Successful Reading Retreat

I was on reading retreat again this past weekend, and finished four books in four days, which is what I generally aim for - plus I enjoyed all of them!

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen:
The only reason I selected this book was because Luke and James are planning to do it soon on the Ink to Film podcast. I wasn't expecting to like it because I had it in my head for some reason that it was really sad or had a really tragic ending or something. But I loved it! The framing narrative with Jacob as a 90+ year old in a nursing home is brilliantly conveyed with both humour and pathos, and his voice is so distinctive. Then, the past storyline of his time with the circus in the 1930s is so vividly drawn that I felt like I was really there. The plot and characters are all very involving - there's some tough stuff that happens along the way but overall I found the story really beautiful. There's a great misdirect that leads to a climax that was much more satisfying than I expected, and the very end of Jacob's story is delightful. I'm looking forward now to watching the film version.

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie:
This has been on my list for a while and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. It's about an AI who finds herself restricted to one body after being used to running a starship and having hundreds of 'ancillary' bodies - the narrative is split between the past revelation of how that occurred and her present quest for revenge. It's a harder kind of sci-fi than I usually go for, and there was a lot of tech and world-building and background information to absorb at the start, but I got into it quite quickly and it all came together fine in the end. There's a language thing that didn't really work for me - the protagonist's language doesn't distinguish between genders so she refers to everyone as she/her, even when they've been positively identified as male. I kind of see what the author was going for with this, but I just found it very distracting. However, the character of the protagonist was very compelling, and the scenes where she is in multiple places at once are very cleverly constructed. Her difficulties with the restrictions of her now singular existence are dealt with well (though done better, I think, by Becky Chambers in A Closed and Common Orbit) and I really liked the way the various relationships in the novel were developed over time. There are also interesting questions about AI emotion, freedom of choice, responsibility for actions in the military, and other such complex subjects. Definitely recommended for sci-fi fans.

The End of the Day by Claire North:
This tells the story of Charlie, an ordinary young man who gets a job as the Harbinger of Death. The office in Milton Keynes puts appointments in his calendar and he duly travels the world, taking strange gifts to selected people, who may or may not be about to die. Sometimes he comes as a courtesy and other times as a warning - sometimes he is honouring a life well lived and other times he is marking the passing of an era or an idea. It's a great concept, Charlie is absolutely adorable, and the opening sections of the book have a delightful lightness and whimsicality to them that I loved. But then it takes a major shift in tone to much more serious fare. Charlie suffers a lot of violence and abuse in his travels, he struggles with his role and his purpose, and the story raises a lot of very heavy questions about the state of the world. I think it tries a bit too hard to make its criticisms of society, but the discussions Charlie has about what he's doing are all very interesting and thought-provoking. The book was pretty grim in places, and I felt the ending was left a bit too ambiguous to be truly satisfying. Plus, while I enjoyed it to the end, the abrupt turnabout in tone was very unsettling. So, certainly an interesting read, and one I liked overall, but not without its flaws.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones:
This is a very well constructed novel about complicated personal relationships. Roy is sent to prison for something he didn't do, and his wife, Celestial, has to deal with life carrying on in his absence, while trying to support him and push forwards his appeal. It's a very personal story, focused almost entirely on three characters (with wider family appearing as well). I struggled a bit with the letter correspondence between Roy and Celestial, because there were no dates on the letters, so I had trouble following how much time had passed between missives. And, for some reason, the story didn't really engage my emotions much at all. It was very interesting and very well written, but it felt more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional drama. But maybe that's just me, since Barack Obama apparently described it as 'moving'. Anyway, by the last quarter of the book, I was expecting things to go very badly, and I was pleasantly surprised by the ultimate conclusion. I was evidently invested enough in the characters by then to be affected by what happened to them, and I found the ending very satisfying.

Curtains and Doorways

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a couple of friends at work:

Friend A: My husband and I are going to the theatre tonight.
Friend B: To see what?
Friend A: It's called Curtains - it's a comedy musical murder mystery.
Me and Friend B: That sounds awesome!
Friend B: There are still tickets left - we're coming too!

So, an impromptu theatre trip was born - and it was great! I do love a musical and this combined classic over-the-top musical numbers with witty writing and the kind of silly, self-aware humour that I love in shows. There was a show within the show, a sarcastic British director (amongst everyone else doing broad American accents), great dancing, an adorable bumbling detective, excitement, romance... This show had it all. Tremendous fun, an enthusiastic cast, and a great, unexpected night out.

On the way home, I finished reading Down Among The Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire, which is a prequel to Every Heart A Doorway. It tells the story of two of the 'wayward children' we meet at the school in the first book, following them on their adventure to the Moors, prior to the time when the first book is set. So, I kind of already knew the story and what would happen. But it was so beautifully written and immersive and desperately sad, that it totally drew me in and I really enjoyed it. I'm still unsettled by the way children in these books seek out dangerous and abusive situations, and feel like they belong there, and I find the authorial attitude to those aspects of the books elusive. But I can't deny they're masterfully written, and I will definitely be reading the others in the series.

