Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Djibouti: Passage of Tears by Abdourahman A. Waberi

Translated by David and Nicole Ball.

Djibril, a young Djiboutian voluntarily exiled in Montreal, returns to his native land to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. Meanwhile, a shadowy, threatening figure imprisoned in an island cell seems to know Djibril’s every move.

I’m not sure what to make of this book to be perfectly honest. It’s a whole mixture of genres and I’m not sure that works a lot of the time. There are elements of a spy novel, of epistolary novel with Djibril’s notes on his findings in Djibouti, and of political thriller and crime fiction.

Djibril has returned to his home country about fifteen years after he left and made a life for himself in Canada. He’s had little to no contact with his family in all that time. Now back in Djibouti, he’s researching the political landscape for his firm as it’s an area of strategic importance for the transportation of the world’s oil supply.

There are little insights into what Djibouti and its people are like, however at the same time it feels like it could be any impoverished country. Djibril reflects on what the country was like when he was growing up and what he’s seeing now, but it’s written by and for someone who already knows the place. I’m not saying every book that’s set in a different country to my own needs to give a lot of descriptions or back story, but having gone into Passage of Tears knowing nothing about of Djibouti, it feels a shame that I have learnt nothing about the country – or at least nothing that has stuck with me.

I think it’s Passage of Tears’ writing style that I struggled with. The chapters alternate between Djbril’s point of view where his thoughts often jump back and forth between what he’s looking into now for his company, and his childhood memories, and an unnamed person who is imprisoned and appears to be talking to the reader, or Djibril. As the story progresses you can piece together who the imprisoned person is likely to be, but he too starts to go onto different tangents and it’s hard to focus in on the present narrative and what is supposed to be happening in this meandering plot. Extracts of writing about Walter Benjamin appear in the imprisoned man’s section and Walter Benjamin is a name I recognised but didn’t know who he was so that was a bit confusing as well, especially when towards the end of the book, half of each chapter seemed to be about him, not what’s currently happening in Djibouti.

I think they’re themes in Passage of Tears, but they often seemed muddled due to the characters voices not being strong. Themes of the effects of post-colonialism, terrorism and globalisation are there but the only one that really stood out is how America has historically meddled in so many countries history’s and politics that it’s no wonder there’s reactionary action from extremist groups.

Overall for such a reasonably short book (just over 200 pages), Passage of Tears was a drag to read a lot of the time and didn’t have characters that were easy to engage with.

REVIEW: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Popular and borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) has everything until he is dumped by girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Then after a night of partying he wakes up on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) front lawn, and as they each try to figure out what the future might hold, a unexpected romance blossoms between them.

The central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is a bit of a cliché, the popular bad boy dates the quiet and studious girl who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is, but the chemistry between Teller and Woodley is off the charts so it’s easy to ignore the typical starting point for their relationship. The script is full of natural sounding dialogue, especially the scenes between Sutter and Aimee. Their conversations seem spontaneous as they go from one topic to the other and the way they laugh and talk over each other now and then feels true to life.

The Spectacular Now is a film that starts off as a teen romantic comedy and then evolves into something a lot more serious and hard-hitting. Aimee and Sutter each have their own family issues but while after a little encouragement Aimee is looking to the future and college, Sutter is desperate to not grow up and just wants everything to stay how it is.

The slice-of-life approach of telling this story means that you can get invested in Sutter and Aimee’s lives and, while a lot of the important moments come from the mundane, when there is something shocking, it feels even more unexpected as their lives are so normal and it wasn’t like the film was building to a huge moment. That being said, some serious conflict between Aimee and Sutter seems to be solved off screen or brushed under the carpet by them, or maybe it’s a bit of both, as it feels very rushed and Aimee appears to forgive Sutter far quicker than a lot of people would, even some one who is in love with him. While that may be true to life that people sometimes want to ignore what’s hurt them, it feels like a missed opportunity for Aimee and Sutter to have a proper discussion about what’s going on in their heads.

The use of alcohol in The Spectacular Now is interesting and important. So often alcohol in teen coming of age movies is just used in the party scenes or to set up some comedy, but in The Spectacular Now it shows how for some teenagers it can be an emotional crutch. Sutter drinks all the time. To begin with it doesn’t seem like a big deal or that he doesn’t drink a lot, just topping up a fizzy drink with something from his hip flask now and then, but as the film progresses you see there are very few scenes where Sutter isn’t at least a little buzzed. He drinks with friends, he drinks alone, and he even gives Aimee a personalised hip flask as a gift. Miles Teller’s performance has to be commended as he never turns Sutter into a drunken cliché, his performance is subtle and it’s in those few moments when Sutter is sober that you see how interesting his performance is.

