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Last night, after a rather stressful journey (sparked by unusual spontaneity that went awry), I spent a lovely evening at a friend's new flat near Surrey Quays, for a political film night.

We watched the 2016 film All The Way, which charts Lyndon B Johnson's journey as the US President, from the day of the Kennedy assassination through to the 1964 election. The film focuses mainly on Johnson's battle to get the Civil Rights Act passed, as well as his own insecurities about being seen as an 'accidental president'.

Bryan Cranston gives a tremendous and very layered performance, portraying Johnson as a complex man under immense pressure. Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jnr shows gravitas I didn't know he had. And there are a wealth of interesting supporting players, including J Edgar Hoover, Hubert Humphrey (Johnson's eventual VP), and Johnson's wife.

I found the whole thing a fascinating education in US politics and the difficulties Johnson faced in getting the Civil Rights Act passed in the face of huge opposition from within his own party.

The film is perhaps a bit long, but definitely recommended as a portrait of a man who is sometimes overlooked, and certainly had many flaws, but who also achieved a great deal for social good during his time as president.
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After a break of three years, Sharon Shinn has released a complete (and lengthy) trilogy of new novels, currently available only in audiobook format. Which is great for me, since I tend to listen to her books rather than reading them anyway.

Echo in Onyx takes us to a newly created world from Shinn, where the nobility have doppelgangers, called echoes, who follow them around, matching their every move. They are said to be gifts from the triple goddess, historically used as decoys in times of war, but now just status symbols.

The narrator of the story is Brianna, a small-town girl who gets a job as maid to a noblewoman with three echoes and travels with her to the capital, where Lady Marguerite is being courted by the heir to the throne.

Brianna is an appealing protagonist - full of wonder at the marvels of her new existence but also very practical and kind-hearted. Margeurite is also well-rounded, and stands out from the other nobles in the way she treats and interacts with her echoes. When tragedy befalls them (in a very abrupt tonal shift partway through the story), they work together to try to solve their problems, creating a tense and emotive narrative as the novel goes on.

But I have so many questions that aren't answered. Enough practicalities of the echoes are explained to make a lot of other logistical and logical issues more glaring. The middle section goes on way too long, with very repetitive events and encounters that dilute the tension. The romance aspect of the story feels under-served, with the love interest declaring he would do anything for Brianna without much of a build-up of the relationship. And the ending is pretty weak, with a deus ex machina solution to a climax where Brianna isn't even present. So, after all their impressive efforts to save themselves, it doesn't feel as if the heroines have much agency in their fate at the end.

However, as is always the case with Sharon Shinn, the world itself is intricate and beautiful, the characters are easy to invest in, and I'm very interested to see what other stories she can tell. So, I have added the other two books to my audible library and will listen to them at some point.
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This week, I read The Moon Sister, the fifth in the Seven Sisters series by Lucinda Riley. It was 750 pages long and in hardback (I spotted it on the table in the library and just grabbed it) but I read it in five days as it was pretty quick.

I enjoyed it overall, but found it less satisfying than some of the others. The historical story was quite depressing and I wasn't keen on the main character from the past. The present-day story was more engaging and more enjoyable and I liked the characters a bit more. But the mysticism element (which has only been touched on very briefly in the other books) tipped over into total unbelievability in this one. Plus, I didn't feel as if the romance was given enough development to make it believable either. The protagonist, Tiggy, and her love interest barely spent any time together throughout the book, and in fact tried quite hard to avoid one another, so it felt very abrupt when they suddenly declared undying love.

Still, I'm going to carry on with the series, as there are only two left and I'm particularly interested in both of them.


