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2017-06-25 06:04 pm

Reading: The Travails of Jane Saint and Other Stories

I tend to buy books in the Women's Press SF imprint when I see them in second-hand shops, and picked up this collection of short stories (or really, one novella and some short stories) in a bookshop we passed while walking at Easter. It dates from 1986, although only one of the stories was published for the first time in this collection; the others, including the title novella, had been previously published at various points between 1971 and 1980.

The title novella tells of the adventures of revolutionary leader Jane Saint as she travels through an alternate dimension or astral plane, seeking to find a way to make a fundamental change to the natures of men and women which will allow humanity to move towards a more equal society. She moves through a shifting and often symbolic landscape, helped variously by an alchemist and his wife, a philosophical talking dog, a griffin-demon hybrid creature, Joan of Arc, and her own daughters; her adventures are absurdist and surreal and told with a great deal of subtle wit and humour.

The other stories are much shorter. 'Woe, Blight and, in Heaven, Laughs' is a rather grim postapocalyptic reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; 'Gordon's Women' is a more cheerful variant on the total-male-domination-secret-female-underground setup of Suzy McKee Charnas's Holdfast novels; 'The Message', which was probably my favourite story in the book, is an almost-realist story of lonely, repressed fiftysomething Edna, whose attempts to deliver a message handed to her by a dying person in hospital take her on a quest around her neighbourhood; 'Heads Africa Tails America' was very surreal and really left me cold; and 'The Pollyanna Enzyme' posits a situation where it turns out that the one thing that really does drive humanity to live in peace and harmony is its imminent extinction.

Definitely worth a read if you happen across a copy.
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2017-06-23 07:25 pm

Reading: The Mountains of Mourning

If the Miles Vorkosigan of The Warrior's Apprentice is Francis Crawford of Lymond In Space, in the novella The Mountains of Mourning he's basically Lord Peter Wimsey In An Isolated Rural District On An Alien Planet*, as he's sent as his father's representative to investigate an alleged case of infanticide in a small village in a remote corner of Vorkosigan District.

For a short book, this packs a lot in. As well as a competent whodunnit plot, the story explores the backstory of Barrayaran culture and social attitudes, particularly attitudes to disability, and more universal themes of generational differences in social attitudes. It's the sort of science fiction that doesn't really feel like science fiction; with the exception of the interrogation drug fast-penta there's no futuristic techology and it's hard to believe it's set in the far future instead of, say, the 1930s. It's an interesting and thoughtful read, and I liked it a lot (though I was a bit taken aback at "Ma" apparently being a formal honorific for older women, but maybe that's just Barrayar).

*The presence of a minor character called Pym, on a planet where most names appear to be Russian or Slavic in origin, did nothing whatsoever to dispel the Wimsey associations my brain kept making, either.
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2017-06-21 07:55 pm

Reading: Tam Lin

Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock, which is a modern reworking of the Scottish ballad 'Tam Lin' as a suburban English adolescence, is one of my favourite books ever, so ever since someone mentioned Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, a reworking of the same ballad as the student experience at a Midwestern US liberal arts college, I've wanted to read it, and I finally got to the point where I wanted to read it enough that I actually ordered a copy a couple of months ago. (It isn't published in the UK, so there's no ebook version available, and I do tend to give more thought to purchases of paper books than ebooks.)

Dean's retelling covers three years and a couple of months of Janet Carter's life as a student at Blackstock College, pursuing a liberal arts degree with a major in English literature, building friendships, learning how to get along with a wide range of people and exploring romantic relationships, and at the same time investigating a book-throwing ghost and trying to work out why it is that everyone in the Classics department seems rather strange. Translating the plot of a ballad into a 450-page book leaves a lot of space around the plot for Dean to paint a picture of the college atmosphere, the pressures of studying and the delights and unreality of spending four years isolated from the world, surrounded by learning and other people who want to learn and share your interests. I found the liberal-arts college background familiar enough to make me rather nostalgic for my own student days, but different enough to be fascinating, and I liked the characters and their interactions a lot. I particularly enjoyed the way the friendship between Janet and her two roommates develops, from a very prickly relationship at the start (they have very little in common) to a real friendship and mutual support network, and the way that the college environment masks the very real peculiarities of some of the Classics students.

