Monthly Round-Up: November 2020

It’s hard to imagine that this is the penultimate monthly round up of 2020; that the next time I write one of these, my top books and films of the year will be released. I’m already thinking of those lists and who is going to make the cut, but before I properly start to panic, here’s what I read in November:

  1. The God’s Wife by Sarah Holz
  2. Journey by Andrew Zimmerman
  3. Savagery by JC Mehta
  4. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
  5. Ode to America by Odette Fraser
  6. Tales of Woe by Tay Reem

I have really been enjoying my poetry collections as of late, so I’m not surprised they dominate last month’s reading. Though for someone who was really keen to join in Non-Fiction November, I’ve successfully managed to not read a single non-fiction book in November. Whoops! Bad book blogger! Thursday’s post is a non-fiction review, however, so I may redeem myself a little…maybe.

Whilst I may have been neglecting my non-fiction reading, November has been a great month for films. With both the Catalan and French Film Festivals happening, I’ve been spoilt for choice. I’ve already mentioned my top 5 short films of the Catalan Film Fest, but here is the feature length movies that have graced my big (and small) screens:

Films Watched in November 2020

Wolfwalkers (dirs: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)

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Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) is a young, wannabe hunter living in Kilkenny, Ireland with her father Bill (Sean Bean). Bill is a hunter employed by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to rid the nearby forest of wolves so the land may be used for farming. Defying her father’s orders, one night Robyn sneaks off into the woods and meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a member of the magical, shape-shifting wolfwalkers. The two girls quickly become friends, and set off to find Mebh’s missing mother. Wolfwalkers is one of the most visually stunning films of 2020. The loose line work helps to create a very nostalgic feel – one is reminded of the animated films from childhood. There is something quite rough and ready about the artwork, making it all the more personal and intimate. The polished look of Disney and Pixar is nowhere to be seen, and the film benefits from that. Whilst I agree with some critics’ assertion that the film’s tone is uneven, it didn’t really affect my enjoyment. The fun plot, the serious environmental message, and the gorgeous visuals more than made up for any problems with tone. Definitely one for animation lovers.

How to be a Good Wife (dir: Martin Provost)

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It is 1967 and Paulette Van Der Beck (Juliette Binoche) runs a school for good housekeeping with husband Robert (Francois Berleand) and sister-in-law Gilberte (Yolande Moreau). When Robert dies unexpectedly, Paulette is left to take charge of the school and its unruly pupils. However, revolution is around the corner, and the girls might have other ideas that simply being housewives… Binoche is excellent as always as Paulette, a woman who is forced to take control of both the school and herself. Her friendships with both Gilberte and nun/teacher Marie-Therese (Noemie Lvovsky) were really entertaining to watch, and all three stars had great chemistry. I also really enjoyed the subplots involving some of the pupils, and the young actresses definitely excelled in their roles. However, the ending was a bit disappointing. I felt there were a couple of loose ends which was frustrating, and the musical number was downright bizarre. It’s a pity, as the film had the right balance of humour and drama until this point, when it becomes just plain baffling. If you’re a fan of Binoche, then you may like How to Be a Good Wife. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a fun, breezy couple of hours.

My Mexican Bretzel (dir: Nuria Giménez)

My Mexican Bretzel (2019) - IMDb

Spanning two decades, My Mexican Bretzel tells the story of Vivian and Leon Barrett. Combining extracts from Vivian’s diary and footage filmed by Leon across the years, the film is an intimate look at the Barrett’s’ marriage. My Mexican Bretzel is a thought-provoking, fascinating film, and I loved every second of it. Giménez brilliantly blurs the line between fact and fiction, an idea which becomes more layered the more it is ruminated on. There is the suggestion of filmmaking as a way of blurring or distorting reality – intentionally or not. Also, why do we film certain things but not others? How do people choose what gets to be recorded and viewed? These sorts of questions don’t necessarily have to be strictly about film, but all artistic mediums. The attempt to control life, which is uncontrollable. Yet this idea can be expanded even further, questioning memory and whether what we remember is accurate or not. The fact that the audience never hears any dialogue, we never hear what the people onscreen are saying, helps add to this blurring. We’re left to make it up ourselves. My Mexican Bretzel is a voyeuristic film, tackling the distinction between reality and fantasy. It asks more questions than it answers, and is one that I will be thinking of weeks afterwards.

