Milkman by Anna Burns review

Hi everyone! So today I’m reviewing Anna Burns’ Milkman which won the Man Booker Prize last year. Set in an unnamed city in the 70s, our nameless protagonist finds herself receiving unwanted attention from the eponymous Milkman; she’s a teenager with a ‘maybe boyfriend’, he’s a middle-aged, married man who is a notorious renouncer of the state. Yet thanks to the rumours spread by her first brother-in-law, the community suspect that she is Milkman’s lover and any attempt to deny this seems to backfire.

Despite the lack of names in the novel it is obvious that Milkman is set during the Troubles in Belfast. Yet the themes Burns touches upon are very current in today’s climate; this is seen clearly in our narrator’s feelings towards Milkman. She feels uncomfortable, feels harassed by him to the point her life starts to be seriously affected, but cannot tell anyone as she feels he hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t harmed her physically so in her mind there is nothing to be done. Plus the obvious power dynamic between the two calls to mind people like Harvey Weinstein, powerful men who exploited younger, more vulnerable women who were frightened to come forward.  Also the idea of women being inferior and the dismissal of a group of women who appear to be feminists could be a critique of Northern Ireland itself, which has more restrictive women’s rights than the rest of the UK, such as the ban of abortions. Despite the novel being set 40 years ago, some of its’ imagery is frighteningly relevant.

Even though Milkman deals with uncomfortable themes it is beautifully written. Burns’ use of language creates this vivid, powerful image of a world governed by fear; whether that be the narrator’s fear of Milkman or the community’s fear of the state and informers. She captures the feelings of these characters perfectly and you can’t help but sympathise with them. There is a sequence where our narrator is in a French class and she comments on the sunset, and the way Burns uses word choice and imagery to convey not only the sky but the narrator’s mixed, conflicted feelings was the highlight of the book for me. However, I did feel like the pacing of the novel was affected by Burns’ word choice, in particular the repetition of words. Parts of the story dragged because Burns was reiterating phrases or words and I don’t think they added to the reading experience, instead I just wished I could skip those parts.

Milkman is an interesting read. When I was reading it I had very mixed feelings; some passages were incredibly written, full of beautiful imagery and characterisation and others felt like a slog. But I think the novel has grown on me since finishing it and having had a chance to reflect on it. The characters, the narrator in particular, seep under your skin without your realising and I am more attached to them now than I was when reading. My opinions in general became more positive after putting the book down. Though I still don’t think Milkman is for everyone; the stream-of-consciousness and lack of names can be confusing, especially at the beginning, or maybe some aren’t fascinated by that period of history. But I do think Milkman is a worthy Man Booker winner and certainly worth giving a try if you’re at all interested.

Milkman is published by Faber & Faber and you can find more information here.

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Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott review

Hi everyone! For the last couple of years I have been really getting into Truman Capote’s writing after thinking, strangely, that he was too ‘highbrow’ for me to comprehend. Breakfast at Tiffany’s proved me wrong and I have been fascinated by the author ever since. So when I read that a period of Capote’s life was the basis for a novel I had to have it. Swan Song flits between different moments of his life but centres on one key incident; in 1975 Capote published a chapter of his forthcoming book Answered Prayers based on the lives of some of his closest friends, a group of socialites he collectively calls his ‘Swans’. Betrayed, his friends start to shun him and the author’s life starts to crumble.

Greenberg-Jephcott’s characterisation is stunning. The different women, the ‘Swans’, in Capote’s life all have distinct and compelling voices and I found the descriptions of their lives fascinating. As a reader you really get a sense of their personalities and how this betrayal has affected each of them. But the highlight is Capote himself. He is such a complex, loathsome, pathetic man who by turns you despise and feel sorry for. There is a feeling of repugnance for how he treated his friends yet watching him self-destruct is heart-breaking; one doesn’t feel joy at watching his downfall but rather has a sad sense of inevitability. Greenberg-Jephcott has managed to make Capote a fully fledged character, rather than a caricature of the great writer. He was a joy to read.

Her writing too is excellent. It is very lyrical in parts and the imagery is particularly evocative. It feels like you are there with these characters, whether in the posh restaurants in New York or sitting on a porch in Monroeville. There is a real sense of place, and I think New York and Monroeville are minor characters in their own right. They both reflect an aspect of Capote and his personality and ambitions; New York the glitzy, famous, aspect and Monroeville his poor, haphazard childhood that he wanted to escape (and sort of did through stories). It is interesting to see in the end how these two places affect him, and I think Greenberg-Jephcott did a great job reflecting that.