For me, this felt like the book I wanted Jo Walton's Among Others to be; a literate and literary study of growing up bookish, with a liminal fantastic element. Among Others simply didn't do it for me, but this did, and while I will never love it as much as Fire and Hemlock (which, interestingly, is also a very literary book - I read a lot of things for the first time because they were mentioned in it) I did like it a great deal.
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2017-06-13 08:30 pm

Reading: The Mauritius Command

At the opening of The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey has married his Sophie and is living in a damp cottage with her, their twin daughters and her mother; a situation from which he is rescued by Stephen Maturin, arriving to offer him not only a ship but the opportunity to act as commodore of a small squadron, waging a campaign to capture the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion from the French. Like all the Aubrey/Maturin novels this mixes careful naval detail (in his author's note, O'Brien explains that the whole campaign is based on real naval actions) with social comedy and carefully observed human drama. Stephen's political influence has clearly continued to develop since HMS Surprise, as we now find him assigned as a political adviser to the whole mission; meanwhile, Jack has to learn how to command a squadron and not just a ship.

This was a more sombre book than I had expected; despite his famous luck, Jack doesn't take naturally to a more strategic level of command and the campaign involves significant losses, while one of the main supporting characters is the rather sad Lord Clonfert, who is clearly haunted by his failure to match up to Jack's achievements in what looks very like a form of Imposter Syndrome. (Mental illness is very much a theme of the novel, with the introduction of the surgeon McAdam whose interest is far more in diseases of the mind than those of the body, and as well as Clonfert's Imposter Syndrome we see Stephen's growing depression.) It also didn't seem to have quite as much of the interaction between Jack and Stephen that I loved in the first three books, as for much of the time the two are separated and going about their own business in the campaign. Still, I enjoyed reading it, and thanks to a lucky find in the Oxfam bookshop the other week I have the next four waiting to be read at some convenient point.
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2017-06-10 10:48 am

(no subject)

I always feel that I should prefer Twitter to Facebook for political discussions, but then it goes and reminds me just how easy it is to whip up outrage over almost nothing. Like this morning, when I started to see this tweet being retweeted across my timeline:




I have to say that my first thought was "well, yes, but they gave the Lib Dems a referendum on PR in exchange for their support, and look how that turned out", because I'm not convinced Tory coalition promises are worth the paper they're written on. But then I looked at the Grauniad's liveblog for today, from which I discovered that (a) the "Tory minister" was actually former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson (he of "the badgers have moved the goalposts" fame), and what he actually said was:

I don’t see many major social issues coming up in the next parliament.

You might get a debate I suppose on further reduction of abortion times as medical science advances.

But the stuff you mention like gay rights and all that, which you’re probably referring to, that is all devolved.

It’s not only a free vote issue, most of this, but it’s nearly all devolved and that’s down to the politicians in Northern Ireland to resolve.


And it's not as though there haven't been votes on whether to reduce the abortion time limit before. Most recently, in 2008, under a Labour government. None of which is to say that this isn't an issue I feel strongly about, and I'm very pleased that my new MP has already tweeted her opposition to any proposal to reduce abortion time limits, but it isn't actually the Awful Thing that the Twitter hot-takes are making it appear.

***

And if you are in dire need of a break from politics, may I recommend checking out Mr Darcy's inbox? (Anne Elliot's is also worth a look.)
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2017-06-09 08:08 pm

Not as depressing as I thought it would be

I went to bed before the polls closed yesterday, having sworn that I wouldn't check the news until my alarn went off at 6am, though T did come up at five past ten and tell me that the exit polls were predicting a hung parliament. Despite sticking to my resolution not to check the news, I slept (unsurprisingly) dreadfully; I have taken to listening to podcasts as a way to keep from going into an anxiety spiral instead of dropping off, and normally I'm asleep in about ten minutes (it takes me several nights to get through an average podcast in fits and starts), but last night I kept dozing for half an hour or so and then waking up again just as the podcasts were ending and then scrolling back to keep listening from the point were I'd fallen asleep. Today was a bit of a write-off, but then I wasn't the only person to be wandering around in a daze.

