blogging, book blogger, book blogging, books, fantasy, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, history, must read, reviews, slavery

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad¬†but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None¬†but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I guess I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.

I’ve not read anything by¬†Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it. It was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad¬†that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.

We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.
Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad¬†was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t exactly an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.
My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narrative; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad¬†is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.
I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.
Standard
80s, British, films, history, jamie bell, Mark Strong, meh, Netflix, politics, review, terrorism, Thatcher

Tuesday’s Reviews – 6 Days (2017)

The problem with an actor playing an iconic role early on in their career means that they are forever carrying that character around on their shoulders. Look at Daniel Radcliffe who, despite seeming to take every random opportunity that comes his way, is finding it difficult to come out of the shadow of the Boy Who Lived. As much as I want to watch every new film he stars in as a new Daniel Radcliffe film I can’t help but see Harry Potter everywhere. Similarly, I have often had problems separating Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot. As such, every role that I’ve watched Bell play has just seemed more childish than it should have done. He’s tried to do plenty of serious stuff over the years but all I see is that young ballet dancer pretending to be a grown-up. Which is a massive shame because I really like Jamie Bell. He just hasn’t ever quite found that one role that changed the way people, or at least I, perceive him. For the last few years he’s done a variety of different thigns that have had varying degrees of success. He was perfect as the title character in The Adventures of Tintin but was recently in the reboot of Fantastic Four¬†that never really worked. I admit that I was

unconvinced after seeing that he was going to star in a film as a member of the SAS. Would I ever be able to see anything other than Billy Elliot with a gun?

Going into 6 Days¬†I didn’t really know a great deal about the¬†Iranian Embassy siege that took place in London in May 1980 but, considering the number of recent terrorist attacks around the world in the last 12 months or so, it seems like a rather prescient story to make a film about. 37 years on, the world is facing even greater atrocities than the ones carried out at Princes Gate just 1 year into Margaret Thatcher’s government. On 30th April that year a group of¬†Iranian Arab men stormed the embassy in¬†Kensington and held 26 people hostage. Threatening the lives of those they hel, the group demanded the release of a group prisoners in Khuzestan and their safe passage out of the UK. The Prime Minister and her Tory government refused to agree to these demands so a siege ensued for the next 6 days. Whilst the SAS were on standby to storm the building, negotiators successfully saw the release of a handful of hostages by agreeing to a few of their more minor demands. It wasn’t until one of the hostages was killed that the special forces regiment carried out an assault and brought the siege to and end.

The siege was broadcast live for its 6 days and rocked the British people. It was eventually overshadowed after the¬†Iran‚ÄďIraq War broke out a few months later but it did, however, bring the SAS into the public eye and showed the world how Thatcher would approach acts of terrorism. It was a pretty defining moment in British history but, if I’m honest, it doesn’t exactly seem like the one event that demanded being turned into a film. Especially one that is trying to sell itself as some kind of British Argo¬†starring the kid from Billy Elliot and¬†Inspector George Gently. But somebody disagreed with me and went and bloody did it. The structure is pretty straightforward: we start from the beginning of the siege and move between the action inside the embassy, a group of journalists looking on in horror, the police negotiators trying to reach a peaceful solution, and the SAS lying in wait next door. There are moments when director,¬†Toa Fraser, tries to build the tension by showing the soldiers waiting outside doors with guns at the ready until another deadline is reached. However, there just isn’t that much drama here.
This is a very short film that, if I’m honest, feels more like a reconstruction that you’d be made to watch in GCSE history or something. It feels less like entertainment and more like the basic facts. There is so little time for develeopment that you don’t really know anybody or really understand what drives them. The closest you get is Mark Strong as Chief Inspector Max Vernon who speaks to one of the terrorists on the phone and attempts to keep the hostages alive. He has some emotional resonance as his connection with the man he’s talking leaves him hoping for a peaceful end. And I guess Jamie Bell does something in role as¬†Lance Corporal Rusty Firmin, the man who ends up leading the assault on the embassy. Again, you don’t really get to know much about Rusty but Bell does a good job at portraying the brooding military man who believes he and his team are the only solution to this problem. He is a perfect mix between cocky young thing and highly focused killer. It’s a breakthrough role for him.
Still, 6 Days¬†doesn’t really have a great deal going for it. It’s not bad, per se, but it doesn’t seem fully formed. It’s like there wasn’t enough in the real-life event to give any detail to the film. A lot of the performances end up being flat or forgettable; non more so than Abbie Cornish, as BBC journalist, Kate Adie, who is decidedly stiff in her portrayal. The details of this film are great and Fraser really does create a historically convincing reenactment. It’s something of period piece thanks to its interiors and set dressing but, beyond that, it just doesn’t feel like we needed to be retold this story. I get that there is a certain amount of tension between each possible assault and the instant return to silently waiting but this film really isn’t the thriller is tries to be. If we’d seen more of the SAS in their training and got to know more of the characters it would have felt more complete?
Standard
book haul, books, currently reading, DC, guy fawkes, history, Netflix, recently watched, Star Wars, stranger things, wonder woman

SUNDAY RUNDOWN – THAT’S WHAT SHE READ

Remember, remember the fifth of November, 
Gunpowder treason and plot. We see no reason Why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot! 