Then, yesterday, I went to see a matinee of a play called Intra Muros at the Park Theatre near Finsbury Park. It was a short-notice, rather impulsive choice and I wondered in the first fifteen minutes if I'd made a horrible mistake, as the opening of the play made me uncomfortable in some ways. I was thinking about leaving in the interval, but then there wasn't one! And I have to say I'm rather enjoying the current trend of 1hr45min plays that just run straight through with no interval. Plus, the way this play came together was really interesting and clever. It was ostensibly about a theatre director trying to conduct a workshop in a prison, but it turned out to be much more complicated and layered than that. There were only five cast members, who took multiple roles each, and the scenes moved about in time and space very effectively, with only a few chairs and a table as props. The lighting was particularly effective and all the performances were good. So, I'm glad I went, I'm glad I stayed, and I'm impressed by the way the play was constructed.
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Friday night saw us at the Hampstead Theatre for an interesting new play about using blood tests to provide a social rating that would affect your ability to get a job, find a relationship and travel freely. It was high concept, but a chillingly credible extrapolation of what such a world might be like. There were only four main characters - Bea, the phlebotomist; her boyfriend, Aaron; her childhood friend, Char; and the porter at the hospital where she works. All four performances were excellent, and good use was made of minimal sets. Bea struggles with her own rated worth in relation to the others around her, the temptations of cheating the system to improve the lot of those with low ratings, and big questions about what is important, how we judge others and how much or little you might want to know about your possible future state.

It's a challenging watch on multiple levels, and well written, with lots of high emotions as well as thought-provoking themes.
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Back in December, I got obsessed with a great musical called Fanatical and went multiple times over the space of a week.

Last time, I went to see Come From Away, which is the new Fanatical - though, unfortunately, it's a much bigger and more expensive show, so I won't be able to go and see it tons of times.

But - it's wonderful! It runs for 1hr 45 minutes with no interval, so you get an early night, too!

It tells the story of 7000 people whose planes were diverted to a small town in Newfoundland on 9/11, and had to stay there for five days before they were allowed to leave again. The 9000 residents of Gander welcomed them in and made them as comfortable as possible, and the show picks a few individual (supposedly true) stories to follow.

There are twelve case members, who portray two or three named characters each and also fill in as extras in the background as needed. They all stay on stage for pretty much the whole show, and convey different locations with the use of only a few tables and chairs. The rapid costume and accent changes make it easy to identify who they are playing at any one time, and all the performances are brilliant.

The stories are all very real and human, it made me both laugh and cry, the music was great, and the whole thing just made me very, very happy.

I will definitely be going again before the run is over.
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I have just come back from another glorious reading retreat, which I approached a bit differently this time. Instead of cramming as many new books into three days as I could, I selected a few choice favourites to reread - and I wasn't disappointed.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel:
This was a Family Book Club book a while ago, which I remembered enjoying but not in any great detail. It's about a post-flue-pandemic world and follows the fates of multiple characters, weaving together their back stories and their post-apocalypse fates in a very clever way. It's a very human story, focusing on tales of individuals much more than the global situation, and I think much better for it. I loved spending time with the Travelling Symphony again, and the hope and intrigue provided by the ending was just as thrilling.

Railsea by China Mieville:
China Mieville doing Moby Dick with steam trains and giant mole rats was always going to be gloriously bonkers. Again, I remembered loving this, but not much about the details of the plot, so I loved rediscovering this marvellous world of intersecting tracks, obsessive captains and enormous tunneling creatures. It was just pretentious enough to be very pleasing to me (though I got caught out by the annoyance of the & for a second time) and I perhaps didn't find the revelation of what lies beyond the railsea quite as satisfying as before. Still lots of fun, though.

The Martian by Andy Weir:
This I remembered quite well, but still very much enjoyed again. All the science was a little more wearing than the first time around, but still generally interesting, and Mark Watney does an excellent job of making it all very amusing and appealing. The climax had me on the edge of my seat, despite knowing the outcome, which is impressive, and reading the book made me want to watch the film again. There are perhaps a few too many bit characters introduced rather too late and too fleetingly, but the core cast are all great and the plot doesn't let up.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:
This was my saved-till-last book, and the one that turned out to be even more wonderful than I remembered, rather than slightly diminished by familiarity. It's so immersive and so achingly beautiful. The fandom aspects are truly wonderful and I love all the characters. I'm going to knit myself a Reveur scarf (of course there are patterns specifically for this on Ravelry) and I'm going to play the game on Story Nexus. And I've just discovered that Morgenstern is finally bringing out a new novel in November - can we all say HURRAH!