Jovah's Angel

I really enjoyed revisiting this world created by Sharon Shinn - it's such a compelling setup, and where the plot goes in this second book is more interesting than the first one. I also prefer the romance in this one, as it's a more natural buildup of the relationship, and sweeter, with characters I prefer. There's also a lot more discussion of science vs religion, and the potential costs and dangers of progress.

I'm going to discuss this book in a lot more detail in an upcoming episode of the podcast.

First new game of 2020!

Over the course of our new year trip to Cheltenham, I only played one game that was new to me, and it was a really good one!

It's called Wingspan, and it's by the same company that makes Charterstone, Scythe, Euphoria and Viticulture, all of which I like to a greater or lesser extent.

Wingspan is a lot less complicated than most of those, but very interesting and a lot of fun.

You have various actions, which include placing birds on your player board, collecting food, laying eggs and drawing new cards. As you place birds, they cover up action spaces, which allows you access to the better actions further up each track. The birds themselves have special abilities that you can activate at various times, as well as different attributes that relate to other aspects of the game. There are public and private objectives, and it's all about maximising your points with the cards and resources available to you.

The art is very pretty, there's tons of variety in terms of individual bird cards and the mix of objectives, but it's relatively easy to understand the mechanics.

I focused on achieving my personal objectives, which wasn't necessarily the best way to win, but made for a fun and satisfying game experience. And I didn't end up doing as badly as I'd feared!

So, a great gaming start to 2020, and definitely one I'd like to play again.

Final Review Stats for 2019!

It's been a great year in terms of entertainment opportunities, what with fringe reviewing and multiple reading retreats, as well as new experiences chosen by others for book club and both our podcast and those of others. So, I've consumed a hugely varied selection of stuff over the year!

Film & TV:
Positive – 31 (84%)
Negative – 6 (16%)

Positive – 58 (67%)
Negative – 29 (33%)

Live Entertainment:
Positive – 42 (89%)
Negative – 5 (11%)

Positive – 29 (74%)
Negative – 10 (26%)

Positive – 14 (82%)
Negative – 3 (18%)

Reviews total for the whole of 2019:
Positive – 174 (77%)
Negative – 53 (23%)

Definitely more negative reviews this year than in previous years, but I think that has a lot to do with me reading and watching things selected by other people, which is good because it broadens my horizons, but also inevitably results in more negative experiences than if I was just selecting everything for myself.

The Sun Sister

This is the penultimate book in the Seven Sisters series by Lucinda Riley and the sister I was most looking forward to finding out about. Electra doesn't come across very well when she appears in the other books, so it was very interesting to get right inside her head and begin to understand her better. I enjoyed her story a lot and thought it showed the most dramatic progression of the series.

I wasn't so engrossed by the story of Cecily moving from New York to Kenya in the late 1930s, though I liked the way the two timelines eventually came together in the end. And I loved Stella, Electra's grandmother, who connected the two plotlines.

I will definitely be completing this series when the last one comes out.

Olympia Horse Show

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is going to the Olympia Horse Show every year with my mum (she buys tickets for my birthday in November, but the show is always the weekend before Christmas).

This year's show was slightly marred by the new rule of not being allowed to eat in the auditorium, and also by the special guest star being our least favourite performer. However, we combined the two very successfully, since that act was just before the interval, so we ducked out early and too advantage of their being no queue for the toilets and lots of seats available to eat lunch before the crowds descended.

My chosen pony came second to last in the Shetland Pony Grand National, but it was still one of the major highlights of the year. And the Household Cavalry Musical Ride was even more impressive than usual, because they'd added some extra specially complicated choreography. The showjumping was nail-biting, since there were only six clear rounds out of thirty-eight competitors. And the dog agility trials were amazing, as always.

So, a very good day out, and great company to share it with.

Future Princess and Past Techies

Yesterday, I finished listening to The Elite, the second in The Selection series by Kiera Cass. After really enjoying the first one, I was disappointed when the second one very quickly became tedious and repetitive. The love triangle aspect grew very wearing, with America swinging back and forth between Aspen and Maxon every few pages. I liked that some of her reservations were about the responsibilities of the princess role, rather than purely not being able to pick between the two guys. And some of the societal and back history stuff was still interesting. But it wasn't enough to mitigate how slowly it all moved (this story really doesn't need to be split into three volumes - it could easily have been completed in one, much more tightly plotted book), or how annoying America got. There was also more problematic behaviour from both love interests - I could understand their frustration with America, but that doesn't excuse manhandling her and pushing kisses on her to try and force her to choose.

I won't be moving on to the third in the series, because I don't think I can take another seven hours of this.

