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The Wordy Birds Reading Challenge category for August is a book set outside the UK. I chose Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, which is another book that's been on my reading shelf for a very long time. It's the fictional account of how a real painting by Vermeer came to be created, imagining how a maid in his household became the subject of the painting. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be excellent. I was a bit distracted to begin with, because something about the setting and character interactions reminded me of the recent TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, so I kept seeing the visuals from that in my mind's eye as I was reading. However, Pearl Earring has a strong identity of its own that quickly asserted itself.

The character of Griet is complex and compelling, making for an interesting and sympathetic narrator. She is young and deferent, but also intelligent and observant, and she has desires beyond her station that provide layers to the story. It's a domestic and very mundane setting, and not a lot actually happens, but the tension is very skilfully built up as the story progresses. I was really invested in the characters by the end, and fully immersed in the world of the household. Griet's powerlessness in her situation and the expectations of others that surround and entrap her are very effectively portrayed. The book is about choice and power, and the lack thereof for certain people, and I felt Griet's lack of agency intensely throughout.

A few days after completing the book, I watched the film version with Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. It's a very sparse film that is much more about silence than action, and it conveys the tensions of the book very well. I felt it took a few shortcuts in the characterisation and set-up early on, which meant I understood what the situation was, but didn't really feel emotionally connected to the characters. By the end, though, the tension really ratcheted up, and parts of it were quite uncomfortable viewing. As is always the case with adaptations of books, a lot of important detail was left out, and there were some dramatic changes that I didn't quite agree with. But, overall, it was a compelling film and encapsulated the essence of the novel well.
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My latest audiobook was Prudence by Gail Carriger, the first in the Custard Protocol series. It's set 40 years after her Finishing School series, and several of the characters have familiar family names, though the connections aren't really explained, and there are only two recurring (minor) characters so far.

This series tells the tale of Prudence Akeldama (or Rue), as she is gifted an airship (the Spotted Custard) by her adoptive (vampire) father and sent to India on a secret mission regarding tea. She has a crew of entertaining and varied friends, and a knack for getting into trouble. The story moves along at a swift pace, with supernatural creatures, political intrigue, budding romance, and comedy of Victorian manners. It's tremendous fun, I liked Rue immensely, and I look forward to listening to more of her adventures in due course.
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After a trend of going to bed increasingly late, I decided last night I was going to make an effort to break the cycle and get to sleep at a decent hour. But then, it was 11pm and I only had 80 pages of The Raven King to go...

So, I finished the fourth volume of the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater in five days, making my total time to read the whole set eighteen days.

The introduction of Henry and his acceptance into the group happens a lot more quickly than I remembered, but is evidently very effective, as he is certainly my favourite character at various stages in the book. I love the Laumoniers as the added bad guys (I also really like the way the bad guys mostly destroy each other), and the various revelations about the Lynch family are interesting.

I was particularly moved by the line: "Easier to believe he was a gallant ship tossed by fate, than captain it himself." Good lesson for me at the moment...

But the climax and ultimate conclusion feel somehow anti-climactic, and once again left me very much wanting more from these books. I love the world, and I love the characters, and I feel that some of them are rather short-changed by the ending. I wanted Noah to have a more significant conclusion to his journey. I just wanted more Ronan/Adam (though I guess I can find that in fanfiction whenever I want). I wanted something more for Maura and Mr Gray. It all just feels a bit abrupt, and as if a lot of the characters just disappear at certain points and don't get an ending.

Still, overall, it's a marvellous story, and I've very much enjoyed diving back into it over the last three weeks.

I have to dedicate myself to a different fandom for the next month or so - but it will be interesting to see if I gravitate back towards this one afterwards or not.
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Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay is the first in the Promise Falls trilogy, about all the exciting goings-on in a small American town. The problem is that it’s just a bit too exciting. By the time I stopped listening to it (about a third of the way through), there were at least ten different plot threads, none of which were really connected at that point, and so many characters that I was having real difficulty keeping track. Only one of the storylines received enough time and attention for me to feel invested in the characters, and the telegraphing of the bad guy was so obvious that it robbed even that plot of any suspense. I checked my theory about that plot with someone who had read the whole book, and it was correct, so I gave up on this audiobook and moved on to something else.

Last weekend, Dave and I went to see a production of Legally Blonde at the The Polish Theatre in Hammersmith. Apparently, it was the graduation show at the end of a Theatre Studies course, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. The sound mixing rendered it difficult to make out a lot of the lyrics, and some of the staging was a little clumsy. But what it lacked in polish, it more than made up for in sheer enthusiasm. Everyone involved was clearly having tremendous fun, and overall the performances were very good. Lots of fun.

