Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Germany: Sirius by Jonathan Crown

In Berlin, he was named Levi – a good Jewish name for a good Jewish dog. When he fled with his owners to America he became Hercules, Hollywood’s famous acting dog. Then he caught the eye of Hitler he was renamed Hansi. But to the Resistance he was known as Sirius, the dog on the inside who could bring peace to a world at war. No matter the name, he’s a little dog who almost changed history.

Sirius is a historical novel that’s mostly told from the point of view of the titular dog. He is the focal point of much of the action, it’s through his eyes the reader see’s major events like Kristallnacht, so there’s often this distance between the action and what it really means as while Sirius is smart, he’s still just a dog who doesn’t understand what’s happening. The story also follows Sirius’s human family, the Liliencron’s, so the more emotive stuff comes from them as they flee Germany and make new lives from themselves amongst famous face of Hollywood’s golden age.

Sirius is written in a simple language style and is a very quick and easy book to read that’s got some humour in it. Having a dog being the main character makes this book have an unusual take on historical events. It’s one of those stories where you wonder where the fiction ends and the fact begins due to Sirius meeting so many real people from Hollywood executive Jack L. Warner to Adolf Hitler. There’s some things I know cannot be true and Sirius and his human family have been dropped into a real moment in time, where there’s other parts that seem almost plausible.

The main problem I had with Sirius is that I didn’t really connect with characters. Maybe it was because of the writing style but there was this distance between the characters and myself as the reader. I was interested in Sirius’s adventures to an extent but it wasn’t really a book I felt compelled to keep reading.

If you’re a dog lover (I am and that’s the main reason I picked up this book in the first place) and someone interested in a different kind of story set during World War Two then give Sirius a go.

REVIEW: Electric Souk by Rose McGinty

With nothing left for her in Ireland, Aisling travels to the Gulf to live out the Arabian Dream. There she meets fellow expats living the dream including debonair Brian who has heaps of charm and champagne, though is perhaps not all he seems. She also gets to know locals like Laila, her translator, and activist Hisham and finds herself in between the sleazy world of expats and wanting to learn more about her new home. As the Arab Spring erupts, Aisling is faced with a world of violence and fear and she’s left not knowing who she can really trust.

Set in an unnamed country in the Gulf, though I presume it to be Saudi Arabia based on a throwaway comment that the book Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea is banned, Electric Souk doesn’t always paint the city and its people in the best light. The divide between the Western expats and the locals is starkly obvious and the way characters act about the rules of the country they’re currently living in made me uncomfortable. Some of the expats talk in quite a derogatory manner about how the locals live and the rules of their society, and it’s a pet peeve of mine when people don’t accept other people’s way of life so that part of the book really grated on me.

Electric Souk is a bit slow to start but there’s an air of suspense and uncertainty throughout the second half of the book that made it much more compelling. With people disappearing, hints of corporate espionage and civil unrest edging ever closer, it becomes more of a thriller than the story of a woman trying to make a success of her new life. When Aisling starts to hear conflicting accounts of events, some of which she was involved in, she’s unsure of who to trust and starts to doubt everything she knows about the people she’s come to count as friends and the place she’s starting to call home.

I really liked how Aisling and Laila’s friendship grew. Aisling surprised me by being an expat that was actually interested in the culture and people she was now living with, instead of just being into the alcohol and partying like the majority of Western characters seen. She doesn’t want to be a part of the “us vs them” mentality but doesn’t always get a say in the matter which makes an interesting dilemma.

Aisling is often a character who a lot of stuff happens to, and she’s not always proactive in her own story. However, while I found that a bit frustrating at times, I realise that Aisling is a victim of circumstance and there is so much out of her control. Electric Souk ends up being a compelling and fast paced book with a real air of threat and danger. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

Top bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is called in to protect hit man Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) who must testify at the International Court of Justice to put away war criminal Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman). With Dukhovich’s men on their tail, they have to work together to get there on time, if they don’t kill each other first.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a lot of fun. There’s fewer laughs in the first 15mins compared to the rest of the film so I was a bit uncertain to start with but once it had set up who’s who the film sped along at almost breakneck speed.

For a film that’s two hours long, it really doesn’t feel it. It goes from one action sequence to the next, and while there are moments when there’s a lull in the action, it allows for funny conversations between Bryce and Kincaid. These sometimes aim to be touching, with Kincaid talking about how much he loves his wife Sonia (Salma Hayek), but they verge on being cringey sometimes though they’re nearly always funny. The conversations and banter between the two really show how good their chemistry is between Reynolds and Jackson. Them two being an unlikely team is what really works in this film. Bryce and Kincaid push each other’s buttons and they both grow while still both being good with their fists and a gun. They’re the kind of characters that are polar opposites and who like to think they don’t need any help, but they really do and that’s where the humour comes.

My initial Twitter review of The Hitman’s Bodyguard was “it’s ridiculously fun and stupidly funny” and to be honest that’s the best way to describe it. It’s over the top and ridiculous, with a lot of laugh out loud moments and some great shootouts, fights and car chases. All this stuff mixed together and with great chemistry between the unlikely duo makes for a good time at the cinema (or in front of the TV if you wait for the DVD). 4/5.

REVIEW: Carrie Pilby (2017)

Nineteen-year-old Carrie (Bel Powley) struggles to make sense of the world and be happy as she tries to deal with an absent father (Gabriel Byrne), her higher than average IQ and the fact she doesn’t really like to leave her apartment.

