Top 10 Books of 2019

Hi everyone! I hope everyone has been enjoying the holiday season and that your families and friends have spoilt you. For my last post of 2019, I am will be looking back at my favourite books. This was a hard list to put together; midway through the year I had a bit of a reading slump and wasn’t particularly reading anything great. Thankfully, I have had some brilliant books at the beginning and end of the year, so that’s where the majority of them are coming from. As always my “rules” for the list are that I need to have read them for the first time in 2019 regardless of publication date and I cannot include rereads. I have also linked my original reviews in case you want to hear more about the books mentioned, as I will only be briefly summarising them here. But without further ado, let’s get into the books:

10. Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Some Tame GazelleKicking the list off is Barbara Pym, who is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. Some Tame Gazelle is her debut novel and it revolves around two middle-aged sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede. Belinda still has feelings for University sweetheart Archdeacon Hoccleve, whilst Harriet is happy to turn down Count Bianco every year. However, when two strangers visit their village, the sisters’ world is about to turn upside down. Funny and charming, Pym’s knack for social commentary is on full display, capturing village life in the 1950s perfectly. Belinda and Harriet are a joy to read about and I could have happily continued reading about them in a much longer novel.

9. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Swan SongThe first of the Women’s Prize longlistees to make this list, Swan Song explores the relationships between author Truman Capote and a group of socialites that he calls his ‘swans’. I might be biased because of my love of Capote, New York, and this time period in general, but I really enjoyed this. The swans are like a Greek chorus in the novel, speaking as one. This was quite an unusual technique but one that really worked for me: it highlighted the importance of their voices which had been robbed from them by Capote. For them to tell their own story was quite empowering. The novel became all the more poignant as two of the swans – Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli –  passed away this year.

8. Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceThe novel follows the Greek witch Circe, from when she is shunned by her family to meeting Odysseus and his men. This was a lot of fun. I was only vaguely aware of Circe at the time but Miller did a great job of developing her character arc. It was fascinating watching her grow up. The cameos from more famous faces of Greek mythology was also a nice touch. It was interesting to see how many tales Circe is involved in, and Miller combined them all really well. It felt like a retelling of The Odyssey from a woman’s perspective at points. I can see why it garnered huge acclaim when it was first released.

 

7. Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss

Signs for Lost ChildrenSet in the Victorian period, the novel follows married couple Tom and Ally Cavendish. Yet, weeks after their wedding, Tom sets off for Japan to design and build lighthouses. Ally meanwhile, begins working as a doctor at an asylum in Truro. As they spent more and more time apart, they begin to wonder if their marriage will survive. This is a very quiet novel which seems almost like a character study. Admittedly, I preferred Ally’s chapters, mainly because I found her relationship with her parents really compelling. They appear in other novels by Moss which I will check out. Moss’ descriptions of 19th century Japan were also extremely beautiful, and it was clear how much research she had done.

6. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI had read Little Fires Everywhere by Ng last year and really enjoyed it, so picked up her debut. This one might be my favourite of the two. Lydia, the middle child of the Chinese-American Lee family, is drowned in the lake. Her father suspects it was suicide; her brother is suspicious that her friend might have something to do with it. But what really happened? Ng tackles hard-hitting subjects, such as sexism and racism. She doesn’t shy away from portraying the uglier aspects of society. Yet, the novel at its heart is about family, and the differences between what we say and what we mean. Ng weaves all these themes effortlessly, and she captures middle-class America with stunning accuracy. I can’t wait for her third novel.

5. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite 

My Sister the Serial KillerI read this very early in the year yet it still makes it into the top 5. Most people probably know the plot by now, considering this book has been everywhere: nurse Korede often has to help younger sister Ayoola in times of need, such as when she keeps killing her boyfriends. However, when both women get caught in a love triangle with a young doctor, Korede will have to make a tough decision. Despite the subject matter, I loved this book and zoomed through it. It was such an entertaining romp that I didn’t want it to end. Braithwaite throughs in a couple of twists and red herrings to keep you guessing, but what she does so well is develop the relationship between the sisters. That aspect was brilliant to read about and the fact this novel is a debut makes it all the more impressive.

4. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

BlondeSet to be a feature film starring Ana de Armas, Blonde is the fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe. It is principally written from Monroe’s perspective (there is one chapter from Ava Gardner), letting her the readers her version of events. This is a harrowing, devastating read. Oates talks about the sexual abuse and harassment Monroe suffered throughout her life – making the novel seem all the more relevant in the wake of news of people like Harvey Weinstein. Oates’ language is beautiful, and there were many passages I wanted to underline, and it often contrasted with the grim content. Yet I couldn’t put the book down.

3. Goddess by Anthony Summers

GoddessYes, another Marilyn Monroe book. But whilst Blonde was fictional, Summers’ book is a biography, tracing Monroe’s career and sudden death in 1962. He also addresses the rumours surrounding her demise and poses his own theory on what happened that fateful night. Summers normally writes crime fiction, a fact clearly evident when he discusses the star’s death. The book is researched meticulously, with Summers speaking to witnesses, obtaining phone records and documents, and having modern experts look over the case in order to piece it together. Yet, Marilyn’s life has also been carefully and thoroughly researched, and it is fascinating hearing from those who knew her. A must for all Monroe fans.

2. The Big Screen by David Thomson

The Big ScreenThis is a history of cinema itself, from Eadweard Muybridge and George Melies in the 19th century, to films such as Melancholia and Hugo by Martin Scorsese. Any film fan should read this. Thomson’s passion for cinema clearly shines through, and he makes a witty and engaging narrator. The little titbits and background information about the movie industry was really enlightening. He summarises periods of film and groups of filmmakers incredibly well, so people unfamiliar with them will have some grasp of their work. It also gave me a new appreciation of the films I had watched before reading, and made me want to watch all the films mentioned that I hadn’t.

1. Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

ChernobylThis book is very much what it says on the tin. Plokhy looks back at the Chernobyl disaster, what caused Reactor 4 to explore, and the wider-reaching implications of the meltdown. Plokhy writes incredibly well, explaining succinctly complex scientific topics. Whilst not completely understanding every single thing, I came away with a lot of knowledge concerning nuclear energy. Yet, he also looks at the human cost of the accident and it is his ability to never lose sight of humanity whilst discussing major events that is truly impressive. It is also fascinating to catch a glance at how the Soviet Union operated in this period, and how Chernobyl helped lead to its downfall.

 

And there you have it! My top 10 books of 2019. It has been a great year for nonfiction for me: the top 3 slots all going to them. I have started to slowly get into nonfiction in the past couple of years, a trend I can see continuing into 2020. In fact, my first review of the new year will be a nonfiction work: Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls. Plus, there are 4 debut novels in the top 10 which I am happy about. However, compared to last year there are virtually no classics on the list, something I hope to rectify.

Let me know your favourite books this year in the comments below, and I shall see you on the 6th January 2020 with more reviews. Until then, hope you have a happy new year!

Top 10 Films of 2019

Merry Christmas! Hope everyone is having (or has had) a lovely time. I most certainly have – I’ve been consuming my body weight in chocolate. For these next two posts, I thought I would reflect on 2019 and all the movies and books that I saw/read this year. My top 10 books will be out on Monday, so today I am focussing on my favourite films of 2019. This was quite a hard list to put together; I’ve enjoyed a lot of films released over the past 12 months so narrowing it down to 10 was difficult. All these films were released in the UK for the first time in 2019, but there might be a bit of overlap with 2018 concerning release dates in different countries. But without further ado, I’ll jump into the movies:

10. Amazing Grace (dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack)

Amazing GraceThe list is kicking off with a documentary film. The footage of Aretha Franklin recording gospel songs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church is from 1972, yet due to various reasons the film was only released in 2018. As a fan of Franklin, I had to watch this as soon as it came out. The film is a powerful reminder of how incredible Franklin was; at points her voice brought me to tears, made all the more poignant as the 1972 audience were also welling up. Hearing her sing again was magical. It was also interesting seeing her father and how he has influenced her. Amazing Grace is really only about these two recording sessions, it isn’t a biopic or documentary about her life. If you want to learn more about Franklin then this film isn’t for you. But I found it a beautiful tribute to a great artist.

9. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

The FavouriteThe very first film I saw in 2019 so it just makes the cut. The film revolves around Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) competing for the affections of an ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). This is a period drama with a twist, and only Lanthimos can pull it off.  I particularly liked the use of different camera lens to reflect different characters’ perspectives; it made the film fascinating to watch. The costumes were also stunning to look at, and it is clear the amount of research that went into recreating them.   Obviously Colman won Best Actress at the Oscars for her performance and deservedly so, but Weisz, Stone and Nicholas Hoult as Harley, Leader of the Opposition, all excelled in their roles. Despite seeing it way back in January, The Favourite sticks out as being a favourite (no pun intended) of 2019.

8. Diego Maradona (dir. Asif Kapadia)

MaradonaThis one is fairly self-explanatory: this is a documentary about Maradona and his time at S.S.C Napoli in the 1980s, culminating in his fall from grace. Like the other Kapadia films – Amy and Senna which are also stunning – he doesn’t use the ‘talking heads’ prevalent in many other documentaries, instead having voice overs alongside archive footage. This makes the film flow a lot better, as there aren’t any cuts to people speaking which can be distracting. It also makes the film more immersive; you’re there in the 1980s, seeing what the voices are recounting. Maradona does do a voice over which is interesting; he’s discussing the incredible highs and lows he experienced in that period, and he does so with brutal honesty. It’s fascinating comparing his memories to the others who were interviewed, and where they are similar or diverge. Even if you’re not a football fan, Diego Maradona is certainly a great film to watch.

7. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)

The FarewellThe only film that made me bawl at the cinema, The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina) who discovers that her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family, instead of telling Nai Nai the truth, plan a wedding instead as an excuse to spend one last time with her. Wang’s screenplay blends pathos and humour really well; giving the film a very bittersweet quality. The scenes which are funny are given new meaning as the audience is aware of Nai Nai’s illness. The cast as well were excellent with no weak link anywhere; everyone also got at least one scene to shine in. It is one of those films that after watching, you want to call up the elderly members of your family and speak to them. A heart-warming film about family.

6. Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)

Knives OutThe Thrombey family are gathering to celebrate patriarch Harlan’s (Christopher Plummer) birthday. The morning after he is found dead and the police suspect suicide. Except private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) thinks something suspect is afoot, and sets out to investigate the crime novelist’s death. I love watching murder mysteries (I have been know to binge on the Poirot TV series) so was very excited to hear about Knives Out. It was a lot of fun, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. This feels more like a subversion of a murder mystery, and I liked how Johnson played with the tropes of the genre. Plus, Craig is clearly relishing his role as Blanc, and it’s hard not to get swept along with him. The most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.

5. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)

If Beale Street Could TalkBased on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk follows childhood sweethearts Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in New York in the early 70s. Things take a drastic turn: Tish is pregnant and Fonny is falsely accused of rape. The film is told in a non-linear manner, which makes the events that unfold for the young couple absolutely devastating. Jenkins flicks between past and present with ease, and the colours used to symbolise the different time periods (past is so much brighter, the present more muted) was really well done. It gave you a sense of how the characters were feeling without relying on them telling you. Layne was incredible, and it is hard to believe this is only her third film as her performance is beautiful. Along with the rest of the film, she really should have had more award nominations than she did.

4. Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Marriage StoryDespite the title, Marriage Story follows the divorce of actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), a playwright. Nicole wants to move to LA to be near her family and reignite her TV career; Charlie wants his family to remain in New York. Lawyers become involved, and the divorce proceedings turn sour. Johansson has never been better, giving a layered performance and making Nicole a multi-dimensional character. Laura Dern is also amazing as Nicole’s lawyer. But it is Driver who breaks my heart here. He gives one of my favourite performances of the year; devastating and funny in turns. Baumbach’s script as well is excellent, capturing the little nuances and quirks of people that most overlook. Neither Nicole or Charlie are painted as the villains; just extremely flawed people trying to do the best for their son.

3. For Sama (dirs. Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

For SamaThe highest ranked documentary on my list, For Sama is a grim but necessary film. Syrian filmmaker Al-Kateab charts 5 years of her life; falling in love, getting married, and having daughter Sama. Meanwhile, the conflict in Aleppo rages on, and her family faces a tough decision; leave the country or stay and risk being killed. In its review on the film, The Guardian mentions there are many moments ‘when audiences will want to look away’.  Certainly that was the case for me: the depictions of casualties of warfare are a gruesome reminder of what is happening. Yet despite the subject matter, For Sama has this theme of hope and humanity running through it; it makes itself present in the smaller, quieter scenes. When people joke and children play, trying to act normal in the face of extraordinary situations. Not an easy watch but a powerful one.

2. Transit (dir. Christian Petzold)

TransitGeorg (Franz Rogowski) steals a dead writer’s identity and escapes from Paris to Marseilles, where he hopes to catch a boat to escape war-torn France. In Marseilles, he meets and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer) who is looking for her husband – the dead writer whose identity he stole. Whilst the novel it is based on is set during World War II, Petzold’s film takes place in modern day Marseilles. This forces the audience to make links between the events of the 1940s and the current refugee crisis. It is incredibly effective in achieving this; one always has a sense of the crisis just slightly off-camera. Combined with stunning performances and a haunting score, Transit is a relevant, thought-provoking watch. Not everyone will like it, but it is definitely one to try.

1. Pain and Glory (dir. Pedro Almodovar)

pain and gloryI am a massive fan of Almodovar, so it should come as no surprise that his latest tops my chart. This is a sort of autobiographical work, following film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) who is suffering from physical and mental illnesses as one of his films is being rereleased. He meets the star of said film Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) who introduces him to heroin. The film also travels back in time and explores his relationship with his mother (Penelope Cruz) growing up. Both Banderas and Cruz are incredible in this film, giving nuanced performances of people struggling. As with most of Almodovar’s work, the cinematography is gorgeous with colours just popping out of the frame. A great film for those wanting to get into the director’s body of work and also for Almodovar aficionados.

 

And that’s it for my top 10 films. A lot of great films just narrowly missed the cut: Joker, Toy Story 4, and Never Look Away all vying for no. 11. There’s also some films that haven’t come out in the UK yet (Parasite, Bombshell, The Lighthouse, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire spring to mind ) but are getting rave reviews elsewhere. I can’t wait to see them and hopefully they’ll make the list next year. In the meantime, let me know what your favourite films of the year have been in the comments below.

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

image

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

image

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!)

Top 10 Books of 2018 (so far)

Hi everyone! Since we’re now in the middle of June – no idea where the time has gone – I’d thought I would look at the last six months and see which books have been my favourites. It’ll be interesting to compare this list to the one at the end to see the changes (or at least I think so anyway).

All the books mentioned I’ve read for the first time in 2018 (sorry Rebecca but I still love you!) though they may not necessarily have been published this year. I’ll keep this short and sweet as I’m sure you don’t want to hear me repeating myself, plus I’ll leave a link to the individual reviews if you want to find out more.

So without further ado, here are my top 10 books of 2018 so far:

 

10. A Dash of Flash by Millie Thom

 

A really sweet collection of flash fiction, filled to the brim with hilarious and touching stories. I had never read flash fiction before this and believe this is an excellent book to start with. Thom succinctly writes, every word is used to the fullest with no fat still clinging to the narratives.

