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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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... )
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.
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.
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.
First up was Love's Labours Lost, a play I'm not very familiar with, having only come across it from the 2000 Alicia Silverstone/Nathan Lane film version (there are lots of other famous people in it, but weirdly those are the only two I remembered before looking it up).
Anyway, the Haymarket production was great fun, and it was a very enjoyable experience. The set was amazing, featuring the frontage of a castle, complete with two turrets, and a moving platform that provided several different interiors. There were lots of lovely comedic touches in the interpretation, with various aspects of the staging and movement of the cast adding a great deal to the overall tone. As one would expect from Shakespeare, there was some great linguistic humour as well, though I thought the Nine Worthies show went on a bit too long. I loved the 1910s period setting and costumes, and I thought the cast was generally very good. But the teddy bear absolutely stole the show! He was used to great effect in one particular scene, and I exclaimed just as loudly as his owner when one of the other characters threatened to drop him off the castle roof. The ending of the play was a bit downbeat for a comedy, but it did allow for a very nice lead-in to the next week's production, which featured the same cast in a very similar setting.
That production was Much Ado About Nothing, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and definitely the one I know best, having seen many differed stage versions (and having watched the Kenneth Branagh film version too many times to count). That was perhaps a slight disadvantage in this case, since I was always comparing this version to others I've seen, but it was generally very well done. I had two issues with it, though. One was that the teddy bear didn't make an appearance, since he was my favourite character from the previous show. The other was the interpretation of Dogberry. He's one of the few of Shakespeare's clowns that I actually find funny, and I usually have no problem laughing at him, as he is generally presented as pompous and self-important, and is rendered comical by his misplaced desire to impress his compatriots and betters via his speech. However, in this production, he was presented as palsied and cognitively impaired, which made him rather a pitiable figure, and rendered the audience's mirth at his expense quite uncomfortable. Still, overall, I enjoyed the production, and thought the cast did a very good job.
This week, I also finished listening to A Natural History of Dragons, the first in the Lady Trent Memoirs series by Marie Brennan. It's narrated by a lady from an alternate-Victorian history, who has made a career of studying dragons, and relates her adventures from the vantage-point of several decades in the future. This book charts her childhood, adolescence, marriage and first overseas voyage, and is tremendous fun. In fact, not even the inclusion of my most hated pet peeve in fiction, right at the end, could significantly dent my enjoyment of the book as a whole, and I will most definitely be carrying on with the rest of the series. The narrator was also extremely good, which always helps, and I very much look forward to having her relate more of Lady Trent's adventures to me in the near future.
The best entertainment of last week, though, was our trip to the Crystal Maze. There were seven of us, and our team was called The Enemy's Gate is Down, an Ender's Game reference, which our maze master got and really appreciated. He was Aberdeen Angus, and he really threw himself into his role as our guide and time-keeper. He gave us a few hints here and there, kept our energy up, and proved an entertaining and friendly presence in the maze. We elected David as our team captain, and he did a very good job of selecting game types and team members to undertake them.
Our opening salvo in the Industrial Zone was a rather dismal failure, netting us no crystals. Luckily, Andy was the only one to get locked in (after an unfortunate encounter with some bells on a rope web) and he managed to puzzle his own way out, so we weren't forced to leave him behind. David also got locked in during our time in the Futuristic Zone, attempting to work his way through some quite impossible lasers, and we did relinquish a crystal to get him out.
However, every team member contributed to getting at least one crystal, and Simon was declared man of the match of getting three, one for every game he tried! So, we went into the dome with nine crystals and 45 seconds on the clock. The dome was a lot of fun, and I quickly discovered that the best way to get golden tickets was to stand near the fans and then collect them from my t-shirt.
The whole thing was tremendous fun, and I would urge everyone to go and play, if they get the opportunity.
It tells the story of a mysterious magical circus, which serves as the battleground for a years-long competition between two rival magicians. But it’s so much more than that.
I found the book instantly engaging. The narrative is interspersed with passages in the second person, which allow the reader to feel as if they are really inside the circus, and also chart the reader’s progress through the book itself. I also liked the slow build of the main storyline, which initially isn’t connected to the circus at all, and takes a long time to become clear.
The interweaving of the two different timelines is masterfully done, building a real sense of momentum towards the point when they finally converge. In the meantime, the wonderful array of characters, and the complexities of their interactions and significance, provide a rich and fascinating tapestry of experience. I quickly became invested in them all, regardless of their likeability or moral compass. In fact, all the characters are very well rounded and believable, with both good and bad qualities. It’s a long while before a clear antagonist can be identified, and my sympathies and support fell on both sides of the mysterious central conflict for most of the book.
The narrative demonstrates very deliberate and very effective use of the passive voice, which is a tricky thing to get right, and generally frowned upon. However, it’s clear that every instance here is precisely chosen for a particular purpose, which it executes perfectly.
I sometimes get impatient with books that contain a lot of mystery and suspense, wanting to skim just to find out what’s going to happen or what’s actually going on. In this case, whilst I found the mysteries highly engaging, I enjoyed the journey of the story so much that I didn’t want to rush it at all.
My favourite aspect of the book, though, is the presentation and exploration of fandom. The dedicated fans of the circus are described with a great deal of affection, and their attitudes, behaviour and interactions are very accurate in terms of my own experience of such things. One of the characters encounters them towards the end of the novel, and his time with them reminded me incredibly strongly of occasions when I’ve gone alone to fan conventions and been adopted by wonderful people with a sense of instant belonging and community. So, it was refreshing and very enjoyable to find that represented so beautifully in a novel.
I got increasingly concerned about how the story might end, but I was very satisfied with all aspects of its conclusion, and I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy. If anything, it reminded me superficially and tonally of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, though it is also very much its own, very wonderful beast.
Yesterday, I also went to see Jackie, which turned out to be just as good as I had been led to believe. It was smaller in scope than I had expected, dealing with only the week immediately after the Kennedy assassination, but also greater in exploration of theme. It was rather like a pair of mirrors set opposite one another, and creating infinite reflections. On the surface, it was about performance versus reality, and purported to reveal the truth behind how Jackie presented both herself and her husband in the aftermath of his death. But, of course, the presentation of that ‘truth’ was itself a performance within the film, and the film-makers presumably made deliberate decisions about what to include and what to leave out, in order to create the message they were aiming for.
Natalie Portman was amazing, in a film that was largely made up of extreme close-ups, and I can’t now recall if there was actually a scene she wasn’t in - if there was, it wasn’t many. She gave a very complex portrayal of a woman dealing with extreme circumstances while under the microscope of the world’s gaze. And it was an impressive, and multi-layered performance - showing both strength and weakness, hope and despair, determination and collapse.
I also thought the structure was clever and well executed. The narrative was very fractured, jumping about in rapid succession between different time periods. This emphasised the trauma experienced by the protagonist very effectively, as well as reflecting all the various memories and thoughts that were jumbled up in her mind. It was a very intimate film, and not always comfortable viewing, but I'm glad I went.