Ultimately, Swan Song is a story about storytelling. The story is told in first-narration plural by the Swans themselves. Greenberg-Jephcott has given their voices back to them after their stories were robbed by Capote. It is their narration, their version of events (though one could argue that in a sense since none wrote the book, it isn’t truly ‘theirs’). Throughout the book the reader also sees different variations of the same event. Most of these variations are down to Capote; whether making his own childhood more exciting or recounting others’ personal dramas. This technique highlights the idea that we all tell stories, that we have our own narratives and versions of events, and we tell them to ourselves or others for many reasons.

It is hard to imagine that Swan Song is a debut as it is very well-written. The characterisation is probably the highlight for me as I thought each person was beautifully drawn, but the word choice and imagery are equally great. I also really enjoy the title; managing to reference both the Swans and Capote. Admittedly at the beginning I wasn’t sure, getting confused with the timeline constantly switching but by a couple of chapters I was hooked. Even if you know next to nothing about anyone mentioned in the book I would still recommend Swan Song, a novel I think even Capote himself would have relished.

Swan Song is published by Hutchinson and you can find more information here.

The 28-Day Vegan Plan by Kim-Julie Hansen review

Hi everyone! So last week Bluebird sent an email with a sample of blogger Kim-Julie Hansen’s latest book, The 28-Day Vegan Plan. Now, I’m not vegan myself but one of my New Years’ Resolutions was to be healthier (let’s see how long I can keep that one up!) and so I decided to see if there were any veggie recipes I could incorporate into my diet.

However when reading The 28-Day Vegan Plan I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t just recipes. Hansen goes into her background and explains why she became vegan and her complicated relationship with food. This resonated with me, and will probably with lots of other people, as sadly disordered eating seems quite commonplace yet not really discussed. There are also tips on meditation and self-care. It was interesting to read –  there aren’t many cookbooks with self-worth passages – and highlighted Hansen’s idea that this isn’t a diet nor a quick-fix scheme for underlying issues. It was really nice to see someone address those topics and potentially provide pointers.

This is very much a beginner’s cookbook. Every week has a shopping list at the front so you know exactly what to buy and what you’ll be using for the seven days which is handy in terms of planning ahead. Hansen also provides instructions how to cook and store food which, while some tips I found helpful, a lot seemed to boil down (no pun intended) to common sense, such as storing food in air-tight containers. In terms of the recipes themselves, there’s a really nice variety of meals from baked potatoes to pastas to tacos so there is something for everyone to enjoy; I’m personally heading towards pancakes. Some of the recipes are a little simplistic, for example the smoothies and the peanut butter and blueberry toast. They just seemed really basic in contrast to other recipes and I felt their inclusion was a little unnecessary.

cherry pancakes
Being healthy = cherry pancakes. Photograph (c) publisher

I think The 28-Day Vegan Plan is a great starter into cooking, whether vegan or not. As I said previously, some recipes and prep instructions make this a really good book for beginners but I feel people with more experience might find these a bit milquetoast. I don’t know if there are any more challenging recipes further in, so there might be something for them to enjoy. Overall, I did like The 28-Day Vegan Plan for Hansen’s honesty regarding her past, the easy layout of the recipes, and for including a wide range of meals at an affordable cost.

Quick question before I sign off: would people like me to review more cookbooks? I like reading and cooking from them but don’t know if anyone would like any recommendations? Let me know in a comment below!

The 28-Day Vegan Plan is published by Bluebird and you can find more information here.

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin review

Hi everyone! I’m back with my first review of 2019 and it is Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection Mouthful of Birds, due for release on the 7th February. Some people might remember that I read her debut novel (novella?) Fever Dream late last year. I had no idea what was going on but found the overall experience very atmospheric and creepy. And that’s exactly how I felt reading these short stories, which have also been translated by Megan McDowell.

Even in stories I felt didn’t particularly work, Schweblin’s imagery is so striking that it haunts after the story is long finished. I still remember scenes from stories that overall didn’t grip me or I wasn’t sure what to think, but those brief images were very powerful. A good example of this is seen in the eponymous short story ‘Mouthful of Birds’. The image – a girl eating live birds – is uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unforgettable, yet the actual plot of the story felt like it could have been expanded. I was left wanting more, especially in terms of characterisation and seeing the relationships within this family. A lot was left unsaid, which I don’t normally mind as I like the ambiguity it gives, but here I found myself scratching my head, not knowing what to make of these people or the girl’s sudden interest in birds.

