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2017-09-17 05:51 pm

Fantasy and Creativity, Agency and Companionship

Dave and I rewatched the film, Jumper, recently, and it wasn’t particularly good. It did prompt me to read the original novel by Steven Gould, though, which turned out to be quite surprising.

In terms of premise, both book and film are about an abused teenager who discovers he has the ability to teleport. Apart from that, though, the stories are almost entirely different. Having just rewatched the film, I kept waiting for secret society bad guys to turn up in the book, and they never did. But this wasn’t a bad thing. The realistic treatment of everything apart from Davy’s teleportation ability made the book much more involving and interesting.

What I particularly liked was the great exploration of the psychological effects of Davy’s abuse and ability, as well as the more in depth discussion of the difficulties of a teenager trying to make a new life for himself after running away from home. The love interest, Millie, was much more well-rounded as a character than in the film. I really liked her in the book, and the relationship aspects were well-handled in engaging.

I was less interested in the terrorism revenge plot, but it was a better hook than the random running about in the film, so overall I thought it was a shame they changed so much in the adaptation, and I’ll be interested to see where the book series goes next.


After recently re-reading the Raven Cycle, I decided to try another of Maggie Stiefvater’s books, and listened to The Scorpio Races. I enjoyed it overall, and did finish it, but it never really quite grabbed me enough to make me eager to listen to the next bit. It’s about an island where people capture magical horses from the sea and train them to take part in an annual, high-stakes race on the beach. There are two narrators - Puck and Sean - and the cleverest bit about the book is how the narrative gets you invested in both of them and then sets up the central conflict between them as they both have important reasons for needing to win the race. The race itself when it finally arrived was exciting, and the bittersweet ending was both unexpected and satisfying, but it’s not a book that’s going to stay with me.


The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns is one of the books from my Bibliotherapy prescription that I hadn’t got round to reading yet, so I stuck it in my bag and read it over a couple of days this week. It’s about a girl named Alice, living in an unspecified time in the past, who is mistreated by her father, and has very little control over how her life will turn out. The first person narrative is very effective because Alice is quite innocent about a lot of things, but the author manages to convey information that Alice doesn’t understand but that will not be lost on the reader. There’s a fantasy element to the story, which I thought was introduced way too late and was therefore quite jarring in an otherwise realistic story. I also found the ending quite abrupt and depressing, but Alice’s plight was engaging enough to keep me reading, and it was certainly well written.


Yesterday, I went to the cinema to see Victoria and Abdul. I was concerned going in, based on the trailer, that it might be a bit silly and of the type of humour I don’t enjoy. However, I actually found the first half very sweet and funny, and the second half very affecting and sad. There were some aspects to do with Abdul’s potential exploitation of Victoria’s loneliness that were a bit troubling, but he mostly seemed genuinely solicitous of her, and the treatment they both suffered at the hands of those closest to the queen was quite awful.


Lastly, the September category for the Wordy Birds Reading Challenge was a children’s book. So, I went all the way and decided to read a series of picture books, called the Creatrilogy by Peter H Reynolds. They were beautifully presented hardbacks in a special presentation box, and each told an excellent story about creative thinking and self-expression. The Dot was about a little girl who thinks she can’t draw and how she learns to find her own unique way of creating art. Ish was about a boy who discovers the beauty in imperfection, and Sky Color was about using restrictions to see the world in a whole new way. They were all very simple stories, but carried a profound message that applies to everyone, both child and adult alike. And they were extremely well put together, with every aspect working together to add to the story. The font, the use of colour, the placement of words and pictures - all helped enhance the flow of the plot and emotion of the events portrayed. I thoroughly enjoyed all three books, and would certainly recommend them to those with young children, as I’m sure they would spark some really interesting conversations about art and creativity.
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2017-09-06 06:01 pm

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

I went to an author event recently at the Bloomsbury Institute, where Natasha Pulley did a Q&A. I liked her a lot, and I remembered seeing the posters for her award-winning first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, when it came out. So, I decided to give it a try. I went with the audiobook version, and was glad I did because the narrator had a lovely voice and presented the different characters with enough distinction to make them memorable, but not so much as to make them caricatures.

