family drama

REVIEW: Unlikely Angel (1996)

When performer Ruby Diamond (Dolly Parton) meets an untimely demise, she finds she hasn’t done enough to get straight into heaven. Saint Peter (Roddy McDowall) says she has one chance, she needs to reunite a workaholic widower father (Brian Kerwin) and his two children, rebellious teenager Sarah (Alison Mack) and quiet Matthew (Eli Marienthal) before midnight on Christmas Eve.

Everything about Unlikely Angel is cliché and easy to predict but that’s part of its charm. It’s sometimes nice to watch a film where you have a pretty good idea of what all the moments of conflict will be about, and you know everything will turn out alright in the end.

There are all the usual tropes, Sarah acts out wanting attention from her dad, while Matthew is scared his father is going to forget about his mum if they move on, and it’s up to Ruby to smooth things out. Then there’s the time limit element, as Ruby must reunite this feuding family and bring Christmas back to their lives before it’s too late for her.

The interactions between Peter and Ruby were equal parts sweet and amusing. They’re two very different characters but they bounce off each other well as either Ruby pesters Peter for advice, or Peter does something to stop her having “impure thoughts” about the men she might meet.

What I liked about Unlikely Angel was how Ruby grew as a person over the course of the film. She was always likeable (being played by Dolly Parton certainly helps with that) but she always looked out for number one before she died, but she grew to care so much about this family that she puts her potential future in Heaven on the line to see them happy.

There’s a couple of original songs written and sung by Dolly Parton in Unlikely Angel that will either make you get up and dance or profess your love to someone. “Unlikely Angel” (the song not the movie) is actually quite lovely and Dolly Parton’s voice is always beautiful.

Unlikely Angel is peak Christmas TV movie but with added Dolly Parton it means it isn’t quite as grating as it could be. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Haiti: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, child abuse, eating disorders (bulimia), suicide, self-harm, breast cancer and rape.

Sophie is raised by her aunt in an impoverished village in Haiti but when she is twelve years old her mother sends for her and she moves from all she knows to New York City to be with a mother she barely remembers. As Sophie grows up, she clashes with her mother over the “testing” and she tries to find her own way.

“Testing” is a Haitian tradition where a mother would test to see if their daughter is still a virgin by inserting their finger into their daughter’s vagina to check that the hymen is intact. Sophie is mentally and physically scarred by the ordeal as she would have to go through the testing every night once she was in her late teens. It naturally puts a strain on her relationship with her mother, but her mother feels it’s her duty to make sure her daughter stays pure and virtuous, plus it’s something her mother and her aunt was subjected to as well. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her own five-month year old daughter, she learns that the testing happened to her grandmother and her grandmother has no regrets over testing her children even though she knew the pain and humiliation well. The testing is a tradition and is framed as a mother’s job to do to make sure her daughter stays a virgin until she’s married.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is quite a sad book really. It tackles a lot of tough topics (please do heed the trigger warnings) though it doesn’t give all of them the time they deserve to develop. It seems almost impossible how much pain and suffering the women in one family can go through. All the women in Sophie’s family have been hurt in different ways but they are all incredibly resilient because of it. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other though; Sophie and her mother clash a lot and Sophie’s grandmother can be cruel to her daughters.

I found Sophie’s forgiveness of her mother to be too quick for what Sophie had been through. I liked how Sophie struggled with what her mother had done to her, but at the same time understood that her mother tested her out of her version of love and because it’s what happened to her. Still, it didn’t seem like their reconciliation took long at all when Sophie was well in her right to continue to keep her distance from her mother, no matter the pressure her grandmother put on her to forgive her. The ending of Breath, Eyes, Memory felt rushed as another problem or tragedy was added to Sophie and her mother’s lives, taking up the time that could’ve been spent on giving their reconciliation more time to feel natural.

The audio book of Breath, Eyes, Memory is narrated well but the language used in the book is quite simple. It adds some distance from the drama and serious topics do not feel as hard-hitting as they could. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a tough read about family, shared trauma, gender and sexual identity. It’s a lot to cram into a relatively short book and somethings do get lost along the way. 3/5.

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.

REVIEW: This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

Katsuyamas never quit—but seventeen-year-old CJ doesn’t even know where to start. She’s never lived up to her mom’s type A ambition, and she’s perfectly happy just helping her aunt, Hannah, at their family’s flower shop. She doesn’t buy into Hannah’s romantic ideas about flowers and their hidden meanings, but when it comes to arranging the perfect bouquet, CJ discovers a knack she never knew she had. A skill she might even be proud of. Then her mom decides to sell the shop — to the McAllister’s the family who swindled CJ’s grandparents when thousands of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Soon a rift threatens to splinter CJ’s family, friends, and their entire Northern California community; and for the first time, CJ has found something she wants to fight for.

