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This modern day fairy tale stars Ioan Gruffudd and Toni Collette as Alec and Zooey Morrison, a couple who are struggling to conceive and who are finding that it is causing problems in their marriage.  After they talk about fostering a child, a seven year old boy named Eli turns up on their doorstep, saying that the foster agency has sent him.  As he becomes a part of their family, he brings happiness back into their lives, but Eli has one final surprise for them.

This is a really lovely gem of a movie – it has no explosions, no special effects, just solid performances throughout, and lots of emotion (honestly it had me in tears a few times).  Gruffudd and Collette were terrific as a couple going through a very hard time – their pain was almost palpable.  There was a twist at the end which I feel obliged not to give away, but suffice to say that while I don’t always enjoy such twists, it fitted perfectly here.

In addition to the three leads (Maurice Cole is adorable in his debut role as Eli), there is great support from Richard E. Grant, as a mysterious man who seems to know all about the Morrisons, and Anne Reid and Hayley Mills as Zooey’s mother and the foster home manager respectively.

This seems to be a little known film, but if you get the chance to watch it, I would definitely recommend that you do!  Not only is it very moving, but at the end, I had a big smile on my face.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Jonathan Newman

Producers: Hale Coughlin, David Mutch, Alice Dawson, Deepak Nayar

Writer: Jonathan Newman

Main cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Toni Collette, Maurice Cole, Richard E. Grant

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I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks and it’s very rare for me to think that a book is better listened to than read, but in this case, I’ll make an exception.  The Measure of a Man is narrated by Sidney Poitier himself, and he has such a beautiful voice, that it really enhanced my experience of the book.  It also worked really well as an audiobook because he is so conversational in tone – he peppers his narration with phrases like, “You follow?” or “You see?”

As for the content itself – wow!  This is a wonderful autobiography and then some.  While Poitier does tell the story of his life, it’s not necessarily a straightforward chronological account of events.  At times it comes across more as a philosophical discussion, where he uses his own life as a starting point.

His description of his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas was wonderful.  Although his family lived in poverty, he points out that living in poverty on Cat Island was very different to living in poverty in some concrete jungle.  As a child, he lived in a place with a beautiful climate, cocoa plum trees, sea grapes and wild bananas.

However, the most interesting – and in many ways upsetting – part of the book was when Poitier described his life in America which started when he moved to Florida aged 15, and then moved on to New York, and eventually started acting.  This was a a time of racial segregation, and he realised exactly what it meant to be classed as a second class citizen.  As an example – he recalled one event when he was already quite well known in films, and he went to a restaurant for a bite to eat.  The black Maitre d’ explained that he could have a table there, but they would have to put a screen around him, for the sensitivity of the white diners.  When offered jobs on certain films, he was asked to sign papers disowning those of his black friends who were campaigning for equal rights (he always refused to do so).

Throughout it all, Poitier’s dignity and strong sense of right and wrong shines through.  He speaks strongly of his love for his parents, and how they inspire him in his life – whatever work he does, he does for them as well as for himself and his own family.  He describes how he has always tried to be the best that he can be, his search for answers, his hopes for not only himself, but the world at large.  He’s honest about himself; those parts of himself that he is proud of, and the mistakes which he has made.

This is not a revealing, kiss-and-tell autobiography, and it is all the better for it.  Poitier does not delve into the subject of murky or tawdry Hollywood tales, and is respectful of those people who he does mention by name.  He does discuss some of his most famous films – which made me immediately want to go out and rewatch them – and reveals his motivation for playing certain roles, and refusing certain others.

Overall, I’d say that this is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read (or listened to).  I would strongly recommend it, not only to anyone with an interest in Hollywood or film-making, but also to anyone with an interest in the civil rights movement.

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This is the third (and maybe last?) film in the series that started with Before Sunrise, and continued with Before Sunset.  Just as Before Sunset was set nine years after Before Sunrise, both in the story and in real life, so Before Midnight was made and set nine years after Before Sunset.  This review contains MAJOR spoilers for Before Midnight, and minor spoilers for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Jesse and Celine have been a couple since the events of the previous film, and have twin seven year old daughters.  They live in Paris, but for this film is set in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, where they have been staying for six weeks.  It starts with Jesse at the airport with his son Henry (Hank).  Hank has been spending the summer with Jesse and Celine and is now heading home to Chicago, and Jesse is concerned that he is not more available for his son, and that he does not see Hank as much as he would like.  Meanwhile Celine is at a career crossroads – she has been offered a job with the French government, and is considering taking it.