I also finished listening to The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi on the way home. It's the second in his Interdependency series, read by Wil Wheaton, and I mostly enjoyed it. I love the setting, the world-building, the characters and the narrator - but the writing is a little clunky in places. There's a lot of repetition - of words and phrases in close proximity, and also of information that the reader already knows. But it's a good story overall and I'm looking forward to the next one, though it's not out until next year.
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What can I say about Magic Mike Live? It's definitely a fun night out, though I just checked back to see how much I paid for tickets and I'm not sure I'd pay that much for it again... Still, there was a huge amount of anticipation involved, which proved highly enjoyable for me and the friend who came with me. And it was a lot of fun. The opening was cringe-makingly appalling - but deliberately so, and cleverly subverted quite quickly. And the eleven male performers were all excellent and ridiculously attractive. I liked the MC and the sort-of story that got woven through the show, but I think there was overall too much talking and standing about when there could have been more dancing! They made excellent use of the spaces, and I was impressed by how much interaction there was between the audience and the performers. Let's just say, wherever you were sitting, you wouldn't be going home disappointed!

So, I'm glad I went, and it was a great night out with a good friend.
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I met Francesca Jakobi at a recent writing retreat and decided to read her first novel, Bitter. It's a masterfully constructed tale of a mother's obsession with her son and their strained relationship. The story of the novel's present (1960s) follows Gilda's attempts to reconnect with her son after his marriage, while flashbacks gradually build up the tale of Gilda's upbringing, marriage and early motherhood, until we finally understand how she has got where she is.

The book is written in the first person, so the reader spends the entire story inside Gilda's head, which is a bold choice with a protagonist who isn't necessarily sympathetic. But it works brilliantly here, as it allows us to understand (if not condone) Gilda's actions, as well as the way she deludes both herself and those around her. The intricate nature of the patchwork plot really drew me in and kept me absolutely hooked till the end. I wanted both to see what Gilda would do next and to gain insight into her motivations and psychology. She is a fascinating and many-layered character, proving that someone doesn't need to be likeable for a reader to invest in them.

This isn't the kind of book I normally read, but I loved it and would highly recommend it.


On Saturday, I went to something else I wouldn't normally attend - a choral concert in the dark. We Are Sound is a Cambridge-based choir I was introduced to by one of its former members and I've been to their concerts before. This one was held in the gorgeous Musician's Church near Cannon Street and was designed to be experienced in total darkness. We were each given a sleep mask on entering and the church was unlit. I decided to embrace the format, so listened to the first half with the sleep mask on. The singing was beautiful and very ethereal, as well as impressively in sync, considering the performers were also in low light. But I found it difficult to connect to the music in an emotional way. I felt remote from it and a little uncomfortable. So, for the second half, I took my sleep mask off and watched the choir move about in the semi-darkness. I know it wasn't what they intended for their audience, but being more aware of the amazing space around me, as well as the other audience members and the choir themselves, allowed me to better connect to the sound, and I therefore found the second half much more impactful. The whole thing was beautiful and very skilful, but I was glad I gave in to my instincts and 'broke the rules' half way through.
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I went to my last show for The Vaults 2019 on Wednesday - it's been a great run, but I'll be glad to have my Wednesday evenings back.

http://london.fringeguru.com/reviews/vault-2019/10
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After really enjoying the first in the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal, I decided to see what else she has written and discovered The Glamourist Histories, also read by the author in the audio versions. I finished listening to the first one this morning - Shades of Milk and Honey - and am certain I have read it before! I've just skimmed through three years' worth of reviews from the year it came out onwards and can't find reference to it in my journal, though.

Anyway! The author's reading of the novel was marred by a ridiculous upper class English accent (she's American) which I found quite off-putting. It's a Regency set series, but with decorative magic, which is generally practised by women as one of their accomplishments. Overall, it was reasonably fun, though it's basically a series of plot points and characters pulled from Austen and jumbled together in a different order, just with a bit of magic thrown in. It also gets horribly melodramatic towards the end, in a way that had me rolling my eyes in the street.

Still, since I loved the Lady Astronaut so much, I'm going to give the second Glamourist book a chance, in case it improves dramatically over the first.
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I've been to Showstoppers a fair few times over the last few years and always enjoyed it. As it's improvised, it always has the potential to be a bit patchy, but it's generally been very good value for money and made me laugh a lot.

