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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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Last night, Dave and I finally got round to watching Your Name, the Japanese animated film that came out last year and seemed to get five star reviews from everyone and his dog. I'd been meaning to watch it for ages, and a long walk, followed by takeaway curry led to a naturally to a movie, and that was the one we picked.

It's a body-swapping tale of teenage angst and romance, which gets more an more complicated as it progresses.

It took a little while to get into it, as the beginning sections were a bit fragmented and difficult to follow. But it was worth persevering, as it gradually drew us in and got us really caring about all the characters. There were some lovely details, in terms of how the two protagonists were drawn to distinguish when they were in each other's bodies. And there were some great cultural moments that managed to come across via the sub-titles - though I don't know how the language intricacies would be handled in a dubbed version.

Towards the end, Dave figured out one of the twists before it was revealed and, after that, seemed more and more concerned about when and how the film might end. For the last few minutes, we were both desperately hugging teddy bears as we watch in nervous anticipation of the ultimate conclusion. But, I think it's safe to say we were very satisfied overall, and our level of emotional investment just goes to show how effective a film it was.

Very weird, but quite wonderful.
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 The category for the April Wordy Birds Reading Challenge was a book written in the second person.  Fortuitously, a book recommended to me recently happened to be written at least partially in the second person, so I selected that.

The book is The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin, the first in The Broken Earth series.  It’s about a sub-set of humanity who have the ability to draw energy from the world around them and use it in various ways, and how they are oppressed by the rest of the populace in a world that is subject to periodic environmental cataclysms.  I decided to read it with my ears, as Jane would say, as I thought listening to a second person narrative might be particularly immersive.  Interestingly, this was not so.  The book has three distinct plot strands, only one of which turned out to be in the second person, and it was actually the one I related to least.


That one follows a woman named Essun, who arrives home one day to discover her husband has beaten their three-year-old son to death and kidnapped their seven-year-old daughter, because he discovers the children have inherited their mother’s magical power.


The second person narrative didn’t help me to put myself in Essun’s place, because her story very much revolved around her experience as a mother, which is not something I can relate to.  I found it interesting that the gender and status of the character was so powerfully emphasised, as I would normally expect a character in a second person narrative to be quite generic, in order for the reader to imagine themselves in the story.


This wasn’t the only problem I had with the book, though, at least to begin with.


The second narrative follows a teenager named Demaya, who is abused and neglected by her family for possessing the magic power.  She is rescued by a man who trains children with the power, only to be horribly tortured by him in the guise of teaching her control.


The third narrative follows Syanite, a woman who is established as a trained wielder of the power, but who is forced to conceive children against her will in order to produce more magical resource for the state.  At the point where she and her companion discover the fate of children who are unable to control their power, I decided to give up listening to the book, because it was just too unpleasant.  I was hopeful that the characters would be able to effect positive change in their world by the end of the series, but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to suffer through all the doom and despair that was bound to occur before that conclusion.


The book had obviously managed to get me invested by this point, however, because when I went to delete if from my Audible library and choose a new book to listen to, I instead hit the button to continue listening to this one.  I just couldn’t leave the characters in the horrific situations they were all in and decided I needed to see it through.


The storyline featuring the teenage character turned into an even more unpleasant, and overly familiar tale of abuse and bullying in a boarding school setting, which was a bit wearying.  However, the other two storylines developed in quite interesting ways.  I related most to Syanite, and Essun picked up some fascinating travelling companions along her way, which made me want to know what would happen to them next.  The book became more interesting and less unpleasant as it went along.  I assume the opening sections were deliberately shocking in order to draw the reader in, though they had the opposite effect on me, and I very nearly didn’t make it to the good bits!


It initially seemed as though there was no connection between the three storylines at all, but in fact they turned out to be very intimately and cleverly connected.  When this became clear, I felt as if I should have seen it coming, but I never would have guessed the connection.  It brought a lot more resonance and significance to all three plot threads, though, and made me even more interested to see how it would end.