Like the two preceding films, Before Midnight is very dialogue heavy, and the acting is superb, with the two leads perfectly portraying all the frustrations, concerns and observations of their situation(s).  Unlike the other two films however, there is quite a lot of interaction with other characters, especially in the first half of this film.  There is one scene where they eat dinner with their hosts in Greece, and other people who are also stopping there, where they all talk about love, life and relationships.  It’s wonderfully acted and enjoyable viewing, but it does feel slightly unusual to see Jesse and Celine interacting with other people (particularly in some scenes where they are separately interacting with others).

It moves into more familiar territory when Jesse and Celine walk around the city together, and talk about what the future might hold for them.  They then go to a hotel room which has been booked for them, and this is where the tension which has been bubbling under the surface for so much of the film, breaks free, and their relationship really seems to be under threat.

I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy this film, and if you have seen the other two, you kind of HAVE to watch this one.  However, whereas the others left me with a feeling of optimism and possibility, this one was a bit of a downer.  Obviously Jesse and Celine have been together for a long time and have the day-to-day responsibility of looking after their daughters, as well as Celine’s job worries and Jesse’s concerns about his son.  In short – things are no longer all hearts and flowers, because reality has well and truly set in.  That’s normal and expected.  But I came away from Before Midnight thinking that if there is a fourth film, I cannot see them still being a couple another nine years down the road. There are accusations of infidelity, signs that neither is really happy with their life together, and the very real possibility that the dream is over and they perhaps should break up.  The ending is less ambiguous than the ending for either Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, but long-term prospects for Jesse and Celine do not seem certain.

I’m certainly glad I watched it – the setting is gorgeous, and as mentioned before, the acting is perfect – but if I’m watching Jesse and Celine’s story in future, I think I’ll stop after Before Sunset.

Year of release: 2013

Director: Richard Linklater

Producers: Richard Linklater, Liz Glotzer, Jacob Pechenik, Martin Shafer, Lelia Andronikou, Kostas Kefalas, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Vincent Palmo Jr., John Sloss, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Sara Woodhatch

Writers: Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis, Walter Lassally

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Click here for my review of Before Sunrise.

Click here for my review of Before Sunset.

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Zadie Smith’s third novel focuses on two rival academics, Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps, and their respective families.  While these two men are feuding, their wives are making friends and their children are struggling with adolescence and responsibility.  There are too many threads to cover here, but this is a story of family, race, infidelity, forgiveness, unrequited feelings, and much more.

I really REALLY enjoyed this book.  The characters seemed so completely real, each with their positive and negative, but always very human traits.  They may not always have been likeable (I actually found Howard Belsey to be never likeable), but they were identifiable.

Smith writes so beautifully, with such a wonderful, spot-on turn of phrase.  She also has an incredible eye for observational humour, with sometimes just a few words or one line making me laugh out loud.  At times I was frustrated with the characters, at times angry, and sometimes sympathetic, but whatever my feelings, I always wanted to know what was going to happen to them.

It’s not a story with a neat beginning, middle and ending – things are not necessarily wrapped up neatly; it’s almost like a snapshot of a certain period of these families’ lives.  I thoroughly enjoy it, and definitely recommend it.

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At a young age, the virtuous and sweet Fanny Price is sent to live with her Uncle and Aunt Bertram, and her four cousins, the feckless Tom, the moral Edmund, and their flighty sisters Maria and Julia.  Fanny falls for Edmund, but keeps her feelings hidden and has to watch as he falls for their friend Mary Crawford, while Maria and Julia are both attracted to Mary’s sister Henry Crawford.  As the Crawford and the Bertrams become closer, entanglements and complications ensue.

In all honesty, there is too much story to put into one small summary, and in many ways this is the most socially aware and least romantic novel of Austens.  It is also probably the least popular of her novels, and I can understand why, although I did enjoy it.

The thing that struck me about the characters is that none of them are particularly likeable.  Fanny is sweet and kind, and Edmund is very  moralistic and by far the most thoughtful of the Bertram children, but (for me anyway) they were both ever-so-slightly boring.  The rest of the characters don’t have much to redeem them, with Mrs Bertram seeming kind, but practically catatonic for most of the novel, and Mr Bertram being well-meaning, but cold and distant.  The other youngsters are pretty self-absorbed, and Fanny’s other aunt, Aunt Norris, is mean-spirited and never misses an opportunity to put Fanny down.

Despite this, there were moments of humour, and the plot was interesting, with a pivotal scene being the play which the youngsters hope to stage, and which is the point at which feelings and attractions start to develop.  (Edmund’s horror at the thought of something so scandalous a play taking place at Mansfield Park – even with no audience – was unintentionally funny!)  There was a lot of angsty dialogue between the characters, and some scenes were overplayed, but I did like the gradual growth in characters as Edmund tries to excuse some of Mary Crawford’s behaviour which he would have found unacceptable in anyone else, and as Fanny starts to be more confident about giving her own opinion (in the first half of the book Fanny is really little more than an onlooker through whose eyes we see the proceedings, but as the story develops she features more, and becomes more interesting to read about).

