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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in alobear's LiveJournal:

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Sunday, November 18th, 2018
2:01 pm
Tuesday, November 13th, 2018
8:02 pm
Fourth Reading Retreat - the diverse one...
This past weekend, I went on my fourth reading retreat, this time in Herefordshire. I requested a prescription of books by diverse authors, in my continuing attempt to read more widely, and I ended up reading five books (1,650 pages in all) that covered a range of styles, settings and themes. I mostly managed to keep to my plan of relaxing into my reading more, rather than keeping track of my progress quite so much. It helps that I've now broken the trend of reading more every time, so hopefully at the next retreat in January, I'll be able to relax even more. Now, on to the books!

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Thursday, November 8th, 2018
8:21 pm
Midnight's Children
Continuing with my plan to read more widely in terms of global settings, I recently read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

It's an odd book. The story is about a boy born on the stroke of midnight when India gained independence in 1947. The book follows his life as he grows up and also tracks the events of India's subsequent history, but in a very roundabout, fractured way. The narrator is telling the story to someone who comments upon it in the narrative, and the narrator jumps around a lot and makes multiple references to things that will happen later. It also contains a lot of magical realism, with the boy (and many other children born at the same time) possessing powers and the ability to influence certain events.

I mostly enjoyed the book, though a lot of the historical, societal and political significance of the events was probably lost on me. But it's an interesting, if unusual, read.
Monday, November 5th, 2018
1:52 pm
Midcon Gaming
This past weekend was Midcon in Derby, where I played two new games.

Steampunk Rally is a race game where you draft cards to build your racing machine and collect dice in order to power it. You then progress as far as you can along the track without accumulating too much damage, which forces you to remove parts from your machine. It's very silly and lots of fun, but also quite complicated. There is also a rule that says if you explode (ie lose every part of your machine) you regenerate a space behind the person in last place. An amusing turn of events meant that Dave and I were both very far behind and exploded on the last turn, which meant we actually teleported over the finish line, as everyone else had crossed it that turn. We were still last, but at least we finished the race! I wouldn't mind playing this again, in order to get more to grips with the mechanics and improve my machine building and maintenance.

Ora & Labora is a worker placement and resource gathering game which involves building a settlement and producing commodities and artifacts in order to get points. There was a lot of understand and remember to begin with and I had a familiar experience of playing a complex game for the first time. For the first half, I played instinctively and struggled to understand what was going on. About halfway through, it started clicking together in my head and I made a plan of what else I wanted to achieve by the end, and then managed to implement my plan fully. So, I was pretty satisfied with my gameplay and I had enjoyed the experience more and more as the game went on. When I discovered I had also won, I was extremely surprised, as I had thought my ambitions for my settlement were quite modest compared to what my opponents had been doing. But hey! Another game that would benefit from more familiarity, so I would welcome the opportunity to give it another go.
Thursday, November 1st, 2018
1:31 pm
The Red Tree
I love Shaun Tan. One of my all-time favourite books is The Arrival, and The Red Tree did not disappoint. It's shorter and less powerful in some ways, but its story of very relatable doubt, fear and despair has a beautifully hopefully conclusion. Plus, it's short enough that I could (and probably will) keep it on my desk and read it regularly when I need a boost.

Beautiful, achingly heartfelt, and universal. Everyone should have this available to make them feel better on bad days.
Wednesday, October 31st, 2018
9:49 am
The Mousetrap
Considering this is a play that's been running continually in the West End for over 65 years, and is based on an Agatha Christie novel, it seems odd that I knew absolutely nothing about it going into the theatre last night.

The set is entirely static and takes place in just one room of a guest house, but the use of doors and windows, and the various movements of the eight cast members kept the play active. The performances were good and the tension was high. I didn't predict the ending, but it was satisfyingly obvious once it was revealed.

The very ending seemed abrupt and unnecessarily silly, but my main problem with the play was the huge plot hole I spotted when thinking about it again this morning. There was something that should have prompted one of the characters to act much more quickly, and then the whole thing would have been avoided. We would obvioulsy then not have had a play, but it did make it seem somewhat ridiculous that it went on as long as it did.