I read the first volume of the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater in five days, the second in another five, and the third in a further three. I haven’t completed the fourth yet because Manorcon got in the way, but I am thoroughly enjoying revisiting this world. I liked The Dream Thieves more this time around, because I knew what to expect, so the introduction of dream magic didn’t feel so ridiculous. It’s also very much Ronan’s story, and he’s the raven boy I find most compelling. Another benefit of having read them before was that I noticed the subtle setting up of various things a lot more, which made the reading experience more satisfying.

The third volume, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, has the introduction of the Greenmantles as the bad guys, and they remain hilarious. It also has the introduction of the most annoying character, Gwenllian, but she is very much less annoying in text than audio, because it was her voice that irritated me. So, again, I think I enjoyed this book more than the first time around, because I could spend more time over the details of it. I love the fact that the kids involve the adults in their adventures, and I love even more that the adults don’t remotely have all the answers. They are just as well-drawn and flawed as anyone else, which grounds the whole thing much more and makes everyone that much more relatable.

I think, when I’ve finished reading the last book, I’m going to listen to the audiobooks again - and then I’ll probably end up writing, or at least reading, some Raven Cycle fanfiction. There’s a TV series in development, and I’m very much looking forward to see what comes of that. It’ll all be down to the casting, I think…

And then we went to Manorcon, where I only played three new games, but also played quite a few that I’d only played once or twice before, which was good. Terra Mystica is big and complex, and it took me most of the game to really understand it. It’s the kind of game I like, with clear objectives, interesting character abilities, and gradual development of resources. I did struggle to begin with, but it all started to make sense halfway through the penultimate turn. I subsequently managed to achieve everything I want to achieve by the end of the game, and came quite a close second, so I was very pleased with my performance overall. Plus, I can certainly see a lot of room for improvement in my play, so I’d very much like to play this again, hopefully soon, before I forget everything I’ve learned!

I had a similar experience with Star Trek: Frontiers, in that it took me two thirds of the game to figure out what I was doing, and then my enjoyment of it increased dramatically. I like games where you get to explore and uncover new areas of the board, and the theming of the game was well done. It would be interesting to play a different scenario now I know more about how the whole thing works.

Then we played My Little Scythe, which I had been looking forward to a great deal. I think the simplification of the main Scythe game is well done, and it’s tremendously cute. The gameplay was a lot of fun, but it was over way too fast, and there was a lot of randomness to how people managed to achieve objectives. I like working towards goals and planning several moves ahead in games, so I think it diminished the game somewhat that you could randomly acquire important resources on other people’s turns that gave huge advantages. Still, the ponies are adorable, and it’s an amusing way to spend half an hour. I think I’d like a middle-ground version that takes about an hour, removes the random resource accumulation and has just that bit more complexity. Not too much to ask, right?
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I took part in a fanfiction event last month, and volunteered to do the art for a Raven Cycle story, which inevitably plunged me into fan obsession with the series. So, I decided to re-read them, but this time in text version, rather than audiobook. I was a bit apprehensive at first, because the narrator of the audiobooks is so good, and I wondered if reading the books themselves would be a lesser experience. I needn't have worried - reading the actual books turns out to have an intensity all its own.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is difficult to describe. It tells the story of four seventeen-year-old boys, who all go to a fancy private school in Virginia, and are on a quest to find the burial place of Owain Glyndwr, an ancient Welsh king who is supposed to grant a favour to whoever wakes him. The female member of the group is Blue, who comes from a family of psychics, but is not psychic herself. There are prophecies, mysteries and adventures galore, interspersed with the more mundane (but no less important) issues of teenage romance, schoolwork, disparate financial situations, grief and abuse. It's a pretty weird mixture, but it all hangs together quite well overall. And the Raven Boys themselves are all drawn so beautifully that it's impossible not to fall in love with them. This time through, the Harry Potter parallels were more obvious to me (Gansey is James, Ronan is Sirius, Adam is Remus, and Noah is Peter, with Blue an obvious Lily), but it's a group dynamic that works very effectively, and I've started the second book in the series immediately.

Yesterday, we went to see Spiderman: Homecoming, which turned out to be extremely enjoyable. I didn't have much in the way of expectations going in, but the film was consistently both fun and funny. I loved the portrayal of Peter, and also really liked his best friend, Ned. Michael Keaton make an excellent bad guy, and there were tons of little moments that were really entertaining. Plus, it had the best absolute-end-of-credits sequence I have seen to date. This is how I always want Marvel films to be, but many of the more recent ones have been disappointing in various ways. Spiderman: Homecoming got the tone just right, and there's something about Tom Holland that is immensely appealing, which certainly helped. We've got to wait a long time for another stand-alone Spidey film, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing him in Infinity War next year.
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Last night, Dave and I went to see the play, James Bonney MP, at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington. The most surprising thing about the trip was the total transformation of the pub, to the extent that we thought we were in the wrong place when we walked in. It used to be tiny, with a couple of booths down one wall, and a small stretch of bar, cramped and dim, with the theatre at the back in one corner. Now, they've opened up the whole back section into a spacious, airy dining area, with an open kitchen on one side, a huge skylight, and a lovely beer garden at the far end. The theatre is now upstairs (it still seats about 50) and, most importantly, has air conditioning. The whole place is gorgeous, and we'll definitely be eating there next time we go to see a play.