Yet when the stories did work, they were brilliant. One of my favourites was ‘Heads Against Concrete” which follows the life of an artist who only paints heads getting hit against concrete. It was such a brilliant and disturbing character study which quietly builds to this terrifying conclusion that I could not stop reading. The narrator is both repulsive and fascinating; creating this sense of unease, of not wanting to follow him down an increasingly darker path yet curiosity compels you forward. Another story I liked was ‘The Size of Things’ which sees a young man come to live and work in a toy shop. This one feels very different from the others in the collection in that there is a sense of sadness throughout. Is Enrique in this shop because he simply refuses to grow up? Is he trying to relive his childhood? Or did he not have much of a childhood to begin with? The reader is plagued by these questions during the story and it is only when we get to the heart-breaking climax that you realise what has been happening all along.

If you are a fan of Schweblin’s Fever Dream you will like this. Despite the narratives here perhaps being more accessible than the dialogue driven, nonlinear plot of the first book, Schweblin’s knack for creepy, intense storytelling is on full display here. Her imagery and word choice are stunning, and nothing feels out of place; every word chosen deliberately for maximum impact. However in a couple of stories I did feel like the characterisation and plot were lacking and I struggled to connect with those. Overall however, I did enjoy Mouthful of Birds and will be interested in reading more of Schweblin’s work.

Mouthful of Birds is published by Oneworld and you can find more information here

 

Top 10 Books of 2018

It’s hard to imagine that a year ago I was attempting to write my top 10 of 2017, but here I am attempting to write once again. 2018 was a very good year for books; I read some exciting new voices plus a couple of old classics (a thing I’m hoping to continue into 2019 as I like mixing up my reading). It was hard trying to narrow this list down to 10 but eventually I got there. I’ve also linked my original reviews if you wish to check out these books further, as here I’ve just written a small snippet for fear of repeating myself in the reviews. And now let’s dive straight in:

10. Gary the Four Eyed Fairy and Other Stories by Frank Mundo

Gary

The only short story collection to make the list (I must read more in 2019!) Gary is 12 interconnected stories following the life of J.T Glass, a security guard in LA. Mundo has Glass’ voice nailed to a T, and I found the collection as a whole very endearing. Having only one voice throughout means there isn’t a disconnection I sometimes feel when I read short stories, and instead Gary feels like snippets of the life of an ordinary man, with all the highs and lows within. I’m looking forward to seeing what Mundo does next.

9. In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order to Live

2018 was a great year for non-fiction, and this is the first of many on my list. The book is Park’s account of life in North Korea and her subsequent escape to China with her mother. This was a powerful, heart-breaking read. Park writes with simplicity but she pulls no punches and doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics. It can be quite difficult to carry on reading. Yet, there is a sense of hopefulness that runs throughout the narrative, this idea that life could be better, and that drives you to keep reading. A great book if you are interested in North Korea and life within its’ borders.

8. The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger

The Star Machine

Another non-fiction, and a last-minute edition to the list, is Basinger’s look at the Studio System during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I found this a fascinating read, especially when Basinger backs up her views with case studies of various actors and actresses. You are given a much clearer idea about her arguments, and I also found her writing style to also be accessible. She has a quite dry sense of humour which stops the text being too academic, formal and instead allows the reader to engage in the work. Even if (like me) you knew next to nothing about the ins and outs of Hollywood, The Star Machine is still well worth a read.

7. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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The worthy winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, Shamsie’s novel is a modern reimagining of Antigone set mainly in London, and follows three siblings when one runs off to join extremists. It is a very hard-hitting, topical read and Shamsie pulls no punches; yet the writing has a very lyrical quality and I was completely gripped by it. The characters in particular are excellently written and Shamsie never forces judgment upon them, instead allowing the reader to make up their own mind concerning these characters. I found that even though I did not necessarily agree with their actions, I still felt empathy for each of them. I really must get round to reading more of Shamsie’s work.

6. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Gone in the Dark

McNamara’s journey into discovering who the notorious Golden State Killer was, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a compelling read. Her research is meticulous, interviewing former and current officers, studying the crimes herself, and offering up possibilities as to who this person may be. McNamara also writes about herself and how she became fascinated with the case and unsolved crime in general, and I found this equally interesting. A powerful read made poignant by the fact McNamara passed away before either the book was published or the killer was caught. If you like true crime tales you’ll love this. Just don’t read this in the dead of night (seriously; every wee noise I heard was a serial killer coming for me).

5. Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr

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These two essays (well, one is a letter, the other a sermon) by Dr. King had to make the Top 10. They are articulate, well-written pieces of non-fiction that sadly still have relevance today. Whilst King was writing in the context of the Civil Rights movement, his message of loving oneself and others could be applied any way the reader chooses. Yet the eponymous letter is also an effective rallying cry as to stand up for what you believe in; that the struggle must continue in the streets even if there are those who are against it. A haunting, powerful piece of work and I’m glad Penguin selected it as part of their Modern Classics series.

4. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

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Excellent Women is a strange one. When I first read it, I enjoyed it immensely but never thought it would end up in my end of year Top 10 list, and especially not this high up. But over the course of 2018 I have found myself going back and rereading passages. Pym’s ability to capture a mood or feeling of a particular group of people in a particular period is stunning; here, she is looking at unmarried, middle-class women just after the end of the Second World War. Her social commentary is second to none, and I found myself laughing as I recognised older family members in these characters. Mildred is such a delightful, funny character that you can’t help but like her, yet Pym has imbued her with this sense of pathos that gives her more depth. As with Shamsie, I really must read more of Pym in 2019.

3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind

A story of epic proportions, I find it hard to summarise Gone with the Wind in only a couple of sentences but also equally know I don’t have to, it’s such a famous book and film everyone knows the story of Scarlett O’Hara and her tempestuous relationship with Rhett Butler. Yet I was incredibly impressed with Mitchell’s writing; it is hard to believe it is a debut. The imagery is so vivid that you can imagine yourself at Tara or Atlanta, and I found the prose to be really beautiful and haunting. It is so easy to get swept up in this epic storyline, glorious writing and memorable characters that its’ daunting length ceases to be a cause for concern. It is different enough from the film adaptation that people who have watched it will find something new to enjoy, and it is an incredibly easy read if you don’t know the plot beforehand.

2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

Funnily enough the second book I ever read in 2018, Lincoln in the Bardo manages to nap second place. This book is brilliantly barmy. Combining historical events (the death of Lincoln’s young son) with supernatural elements, dick jokes and written like a script, it is a hard novel to define. Whilst it is a hard book at first to get into, mainly due to the odd layout, I was quickly gripped by the plot and humour. I found all the characters engaging and was sad when I had to put the book down; despite the ridiculousness of their situation I still felt empathy for them. This is one of the most original, heart-breaking, funny books I’ve read this year and would highly recommend it.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

anna karenina

This reached number one in my Top 10 books so far list and nothing has displaced it. Similar to Gone with the Wind, most people have a pretty good idea of the plot of Anna Karenina so I won’t repeat it here. I loved this book. The characters, in particular Anna and Levin, were so beautifully drawn that I was compelled to read on. Despite their flaws they are such noble, kind people that you cannot help but like and root for them. The ending is probably one of the saddest I’ve read this year and I still think about it months after finishing the novel. And of course, Tolstoy’s writing is legendary, lyrical and haunting yet still being accessible. Anna Karenina is regarded as a masterpiece for a reason, and if you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to pick it up.

And there you have it! What have been some of your favourite books of 2018? Let me know! And I hope you have a Happy New Year when it comes and I’ll see you in 2019!

Top 10 Films of 2018

Hi everyone! So on Monday 31st I’ll be writing who has made it into my Top 10 books of 2018 but before that however, I wanted to share with you my favourite films I’ve watched this year. As well as reading, one of my favourite hobbies is going to the cinema (then subsequently researching interviews with the cast, crew and generally finding out titbits about the filmmaking process. Yes I’m that sad). For the purpose of this list I have decided to focus on films that had their wide UK release in 2018, though they may have played in other countries last year. I also decided not to include any re-watches or any re-released films – sorry Vertigo! So without further ado, here is my top 10 of 2018:

10. Isle of Dogs, dir. Wes Anderson

Isle of Dogs

Set in the fictional Megasaki, Japan, an outbreak of dog flu leads to all pooches being shipped to a place called Trash Island. A young boy decides to go to said island and recover his beloved pet, Spots. I thought this was a really sweet, heart-warming film. I particularly liked the camaraderie between the dogs, and how their relationships develop over the course of the film; aided by the excellent voice work by actors like Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Scarlett Johansson. The stop-motion is amazing, with 670 people working on the film and the amount of care and precision going into photography really shows. If you liked Anderson’s previous stop-motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox then you’ll enjoy Isle of Dogs.

