3 stars

READ THE WORLD – Russia: Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

It’s 2033, the world is ruined and humanity is almost extinct. Possibly the last of the worlds survivors live in Moscow’s Metro system. There they’re safe from radiation in the city above and societies have formed across the metro system and its many stations. Artyom lives in VDNKh, the north most inhabited station on its line, life there is good, until the station becomes endangered by outside forces. Artyom is given the task to traverse the complex metro system to search for help and to warn every one of the new threat bearing down on his native station, and the whole Metro.

Metro 2033 is an interesting story. It’s quite slow to start with as there is a lot of world-building to do. Each of the different train stations in the Metro have become their own mini society, some have become Communist, some are Fascist while many others have their own capitalist democracy. It’s interesting to see what life’s like underground and how it differs from station to station. It wasn’t till I was about halfway through the book and I felt that I had a fairly good understanding that the story picked up speed.

The whole book is quite exposition heavy really and in some ways, it reminded me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both are quite slow reads, with a lot of world-building and main characters who seem to go from A to B without being an active participant in the situations they’re in. That being said, I felt Artyom was a character who actually reacted to the mad and dangerous situations he found himself in and, as the story progressed, he became more proactive and confident in his decision making and abilities.

The people Artyom meets on his journey are all very different. My favourites were those who are old enough to remember life outside the Metro, and everyday normal life in the cities. There memories were often rose-tinted but it was good to see Artyom compare it to what he knows as he was only a toddler when everyone had to hide out in the tunnels. It was those moments where you really got the dystopian aspect of the novel.

Metro 2033 also has horror and sci-fi elements as there’s rumours of creatures who have been mutated by the radiation, lurking on the surface and readying themselves to enter the tunnels. There are some passages on Metro 2033 that are generally creepy and unsettling as Artyom traverses the dark tunnel between stations. There’s some eerie stuff in Metro 2033 but it doesn’t always pay off which is regrettable.

This is the first book in a trilogy and it does leave things on a cliff-hanger. Unfortunately, there was no real build up to the “big reveal” so instead of a plot twist you could’ve figured out yourself, it’s more of a huge surprise. I think I will pick up the rest of the series at some point as I’m intrigued to see what happens next but Metro 2033 didn’t pull me in enough from the start to make me super eager to continue. 3/5.

REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin travel through a “wrinkle in time” to find their missing father at the advice of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. But can they overcome the dangerous forces they meet on their journey through space and time?

A Wrinkle in Time is said to be a children’s classic but I’d never read it nor had never heard of it till all the talk about the film adaptation which is due to be released next year. It was the film and hearing about all the people cast in it, many of them are some of my favourite actors, that got me to pick up the book.

I like how A Wrinkle in Time combines science with fantasy and how it shows different planets and creatures through the eyes of a child. As both of Meg and Charles Wallace’s parents are scientists there’s a lot of talk about maths and fact and how people work things out. This was great to see in a children’s book as in some ways it made difficult topics like traveling through space accessible – and it’s always great to see a young female character interested in STEM subjects.

Meg is a great character. She’s about thirteen years old and sometimes gets overwhelmed by the situation she is in, missing her father and being flung into danger by three strange beings, but she uses her faults to overcome her fear. That’s the thing I really liked about Meg and this book, it took a character’s faults like stubbornness, fear and anger and made them a valuable part of the character. Yes, those traits are often seen as negative but they are a part of Meg just like her love and intelligence.

The thing that surprised me most about A Wrinkle in Time is how it shows that parents are fallible. There’s a childlike wonder throughout most of the books, even with the threat of danger present, that when Meg sees her parents as normal people for moment it’s a surprise. I think this theme is a great thing to include in a children’s book.

I liked A Wrinkle in Time well enough. It’s a quick read with likeable characters but as someone in their twenties, it’s not a book I loved. I can see why it’s become a much loved book for many but it does lack that emotional punch reading it for the first time as an adult. 3/5.

REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) races to find the heart of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) to avoid succumbing to Davy Jones’ Locker while Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) search for Jack to serve their own agenda.

Dead Man’s Chest loses some of the fun seen in The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). There’s still moments that are delightful, like the sword fight on a giant wheel between Sparrow, Turner and Norrington (Jack Davenport). While that sequence leaves you with a huge smile on your face, there definitely isn’t as many laugh out moments compared to the first film.

That’s in part to how the main trio spend pretty much the first hour apart from each other, or as a duo and when the third arrives, someone else disappears. There’s still the other members of Jack’s crew like Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) to add to the dynamics but when the main trio’s not together for convoluted reasons it does drag the film down a bit.

Convoluted is a good way to describe the plot of Dead Man’s Chest. There’s a lot of threads that different characters are following and it’s just a little messy at times. This is in part due to the villains. There’s Davy Jones, who doesn’t appear on screen till almost midway through the film but he certainly makes an entrance, and there’s also Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), the Chairman of the East India Trading Company. Cutler Beckett is a different kind of villain, he has power and ties different from your average pirate making him a foreboding presence looming from the shadows.

The effects still stand up, especially the work on Davy Jones and his crew, and the battles between the Flying Dutchman and the Black Pearl are still exciting and look great. It’s the exposition that doesn’t always work.

Dead Man’s Chest is not a bad film by any means. It just loses a lot of the family-fun/action-adventure vibes present in the first film, making it a bit less enjoyable. 3/5.