Jaume Plensa: Can You Hear Me? (dir: Pedro Ballesteros)

Can You Hear Me? (2020) - Filmaffinity

The final film of November is the documentary Can You Hear Me? The film is centred on the famous sculptor Jaume Plensa who, at the beginning, is working on his project ‘Voices’ which is to be exhibited in the lobby of 30 Hudson Yards, New York City. Ballesteros also looks back at some of Plensa’s previous work. Can You Hear Me? feels very much like a tribute to public art in all its forms. Whilst Ballesteros is tackling one artist, it seems to celebrate art and how it shapes public spaces. Plensa himself is a fascinating man, and is incredibly candid about his work here. It was interesting listening to him speak about his art and the effects he was trying to achieve with different pieces. I could’ve listened to him for hours his process was so captivating. Given that it is discussing art, it is no surprise the film is a visual feast itself. A lot of the city shots were beautifully photographed and really captured the vibe of the different locations. If you’re a fan of Agnes Varda’s Faces Places then I think you’ll really enjoy Can You Hear Me? Both tackle the relationship between art and public spaces brilliantly.    

Random Book Quiz Round 33: Non-Fiction

As Non-Fiction November comes to an end, I thought I would dedicate this round of the Random Book Quiz to non-fiction. Plus, with the winner of the Baillie Gifford prize also recently announced, it seemed the best time to tackle this round.

You know the drill: down below are 10 non-fiction books, and all you need to do is  guess who wrote them.

Good luck!

  • In Cold Blood

  • The Diary of a Young Girl

  • The Radium Girls

  • A Brief History of Time

  • A Room of One’s Own

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

  • Black Boy

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  • The Prince

The Interpretation of Dreams

Answers for Round 32

  1. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
  2. Jane Eyre
  3. A Christmas Carol
  4. Moby Dick
  5. Dracula
  6. Rebecca
  7. Catch-22
  8. Les Miserables
  9. Animal Farm
  10. Lord of the Flies

Tales of Woe by Tay Reem review

Continuing on with my current poetry binge, this week I picked up Tales of Woe by Tay Reem when I was sent a copy from the publisher and author. As you can guess from the title, this collection is not exactly cheery; Reem tackles depression, domestic abuse, and trauma. The content is very upsetting so obviously reader discretion is advised.

Tales of Woe is broken down into three sections: Mum, Dad, and Me. The vast majority of the collection appears to be narrated by the daughter, and about her experiences growing up in an abusive household. Interestingly enough, the two poems I enjoyed the most didn’t really fall into the main ‘plot’. Both ‘Mother’s Day’ and ‘Father’s Day’ read as short stories rather than poems, and I found it fascinating how Reem combined both forms in a single piece. She does it very successfully; there’s still the rhythm and flow of poetry yet the narrative structure of a short story. Reading those two poems was certainly unique experience and, despite the dark subject, found them interesting and engaging.

The rest of the poems are structured in a more traditional way, but by no means are they any less interesting. With a few exceptions, the majority of the collection is written in free verse. Using this particular form was a great choice by Reem as it makes the poems a lot more personal. It feels like the daughter is speaking directly to the reader, unfurling her thoughts and feelings concerning her past. It makes Tales of Woe more intimate and, as a result, makes the reader engage with the themes presented.

Overall, Tales of Woe is a very interesting poetry collection. Reem’s playfulness with form and language means it is fascinating to pick apart the different poems, see how they are constructed. My only slight criticism is that it can feel a little repetitive at points; Reem is tackling very heavy, serious topics and there is no levity in the collection to balance it out. It can feel relentless. Despite this, I do think Tales of Woe is worth reading and Reem has a lot of potential.

Tales of Woe is published by Owens Publishing House and you can find more information here.

Ode to America by Odette Fraser

Ode to America by Odetta Fraser is a strange book to pin down. It is written like poetry, yet the narrative voice, plot, and chapters are reminiscent of a novel. The book’s blurb calls Ode to America ‘a song both difficult and sweet’. However one would like to categorise it, Fraser’s creation is definitely relevant: through the eyes of our nameless narrator we follow both past and present USA, and the exploitation of black people throughout the centuries.

Fraser, rightfully, pulls no punches. From the very first chapter she tackles slavery, and handles that topic with great aplomb. She is both sensitive and brutally honest; she is humanistic yet never shies away from the cruel, degrading realities of the slave trade, and the anger it makes her feel. It is an incredibly strong opening, and the book continues in this relentless manner until the end. As mentioned previously, Ode to America is broken up into chapters. Each segment seems to tackle a different problem in America society (though admittedly the rest of the world can still relate) and this structure was great. It feels like snapshots of a country, little snippets that help build a much bigger picture. In some ways, the USA is the main ‘character’ of the book, rather than our narrator, and the layout reflects that.