The horror of the earliest sections reared its ugly head again right at the end, and called into question the motivation for some of the main characters’ earlier actions, but I was in pretty deep by that point.  The very last line of the book also promises intrigue and excitement for the next one, so I think I’m going to have to carry on to find out what happens.


I’ll probably listen to something a bit jollier first, though!

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I'm a big fan of Tim Minchin, but really not so much of Roald Dahl, so I was a bit ambivalent about going to see Matilda the Musical on Wednesday.  I knew nothing about the story going in, but thought I might enjoy the songs, if not the humour.  And, indeed, quite a lot of the supposedly funny bits didn't do anything for me at all, as it wasn't my kind of humour.  However, the set was amazing, and the whole show was very well staged.  A couple of songs in particular were great - School Song, When I Grow Up, and Revolting Children were my favourites.  The singing was quite indistinct for a lot of the show, which meant I probably missed a fair bit of nuance in the lyrics, but the cast were enthusiastic and definitely gave it their all.

By the interval, I thought it was okay, but I was invested enough in the story to want to know what happened.  And the second half of the second half really picked up and had me fully engaged.  I wasn't so sure about the supernatural aspects, and the whole arc of the plot was very silly, but bits of it definitely affected me, and my applause at the end was wholehearted and genuine.

So, not my favourite musical, by a long way, but I was glad I went, and I thoroughly enjoyed at least parts of it.

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I bought a wonderful little notebook in the New York Public Library gift shop at the start of the month, and it’s proven very good for review notes. It’s the perfect size for carrying around in a side pocket of my bag, it has its own little pen, the pads are refillable, and the case is green-blue metal (hard-wearing) with a beautiful golden pattern on the front of a fox amidst a bunch of sunflowers.

I’ve been scribbling frantically about all the media I have consumed, but haven’t been keeping up with actually posting the reviews. So, buckle up - this is going to be a long one!
Mental Health, Chinese Sci-fi, Existential and Farcial Theatre, and more... )
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The March category in the Wordy Birds’ reading challenge is transport or travel, and I headed back to China Mieville (sorry, Becka! it’s pronounced Mee-ay-vill…) to re-read The City and The City. March sees me embarking on an intensive six-month novel programme, and one of the requirements is to analyse a ‘comparison novel’. Now, I could never write anything as amazing as The City and The City, but it’s a contemporary fantasy novel with a twist to reality, which is how I would describe my novel, so I was looking for tips on how to present a different world without weighing the narrative down with exposition.

The City and The City is a murder mystery set in a pair of fictional eastern European cities. The twist on reality is that they both occupy the same geographical space, but are so completely separate that the inhabitants of one are not allowed to acknowledge the existence of the inhabitants of the other, even when they’re walking down the same street.

The travel aspect comes into it when the detective (a resident of one of the cities) has to go to the other city in order to investigate the murder, and the way that transition is portrayed is brilliantly done. There’s a section in the novel where he has to go into a large government building, go through all the tedious hoops of security and passport checks, and then exit the same building, but into the other city. It’s a telling indictment of the endless bureaucracy of foreign travel in our own world, made all the more ridiculous by the fact that he hasn’t actually travelled anywhere in real terms.

The whole book is so clever, with the setting providing a million little moments of conceptual genius, but it’s difficult to talk more about it without giving too much away. The characters are engaging, the details of the murder case are fascinating, and there are so many great uses and abuses of the rules of the two cities. And then there’s the introduction of a kind of regulatory body called Breach, which monitors interaction between the two cities, and takes the book to a whole new level of mind-bending weirdness. It’s a wonderful book, which I would highly recommend.
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My film of choice on the plane on the way back from New York last weekend was Queen of Katwe. I’d heard good things about it when it came out, and the story of an African chess star was appealing. I quite enjoyed it overall, but it didn’t feel like it had anything new or interesting to say. The plot was very predictable and pretty unoriginal, in terms of both story points and general arc. Now, I know it’s based on a true story, but it should still be possible to present fresh ideas and a new take on the age-old rags-to-riches story, even within the confines of a real-life premise.

