The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

mercies cover

“Last night Maren dreamt a whale beached itself on the rocks outside her house.”

On Christmas Eve in 1617, almost the entire male population of the tiny fishing village of Vardo, Norway, is lost in a terrible storm. Left behind in grief, the women of the village have to find a new way to survive.

Eighteen months later, their fragile new order faces a terrible threat in the form of Absalom Cornet, a Scottish witchfinder. His religious fervour has no place for independent women, and the horrors of the storm will seem like a mercy compared to what’s ahead…

This is a beautifully written, wonderfully evocative piece of writing. The author captures so much of the lives and hardships, the fear and jealousy, and unexpected passions. However, even though I was engrossed, this is far from an easy read. It is deeply unsettling – as it should be, given that it’s based on real events. History was rarely kind, and this is some of the worst: women deemed ‘unnatural’ for stepping into so-called men’s roles, forced to for survival and damned for it anyway. The horror of the ‘righteous’ and their wielding of power.

And so, while I praise the writing, I can’t wholly recommend the read: it’s dark, it’s terrifying. Hopefully not too much of a spoiler, but I’d hoped for more of a sense of redemption, somehow. Overall: powerful, but not a little upsetting.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 40 chapters
First published: February 2020
Series: none
Read from 26th January – 3rd February 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Pursuit of William Abbey – Claire North

pursuit of william abbey cover

“The truth-speaker was tall as a stretcher, thin as a rifle.”

William Abbey is a young doctor working in Africa – a punishment for pursuing the wrong girl, in a very Victorian fashion – when he sees a native boy lynched. Shocked by the sight but unwilling to intervene, William is cursed by the boy’s mother. For the rest of his days, he will be followed by a shadow; if it reaches him, someone he loves will die. And so William runs, for the shadow only ever walks at a fixed pace. He can escape it for a while, but he can never stop.

He discovers others with the same condition – but, not all of them view it as a curse. For, along with the fear comes a gift. The closer the shadow gets, the more William can read the truth in men’s hearts. This makes him a valuable commodity to some, and it’s not long before he’s made an offer: assistance outpacing the shade, and in return he’ll spy for his country.

I’ve reviewed several of Claire North’s books, and I’ve said before I find them very hit (e.g. the amazing First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) or miss (e.g. 84K), although always well written and always intriguing enough to make trying the next one a risk worth taking. I’m pleased to report TPoWA falls into the ‘hit’ category for me.

William is not a hero as such. He bumbles through life, he’s used, he’s afraid. But he’s also increasingly aware of his own flaws, and slowly, slowly moves towards a resolution to the tangle he finds himself in.

A fairly hefty dose of social commentary seems to run through North’s work; here: is it really ‘less bad’ to be a bystander to terrible events? I’m not convinced. I’ve just finished renewing my first aid training, and the first rule is “See to your own safety first”. It felt a bit unfair that William is the one cursed, for not risking himself, and not one of the men directly involved in the lynching. I guess that’s part of the debate.

It continues with a more obvious “just following orders” kind of moralising. William reports back to his superiors, but doesn’t get involved in the consequences. Then he meets someone else with his ‘gift’, and we also get to ask, do the ends ever/always justify the means?

All of which makes it sound like a very heavy read, and it’s not too bad, honestly! The telling is split between a nurse in a WWI front line hospital, who meets the older Dr Abbey, and the gent himself telling his impossible tale. I can see why other reviewers felt they couldn’t connect with the lead, as he’s a passive pawn in most of the tale. But, stick with it.

I haven’t seen the movie It Follows, although that’s what this first reminded me of, then a supernatural Victorian anti-Bond. It’s creepy, but not horror. Rather, the sheer intrigue kept me reading, and I’m glad I did.

Hardback: 420 pages / 78 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 9th-15th December 2019

My rating: 8/10

The Current War (2017)

current war poster

It was the starry cast that attracted me to this, rather than another retelling of the fight between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), which I thought I knew (enough) about. But this isn’t that fight, or rather, Tesla is only a bit-player, and the real ‘war’ is between inventor Edison and industrialist, George Westerhouse (Michael Shannon).