Fraser’s word choice and imagery are very evocative. Admittedly some comparisons threw me off – there is one between slave traders and penguins for example – but on the whole the language flowed beautifully. This also helped make the reading experience even quicker; you just naturally keep reading the flow of words. And, even despite the grim subject matter, there is still some wryness and wittiness to the text. The title Ode to America is a great example of that. Odes are normally associated with heroes; those deserving having praise heaped upon them. By contrast, Ode to America is somewhat ironic, and plays with the idea of odes themselves.

It is hard to sum up Ode to America accurately. Despite being 83 pages long, it does tackle a lot of weighty subjects and tackles them very well. Fraser’s writing is very impressive too. Not quite novel, not quite poetry collection, it is certainly a unique book and one I enjoyed.

I received a free copy thanks to Booktasters. To learn more about the book click here.    

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell review

Lisa Jewell’s latest novel The Family Upstairs seems to be have been everywhere in the last 12 months. Everyone, from critics to bloggers to authors, has been singing its praises. So, I have decided to see what all the fuss is about. The Family Upstairs is told from three perspectives. In present-day St. Albans, Libby just turns 25 when she inherits the house belonging to her biological parents Henry and Martina Lamb, who died when she was young. Lucy is a homeless single mother living in the south of France and determined to return to London. The last narrative thread is set in the early 1990s and follows Henry, the Lambs’ eldest child. Throughout the novel, their lives converge, and secrets are uncovered.  

The plot was a lot of fun and I was genuinely intrigued all the way through. While I guessed a couple of twists quite early on, some of the revelations were surprising and these cliff-hangers made me want to keep reading. I really wanted to uncover the mystery. In terms of the characters, I enjoyed two of the main narratives. Henry was definitely a highlight; he was a very compelling, borderline unreliable, narrator. He has a distinct voice too which made him stand out from Libby and Lucy. Coupled with the fact that most of the dramatic events unfold in his narrative, it was always a delight when we got to his chapters. Admittedly at first, Lucy was a tad dull but as the novel progressed she became more endearing. She is a much more sympathetic character, and the relationship between her and son Marco was beautifully drawn.

Libby, however, was so unrealistic that she pulled me out of the story. At first, it was fine – here was a young woman who has been thrust into an extraordinary position. Readers are told all about her life which, whilst not the most interesting content, served as a parallel to the bizarre events she goes through later on. But a lot of the details Jewell gave were unnecessary. I don’t need to know what colour Libby’s playsuit is, nor what the random guy she met at a party looked like. A lot of those passages could easily have been omitted and not missed. Another thing I disliked was how Libby’s reactions to things seemed inappropriate. Minor spoilers alert, but at one point Libby discovers someone committing a crime. Her response?

Oh, he’s cute.

What? I know she is supposed to be actively looking for a boyfriend – we get a lot of mentions of this – but that is just bizarre. At points it felt like Libby had absolutely no personality; her only defining feature was her desperation to find a partner. My eyes rolled to the back of my head multiple times when reading her narrative. Compared to Henry and even Lucy, Libby’s story was a disappointment.

Overall, The Family Upstairs is a good thriller, perfect for a bit of escapism. Jewell’s writing is fine, though there was plenty of useless information that could have been cut. There were a couple of sentences that didn’t flow as well as perhaps they could’ve. Libby aside, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was a lot of fun. I enjoy a good mystery and The Family Upstairs checks that box. It was a fun, fast-paced read.

The Family Upstairs is published by Arrow Books and you can find more information here.

Random Book Quiz Round 31: Food and Drink

Now that the nights are drawing in and the weather is turning colder, one of things I love about this period is the food. Nothing quite beats a hearty stew when it is dark outside. So, as I prepare to stuff my face until January, I have decided to make this round food-themed. There are 10 novels, all of which have a type of food or drink in the title, and you just need to guess the food-stuff that I’ve omitted.

As always, good luck and let me know how you get on!

  • Charlie and the _____ Factory

  • Fried Green _____ at the Whistle Stop Café

  • ____ for Elephants

  • The Guernsey Literary and ____ Peel Pie Society

  • A Clockwork _____

  • The ____ House Rules

  • The House on _____ Street

  • The ___ _____ Girls

  • Green ___ and ___

  • Black ____

Answers for Round 30

  1. Dr Seuss
  2. Michael Crichton
  3. A.S. Byatt
  4. Alan Moore
  5. Barbara Kingsolver
  6. Diana Wynne Jones
  7. James Ellroy
  8. Terry Pratchett
  9. Robert Ludlum
  10. Maeve Binchy

4 Books for Non-Fiction November

Since we are now in the second week of Nonfiction November, it seems like a great time to suggest some recommendations. I only started reading nonfiction regularly two years ago – I was intimidated by it, frightened that I wouldn’t understand or would be bored by the information dumps and stale text. I was completely, utterly wrong and, having got over my fear of nonfiction, managed to discover some brilliant books. These are just 4 that I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years, and if I have reviewed them on the blog, I will link to my reviews in case you want to know more.