Speaking of the play - it was okay. It told the very familiar story of an MP trying to juggle the stresses of a vote of no confidence from within his own party, and an affair with a demanding secretary. There were only six characters - the MP, his wife, his daughter, his secretary, his agent, and his main rival (who was also the daughter's boyfriend). Overall, I would have to describe it as feeling inexperienced - the writing, the direction, and the acting. The dialogue was very clunky in places, the actors sometimes seemed uncomfortable in the tight space, with the audience split across two sides of the stage, and there were a few fluffed lines. Bits of it were funny, though, and bits of it were clever, and the cast mainly did a decent job with the material. I didn't find myself wishing it was over, but I also wouldn't say it will stick in my mind at all.

We will certainly go back to the White Bear, especially now its been so miraculously refurbished, but this wasn't a great entry into our visits there, which have previously included several excellent Restoration comedies.
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I recently listened to No Middle Name, a collection of Jack Reacher stories by Lee Child. I was initially a bit apprehensive about it, because it has a different narrator to the one I'm used to, and Jeff Harding is so synonymous with Reacher in my head, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to listen to a different voice reading it. I needn't have worried because the new narrator provided additional entertainment by giving Reacher a really deep, gravelly voice that made him sound like Batman!

The stories were classic Reacher adventures in short form, and highly enjoyable. Two or three gave some entertaining insight into Reacher's youth, and most of the others ran along similar lines to the novels. The one in which Reacher has his first sexual encounter with a girl, on the night of the blackout in New York, while the Son of Sam stares at him through the car windscreen was rather too ridiculous for words. And it was a shame that there were two stories involving a female War Plans officer selling military secrets, and another two stories where Reacher encountered a heavily pregnant woman on Christmas Eve. However, the novels themselves are fairly repetitive and usually involve Reacher getting into highly unlikely situations, so I suppose this volume of short stories was generally in keeping. Great fun, overall.

I very much enjoyed Felixstowe Book Festival over the weekend, and almost escaped without buying any books. However, the last panel on Sunday had two authors that caught my attention, so I came away with two books after all. And I finished both of them in the five days since the festival.

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall tells the story of Ben, a young man convicted at the age of ten of murdering another ten-year-old, who is released from prison at the age of eighteen and given a new identity. The book has two timelines - Ben's struggles with finding a place in the outside world, and also the day of the murder itself. The story is compelling, the characters well drawn and the gradual reveal of what really happened that day is intriguing. I liked the structure, and there was an interesting range of POV - including Ben's probation officer, the victim's mother, various other characters involved in the case, and Ben himself. I thought it was a bold choice to have his point of view, particularly since he is portrayed quite sympathetically, and I enjoyed his narrated sections the most. I also found the ending unexpected and quite chilling - another bold choice after all the build-up of the preceding story.

However, there were a couple of aspects of the writing that really infuriated me. The narrative tenses were very muddled - so much so that it occasionally switched from past to present tense for a couple of sentences and then back again. If this was deliberate, I can't see what it was meant to achieve - and if it wasn't, it baffles me that the editor didn't catch it. But then, the narrative was also riddled with occasions where a comma was used when it should have been a semi-colon or, more suitably, a full stop. So, my conclusion has to be that neither author nor editor know how to use tense or punctuation properly. In an otherwise excellent book, I always find surface issues like this intensely annoying, and I do feel they should have been picked up and sorted out well before the book hit the shelves.

I had a similar experience with A Suitable Lie by Michael J Malone. The premise is excellent, and the execution generally also good. It tells the story of Andy, a widower with a young child, who meets and marries Anna in a whirlwind romance. Over time, though, she is revealed as unstable and violent, and Andy is subjected to brutal physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his wife. I found the situation and developing story very interesting, and the portrayal of the difficulties faced by a man in this predicament were extremely well laid out.

However, the foreshadowing was very heavy-handed, some of the plot points seemed very contrived, and the central dilemma/message of the book was frequently stated outright with very little subtext. What annoyed me more, though, were the glaring inconsistencies in the back story. At one point, it said Andy was widowed when his son was a toddler, but then it said the child's mother died in childbirth. It also said his son was "planned for, prayed for", despite earlier stating the pregnancy was a total accident as the wife had a heart condition and had been told she should never get pregnant because the strain would be too much for her. And then there were several instances where the narrative had "it's" instead of "its", which is pretty unforgivable in my view. So, again, very sloppy editing. I also found the ending very disappointing. After a very detailed description of how difficult it would be for Andy to successfully win a custody battle for his children (unlikelihood of people believing his story, and mothers generally getting custody), I was really looking forward to seeing how the case would proceed. But the author chose to go for an over-the-top melodramatic ending which, in my view, undermined the importance of the book's message, and failed to show how people in this situation might realistically find a solution.