Anyway, yesterday I had thought that I'd be reasonably happy with a Lib Dem MP and a Tory majority of less than 50ish, so I was really quite pleased when I woke up to find that I have a Lib Dem MP and the Tories don't have a majority at all, although I'd be much happier if they weren't in a position where they can get a majority with the support of the DUP. Still, a Tory minority government which can get a majority of about 5 with the support of a load of people so extreme lots of the Tories can't stand them either if absolutely everyone turns up is probably better than a Tory government that could win a comfortable majority even if lots of people had buggered off down the pub, especially if the opposition can actually pull together and, y'know, oppose. (I will be emailing my brand-new Lib Dem MP over the weekend to urge her to do this.)

Plus, UKIP lost their deposit in my constituency, only getting 1.3% of the vote, down from 6.9% last time. That can't be bad!
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2017-06-06 07:45 pm

Reading: Fly By Night

I'd been meaning to try Frances Hardinge's books for ages*, having heard many good things about them from friends. Having now read one, I'm sorry I put it off for so long, as I thought Fly By Night (her first novel) was terrific fun, reminiscent of Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman but also very much its own unique, original self.

In terms of genre, I'd describe Fly By Night as historical fantasy (Hardinge herself describes it as "a yarn" in her afterword), by which I mean that it's set in a completely imagined world whose geography, history and belief systems bear no relation to ours, but whose setting nevertheless bears more than a passing resemblence to an actual period of Earth history; in this case, England in around the turn of the eighteenth century, complete with frills and wigs and a difficult period of repression in the not-too-distant past. It's the story of twelve-year-old orphan Mosca Mye, who runs away from home in the company of a con-man (the wonderfully named Eponymous Clent - the naming of characters is a particular joy) and a homicidal goose and finds herself caught up in a complex web of murder, treachery and intrigue. The plot twists and turns so much that I found it absolutely impossible to even guess at what was coming next or whether characters would turn out to be good, bad or neutral, and there were a whole host of colourful and entertaining supporting characters. In lesser hands, I think it could easily have ended up being annoyingly whimsical or too over-the-top to take seriously, and it's a sign of Hardinge's skill as a writer that it avoids this.

It's the story of Mosca's first independent steps in the world (and I love that, unlike the protagonists of a lot of YA novels, she's allowed to make some pretty serious mistakes and atone for them, but without it ever feeling as if the mistake could be forgotten). It's a critique of religious fundamentalism that feels very relevant now, though it's obviously based on Puritanism and the aftermath of the English Civil War. And it's also a book about truth and lies and the power of words: Mosca is driven by a love of words and a desire for books, in a world where publications are tightly controlled, and this love of words is also reflected in the wonderfully wordy and playful style of the writing. I liked this a lot, and will definitely be seeking out more of Hardinge's work.

*I was surprised to notice that Fly By Night was first published in 2005, which means it's even longer than I thought.
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2017-05-30 08:34 pm

Reading: Natural History

As I've probably mentioned already, I've been making a conscious effort to read more SFF by women writers recently, and Justina Robson was someone I'd seen mentioned as being worth trying, so when I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop last summer I thought I'd give it a try*.

Natual History is an exploration of ideas of transhumanism. It's set in a future where "the human race" has expanded to include the Forged, human minds in biological-mechanical hybrid bodies, some mimicking animals, others machines (two of the central characters are basically spaceships, one a solo exploration vessel and the other a cargo carrier). Even among the "Unevolved", many people have technological augmentations. There are longstanding tensions between the Forged and the Unevolved around the Forged's place in society, particularly those who may have outlived their original purpose (such as the vast terraformers who made the Moon and Mars habitable).

On top of this background, Robson adds a classic first contact story. Isol, a deep-space explorer, encounters a strange lump of "Stuff", apparently inert at first but which allows her to create an instantaneous travel engine, and then discovers a mysterious Earth-like planet which appears to be its origin, and the novel follows several characters as the human race attempts to understand the nature of the Stuff and deal with the consequences of its discovery.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. Partly this is because I really struggled with the worldbuilding; unlike when I read Too Like the Lightning and found it exhilarating to try to understand the strange new world Ada Palmer had created, reading Natural History felt like hard work. There was a lot of invented jargon, different types of Forged humans and institutions and processes and I really struggled to take it all in and make any sense of it at all. I also felt that the pacing wasn't quite right; it's quite a short book, at just under 400 pages, and there was a lot of setup to create a number of plot threads which all then seemed to be resolved very quickly, so I couldn't help feeling that it might have been better with more space to develop the story (or perhaps less setup; I definitely enjoyed the last hundred pages or so, once the plot really started moving, more than the start). Most of the characters feel very underdeveloped, and even the two who are given more time don't quite seem fully realised. This is a novel that's full of interesting ideas, but I didn't think the execution quite lived up to the concept.