Review of A Dash of Flash

 

9. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

My last review so it will be interesting to see how I feel about it in a few months. First impressions: loved it. It tells the story of Jojo who lives with his grandparents, drug addict mother Leonie and younger sister Kayla. When his father Michael is released from prison Leonie takes the kids on a road trip to meet him.

Lyrical, visceral and haunting, Ward successfully combines gritty realism and magic to discuss topics such as race and drug abuse. It is obvious to see why it has had such high acclaim.

Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

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

My favourite short story collection so far, Gary the Four Eyed Fairy is a group of connected stories following the (mis)adventures of security guard J.T Glass.

Warm and witty, Mundo captures Glass’ voice completely that it sings off the page. Mixing humour with touches of pathos makes this an impressive collection and Mundo a writer to watch.

Review of Gary, the Four Eyed Fairy and Other Stories

 

7. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

My first ever Pym novel but certainly not my last, Excellent Women follows thirty something Mildred Lathbury whose live is turned upside down when she meets her new neighbours the Napiers. She has a particularly soft spot for Rockingham.

This novel cheered me up, a refreshing change from the more dramatic novels I read (and who may be making an appearance later). Pym’s eye for detail is wonderful and her descriptions of post-war English society made me laugh. If you need a good book to curl into on a rainy day; this is it.

Review of Excellent Women

 

6. Ponti by Sharlene Teo

This one has lingered with me for months, it felt like an injustice to not have it here. Teenager Szu lives in Singapore with her mother Amisa, a once horror film star, and her aunt. A bit of a loner at school, she feels isolated until she is befriended by Circe. We trace the lives of these women from the latter half of the 20th century to the 2020s.

Teo successfully weaves complex characters into an intriguing and thrilling plot, and it is hard to believe this is a debut. The characters of Amisa, Szu and Circe are still with me after months of putting the book down. Another author to watch.

Review of Ponti

 

5. The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age, and we watch them grow, struggling with love and loss. Told through multiple perspectives Woolf allows the reader a glimpse into the mindset of each character.

This is my favourite of Woolf’s novels that I’ve read.  It seems odd to call this a novel as at times it feels poetic. As always with Woolf the language is beautiful and evocative, and your heart aches for these characters as they try and make their way through life.

Review of The Waves

 

4. Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr

I don’t think this small volume of two of Dr King’s works needs any introduction. A searing account of race relations in 1960s USA; yet what elevates this is King’s refusal to give up hope and believe in a better, more equal society. A fascinating, tragic book and one that sadly is still relevant in the world today.

Review of Letter from Birmingham Jail

 

3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The well-deserved winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this month, the novel is a retelling of the Greek play Antigone. Set in modern day London, we follow the lives of siblings Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz. While Isma and Aneeka study at University, Parvaiz is drawn to darker forces and ultimately joins ISIS.

Like Dr King’s book previously, this is highly topical for today, discussing the experience of being Muslim and how people can be radicalised. Shamsie never tells you what to think; she only provides you with what happened and it is up to you whether to forgive or condemn.

Review of Home Fire

 

2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I read this all the way back in January but it is still seared into memory. It also has the dubious honour of being the only book this year to make me cry (seriously don’t read this while in public. It’s embarrassing). Lincoln’s young son Willie dies after suffering an unknown illness. He is interred in the cemetery where he meets a group of ghosts who refuse to acknowledge that they are dead.

Combining the heart-wrenching sorrow of losing a child with dick jokes, Lincoln in the Bardo certainly isn’t for everyone. Saunders’ structure is odd too; as the novel reads more like a play, giving an intimacy and urgency to the story. One that isn’t easy to forget.

Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

 

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Does this one really need any explanation? Tolstoy’s masterpiece follows the eponymous Anna as she begins an affair with Count Vronsky; much to the scandal of Russian society.

And if you’re thinking; ‘How has it taken you this long to read Anna Karenina?!’ My only response is that I’m a total moron. It has everything; love, loss, despair, humour that it is obvious why it is considered a classic. And Anna is probably one of my favourite characters of all time, with the supporting characters all well-developed.

