Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Narrated by Chike Johnson.

William Kamkwamba loved school but when he was just 14 years old, he could no longer attend because his family couldn’t afford the fees. William resorted to borrowing books from the small local library to continue his education. It was there that he discovered a book with a turbine on the front cover, and with the help of that book William began to build a windmill outside his home to get electricity in his home.

I learnt so much about Malawi and its history from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While I know there has been, and still is, drought and famine in various countries in Africa I’d never learnt about what happened in Malawi between 2001 and 2002. During those years, floods and then droughts caused an emergency in the country as everyone run out of food. The way the book is written gives you the factual information, like the causes of floods and drought and the different diseases that can plague the country, while also making the stark reality of the situations more affecting because of how they all relate to William and his family. William is the only son in his family, and he has six sisters so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and William never shies away from the dire situation they were all in when they were slowly running out of food. There are vivid descriptions of people losing an extreme amount of weight due to starvation and descriptions of people dying in the street. It’s shocking but never exploitative.

The book provides a lot of context about Malawi, its history, superstitions and the difficulties its people faces. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows William’s life as he grows up and gains fame at 19 years old for making a windmill that produces electricity for his family’s home. There is more of a focus on William growing up and the last third with him gaining fame and recognition for what he achieved unfortunately seemed a bit rushed. I did like how it was clear from a very young age that William was interested in finding out how things worked. He would take a part radios and ask people how cars engines would make cars move and was generally curious about everything.

William is an impressive young man. He never gives up and believes in what he was doing when it comes to collecting scraps to make a windmill. People in his village, and even some members of his family, think he’s crazy rummaging around in the scrapyard and saying he’s going to give his home electricity. The doubts people have about him never dents his determination or conviction, and its very satisfying when he’s able to prove people wrong.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is informative and inspiring. William Kamkwamba is a smart man who perseveres even when other people think he’s mad or is using dark magic. Hearing about how he made a windmill to provide electricity for his family, and how he also went on to build other solar or wind-powered devices to improve the lives of his family and the other people in his village was heartening. He’s an inventor and this autobiography captures his inquiring mind and his desire to make life better for his family and his village wonderfully. 4/5.

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REVIEW: Battle Los Angeles (2011)

As a squad of U.S. Marines attempt to rescue a group of civilians during an extra-terrestrial invasion of Los Angeles, they become the last line of defence for the city.

There are a lot of characters in Battle Los Angeles and they spend most of their time in full tactical gear including a helmet, so it is often difficult to tell them apart. Plus, as there’s so many characters who have only the bare minimum of character traits to make them stand out, it’s hard to keep track of who has just been killed and who is still alive.

The squad is led by 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) but the real main character is Aaron Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz. He’s the one that has more than a superficial backstory and has some dramatic moments too – he gets a rather good speech where everyone else looks at him with respect.

Michelle Rodriguez’s Tech Sergeant Elena Santos is one of the more memorable characters, that that could be because she’s one of two women in the main cast of characters. The actors all do as well as they can do with what they’re given. The characters are all pretty one-dimensional, the dialogue is full of military clichés and there’s expository dialogue every ten minutes or so.

While Battle Los Angeles is an alien invasion film it plays out more like a war film with the aliens attacking the squad from a distance, and each side taking cover, so you never really get a good look at them. When the aliens do become clearer, the creature design is not that imaginative or interesting.

There are some exciting shootouts in Battle Los Angeles but they’re unfortunately few and far between, and the slower, more serious moments seriously bog down the film. It’s also far too long and had at least three moments where you felt like it was coming to a conclusion but then things kept happening. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guatemala: Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes

Translated by Ellen Jones

Six interconnected short stories that provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man who is constantly struck by misfortune as he confronts the harsh realities of farming life.

The majority of the short stories are told in the first person and you are given very few clues to figure out who this character is and what their connection to the other stories and characters are. Characters, or at least their names, pop up in multiple stories and the stories aren’t exactly in linear order. They jump around in Don Henrik’s life. Sometimes he is the focus of the story while other times he’s only mentioned or appears for one page and that’s it.

There are no speech marks used throughout the stories and this took a little time to get used to. There’s often large paragraphs where someone talks multiple times, as they are moving or taking a swig of beer, so I needed to pay attention so I could follow what was speech and what was action.

The stories paint a lovely picture of the Guatemalan countryside, with the fields, forests and rocky outcrops, but it never glosses over the difficulties of rural life. There’s the problems with crops failing to grow, water not flowing where it should but then there’s also the threat of violence from merciless entrepreneurs and hitmen, who will do anything to get what they perceive is owed to them.

At 97 pages, Trout, Belly Up is a short story collection that I read in one sitting. I think it works better that way as you see how each story or snapshot is a part of someone’s life and how the characters relate to one another. I believe this is the first short story collection I’ve read where the stories are interconnected and I liked that form of short stories more. Even though the stories are between 10 – 30 pages long each, because they’re connected, they paint a richer picture of the setting and the characters you follow.

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

After the events of Avengers: Infinity War the universe is in chaos as half of all life has been wiped out. Those that are left behind struggle to move on and assemble once more to try and undo Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) actions and bring back those they’ve lost.

Avengers: Endgame is incredible. This film is so impressive in terms of plot, character and spectacle. There are so many surprises in Endgame. There’s twists and turns and what you could call fan service moments, but the way the film never manages to lose its way is admirable. It is three hours long, but you don’t notice that runtime at all. There are quieter moments in the film but that’s when it’s more character-focused and they are no less compelling than when these characters are trying to save the universe.