As I write, I’m surrounded by the sound of fireworks going off in every direction. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Bonfire Night. I enjoy fireworks as much as the next person but, as someone who loves being indoors, I am slightly apposed to the idea of being stood in the dark and cold for a long period of time. Still, despite having only had about 4 hours sleep on Friday night, I dragged myself out of the house to watch our local display. It was pretty fun and I’m glad I went. Even if I still find it weird that we all happily celebrate the attempted murder and subsequent torture of a load of people in 1605. Like, “oh yeah, Catholics had it so bad that they were driven to try to blow people up before they were found and violently killed. Let’s all stand around having a great time.” Anyway, I’ve discussed this issue enough today so let’s get on with the rundown.
Weekly Bookish Post

  • TBR? More like WTF!

I may have veered away from helpful slightly in last week’s bookish post but I just needed a quick rant about how little I appreciate the Bookstagram obsession with the TBR. Read more about it here.

Currently Reading

  • Underground Railroad¬†by Colson Whitehead
I’ve had a stupidly busy week so I have to confess that I didn’t actually get round to reading anything this week. I’m planning on really getting back into this book asap because it’s so good. I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Recently Purchased 
  • Treason¬†by James Jackson

This week I was a bit inspired by the time of year and having just watched the BBC show¬†Gunpowder. When I saw this on Amazon I couldn’t resist. It’s a fictional account of the Gunpowder plot of 1605 and it looks really exciting. I’m a bit of a lover of history: I definitely would have studied it at university if I hadn’t loved books quite so bloody much. As such, I adore novels that base themselves in specific historical events and take a fictional slant on it. If it’s done well then it can be magical.

  • Wonder Woman: Warbringer¬†by Leigh Bardugo

This is one of those books that I’ve had my eye on for a while but never got because I was a bit scared. As you may be aware by now, I’m not a big lover of the majority of YA fiction. I tend to avoid authors that are primarily YA writers because I know the likelihood of me enjoying it is small. However, I enjoyed this year’s Wonder Woman film so much that I just¬†wanted to check this out. I so hope it’s worth it.

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story¬†by Alexander Freed

This is another one of those books that I’ve been contemplating for a while. I think Rogue One¬†is the best Star Wars¬†film to be released after the original trilogy and was really interested to read the novelisation. I’ve heard it really adds to the story and gives some much needed development to each character. However, I did quite enjoy the fact that we know very little about each character in the film because, really, it didn’t matter who they were. That’s just the fact of war I guess.¬†

Recently Watched 
  • Netflix Binges:¬†Stranger Things
So, I’ve been experiencing some Stranger Things¬†withdrawal since I finished season 2. I’ve grown rather fond, okay creepily fond, of Hopper and miss having his beardy face in my life. So earlier this week I made the decision to start watching the entire show from the beginning. I actually forgot a bunch of stuff that happened so it might have been better to rewatch before my season 2 binge but we live and learn. And frankly, as long as David Harbour is there then I’m hooked. This week the latest season of The Great British Bake Off¬†ended so I’ve been looking for a new cake based form of entertainment to take its place. Thankfully, Netflix introduced me to my new favourite show¬†Zumbo’s Just Desserts. It’s insane and so fucking hard. I love it!
Standard
America, banned books, books, history, list, Top 10, women

Banned Books Week: My Top 15 Banned Books

Today marks the beginning of Banned Books Week; a time where the literary world encourages people to pick up a book that has, at one time or another, been deemed unsuitable for society. There are endless great books that have gone unpublished thanks to various concerns regarding their morality. Most often is is books that are seen to contain dangerous amounts of sexual content, violence, or anti-religious sentiments that keep parents up at night. I’ve always thought the act of banning books is a really stupid one, not least because the majority of criticism is missing the overall point of the novels themselves. Of course, the major issue with saying outright that a book is “dangerous”is that it only increases the reputation of that book. How many people, upon hearing that their parents don’t want them reading something will instantly want to go and read it? A quick way to get people talking about and reading your book is to get it banned. How many people picked up a copy of the god awful Da Vinci Code¬†because of the controversy that surrounded Dan Brown’s novel? His first 3 novels were hardly making headlines and each had fewer than 10,000 copies in their first printings. I’m not saying it was the only thing that made Dan Brown a success but all of the criticism and debate that came from it must have had an effect. So, banning a book doesn’t always get the right result. Especially when those books end up being classic works of literature. It’s weird to think that a lot of my favourite books were once unpublished because people didn’t want society to read them. So, in the hopes of inspiring people to pick up a banned book in honour of this week, I’m presenting my favourite banned books (and a few extras).