Last night was no different - but it definitely wasn't their best worst. At one point, one of the cast played a fountain that stole the focus away from what should have been quite an emotional scene, and I remember laughing really loudly a couple of times.

But the story of Toby and Sandra trying to cope as new parents while also working at a knicker factory wasn't very original and didn't go anywhere very interesting.

Still, the Tina Turner number was impressively rousing, if not very lyrically innovative and the cast did well with the requirement to include The Grinning Man as one of their musical influences for the evening.

I'm glad to see Showstoppers is continuing to appear monthly at the Lyric for at least the rest of the year, and I'll be going again I'm sure.
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Last week, I finished listening to Whispers Under Ground, the next in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. It was marvellous to treat my ears to the wonderful Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who does an excellent job with the narration for this series. I love his voice and his characterisation of Peter is very appealing. I like this world and all the recurring characters in it, so I enjoyed spending time there for a few hours. I have to admit the main murder mystery plot passed me by somewhat (I think I lost concentration somewhere along the way and missed some vital explanations) but all the ongoing background and character stuff was great, so I'll be carrying on with the series a while yet.


On Saturday, I went to see Waitress, a new musical that caught my eye because I recognised Katherine McPhee on all the posters. My overwhelming impression was that it was too loud, with the performers amplified past the point of comprehension during many of the songs. But it also had a lot of energy, the cast was very talented and clearly giving it their all, and the plot managed to subvert my expectations in satisfying ways. During the interval, I expressed my dismay to my companions that the story was heading in various annoying or problematic ways, but then it solved all but one of these issues in the second half (and the one remaining one was a fairly minor quibble). I briefly thought everything was being solved by a ridiculous deus ex machina, until I considered that the protagonist had earned this act of beneficence twice over, by dint of her kindness and her talent. So, in the end, the show went in an interesting and laudable direction by swerving away from all the very predictable outcomes it set up earlier on.


The same can unfortunately not be said for Captain Marvel, which I went to see directly after Waitress. Actually, I'm being unfair - because there was one plot twist I didn't see coming, and which I found pleasantly surprising in terms of switching around the audience's perception of evil. Plus, the cat was very funny. But, for the most part, I found the film kind of boring. It had its moments, but they were few and far between and the attempts at banter were lacklustre at best. It was very pretty in terms of effects, but I didn't feel invested in the protagonist's story much at all. It lacked both emotional depth and any spark of fun and, as a result, felt a lot longer than it really was. I'm still going to go and see Avengers: Endgame next month, but I'm not excited by the addition of Captain Marvel to the mix.
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I met Elisa Lodato at a writing retreat last year, and again on the same retreat last week, so finally got around to reading her first novel, An Unremarkable Body, on my return.

The protagonist, Laura, goes to her mother's for lunch and find her dead at the bottom of the stairs. The rest of the book has Laura piecing together the various parts of her mother's life in an attempt to understand what might have happened at the end.

The use of the autopsy report to head the chapters and prompt Laura's reminiscences or investigations is clever, using clinical and physical descriptions of the body to explore very emotional aspects of a life.

It all feels very real - the characters are well rounded and layered, the writing is emotive and the themes of loss and confusion are vividly painted. The fragments of the story are masterfully woven together to form a whole, though the perspective doesn't always ring true, as Laura narrates the whole book, even scenes she would not know about or fully understand. But it's a very effective presentation of the complexities of adult relationships, and how difficult it is to understand other people's motivations. It's very sad - the restrictions that don't allow people to live the life they would like are painfully and relatably shown.

This isn't the sort of book I would normally read, but I enjoyed it, and the writing is very good, particularly the sprinkling of unique and vivid images that crop up throughout.
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Over the weekend, we watched both On The Basis of Sex, the fictionalised tale of Ruth Bader Ginsburg attending Harvard Law School and subsequently embarking on her quest for gender equality, and RBG, a recent documentary about Ginsburg's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Both are overwhelmingly positive portrayals and cover a lot of the same ground (though the documentary is much wider in scope). Both show a determined woman fighting back against discrimination and prejudice and both also show a devoted and very supportive husband back her up.

