3 stars

READ THE WORLD – Sweden: A Fortune Foretold by Agneta Pleijel

Translated by Marlaine Delargy.

Opening in the 1950s in the quiet university town of Lund, Sweden, A Fortune Foretold follows Neta, a shy and intuitive girl who turns to books whenever life gets difficult. When her Aunt Ricky has her fortune told, Neta becomes fascinated with prophesies, fate and what life could be. By thinking of this she starts to make sense of the chaos of her parents failing marriage.

A Fortune Foretold is a story of childhood, and not a particularly happy one. I didn’t realise straightaway but Neta is a stand in for the author Agneta Pleijel and the book is based on her childhood. Throughout the book there’s times when the narrative voice is like the adult Neta, looking back on events with hindsight and giving her thoughts on what happened now.

The language used throughout the book is melancholy, and the words are often more grown up than Neta is at the time. This fits in with the way it feels like an adult is telling the story of her childhood and has a mature way to express what she at ten years old might be feeling. With the use of more complicated language and Neta’s quietness, it feels like she’s constantly out of sync with the rest of her family. Her parents are both outgoing people and as the oldest of three girls, Neta is sometimes too old for them but not old enough to be around adults.

Neither of Neta’s parents seem to particularly like or want their children. They both are selfish in different ways but as it’s largely told from a child’s point of view, it never really passes judgement on it. Instead, that’s just what Neta’s life and parents are like.

A Fortune Foretold is quite sad as it shows how an emotionally neglectful upbringing can have ramifications for a child as they grow up. From a very young age Neta shuts herself off from the world and becomes quite distant towards others and seeing how a parent’s marriage can fall a part due to secrets and lies has a lasting affect in her.

There are some moving scenes in A Fortune Foretold about growing up and family, but it’s quite a slow story and at times the characters do feel flat and is they are just going through the motions. This may because of the way it was told, like someone recounting past events to a listener, so everything had already happened and so there was no suspense or surprises. 3/5.

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REVIEW: Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a painter from 1980s New York, travels to Dakota to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and becomes invested in the Lakota peoples’ struggle to keep their land.

The direction and script hit all the usual biopic buttons but it’s the relationship between and performances from the two leads that really stands out in Woman Walks Ahead. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Catherine Weldon, she’s a determined woman but she also has her fears and makes mistakes as she attempts to learn about the Lakota people. Michael Greyeyes’s is steely and calm as Sitting Bull but there’s also a wit to him. There’s a surprising amount of amusing moments between Sitting Bull and Weldon as they get to know one another. Their relationship is one of deep friendship, but there’s also those hints of something more, if life was kinder.

The wide-open spaces of Dakota’s plains and the ever-changing sky is both harsh and beautiful. It’s a fitting setting for this story as Catherine see’s the beauty in things that most people would not, and the story of the Lakota people’s struggles is one that’s deeply tragic and the film never shies away from the atrocities committed.

As the focus is so much on Weldon and Sitting Bull, the military personnel who are all the villains of the piece, are largely cardboard cut-outs of characters. Though Sam Rockwell’s Colonel Silas Groves is an intriguing character, the reveals about his backstory comes too late to have a lasting impact. Groves and the other military men are deeply racist and when the film attempts to show Groves in a better light, it ultimately falls flat.

Woman Walks Ahead is based on a true story about an unlikely and touching friendship. The performances and cinematography are both beautiful and often haunting, but unfortunately they don’t quite elevate this film to greatness. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Last Five Years (2014)

Struggling actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and her successful novelist boyfriend Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) each tell the story of their love.

The Last Five Years is a little hard to wrap your head around at the beginning and that’s because it’s got two stories running parallel to each other. Cathy’s story is told in reverse, from when their relationship ends to the joys of falling in love, while Jamie’s is linear, going from their relationship beginning to the struggles and its end. The story bounces back and forth between the different moments of time as Cathy and Jamie take turns singing a song from their point of view. The colours of characters clothes and the general lighting helps you figure out where you are in their relationship as everything is so much brighter when they’re in love, compared to when their relationship is going downhill. Once you get used to this story technique The Last Five Years is enjoyable, it just takes a while o get settled into it.