Carrie is super smart and honest and that means she doesn’t always get along with people who she tends to find have the opposite traits. She’s a nineteen-year-old who thinks she knows everything and is pretty confident in who she is, but that doesn’t mean she’s always right. Carrie is a compelling yet sometimes frustrating character because of that – she likes to give the impression she’s all grown up but then she can have a childish attitude to somethings. I liked that about her. She’s the quirky, adorkable lead we’ve seen before but Powley plays her in a way that makes her feel more real.

Her relationship with her psychiatrist Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane) is great and their scenes are often funny yet touching. Powley and Lane bounce off each other really well.

There’s humour in Carrie’s escapades as she tries to complete a list of goals set by Petrov, some of it doesn’t always land but it’s sweet and fun and it all helps Carrie to grow and be more aware of how lucky her situation is.

While Carrie Pilby is an indie film that’s typical of the rom-com, coming-of-age genre, director Susan Johnson puts together a tracking shot on the streets of Manhattan as Carrie and her neighbour Cy (William Moseley) take a walk on Christmas Eve. It makes their conversation feel so natural as they get to know each other and, as the viewer, you get to see a different side to Carrie.

Carrie Pilby is a fun, coming-of-age drama with a wonderful lead in Bel Powley. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

When Andie’s dad is caught up in a political scandal, all her summer plans are thrown into chaos. No more summer internship, instead she finds herself with a summer job as a dog walker. She’s not used to not having everything planned out but having everything be unexpected for once could mean a chance for love and new experiences.

The Unexpected Everything is a delightful book. At over 500 pages I was worried it would take me a while to read but in the end, I read it in just one day. I got pulled in by Andie’s story and all her friends, and by the fact there was so many dogs. Honestly if you like dogs, this book is for you as its not only the characters that are interesting and a lot of fun but the many dogs Andie ends up walking are too.

Andie is the kind of character that normally would rub me up the wrong way as she’s often quite selfish and likes everyone and everything to fit in her own plans, but much of the story is about her growing as a person and seeing how she is seen by other people. Andie doesn’t like letting people get close to her or even tell people she’s in a relationship with anything of real substance about herself – this all comes to ahead when she meets Clark. The romance between Andie and dog owner Clark is sweet and has your usual lack of communication confusion but the story has a lot of charm and Andie and Clark both have their flaws and still compliment each other that I was rooting for them.

I really liked Andie’s friendship group, their summer adventures and how The Unexpected Everything showed that some relationships can be quite overwhelming and we all need are space from those we care about. I also really liked how Andie’s relationship with her dad was so believable, they’d not had anything to do with each other for so long so suddenly being around each other led to an interesting dynamic.

The Unexpected Everything is the perfect summer read. It’s fun, has moments of humour and lots of characters you want to be happy. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – China: The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung

Old Chen lives in Beijing, where a whole month has gone missing from official records, no one has any memory of it and no one cares about it either. Except for Old Chen and his friends – they realise something’s wrong with the Chinese people’s cheerfulness and amnesia. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they discover could shake them to the core.

The Fat Years is set in the near future so while things are different, for instance there was not just the financial crisis of 2008 a second one in 2011, a lot of Chinese history is mentioned. This is interesting and on the most part the social and political history is well-explained and is a great insight into what life is like in (almost) contemporary China. However, as the book progresses it becomes more dense and I struggled to get through the 100 page epilogue. There was a lot of talk about world economics and politics and while most of the book had been relatively quick to read, that epilogue was a slog.

The Fat Years is an interesting take on a near-future dystopia as so much of it appears to be heavily influenced by what we know of China today. There’s the heavy control of the media and the internet, and if someone disagrees with the government there’s strict punishments. It’s the sort of situation that’s scary and unsettling because it’s so realistic. I did like how The Fat Years talks about controlling governments and how the people tend to just accept what is happening, the sociological angle of how a month could go missing from people’s memories was very interesting.

I enjoyed the concept and it was well thought out and interesting however the characters were a bit of a mixed bad. I didn’t find the main protagonist Old Chen particularly compelling but I did like Little Xi, an internet political activist, and the mentions of her relationship with her son who is an ambitious party member.

If you have an interest in or a good understanding of Chinese political and social history then The Fat Years might be for you. Unfortunately, it became a bit too dense and complicated for me towards the end. 2/5.

REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

When a dark force threatens Alpha, a vast structure home to thousands of different species, Special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) must race to find those responsible to not just safeguard Alpha, but the future of the entire universe.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a wonderful example of adventurous sci-fi. The opening credit sequence is so full of hope, wonder, as people from all corners of the galaxy coming together to share technology and knowledge and that is really the epitome of what sci-fi should be. It’s a weird and vibrant film, the costumes, the sets, everything just pops from the screen. The special effects and creature designs in this film are gorgeous. Honestly, it’s like a feast for the eyes, so much so that it can be a bit overwhelming at times. For instance, there’s so much to see as a spaceship manoeuvres around Alpha that everything can seem like a blur. That being said, when things are more static and you can appreciate how good the CGI is and how there’s so many different creatures, it’s truly wonderful. The sequence in the market, which is like a miniature heist, is an inventive and standout moment.

The human characters are pretty much your typical clichés and while you don’t really get to learn a lot about the alien creatures, besides shapeshifter Bubble (Rihanna), they tend to be more interesting than the humans. In the first scene between them, there’s some clunky exposition where you learn everything you need to know about Valerian and Laureline from a conversation where they point out each other’s flaws and backstories. Exposition continues to often be on the heavy-handed side but when there’s so much to see and appreciate about the environment this story is set in, that it doesn’t really matter too much.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a fast-paced, visual extravaganza that’s a lot of fun. It has its faults but overall, it’s kind of delightful in how much it loves being big and bold. 3/5.