The Spectacular Now is a sensitive and touching coming of age story but really, it’s Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller who make the film work. Their performances really are nuanced and powerful and their chemistry makes the unlikely relationship between their characters work. 4/5.

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

REVIEW: Misbehaviour (2020)

True story about the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London, the women competing and the women who hatch a plan to disrupt it.

Misbehaviour is a feel-good British comedy drama and once you know that, you’ll have a good idea of how things will go but it makes that formula work in a very pleasing way. It’s funny and engaging with a lot of fun characters and it mixes the drama of political tensions with the glamour of a world beauty pageant so well.

Misbehaviour has a wonderful ensemble cast who all give great performances. There’s unfortunately too many to mention here so I’ll just focus on four key women to the story.

Two of the main characters in the Women’s Liberation Movement are Sally (Keira Knightley) and Jo (Jessie Buckley). They both want to bring down the patriarchy, but they come at it from different angles. Sally has a young daughter and is studying at university with the idea that if she has a seat at the metaphorical boys table, she’ll be able to change things there. Jo is more rebellious, graffitiing slogans on walls and is living in a commune with likeminded men and women. It’s interesting to see how the two of them butt heads on their ideas but also learn to listen to one another and work together to make the protest work. Knightley is the queen of period films (no matter the time period) and again it’s clear how good she is, showing her frustration and anger while still keeping it bottled inside as she knows she’d be ridiculed for showing it.

In the pageant the Miss World contestants the story focusses on are Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the first Miss Grenada, and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) the first black South African to take part. For them, Miss World presents the chance for new opportunities for them, but they also have frank discussions about their chances of winning because they’re not white.

There are so many interesting discussions that can come from Misbehaviour. What it means to be a woman, what’s their “role” in society and what opportunities are there for one woman may not be there for another based on their looks or background. The intersectionality of feminism isn’t explored that deeply but there are black women and disabled women in the protest, and Sally and her co-conspirators make it clear that they aren’t against the contestants but the prevalent attitude of judging women just based on their looks. While possibly contrived, there is a moment between Sally and Jennifer where Jennifer gets the chance to explain what winning could do for little girls who look like her around the world, and it brings home that not all women’s experiences are equal.

Misbehaviour is a wonderful snapshot at what women’s rights were like fifty years ago, and how in many ways’ things have changed for the better, but in others there’s still a long way to go. The performances are brilliant with Knightley and Mbatha-Raw being the standouts, the soundtrack is ace and it’s just a really fun, feelgood film about sisterhood. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Trinidad and Tobago: Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

A poetry collection that is a journey which includes coming to terms with sexual violence and loss, with celebrating love and connection, and bearing witness to the world that shaped that journey.

I don’t often read poetry, mainly because I feel I don’t “get it” and don’t get enjoyment from it. With Difficult Fruit however, I found the poems to be affecting and easy to connect with and understand.

The poems deal with growing up and loss, how someone feels when burying a friend or dealing with an assault on their body and mind. Some poems are quite upsetting or uncomfortable as it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities people go through, especially women as they grow up.

The poems in the collection are short, often no more than a page long and they are written in different styles. Some with one long stanza, while others are broken up in parts.

One of my favourite poems in the collection was “The Hoodie Stands Witness for Trayvon Martin” which personifies the hoody that Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012, wears. It’s short and unsettling and really affecting, especially as it’s about a real event and person that’s shocking and unjust. I don’t think I’d ever read a poem before that was so obviously about a certain event or person and it made me really stop and consider the poem and what it was saying.

I often find poems easy to just read and move onto the next one without much thought because they’re short and are about different things. However, with Difficult Fruit I found myself stopping to consider the meaning of a lot of the poems as while they were short, they were impactful. 4/5.

REVIEW: Lady and the Tramp (2019)

It seems like every classic animated Disney film will eventually be given a live action remake and 1955’s Lady and the Tramp is one of the latest to get the treatment.