Hey ho. Both books had a lot to recommend them, and they certainly kept me reading to find out what would happen in the end. But I found the issues with the writing very frustrating, as these authors are acclaimed but are apparently missing some of the basics of punctuation and grammar.
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Review so far this year:

Film & TV:
Positive – 18 (90%)
Negative – 2 (10%)

Positive – 23 (88%)
Negative – 3 (12%)

Live Entertainment:
Positive – 14 (93%)
Negative – 1 (7%)

Positive – 12 (92%)
Negative – 1 (8%)

Positive – 11 (69%)
Negative – 5 (31%)

Reviews total for first half of 2017:
Positive – 78 (87%)
Negative – 12 (13%)

There were quite a few 'on the fence' reviews, which largely made it into the positive side of the table, since I judged the positives mostly outweighed the negatives. So, these stats are perhaps skewed slightly positive - but then that's a good way to approach life, right?

I'm glad that I'm so far on track for an overall average of a book a week, which is quite a bit more than last year, when I only managed half that over the year.
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The stars aligned for the July category of the The Wordy Birds Reading Challenge. It was to read a book published before I was born, so I decided to go for A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, which would also fit into January's category, because it's been on my reading shelf for well over a year. Then, I discovered, the Barbican Centre was doing a book club over the summer, and the first book was A Clockwork Orange, so I duly bought a ticket.

I read the book in four days and found it fascinating how easy it was to pick up the meaning from context, even though many of the words were unfamiliar. It has a very strong narrative voice in Alex, the teenage delinquent who runs a gang of droogs, committing ultraviolence just for the fun of it. The central discussion of whether the state has the right to curtail its citizens free will isn't subtle - in fact, groups of characters debate the question on multiple occasions throughout the book. But that doesn't make it any less interesting. I particularly liked the character of the author, who is writing a book called A Clockwork Orange, and represents the distinction between ideals and personal opinion. On a level of principle, he is very much against the government brainwashing criminals into being unable to commit violence. However, once he discovers Alex is the boy who caused the death of his wife, he immediately wants to exact violent revenge, because being a victim of crime necessarily alters your viewpoint.

The very end seemed tacked on, and I very much disagreed with the new argument it presented, so I was interested to discover at the Barbican discussion that Burgess added it in later, and left it to his editors to decide whether or not to include it. The Barbican event was excellent - really interesting and a great opportunity to gain further insight into an excellent and very challenging book. I got over my usual shyness of speaking in public, and actually was by far the most vocal audience member. So, overall, my experience of reading A Clockwork Orange was multi-layered and intellectually stimulating.

I then moved on to Zone One by Colson Whitehead, which sounds from the blurb on the back like it's going to be a very silly parody of the zombie genre. The confused Amazon reviews made a lot more sense when I started reading it and discovered that it's actually densely descriptive and very pretentious in a classically literary fashion. It jumps around in time a lot, with very little sign-posting, so it's very hard to follow as a linear story. But then it's really more of a meditation on the potential mental health repercussions of surviving a zombie apocalypse, combined with biting satire of modern life and bureaucracy, than it is a coherent story. It's a beautifully rendered mosaic, but the pattern is too busy in places to make out the picture clearly. The last twenty pages were very compelling and it turned out I had gradually become very invested in the characters along the way. It's pretty bleak, all told, but very well constructed and beautifully executed. I'm just not sure that there are that many readers who fit into the Venn diagram crossover of deeply pretentious literary fiction and zombie apocalypse novels. Luckily, I very much do, so I appreciated it on all levels, but I think most people would reject it for being both when they are looking for just the one.

On Friday night, I went to see Baby Driver at the cinema. I had heard very good things about from multiple sources, and was very intrigued. And the first ninety minutes had a lot going for it. The plot was exciting and pacy (though riddled with cliche), the performances were good (Ansel Elgort in particular did a very great deal with not very much at all), and the choreography of the action to fit the music was entertaining and clever. Then, in my view, the last twenty-five minutes went rather awry. It got considerably more violent, and hugely more ridiculous (not in a good way) and I was left feeling very much unfulfilled. But then, I'm not sure what I was expecting, since it's an Edgar Wright film. The run-up was perfect, the vault itself was very well executed - and then he fluffed the landing. And, sadly, that has often been my experience of his films. Oh well.
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Last week, I finished listening to The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the Broken Earth series by N K Jemisin.