1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence’s last novel has been the source of much controversy since it was first published privately in 1928. After an initial publication in Britain in 1932, the novel was not available until again until 1960. The story of a love-affair between a high-society married woman and a working-class man was seen as obscene and contained words that were not deemed suitable for publication. It was only after Penguin went to court to argue that the novel was of literary worth that Lady Chatterley¬†was published again. It subsequently sold out. I know a lot people don’t really appreciate Lawrence’s writing these day but this book is definitely worth a read. If only to honour the trouble that people went to nearly 60 years ago to get the damn thing published

2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Thanks to it’s questionable content regarding the love affair between an adult man and a young girl in his care, Lolita was banned in several countries after it’s initial release. The book was banned in the UK from 1955 to 1959 on moral grounds. Despite all of the controversy surrounding the book, Nabokov’s novel is not actually as erotic as it has been argued. Certainly not enough to see British customs officials seiing books that were entering the country.
3. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies¬†has been one of my favourite books for years but, according to the¬†American Library Association it is one of the top 10 most banned books in the US. Golding’s cautionary tale of young boys stranded on a deserted island is constantly being called into question because of it’s use of violence, profanity and, in some cases, pro-racist themes. I first read this novel when I was studying for my GCSEs (about 14/15) so I find it impossible to believe anyone seeing it as dangerous. It’s a great novel that still has a lot to say about human nature.

4.¬†The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s tale of a dystopian¬†future ruled over by religious fanatics has, obviously, seen something of a popularity surge recently¬†thanks to the amazing TV adaptation. The novel tells the story of a young woman who is forced into sexual servitude for a couple unable to have children on their¬†own. Parents at a Texan high school demanded that the book be banned thanks to sexual content and the negative portrayal of religion. Far from being a dangerous novel, this is a book that everyone, especially¬†young women, should be encouraged to read. Atwood’s novel is becoming scarily more relevant so if you’ve not read it yet then I implore¬†you to do so.

5. 1984 by George Orwell

I could easily have picked another George Orwell book for this list and, very nearly, did go with Animal Farm¬†instead. Although, arguably 1984 is¬†George Owell’s most famous novel and it¬†is also one of the most challenged books in literary history. The story of a dystopian future in which all human activity is monitored by a totalitarian government has been seen as subversive or ideologically corrupting. It was banned in Russia and the UK and US for years. Orwell’s novel is a must read for anyone who hasn’t already.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This novel is such a loved classic that it’s hard to imagine anyone hating it. Of course, this is why we can’t have nice things. Harper Lee’s classic novel tells the story of a white lawyer defending a black man accused of rape. It has been the subject of many challenges in school thanks to its use of racial slurs, profanity and sexual content. As with the other books on this list, To Kill a Mockingbird¬†is a great novel that has a great deal to teach people that aren’t too narrow-minded to see it. Far from being dangerous, Lee has a great to say about racism and the role of race in society. I read this at school at a young age and I’m glad I did. I may not have fully understood it then, I think this is a book children (and adults) everywhere should get to read.

7. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison is an award winning novel. It has won countless literary prizes, including the Pulitzer. It is the heartbreaking story of slavery and racism in the US and the tale of a mother coming to terms with the death of her child. It is a beautifully written and haunting tale of undoubted literary and social worth. However, it is still being challenged for its depictions violence and racism, its sexual contents and for scenes in which bestiality is discussed. This is another book that you should get your hands on as soon as possible. Morrison is a great writer and this novel is one that will stick with you forever. 

8. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

It’s widely accepted by most people that Brave New World¬†is a literary classic. Aldous Huxley’s tale shows the dangers of a society that has become too comfortable with artificial¬†comforts. Huxley’s future is far from bright and represents the worst of mankind. As such, it has been banned for its strong language, sexual content and, in Ireland, for its comments against religion. In India, Huxley was even branded as a pornographer. Again, this isn’t the kind of statement that would necessarily stop people wanting to read this book.

9. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fairly ironically, Ray Bradbury’s cautionary¬†tale about the dangerous of book banning has faced its own controversy. The novel shows a futuristic¬†society that burns all books for being dangerous. In the real world, Ray Bradbury’s book is seen as containing questionable language and themes. In 1953, a school gave their students copies of the book after the, supposedly, obscene words had been blacked out.

10. Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller,

What do you associate most with Henry Miller? If you said sex then you’ve obviously heard of Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer¬†follows a young struggling writer‚Äôs sexual encounters and has, obviously, been banned thanks to its sexual content. The book was first published in France in 1934 and wasn’t allowed to be released in the US until 1961. However. even then, booksellers were faced with lawsuits for selling the book. After the Supreme Court declared the book was not classed as obscene, it¬†was delightfully described by a Pennsylvania judge as ‚Äėan open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity‚Äô. I mean if that doesn’t make you want to read this book then I honestly don’t know what will.¬†

11. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque is a German veteran of the First World War and his novel is an¬†unflinching portrayal of the brutality of the conflict.¬†It describes the physical pain and mental stress that German soldiers faced during the war, and the alienation felt by many upon returning home.¬†It was banned in Germany from 1933 and was burned under the Nazi for being unpatriotic. However, Remarque’s work is considered to be one of¬†the greatest portrayals of World War 1 to¬†have been written.

12. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings¬†is Maya Angelou’s¬†¬†about the early years of her life. It is a coming-of-age story that sees Maya grow into a confident young women despite her traumatic life. She depicts her struggles with racism and being sexual assaulted as a young girl. This is an important piece of literature that discusses identity, racism, literacy, and, most importantly, the role of women. However, schools and parents alike have banned the book thanks to its use of profanity, sexual content, and its discussion of religion. The book is, for the most part, critically acclaimed and the most popular of Angelou’s autobiographies.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses¬†is another of those banned books stories that has gone down in literary history. Salman Rushdie’s novel was¬†inspired in part by the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It was such a controversial book that¬†Iran‚Äôs Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on Rushdie’s head. It also resulted in the death of the Japanese translator and the attempted murder of both an Italian translator¬†and a Norwegian publisher.¬†The book’s publication sparked violent riots across the world and is banned in many Muslim majority countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

14. Ulysses by James Joyce

Now, I tried to read Ulysses a few years ago but only made it the end of the first chapter. Upon finishing the opening I realised that I had no idea what had just happened. I decided, instead of going back to the start, that I would store it away for another day. That day never came. Joyce’s novel is an oft confusing tome of great literary standing. So, I find it difficult to believe that enough people have finished the book in order to find something to complain about but they have. References to masturbation in the novel have meant it has been categorised as obscene and radical. It was banned in both the UK and the US for years. 500 copies of the book were burned in New York. Now, if anything is going to make me finish this damn book it’s going to be avenging those copies that were turned to ash.¬†

15. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

If there’s one thing this list has taught us, it’s that America is a weird place. Salinger’s tale of teenage angst and self-discovery is a staple on high school syllabuses¬†all over the US. It is also the most banned books in American schools. Talk about a weird contrast. Salinger’s tale is full of profanity, violence and sexual content that, supposedly, teenagers shouldn’t be introduced to. Of course, proclaiming¬†a book to be morally questionable is definitely going to stop teenagers trying to read it, right? Right? Now, I can’t claim to love this book but a lot of people around the world adore it. If you’re of the right age then I could potentially see why you would love it but I never got the whole adoration thing. Still, it deserves a place on this list.
Standard
book haul, books, currently reading, history, Penguin Books, poetry, recently watched, war, YA

SUNDAY RUNDOWN – THAT’S WHAT SHE READ

Going back to work after having a few days off last week proved to be extremely difficult. So, it came as a major surprise that I managed to keep on top of reading. I’ve decided I finally need to sort my sleeping habits out. Usually, I stay up way too late before work. This is mainly because I want to take full advantage of the time I have before I go back the next day. Just one of the major struggles of working in a job that you have zero passion for. Anyway, to get myself in better shape I’ve been trying to turn my computer off early and read for an hour or so before I go to bed. What usually happens now is that I get so engrossed in my book that I lose track of time but it’s an improvement, right? Whilst it may not be doing wonders for the amount of sleep I’m getting, it does mean that I’m making progress with my books read this year. I’ve finished another book finally. It takes a bit of pressure off after the 3/4 months that I spent getting through 7th Function. Fingers crossed it’s a sign things are improving.
Just Finished

  • One of Us is Lying¬†by Karen M. McManus

So, as expected, I got through this book pretty quickly. I plan on writing my thoughts up for me Tuesday review so come back soon.


Currently Reading

  • The Answers¬†by Catherine Lacey
This was the book I was supposed to read after I finished 7th Function¬†so, after my brief detour, I decided to finally open it. This book has been top of my TBR pile for a while and I’m super intrigued about how it’s going to turn out. The premise sounds like something you’d seen in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. A desperately ill and broke young woman signs up to take part in an actor’s girlfriend experience. Then, inevitably, the shit hits the fan. I’m hoping this is as good as it sounds.

Recently Purchased 
  • Milk and Honey¬†by Rupi Kaur

I have seen this book of poetry all over Instagram in the past few months and have desperately wanted it. With Kaur’s second collection of poetry being released next month and finding myself in an emotional state, I decided it was the perfect time to buy it. I’ve already read snippets so I’ll be glad to finally get to grips with this collection.

  • The Unwomanly Face of War¬†by Svetlana Alexievich

On the same impromptu shopping trip that saw me buy Milk and Honey¬†I also purchased this book. I’ll be honest, I only got this because I loved the cover. It’s a Penguin book and was so striking that I couldn’t not pick it up. Then I read the blurb and was hooked. This is the English language translation of the history of Soviet women in World War 2.¬†Svetlana Alexievich wanted to tell the story of all of the strong women in her life who helped with the war effort but were deleted from official history. Now you all should know that I’m a lover of all things that show how great women are and this just sounds perfect. Combined with my love of history, I can’t think of a better book to get stuck into.