The opening five minutes of The Last Five Years is fantastic and unfortunately the rest of the film never really lives up to that emotional performance. Anna Kendrick is just brilliant, as she sings with a broken heart, and the song “Still Hurting” is beautiful and powerful. While it’s definitely one of the saddest songs in the musical, it’s also the most powerful and memorable one. While the songs are generally nice, unfortunately for a musical, nice isn’t good enough and The Last Five Years doesn’t have a particularly memorable soundtrack. The songs are solid, but the melodies are quite similar so besides the great opener, not many of them stand out.

Kendrick and Jordan are both very charming and have great chemistry but it’s unfortunate that the story doesn’t treat it’s two lead characters the same. Cathy is sweet, supportive, and tries her best while Jamie has a whole song about how it sucks that he’s now married to Cathy as it means he can’t cheat with all the women who suddenly want to sleep with him. It makes the story unbalanced but also interesting because as the story progresses you see how Cathy and Jamie’s interests, wants, and dreams no longer line up and maybe they never really did.

The Last Five Years is a sweet musical with a very realistic take on relationships and how the two people in a relationship can feel differently about each other at different times. While the songs and performances are good, there’s little that makes this film stand out. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein.

In a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, lives intelligent and opinionated Lila, a bookish Elena. They are best friends who met aged ten but as they grow older and become teenagers, their paths divide slightly. Elena continues to study while Lila has to work to help her family.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-book series called the Neapolitan Novels. This adult literary fiction series spans the lives of Lila and Elena. My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena receiving a call from Lila’s son saying she’s missing and from there the story jumps back to 1950s Naples and Elena and Lila’s childhood. Elena is the narrator of this story and as it’s from her perspective it’s easy to see that there’s perhaps some bias to how she paints certain characters. Elena idolises Lila, she does what Lila does and Lila’s thirst for knowledge pushes Elena to study harder.

Elena can see very few faults with Lila, both in terms of her personality and her appearance. When it comes to how Elena describes herself, she’s much more critical. She doesn’t like how she looks, and she thinks cruel things about how her mother looks too.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber and I have to say, I think if I’d read the physical copy, I would have gotten bored quickly so the fact it was on audio and I could listen to it as I walked to work or did the cleaning made me continue with it. The narration was good but it’s the story itself that didn’t really grab. The writing is often lovely and paints a vivid picture of post-World War Two Italy and how Elena and the other children don’t understand the political or financial issues they’ve been born into.

In many ways, not a lot happens in My Brilliant Friend. Because it follows Elena and Lila from childhood until their mid-teens, a lot of it is about their school life, the grades they get, what books their read, and as they get a bit older it becomes about boys and dating and going through puberty. For a large proportion of the book I was waiting for something big to happen, but that big thing never came. Yes, there were family arguments and friends had fights, but there was never anything that gripped me.

My Brilliant Friend is very much a character-driven story and I presume by the fourth book the story, and the characters ages, will have caught up to where Elena is informed Lila is missing at the beginning of this book and continue from there. However, there wasn’t enough about My Brilliant Friend that I liked in order to continue with this series. It is very well-written and I found both Elena and Lila equal parts frustrating and sympathetic many times, but their story was never something I truly became invested in. 3/5.

REVIEW: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka loves her valley home and her quiet village, even though it’s close to the Wood, a corrupted place full of malevolent power. Close to her village in a tower lives the Dragon, every ten years he chooses a girl and keeps her for that time. The next choosing is fast approaching and Agnieszka, just like everyone else, knows the Dragon will take Kasia, her best friend who the most beautiful and talented. But events don’t go how everyone predicts and when the Dragon arrives it’s Agnieszka, not Kasia, he chooses.

Uprooted is a fantasy story with magical creatures and a beautiful magic system. How the magic worked for different characters and how different magic users would craft spells was always interesting to me. The Dragon is a wizard and he likes things in order and logical, especially when it comes to magic and spells. Agnieszka on the other hand, is more chaotic and organic when it comes to weaving spells. Her learning about her abilities and how it differs from so many traditional wizards and witches was both fun and interesting.

The Wood is such a unique villain as it were. It’s something that is alive and has thoughts and goals that are sometimes beyond what people could imagine. It’s an unsettling presence throughout the story and when someone is taken by the Wood, it won’t give them back easily. It corrupts creatures, people and the land around it. There’s not only the Wood to worry about, there is also political intrigue with Kings and courts that Agnieszka and the Dragon have to deal with.