9. Whitney, dir. Kevin Macdonald

Whitney

The first of three documentaries to make this list, Whitney traces the life of pop sensation Whitney Houston, with interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, through her childhood to her untimely death in 2012. Macdonald intersperses clips of Houston’s music with footage of events occurring around the same time of the songs’ releases. I found this particularly effective as it places Houston and her music within context; showing what was going on when people first heard these songs. It gives you a greater sense of what is happening and also what could be influencing her music. Macdonald also thoroughly researches his subject; no stone is left unturned, and there are some truly heartbreaking revelations to be found here. Even if you were never a fan of Houston it’s still a wonderfully directed and edited documentary about a music icon.

8. Shoplifters, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

Shoplifters

Winning this year’s Palme D’or at Cannes (and deservedly so) Shoplifters tells the story of a family of petty thieves who take in a small girl after hearing her abusive parents say they did not want her. We then follow the ups and downs of this family and its’ latest addition. Shoplifters won’t be for everyone; it is slow-paced and not a lot happens for a good chunk of the film. But I feel that’s where its’ power lies. Instead, Koreeda focuses on those small family moments that may seem insignificant at the time but as a whole show how much love a family has for one another. I found some scenes very moving and it took a lot of will power not to start crying. The cast is also incredible at portraying characters on the outskirts of society, who at first seem like selfish criminals but who gradually become endearing as their relationships are exposed to the audience. Like I  said it won’t be for everyone, but if you like quiet family dramas then certainly check out Shoplifters.

7. Wildlife, dir. Paul Dano

Wildlife

Based on the Richard Ford novel of the same name, Wildlife centres around a young boy whose father (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes away to take on a poorly paid and potentially dangerous job. The boy’s mother (Carey Mulligan) is upset and angry, and her relationship with her son changes after the father has left. The film is beautifully lit and photographed, giving it a picturesque quality at odds with its’ sad storyline. Yet Wildlife’s main strength is the acting. Both Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are exceptional as parents whose marriage may be on the rocks; each being both sympathetic and repulsive at different moments. You really feel for their characters even if you don’t necessarily agree with their actions. And Ed Oxenbould who plays their son is equally talented, showing us how he feels rather than relying on dialogue or voiceover to tell us. I haven’t read Ford’s novel but after watching this, I’m certainly interested in picking it up.

6. Custody, dir. Xavier Legrand

Custody

Again another film centred around a broken marriage (I’m not always this depressing I swear!), this time it shows the bitter custody battle that follows after the parents have divorced. The daughter is a teenager and doesn’t wish to spend time with her father. However, as the son is still a minor a court orders that his father can see him, despite the boy’s reluctance. But why doesn’t he want to see his dad? This is a tense, slow-burning thriller which builds up to one of the most terrifying and gripping climaxes I’ve seen this year. I couldn’t look away I found the film so compelling despite being absolutely terrified. Without going into spoilers, Custody deals with quite a heavy subject matter but I think Legrand deals with it in a sensitive manner, avoiding sensationalism. Denis Ménochet, who plays the father, is brilliant; both frightening and pathetic. Custody is a film that lingers in the mind long after it has finished.

5. The Breadwinner, dir. Nora Twomey

The Breadwinner

Another book adaptation, this time based on Deborah Ellis’ novel for children, The Breadwinner looks at life under the Taliban through the eyes of young girl Parvana. When her father is arrested and imprisoned, Parvana must dress up as a boy to go outside and provide for her family. Having been a massive fan of Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea, I was very excited when they announced they had a new film coming out. The Breadwinner did not disappoint. Blending Cartoon Saloon’s trademark animation with traditional Afghan folktales and a (admittedly slightly sanitized) look at life under Taliban rule, the film is beautiful to look at while also providing a glimpse into a different culture than mine. Parvana is also an excellently written character; a girl who is still child-like in some regards but has to grow up quickly to save her family. If you liked the novel by Ellis, then you’ll enjoy the movie as it is a faithful adaptation, retaining both the novel’s charm and (at times) painful realism.