Still, I enjoyed it overall!
Monday, October 29th, 2018
10:23 am
First Man
It's taken us a while to get around to seeing First Man, but I'm glad we did. It was long, measured, understated and thoughtful, a portrait of a man doing extraordinary things, rather than a sensationalist portrayal of those things. I hated the directorial style and the camerawork - way too many extreme closeups and too much unnecessary shaking around and going out of focus. When it worked well was in showing the claustrophobia and incredible stress of being in the capsules - I had forgotten just how small the lunar module was. The film was more a study of grief than anything else, and the strains the loss of a child and a very high-profile and dangerous job would have on a person and their relationships. It was effective in this respect. I thought Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy both gave excellent performances, showing huge depth of emotion without very many external cues. So, not a film I'd want to see again, or in fact one I registered enjoying tremendously as I was watching it, but I was engaged throughout and I think it's grown in my estimation overnight. Oddly subdued, but harbouring quiet power.
Sunday, October 28th, 2018
7:33 am
Record of a Spaceborn Few
Yesterday, I finished listening to the third in the Wayfarers trilogy by Becky Chambers. This one was about the human Exodan Fleet, those humans who stayed on their spaceships even after new planets were found and colonised. One of the main characters is the sister of the captain of the ship in the first book, which provides the link to the others in the series.

As with the other books, the worldbuilding is amazing, and I loved all the characters. It felt a bit more fractured than the others, though, as there were five point of view characters, and they didn't connect until quite near the end. Also, it was based almost entirely in the human fleet, with really only one alien characters, so it felt much less diverse than the other books. And not that much actually happened, again until quite near the end. I loved experiencing the people's lives and going about their days with them, but I much prefer the two-hander of the second book, which has a clear story arc for both plotlines.

Still, after quite an abrupt tone shift in the last third, the fragments start to piece together, and I did really like how it all came to a conclusion. Definitely my least favourite of the three books, but I still really enjoyed it and I very much look forward to more from this author.
Saturday, October 27th, 2018
4:26 pm
The Rasmus are back in town!!
Almost a year ago, The Rasmus played a gig in London and mentioned at the end that they would be back in London again this October. I immediately got tickets on the way home, and last night was that gig. Doors opened at Koko at 6pm, so I met my gig buddy for dinner at 6:30pm, and we had a leisurely meal, assuming The Rasmus wouldn't be on until 9pm at the earliest. But when we sauntered into the venue at 8:15pm, Lauri's dulcet tones drifted out into the foyer - they had already started! Still, I'm pretty sure we didn't miss much, because the set went on for well over an hour after that, and I got to hear pretty much all my favourites. I bounced, I screamed, I jumped up and down, I sang at the top of my lungs - and it was awesome! I really don't know why I love this Finnish emo rock band so much, but I do and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

They originally formed while they were still at school in 1994, but didn't become internationally popular until their fifth album in 2003, which is when I discovered them when I was off work sick and channel hopping. I caught the video for In The Shadows on MTV and I was hooked.

Last night was great, and my new gig buddy proved excellent company, so I shall be hoping for a repeat performance on all fronts before too long.
Friday, October 26th, 2018
5:54 pm
Bad Times at the El Royale
I wasn't sure about going to see this film but I had a few hours to kill yesterday and figured why not? And I'm glad I did. It was weird and unsettling, unpleasant and bloody. But it was also well made, intriguing and the way it was all put together to gradually reveal all the stories was masterful. All the acting was top notch, especially Lewis Pullman as the hotel clerk. Plus, on a shamelessly shallow note, I think Chris Hemsworth has the best body in Hollywood at the moment and he's certainly not shy about showing it off!

I wouldn't recommend this film to everyone but if you like noir, twisty structures and you don't mind tension or sudden deaths, this may well be for you.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
8:45 pm
Last night, after a couple of years since my last trip, I went to see Showstoppers! This is an improvised musical, whereby one of the cast takes suggestions from the audience as to setting, musical influences and title, and the rest produce a musical on the spot.

I'd forgotten just how awesome it is (though I remember some of them being a bit variable, as improvised stuff is wont to be), but whenever I try to describe one to someone, it always comes out sounding awful.

Last night's production was about Barbie having a human baby, which subsequently teaches the world of plastic toys how to feel. It was called Push! and it was hilarious.

I really must remember to go to this show more often.
Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
3:52 pm
Whistlestop reviews tour...
Lots to catch up on, so just a few thoughts on each...