Review of Anna Karenina

That’s it! If you made it through the list, well done! I tried to keep the waffling to a minimum.

Let me know down below what your favourite books have been so far.

My Top 10 Books of 2017

Hi everyone! I still can’t quite believe we are in the final days of 2017. The year seems to have flown by. After reading other top 10 lists, I decided that my final post of this year will be a look back at my favourites and I can start 2018 with some new reviews.

Before I start I should mention that the books here are ones I read for the first time in 2017, and were not necessarily published this year. I also started my blog in May meaning there is one book on this list that doesn’t have a review and, finally, the numbers 10 – 2 are randomly ranked as I just couldn’t decide between them. However number 1 is my favourite book of 2017.

I will shut up now and dive into the books!

10. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

This is The Daily Show’s host reflecting on growing up in the final years and immediate aftermath of apartheid. He tackles serious issues, such as racism and domestic abuse, yet there are other stories of happiness and hope. His mother is a very admirable woman and their relationship seems to be the driving force behind the book.

I found the memoirs incredibly readable, with Noah successfully explaining the laws of apartheid in a clear and concise way. Even if you are not familiar with South African history it is still an easy book to follow. Despite the horrors depicted within, it is also incredibly funny and witty. If you have seen Noah’s stand-up you may know some of the stories here, but there are plenty of new ones so it doesn’t feel like a regurgitation of his set. Overall I found Born a Crime a very enjoyable read.

9. All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

Set in the Deep South our protagonist is teenager John Grady Cole. Hearing that the ranch he has lived on all his life is to be sold, he runs away to Mexico with his best friend Lacey Rawlins. Along the way they befriend another boy, Jimmy Blevins, and the novel follows the three of them and their adventures in this new, strange land.

This is probably one of the most beautifully written books I read in 2017. The final image in particular was stunning, and I remember rereading that last paragraph a few times before finally putting the book down. I also admire how McCarthy evokes the sadness of a passing of a way of life but doesn’t make the novel mawkish. It seems more of a tribute to that lifestyle than anything else. The beautiful language and imagery catapulted All the Pretty Horses to my favourites this year.

Full review here

8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

Capote’ famous novella centres around a brownstone apartment building in 1940s New York. Our narrator is reminiscing about his time with his downstairs neighbour, the vivacious Holly Golightly.

Again the language used here is beautiful. The word choice appears so simple but there is plenty of meaning and depth when you reflect further. It is a well-crafted novella with not a word wasted. The characters as well I found really well done, in particular Holly Golightly. She could so easily have slipped into the trope of Manic Pixie Dream Girl however Capote gives her enough personality that she never does. While I was not particularly enamoured with the short stories in my edition, the novella more than makes up for them.

Full review here

7. The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

In a sleepy backwater town in France the waitress Adele Bedeau goes missing. Assigned to track her down is Inspector Georges Gorski, who is still plagued by an unsolved murder years previously. We also follow Manfred Baumann, a regular at the restaurant Adele works for and who may know more than what he tells Gorski.

I found this a very gripping literary thriller. Macrae Burnet has written so many twists and turns into the narrative it is hard guessing what has happened. Yet the disappearance of Adele seems to act as a simple plot device, as a way for us to read about Baumann and Gorski. The characterisation of the two of them is brilliant, and you start to notice the parallels between them. The ending as well I thought was great. This was an excellent first novel for the Gorski series to start with and hopefully I will pick up the sequel in 2018.

Full review here

6. Lara – Anna Pasternak

My most recent read and one I think will probably go up in my estimations the more I reflect on it. Anna Pasternak tells of the affair between her great-uncle Boris and Olga Ivinskaya, who would become the main inspiration for Lara in Doctor Zhivago. Yet the novel, due to its ‘anti-Soviet’ nature, places their families in danger, with Olga being sent to labour camps in Potma twice.