The former is perhaps a little run-of-the-mill in its storytelling and doesn't have as much punch as you might expect from a film featuring such a powerhouse figure. The whimsy is there in the documentary but it's balanced by a lot of strong opinions and impressive grit. It's not that Bader Ginsburg is portrayed as weak in any way in the movie, but the film itself feels a little soft focus in its tone.

I enjoyed both, and they make an excellent counterpoint to one another, particularly in revealing the way real events have been altered and compressed to make a palatable two-hour plot for the fictional version.


This week, I also read Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, which tells the story of aliens arriving in Lagos in Nigeria. A scientist, a soldier and a musician are selected by the aliens to be their conduits to humankind and much chaos ensues when their purpose is not initially made very clear. The book does a great job of extrapolating the range of human reaction to the arrival. There are riots and looting, many innocent people are hurt, and the assumption is made that the aliens are hostile.

But the narrative is very fragmented and repetitive. There are way too many POV characters, the chapters are extremely short, and many scenes are told multiple times from different viewpoints. This makes it both hard to follow what's going on at times, and also means that the plot move very, very slowly. In fact, across the 60 chapters of the book, very little actually happens at all and I was left feeling a bit cheated of a proper story.
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I went to see Showstoppers again last night and they didn't disappoint. The show overall was a bit ragged in places, but there were moments of absolute genius and I laughed uproariously on multiple occasions. Even though the format is always exactly the same, and I've seen it enough times to be able to identify the tricks and repeated tropes they use, the improvised musical is always good value for money, and I always have a great time. In fact, I think I'm going to book another one right now...


I also finished listening to The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal this morning. It's the first book in her Lady Astronaut series and charts an alternative history from a meteorite wiping out the eastern seaboard of America in 1952. The protagonist is Dr Elma Yorke, a mathmetician and pilot, who works for the space program as a computer and fights to get women accepted into astronaut training. What I loved about this book is that it doesn't shy away from showing Elma's weaknesses. She suffers from crippling anxiety around social expectations and the book explores the stigma surrounding taking medication for mental health issues. It also highlights Elma's lack of appreciation of racism in the spheres where she is fighting sexism, introducing intersectionality into the the female pilots' attempts to be recognised for their skills. I'm really looking forward to listening to the next in the series, not least because the author narrates the audio versions herself, and is excellent.
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Last night, we met up with a couple of friends for dinner and they introduced us to a fun little game called Troika.

The premise is that the players are mining asteroids for gemstones and you have to collect both gems and fuel to get back to Earth.

The mechanic is very simple in that there are numbered tiles face down on the table, and your turn is to flip one over, then take either a face up or face down token, or return one of your existing tokens to the pot.

Gems have to be a set of three consecutive numbers, and fuel has to be a set of three of the same number. So you have to build a hand that contains both types of sets before the game runs out of turns. The scoring is tricky because you only score the last digit of your gem set - so, if you have 8-9-10 you score zero as the last digit of 10 is zero.

So, while it's simple to explain, it's tricky to play well, especially with other players watching what you're collecting and trying to thwart your plans.

I really enjoyed it and it definitely makes for a good after-dinner short game that's very portable.
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I remember liking the first Dragon film and not being so impressed with the second. Dave is a big fan and has watched all the the TV series. I've heard the music a lot because he plays it in the background quite frequently. But I wasn't intending to see the new film. We had cinema vouchers and a free Sunday evening, though, and it was the only film on that I had any interest in at all - plus, I knew Dave was keen, so I suggested it.

And I loved it! The animation is gorgeous, all the characters are present and correct and get their own moments during the story. The action set pieces are amazing and the relationships are beautifully developed. It made me laugh frequently and cry quite a bit too.

Toothless is so amazingly expressive and gets a fantastic emotional arc. The choices the characters have to make have huge personal and wider significance and the film doesn't shy away from the conflicting impulses they experience.

The ending is wonderful and I totally disagree with Empire, which said the emotional impact of the conclusion isn't earned. I was definitely tearing up and found the last few scenes really uplifting (pun intended).

This is a brilliantly realised world that I enjoy spending time in, and I think this film provides a fitting end to the arc of Hiccup and Toothless.
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