This Time Will Be Different has a lot more going on in it than the conflict about the family flower shop. There are discussions of racism, sexism (and how the two can intersect), teen pregnancy, unplanned pregnancy, and family, relationship and friendship drama too. All these elements make CJ, her friends and her family feel more three-dimensional as while they might be concerned with the McAllister’s racist family history and the fate of the business, it’s not the only thing that’s going on in their lives. There are the little things along with the big things, and the things that they didn’t want to confront until they suddenly come to ahead.

CJ is a very interesting and layered character. Sometimes I’d like her, sometimes I didn’t, because she was a messy person. She’s incredibly loyal but she can use that loyalty to cover up how she’s really feeling which can be petty and insecure. She’s not great at communicating and bottles a lot of her fears up until they all come pouring out in tears or cutting comments. CJ is someone who feels like she’s a failure, she doesn’t get great grades, she isn’t athletically or musically talented, and she doesn’t have the drive or goals that her mother has. It often appears that CJ is the kind of person that doesn’t try that hard, because then it doesn’t feel so bad when she fails, and she uses her failures as a protective shield against the rest of the world.

CJ’s relationship with her mum is often fraught as CJ worries that she’ll never do anything to make her mum proud, and that her mum regrets having her. The two of them have some great discussions and the writing is great as it shows how CJ can go with sympathising with her mum in one moment, to being angry with her the next, and back again. It’s true to life as when people have arguments or heated discussions, they feel a lot of different things at different times, especially if the other person says something they weren’t expecting. There’s almost the nature vs nurture idea going on in This Time Will Be Different. CJ was mostly raised by her Aunt Hannah due to her mum wanting to have a career, meaning CJ is similar in a lot of ways to Hannah. She still has some of her mum’s influences in her, but she is also her own person and it is as she becomes more comfortable with the idea of who she is and what she’s interested in, that who she is becomes more clear to her.

The frank discussions of what happened when hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans were sent to Internment Camps and how it still affects people generations later makes This Time Will Be Different a poignant read. When CJ starts to fight for her family’s heritage there’s a lot of talk of racist trolling, the white saviour, and how some people don’t see the big deal and are almost happy to let injustice slide if it doesn’t affect them. The Internment of Japanese Americans is something that happened not that long ago with people still alive who went through it, and their children and grandchildren perhaps still dealing with the emotional and financial consequences. With what’s going on in the world at the moment, it seems like now, more than ever, it is a part of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

This Time Will Be Different is a fast-paced book though it does end quite abruptly. Not everything is tied up neatly and leaves some questions which is fine, but there doesn’t seem to be any closure for CJ and how she feels about her successes and failures now. Also while the romance was sweet, there was a lot of mixed messages as CJ doesn’t believe in true love, meaning the romance is a very slow slow-burn romance.

This Time Will Be Different is a compelling read with a fantastically flawed and interesting main character. It’s funny, sad and shines a light on a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten about. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

A nameless woman tries to follow her calling as a doctor but then the state steps in. She, along with her daughter, are banished to a village in the Latvian countryside where she’s deprived of a career, her sense of self, and her relationship with her daughter. As her sense of isolation increases, will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga where the beginning of political change begins to stir?

Translated by Margita Gailiyis.

Soviet Milk is told from the alternating perspectives of an unnamed mother and her unnamed daughter between the years 1969 and 1989. During this time Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union and it’s clear from the outset how the state keeps a close eye on its people and the affect it can have on their lives. The alternating perspectives did through me a bit at the beginning as I didn’t realise that’s what was happening but as some of the passages were told from the two characters different points of view, I got the hang of it.

I enjoyed both the mother and the daughter’s point of view. It basically begins when the daughter is born and so you see her grow up, how she learns different things from her mother, and how she begins to see the restrictions placed on her and her family. When she’s a young child she is brought up by her grandmother who is also unnamed (nearly all the characters are unnamed and are instead referred to by their familial status), their relationship is very sweet and the time she spends with her grandmother and step-grandfather are moments of true childhood innocence.

After her mother’s medical career is dashed and they have to move away from the city and her grandparents, that’s when the daughter has to grow up as more often than not, she has to look after herself and her mother. Her mother’s struggles and depression are vividly realised, and the book is well-written enough that makes her actions sympathetic and not solely selfish as one might think.

Soviet Milk was an interesting insight into the psychological affects of living in your homeland when it’s occupied by an outside force. Previous books that I’ve read for the Read the World Project that have been set in countries during the time of the Soviet Union, have either been from a child’s point of view so they don’t understand the gravity of the situation, or its about characters who have just got on with everything. I think this is the book I’ve read where being a part of the Soviet Union had a real affect on the mental health of one of the protagonists. There was still the food shortages and secrets, but there was also the desperate need to be free which the mother had even when living in her own country.

Soviet Milk is a moving and poignant story about the love between a mother, daughter and grandmother and how the Soviet occupation can affect multiple generations. It was a compelling read even though each perspective was just a couple of pages long. 4/5.