While I’d watched the animated Lady and the Tramp many times as a child, it’s one that hadn’t really stuck in my mind so seeing this version made the story a new experience. Lady and the Tramp is the story of sheltered uptown Spaniel Lady (Tessa Thompson) and streetwise mutt Tramp (Justin Theroux) who meet when Lady’s life is disrupted by a new arrival.

If I had to pick one word to describe Lady and the Tramp, it would be charming. The costumes, the setting and score, it’s all so quaint. It’s also a charmingly familiar story even if you’ve not seen the animated film before. There’s something comforting about a story where you know what’s going to happen and the various character types – both human and dog in this scenario.

The combination of real dogs and CGI works very well here and isn’t uncanny valley like the “live action” aka completely computer-generated version of The Lion King. The animals are cute and the way their mouths are animated to move when they talk is easy to get used to especially with dogs like Tramp and Jock (Ashley Jensen) who have hairier and shorter muzzles.

Thompson and Theroux’s vocal performances are delightful, though it’s perhaps Janelle Monáe as Peg who really stands out. She sings a jazzier version of “He’s a Tramp” that’s great. Speaking of songs, the culturally insensitive “Siamese Cat Song” is not here, instead the troublemaking cats (who are a different breed to Siamese) sing a new fast paced song all about how they enjoy doing whatever they want.

The human cast are wonderful in their roles. Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Lady’s owners Jim Dear and Darling. Their romance is sweet and the drama in their lives compliments what is going on with Lady. The dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez) has a much larger role is and the main antagonist for Tramp. There are some fun sequences of Tramp taking the dogcatcher for a fool and the blend of animation and real animal in them is often near seamless.

Lady and the Tramp is perhaps more for children with some of its silly moments and jokes, but it’s still a film that adults can enjoy – whether they have nostalgia goggles on or not. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne

Trigger warnings for controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual assault and rape.

Amelie loved Reese. And she thought he loved her. But she’s starting to realise love isn’t supposed to hurt like this. So now she’s retracing their story and untangling what happened by revisiting all the places he made her cry. Because if she works out what went wrong, perhaps she can finally learn to get over him.

Do you ever start a book, and you’re only a couple of chapters in or less than 50 pages in, but you think to yourself “Wow, this book is going to be incredible”? Because that’s how a felt about The Places I’ve Cried in Public when I’d only read the first two chapters and I’m happy to say that gut reaction was correct.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public really was incredible. It has two timelines, Amelie in the present going to the various places she’s cried over Reese, a park bench, a bus stop, her music class, and trying to process everything that has happened and her own thoughts ad emotions. Then when Amelie is at these various places, she remembers the incident that had made her cry, and slowly the rose-tinted view of her relationship with Reese is worn away as she sees the red flags she didn’t notice before, or saw but ignored them because she was so caught up in Reese.

There are so many great, thought-provoking lines and whole passages in The Places I’ve Cried in Public. Especially in how it deals with trauma and abuse, slowly working things out as Amelie does, giving words to the things she’s feeling as she starts to process them. One of my favourite quotes is: “Crying is a very obvious sign that something isn’t going right in your life. You should not ignore tears.”

And another favourite passage is: “I wonder how many times in a given second girls are told that their guts are wrong? Told our tummies are misfiring, like wayward fireworks. No, no, no, dear, it’s not like that at all. Where did you get that from? I promise you that’s not the case. You are overreacting. You are crazy. You are insecure. You are being a silly little thing. And, then, days or weeks or even years later, we look back on The Bad Thing that happened to us because we ignored all the signs, and we say to ourselves I wish I had listened to my gut.”

I think they both sum up the difficulties people, but perhaps girls especially when so often the media and society wants to mould them into a certain way, have when trying to figure out their own emotions. There are so many moments in The Places I’ve Cried in Public that are like a punch to the gut with their poignancy.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is so compelling because as an outsider, you see a lot of the little warning signs that Amelie ignores, or sees in a positive light, even when friends, some of who she’s known her whole life, point them out to her. It’s well-written because even as you see the issues, you can also understand where Amelie is coming from, making her a sympathetic character as her whole sense of being is changed by her connection to Reese.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is an incredibly sad story but also one that offers hope for anyone who may be in a similar situation to Amelie. There are scenes of Amelie going to a counsellor which were very well-written and important as it shows how there are people out there to help and no one should feel lesser for needing help. The Places I’ve Cried in Public really is a fantastic book and it’s one that’ll leave a lasting impression. 5/5.