I quite enjoyed the book overall. I liked the two main male characters, Thaniel Steepleton and Kaita Mori, a great deal and found spending time with them very pleasant. That feels like faint praise, since 'pleasant' is the best word I can find to describe this book, but I don't mind a gentle approach to storytelling on occasion.

What confused me were the accolades the book has garnered, since it did have several faults, and certainly didn't conform to the so-called 'rules' of good novel-writing, or stand out to me as worthy of particular praise.

My main criticisms would be that the only main female character, Grace Carrow, wasn't very likeable and in fact was pretty awful to Thaniel throughout, making her distinctly unsympathetic. The plot felt quite fractured (which didn't surprise me, as Pulley admitted it was originally built from three short stories), and there were multiple occasions in every chapter where the narrative used 'he' and I didn't know who it was referring to.

In terms of breaking the rules, the whole of the first few pages was about a low-level civil servant making a cup of tea (which I loved, but didn't exactly start with a bang), and the protagonist had almost no agency at all (which was kind of the point and also didn't bother me). There was very little conflict (though the tug-of-war between Mori and Grace over Thaniel was quietly engaging) and the mystery of the bombmaker was almost incidental and impossible for the reader to solve.

I've read reviews that describe the book as 'elegant', which is a good word for it. It's quite an unassuming book, but with lots of rich setting detail, and I did feel invested in the characters.

So, I'm a bit conflicted about this one - from an enjoyment point of view, it definitely falls on the positive side, but I'm finding it very difficult not to be analytical in my reading at the moment, and there was a lot about this one that brought me out of the listening experience to think about the writing.
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2017-09-04 04:44 pm

Malazan Book Seven - Reaper's Gale

I started Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson in January this year, I think. It's the seventh in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series and weighs in at 1260 pages. I got halfway through and set it aside for several months, before picking it back up again in August.

I had no clue what was going on when I started reading it again, but then I can never remember the details of what's happened in previous books anyway, so that didn't bother me too much. Whether or not I can place a particular character, or appreciate the significance of a particular plot point, I always find Malazan absorbing, and the writing is so good. I just let it carry me along, and I generally pick up the salient points as I go.

The last third of this instalment, though, contained a great deal of convergence and conclusive action. Lots of disparate characters ended up in the same place, there were several pivotal battles, and quite a few both major and minor characters met grisly ends. There had also been a 2000-page build-up to one encounter in particular, which finally occurred, and resolved itself in a very unexpected and satisfying manner.

I remain incredibly impressed that anyone can sustain a story over such a huge number of words, and I will definitely be reading on to the end of the series. After all, there's only another 3,600 pages or so to go!
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2017-08-28 04:00 pm

Edinburgh Fringe

Dave and I experienced the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time this weekend. We benefitted hugely from expert friends who guided us around the city and recommended shows to go and see. We managed to fit in five shows each day, covering a range of genres and styles.

You Can’t Polish A Nerd:
Tom Crosbie presented a one-man memory/magic show with a geek theme. His persona was very appealing in a self-deprecating way, and the skills he demonstrated got progressively more impressive as the show went on. He finished by producing a double-sided picture of Donald Trump and Albert Einstein using Rubix Cubes. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for people who are prepared to put in the time and work to learn such skills and make them look effortless, since I’m far too lazy. The show was entertaining, if not wildly funny in my view, but I enjoyed it overall.

Crime Scene Improvisation:
This was a troupe of six comedians, who built up a murder mystery story from prompts provided by the crowd. Our case was the murder of hamster trainer, Melanie Fanshawe, killed by a low-flying blimp. As is usual with improvisational comedy, it was very patchy. There were some good bits, but it was rather let down by the woman playing the detective, who interacted most with the crowd but wasn’t very good.