Both men want to bring electricity to widespread use. Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, first pushes his direct current (DC). Westerhouse buys patents from others, and cannot infringe on Edison’s creations, and so uses the more powerful alternating current (AC). However, Edison soon begins a slanging match, claiming AC is deadly – and look, here’s a horse being electrocuted to prove it (!).

The crux will come with the 1883 World Fair in Chicago, with both sides vying to light up the city. Only one can win. But, at what cost?

It seems odd that electricity, so staple a part of modern life, has really only been used as it is for a little over 100 years. It is intriguing seeing the technology’s start, but the film is just as much about the personal issues. Did Westerhouse feel slighted by a socially dismissive Edison? Both men are shown to be highly affected by their wives. Both have egos and a desire to be remembered, or to change the world for the better.

While interesting and enjoyable enough, I wouldn’t say this was the most gripping piece of cinema. The cast – also including Tom Holland, Matthew MacFadyen, Tuppence Middleton, and Katherine Waterston – is indeed fantastic, and it’s nice that the characters are given time to (no pun intended) shine.

It was also interesting that they pitted Edison against an industrialist. I’m not sure Tesla’s part in this isn’t vastly underplayed, right enough, so historically I’m still debating that, but dramatically the juxtaposition was played well. The movie does become about the light and dark (okay, okay, that pun is deliberate!) of each man’s soul, each facing their own principles and each feeling driven to act against those. With the actors involved, it is all done rather well.

However, it *is* kind of slow, and you know what’s going to happen, and… yeah, it was fine. Maybe save it for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Released: 26th July 2019
Viewed: 26th July 2019
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

PS: the movie was made and released at various film festivals in 2017 but due to the involvement of producer Harvey Weinstein, distangling that element saw everything  shelved until the current release schedule.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

mary queen of scots poster

At 18 years old, Mary Stuart’s marriage to the Dauphin of France ends with his death. Returning to Scotland to reclaim her throne, she has to cope with political machinations both at home and from neighbouring England. England has been in religious turmoil following the changes wrought by Henry VIII and his succession by his two daughters in turn, one fervently Catholic and the other Protestant. With Elizabeth on the throne, her courtiers are not best pleased to find a Catholic not only on the throne of Scotland, but with a valid claim on England’s, too.

But neither religion nor auld enmities can hold a candle to the outrage of 16th Century men being forced to obey a woman… o_O

I went into this movie with very low expectations, which worked in my favour: it wasn’t that bad at all. It also wasn’t great, but that was – in my view – more to do with the storytelling and odd editing choices, and nothing against any of the performances.

Accents first. Elizabeth is played by an Aussie (Margot Robbie), and Mary by an Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan). Thankfully, both seem to manage very well, even if Saoirse does sound as putting-it-on as I do when I try to ape my Irish relatives 😉 It’s nicely not distracting, though, which is a relief.

Even with such momentous events across the two countries, the filmmakers have taken the understandable approach of making the story about the two women on a more personal level. They even fabricate a meeting between the two, which never happened.

However, I felt that somewhere in the quick-cuts between Mary standing down a belligerent Robert Knox (an almost unrecognisable David Tennant) and 30 seconds of Elizabeth throwing a strop over her paper quilling project, I somehow felt the film got a little lost between historical-ness and trying to make a point, and fell a bit short on both.

Overall: not awful, but not surprised it’s not up for Oscars. It was, in some ways, the opposite of The Favourite (2018): that was a Very Good film but hard to watch; MQos was much easier to watch but overall close to just being popcorn fluff – and not on purpose, I imagine!

Released: 18th January 2019
Viewed: 23rd January 2019
Running time: 124 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10

The Favourite (2018)

favourite poster

It’s the early 18th Century, and Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) deals with poor health and amuses herself as best she can, while close friend, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weiss), dictates governing policy on her behalf. The relationship between the two is more than friendship, but not always kind. When Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), comes to court begging for a job, there’s a space for her to show kindness to the poor Queen, and gain affection – to the detriment of Sarah’s position.