Still, David Oyelowo is always good value for money, and didn’t disappoint. And a lot of the kids gave good performances, too. The most interesting character to my mind, though, was the mother, played with admirable complexity by Lupita Nyong'o. She definitely had the most inner conflict to contend with, struggling between wanting her children to have opportunities, while trying to keep them safe, and also not really being able to understand what was being offered to them and what it involved.

So, overall, it passed the time quite pleasantly on the plane, but it wasn’t as good as I had been led to believe.


Whilst in the US, we went to visit the New York Public Library, where there was a small exhibition about the graphic novels of Will Eisner. One of them looked quite interesting, so I bought the Kindle version and read it in its entirety in less than a day. Contract With God tells three separate stories about the people who live in an inner city tenement block - and it’s bleak as all get out. The overriding message is that people either do bad things or have bad things happen to them - that this is inevitable and doomed to be repeated indefinitely. The art was compelling and the stories themselves immersive, but the whole thing was very depressing and quite unpleasant in places.


Of more varied content was The Story of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang, a short story collection, which provoked much discussion and debate at Family Book Club this lunchtime. Everyone liked and disliked different stories, largely based on how interested they were in the technical detail and how much they were able to relate to the characters and situations. I found it very interesting to re-read the story on which the film, Arrival, was based, particularly since the film made significant changes to the story, in order to imbue it with greater jeopardy and a more intense emotional impact.

I much preferred the more character-based stories, and the ones that had less technical detail, but they all raised fascinating questions about society, human behaviour, interaction with technology, and moral and ethical what-ifs.


And, on Friday night, we went to see Logan in the cinema. And, well, hum. I had been warned beforehand that it was very bloody. While at no point did the violence actually cause me to look away, it was quite overwhelming in its frequency, and quite disturbing the nature of one of its main perpetrators. Also, there wasn’t much else, other than grimness, unpleasantness, tragedy and despair to distract from it. So, I found the whole experience very draining, despite excellent performances and some interesting thematic focus. It was by far the best of the lone Wolverine outings in terms of quality, but that’s a very low bar, and what it did provide was not presented in a way that was appealing to me at all. I actually almost walked out a couple of times - and probably would have done, if I’d had anything with me to read, or even my phone to play games on while waiting for my companions to exit as well.
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The category for February in the Wordy Birds reading challenge was a book with animals in it. Three Moments of an Explosion is a short story collection by China Mieville, and several of the stories feature animals, so I hope that counts!

Some of the stories I loved, some I hated, and some I didn’t understand at all, which is about par for the course with my response to Mieville’s writing. Several of his books are among my all-time favourites, whereas there are others I didn’t get on with at all, so I suppose a short story collection was likely to be quite literally a mixed bag.

Interestingly, the stories that featured animals were the ones I liked least.

‘Sacken’ tells of a couple who go on holiday and accidentally disturb the restless spirit of a woman who was drowned in a sack with various animals. I think it was a cat, a dog and a snake, though I didn’t want to revisit the story to check. It’s horribly creepy, and has really stayed with me, and not in a good way.

‘After The Festival’ is about three people who are possessed by the heads of animals that they wear as part of a weird street festival. Enough said.

‘Estate’ depicts the hunting of flaming stags, their antlers set alight before they are released into the streets of cities around the world to be tracked down by young malcontents. It’s pretty graphic in places, and very unpleasant.

My favourite of the stories was ‘Dreaded Outcome’, which doesn’t have any animals in it at all, but tells the tale of a therapist who identifies people she feels are obstacles to her patients’ recovery - and assassinates them.

Many of the stories were quite nebulous - an intriguing premise explored up to a point, but not really explained or resolved. This generally doesn’t bother me in fiction as, done well, it can create quite a powerful impact and leave you both satisfied and unsatisfied in a way that kind of works. Overall, the collection felt like a series of brief windows into China Mieville’s mind, which is a weird and quite disturbing, but also fascinating, place.
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