4. BlacKkKlansman, dir. Spike Lee

Blackkklansman

I feel like this one needs no introduction but I’ll do it anyway. Set in the 1970s, African-American police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) decides to infiltrate the KKK along with a Jewish co-worker (Adam Driver) who becomes a popular member of the local group. Despite the controversy surrounding the film, I still really enjoyed it. I liked that Lee added clips to bookend the film; the beginning showing snippets of movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind; whilst in the end the audience is confronted with by speeches by both Donald Trump and the real David Duke. This blunt, in-your-face way to address how racism has evolved over time is successful; people cannot misinterpret or ignore its’ message. It is there, plain as the eye can see. The main section of the film continues that message, highlighting the utter stupidity of discrimination. Washington and Driver are both excellent as cops trying to grapple with the racism/anti-Semitism shown in the film, and I’m not surprised they are being nominated for their work. A sadly necessary watch in 2018/19.

3. They Shall Not Grow Old, dir. Peter Jackson

They Shall Not Grow Old

Another film that is sadly still prevalent in this day and age, They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary about British soldiers in the First World War, told by the soldiers themselves. As well as using old interviews with various men who served during this time, Jackson has also colourised and slowed down wartime footage, giving it a more realistic appearance. The footage can sometimes be unbearable to watch; we see dead and wounded men (the colour photos of trench foot made me look away) along with dead animals. Yet the hardest part for me was listening to the veterans discuss what they did in combat, recalling how they had to watch men, or even young boys, die before their eyes. To hear one soldier start to tear up because of what he had to do made my eyes well up too. And when they got back to the UK, they were simply expected to ‘get on with it’. No one wanted to hear what they had to say about their experiences of wartime, and their anger is palpable. A grim watch but a necessary one, especially since it is now over 100 years since WW1 ended.

2. The Square, dir. Ruben Ostlund

The Square

Another Palme D’or winner, The Square came out in March and has been with me ever since. Our protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the respected curator of an art museum in Stockholm who faces both professional and personal problems while bringing a new exhibition to the museum called ‘The Square’. This film is downright bizarre yet strangely compelling. There were a number of laugh-out-loud moments (particularly the disastrous attempts to get the exhibition ready on time, and the wee boy who pesters Christian) and times when I laughed but I really shouldn’t have done (the ad for the new exhibition comes to mind). The cast, led by Bang, all do a great job in their roles and I’m surprised they managed to  keep a straight face during some of those scenes. Overall The Square is an incredibly funny, imaginative, downright weird film that won’t be for everyone but which I found hilarious and poignant in equal measure.

1. Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, dir. Alexandra Dean

Bombshell

As I’m sure a lot of you already know, I’m a sucker when it comes to anything involving the Golden Age of Hollywood. So of course this would be my number one. Director and writer Dean looks into the life and career of actress Lamarr, starting from her childhood in Austria to her death in 2000. Dean also discusses Lamarr as the ingenious inventor; whose intellectual prowess was unappreciated at the time but is now behind everyday things such as Wifi and Bluetooth. But it is not just its’ subject matter that makes Bombshell number one. Dean is a master storyteller taking us through Lamarr’s life, but she does not force her audience to feel a particular way about the actress. Viewers can come to their own conclusions about Hedy Lamarr; she is not portrayed as a tragic figure of circumstance nor does Dean create some perfect being who could do no wrong. It feels like a snippet into one woman’s life, with all the highs and lows. The cutting between footage of Lamarr, either in interviews or films, with Dean’s own interviews with people who knew her was well done and flowed together perfectly. A fascinating look at a woman who sadly seems to be largely forgotten now, Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story is a gripping, moving documentary that made me want to read more about this great actress and inventor.

 

And there you have it! My favourite films of 2018. What has been some of your favourite films from this year? (Or any year but you watched in 2018). Let me know in the comments below, and I shall see you on Monday for my final post of 2018 (eeeeek!)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris review

Hi everyone and happy Christmas Eve! I know a book primarily set in Auschwitz-Birkenau is not exactly cheery holiday fare, but what can I say? I’m weird and the plot of The Tattooist of Auschwitz intrigued me. The novel is inspired by the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who is sent to Auschwitz and becomes the aforementioned tattooist. One day, while tattooing prisoners with numbers, he meets and instantly falls in love with Gita, a fellow inmate. As their relationship unfolds, the reader watches them struggle for survival in the camp as the Second World War enters its’ final years.