I was very interested that it started with the death of the three-year-old boy, which happened at the beginning of the first book, only this time it was told from the point of view of the father, who actually killed him. It was certainly a bold place to start the story, particularly since it presented him, if not in a sympathetic light, but definitely in a way that made his actions understandable.

While the first book was split into three narratives that showed three very different times in the protagonist's life, this book was split between her story continuing from where the first book ended, and the very different perspective of her eight-year-old daughter, who was taken away by the father after he killed her brother.

I preferred the storyline with the little girl, but the other one also developed in some interesting ways. There was a great deal of moral ambiguity, and all the characters had a lot of facets. The protagonists gained more flaws and the antagonists were portrayed with more depth, which made the various conflicts in the story infinitely more complex.

As with the first book, though, it was pretty grim and I was about ready to give up on the series, since I didn't feel attached enough to the characters, and some of the plot details were a bit hard to follow. Then the ending set up the next stage of the story in such a way that I was suddenly very keen to find out what happens next - and so I will persevere through to the end of the trilogy. Not right away, though - I need to clear out my brain with something a bit jollier first!
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Last week, I watched Colossal, which turned out to be quite fascinating. Ostensibly, it’s about a woman who discovers she is inadvertently creating a giant monster that appears in Seoul at a particular time of day and mimics her movements, to varyingly destructive effect. What it’s really about is acknowledging the consequences of your actions (both for yourself and others), identifying and removing toxic influences on your life, and empowering yourself to make positive change both in yourself and in the world. A lot of it was quite uncomfortable watching, and it certainly wasn’t a comedy (as it has sometimes been presented), but overall it worked well, and I found it quite thought-provoking.

At the weekend, I went to Burlesque 2.0 at the Underbelly venue on the South Bank. I was familiar with most of the performers from other House of Burlesque shows, and the quality was very high. I also thought the over-riding theme of female empowerment and rejecting the trends of current world politics was well done and very effective. In true burlesque style, some of the acts were funny, some were subversive, some were powerful, and some were classic. It was a very good range, and I really enjoyed the show, particularly the second half.

Today, on a train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston, I read a book about a suicide bomber on a train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston, which was a bit meta for my liking. It was called The Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe and it was compelling enough that I read it all in one day, in about four hours overall (I started on the train up to Manchester and continued over lunch, then on the train back). Having nine point of view characters was ambitious, but the short chapters and general interaction made it quite easy to keep track. To begin with, most of the characters felt very stereotypical, and some of the attempts at slang felt overdone. However, as the story progressed, all the characters gained depth and complexity, and the diversity was broad. Having the bomber as one of the point of view characters was a bold choice, but his voice was strong, and it was interesting to see his thoughts as the plot built up the tension. My favourite character, though, was his sister, and the aspect of the story I found most interesting was the presentation of his family - their reactions, how they were treated, and what happened to them afterwards. The book was pretty horrific, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, but the aftermath was handled really well, and given a lot of time and attention, which is unusual in this kind of thriller. The conclusion was satisfying, not least because it wasn’t neat or wholly uplifting. The irrevocability of the tragedy was strongly emphasised, and not all of the survivors were able to set aside their anger and prejudices to seek solace and connection with the others, which felt very realistic. So, not an especially enjoyable book, but a very effective one.
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The first weekend in June, we went to the UK Games Expo at the NEC in Birmingham. We played a lot of Paperback, which gets better with more familiarity and inclusion of some of the expansions.

I also played three new games:

Thief’s Market is a sort-of bidding game where the start player rolls a set of dice with gems, gold and victory points on them, and then claims however many they want from the set, with which to pay for the cards that are available on display. The next player can then either claim more from the set or steal all but one from another player (the extra one goes back into the middle). This continues until every player has collected some dice and there are none left in the middle. The players then take turns to buy cards with their dice, which then give them additional powers or points for later in the game.

It’s an interesting dynamic in that you have to try and get the right combination of dice for the cards you want, but without taking so many that you become appealing to thieves. I didn’t do very well, but I enjoyed the game-play and would be happy to play again, to work out better tactics.

Fuse is another dice game, this one co-operative. A timer is set for ten minutes and each player is given two cards representing bombs to be diffused, with more laid out in the middle of the table. Each card has a different combination of colours/numbers of dice required to diffuse it. Every turn, a number of dice equal to the number of players is thrown and each player has to take one to work towards completing a card. If they complete one, they turn it over, collect a new one from the middle and keep going. The aim is to diffuse all the bombs before the timer runs out, with setbacks provided by cards that make you discard dice from cards in progress at certain points.

It wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be, from watching other people playing earlier in the weekend, but I don’t generally like timed games, and I didn’t enjoy the mechanics of this one enough to mitigate that aspect.