But, without further ado, let’s dive into the books:

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Given how popular this book was at the beginning of 2020, I’m sure most people will have heard of it. But in case you haven’t, Rubenhold delves into the lives of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, and discusses how the mythology surrounding the women came to be. The Five is a well-researched, refreshing take on a much-written about case. Yet Rubenhold focuses on the women, which in turn gives them their humanity back. They are not simply footnotes; they are living, breathing people whose lives up until this point had mainly been ignored. Another aspect that I really admired was how Rubenhold also explored life in Victorian Britain. She delves into how women lived in the 19th century and successfully conveyed a lot of information in an engaging, concise manner. Whilst Ripper enthusiasts may not like how Rubenhold barely discusses the case, The Five is still a fascinating glimpse into five women and their lives.

The Radium Girls – Kate Moore

I loved The Radium Girls so much it is still one of my favourite books of 2020. The book follows two sets of women working in radium-dial factories where they were obviously surrounded by this shining chemical, often going out covered from head to toe in it. Years pass, and the women begin to fall mysteriously ill. When they begin to realise the effect radium is having on them, they begin to complain and sue their employers, who claim that the chemical is harmless. The Radium Girls reads like a fast-paced thriller, it is just so engrossing. There were moments I couldn’t put the book down, I needed to know what was going to happen. The amount of twists and turns the story takes is remarkable, and it is hard to believe that it is non-fiction. In some ways, that realisation makes The Radium Girls equally horrifying and saddening yet powerful. One that I keep shoving into the hands of everyone I know.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Again, another one most people will surely know. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first memoir by poet Maya Angelou, tracing her childhood from living with her grandmother to becoming a single mum at the age of 16. Angelou is incredibly candid about her youth, especially in regard to the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. The passages discussing this were hugely disturbing, and there were instances when I had to look away. But that isn’t my main takeaway from the book. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ultimately feels like a book about hope, which comes from Angelou herself. By the end she is confident, determined young woman who is driven to achieve her dreams in life, and I found that admirable. Despite the trauma that she went through, she never lost hope and that helped make I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings perhaps the best memoir I’ve read.

The Big Screen – David Thomson

It wouldn’t be a non-fiction list without me adding a book about Hollywood, would it? Here Thomson takes on the mammoth task of discussing the entire history of film – from the 1880s to the present day (well, the 2000s, when the book was published). And he does a phenomenal job. Thomson evidently loves film, his passion seeps through his writing and in turn makes the reader become both interested and invested in what he’s saying.  He’s also a very witty writer, and his snarkier remarks made me smile. It helps make the book as a whole more engaging and accessible to readers. Another critic said The Big Screen made him want to watch all the movies mentioned on the biggest screen possible. I couldn’t agree more, and it spurred me to seek out some of the films I previously hadn’t seen. A must for all film buffs.   

Journey by Andrew Zimmerman review

In Andrew Zimmerman’s Journey our protagonist Paul is determined to be made CEO of a major tech company called Ascendant, and his love of his work means he spends little time with wife Mary and son Simon. However, all this changes when friends Edward and Jeanne visit New York City from Glastonbury. He is intrigued by their stories of Christine, who supposedly can read souls, and is determined to visit England and discover if her powers are true. Mary, however, suspects Christine is a charlatan, and that Paul is falling for her. When Paul returns from England a changed man, Mary suspects her worst fears are true.

Zimmerman’s descriptions of the countryside surrounding Glastonbury are very good. He manages to capture the landscape, the sights and sounds, and all the mythical history that the area is known for. It all rings true. Equally, he also evokes the bustling Big Apple at the beginning which made me long to go back there. Zimmerman’s writing is very descriptive and detailed when he discusses landscapes.

However, the characters were a mixed bag. Out of all of them, Paul was by far the most interesting. He is far from likable; the reader witnesses him do incredibly immoral things. But that helped make the dynamic between different characters more interesting, and having an unsympathetic main character always leads to an interesting relationship with the reader. The book won’t be for everyone due to him. But I thought Zimmerman handled Paul and his character arc really well, never really trying to justify his actions and therefore redeeming him. It did seem unlikely that a massively successful, workaholic businessman like Paul would suddenly up and leave the country in the midst of a potentially massive promotion. I also quite liked Mary at the beginning, but her arc never captivated me. The friendship between Paul and Christine also seemed off. It didn’t seem realistic, and Christine was such a milquetoast that I struggled to see her appeal. Considering that she is the character with supposedly magical gifts, her being bland was a bit of a disappointment.