Compared to Infinity War which, while there were stakes it was also a lot more jovial film, Endgame is definitely more character focused. That’s not to say there isn’t action sequences or jokes or exciting moments, but after the events of Infinity War, the characters who survived are not who they once were. They have all experienced loss, they are all hurting, and they are all going through the various stages of grief – with some getting stuck on certain stages longer than others. The characters don’t just brush off what happened and that makes the catastrophic loss of life even more affecting.

The entire cast are amazing. The relationships these actors have made in real life, make the character relationships even more poignant and every character gets their moment in the spotlight. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets more screen time and character development compared to previous films, and Renner really gets to show not only what a great actor he is, but also what a layered character Clint Barton is. Captain America (Chris Evans) is more central to the story compared to Infinity War and Paul Rudd gets to show off his dramatic skills as Ant-Man while still never losing who that character is.

Avengers: Endgame is the finale to an eleven-year, twenty-two-movie saga. It’s the culmination of all the films that have come before it and it manages to pay homage to them while still being a satisfying conclusion – the third act really is indescribable and is unlike anything we’ve seen before in a film of this scale.

Really Avengers: Endgame does mark the end of an era. While the MCU will no doubt continue, Endgame is the finale to this story arc and what a finale it is. 5/5.

FYI I will post a probably very long spoiler-filled review of Avengers: Endgame in the next week or so. I have a lots of thoughts and feelings to get out.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

In the near future Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson) is the first of her kind; a human brain inside the perfectly made machine body means she’s cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier. When a terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt) begins to kill important figures in a huge corporate business, Major faces her biggest challenge yet.

Ghost in the Shell is based off a popular manga, which in turn was made into an even more popular anime in the 1990s. I have not seen or read the original source material and I can see this adaptation going one of two ways with the fans of the manga or anime; one, it’s got a tonne of cool references and is very faithful to the source material, or two, it’s not faithful at all and fans don’t like it. As someone who knew nothing about Ghost in the Shell going into the film, I found it to be intriguing on the surface but lacking any real depth or emotional connection. It also felt like the film had a lot of information and world-building to give to the audience which then made it surprisingly slow-paced for a film with so many shoot outs.

The world of Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning one with the high-rise buildings, ginormous and colourful holograms, and futuristic technology. It’s a world where cyber-enhancements are the norm, whether that means you get new eyes, a robotic liver, or new limbs – if you don’t have some form of technology implanted in your body, you’d be the odd one out. With a character like Major, who is so different from humans, even with their technological enhancements, and robots, she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Like the setting, the dilemma of the line between human and artificial intelligence is an interesting one but the film never delivers on its promise to examine that.

There’s a lot of cool action sequences, shoot outs and fights but they all pad out a plot that’s pretty boring. You do not spend enough time with the victims to care about them, nor do you get enough information about the corporate entity they are a part of to see why or how their deaths are important. Neither the mystery nor the overarching plot is interesting meaning the action sequences are just there to look good and rarely add anything to the characters or their motivations.

Ghost in the Shell seems to be trying to be two things. The first is a character study of Major and the world she’s apart of and the second is an action mystery story with bad guys to find and take down. The film gives neither of these elements time to breathe meaning that Major is (excuse the reference) a shell of a character, and the detective side of the story isn’t interesting. The third act is rushed as a lot of things are revealed and then new foes are brought to the forefront, however as there’s been no time dedicated to foster proper emotional connections with the characters, you do not care about what they are going through.

Ghost in the Shell has lots of cool visuals but the one-dimensional characters and a lack of a compelling story, means the finished product is ultimately forgettable. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Morocco: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki grew up in a one-room home with his mother down the stinking alleys of Casablanca. He’s always dreamed of escape and then one day, when the father he presumed was dead turns out to be very much alive and very wealthy, Youssef is whisked away from the slums to the luxurious life of Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the poverty of his childhood behind, he finds some harsh truths and difficulties he must face.

Secret Son is a traditional coming of age story as Youssef grows a lot as a person as he explores who he is and where he’s come from. Once he finds out about his father, Youssef is quick to leave all he’s known to live what he feels is a better life. He leaves his mother and his friends and moves to a new apartment where every one of his whims are catered for as his father promises him many new things. While Youssef can be criticised for dumping those who had card about him for so long, chapters or passages from other characters points of view show how the people surrounding him, including his mother and his friends, have lied to him many times.

Whereas his mother wants Youssef to get a good education and go to university to better himself, he lacks the drive or ambition to do that. especially once he learns who his father is. Once Youssef and his father get to know one another, Youssef doesn’t see the point of studying as his father can just get him a good job on his word alone. Once again proving the phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Youssef is very naïve really. He’s dreamed of a better life for so long that when he gets that opportunity, he never questions what it might cost him.

Secret Son has a good mix of personal and political drama and it takes the time to examine how the two can overlap. Youssef is Muslim and as he grows up in the slums, he becomes aware of a political party that make a lot of promises to the people who live there. At first, they seem to be a force for good but as time goes on corruption is clear on both sides of the political spectrum. When Yousef’s friends begin to work for the party, Youssef gets tangled up in plans bigger than himself.

Another major aspect of Secret Son is the class divide. Youssef might go from the slums to a penthouse, but he never really fits in with the rich life, and when he visits his mother and friends, he no longer fits there either. The sad thing is that Youssef doesn’t seem to notice how after experiencing his father’s wealth, he no longer fits in either class. The novel definitely doesn’t shy away from the realities of Casablanca and how peoples lives are so different to one another even when they live just a few streets apart.

Secret Son is a very engaging and easy to read book. The writing is simple yet never juvenile and Youssef makes a frustrating, complicated and interesting main character. 4/5.