Isle of Skye is a bit like Carcassonne, but you have to bid on the tiles that are revealed, and build up points over the game through the placement and completion of various features in your land. I’m not very good at setting appropriate values on tiles in this way, and I didn’t do very well, but it was an interesting variation on a jigsaw-type game, and I’d happily play it again.

One of the main achievements of the weekend was that we bought a copy of Scythe, which we had played once before, last October. I was keen to play it again, so we duly set it up. I’m generally incapable of working out how to play games from actually reading the rules (I much prefer someone else to demonstrate and explain a game to me), but our resident rules guru was absent, so the role of explainer fell to me. I managed to figure it all out, successfully explain it to three other people and then beat them convincingly, which was quite satisfying! I’m looking forward to playing Scythe again, especially when one of our friends finishes making the print-and-play My Little Pony version!
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On bank holiday Monday, we went to see The Red Turtle. I definitely enjoyed the experience of watching it. It flowed very well, and I found myself immersed in the world very easily, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of dialogue. I was certainly invested in the character of the ship-wrecked man, and I shared in his various emotions throughout the story. Dave said the film felt really long (it was 80 minutes - though the heat in the cinema wouldn't have helped) but I didn't have that problem at all. I did find myself anticipating the ending too early, but was pleasantly surprised when it then moved on into a different phase of the story. Afterwards, the group had a relatively brief discussion about the meaning and message of the film, which resulted in some rather unfortunate interpretations, and I admit it would be easy to see some quite unhealthy messages to take away from it, when viewed from a certain angle. So, I have decided to let it remain non-specifically contemplative in my mind, giving it a dreamlike quality that I think fits quite well with the presentation. It's not a film I think would benefit from lengthy analysis - I just let it take me along, and now I'm ready to let it go.

Something that I think will stay with me longer is A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart. I picked this book up at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival after enjoying an interview with the author. He's a computer games reviewer, who discovered a way to connect better with his autistic son by playing Minecraft with him, and that's the central premise of the book, though the background of the characters and the arc of the various plot strands are very obviously fictional. I found the book intensely emotive - to the extent that it had me pretty much crying on the train and in a cafe, but also inwardly cheering at other points. The difficulties of being a parent to an autistic child are very honestly and unflinchingly portrayed, which I find very brave of the author. But that also means that the emotional payoff at various points is that much stronger. I loved the development of the characters, I thought the portrayal of the relationships was very realistic, the narrative had tons of very sharp and sometimes funny observations about people and society, and the overall arc of the book was extremely satisfying. It was very painful to read in places, but well worth it in the end. And I particularly liked the concluding sense that these characters lives were going to carry on long after the book finished - the ending was much more of a beginning in a way that really appealed to me. I also loved all the bits set inside the world of Minecraft - it was very vividly brought to life and added a fantastical element to what was otherwise a book very firmly set in the real world.

The General by Robert Muchamore is the tenth in the CHERUB series, and my comments about it are very similar to those for the last few books. It was too short, too episodic, and none of the characters seemed to change or really learn anything. The main protagonist, James, is still a total dick, and my favourite parts of the books are always when the female agents point his flaws out to him in quite aggressive fashion - but he doesn't seem to learn from this at all. The main plot of the book involved a training exercise the CHERUB agents were taking part in, so there was very little sense of jeopardy in the story, and the section in Las Vegas at the end felt rather tacked on. Still, overall it was quite fun, the narrator is very good, and I like the peripheral characters enough to want to keep listening. As the books are so short, I don't feel they're particularly good value for money when I'm spending Audible credits on them, but I make up for that so much with my other audiobook purchases that I don't really mind. There are only two books left in the main CHERUB series, so I will see it through to the end, mostly to find out where James ends up after his CHERUB career is over.
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Cut for vast length... )

Most important takeaway (if this was too long to read) - watch Rectify, it's amazing!
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Yesterday, I finished listening to Just One Damned Things After Another, the first in the St Mary's Chronicles by Jody Taylor. This was recommended to me by two separate sources, and it sounded like a good audiobook series, so I decided to give it a try. And there was a lot about it that I enjoyed. It's about a historian who joins an organisation that have developed time travel, and the setting and set-up are both well realised an a lot of fun. There are great characters, interesting interplay, tons of action and excitement, and a good debate about the ethics of time travel - whether to interfere or leave well alone.

However, it also had some quite grim bits, and some very sad bits, and various bits that made me want to stop listening. Towards the end, I was fluctuating wildly between wanting to carry on with the series and wanting to give up after this one. And, in the end, I decided not to carry on, as I didn't enjoy the good bits enough to put up with the less good bits. Interesting and fun, but also a bit too grim.

Yesterday, we also went to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2, after re-watching the first one the same day. I was glad we did this, as I remembered very little about it, and it gave a good grounding to the backstory, so I could go into the second one well-informed. I was also trying out a new attitude of wanting to enjoy things more, rather than wanting to criticise them.

