READ THE WORLD – Serbia: Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković

Translated by Terence McEneny.

Serbia in the eighteenth century is a battleground of empires, with the Ottomans on one side and the Habsburgs on the other. When Count Otto von Hausburg arrives in Belgrade with his trusted servant Novak, they learn of tales of vampires and missing men. In the besieged capital, safe for now behind the fortress walls, Princess Maria Augusta waits for love to save her troubled soul. But who is the strange, charismatic count, and can we trust the story he is telling us? While some call him the Devil, he appears to have all the fears and pettiness of an ordinary man.

It took me over a month to read Fear and His Servant. Not because I didn’t like it, when I was reading it I did enjoy it, but so much was happening in my life that even when I did have free time to read I didn’t have the right mental headspace to actually sit down and read that often. I think some of the issues I had with Fear and His Servant are down to how long it took me to read it. For instance, I’d get confused by who was who and how they were connected because it’d been so long since I’d picked it up that I’d forgotten characters names. Also, the language used and the writing style is very reminiscent of eighteenth century writing even though the book was written in the twenty-first century. It can take a while to get used to it, but it also helps bring you into the story as it makes the setting and the characters feel more alive.

Fear and His Servant is from both von Hausburg’s and Maria Augusta’s point of view, but it isn’t always that clear when it switches between them. Slowly I started to pick up which character was narrating the story as they each have a unique voice. Von Hausburg is sarcastic and blunt and he has a sort of charm about him, even though he is the Devil. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise the blurb stating “The Devil and Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis tell unreliable tales of vampires and political intrigue in eighteenth-century Serbia” isn’t a metaphor and the Devil is actually a main character. It’s quite a fun experience reading a story from the point of view of the Devil, especially as he’s not as fearless or all-powerful as one might think, and every now and then there’s flashbacks to Biblical times as he tells stories of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene.

Princess Maria’s side of the story is like she’s recounting the events to an unnamed person who prompts her every now and then, but you only have Maria’s responses. She seems to go off on a tangent more often than not and sometimes mentions things that have not yet happened in the main story.

As the story progresses and von Hausburg and Princess Maria journey with a group of men to find the truth about the vampires, their stories start to diverge. You read about events from each of their perspectives and sometimes they’re slightly different and in others they are vastly different. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not, as not only to their accounts differ from each other’s, but at times they contradict themselves. It makes the story both intriguing and confusing.

Fear and His Servant is an interesting story with compelling points of view. It’s sometimes funny, is sometimes eerie, and it’s also sometimes confusing. It’s an interesting premise and it’s certainly a book like nothing I’ve read in recent years, but I think having such large gaps between when I’d pick it up, had a detrimental effect on the overall reading experience.

REVIEW: Midway (2019)

The story of the soldiers and aviators who helped turn the tide of the Second World War during the iconic Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The first 20 minutes or so of Midway are honestly thrilling as the film opens with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, that sense of urgency and pace doesn’t continue for the rest of this almost two and a half hour-long film.

There are a lot of military characters and names to keep track of. The main pilot is cocky Dick Best (Ed Skrein) whose cavalier attitude towards death puts his superiors including Rear Admiral Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) on edge, but naturally when things are at their breaking point he’s just the kind of guy they need.

It’s a pleasant surprise that the film spends time with the Japanese characters, the admirals and soldiers who planned and carried out the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Midway, and tries to elevate them from just being the Bad Guys. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) is the main character we follow on that side of the battlefield as he tries to bring glory to Japan without taking undue risks. In fact, the Japanese are almost three-dimensional characters, especially compared to their American counterparts that are largely comprised of clichés and strong accents.

The most interesting character is reserved intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who had warned the Japanese were planning something big before the attack on Pearl Harbour, but his superiors failed listened to him. Now with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) taking command, he is charged with predicting the Japanese’s next move. Their working relationship, as Nimitz slowly puts his faith into Layton and his team of codebreakers, some of whom are a little eccentric, is perhaps the most compelling element in this sprawling account of military underdogs.

The last third is full of aerial battles that are a sight to behold – seeing the pilots dive headfirst towards aircraft carriers in order to drop a bomb on target are nail-biting moments – but the spectacle becomes overwhelming and the various characters, the majority of which you know little about to care about them, are hard to follow in the carnage.

Midway does it’s best to offer a respectful account of events that took place and the men, both Japanese and America, who took part and risked their lives. The action is big and bold but that doesn’t allow any room for nuance. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Rwanda: The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

The chapters in The Girl Who Smiled Beads alternate between a chapter set in the 90s when Clemantine was a child refugee, and the 2000s when she’s a teenager learning to acclimatise to her new life in America. It’s equal parts hopeful to see Clemantine’s life gets better but also so sad that even when she is living this new life – perhaps even the American Dream – what she went through has lasting affects on her.

The main thing I’ll take from The Girl Who Smiled Beads is that someone’s life doesn’t automatically get better once they have some semblance of stability, especially when they’ve been to dozens of countries when they are so young, looking for safety. Clemantine doesn’t hold back in describing how what she experienced shaped her as a person and continues to affect her. She takes a long time to trust people and open up to them, because she had to learn to put on a tough exterior when she was a child to protect herself and her family. Her relationship with her sister is interesting and fraught as Clemantine often resents her for some of the choices she made when they were refugees, but also knows she did her best and is so thankful that Claire never abandoned her.

After the age of six, Clemantine never gets to be a child. Because her sister Claire needs to work and get money (her resourcefulness and entrepreneurship is to be admired, especially as she founded so many black markets in refugee camps) Clemantine becomes more of a mother to Claire’s children than Claire was. Clemantine was only about nine or ten when she was caring for her baby niece; bathing her, feeding her, keeping her safe. It’s so much to put on a child but you cant hate Claire for it because she had to go from being a normal teenager to sole-caregiver to her kid sister in such a short space of time.

Clemantine must grow up so quickly and it’s incredibly difficult for her to handle all the emotions she’s feeling and the experiences she’s living. It’s not until she’s in America with her “American mom” and life that’s stable, that she can even begin to access what she’s gone through. And even then, she’s angry and scared and jealous and resentful, and so many other emotions that she struggles to put a name to and to express and understand.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a tough read as it is an unflinching look at the realities of being a refugee and of having no home or place to belong for over six years. It’s about the trauma Clemantine experienced, the threat of death, sickness and violence, and the people she met over the years in different refugee camps, in different countries. It’s an incredible story, and it’s so sad that it’s one that so many people have lived through, and are still living through in the refugee camps around the world.

REVIEW: Le Mans ‘66 (2019)

When American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is tasked with designing and building a Ford that will beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he and his team including driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), have to battle corporate interference and the laws of physics to win.

There’s nothing overly surprising about Le Mans ’66, even if you know nothing about the titular race or the people involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining film.

Le Mans ’66 is an underdog story. In the broader sense Ford is the underdog to Ferrari’s powerhouse as they attempt to put the Ford name on the racing map and make a lot of money while doing it. But then there’s Miles, Shelby and his team. They are the underdogs to the men in suits at Ford. Shelby and Miles know how to make a car go fast and they know no matter how fast the car is, you need the best driver to drive it. That’s Miles but as he does not get on with 95% of the people he meets, Shelby must fight for him to be able to race in the car they’ve built together.

It’s a lot of fun seeing Shelby verbally – and sometimes physically – spar with the paper pushers at Ford. His main foe is racing director Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who wants everything done in his way, no matter how little he may know about what it takes to make and race a car. While there’re many obstacles put in his way, Shelby does find an unlikely ally in marketing guru Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal).

The racing sequences are thrilling. Quick cuts between long shots and extreme closeups adds to the intensity of the races and you never feel lost or isolated. Instead, you’re right next to Miles in the car as he weaves in between his opponents and races towards the finish line.

The scenes where Shelby and his team test and break and rebuild Ford’s cars are a lot of fun as they highlight the differences between Shelby’s approach to making cars and the executives at Ford’s approach. These scenes are also little snapshots into Shelby and Miles’s friendship and the way Damon and Bale bounce off one another is very entertaining to watch.

Le Mans ‘66 follows the usual beats for a true sporting story, but with a talented cast and solid and entertaining performances from Bale and Damon, Le Mans ’66 is an enjoyable and often exciting film. 4/5.

REVIEW: Runaway Jury (2003)

The biggest court case of the century is taking place in New Orleans and it’s against one of the biggest gun manufacturers in the country. But this case can be bought thanks to man on the inside Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) aka Juror Number Nine, and his woman on the outside Marlee (Rachel Weisz). As the case heats up with the defence doing anything to make the juror’s follow their game plan, Nicholas and Marlee, along with the other juror’s, get in increasingly dangerous situations.

Having read and really enjoyed The Runaway Jury by John Grisham earlier this year (my review is here if you’re interested) I thought I’d give the film adaptation a go. And all in all, it’s a fairly decent film though naturally a lot is left out to make adapt the over 500-page novel.

Runaway Jury is a decent courtroom thriller. It follows the standard format for the genre, with twists and turns, some are predictable while others not so, but it never really over does them. It’s the central performances which are the really good and interesting thing about Runaway Jury.

Gene Hackman plays Rankin Fitch, a shady jury consultant who will use any means necessary to get the verdict to go in the favour of the defence, the gun manufactures. Fitch is ruthless and the way Hackman plays him makes him more than the moustache-twirling villain he could’ve been. On the other side of the courtroom is Dustin Hoffman playing prosecuting lawyer Wendall Rohr. Rohr is more affable and charming than Fitch but doesn’t make him any less smart or competent at his job.

There is just one scene Hackman and Hoffman have together and it’s possibly the most intense and electric scene in the whole movie. As they verbally spar over the morality of what each of them is doing to win the case the tension is palpable and it’s one of the few times either character seems to be close to breaking point.

Cusack and Weisz making a dynamic duo as they play cat and mouse with the lawyers and the other jurors. Weisz especially stands out as she holds her own in confrontations between both Hackman and Hoffman.

Runaway Jury is standard courtroom thriller but thanks to the compelling performances of the four central actors it becomes an entertaining film. 3/5.

REVIEW: Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Narrated by Fiona Hardingham.

Robin of Locksley is dead. Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé. Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I listened to it on audio and it took me a while to get into the story because I couldn’t get on with the accents the narrator chose to do. Though, if I had not have been listening to the audiobook, I probably would’ve stopped reading it. Sherwood is quite slow to get going and even when there were fights, they were often predictable.

I had such a love hate relationship with Marian. Sometimes she was kind and thoughtful and clever, but then other times she’s so dense, self-centred and reckless it’s infuriating. She is written to be better than Robin of Locksley in every single way, she’s better at archery, she’s smarter, she’s more loyal. It’s weird and contradictory because she’s constantly putting Robin on a pedestal in her mind but at the same time often says things a long the line of “Robin could never do this”. I liked her relationship with her maid Elena but that’s probably because I liked Elena as a character more than Marian a lot of the time.

The “romance” between Marian and Guy of Gisborne was not good. It’s a problematic relationship from the start as they both use and manipulate one another and Guy is needlessly stupid when it comes to not realising that the Robin Hood he’s chasing, and the girl he’s attempting to woo are one and the same. The author tried to give Guy more of a backstory make him more sympathetic and all the time I was like “Why are you trying to make this bad guy misunderstood?!” and this character development was done so slowly that where his character ends up at the end seems so rushed.

Speaking of rushed, the ending of Sherwood became really rather convoluted as there were too many plot threads that were attempted to be addressed in the big final showdown. It was hard to keep track of where characters were, who knew what, and what they were trying to achieve.

I think my main problem with this book is that it is a retelling, and a retelling of a story and characters that I hold dear. I’ve read and enjoyed retellings before like The Lunar Chronicles, and I’ve read retellings that I didn’t really like, like Frankenstein in Baghdad but my dislike of it wasn’t due to it being a retelling. Previously when I’ve read retellings, they’ve been based on stories I’ve had little to no attachment to and then it’s fun to see the new twists on a well-known story.

With Sherwood, I didn’t like what the new twists did to characters I like. My Robin Hood story is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I’ll admit the versions of the characters in that film are the ones I know and love. Here, none of the Merry Men get any sort of character development. Will Scarlett is nothing more than a wet weekend while Little John, Alan-a-Dale and Much are only recognisable by their names. I liked the idea of Marian being good with a sword and independent, but it becomes far too close to her being Not Like Other Girls that it’s cringey.

Perhaps Sherwood would’ve worked if it hadn’t had been a retelling. If it was the story of a noble young lady wanting to help people and making friends and having adventures separate from the Robin Hood myth it might’ve worked. Because naturally Sherwood lends itself to comparisons of not only the original story but to the many adaptations that have come before it, and in those comparisons it is found severely lacking.

When I started writing this review I thought I’d give it two stars, but as I was writing I came to the realisation that there was far more that I disliked about Sherwood than liked, and if I hadn’t had it on audio from my library, I definitely would’ve given up on it.

I love the premise of Sherwood but the execution leaves much to be desired, especially when it tears down other characters to make its lead a Strong Female Character, and unfortunately the majority of the story and its characters fall flat. 1/5.

REVIEW: Maleficent (2014)

Vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses an infant princess to succumb to a sleep-like death when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday, but as time passes she starts to think Aurora (Elle Fanning) might be the one person who could restore peace between two troubled lands.

As the sequel to Maleficent is released this month, I decided to rewatch the first film for the first time since I saw it in the cinema five years ago. In that time, I’d forgotten a lot about it, but I think I ended up enjoying it more than I remembered.

Maleficent is a darker take on an already fairly dark tale. It gives a reason for Maleficent to be spiteful and angry at King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), and her anger and pain is definitely justified. The opening act of Maleficent shows how she was when she was younger and trusting, and how she grew to become the protector of the magical land. It’s when she’s betrayed in the cruellest of ways that she becomes the villain that we know.

There’s silly child-friendly humour courtesy of the three fairies that take care of Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) and those moments often feel somewhat out of place compared to the darker tone of the rest of the film. Still it’s all about balance and those moments do make things a little lighter, especially compared to scenes with King Stefan who is getting pushed to the edge over his desire to kill Maleficent for what she’s done. Copley does madness very well and in Maleficent that’s no exception.

Angelina Jolie is brilliant as Maleficent. She’s charming and her presence – thanks in part to such an intimidating costume – commands every scene she’s in. Her chemistry with Sam Riley, who plays Diaval the raven when he’s in his human form, is an unexpected delight, as they bicker like an old married couple. How Maleficent slowly begins to like Aurora and feels conflicted over her affection and her past actions is believable too, thanks to Jolie’s performance.

The pacing is a little off at times, with something’s being rushed and the ending of Maleficent is perhaps a bit too neat for a film that’s about the story’s villain but the spectacle and performances make an interesting take on such a well-known story. 4/5.