Overall, it’s well worth reading, and I didn’t think it the disappointment that some Austen fans do.  Fanny, while not the most engaging of characters – she does not have half as much personality as Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet for instance – is likeable, and eventually admirable, and the story is well told, even if the ending is predictable to anyone who has read any other of Austen’s books.

(For more information about Jane Austen, please click here.)

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Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family for years, used to be a grand country house.  However, in the post-WWII era, it is dilapidated, practically falling down around the family’s ears, and the finances are such that they are struggling to maintain it at all, while coming to terms with a changing society.  Doctor Faraday – the narrator of the book – meets the family, the widow Mrs Ayres and her two grown children Roderick and Caroline, when he comes to the hall to treat their young housemaid, but he is drawn into their lives, and becomes friendly with them.  But a series of strange and unsettling events, starts to take effect on the Ayres’, and it seems that there may be something sinister within Hundreds Hall, that is taunting the family.

I have read all of Sarah Waters’ books, and without exception, have enjoyed them.  The Little Stranger was brilliantly written, with a slow, creeping atmosphere, that left me feeling unsettled a couple of times.  Waters’ writing always flows so well, and I found myself reading huge chunks at a time, just not wanting to put the book down.  It was not a light or happy read, and in truth, not all (in fact, not many) of the characters were easy to warm to, although I suspect that may have been entirely intentional.  The Hall itself was just as much a character as any of the people that lived in it, and it was vividly described, making it, and the events which took place in it, all too easy to imagine.  The Doctor’s narration too, perfectly described both the isolated life of the Ayres, and his own, somewhat lonely life as a bachelor with few real friends.

I had no clue as to how the story was going to end, and was eager to find out what would happen – and here is my only criticism of the book, because the ending was something of a let-down.  I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I certainly did not find the big twist that I felt sure must be coming at any moment, the nearer I got to the last page.  That kind of left me with a “is that it?” feeling, when I finished the book, which is something that I’m not used to feeling with Sarah Waters books.  All the time I was reading this, I thought it was going to be a 5 star book, but because of the ending, I ended up giving it 4.

Having said that however, it was still a book which was thoroughly worth reading, and which I would recommend, purely because the writing itself is so good, and Waters really knows how to ratchet up the tension.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Rob Lowe is a name familiar to anyone who grew up in the 80s.  He became a huge star, was a member of the ‘Brat Pack’ and graced bedroom walls everywhere.  In the late 80s and 90s, his career took something of a nosedive, but since his work on The West Wing, there has been something of a resurgence.  I remember all the fan-worship of Lowe, and after seeing him speaking at the Hay Festival when this book came out, I looked forward to reading it, and getting his own perspective on his career.

It’s an entertaining story, told in an engaging and warm voice.  He describes his childhood, with a loving but turbulent homelife, and his early ambition to become an actor.  His stories about his early days in the industry were my favourite parts of the book – the account of making The Outsiders, as one of a group of soon-to-be-household-names, including Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Emilio Estevez – was particularly interesting (his descriptions of co-stars Swayze and Cruise were affectionate and very witty).

Lowe does a good job of portraying how a young and naive young man can get caught up in the Hollywood machine and lifestyle, and how inevitably, that lifestyle led to his fall from grace in spectacular fashion in 1988, with the sex-tape scandal.  He glosses over the scandal and fallout somewhat, but I can’t really blame him for that – he acknowledges it and moves on.

The book is packed with little anecdotes about some of the famous people he met (Cary Grant, Liza Minnelli amongst others, and these before he even got into acting himself), which are entertaining.

What comes through most is Lowe’s love for his wife and family, and his passion for his work.  I accept that there was a fair amount left out of the book; nonetheless, it’s an entertaining and enjoyable memoir, which I liked a lot and would recommend to fans of Lowe, or anyone with an interest in film-making.

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This story is true, but it is really quite remarkable.  In 1951, a young poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.  During her treatment, cancerous cells were taken from her body – without the knowledge or consent of Henrietta or any of her family, and these cells became the first to be able to be grown independently.  Even now, more than 60 years later, Henrietta’s cells (known as HeLa) are still being grown, and have been used in numerous – countless even – medical experiments, to help find cures for cancer and AIDS amongst other diseases.  HeLa cells have been launched into space, used in nuclear testing, and…well frankly, all manner of things.  However, her family did not find out about her cells for years, and when they did, it caused them great consternation and confusion.