And the first half of the film was great! Really funny, really exciting, and a good time hanging out with characters I like. Then it hit the saggy middle section, where there was a bit too much indiscriminate killing, and not enough moving the plot forwards, and it lost me for a while. It definitely picked up again towards the end, and I thought the climax was pretty good. But the whole thing was too long and could easily have been cut without losing anything important, and some of the recurring jokes very much fell flat. Still, Baby Groot was marvellous, I thought Rocket's arc was particularly effective, I laughed out loud multiple times, and there was some very cool set pieces. So, overall, a good experience, though far from outstanding.

This morning, I watched Kedi, a very different prospect. It's a Turkish documentary about street cats in Instanbul, and I really enjoyed it. It was wonderfully put together, with shots of the cats wandering the city and interacting with various humans, overlayed with voice-overs from the people, talking about their relationships with the cats, and some really lovely music. I would consider tons of cats roaming the streets of London a total nuisance, but there are plenty of people in Instanbul who expend large amounts of time and money in looking after these cats, and they had some quite profound things to say about what the cats represent and what they mean to them. It was quite moving in places, and certainly made me think differently about cats - at least for a little while!
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Last weekend, I went to the Chipping Norton Literary Festival with some writer friends, and it was excellent, though resulted in me buying rather more books than I had intended...

The first of these was I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, a former police officer turned bestselling author, who gave a very good talk about her transition to being a writer, and how her previous career informs her writing. The book sounded interesting, not least because of "The Thing" that apparently happened partway through and blew everyone's mind... So, I picked up a copy and read it last week, while away at a writing retreat.

The book is about a hit-and-run accident, following the police investigation, and also the stories of other people involved in the case. Now, having read the book, I'm not exactly sure what "The Thing" actually is. There are three big reveals in the book, and I think "The Thing" is probably the first one. However, I figured out the first two on page 11, and it would have been impossible to guess the third one as there was no build-up to it at all, which made it rather more of a "huh" moment than an "OMG". I don't know if the clues on pg 11 would have been so obvious if I hadn't been primed to look for "The Thing", but there are multiple references on the cover of the book to an "amazing twist", so it's clear the reader is supposed to go into it expecting big surprises.

I didn't really connect to any of the characters - I lost sympathy with the two police detectives quite early for various reasons, and neither of them stood out particularly strongly anyway. Plus, "The Thing" made it difficult to get a handle on the other main character in some ways. Then, in the second half, a new narrative thread was introduced that was really unsettling and very creepy - incredibly effectively written, but not a pleasant experience to read at all.

So, throughout the book, I was only really reading it to find out what happened in the end - which I suppose still got me to buy and read the book all the way through, so is perhaps a valid marketing technique. It was well written, and presented a particular type of relationship and mindset very credibly, but it wasn't really my kind of thing, and I didn't find the conclusion all that satisfying.
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The May category for The Wordy Birds Reading Challenge is a book by a local author. I've got a bit ahead of myself, and actually selected, read and finished this book last week!

I only found one author actually from Enfield, and I didn't like the sound of his books at all, so I went about eight miles down the road to Woodford Green, and chose The Impossible Takes A Little Longer by Eric Edis. He decided to buy a Land Rover, recruit some fellow travelers via an advert in the paper, and drive from London to Australia, via Burma and Singapore - in 1957. Fifteen set out, but only two of the original party made it all the way to Australia (nobody died, but the others gradually dropped out along the way), so he then had to recruit a whole new team to make the trip back again. The whole thing took 18 months, and involved a lot of visa wrangling, unpleasant illnesses, flat tyres and dragging the Land Rover out of the mud. The book is clearly self-published (in 2008) and the prose isn't the best I've read, but the story is fascinating, and Eric's authorial voice is personable and entertaining. As you might expect from someone who grew up in the 30s and 40s, some of the attitudes he expresses towards his female travelling companions and the native people in the countries he visited are less than politically correct, but I've heard a lot worse, and in general he is very positive about the experience and the other people involved.

This is not a book I would ever have come across if it hadn't been for the reading challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Last week, I also went to see Their Finest, a film about a female writer employed in the Second World War to make female dialogue more convincing in the films put out by the Ministry of Information. In a lot of ways, I thought it was really good. The humour was done well, as was the presentation of the lives of those trying to carry on and get work done during the Blitz. Bill Nighy is always good value, and the parts about the making of the film within the film were great. However, the romance storyline did nothing for me at all. I didn't think either of the central relationships were developed fully enough or presented with enough complexity for the motivations of the characters to be convincing, or the emotional impact to be effective at all. I found some of the characters' actions and decisions very inconsistent, and that whole aspect of the film just didn't work, in my view. Still, there was a lot to like apart from that, and the rest was very well done.

