I am slightly early this month with my Miscellany post, but I have a busy weekend ahead with work and plans to take my son to a book-signing with his favourite author, Derek Landy, so I thought I’d round up my cultural highlights of the last few weeks.
Azor is an effectively eerie conspiracy thriller that takes its time to tell its story before pulling the rug out from under the viewer. It is set in Argentina in 1980 and centres on Yvan, a discrete and elegant private banker who travels from Switzerland in the wake of a colleague’s disappearance. Ostensibly there to calm the fears of his well-heeled clients, who believe that the junta are going to separate them from their not inconsiderable assets, Yvan seems to promise one thing, all the while working towards a totally different aim. Azor makes the audience work, but is a fabulously unsettling look at the supposedly civilised world of private banking, and the greed that lies beneath the polished surface.
Boiling Point has rightly been lauded for being a brilliantly orchestrated one shot film, but it is so much more. Here the one shot is no gimmick, but serves the narrative as we follow Andy Jones (Stephen Graham), a stressed-out chef over the course of one fraught shift.
Graham is on fire as the chef being pushed to his personal and professional limits, the pacing is perfect as the film builds to a surprising but obvious conclusion and the incredibly unobtrusive camera work brings the viewer right into the heart of this one hectic and dramatic night.
The Humans is written and directed by Stephen Karam, based on his award-winning one act play. It’s a haunting, yet often funny exploration of one family, the Blake’s as they meet for Thanksgiving dinner at the new apartment of the youngest daughter. There is nothing unique about a film focused on a family get-together where long hidden secrets come to the surface, but what sets The Humans apart is the stunning cinematography from Lol Crawley (who also shot the visually striking Channel 4 series Utopia) and an unsettling score which gives this family drama the feeling of a horror movie, or an apocalyptic thriller.
Conversations are filmed from a distance, evoking an atmosphere of dread and the apartment itself feels like something alive and not altogether welcoming. Featuring a clutch of fine performances, from the ever reliable Richard Jenkins and Amy Schumer amongst others, this is a fascinating piece of cinema.
Voting Day by clare o’dea
In February 1959, Switzerland held a referendum on women’s suffrage in which the men of the country voted overwhelmingly against their female counterparts. Clare O’Dea’s affecting and powerful novella explores the day of the vote through the lives of four very different women.
Vreni is a farmer’s wife who is worrying about how her family will cope while she goes into hospital. Margrit, Vreni’s daughter, has become embroiled in a complicated situation affecting her work and personal life. Esther, a cleaner at the hospital longs to be reunited with her son who is in foster care while Beatrice, who admits Vreni to hospital, has been throwing herself into campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.
Voting Day is skilfully structured and the intersection of the lives of these four women allows O’Dea to explore questions of female empowerment, male dominance and the societal pressures and expectations which affect only women. This is all done with a light touch as O’Dea vividly brings her characters to life in a subtle yet powerful read.
Notes on an Execution by danya Kukafka
When I started Notes on an Execution I assumed it was going to be a pretty standard serial killer thriller, but instead I found myself reading one of the best novels of the year so far. Ansel Packer is on Death Row, sentenced for the murder of three girls many years previously and his story is told from the point of view of three women whose lives he has affected – his mother, Lavender, who abandoned him as a child; his sister-in-law Hazel and Saffy, who knew Ansel as a child and was the detective responsible for his arrest.
Working from the starting point that our fascination with serial killers steals not only female lives but female narratives, Kukafka sets out to reinstate the narratives of both the victims and their families. As the clock ticks down on Ansel Packer’s last day, his narrative is told in the second person, but is balanced by the poignant tales of the women touched by his banal evil. This is a masterful slow burn of a novel, which is perfectly structured, beautifully written and devestatingly emotional.
The Anomaly by Hervé le tellier
I am a bit of a sucker for books with a slightly ridiculous and incredible premise and they don’t get more incredible than The Anomaly.
Air France flight AF006 from Paris to New York emerges from the turbulence of an unexpected storm to the bafflement of air traffic control, and is redirected to a secret military base. Why? Because it’s exactly the same flight as one that already landed at JFK after emerging from a storm three months ago. Not just the same flight number but the same plane, with the same people on it. Everyone on board the plane is now duplicated.
Le Tellier spends the first 100 pages introducing his characters before delving into their response to now effectively having a clone. As governments, scientists and theorists gather to try and work out what has happened, Le Tellier playfully raises questions about reality, morality, religion and the sense of self, without ever sacrificing entertainment.
Young Mungo by douglas stuart
I haven’t read Shuggie Bain, the Booker Prize-winning debut novel from Douglas Stuart, mainly because the hype put me off (probably unfairly) and I’m not really a fan of a tearjerker novel. Still, I quite enjoyed Young Mungo, his follow-up, which seems to mine similar territory to its predecessor.
This immersive novel is an evocative coming-of-age narrative that depicts an emotional yet dangerous love affair between two young men, Mungo and James, growing up in working-class Glasgow in the early 1990s. The pair are star-crossed lovers in a city besieged by gang violence and riven by the sectarian Protestant-Catholic divide. The novel vividly explores the homophobia faced by gay people along with the culture of sectarian hatred, easy misogyny and casual violence brought about by a pervading atmosphere of toxic masculinity.
Stuart proves himself a humane storyteller,however I felt that the novel was overly long and sometimes lacked subtlty, not trusting the reader to make connections for themselves but streaching points sometimes to breaking. Still, I would imagine that Mungo will win over as many hearts as Shuggie Bain before him.
On my commute to work I usually listen to Radio 4 to keep up with news and current affairs, but with the world going the way it is at the moment, I’ve decided to ration my news consumption and have switched to 6Music for my drives for the last while.
As a consequence, I’ve been hearing a lot of new music but am particularly fond of this track from Katy J Pearson, giving off excellent Stevie Nicks vibes…
And in other news, I got a new bookmark….
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!