Yesterday, I also finished Microserfs by Douglas Coupland, which is the subject of our Christmas Family Book Club, as chosen by Dave. I have a fair few notes for the discussion, so I'm not going to go into detail here. But, overall, it was decidedly 'meh', though there were some bits I liked.

Two Sides of Teen Melodrama!

On Tuesday evening, I took the offer of unexpectedly available tickets from a friend of a friend, and went to see Dear Evan Hansen. MINOR SPOILERS BELOW.

I didn't know that much about it going in, other than it's a new musical that's had rave reviews, and that it's about social media. I was keen to see what all the fuss was about, but I'm still at a bit of a loss.

The Guardian review opens with the sentence: "This musical arrives from the US laden with honours – including six Tony awards and a Grammy – and you can see why."

Can you? I can't!. The rest of the review doesn't pile unequivocal praise on the show. But it's still more enthusiastic than I was.

Don't get me wrong - I didn't think the show was *bad*. The cast all gave excellent performances, the quality of the songs was high, it was an assured and professional production, with good staging and some interesting things to say.

But I wanted more. I wanted more diversity, I wanted more risky choices, I wanted something that wasn't just 'lonely straight white boy digs himself into a hole by lying and basically suffers no consequences'. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and for my emotions to be fully engaged. And I didn't get that from this show.

There was one song in the first half that I loved - Evan and his friend, Jared, create a string of fake emails to support the idea that Evan was friends with a boy at his school who committed suicide, and the actor playing the dead boy reappears on stage so they can put fake words in his mouth. It's very cleverly done, both funny and sad, and by far the best bit, in my view.

But most of it, both in terms of the painful awkwardness of some of the scenes, and the deeply troubling moral considerations, made me really uncomfortable. Near the end, someone tells Evan that what he's done has had a really good outcome in some respects. And he says, "But that doesn't make it right." I'm glad this was acknowledged, but it felt like a very throwaway line in an otherwise postive/uplifting conclusion.

But my friend and I were very much in a minority. It was one of those occasions where I felt as if I was at a different show than everyone else. People were sobbing and cheering, and there was a standing ovation. And I just don't get it.

At the other end of the expectations scale, this week I listened to the audio version of The Selection by Kiera Cass, which is kind of The Hunger Games crossed with The Bachelor. It's the final book of the year on the Novel Predictions podcast and I never would have read it otherwise. But I actually really enjoyed it! In a relatively near future, in which the US has become a monarchy with very a strict societal hierarchy, 35 young women are selected to go to the palace to compete to become consort to the crown prince.

Our heroine and first person POV character, is America Singer, who is the only one selected who has no interest in either the prince or the throne. But, of course, things get more complicated as time goes on and her relationship with both the prince and her childhood sweetheart from back home come into conflict.

The premise sounded terrible, and the setup of the world is a bit shaky in terms of believability and consistency. But I found America to be an appealing protagonist and the story took some interesting turns I wasn't expecting. I liked her interactions with the prince a lot. There were some disappointing aspects in how the love triangle developed later on (surprise kisses are still apparently very much a thing...) but I liked the stance America took at the end. And, even though, it was annoying to discover this first volume wasn't a complete story, I enjoyed it enough to want to carry on with the rest of the series.

A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins is a kind of companion novel to the other of Kate Atkinson's books I read this year, Life After Life. It involves a lot of the same characters and versions of some of the same events, but focuses on Teddy, a WW2 bomber pilot and nature writer, rather than Ursula.

In Life After Life, Ursula lives her life over and over again, but each one is told in a linear fashion before it cycles back round to her birth. In A God In Ruins, Teddy only lives one life but it is totally fractured and told in a completely non-linear way.

I think I would have been confused by some of the inter-relationships and some of the timeline if I hadn't already read Life After Life, but being familiar with the characters made it interesting to see different perspectives and which aspects the author had selected to look at from the range available from the other book.

But it's *so* fragmented that it was a bit difficult to follow at times. I have no idea how you put such an ambitious structure together, so it's very impressive, though it doesn't always work completely. There are times when little details or thoughts are revealed as if for the first time on multiple occasions, which makes it feel repetitive in places. And there are also moments when characters or events are referenced before they are fully introduced, which is confusing. And I think some of the narrative tension is lost when you already know how things turn out in the end.

There are some interesting self-referential aspects along the way. At one point, Teddy thinks there'd be no point in writing a novel about his life because nothing much has happened to him, which is an odd thing for a protagonist in a novel to consider. It's also a bit weird that by far the least likeable of the characters becomes a successful novelist in later life - and thinks about writing a war novel because "people always take a war novel seriously".

But, overall, the story kept me engaged throughout, I liked a lot of the characters and there were some truly heartbreaking moments (along with some really horrific ones) that added a lot of emotional depth. I particularly liked Bertie's asides - little responses in brackets that provided a biting commentary on the other characters and gave the sense of a dialogue taking place off-page. I liked Life After Life more, but it was good to spend more time with these characters.