4 stars

READ THE WORLD – Oman: Celestial Bodies by Johka Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth.

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, Celesital Bodies follows the lives of three sisters. Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.

The chapters in Celestial Bodies alternate between the first-person point of view of Abdallah and with the third person point of view of different characters. Pretty much every other character has a part of the story told from their point of view, though some are the focus more often than others. This part of the story is, for the most part, told linearly starting with Mayya’s marriage, her having her first child and then as her younger sisters get older, their experiences in marriage and romance. With the chapters from Abdallah’s point of view, they are almost always far in the future from what you read about the sisters, he reflects on his marriage and family, and his relationship with his cruel father.

The way the story jumps back and forth can be a bit confusing as sometimes Abdallah talks about how he perceives events or people before we’ve met them in the other half of the story. It does flesh those events/people out a bit more which is needed as the book spans a good few decades in the way characters reminisce about past events or talk about their children who are now adults when in the previous chapter, they were still young children.

There’s a lot of characters in Celestial Bodies as the story ends up spanning multiple generations. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which is helpful but unfortunately, I read the book on my kindle which made it a bit more difficult to flick back and check who was who and how they related to everyone else.

Celestial Bodies gives an insight into Oman and how the country and its people are changing. There are characters who once were slaves and now that the government has ruled that slavery is illegal, they are free. But while some want to leave the place they grew up and were a slave, wanting to truly be free, others feel that their life is good and that the man who owned them treated them well so why should they leave.

For a book where you only seem to spend a short time with each character as they are at a certain point in their lives before moving forward (or back) months or years, you do get a strong sense of who they are. The three sisters and their marriages are at the centre of this story and out of the three it is Mayya and her husband and children that gets the most attention, so you feel you understand her more than the other two.

Celestial Bodies is a beautiful book about love and family and the changes they go through over time. It also shows how people grow and change, as does the country and culture they are a part of, but those changes sometimes don’t happen at the same time and can cause conflict. 4/5.

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REVIEW: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

In 2011 Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani man, tells his story to journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). How as he chased corporate success on Wall Street, he found himself caught up in the conflict and tension in a post-9/11 world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told through flashbacks. In the present Bobby tries to figure out whether or not Changez had anything to do with the kidnapping of an American academic as tensions rise between Pakistani students and police and the CIA are never far away. And in the flashbacks Changez is living the American Dream, he has a lucrative job on Wall Street and he is dating photography artist Erica (Kate Hudson), until that dream starts to crumble after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The harassment that Changez goes through in New York just because of the colour of his skin is tough to watch and is a harsh reminder that little has changed in the world today. It highlights how people are so quick to judge and make assumptions and how dangerous those assumptions can be – not just for the target of those assumptions, but the people around them too.

Riz Ahmed is brilliant as a young man, struggling to consolidate the different sides of him. He has such a strong presence and nearly every single shot of the film has him in it. You find yourself hanging off his every word as he tries to explain himself and find what makes him happy.

The story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is all about ambiguity, but the execution can be a little heavy-handed especially in the beginning. Still, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a gripping drama with a great central performance from Ahmed and supporting turns from Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland who plays Changez’s Wall Street boss. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Eritrea: African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal

African Titanics follows the adventures of Eritrean migrant Abdar as he journeys north speeding through the Sahara and crawling under barbed wire fences to make it to the coast where he must await news of a calm sea.

One thing I’m enjoying about my Read the World Project is how it’s opening my eyes to different cultures and periods of history that I had little to no knowledge of before. There is a migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, and has been happening for almost a decade, and so when I read the blurb of African Titanics I thought it would be set now-ish but that wasn’t the case. African Titanics is set in the late 1990s or the year 2000 and perhaps I was naïve, but I didn’t realise that people from different African countries were trying to make the journey to Europe for a better life then as well as now.

Having the story from the point of a migrant, hearing about all the things they go through to get to the coast, avoiding the police, escaping bandits, learning which smugglers you can trust to not just take your money and leave you stranded, makes something that’s often a footnote in the news feel more real and personal. These are people who are pushed to take dangerous risks and Abdar and his friends know how deadly the sea can be, but they still want to take that chance – even when they know of people who have died at sea.