And then, yesterday, we spent the whole afternoon and evening at the Palace Theatre, watching both parts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (no spoilers below!). The trip had an inauspicious beginning when the very thorough bag search turned out to be focused on food and drink rather than anything more suspicious, which I thought was a bit harsh since the timings of the plays meant we would be in the theatre at both lunch and dinner time. Then, it turned out that "restricted view" really was very restricted, in that we could only see half the stage. There wasn't anyone behind us, so we did a lot of leaning and craning, and got most of it, but it was still a bit of a shame.

I found the opening sections of Part One very frenetic and difficult to follow, with very little chance to get attached to the characters. Anyone not already familiar with the Harry Potter universe would have been completely lost, but then I suppose the plays aren't aimed at the uninitiated. To get all the negative stuff out of the way first, I also thought there were some aspects that were played for laughs and shouldn't have been, which was a shame, and diminished the initial impact of my favourite character.

However, once it got going and really found its feet, it was pretty amazing. The special effects and general staging, in particular, were spectacular. There were many moments where I couldn't work out how things were done, and it was all visually stunning and very impressive. The end of Part One was especially effective. I also thought the plot worked a lot better on stage with all the supporting aspects of performance, lighting, effects, etc, than it had when I read the script. The entire cast were obviously committed and really enjoying themselves, and most of the performances were excellent.

I liked the second half of Part One, and the first half of Part Two best. In fact, I was so immersed in Part Two, that the applause for the interval took me completed by surprise. Sections towards the end were also very affecting. So, whilst I found some aspects of the experience a bit problematical, I'm really glad we managed to get tickets and were able to go, because overall it was very good.
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Whilst away at the weekend, I finished reading The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope. I was initially intrigued by the fact that the protagonist appeared to be a man of Portuguese descent, named Ferdinand Lopez. As the opening conflict in the story related to his desire to marry Emily Wharton, and her father's only objection was that he wasn't English, I thought perhaps the novel was going to subvert Victorian prejudices and have him turn out to be the hero. Sadly, this was not to be, and Lopez was soon revealed to be thoroughly bad. Still, the development of Emily as a character had a great deal of depth, and her struggle in trying to remain true to her marriage vows, as her husband's character became clear to her, was very convincingly portrayed. All the characters were multi-faceted (Lopez really did love her, in his way), and the angst and melodrama overflowed throughout the book in a highly entertaining fashion. It was very repetitive in places (good, old, paid-by-the-word serials!), and I would have preferred Lopez to prove everyone wrong by establishing his worth, but it was still a very enjoyable book overall.

I also finished listening to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, which I decided to try because the audio version was recommended to me as having a good narrator. This was certainly true, as I remember not really being engaged by the book when I read it in text version, whereas the audiobook got me invested right away, and kept me listening avidly right to the end. The narrator, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, imbued the hero, Peter Grant, with a very appealing, self-deprecating humour, and I was extremely happy to spend many hours in his company. The story, involving a ghost possessing people and forcing them to commit violent crimes along the plot of Mr Punch, was pretty unpleasant in places, but the world was well-drawn and the peripheral characters both varied and interesting. So, whilst I only got as far as this book when reading, I shall definitely continue with the series in audio format, as another demonstration of how much difference a really good narrator can make to a story.

There were also several games played at the weekend, all of them new to me. I didn't get on that well with Legendary Encounters (Firefly version), as it seemed overly difficult for the players to triumph, and the actual gameplay wasn't very interesting. I also wasn't particularly fond of Migration, which is one of those games where I grasped the mechanics very quickly, but failed entirely to appreciate any level of strategy. Gloom in Space was just Gloom with space-themed cards, and proved just as unengaging as I remembered the original game being.

However, I bought Via Nebula, which turned out to be a really interesting and fun game. It involves exploring a misty valley, establishing building sites, and then transporting the relevant resources to them, in order to build structures that then give you certain powers. The exploration and discovery of resources benefited all the players, whereas the buildings only benefited the person completing them, so it was a tricky balance of getting what you needed without helping everyone else too much. Definitely one to play again while it's still fresh in my mind, and a decent addition to our games collection.

We also played Great Scott, which proved very entertaining on several levels. Players collect cards in order to construct a weird invention, and then have to describe it to the other players in the manner of a snakeoil salesman trying to make a sale. There was strategy in the card-collecting stages, in that points could be earned for matching types and also alliteration. And then it was great fun listening to everyone try and explain how indispensable their inventions were, whilst also trying to sell one's own. I drew with one of the other players, though most of my points came from good card combinations, whilst he earned most of his via enthusiastic performance skills at the selling stage. My favourite of my inventions was the Clockwork Cucumber Driven Dandelion Airship.
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