Recently Watched 
  • Netflix Binges:¬†Modern Family, Travel Man
Took a slight break but I’m back on my Modern Family¬†rewatch. It’s so awkward in the first few seasons but so funny. I had forgotten some of the great moments that happened early on. At the same time, I watched the Channel 4 series¬†Travel Man¬†in which Richard Ayoade, a man I love intensely, spend 48 hours in a city with a famous person. It’s funny, informative and really makes me want to get on a plane.
Standard
adaptation, controversial, dan brown, films, fucking stupid, history, Ian McKellen, meh, religion, reviews, TBT, Tom Hanks

TBT – The Da Vinci Code (2006)


Two of my favourite quotations from the film critic Roger Ebert concern The Da Vinci Code. The first is from his review of the film National Treasure:

I should read a potboiler like The Da Vinci Code every once in a while, just to remind myself that life is too short to read books like The Da Vinci Code.

The second from his review of Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code:

They say The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than any book since the Bible. Good thing it has a different ending.

Along with a love of cinema and a need to criticise it, Roger Ebert and I have something in common. We have both read and hated Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In all honesty, I read the book after I had watched the film. I knew about Brown’s book, of course, but I had no interest in reading it. I watched the end of the film one evening and was intrigued enough to pick up a copy. Brown’s writing is horrible and his over-reliance on cliffhangers and their ridiculous solutions is just awful. I can see why people love it; it’s a mystery that is easy to read and, subsequently, makes people feel clever when they keep up with/solve it. It’s all just trite though. Brown made a name for himself thanks to a controversial and preposterous subject. He gained readers because of his short chapters that always end on a cliffhanger. It makes my blood boil. I swear, one Dan Brown chapter ends with the cliffhanger of what Robert Langdon will decide to have for breakfast. Over the years, I’ve had so many arguments with people about this book but I often find myself being slightly less harsh on the film. I’ve never thought it made much sense. Maybe Tom Hanks really is such a charming man that he can improve anything?

I mean, I’m under no real illusion that The Da Vinci Code¬†is a good film. It has an utterly ridiculous narrative and doesn’t provide any depth. It’s basically a film of exposition where you sit and watch people solve riddles that nobody else has a chance of solving. Decent mysteries are supposed to allow you to keep up with, if not get ahead of, the characters on screen. With The Da Vinci Code¬†you’re always, at least, one step behind. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t matter. Whilst Tom Hanks’s first outing as Robert Langdon sees him break almost illogical riddles at breakneck speed, The Da Vinci Code¬†also gives us Audrey Tatou’s Sophie who constantly asks everyone on screen to explain it. Sophie, in this case, is the audience… except she also happens to be shit hot at solving these seemingly unsolvable mysteries when she needs to. What The Da Vinci Code¬†boils down to, is a couple of hours watching Tom Hanks and co run through various European countries and spend hours sat around giving lectures on history and religious legends.

Yet, there is something about being adapted into a film that makes the narrative work better than in the book. On screen, the pace set by Dan Brown’s endless chain of cliffhangers and impossible escapes means that plot is always moving forward. Or at least always moving forward after we’ve spent the requisite amount of time watching a PowerPoint presentation or something first. Unlike reading the book, the film doesn’t really allow you to think too much. There is always something happening so you can’t really start asking yourself pesky questions like “why did that character not just make things simpler?” or “what are his motivations for doing this?” or “why does the ending essentially just make the entire film unnecessary?” Ron Howard has, quite cleverly, made a film that never allows you time to pick apart the glaringly obvious plot holes until after the credits, by which time you’ve already let yourself get carried off in the insanity on screen.

Which is, if I’m honest, what always happens. I can hardly say that I find The Da Vinci Code¬†exciting. I’ve hardly ever been riveted by it. However, I can’t deny that, if it’s on, I find myself unable to look away. It’s the mentality that makes you look at a car crash as you drive past. The same one that means, despite my huge, burning hatred for it, makes me occasionally want to sit down to watch Mama Mia. Although, I suspect that’s more of a weird S&M fetish thing than this. Whilst the narrative doesn’t really interest me in anyway, I am always glued to the screen. It could very well just be Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy, Tom Hanks, and his magnetic personality. Or it could just be that this film is so bad that it’s clawing its way back to good again. I don’t know.

I’ve never thought much of Dan Brown as a writer of novels but he is a writer who can construct an intriguing plot. Yes, it’s exactly the kind of stuff you’d find weird people in tin foil hats writing on a message board at 1 am but that doesn’t mean it’s not watchable. Dan Brown shouldn’t be a writer of books but he can make a fairly decent shit film. You won’t come out of this film having a changed view on religion or having a completely different opinion about society because that’s not the point. No matter how seriously this film takes itself. This film with drag you, kicking and screaming, into its nonsense world and, without letting you stop for breath, whisk you along with it before you realise what you’ve got yourself involved in. Maybe, once the credits roll, you’ll feel ashamed with yourself. That’s natural. What you can’t deny, no matter how much you might want to, is that, at the time, you were kind of happy to be on that ride.