Lula del Ray by Manual Cinema:
This was a shadow theatre show, where the cast projected various backgrounds onto a screen and built up the story with animated cut-outs and the silhouettes of live performers. It was very well crafted, both literally and figuratively, and told a complex story well. I did feel it went on a bit too long, but the combination of live action, cut-outs, music and sound was very effective. It was interesting to be able to see how it was all done in real time, but I did get quite distracted by it and found myself watching the back-stage aspects as much as the finished film.

How To Win Against History:
This was an exuberant, clever, affecting musical about a cross-dressing aristocrat from the 1800s, who squandered his family’s fortune putting on vanity plays. The protagonist was deeply flawed, and his desperation for attention was quite painfully portrayed by the lead actor. But the songs were funny and emotive by turns, and all three cast members did a very good job. This was my favourite show of the first day, in terms of consistent quality and entertainment value.

Elixir:
Extremely attractive half-naked men doing very impressive acrobatics in a comedy fashion with a zombie outbreak framing narrative - what’s not to like? Well, I realise they needed some recovery time between the amazing acrobatic sections, but I did feel some of the comedy interludes went on too long and involved too much standing about and not really doing very much (and the show did over-run). Also, for a venue with entirely flat seating, there was too much obscured floor work. It was mostly awesome, though, particularly the section with the giant metal ring, which combined very funny visual humour with incredible acrobatic feats.

Labels:
Day two started with the best show we saw all weekend. It was a one-man show, telling the story of a man of British and Indian descent, and his experiences of prejudice and ignorance during his life. It was very personal, but also global in theme, with some excellent impressions of various politicians, using real quotes to demonstrate the awfulness of current and historical attitudes towards race and immigration. Joe told his story using sticky labels and multiple signs to great effect, and the show was both moving and funny.

The Great Ridolphi:
Expectations are an interesting thing. When I sat down in the auditorium for this show, I reached into my bag and drew out what I thought was a bottle of Diet Coke. I took a sip and nearly spat it out because it tasted to different to what I was expecting. It was actually blackcurrant squash, which I really like, but in that moment it tasted horrible because it wasn’t Diet Coke. My experience of The Great Ridolphi wasn’t that extreme, but it took me a while to get into the narrative of a middle-aged, dying man trying to come to terms with the death of his father, because I had thought going in that it was going to be a magic or circus show. Still, the central performance was very good, and I thought the plot was intriguing, and the different locations and characters cleverly evoked. But I didn’t feel connected to the main character at all, which meant my emotions weren’t really engaged, and the whole thing left me rather unmoved.

Will Seaward Goes to Eldorado:
This was a one-man comedy show about the history of the search for Eldorado. It was generally amusing, but not as funny to me as the guy doing it seemed to think it was. He was personable and appealing, but I felt there was a disconnect between his affable explorer persona and the language he used at times. His jollity also seemed a bit forced (though it was the last show of the run and he did say he was ill), which made it harder for me to get on board with it. But a lot of the information was entertaining, and it was generally well presented.

Escape From the Animal Hospital:
This was an escape room constructed especially for the festival by a company that is permanently based in Edinburgh. There were two rooms, and a lot of well-conceived puzzles, and we eventually rescued a very cute monkey from imprisonment in the lab. I spent quite a lot of time standing around with nothing to do, but I think that was rather more my fault than the fault of the game, since everyone else in my team seemed fully occupied the whole time. My main role was to spot when we were being given clues (typed onto a screen in the room) and I liked the fact that they just appeared rather than us having to ask for them, as is usual in these games. I also provided a valuable contribution right at the end when Dave couldn’t figure out how to work the winch to get the monkey’s cage down and thought we had to solve more puzzles to get it to work. It turned out he was just misreading the directional arrows on the controls, and I figured it out right away, so was pivotal in gaining Frank the monkey his freedom. We made it out in about 42 minutes, which was pretty good, and it was mostly good fun.