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green:
Intriguing and engaging, excellent narrator, like that the protagonist is flawed, love the conceit of the book being a book within the context of the story. But that conceit was broken by the way the book ended, which was very much not where the fictional book within the story would have ended. But hey, mostly awesome and I'll very much look forward to the sequel.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
Immersive, very rich setting, full of gorgeous imagery, very effective portrayal of the conflict between public and private views of people, and also between love and fear of an abusive parent. Brutal and sad but beautiful.

Skate Kitchen:
Rather meandering, and a bit too keen on verisimilitude for my tastes, but an affecting story of teenage angst and the search for a place to belong.

A Star Is Born:
Excellent performances, compelling story and great music, but an unnecessarily downer ending in my view - entirely avoidable and very sad.
Sunday, September 30th, 2018
3:41 pm
Thursday, September 27th, 2018
10:31 am
Massacres, Labyrinths and Dogs of War
Three books completed this week - all good.

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter is the authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds by HG Wells. I found this instantly engaging in the way it adopts the narrative tone of the original and then abruptly dismisses it by revealing an unexpected new narrator. I have to admit I was surprised to find the narrator was female, and also by the presence of several other strong and interesting female characters in the story. Perhaps this is because the original is a very male book, and both the author and likely target audience for the sequel are male. It was a pleasant surprise, and made my experience of reading the sequel much more enjoyable.

The device of having the original exist as a book written by the original narrator within the fictional timeline of the sequel worked really well. It allowed an entertainingly meta discussion of the merits and issues of the original by the characters who appeared in it, and added an extra layer of interest to the story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot, though it borrowed two stylistic aspects from the first one that I wasn't so keen on. There was a lot of very heavy-handed foreshadowing ("little did we know what would happen next..." or "it would soon become apparent that..."). It also used a rather dry reportage style for the sections where the narrator wasn't actually present. This accurately reflects the idea that she would have recorded those people's stories in interviews later, but it does also set the reader slightly at a remove for some of the most exciting bits.

I did very much like the prediction that the humans would have prepared for a second invasion based on what happened the first time, and then were caught off-guard by the fact that the Martians changed their approach. The humans do have a bit more agency in the conclusion this time around, but not much, which felt a bit anti-climactic after the "deus ex machina" ending of the first book was actually criticised in the narrative. But fans of the first book will find a lot to appreciate here and I do recommend it.

This week, I also finished listening to In the Labyrinth of Drakes, which is the next in the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan. It felt a bit slight compared to the previous books in the series, but I still really enjoyed it. I love spending time with Isabella, and the audiobook narrator imbues her with tremendous character. I really like the other characters and her interactions with them, and I was particularly pleased in this book when she took charge of her romantic future with a very satisfactory conclusion. There is another follow-up book that came out last year, and I shall look forward to listening to it in due course.

Adrian Tchaikovsky was recommended to me as a fantasy author who has managed to write several standalone books that are completely different to each other, which is what I ideally want to do. And Dogs of War came up as a potential GYWO Book Club book that I thought sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a go when I found it in the library. It is mostly told from the point of view of Rex, a genetically and mechanically modified dog, who is used by a private military company to engage in war activities in Mexico. It's a masterful example of a narrative viewpoint where the narrator knows and understands a lot less than the reader, and it's extremely effective and emotive because of that. The book is horrifying and sad and funny and tense by turns, and it kept me so gripped that I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours. It has incredibly complex themes of AI ethics, genetic engineering ethics, warfare ethics, questions about levels of consciousness and culpability, all wrapped up in a heartbreaking narrative of Rex just wanting to be a 'good dog'. Really excellent stuff.
Saturday, September 15th, 2018
10:10 am
Life, exaggerated...
I went to two musicals this week, and mostly enjoyed both.

Strictly Ballroom was a bit over-the-top for me in a lot of ways. Most of the characters were larger than life and the comedy was broader than I prefer. But the central couple didn't fall into that category and the story of their romance was heartfelt and sweet. The dancing was also really good, so I was glad I went.

Kinky Boots was overall more enjoyable, though I thought the presentation of the female characters was rather problematical. There were really only two, both of whom were love interests for the male protagonist and didn't really exist outside that role. One was shallow, materialistic and not very understanding. The other was portrayed as desperate and that aspect of her was played for comic effect. I also had a problem with the protagonist's arc, since he randomly turned into an arsehole halfway through and had the most emotional song of the show just after I'd lost all sympathy for him, and the plot got back on track because his factory workers pulled together and did loads of overtime for him just at the point when he least deserved it. Still, those issues aside, Simon-Anthony Rhoden gave a brilliant and committed performance as Lola, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the set was very well constructed. It was generally a fun show.