Overall, Journey was a nice, if not wholly satisfying, read. Zimmerman is obviously passionate about the subject of spiritual awakenings and journeys, and he excels when writing descriptive text. The characters were my main problem with the book – they just weren’t dynamic enough to make me keep reading. I’ve seen someone compare this to Eat, Pray, Love so if you enjoyed that book, you may like Journey.

Journey is published by Radius Book Group and you can find more information here. I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The God’s Wife by Sarah Holz review

Forgotten princess. Rebel general. Rival queen.

How does a teen-aged princess who rallies her country into a revolution against her brilliant sister and one of history’s greatest military geniuses get lost to the shadows of time? Only one whose sister is named Cleopatra…

In 51 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty has ruled Egypt for nearly three hundred years despite generations of betrayal. The old pharaoh has died, leaving his throne to his joint heirs: Ptolemy and his older sister, the indomitable Cleopatra. As a clash of personalities and ambitions hurdles the ancient kingdom towards crisis, the warring factions of the court are blinded to the fact that there are more than two royal children in this dangerous family…

Princess Arsinoë has spent her childhood roaming cosmopolitan Alexandria, content to avoid the endless wars of the palace. But when the mysterious gods of her beloved homeland enter her dreams, calling on her to defend Egypt from the fury of the dynasty and the arrival of an even greater threat in the form of Julius Caesar, Arsinoë finds herself increasingly drawn into an escalating maelstrom of intrigue and violence that she must learn to navigate to save all that she holds dear…

It is obvious that Holz is fascinated by this period of history and has done a lot of research for The God’s Wife. Even smaller details like clothing and food seemed accurate and gave a greater picture of Ancient Egypt. The sheer amount of research helped to immerse the readers in this world; there was nothing that pulled you out or seemed ‘off’. It was very easy to be swept into the plot. With that being said, Holz also writes in a very accessible manner. You don’t need to know a lot about Egyptian history to enjoy the book, and there are also appendices at the back which many might find helpful. They certainly clarify a lot of things mentioned and I appreciated having these explanations.

The book’s main strength is the character of Arsinoë. Her development throughout the narrative was a joy to read, watching her start off as a young, naive princess to a powerful military general. Admittedly I knew little of Arsinoë before starting The God’s Wife – Cleopatra and Julius Caesar dominating my knowledge of this period – but after reading the book I wanted to learn more about the real woman. Holz made her very engaging; a character who you don’t necessarily agree with but is always compelling. Speaking of Cleopatra and Caesar, the secondary characters are also well-written. Obviously, they don’t have the same depth as Arsinoë but Holz has still injected them with strong, memorable personalities and their scenes are fascinating to read. Characterisation is one of Holz’s strongest suits.

The only slight criticism I have of The God’s Wife is the opening. Chapter One is Arsinoë recounting what happened to her family prior to the events we’re about to read. It is understandable why Holz includes this chapter as it provides background information, but it wasn’t presented in the most engaging manner. It felt more like someone listing events without going into depth about their significance and after a strong Prologue it did drag. By the halfway mark I just wanted to get into the meat of the novel. Passed the first chapter the plot and intrigue start up again and move along at a steady pace. However, that is a very, very small criticism of what is a great piece of historical fiction. The God’s Wife is a great book for those at all interested in Ancient Egypt.   

This review was first published at Reedsy Discovery and can be found here.

Random Book Quiz Round 29: US Presidents’ Favourite Books

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the US Election will be held on Tuesday 3rd November.

Heaven help us.

So in honour of this, I have dedicated this round of the Book Quiz to past Presidents and their favourite books. Down below are 10 books with the initials of the President alongside. All you need to do is guess who is recommending these reads! Good luck!

  • Macbeth (AL)

  • Collected Poems by Lord Byron (WM)

  • The Hunt for Red October (RR)

  • Song of Solomon (BO)

  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (JC)

  • From Russia With Love (JK)

  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (DDE)

  • The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (TR)

  • Robinson Crusoe (JG)

  • David Copperfield (HH)

Answers for Round 28

  1. Mary Shelley
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson
  3. Sarah Waters
  4. Bram Stoker
  5. Shirley Jackson
  6. Oscar Wilde
  7. Catriona Ward
  8. Stephen King
  9. Henry James
  10. Helen Oyememi