Chris Turner: What A Time To Be Alive:
Our last show of the fringe was a one-man stand-up routine by a comedian who specialises in improvised rapping. His general comedy was consistently amusing, and his presentation was good, and he wove a good framing narrative around the whole show. He did two raps, both of which were excellent. And a lot of the story had to do with liking tea, so I greatly approved!

In general, we both had a good time and would definitely go again. The main drawback was that most of the venues were stiflingly hot, which made it difficult to fully engage with the shows. However, the combination of short bursts of entertainment, interspersed with wandering from place to place all of the city worked very well for me in maintaining good blood glucose levels. If we do go again, we both agreed we would go for longer, but do less on each day, and I would feel confident to research and select my own schedule of shows (incorporating less comedy and more musicals/dance shows). Great weekend, overall, though, bookended by productive train journeys, which I always appreciate.
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2017-08-20 08:59 am

All About Comics!

A friend and I had dinner a couple of weeks ago, and randomly came up with an idea for a comic book series. It really excited us both, and we have since met up again and started working properly on the outline. The only problem is, neither of us knows how to write a comic book, and neither of us can draw.

So, of course, I turned to Amazon, and purchased Words for Pictures, by Brian Michael Bendis. This is a large, beautiful book, which contains a lot of great comics art, and even more varied and interesting information about writing comics. It covers everything, from pitch documents to different types of scripts, to what artists and editors are looking for from writers, to the best ways to get started in the comic book industry. The whole thing is really well presented, entertainingly written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not all of the information was directly relevant to me, and I think I was really looking for more in depth guidance on the actual writing process and how it differs to normal prose. But it was a great introduction to the concept, and pointed out to me just how much I don't know about it - but in an inspiring rather than off-putting way.

The book also talked about a fair few comic series that sounded quite interesting, so I will be sourcing some of those as well. The first was Takio, written by Brian Michael Bendis, with art by Michael Avon Oeming. It's a four-volume series about two adoptive sisters who gain super-powers in an industrial accident and try to become superheroes. It's fresh and funny, very dynamically presented, and lots of fun. There's very amusing banter between the sisters (Taki and Olivia - hence Takio), credible threat from some very sinister bad guys who want to harness the girls' power for profit, emotional impact from difficult family relationship and friendship troubles, and tons of great action. There's a section at the back that was presumably an advert for the series, where Taki and Olivia talk about how it's and all-ages series, which is hilarious, but also makes a lot of good points about the perception of comic books (and other media). The whole thing is only 90 comic-book pages, but it was highly entertaining, and I'll definitely be referring back to it to study the way the writing works, for when I get to the stage of wanting to put pen to paper on my own story.

Wow - I did research for a writing project, and really enjoyed it! That's got to be a first!
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2017-08-07 11:34 am

Girl With A Pearl Earring - multi-media review!

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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2017-07-29 02:16 pm

New Victorian steampunk adventures

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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2017-07-26 10:03 pm

Raven conclusion

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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2017-07-24 01:39 pm

Thriller, musical, more ravens, and new games

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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2017-07-16 01:18 pm

Super Teenagers

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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2017-07-08 07:47 am

White Bear transformation

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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2017-07-07 04:59 pm

Brief Reacher, past evils, and gender roles reversed...

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.
alobear: (Default)
2017-07-03 03:47 pm

Stats for the first half of 2017!

Review so far this year:

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

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

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

Audiobooks:
Positive – 12 (92%)
Negative – 1 (8%)

Games:
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.
alobear: (Default)
2017-07-03 03:18 pm

Car Chases, zombies and ultraviolence!

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.
alobear: (Default)
2017-06-26 01:44 pm

And it keeps pulling me back in...

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!
alobear: (Default)
2017-06-14 07:06 pm

A mixed bag of entertainment

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.
alobear: (Default)
2017-06-14 06:46 pm

UK Games Expo

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!
alobear: (Default)
2017-06-02 10:50 am

Turtles, Blocks, Agents

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.