Standard
20 years, anniversary, books, fucking, fucking awesome, Harry Potter, harry potter week, history, J K Rowling, ramblings

Harry Potter Week: The Girl Who Read

When I turned 20 I was at university and I had an epic night out with a load of my flatmates. It was a typical university style night out and we all got super drunk. It was during the days when people still took digital cameras on nights out (yes I’m super old) and I took a shit ton of photos. It’s safe to say, as the night progressed, things get less pretty and my eyelids droop ever lower. My 20th birthday was a fantastic night out but the next day I experienced my first, grown-up hangover. Literally the day I turned 20 my body stopped being able to just get up and go after a night out. I was dying. I’d never felt as old as I did that morning. I doubt Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone¬†woke up this morning with a banging headache and feeling super nauseated but I bet it felt old. I mean I fucking do. The first Harry Potter¬†series was released 20 years ago. I’m nearly 30 but it still feels like yesterday that I first read about the boy who lived. ¬†How did this happen? Imagine if I had another night out like my 20th birthday… I probably would die at this point. Jeez.

I have a confession to make: I didn’t read The Philosopher’s Stone¬†when it first came out. ARGH! I know. This probably makes me less of a Harry Potter fan than you. But it’s fine. I actually got the book one year later, in 1998. My father bought me a copy of the first adult edition and I’ve never looked back. It was during the time that Harry Potter fever was infecting the nation and I vividly remember one of my teachers bemoaning the fact that I was jumping on the bandwagon. She was a massive bitch and I ignored her. Ultimately, I didn’t care because I loved the book. I was 10 years old and I’d never read anything like it before. It had everything and I read it obsessively. I’d always been involved in reading as a child but it was my twin sister who would ingest books in a single sitting. This series turned that around. I wanted to read for fun and I wanted to read for long periods. It was the first time I remember not wanting to stop reading because I was desperate to see what happened.

We didn’t realise 20 years ago that the whole landscape of literature was about to change with the release of the first 500 copies of JK Rowling’s debut. When you look at the lists of people’s favourite books ever, it’s highly likely that¬†Harry Potter¬†will always top, or at least be near the top, of a reader’s most loved novels. They have overtaken such classics as¬†To Kill a Mockingbird¬†and¬†The Lord of the Rings. Despite everyone being convinced it wouldn’t take off,¬†Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone¬†has reached an insane amount of people all around the world and has got so many children into reading. I have some intense views about Rowling nowadays (see my many old school rants) but I will always respect what she has achieved. She found previously unknown success through writing and has inspired generations people: young and old.

That’s the great thing about Harry Potter. It was the first time that children’s fiction also became super popular for adults. It was the first time I remember my whole family being invested in the same book. I didn’t really think about it at the time but it was a really binding experience. Every time a new book came out I would read it first and then it would be passed round my entire family. We would discuss the books and would all share in the excitement and sadness that ensued. The majority of my friends read them too and we would talk about theories together all the time. I remember writing to a penfriend and theorising over who the Half Blood Prince was before the book came out. We wrote fucking pages about the books in our correspondence.

I only ever queued up at midnight for the final book but my friends and I did it together. It was a really great night. We went to a friend’s house, got food, and messed about with our homemade magic wand (they were literally just sticks from her garden). Then we headed into town and stood in line with all of the eager kids. I admit that I was in that period where I (mistakenly) felt a little too cool to be doing it and I forced my friends to leave their “wands” in the car. However, I’m so glad I did it. The day after we’d all finished reading it I remember going out with the same friends and we all just felt numb. We genuinely didn’t know what to do now it was over. We’d dedicated 10 years to this story and it was just finished… and with such a terrible epilogue. I didn’t know what to feel. I was a mix of sad, happy and kind of angry.

Which is why I think my feelings towards the series have cooled off a bit now. You see, unlike a lot of fans out there I haven’t obsessively reread the books every year since I first read them. I think it’s partly because, after I read the final book, I was done. It took so long for me to get over the book that, when I did, I wanted that to be it. It sounds really fucking stupid but it was like a breakup. There was so much pain that when it eventually went away I didn’t want to risk getting back to that feeling. Also, if I’m honest, I’ve never managed to get all the way through the first 2 books again. They just feel so childish now. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. After all, they have shaped my life in such a massive way and in ways that I probably don’t even realise. Just as they have for so many other people.

After all, these books aren’t just fun children’s literature. They taught us all so much about life. It’s not a glossy and lovely Disney world where everyone is happy and good always triumphs over evil. This is ¬†a story where awful things happen to good people and they struggle to go the right thing. We saw discrimination at work and we saw the oppressed standing up for themselves. The thing the book’s did most of all was offer hope. It showed that, no matter how awful things get, with people by our side we can get through anything. The books don’t sugarcoat life for children but inspire them to keep going. It’s no wonder that so many studies have shown that fans of the book show an increased sense of empathy towards others. They taught us that difference isn’t something to rally against but to embrace.