I think Anna Pasternak has written a very touching tribute to Boris and Olga. Despite all the horrors described in the book, their love is the main force in the story and certainly the thing I remember most. Pasternak also successfully blends in quotes from the people who lived through this period, as well as facts and her own observations. Therefore you get a very well-rounded view of the events taking place, and the thoughts and feelings of those in them. Even if you have never read Doctor Zhivago, this book is still worth checking out.

Full review here.

5. Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Our narrator is Thomas McNulty who has emigrated to America from Ireland. Here he befriends and falls in love with John Cole, and the novel follows their life together. They start off as dancers at a local bar before joining the army and fighting in both the Indian Wars and later the American Civil War.

I will never understand why this didn’t make the Man Booker shortlist this year. It is simply stunning. Barry tackles a lot of big themes e.g. war, sexuality and love and successfully weaves them into an incredible narrative. His word choice and imagery are extremely evocative, especially when depicting warfare and the aftermath. The characters, particularly Thomas McNulty, are really well-written. You care about these characters and their plights. It has made me want to check out more of Barry’s work.

Full review here.

4. Montpelier Parade – Karl Geary

This is a debut novel following Sonny Knolls who lives quite a downtrodden life in Dublin. He works part-time at a butchers and occasionally helps his builder father. While they are fixing a collapsed wall Sonny meets Vera, a beautiful older woman. The two of them quickly form a relationship but it soon becomes clear that Vera has secrets of her own.

This book nearly had me in tears. I found it an incredibly emotional read. Sonny was such an interesting, sympathetic character that even if he did something wrong you still rooted for him. There was also a frustration that people seemed reluctant to help him better himself. Geary’s writing style was simple but so effective. He also nails the classist attitudes prevalent in society and that is shown through the characters of Sonny and Vera. I’m delighted that the novel is started to receive more attention, and I can’t wait to see what Geary writes next.

Full review here 

3. The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

Set after the Second World War, twins Lenny and Miriam are sent to a sanatorium in Kent after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. There they meet a whole cast of characters of differing age and class. Word starts to spread that a potentially life-saving drug is around the corner, and both the patients and their relatives outside are desperate to get their hands on it.

I think this is my favourite out of all the Bailey’s Prize shortlist books that I’ve read (sorry The Power fans). The characters of Lenny and Miriam have stayed with me since I first read it. In particular, I really loved Lenny’s character development. You watch him go from a teenager to a young man and Grant conveys it brilliantly. You connect to the characters and hope that they can survive their illness. While I’m still unsure about the ending, the characters more than make up for it. There are still passages that I go back and reread.

Full review here.

2. Solar Bones – Mike McCormack

Told in a single sentence, we follow Marcus Conway as he reflects upon his life. He reminisces about his father, as well as his relationships with his wife and children. He also looks back at the political landscape of Ireland, such as elections and the economic crash.

Again I think this was robbed of a place on the Man Booker shortlist. McCormack tells the story of an ordinary man through extraordinary prose. I never found it boring, though I can see why its critics think that. Not a lot happens. But I really enjoyed Marcus’s reflections on his life. He is a very complex character, someone you like and dislike at various points, but his thoughts are always fascinating. I found myself reflecting on my own life and relationships after I had finished.

Full review here.

1. The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters

One day Dr Faraday is called to the crumbling Hundreds Hall to attend to a sickly maid. While there he meets the owner Mrs Ayres and her two children, Roderick and Caroline. The maid warns him of a sinister presence in the house and he laughs it off. However increasingly bizarre and spooky events start to occur, events that Faraday struggles to find a reasonable explanation for.

I loved this novel. I don’t know what I have been doing putting off reading it. Waters does a wonderful job of creating suspense, leaving you finishing one chapter and wanting to instantly jump into the next. The characters are also a joy to read. Dr Faraday is a fantastic unreliable narrator and the Ayres family all felt like individuals. There wasn’t a bum note here at all. My praising of this novel probably verges on cringy, which you can read down below.

Full review here.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoy the rest of festive season and I will see you in 2018 for more bookish chat.