REVIEW: Alien: Covenant (2017)

When the crew of a colony ship discover an uncharted world, fit for inhabitation, they are unprepared for the creatures they find there.

Alien: Covenant is a great looking film. The set design and costumes feel really lived in and real. The score often puts the hairs on the back of your neck up and all the effects, practical and computer generated, are a high quality. Alien: Covenant is also a well shot film, this is something that doesn’t really need saying when it’s directed by Ridley Scott but it is.

There are a lot of expendable characters in Alien: Covenant so you don’t really get to know a lot about them before they meet their (often gruesome) demise. Katherine Waterston give a brilliant performance as Daniels. She’s in pain but has a steely centre that helps ground others, she doesn’t lose her head in a crisis and this all makes Daniels a wonderful character. I was also pleasantly surprised by Danny McBride’s Tennessee. These two along with Michael Fassbender’s Walter are really the core of the film. All give great performances, with Fassbender proving once again how he’s one of the greatest actors of this generation.

Alien: Covenant is a prequel to Alien (1979) and a sequel to Prometheus (2012) so it’s got a lot to live up to and being in this sort of in between, doesn’t always help Alien: Covenant. There’s a lot of tropes anyone familiar with the Alien franchise will know so there’s less surprises while it also continues with this mythos that was set up in Prometheus. The mythos is something not everyone will like but I feel it was handled better here, and was more interesting, compared to what was shown in Prometheus.

There are scary moments (though I might be easily scared) and a lot of body horror as creatures burst from people’s bodies. The alien creatures themselves all look pretty great and it’s always great to see the xenomorph on the big screen again.

Alien: Covenant looks great and has a lot of solid performances. It is thrilling and often scary but it does follow a generic sci-fi pattern that makes it lack any real surprises. 3/5.

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back, working for money, and going off on adventures till Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father, Ego (Kurt Russell), comes into his life.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lot of fun. Drax (Dave Bautista) continues to be a standout as his brutal honesty and lack of understanding of social queues make many a witty moment. There’s a lot of one-liners and the relationship between this characters is charming and brings a lot of the humour.

There’s a great theme of “found family” running through Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (anyone who knows me know that’s my favourite trope ever) and it was done really well. You got to see how the team had grown closer since the previous film and the banter and arguments between them all is a highlight. The five characters who make up the Guardians of the Galaxy are great and you get new dynamics to the team with Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) who have bigger and more interesting roles this time round.

The actual plot isn’t so great – I won’t go into the plot a great deal as the promo stuff for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 really has shown only about the first 20 minutes of the film. (Well done marketing department for not showing a load of spoilers and climatic moments). It often feels like a series of scenes and funny moments stuck together with no real overall arc for a lot of the characters. For instance, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a character who often feels short-changed. The film is a bit messy and while I enjoyed the film as a whole, it did leave me feeling it was a good example of style over substance.

Because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a beautiful looking film. It’s colourful and CGI galore but it works pretty well and looks great. The alien creatures and planets are all different which makes this space opera richer and wonderful to look at. Plus, it still has an amazing soundtrack that will have you bopping along in your seat or smiling to yourself.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a bright, fun addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s funny and entertaining but it doesn’t really leave a lasting mark. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – United Arab Emirates: Dubai Tales by Mohammad al Murr

A collection of short stories about family, love and relationships all set in and around Dubai.

I can’t remember the last time I read a short stories collection, it’s generally not my thing but I did enjoy Dubai Tales. They were often about five or six pages long with only a couple being closer to ten pages. Such short stories allow the author to build up your expectations in a story and then completely turn them around. These abrupt endings are often funny but some of them left me wanting more – though I feel that could be said for most short stories.

The stories in Dubai Tales are often quite mundane, about people’s everyday lives and their relationships until the last few lines and the whole story turns on its head. The stories are quite clever and funny, there’s humour in the ridiculous of the situations some of these characters get themselves into. The stories often subvert what you think traditional marriages or relationships are like in Dubai which is quite nice. There’s loving relationships, those which have their secrets and those you think are marriages but aren’t.

If you’re interested into snapshots of life in Dubai and the people who live there then Dubai Tales is a great read. It has information on the geographical location of Dubai such as where it is in relation to the capital of the UAE Abu Dhabi as well as the different suburbs of Dubai and it has a glossary which is a nice touch. 3/5.

REVIEW: Learning to Drive (2014)

learning-to-drive-posterWhen her marriage ends Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) decides to take driving lessons. Her instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley) is a Sikh man who is having marriage problems of his own. Together they try to help each other both on and off the road.

Wendy’s life has been turned upside down when her husband leaves her for another woman, her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) and sister Debbie (Samantha Bee) each try to help her but they still have their own lives to live. Darwan, on the other hand, tries to look after his nephew Preet (Avi Nash) and his new wife Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury). Darwan works to jobs and dishes out good advice but sometimes he doesn’t always take it. He and Wendy form an unlikely friendship and they each learn from each other.

Learning to Drive is perhaps a little predictable but the performances really elevate the film. Clarkson and Kingsley are amazing to watch, their conversations during the driving lessons are interesting and often witty. The pairs chemistry and talent really shines through in those moments.

A great thing about Learning to Drive is that it gives you a small insight into Sikh culture. It’s the little details that shine through and help shows how the various rituals have such an impact on Darwan’s life and how he enjoys being a devout Sikh.

There’s nothing that surprising about Learning to Drive and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a gentle sort of film with a certain amount of charm about second chances and making your own way in the world. 3/5.