What has been so lovely in the run-up to today is the amount of people sharing memories about the books. On Instagram there are Harry Potter¬†related posts everywhere and people from all over the world are bonding over one series of books. These books are decades old and they are still bringing people together. Writing this post has forced me to look back over my time in this fandom and it’s actually been quite emotional. I forget just how massive a part of my life this was. Little silly memories come back to me and it’s wonderful. I grew up with these books and will always have a place for them in my heart. I’ve since moved on to bigger and better novels but Harry Potter is about so much more than the writing. Yes, JK Rowling wasn’t the best writer but she improved in every new book. Yes, her ideas weren’t original and she took bits from other work. That doesn’t matter. Harry Potter doesn’t survive because of the quality. It survives because of how is makes you feel. It’s nostalgic and charming but it’s also important and embracive. It’s a community that, admittedly, sometimes can be a bit brutal but is somewhere you always have a place.

I was 10 when I started reading and I was 19 when it ended. I had grown up with this series and my love had only grown deeper with each book. I dabbled in both reading and writing fanfiction. I bought merchandise, played the video game, and went to see every film. I signed up to Pottermore immediately. I’m 29 years old now and I still can’t get enough. Harry Potter¬†was my first fandom before I even knew what a fandom was. It’s something that I am so glad to be a part of and am so grateful to my father for buying that book. I’m not trying to be melodramatic but who knows how different my life could have been. I studied literature at university and I’m pretty sure these books pushed me deeper into reading. I have made so many friends over these books and continue to make connections because of them. There’s been times when I’ve kept my love of the series quiet because I feel too old for it now. Or played it down with friends who don’t share the love. Not anymore. As I’ve already said, I’m pretty fucking old now and I’m at an age where I don’t give a shit. I’m a Harry Potter nerd and there’s fuck all wrong with that.

Standard
America, films, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, history, John Hurt, natalie portman, president, real life, review

Tuesday’s Review: Jackie (2016)

I have to be honest, if it hadn’t been for John Hurt’s death last month I probably wasn’t ever going to see this film. It wasn’t that I thought it would be bad but it discussed a prominent American figure that, really, I didn’t know a great deal about. I mean I know enough about Jackie Kennedy but, when it comes down to it, my knowledge of American history is pretty limited. It’s probably something I should rectify but my historical education really just focused on the United Kingdom. Although, I guess everyone knows about JFK, Jackie, and the assassination. However, the name Jackie Kennedy only really brought images of pink Chanel suits and pillbox hats to my mind so I didn’t really see much need in seeing Natalie Portman playing her on screen. Then, we heard the tragic news about John Hurt’s death in January. Jackie¬†was one of his final films before his death so I decided it was a good reason to see the film. John Hurt was one of the finest actor’s around and could turn his hand to any part. Yes, he wasn’t a traditional leading man but he has been a significant part of some great films. I can think of worse reasons to want to watch something.

I was worried when Jackie¬†started and I first heard Natalie Portman speak. I had the horrible feeling that her attempt to emulate Jackie Kennedy’s soft spoken and breathy accent was quickly going to descend into a terrible parody. Thankfully, the actor manages to keep a hole on her mimicry and keeps the vocals situated in something resembling reality. It all adds to the character of Jackie Kennedy that director¬†Pablo Larra√≠n is attempting to capture. A woman who, having already been catapulted into the spotlight, suddenly finds herself having to deal with the ultimate tragedy whilst the whole world watches her. The wife of the President of the United States who is caught between a state of mourning, helplessness, and desperation to preserve her husband’s legacy. To prove me extra wrong, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie is absolutely brilliant.

The film’s narrative is framed by an interview Jackie gave to Life magazine reporter¬†Theodore H White (Billy Crudup). As the interview takes place Kennedy makes it clear that she will have ultimate control over what is printed and she wants her husband to be remembered the way she thinks he should be. She is a woman who is perfectly in control. Until she relives the horrific moment when her husband was shot twice as he sat next to her. She breaks down as she remembers trying to keep the contents of his head from spilling over her lap. This, obviously, is the kind of thing that she does not give approval to be printed. Jackie takes the public figure that everyone things they know and show the emotionally lost person underneath.

The story flits back and forth between Jackie’s life before and after the assassination. We see her conduct a television tour of the White House and it is a different image of the First Lady. She is unsure of herself and self-conscious. She attempts to justify her redecoration of her new home in order to bring a sense of history. She wants to surround herself with beautiful and significant things. Something that her husband and potentially the American people just don’t understand. She wants to present her husband and his presidency as she thinks it needs to be remembered. This is the age where television gives everyone an eyewitness account of every moment so she understands the importance of her performance.

The narrative then jumps around between the days after the President was killed, whilst Jackie tried to arrange a funeral on the same level as Lincoln, and in the future when Jackie speaks with a Priest (John Hurt) about her fears and doubts. Really, these different narrative aren’t necessary as the most important and stand-out sections occur in the aftermath of JFK’s death and Jackie’s desperate attempts to get her own way with the funeral. The time when she has to wrestle with the public image of a grieving wife, the statesmen like role of the First Lady, and lost woman who has no idea what her life will become now her husband is dead. The woman who has become synonymous with her looks is unable to find order within her wardrobe. In fact, the most memorable scene is the one in which a numb Jackie peels off the infamous pink Chanel suit and tights that are covered in her husband’s blood. It is a devastating and poignant scene.

As with all of these types of biopics, you won’t rid yourself of the sense that the reality on show still isn’t being completely truthful. However, the narrative opens up the figure of Jackie Kennedy beyond what was on show during her public life. It gives you the chance to view her from a perspective that you may not have considered and, thanks to the great performance by Natalie Portman, presents her in a measured and understanding way. The film is a stark look into an important and difficult time for both the Kennedy family and America. With a great supporting cast, including a short but memorable turn from the late John Hurt, and an incredibly haunting score from Mica Levi, Jackie¬†is a film that I’m so grateful I took the time to watch. It would have been a shame to have missed such a wonderful film.

Standard
70s, action, history, Ireland, politics, review

’71 (2014)

It was a busy Saturday afternoon at work when my friend suddenly decided I was a suitable back-up plan for her evening. I was spared an evening of bowling failures (spared… geddit?) thanks to her raging hormones. We’d seen the trailer for ’71when we went to see¬†TheRiot Club although our reactions to it were pretty different. Whilst I’d seen a historically and aesthetically interesting thriller, she saw an opportunity to stare at Jack O’Donnell for nearly 2 hours. Never mind, eh? I can think of worse reasons to sit in a dark room on a Saturday night. Plus, she’s been threatening to drag me to endless Zac Efron films for the last few years so I’m just too grateful when our interests overlap to really care why.

Yann Demange offers up a fantastic debut with ’71, a film set just before the most brutal year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Taking place in the year preceding Bloody Sunday, it’s safe to say the tension is rife: there are rifts between the British and Irish; the Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists; and between the different factions on each side.

Unfortunately for Private Gary Hook, he’s about to be thrown in at the deep end. Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a young man who joined the army in an attempt to escape his fairly dismal upbringing. However, rather than finding an easy path to honour in Germany, Hook is deployed to Belfast to get a handle on the increasingly shitty situation that’s unfolding.
Through a series of military oversights, Hook’s unit find themselves in one of the most dangerous areas in the city without adequate protection. The group are tasked with assisting the Royal Ulster Constabulary to carry out raids in Catholic residences. The situation soon gets out of hand and Hook is cut off from his fellow soldiers with pretty much everyone baying for his blood. He has to find his way home in an unfamiliar environment and weave his way through all of the double-crossing going on around him.
Gregory Burke ends up juggling a large number of balls throughout his screenplay, as he introduces people from all sides of the conflict, all of whom have their own agenda. Unfortunately, this means that there is little in the way of real character development and a certain amount of ambiguity clouding each of the plot-strands. At times the leap of faith required to accept that Hook would naturally fall into each camp at significant points is a bit much but Burke, building on the success of his stage show Black Watch, seems to have good enough ball-control to create a workable plot.
Of course, this could be helped by his decision not to bog down the film with any pesky socio-political context. For all the significance of the Troubles in ’71’s setting, the film doesn’t pretend to be any kind of historical document. Ignoring the documentary style of works like Paul Greengrass’¬†Bloody Sunday, ’71¬†is more like an action-horror film set in a specific context. The hows and whys are never discussed and Burke doesn’t attempt to make any judgements about the conflict as a whole. Instead, he tries, and for the most part succeeds, in painting a realistic yet vague portrait of the various attitudes in Ireland at the time.
This isn’t a film about the Irish Troubles but something that concerns itself with the reaction of an innocent outsider. Hook finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict he doesn’t have a hope of understanding. Demange doesn’t set out to teach us about such an important time in recent history but to put this young man in one of the shittest environments of recent years and see if he can survive.
What he managed to create led to one of the most tense cinema experiences I’ve ever had. Having just come off a hectic Saturday shift I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind for this survival thriller. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so fucking stressed out by a film. Of course, this is the definitive mark that it’s doing its job properly. The story unfolds at break-neck speed and Demange has worked hard to ensure that every detail of this film helps to ramp up the tension. With production design turning modern day Liverpool into an almost alien version of 1970s Belfast, there is a real sense that Hook has wandered into the kind of post-apocalyptic nightmarish future that litters the FPS offerings in the games market these days.
There is never a moment for you to relax as Hook moves ever closer to the IRA stronghold that provides the setting for a dramatic final set piece. It is cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s decision to switch between 16mm for the sequences that take place during the day and digital once the sun goes down that really help reflect Hook’s increasing vulnerability.
Of course, none of this tension would mean a damn thing if it weren’t for a noteworthy performance from leading man Jack O’Connell. Proving once again that he’s someone to watch out for, O’Connell brings charisma and strength to the young soldier that is perfectly offset by an underlying vulnerability that constantly reminds us that, underneath the uniform, he’s just a lost young man looking for a way home.
It’s just a crying shame that O’Connell isn’t given more to work with. Gary is, despite being on-screen for the nearly the entire 100 minute runtime, one of the most vague characters imaginable. With only a brief glimpse into his early life, you never get a sense of what Gary is about which means, after all the drama, you never get any kind of emotional or dramatic resolution. However, despite all of this frustrating ambiguity, ’71is a mesmerising film that goes to show it’s leading man, director and screenwriter all have great futures ahead of them.
Standard