Thus we have a movie about rivalries and politics, wars of many kinds, double dealing and back stabbing – and, of course, rabbits. Wait, what?!

To say this is a strange movie is understating things. It’s purposefully a mix of period and modern anachronisms – some subtle, such as costuming, and others just downright bizarre, like a dance scene that looks like a spoof of Strictly Come Dancing, regency style. What?!

Undeniably, the performances are excellent. Olivia Coleman in particular is just fantastic. However, it’s not an easy film to watch. The music only adds to this: often discordant to the point of painful, doing a great job of setting an uncomfortable tone, but not particularly pleasant to sit through.

And so, while I’d be very happy to see this win a ton of awards, I can’t offer it a higher rating. While ‘good’, it wasn’t exactly enjoyable and not something I really want to see again – especially with such a ‘wait, what?!’ ending.

Released: 1st January 2019
Viewed: 11th January 2019
Running time: 119 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Outlaw King (2018)

Outlaw King poster

Cinema and history do not always go well together, and if Braveheart is your reference for Scottish history – oy! Let’s not start there. Going in to the story of Scotland’s other big historical hero, Robert the Bruce, I was then facing some trepidation.

From and Aussie William Wallace (was I the only one chuckling at the film’s passing reference to him being dead already? Maybe it wasn’t meant as a movie swipe, hmm!) to an American Bruce, let me first say that Chris Pine does surprisingly well on the accent (actually, Glaswegian Tony Curran’s attempt at an island dialect is far more distracting).

As for the rest of the movie… well, it’s no Braveheart (ironically, that title was more Robert’s than William’s) and I mean that in a good way – mostly. It’s still not 100% historically accurate (and as another aside, I’d suggest children in Scotland are shamefully not being taught most of this – our own history – out of, what? Anti-nationalism?), but it doesn’t take half as many liberties in the name of telling a more rousing story.

And that in itself is a bit of a problem. Bruce was not an immediate hero, but the film has to err on the side of likeability. To be honest, he’s not entirely charismatic, either: whether by design or not, there’s an attempt at a lot of ‘acting via long moody looks’ that has mixed success. Also, the story sort of muddies an attempt at an ending – which, historically, is sort of fair, but… hmm.

Best bit of the whole movie – no, not the blink and you’ll miss ‘full frontal’ that got so much press, for goodness sake! – is the absolutely stunning Scottish scenery. The movie set in it is decent if not as awe-inspiring. Take that as you will!

Released: 9th November 2018
Viewed: 11th November 2018
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 7/10

First Man (2018)

first man poster

First Man is a biopic of astronaut, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), detailing his time with NASA and becoming the first human to walk on another planetary body. It’s at once a deeply personal story, and yet captures one of the most monumental human achievements of all time.

There was nothing easy about the ‘space race’. Hurling oneself out of Earth’s atmosphere, at the speeds required to escape gravity, would be terrifying enough at any time, but limited to 1950s/60s technology it becomes an exercise in ambition over common sense, it seems! Certainly, the American programme is fraught with accidents, often deadly, and the movie uses those to ramp up the tension levels and really pull on the audience’s emotions.

If anything, that need to constantly try to pull on the heartstrings is my only complaint about the movie. We’re shown a lot of Armstrong’s personal life, and in doing so it slants the whole achievement to being connected to the death of his daughter. Wouldn’t it be enough just for its own sake?

That said, the story is incredible and the performances are amazing. One complaint I heard was a dislike of how cold and distant Armstrong is portrayed – although, his living children have reportedly said this is the best representation they’ve seen on screen of their father. Personally, I found the personality very relatable: I do think men of that era would be cold rather than show emotions, and Neil was very much an engineer and physicist, given to logical thought.

I do wish the climatic events were allowed to be a little more wow. The film makers have gone for downplaying this absolutely remarkable thing, and given how in awe I am of the reality, the movie didn’t quite capture that for me.

Still. Wow. And the film’s not half bad either 😉

Released: 12th October 2018
Viewed: 9th November 2018
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 9/10