*How many of my book reviews start "when I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop"? Probably most of the ones that aren't reviews of Kindle books...
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2017-05-26 07:19 pm

Reading: The River

I read several of Rumer Godden's novels in my teens, and loved her delicate capturing of the transition between childhood and adulthood, so when I found a couple of her books in the Oxfam bookshop recently I couldn't resist buying them. The River is a very short book, the story of Harriet, the second child in a European family living on the banks of a river in East Bengal (based, as the introduction makes clear, on Godden's own childhood home), during the course of an Indian winter which is the start of growing up for her, bringing her first real experiences of birth, death, love and loss, as well as her discovery of a talent for writing. It's quite insubstantial, and I didn't love it as much as I loved some of Godden's longer novels when I read them, but it's beautifully written and perfectly captures the confusion and isolation of suddenly not being a child any more, but still not being a grown-up.
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2017-05-24 07:57 pm

Reading: Flying Too High

Flying Too High is the second of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mysteries. Like the first, I thought it was entertaining fluff with a strong feminist slant. I felt the plotting was a bit tighter in this one than in the first, perhaps because Greenwood had already introduced most of the major characters and didn't have to devote time to setting up their relationships this time round, and overall I enjoyed it a lot. (I note that my review of the first book said that I didn't feel compelled to rush out and buy all the subsequent books, but I did just that last night. There are quite a lot, so that'll keep me going for a while!)
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2017-05-23 09:02 am

(no subject)

I saw this quote from CS Lewis's "On Living in an Atomic Age" on FB (or maybe Twitter?) a while ago, and it comes to mind again today, for obvious reasons.

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
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2017-05-20 09:32 pm

Reading: The Fires of Bride

As I recall, I borrowed Ellen Galford's The Fires of Bride from the local library more than once when I was a teenager. I borrowed it the first time because teenage feminist me would borrow anything with the Women's Press's black and white striped spine, and then I borrowed it again (and again) because I loved it; it was funny and feminist and fuelled a burning ambition to live in artistic solitude somewhere remote and spectacularly beautiful when I grew up. (Alas, I turned out not really to be the artistic type, and I don't think solitude would be good for my mental health, so it's probably better that I ended up living in suburbia and having a prosaic career in finance and administration, but at fourteen the prospect would definitely have horrified me.)

I was a bit apprehensive about re-reading it, but I needn't have worried; it's still very funny, and very feminist. It's the story of an artist, Maria, who accepts an invitation to visit lady of the manor, local doctor and probable witch Catriona on the remote Hebridean island of Cailleach, and ends up staying. On the one hand, it's the story of a woman finding her confidence and her identity as an artist and a person, fairly typical of feminist novels of the 80s; on another, it's a humorous portrait of a rural community which owes something to Ealing comedies (it's a bit like Local Hero, which I think I discovered shortly after reading the book, and which is one of my favourite films, though it would have been even better with more lesbians); on a third, it's a quasi-fantasy about communities of women facing up to the patriarchy throughout history, and about the survival of pagan goddess-worship throughout centuries of Christianity. I still liked it a lot; maybe I'll see if I can track down copies of Ellen Galford's other novels as well.
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2017-05-18 07:36 pm

Reading: Too Like The Lightning

I hadn't heard of Ada Palmer's debut novel Too Like The Lightning until I saw it in the list of nominations for this year's Best Novel Hugo. Because I'm trying to read more SFF by women writers I looked it up, and the idea of an eighteenth-century novel set in 2454 was so irresistible I ordered a copy straight away.

As "an eighteenth-century novel set in 2454" suggests, it is a mindbogglingly strange read in places, but I also found it wonderful and exhilarating. One of the things I love most about reading SF is the way it can plunge you into a completely different world, trying to work out the rules from context, and this book does that in spades; the first few chapters made me feel quite dizzy.