One of my new money-saving endeavours is to stop buying books on Amazon that I then immediately give away, and start getting books from the library instead. My first library book was Digging to America by Anne Tyler. It wasn't the Anne Tyler book I was looking for, but it was the one the library had on the shelves, and I loved it. The story follows two families who both adopt a Korean baby on the same day, and shows how their lives unfold and interact as the girls grow up. It's an utterly mundane story, and very little of dramatic import actually happens, but it's beautifully written and very keenly observed. I became fully invested in the characters' lives and really enjoyed spending time with them. The book has a lot to say about how people's backgrounds influence their attitudes and behaviour, and it feels very real in the best possible way. It was a bit meandering at times, and some of the changes of point of view made it feel episodic rather than a cohesive whole, but overall I thought it was an excellent book and I will definitely be checking more Anne Tyler books out of the library in the near future.
Tuesday, September 11th, 2018
8:17 pm
The War of the Worlds
I saw the (pretty bad) Tom Cruise film when it came out, and I've seen (and listened to) the Jeff Wayne musical multiple times, but I had never before read The War of the Worlds by HG Wells. It's a bit dry in places, and in the end the protagonist doesn't really have any agency, but it has a lot to recommend it. The discussion of the difference between men and Martians is very interesting, there is amusement to be had in the presentation of some of the reactions of people to news of an invasion from Mars, and it trips along at quite pace. It seems strange that the narrator, his wife and his brother are not named, and there is certainly a remoteness to the narrative at times. I kept hearing it in the dramatic tones of Richard Burton, though, which was entertaining, and overall it's very well written.
Sunday, September 9th, 2018
9:37 am
Roll and Write!
I've discovered quite a lot of 'roll and write' games this year. These are dice-based, involving combinations of symbols or patterns, which you then mark off on your laminated score sheet with a wipeable marker pen.

Yesterday, I was introduced to Roll Through The Ages, which has a mechanic a bit like Yahtzee, in that you have the option to re-roll some or all of your dice twice before settling on your final selection. But it's quite a bit more complicated than that, because you then have to feed your cities with the food produced by the roll, use your workers to build more cities or monuments, and spend good and/or money to buy developments that will help you later in the game. There's quite a lot packed onto the score sheet, but I made it a lot more complicated than it needed to be by being very tired (it was after 11pm at this point, and I'd been up since 4:30am). Still, I enjoyed it overall and got the hang of it eventually, and I'd happily play again.
Saturday, September 8th, 2018
5:24 am
Monday, August 27th, 2018
9:16 am
I went to see BlacKkKlansman in the cinema yesterday and really enjoyed it, whilst also being very uncomfortable. It was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, which I think was the intention - and it did both extremely well. I know there's been a lot of discussion of the portrayal of the different types of people in the film, and whether or not they should have been presented as heroes or otherwise. In my view, I thought one of the best aspects of the film was that the people in it were shown to be very much people, and not faceless representatives of one particular group or another. Not all of the black characters were idolised, and not all of the white characters were vilified, and the film did a great job of demonstrating the complexities within the fight against racism. I would highly recommend going to see it on all levels.
Sunday, August 26th, 2018
4:44 pm
Bird by Bird
Bird by Bird is a book by Anne Lamott, which imparts her wealth of knowledge and experience as a reasonably successful novelist. It's one of those books, like Stephen King's On Writing, that comes up on lists of books all writers are advised to read. And it's very well written and interesting, with a lot of good tips about how to approach the craft of writing, and also how to approach the desire to be published.

The title comes from a family anecdote about one of Lamott's brothers needing to learn a lot of information about birds for a test at school. His method of doing so is 'bird by bird' which translates as advice to approach writing one step at a time. This is good advice, of which there is a great deal in the book as a whole.

What I wasn't expecting was that the book would be funny. But it really is. Lamott has a wonderfully self-aware and self-deprecating sense of humour about her craft. And she is at great pains to reveal her flaws as both a writer and a person, so as to encourage other writers and let them know they are not alone in their sufferings. She does so in a highly amusing way.

I didn't make a huge number of notes whilst reading the book, as a lot of it is advice I've heard before. But it's always useful to have these lessons repeated, and Bird by Bird presents them in the most entertaining way I've come across thus far.
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