I feel terrible for what I’m about to write. What occurred at camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau should never be forgotten, and stories like Lale’s should be recorded and preserved for future generations. With that being said: The Tattooist of Auschwitz is poorly written. Morris originally wrote this story as a screenplay and it shows. The dialogue is full of exposition and is probably the only aspect of the novel that drives the plot forward. Descriptions are practically non-existent; I cannot tell you what any of the characters looked like nor indeed, picture the camp. It feels as though Morris just expects you to know what they look like, so she provides little-to-no information to help the reader become immersed. With the lack of description comes the lack of any atmosphere, the lack of fear and terror that prisoners undoubtedly experienced. The ‘he did this, then he did that’ storytelling makes it hard to connect to the plot. I felt very detached from the events that occurred.

I also felt removed from the characters. None seems to have a particularly arc; Lale, our lead character, does not change at all. He doesn’t grow or learn from his experiences; he’s just this lovable rogue who always knows the right thing to do or say and that’s his personality. Which in all fairness, is more personality than Gita is bestowed with. It’s hard to write about her, as she is simply ‘there’; Lale’s love is pretty much her only plot function. She has little characteristics and I found it hard to separate her from her friends. Even small characters do not fare so well. When Dr. Mengele makes his very brief appearances, they should be a cause of alarm and terror in the reader. Instead, Morris portrays him as a sort of panto villain, hissing empty threats at the tattooists, instead of the real-life figure that he was. Like the descriptions of the camp, Morris just seems to expect the reader to be frightened of Mengele because they know who he is; she doesn’t write about him convincingly or gives him any depth.

Overall, I was really disappointed in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It felt like it had so much potential but Morris’ writing makes the whole experience lacklustre. No characterisation, no description, dialogue that feels forced and at moments exceptionally cheesy; the only positive is that hopefully this book will bring greater attention to the story of Lale and other prisoners. A powerful, moving, important story, sadly let down by bad writing.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is published by Zaffre and you can find more information here.

The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger review

Hi everyone! This time next week will be Christmas Eve (eek!) and I’ll be posting my last book review of 2018, and also thinking of my Top 10 list. Before I need to worry about that, today I’ll post my last non-fiction review of 2018, Jeanine Basinger’s The Star Machine. Here Basinger goes into the detail about the Golden Age of Hollywood, focussing on the Studio System and the manufacturing of movie stars, as well as what became of some of those actors and actresses that went through it.

This is an incredibly well-written, accessible book. Even if you know next to nothing concerning this period in Hollywood, you’ll still enjoy it as Basinger goes to great depth into explaining the ins and outs of the process. She starts at the very beginning of the process and it is interesting to see how an ‘Ordinary Joe’ can wind up to be a movie star with the help of the studios. It is also interesting to see how the studios themselves operated; from how potential stars were selected, given a makeover (sometimes a new name), their publicity to how studio heads looked to the audience to see who will become the next big thing. All this is written in a clear, concise manner by Basinger, who whilst being informative, also keeps the subject matter light-hearted with some witty comments dotted throughout.

The case studies also work, both to emphasise Basinger’s meaning, and provide the reader with further clarity into the Star System. Basinger writes about several actors and actresses, some still well-known today (Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney) and some whose stardom has perhaps faded over the years (Deanna Durbin, Wallace Beery). I found these to be especially fascinating as Basinger analyses their whole bodies of work, and how the ‘machine’ has helped (or, in some cases, hindered) their film careers and subsequent stardom. She has obviously done a lot of research, gathering quotes from the players themselves, old movie magazines, other film scholars as well as offering her own insights. I left feeling more knowledgeable about the stars she was discussing – and even wanted to watch some of people I had not heard of previously.

If there is one criticism, I would say Basinger occasionally presents an opinion as fact. An example occurs in a footnote, where Basinger is writing about Marilyn Monroe: ‘Monroe had no impact on audiences in the movie houses I ushered in (…) No one went ‘oooh’ or applauded or left the theatre talking about her. I saw and heard a lot of audiences during the years 1948 to 1958 and Monroe didn’t reach them’ (pg. 125). While I’m not dismissing Basinger’s experience, it seems odd to suggest that since the public in one cinema didn’t react to Monroe that she ultimately didn’t have impact or she never reached an audience. Given that’s she in quite a few big-budget films, someone must’ve liked her. The comment felt a little unnecessary as it didn’t add to my understanding of the star-making process and just felt like it was written so Basinger could have a jab at Monroe. There were a couple of similar comments where Basinger mocked an actor/actress and it felt…kind of nasty.