African Titanics doesn’t just cover the dangerous journey, but the people Abdar meets along the way. He meets so many different people from different countries and their camaraderie transcends language barriers. The migrants form strong bounds as they have to rely on one another, and the men they have given money to to get them across the water. This adds humanity to an otherwise bleak story.

The writing in African Titanics is beautiful. It keeps Abdar’s story, and the story of other migrants he meets along the way, very matter of fact but that doesn’t stop you feeling for him and the other characters. There’s also vivid description of the different landscapes Abdar travels through and the sea is described both a new frontier and a deadly obstacle.

African Titanics is a short yet compelling story. Throughout the hardships Abdar faces there’s moments of levity and joy as he and his fellow migrants laugh and tell stories together. The combinations of the real and almost dreamlike sequences as Abdar thinks of what the future could hold makes it a thought-provoking story. 4/5.

REVIEW: In the Line of Fire (1993)

Veteran Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is haunted by the fact he couldn’t save Kennedy in Dallas, and now thirty years later a man who calls himself “Booth” (John Malkovich) threatens the life of the current President and Frank is determined not to fail a President again.

In the Line of Fire is a film where it wastes no time setting up the characters and getting straight into the main plot. You learn as much about the characters as they share with each other, and when Booth starts to make his presence known, it takes the time to tease the character with extreme closeups on his eyes or mouth.

Eastwood’s Frank is a veteran of the Service. He’s a good agent but not the man he was, something he and everyone else knows, but he’s not willing to accept that yet. Eastwood’s performance is full of charm, but he also presents an uncompromising figure especially when others start to believe he’s not fit for the Presidents protection detail and should leave the case alone.

While Eastwood is certainly the lead of In the Line of Fire, it’s Malkovich who steals every scene he’s in. Booth is an incredibly cunning man and knows exactly what buttons to press to make Frank go off his game. The phone conversations between Booth and Frank are the epitome of cat and mouse as they each try to learn things from one another, though Booth always seems to be one step ahead. Malkovich give a performance that’s cool and calculating one moment, and then full of fury the next. As Frank digs deeper into who Booth is or was, he starts to become an almost tragic character.

In the Line of Fire is a smart thriller. While there are a few chase sequences and scuffles, it’s how Frank and the other Secret Service agents work through the limited information they have to catch a potential killer that’s so gripping. The score, the editing, and the cinematography all work together to rack up the tension as Booth gets closer to his goal of killing the President, and Frank gets pushed closer to the edge.

In the Line of Fire is a tense thriller with gripping performances. It’s only shortcoming is the romance between Frank and fellow Secret Service agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) which feels awkward, rushed and just unnecessary. 4/5.

REIVEW: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

When Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is framed for the attempted assassination of President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) he’s forced to go on the run, avoiding his own agency and the FBI, to uncover the truth and prove his innocence.

If you enjoy the previous films in this somewhat unlikely trilogy about a Secret Service Agent who is really good at killing people and rescuing Presidents, then there’s a good chance you’ll know what you’re getting into with Angel Has Fallen and will like this film too.

In comparison to the previous films in the series, Angel Has Fallen is noticeably less racist as it’s not outside forces that are out to get the President, and Angel Has Fallen attempts to be critical of America’s historic desire for war instead of using other methods when dealing with conflict first. President Trumbull wants to use military force as an absolute final measure in conflict, whereas other people in the White House take a different stance and that causes tension in Trumbull’s cabinet.

Angel Has Fallen is more character driven than the previous films in the series as it delves into Mike’s past and fleshes out his character more. The Mike Banning in Angel Has Fallen is an older, wearier Mike Banning than we’ve seen before. Mike has insomnia, headaches and dizzy spells as everything he’s put his body through over the past few years starts to catch up with him. But even though Mike has a wife and young daughter he loves very much, he doesn’t know how to quit the Secret Service and stop doing what he knows how to do best – killing people and protecting the President.

As Mike has nowhere to turn, he ends up finding his father (Nick Nolte) and their interactions are often very funny as they make a rather odd pair. They have so many similarities that they end up clashing often, and it’s these moments of levity that make the violence more affecting.