The problem I had with Uprooted was I never felt the urge to pick it up and continue on to the next chapter until I hit the 300-page mark – that was almost three quarters of the way through the book! I think that was down in part to the writing style, it paints a very eerie yet beautiful picture, and while stuff did happen before page 300, it was all building to that moment but it hadn’t really pulled me in. I mainly read Uprooted for my A-Z Reading Challenge. It’s a few days before 2019, the only letter of the alphabet I hadn’t completed was the letter U, so I did persevere with Uprooted when under normal circumstances I would have probably put it down.

Uprooted is a good magical story that somehow manages to feel whimsical and haunting at the same time. The setting feels like a fairytale but it has a darker undertone too. On the whole, the characters and their relationships were compelling, but the story never did enough to enthral me. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

One summer’s day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Decades will pass before Holly understands what sort of asylum the woman was seeking….

The Bone Clocks had been sitting on my shelves for four years. I’d read, and enjoyed, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell but from that I knew his stories could be fantastical and epic and I was never really in the mood for the concentration I’d need to have to read a story like that. In the end, I got the audiobook from my library and that got finally got me to read this story. The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jessica Ball, Leon Williams, Colin Mace, Steven Crossley, Laurel Lefkow and Anna Bentinck, and I thought they all did a fantastic job at bringing the many characters to life.

The Bone Clocks is so much more than its two-sentence blurb suggests, but at the same time, I have no idea of how to give this story a concise and somewhat spoiler-free summary. The Bone Clocks is a story that spans decades, and while the story might not always be told from her point of view, Holly Sykes is always connected to the characters you’re introduced to in some way. It’s equal parts confusing and fun, especially in the first half of the book, seeing how this character you are now following is connected to Holly and how their relationship with her will unfold. While Holly is the central character that a lot of the big events and decisions revolve around, the other characters each have their own story and personality that’s usually just as engaging as Holly’s.

Holly Sykes is a character that grew on me. She’s young and naïve when you first meet her, and somewhat unlikeable too but seeing how her experiences, good, bad and unexplainable, affect her life, she becomes more sympathetic and mature. She suffers a trauma at a young age and doesn’t know how her life will be affected by granting the strange old lady, Esther Little, asylum. She becomes entangled in something much bigger than herself, and it take a while for everything to become clearer, and even then, there’s some events and characters that almost can’t be explained. The other characters are fully-formed with some being unlikeable while others are almost undefinable. Ed Brubeck was probably my favourite character as he felt the most realistic and relatable to me.

The Bones Clocks is well-written with some beautiful passages and engaging characters. It is weird and fantastical, but at its core there’s Holly Sykes and her very human life. There’s so much going on in The Bone Clocks, it’s hard to give it a definitive genre. There is magic, secret wars, family drama, death, and souls play a major role too. The Bone Clocks is an epic story, but it is an odd and sometimes confusing one too. You spend so much of the novel, not know what’s really happening or how everything is connected, that when things are explained, there is a lot of exposition.

Still, I did enjoy the audiobook and I think consuming the story that way helped me take it in and become more enthralled by it than if I was reading a physical copy. 3/5.

REVIEW: Aquaman (2018)

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is of two worlds. Half-human and half-Atlantean he’s the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis but has grown up on land. When his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) threatens to destroy the surface world, Arthur must become the king and hero he’s meant to be, so that neither world is destroyed.

The film does spend some time setting everything up, introducing new characters, their relationships and the world of Atlantis. The film opens with Arthur’s parents, lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), meeting and falling in love. Their relationship is one that’s very easy to get attached to very quickly, and somewhat unfortunately, Morrison and Kidman have more chemistry than Momoa and Amber Heard who plays Mera.

Once the story actually gets going, Aquaman is good fun. Momoa is a charismatic lead and as the plot develops you see that Arthur isn’t just brawn but is also a sensitive and kind guy. There is a lot going on in Aquaman. There’s the political intrigue and Orm’s desire to attack the land-dwellers, but there’s also a quest for a mystical item, and another foe for Arthur in the shape of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Black Manta’s character introduction is impactful, but then he becomes a character that’s there to pop up and inconvenience Arthur and kickstart an action sequence.

Aquaman is visually spectacular. The whole underwater world is so beautiful and colourful, and Atlantis feels like its own technologically advanced society, completely different to what we know. The scenes underwater are action-packed and exciting, though it’s almost easy to get overwhelmed by all the computer-generated creations.

Aquaman may be a bit overlong and overstuffed, but it is completely bonkers and a lot of fun. It’s pure escapism with it’s kingdom under the sea, feuding royalty and political intrigue. 3/5.