This quite remarkable book tells the story of the HeLa cells and some of the incredible advancements in medical science in which they have been used, but it also raises the thorny issue of consent and ownership.  (Who DOES own your cells, and is it right that they could be collected and used without your consent?)  Importantly the book also discusses Henrietta as a person, and looks at the effect that the whole matter has had on her descendants, who are still unable to afford their own medical care (in other words, they might not be able to afford the treatments that their own relative’s cells were instrumental in creating).

I found it a fascinating read.  I was concerned that the science parts might be a bit difficult to understand, but Skloot sets it out in a way that makes perfect sense.  She has clearly conducted a huge amount of research into the HeLa cells, and I felt that I learned a lot about them.  For that reason alone it was a worthwhile read, but what I really liked were the parts where Skloot met with members of Henrietta’s family (and in particular, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was literally made ill by all the stress caused when she found out about her mother’s cells).

It really made me think.  I mean, REALLY made me think a lot about the issue of informed consent, and ownership of cells.  On the one hand, if people were classed as the owners of their cells and tissues, they could start demanding money for their use (although after reading this book I don’t actually believe that this would happen a lot).  They also may object to their cells being used in particular kinds of research.  Such objections could slow down scientific and medical progress.  On the other hand, it seems fair that people should have the rights over what happens to parts of their own body.  The book does not attempt to answer the question, but it does look at previous cases, and discusses the opinions of many professionals in the field, who take opposing viewpoints.

I really liked this book a lot, and would definitely recommend it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Paul and Claire Lohman are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette at an expensive restaurant.  The evening starts off normally enough, but it becomes clear that the meeting is more than just a social engagement.  The teenage sons of the two couples have been caught on CCTV, committing a horrific offence, and while they have not yet been publicly identified, their parents have recognised their children as the perpetrators, and have met to decide what to do.  Serge is concerned about the effect it will have on his own future, as he is a popular candidate to be the next Prime Minister, and all four are concerned about the futures of their sons.

The premise of this book fascinated me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I felt that some parts were somewhat unrealistic.  The story is narrated by Paul, who, it becomes clear, has significant anger management problems, which may be genetic, and which he may have passed on to their son Michel.  As he described the restaurant with disdain (understandable at times), he also described the events that had led up to the discovery of his son’s crime, and talks about things in the family’s past.

All four characters, with the possible exception of Babette, were to me, extremely unlikeable.  Initially I liked Claire a lot, but towards the end of the book her actions become perhaps unbelievable, and certainly inexcusable.  Neither she nor Paul seems particularly horrified by their son’s actions, and in fact seem determined to cover them up and excuse them by any means necessary.

The over-riding thing that I noticed about the story was how many secrets the characters kept from each other, and even from the reader.  This became clearer the further I read.  The writing was insidious – it got under my skin and I genuinely found this book hard to put down; there is a kind of sinister undertone running through it.  At first, the narration is innocuous – you might even say banal – with Paul talking about the things that irritated him about the pretentious restaurant they are eating in, but then things take a turn, and we are plunged into something much more shocking.

I’m not sure that the ending was one I liked, but it was certainly one that I didn’t expect, and it is a book which I continue to think about.  I can imagine that it may polarise readers, but I would certainly recommend it.

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In 1968, in a small town in Labrador, Canada, Treadway and Jacinta Blake have a child.  But they find that their baby has both male and female genetalia, and make the difficult decision that their child should have surgery.  They raise him as their son and call him Wayne.  Only Treadway, Jacinta and a friend named Thomasina know the truth and Wayne is not told.  However, as Wayne grows, he discovers an emotional part of himself – his female character, who he calls Annabel, after Thomasina’s deceased daughter.

As Wayne grows older, he and the three adults who share the secret are all affected in different ways, and each faces their own struggle to come to terms with the truth.

When I started this book, I was not sure whether I would like it or not, but as I read on, it pulled me in, and I found compelled to read more about Wayne and his family.  The writing is spare, and very beautiful in parts, with the loneliness that the four main characters each feel reflected in the remote and sparsely populated land where they live.

Each character’s struggle manifests itself in different ways, as the book takes us through Wayne’s childhood, school years and beyond.  In many ways, very little happens, but there is so much strangeness in the normalcy of their lives, contrasted with the unusualness of Wayne’s body.  The story is haunting in parts, and I really felt that all of the characters were realistically and believably drawn; sometimes their behaviour seems questionable, but it’s hard not to wonder what any other ordinary person would do in their situation.

It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – it was so emotive and yet under-stated, and treated Wayne’s condition (for want of a better word) with delicacy and compassion.  A book which I would definitely recommend.

 

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