The “twists” in Angel Has Fallen are rather obvious and the CGI is notably ropey at times but with a compelling lead and solid action sequences with lots of explosions (the final act is fast-paced and thrilling), it is easy to overlook the flaws in Angel Has Fallen and have a good time with it. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Fate of the Furious (2017)

My original review of The Fate and the Furious from when it was first released is here.

When Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) turns his back on his family and starts to work with mysterious cybercriminal Cipher (Charlize Theron), his family must team up with old foes in order to stop him before it’s too late.

Like the films that came before it, The Fate of the Furious really does make everything bigger and more ridiculous. The laws of physics and logic go completely out the window but if you are happy to see a bunch of unbelievable stunts with cars then The Fate of the Furious is a lot of fun.

There are some serious moments though in The Fate of the Furious, especially once you learn the reason why Dom has turned on his family. This does lead to some emotional moments though it does also lead to a character we’ve met before getting the rough end of the stick. It would have been nice if the film had found a way around that obstacle that wasn’t so common and unfortunate.

Jason Statham returns as Deckard Shaw but this time he’s forced to work with the people he tried to kill the last time they met. He presents a bit of a wildcard element in the team dynamic we’ve become accustomed to over the past few films. Statham’s banter with Dwayne Johnson (who plays Agent Luke Hobbs) is always fun and Statham almost manages to steal the whole film in one of the final action sequences.

With Dom being on the opposite side to his family, it gives Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) more of a lead role than she’s ever had before. She keeps the family together, leading the team and never losing faith in Dom. Rodriguez gives a great performance and, While Diesel certainly has his moments, she is really the heart of the film.

I have to mention the score composed by Brian Tyler. He has composed all but three of the Fast & Furious films and perhaps it’s because I’ve watched them so close together, but you notice that these films, and this team of characters has a theme. It’s something that’s noticeable in all of the big scenes, the heist in Fast Five for instance, and the finale of The Fate of the Furious as the team races across the ice. It really helps add to these films sense of identity and gives you an extra shot of adrenalin as when you hear it, you know something big is about to happen.

The Fate of the Furious is over-the-top but the cast and crew fully commit to the stunts that defy the laws of physics and that just makes it all the more fun and entertaining. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargains for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mismatch of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptilian pilot to chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running. Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants. That is until the crew is offered the job of a lifetime; the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn a fortune… if the manage to survive the long and dangerous trip. Along the way Rosemary learns she isn’t the only one on board with secrets to hide, and that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is mostly a space road trip where not a lot of big plot things happen. Instead it’s a character driven story as Rosemary becomes a part of this crew that’s more like a family. The way exposition and character backstories are interwoven into the story is wonderful, as often it is from characters learning from one another or learning to open up and ask for help and support.

The book is told from all of the crew member’s point of view at least once, though characters like Rosemary, Sissix, Kizzy and the captain Ashby seem to get more focus. You still get a good feel of all the characters though and how they fit together. They each have their problems or secrets, some of which they don’t even know about themselves, but they still all mange to work together.

How space, and the many different species that live there, is beautiful and vivid. Humans are far from the dominant species which is a different take compared to the majority of sci-fi I’ve come across before. It’s also great to read about characters that are different species and are so different from humans – whether that’s by appearance, social norms or both. The political systems, and politics between different species, are intricate yet as the author has taken the time to sprinkle information throughout the story, when there’s tension between species, you can quickly understand why.

The world (or should that be universe) of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is full or rich detail as the crew stop off at different planets to restock their ship and even see friends. There’s so many different people and their technology is advanced yet not always working well, meaning the world feels lived in. This isn’t the shiny and sleek kind of sci-fi, instead it’s a dirty, lived in kind of sci-fi. The Wayfarer isn’t a new ship, things go wrong with it and it’s the crew that fixes it and makes it feel like a home.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a bit of a slow read but that doesn’t mean it’s not a compelling one. It has so much detail with its world building and it really gives the characters room to breathe. Every single member of the Wayfarer crew has their own unique personality and the author does a great job of not turning any of them into clichés.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a sweeping science-fiction novel that never forgets that humanity (though is that the right word when there’s characters who are not human?) is the most important thing. 4/5.