Aside from those comments, I do think The Star Machine overall is a well-written, informative book about Old Hollywood. Written in 2006, some of its’ remarks about the current crop of talent seems dated (Colin Farrell is on the way down and Johnny Depp is riding high with the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) but the discussions around the older stars were excellent. They provided invaluable insight into how the studios worked and how things could derail (and how said studios would solve those problems). Even if you know nothing about this period, or like me, know a little, The Star Machine is still really readable.

The Star Machine is published by Vintage and you can find more information here.

Mimi the Deer and Other Stories by Chika Echebiri review

Hi everyone! It’s hard to imagine this is my last children’s book review of 2018 – where has the time gone?! My thanks to Booktasters and the author for kindly giving me a copy of Mimi the Deer and Other Stories. As you can probably tell from the title, this is a collection of short stories for young kids. I haven’t read a short story collection designed for children since I was young (many moons ago) so I was curious.

With the exception of a couple of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, Echebiri’s writing is really good. It is simple and straight to the point, meaning children will be able to follow the plots easily. There are also some sweet images accompanying the stories which help to either emphasise a plot point or the message behind the story. All the stories in this collection have a positive message for kids; whether that’s about family, friends or, indeed, the wider community.

A minor criticism I have with some of the stories is that I wanted more from them. I liked the premise of ‘Jeremiah and the Magic Mushroom’ but it felt incomplete somehow, as I wanted to learn how this mushroom would help, or hinder,  Jeremiah. By contrast, my favourite story in the collection, ‘Jamal and the Zebra’ had a complete storyline and arc for its’ character. That particular story had everything; strong plot, great message, striking images, and a interesting, sympathetic character. It was a real high point in the collection.

Overall, I think kids would like Mimi the Deer and Other Stories as the stories are engaging and the pictures vivid. I had a couple of issues like spelling and some storylines feeling incomplete, but generally I found this a really sweet collection.

Mimi the Deer and Other Stories is published by Xlibris and you can find more information here.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton review

Hi everyone! This week I’m reviewing Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Aiden Bishop wakes up to find himself in crumbling manor Blackheath and in the body of someone else. In fact, every day he wakes up in the body of another guest, reliving the same day through different eyes. The only way to stop this, and subsequently leave Blackheath, is to identify Evelyn Hardcastle’s murderer and find proof before 11pm, when the murder is supposed to take place. However a sinister footman seems determined to not let Aiden escape.

First of all, I really enjoyed this novel. The plot had plenty of twists and turns and was an interesting take on the murder mystery genre. Turton had me gripped throughout and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a really fun romp.

However, I did have a couple of issues. At moments, Turton seems to use five words to describe something when one or two would have sufficed. The word choice and sentence structure could have been tighter as it did seem to waffle on. Also some descriptions didn’t seem to make sense. Here is one of the characters describing the sun setting; ‘The world’s shrivelling beyond the windows, darkening at the edges and blackening at the centre’ (pg. 135).  That sounds less like evening descending and more like an eye condition, especially the ‘blackening at the centre’. I’ve certainly never come across that before. Another weird image occurs later when Bishop feels as though he is digging with a ‘shovel of sparrows’. It is supposed to highlight how futile he feels, totally unequipped to deal with what’s happening around him. But the metaphor is just plain odd. It feels as though Turton wanted to write something lyrical without thinking if it made any sense. In moments like these I almost did a double take; they pulled out of the story and made me go, ‘wait, what?’

Another problem for me was the characterisation as it felt very uneven. I did enjoy the characters of Bishop and Anna, a girl he befriends, as they were given some depth. However that wasn’t the case for all the characters, especially Evelyn Hardcastle. She seems too perfect; a beautiful, witty, intelligent woman who is doomed unless our hero can save her. Evelyn felt more like wish fulfilment than an actual person. I understand that because the cast of characters is so large that it would be difficult to give equal amount of time to everyone, but a character as important as Evelyn should be given some depth if the reader will care for her. Ultimately, I didn’t find her interesting and was slightly baffled that Bishop would find her so.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a wildly inventive novel, combining genres with a fascinating (at first slightly confusing) premise. It certainly answers the question what if Groundhog Day had been written by Agatha Christie. But the execution didn’t really work for me. The word choice was at times very odd and didn’t make much sense; it felt clumsy, amateurish. The characterisation was very hit or miss. I liked the storyline and I did enjoy the reading experience but I didn’t love it; which is annoying as the premise is excellent. If you like murder mysteries you will probably enjoy The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, as despite its’ problems it is an enjoyable read.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books and you can find more information here.