view of the way the world changes, across the US, Europe and the Middle East. The different characters are complex, all dealing with the phenomenon in unique ways. As well as seeing the perspective of a variety of girls and women; Allie, a runaway, Roxy a british teen and Margot a US politician, Alderman offers us the perspective of male journalist Tunde.

 

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

 

The story spans years of changes and illustrates a gradual but seismic shift, however Alderman offers us nuance – as well as women gaining power, we see women abusing that power. Oppression of and violence against men becomes widespread, however, women are still targeted and gender specific violence is enacted against them. Women become leaders, yet many are still hiding and on the run, at the hands of just as violent a regime as before.

Clever tropes and symbols litter the story, illustrating these changes for us – for example the news anchors Tom and Kristen, who debate the issues, yet as time passes Tom is replaced by a younger man and Kristen becomes the intelligent authority on political affairs and economics. In between chapters we see scientific explanations and archaeological finds explaining what has occurred, and short of those which incorporate humorous references to modern technology, it may have you beginning to question your historical knowledge.

Alderman combines dystopia with horror, humour and satire to create a perfectly crafted inversion of patriarchy. This book should be required reading for everyone to understand exactly what gender inequality is and means, not just for women, but for men too, who are also disadvantaged by patriarchy. Ultimately, Alderman shows that women are human, we are capable of the same mistakes, vices, and atrocities as men. There is no such thing as a female utopia and ultimately tying power to gender has no positive outcomes.

The Power is a compelling treatise on all the problems of patriarchal society – from objectification to sex trafficking – however, it is also an engaging story about empowerment and the danger of power.

Review: New Boy

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier is based on Othello.


4-stars

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, with Othello, a black general and his wife Desdemona going to war, where his ensign Iago plots his downfall.

Chevalier reframes the story, with the military setting becoming an elementary school playground in Washington DC. Osei is the new boy, and the only black boy in an all white school, who is soon befriended by Dee, despite the aversion of the other students due to his race.  Ian, a known school bully, decides to reassert the pecking order by bringing Osei down.

This take on the story is incredibly interesting, fleshing out characters more than we see in Shakespeare’s words and in a way we don’t often see on stage. We see insights into each of the main characters, Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi (Ian’s girlfriend representing Emilia from the play).

These insights are interesting, deviating from what many see as the key aspect of Othello – the mystery behind the motivations of the characters. Iago’s motives are the most debated of any of Shakespeare’s villains, while Othello’s actions and anger has also been questioned, as has Emilia’s complicity. In New Boy, we see first-hand insight into the characters and their thoughts and feelings giving us a whole new perspective, particularly in the case of female characters Dee and Mimi whose dramatic counterparts are often overlooked and dismissed.

Chevalier brings in a whole new dynamic in the relationships by making Osei new to the school. In the play Othello is an established general who has earned the respect of his men, meaning he has power, which Osei does not. Equally, the key part to Iago’s deception is that he is seen to be honest, whereas Ian is known to be manipulative and a bully. As such the rewriting does take out some of the nuance of the original story, however, it is an enjoyable new way to look at a well-worn tale.

The novel is also short, coming in at under 200 pages it is more of a novella, contrasting to the long scope of Shakespeare’s plays which last 3-4 hours depending on the cuts made. It is very accessible, easy to read and an engaging story – although we may know what happens we want to see how it is done, and it is done very cleverly.

Rewritings and adaptations never live up to the original tales, however they do allow Shakespeare to live on in new ways and for us to understand him in a contemporary context. New Boy does exactly that and is a very enjoyable and accessible way to approach history’s greatest playwright.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: He Said/She Said

4-stars

He Said/She Said was a must read for me as another psychological thriller exploring not only domestic relationships, but socially contentious issues like consent.

For this reason I was also nervous – this is a subject which is easy to deal with badly, with so many stereotypes and preconceptions it would be easy to fall into a number of traps. But thankfully all my fears were unfounded, Kelly deals with the subject brilliantly with a perfectly poised thriller that plays into, and challenges all of our worst assumptions, offering a twist which I didn’t see coming.

We know from the blurb that Kit and Laura, a young couple, witness a crime – a rape, which they have to testify about in court. We receive the story in chapters alternately narrated by Kit and Laura, both from the time, and when their past catches up to them in the future. This is all set against a clever back-drop of  eclipse chasing, setting a symbolic foreboding and climax to mirror the plot, adding a more literary element to the genre fiction. We see the internal workings of the couple’s own relationship, as well as the court case they participate in and its aftermath. This makes it the perfect book for fans of domestic thrillers and court case drama alike.

The story is well paced, engaging and had a twist worthy of Gillian Flynn to round off a fantastic thriller. The only fault I could find, if it is a fault at all, is simply that I didn’t find any character particularly compelling, but the story itself was so engaging that this was a minor issue, and it would be a rare thing for a book to achieve all of this.

The ending is intense, gripping and completely unexpected. Overall, this was a brilliant read and one I would fully recommend to any crime or thriller fan!


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon.