Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Chad: Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Translated by Karen Haire Hoenig.

This very short book, it’s less than 80 pages, contains fourteen short stories.

I found the experience of reading Told by Starlight in Chad really interesting. The writing style is simple and because the stories are the kind that tell the history of a place or a people or are like a fable, even though they weren’t stories I knew, the beats were often familiar. They’re the sort of stories that could’ve been told for generations verbally before being written down as many of them contain some sort of moral or lesson.

There are stories to do with religion, creation, and vengeful gods. There are stories that seem to be based on real historical events – I had to do some googling as there were names of cities and regions of Chad mentioned, how they were created or who ruled them, and they weren’t names I was familiar with. I learnt about the Wadai Empire thanks to this book. An area to the east of Lake Chad that covered present-day Chad and the Central African Republic that was ruled by a sultan in the seventeenth century.

A lot of the stories have an almost fairy-tale quality to them. There are wicked stepmothers, talking animals, giants, kings and princesses. Some stories are sad but most end happily or with those who have suffered getting some sort of justice.

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories that are like folktales and I found them very easy to read. I also found it interesting to see how while the stories weren’t ones I knew, the kinds of messages they had were ones I learnt from different stories growing up. So while the narrative was different, the morals are universal.

READ THE WORLD – Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man by Albert Salvadó

At the end of the eighteenth century, changes abound all over Europe. France is in conflict with its neighbours (and is losing a monarch too), England and Spain struggle for supremacy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on the other side of the ocean and new power is starting to emerge – the United States of America. After realising that traditional spies will no longer work in this changing world, civil servant Alfred Gordon propose that the British secret service should employ Thomas Headking – an Englishman living in Spain who is on the run for killing a nobleman’s son in a duel. From using his business acumen Thomas gains information and secrets, while getting embroiled in romantic drama, that the British could find very useful.

I don’t tend to read reviews of books I know I’m going to read (especially for my Read the World Project) but as I discovered The Mysterious Balloon Man via Goodreads when looking for an author from Andorra, I happened to glance at people’s star ratings and they weren’t particularly high. Because of that I went into this book with some trepidation but then was pleasantly surprised to fine I weirdly enjoyed it.

It is an odd book and is very heavy on the history and politics of the time – there’s a handy table at the beginning showing all the real historical figures in The Mysterious Balloon Man and who they were which was helpful. Because The Mysterious Balloon Man is one of those books where it’s set during real historical events and features a lot of people who really existed, Charles IV the King of Spain and William Pitt the British Prime Minister to name a few, but the main character we follow are all fictious; Alfred Gordon, Sir Arthur Blum (head of intelligence services at the Foreign Office), Thomas Headking and the everyday Spanish people he interacts with whether that’s his business partner (who doesn’t know his partner is a spy) or Maria the deaf-mute woman he helps and becomes his source inside the Spanish Prime Minister’s residence.

The Mysterious Balloon Man is the first book in a trilogy and the titular Balloon Man plays a very minor role in this book and doesn’t even show up until the latter half of the story. Really, The Mysterious Balloon Man is about Thomas Headking becoming a reluctant spy/businessman and all the goings on in the British secret service as they try and keep track of what’s going on in Spain and France and have some infighting too. It’s a slow-moving book with a lot of political goings on so if that’s not your thing then it wouldn’t be for you.

What I was surprised to find in The Mysterious Balloon Man was this incredibly wry sense of humour running through it – especially from Alfred Gordon. There’s a lot of him butting heads with his superior and other civil servants and there’s people who you wonder how on Earth they got to positions of such power when they are so incredibly incompetent (very true to life really). This sort of tongue in cheek humour made the stuffier moments easier to take in.

While all in all it’s hard to see whether or not Thomas and the British secret service really achieved what they set out to do, as they were doing it, I was mostly entertained. I’m not sure when I will continue with this trilogy but there was enough in this first book to not give up on this series. I think mainly I’m intrigued to know more about Ali Bey as the trilogy is called The Shadow of Ali Bey and they only made a brief appearance in this book. 4/5.

REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run but soon her past catches up with her as she’s reunited with her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and learns that the Red Room she thought she’d long destroyed is still active.

After all this time Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow finally gets her own movie. While I’m certainly pleased that the character, and Scarlett Johansson who has more than a decade with this character, has finally gotten their time to shine, as a film it also feels a bit redundant. Having it set between the events of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War means that there’s no real stakes for Natasha as we know we see her again. However, while her physical safety may be assured, Black Widow does allow more time to examine her psyche and she a few other characters certainly go through the emotional ringer – whether all those emotional beats land is another matter.

The fight sequences are great and having so many aerial shots make the movements seem fluid and helps these scenes standout more compared to other fight sequences in the MCU. The initial confrontation between Natasha and Yelena who haven’t seen each other for decades is a highlight. There’s the usual big explosions and car chases but it’s the one-on-one fight sequences which are the best and highlight how Natasha differs to her fellow superheroes.

With Natasha unable to turn to her Avenger family, she is forced to reconnect with a family from her past. Her dynamic with Yelena is interesting as while Yelena is clearly a more than capable spy and combatant, Natasha quickly falls back into the older sister role. Alexei (David Harbour) is the only Russian super soldier and Melina (Rachel Weisz) round out this family unit as the slippery scientist who you’re never quite sure where her allegiance lies. There’s an easy chemistry between the four actors but Florence Pugh steals just about every scene she’s in. Her Yelena is sarcastic and funny but she’s also hurting from her own experience in the Red Room. She’s also struggling to compartmentalise what this family unit means as she was so young when they were last together and to her, while it was a family of spies and double agents, it felt real.

Black Widow is a simpler MCU film. It’s Natasha facing her past and while the hundreds of Black Widows out there can certainly cause a lot of damage, it’s not framed as the end of the world type scenario. Instead, it’s about saving these young women from a life of trauma and control. However, the idea of the Red Room and these young girls being trained, and even brainwashed, to become master spies and assassins is a dark one and Black Widow never really goes into it more than at the surface level. Natasha’s past is dark and while Johansson does a good job at slowly revealing the layers of Natasha’s guilt and pain and love that’s all mixed together with her feelings for the Red Room and this unconventional family of hers, it often feels like something is missing.

Black Widow is an enjoyable action/spy thriller and there’s some good character work for Natasha and Yelena. While characters like Alexei are fun when they’re on screen (he’s much of the films comedic relief) they’re not particularly memorable afterwards. 3/5.

REVIEW: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

When the Joe’s are betrayed by their President (Jonathan Pryce), the survivors must hide and pool all their resources in order to stop whatever deadly plan he and Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) have put together.

Much like the first film, I’ve seen G.I. Joe: Retaliation once before but it was so long ago, I remembered next to nothing about it. What G.I. Joe: Retaliation has going for it is that it’s a lot better than its predecessor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. As a film G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t exactly great but when you compare it to what came before it’s hard not to think it’s half decent.

While there’s still some advance, sci-fi-esque tech in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, mostly courtesy of Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and his electronic insects, it’s generally a lot more grounded in reality. There are no super suits for the Joes, they are purely military characters, and they’re all American this time.

The surviving Joe’s are led by Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) proving once again that the Rock can help reenergise any franchise. There’s also Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park). Snake Eyes and his feud with Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-Hun) is still a highlight of this franchise, it’s always nice to see a female badass in these testosterone-heavy films, but Flint is such a generic action man character that anyone could’ve been in that role – I mean, the man isn’t even on the poster. Channing Tatum briefly reprises his role as Duke and has much more charisma this time round and he could’ve easily fitted into the Flint character’s role. Plus, his chemistry with Johnson was really good too.

The action sequence that stands out in G.I. Joe: Retaliation of course features Snake Eyes. The first part is him fighting Storm Shadow in a hallway and how the music drops out so there’s just the echoes of gunfire or swords clashing is really effective. Then there’s the daring escape where he and Jinx (Elodie Yung) are against dozens of ninjas and end up fighting while abseiling down a snowy cliff face. It’s a thrilling sequence and while the film kind of slows down to allow for the Snake Eyes plot which is almost like a side quest to the main plot with the Rock and co. when it looks that good and is that entertaining it’s hard to be mad about it.

The rest of the action sequences are more on the small-scale (compared to the globe-trotting first film). There’s still a lot of gunfire and explosions but there’s also so hand to hand combat scenes and more of an espionage vibe as the Joe’s try to figure out what’s going on with the President. Gotta say Jonathan Pryce is delightfully hammy as the evil President and makes the silliness of the situation almost work.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a half-decent, popcorn, action flick. It doesn’t require too much brain power, there are some cool action sequences and mostly thanks to the Rock, a lot more of the characters are entertaining this time round. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Marshall Islands: Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner

A collection of poetry covering themes like history, personal experience, and the Marshallese people and their culture.

I’ve read about a dozen poetry collections for my Read the World Project and I still think it’s an often interesting way to get a snapshot of a poets culture and interests. I think that Iep Jāltok is one of my favourite, and the best, collections I’ve read in a while.

The style of the poems differ. Some are in simple stanzas, others the words meander across the page or is just one big paragraph. There’s a few that are concrete poetry – written in the shape of a boat or a pot.

I knew nothing about the Marshall Islands before picking up Iep Jāltok and even now I still know very little. The poem “History Project” (which is also the name of one of the four sections of the collection) is about how when Jetn̄il-Kijiner was in school she researched how the United States conducted nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands. That in and of itself is something that I never knew about but how the poem goes into the images and statistics she found, the lasting effects on generations of people from the radiation, how Americans protested animals being used as guineapigs but not the people of the islands – it’s all so sad, horrible, but also not that surprising when you consider the history of the USA. It’s a really effective poem and after that one there’s mention of radiation and the sickness it caused in members of Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s family in other poems.

It’s the poems about the history of the Marshall Islands, its people and the effect climate is having on them that I really liked. There are poems about how the Marshallese are lumped together with other people from different small island countries in the Pacific Ocean. The racism Jetn̄il-Kijiner has experienced and how she feels that she and her people are forgotten by the rest of the world – especially when it comes to climate change. “Two Degrees” is about how the increase in temperature of two degrees will affect the Marshall Islands, and how the rising sea levels is already flooding the islands. Terms like rising sea levels often seem abstract and hard to comprehend, whether because you live away from the coast or it’s genuinely hard to image a beach or land no longer being above water. Having the effects of climate change laid out in a poem makes it seem so simple and real.

Iep Jāltok is a thought-provoking poetry collection with a lot of powerful poems. It shows history and issues from a point of view I had not seen before and demonstrates how unfortunately universal things  like racism and climate change affect people differently when they’re from different communities. 5/5.

REVIEW: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

As Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is set to be released this summer and looks pretty good, I thought I’d revisit the previous two live-action G.I. Joe films.

After their convoy was destroyed in an attempt to steal highly dangerous warheads, Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) join an elite military unit comprised of special operatives known as G.I. Joe to help take down the evil organisation that’s after them.

I’ve watched G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra once before and that must be close to ten years ago as I remember recording it off the TV, so while I knew I had watched it, I really couldn’t remember much about it – besides the almost ridiculous cast. Also, I have never read a G.I. Joe comic, seen the cartoon or was even that aware of the action figures – here in the UK Action Man was the military toy I remember as a kid. So, whether or not this film is true to the characters and world of G.I. Joe I have no idea.

Let’s talk about the cast of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. There are a lot of great actors in this film though very few of them give great performances. Channing Tatum appears to be just going through the motions, and both Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols were pretty bland too. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is near unrecognisable thanks to his costume and voice performance and Christopher Eccleston seems to be having a whale of a time as a Scottish weapons manufacturer with nefarious schemes. The Mummy alumni Arnold Vosloo and Brendan Fraser also make appearances, Fraser’s being very random and is more of a cameo. It’s like that all these actors don’t quite no where to hit it on the serious to fun scale of their performances so it doesn’t feel very cohesive. Plus, a lot of the characters get little to no backstory or characterisation besides stereotypes like “brash leader” or “tech guy” so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra has a lot of CGI-heavy action sequences and makes full use of the budget to show secret bases under the Sahara Desert and the polar ice caps. Some CGI shots look a bit ropey, mostly from the chase sequence in Paris, but on the whole it still looks decent if excessive – that underwater base with the submarine dogfights truly is something.

While the abundance of CGI and explosions gets old quickly, the sword fights between Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) stand out. The stunt work is great and while many of the other characters just seem to have super suits or big guns, these two actually have skills and with their backstories entwined, anytime they go toe to toe is a highlight in an otherwise bland action film.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is very silly and mindless. As so many of the characters lack interesting or any characterisation, they aren’t memorable. The only two that aren’t so easily forgotten are Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and part of that is due to the distinctive costuming. Otherwise, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is pretty forgettable and even as you watch it it’s easy to get bored. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Burundi: Baho! by Roland Rugero

Translated by Christopher Schaefer.

When Nyamuragi, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamuragi’s attempts at explanation.

First of all, I got to say I really like how this book is packaged. Bit weird I know but bear with me. Baho! is such a short book, only 90 pages, and the book itself is just tiny and the cover has a buttery feel and it’s just a generally nice book.

Now onto the content of said book. Baho! is told from multiple characters points of view. While most of the time the point of view changes at the start of a new chapter, sometimes it happens during a chapter after a line break and it did take me a little while to figure out who’s head I was now in especially if it was a point of view we hadn’t seen before. I think the one-eyed old lady was my favourite POV as she is one of those characters who seemed to pick up things that others missed but the sections from Nyamuragi’s POV, especially after the misunderstanding and the mob’s reaction to him, were really quite sad. It’s easy to understand his confusion while equally seeing how the young woman misconstrued what he was trying to gesture to her.

Baho! covers so many themes in such a short number of pages. There’s rape culture and mob mentality, how both can be full of contradictions, misogyny and how in a patriarchal society young women are seen as something pure and that needs protecting, generational and class gaps, and just general refusal to try and accept and understand disabled people.

While the misunderstanding with Nyamuragi is happening there are memories and stories told that sometimes feel a little out of place or at least have you wondering where the story’s going for a moment. There’s Nyamuragi’s childhood and how his mutism has affected his life but there’s also a story told by the one-eyed old lady that is more like a cautionary tale rather than anything that has a direct relation to the main story.

Overall, Baho! is an interesting short story with a lot to it that would be worth discussing with others. It’s a story that’s often vivid in its descriptions, so much so that some are unsettling, but equally there’s a few moments that are surprisingly sweet. It certainly fits a lot in.

READ THE WORLD – Dominica: Nature Island Verses by Alick Lazare

A poetry collection split into three parts; Love, Life, and Politics. This collection has a mix of poetry, some rhymes, some don’t and the rhyming schemes used aren’t consistent in the collection.

The first part of this poetry collection had poems about love. Maybe it’s because I’m not a particularly lovey-dovey person but these poems didn’t do a lot for me. I don’t think it’s Lazare’s poems specifically, just love poems generally. The poems about life and politics were more interesting to me.

Of the Life poems, “By the Lake”, “Epitath”, and “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” were what really stood out to me. They seem to encompass the theme of life very well and almost seem to be about different stages of life. “By the Lake” is quite beautiful with its descriptions of nature and belief, it’s almost like rebirth or the start of life – especially in comparison to “Epitath” which is about death and the acceptance of it. “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” paints a vivid picture of the destruction and beauty of a hurricane; before, during, and after it wreaks havoc.

I found the poems in the Politics section interesting though I feel like there was references to people and events that I’m unaware of so some probably didn’t have the same impact as if I did know those bits of Dominican history. “A Chronicle of Events Untold” was a great poem to end the collection on. It’s a narrative, rhyming poem that tells the history of Dominica; the different people who tried to colonise it, Columbus, slavery, independence, the rise and fall of democracy. It’s an interesting and affecting way to get a very broad overview of Dominica’s history and what the people have gone through.

REVIEW: Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

Bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is trying to put his life together when Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek) arrives guns blazing, saying her husband hitman Darius (Samuel L. Jackson) has been kidnapped by the Mafia and she needs Michael’s help to get him back. Naturally, chaos ensues.

I very much enjoyed The Hitman’s Bodyguard so I was looking forward to the sequel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor. They’re both loud and brash and stupid but the sequel just isn’t as funny (maybe it was the unexpectedness of the first one that worked more) and it mistakes over use of vulgarity for humour and that gets old quickly.

Let’s talk about the trio of leads. Ryan Reynolds’ Michael Bryce is that quintessential Ryan Reynolds character and boy does he get beat up in this movie. While it is an action comedy and violence/injury is often used for laughs, it gets to a point where this man should not be able to stand let alone run, fight and shoot bad guys. Samuel L. Jackson’s Kincaid is the act-first-think-later kind of guy and while he is impulsive and violent it turns out, he’s nothing compared to his wife. Salma Hayek gets a lot more to do as unhinged con artist Sonia. Practically every other word out of Sonia’s mouth is an insult or a swear word and while how she clashes with Michael is amusing to begin with, it soon becomes repetitive and almost grating. She is far more of a loose cannon than her husband though and the dynamic between them and Michael is one of the things going for this film.

Antonio Banderas plays the big bad villain and the gaudy costumes and makeup he has makes him appear like a knock-off Bond villain. That’s not entirely an insult as he makes it work for the most part and it suits the unrealistic nature of Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. Frank Grillo is also in this and as someone who likes Frank Grillo it’s always nice to see him pop up in films but his character is pretty nothingy and anyone could’ve been in that role and it wouldn’t have changed anything.

Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard just doesn’t know when to let moments rest. While it is an action/comedy there are a few dramatic moments that could’ve been affecting if they’d left the comedy alone for a moment to let the scene and actor’s performances breathe. Also, the editing in the vast majority of the action sequences is incredibly quick and it can be hard to follow what’s going on, especially in car chase sequences.

Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard has mindless action and violence and the comedy just doesn’t land – I think I smiled a couple of times and maybe chuckled once. A lot of the attempts at humour is derived from the same things, Ryan Reynold’s being long-suffering, Salma Hayek being crude and unpredictable, and Samuel L. Jackson being violent, it gets predictable and boring fairly quickly. 2/5.

Possibly a lot of the same criticisms can be levelled at the first film, but for some reason that one worked for me, and even held up upon rewatch. If anything, I think that I’d like Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard even less a second time around.

READ THE WORLD – Belarus: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Narrated by Yelena Shmulenson and Julia Emelin.

Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women to get their first-hand accounts of their experiences in the Second World War. What made them want to fight and what they did – whether that was on the front lines, on the home front or in occupied territories.

Being born and raised in the UK, when it came to learning about the First and Second World War, what British soldiers went through and how the wars affected the British people was the main focus. I did learn about the Allies and how Russia played a big part in the success of both conflicts but never really knew anything about the people on the front lines there.

While most of what I learnt about British Women during WWII was that they worked on the farms or in factories, or maybe became nurses or radio operators in Europe but there was definitely more of a focus on what British women did on British soil.

The women from the Soviet Union, whether they were Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or whoever were on the front lines. There’s accounts from women in the typical roles like nurses, surgeons and radio operators but then there’s women who were snipers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, soldiers. They all had different ranks from privates to lieutenants and many of them were awarded medals and honours for their service. And the majority of these women joined up when they were teenagers, some as young as fourteen but most were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one during the war. It’s hard to comprehend what these women saw and experienced and how it shaped their lives.

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard book to get through as it really is often harrowing. These women tell their stories so matter-of-factly even when it concerns dead bodies and men trapped inside a burning tanks. I think listening to it on audio helped as it was easier to take a breather and pull myself out of that dark headspace.

While naturally these women’s accounts were the main focus, I did like how Alexievich inserted a little backstory every now and then as to how she found these women to interview or what the experience was like listening to them talk. I especially found it interesting how she noted that the way these women talked about their experience differed when there was a man in the room. If their husband was there, it was like they didn’t feel as free to talk about things – even if he also fought and had seen and done similar things. I think it’s because these stories are often about how the woman felt in these situations, and some of the things talked about were mundane like how there was no lady’s underwear or boots in the army to begin with and the problems that came with that.

Another thing that’s talked about is love, whether these women found love before, during or after the war and how the war affected them and their relationships. The fact that after the war some men refused to date or marry a young woman who had been at the front, who had fought for her country, because it was seen as unseemly or unladylike was infuriating. Especially as often during the war it seemed like male soldiers treated their female counterparts with respect.

I learnt a lot from The Unwomanly Face of War. I was almost constantly in awe of these women, how they were just teenagers or young women at the time and the things they fought through, is so impressive. I liked how the accounts sometimes contradicted each other, in the sense that it’s clear that while all these women experienced the war, they didn’t experience it or feel about the enemy the same way. Some pitied the fascist soldiers they had to treat while others despised them. It showed how complicated human emotions are and how sometimes in wartime not everything is easy to compartmentalise.

While The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read, I think it’s an important one. I learnt so much and the fact that it’s an unflinching look at what so many women went through and of the war as a whole makes it more impactful. 5/5.