Once I'd got into it a bit, I got a better handle on the world and could concentrate instead on the huge cast of characters and the twisty plot, though in fact, despite the twistiness, there isn't really that much plot; I knew there was a sequel but it really feels like one book that's been published in two volumes and I was left feeling that this one was mostly setup. Annoyingly, although the second book has been published it's not out in paperback until November, and I really dislike hardbacks on grounds of portability (though the paperback of the first one was a massive trade paperback and not a normal-sized book, so was a pain to squeeze into my bag as it was); it doesn't have a UK publisher so unfortunately an ebook isn't an option.

In keeping with the eighteenth-century style, this is definitely a novel of ideas. Obviously, I was particularly interested by the way gender is treated. The twenty-fifth century society Palmer imagines is basically post-gender, so the only acceptable pronouns are they/their; gendered pronouns and behaviours are seen as intensely sexual and definitely kinky, if not perverted. However, the narrator uses "archaic" gendered language, and gives enough physical description to indicate most characters' biological sex (which doesn't always align with their assigned gender); this makes it clear that the elimination of gendered language hasn't actually eliminated the tendency for people who are biologically male to be in positions of power and people who are biologically female to be seen as nurturing and caring. Other interesting threads address the position of religion in a society which has banned organised religion in order to end religiously-motivated violence and crime, punishment and atonement. There are frequent references to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and the plot seems to be driving towards a depiction of a similarly radical shift in Palmer's future society.

I'd say the Hugo nomination was definitely deserved here, and I look forward to reading the next book (and note that a third is shown as due out in hardback this autumn, too).
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2017-05-13 02:23 pm

Reading: Tales from Earthsea

This collection of five short stories, published eleven years after Tehanu, continues that novel's further exploration of the world of Earthsea and in particular of questions of magic and gender. The stories span several hundred years of Earthsea's history, from the founding of the School on Roke in 'The Finder' to shortly after the events of The Farthest Shore and Tehanu in 'Dragonfly', which Le Guin describes in her introduction as a "bridge" between that novel and The Other Wind. As always with Le Guin, they're beautifully written and convey a strong sense of place(the evocation of a bleak, wintery landscape in 'On The High Marsh' was particularly notable for this) as well as having interesting, complex characters and taking a thoughtful approach to complex questions.
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2017-05-06 05:22 pm

Reading: The Idea of North

[personal profile] sillymouse mentioned that she'd been reading Peter Davidson's The Idea of North, and as Davidson (a) was my personal tutor at university, (b) is a member of my current faculty and (c) is genuinely one of the loveliest people I know I was interested to read it myself and very happy to take her up on the offer of borrowing her copy.

The Idea of North is an odd mixture of things; a scholarly examination of the conception of northness through historical, cultural (primarily literature and the visual arts, but there are also reference to cinema and music), social and geographical prisms. The perspective is global, with sections devoted to the north in Canada, China and Japan as well as the more obvious Scandinavia and northern Britain. I found it a fascinating read, full of interesting ideas, and also beautifully written, although, despite mentions of Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Tove Jansson the "cultural" strand did leave me with a sense of northness as overwhelmingly male - lots of Nabokov, Auden, Bergman and Simon Armitage, to name but a few. As the book was first published in 2005, it predates "Scandi Noir" which I'm sure would have been an interesting addition, though some of the discussion of Scandinavian interiors and pushing back the darkness of the long winter nights anticipates the recent flood of articles and books about hygge.
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2017-04-29 08:58 pm

Reading: The Unicorn Hunt

The fifth in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series see Nicholas travelling to Scotland, the Tyrol and Egypt, dealing with the fallout from the events of the last few pages of Scales of Gold and pursuing feuds old and new. Like all of Dunnett's books, this is full of wonderful evocations of travel; it made me long to see the eastern Mediterrean and the Middle East for myself (and also reflect on the parallels between the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the late fifteenth century and the risk of Isis now). Plot-wise, it seemed to meander rather, with Nicholas and his companions pursuing an ill-defined quest, or possibly one only really understood by Nicholas and which, as readers, we haven't yet been given enough information to understand; I rather suspect that this book will make a lot more sense in the light of the last three books which I have yet to read. Character-wise, it's a delight; Nicholas himself is closed off and forbidding for at least the first half of the book (I think one difference between him and Lymond is that when Lymond appears to be behaving like a complete arse it's normally because he is following a complicated plan but still trying to do the right thing really. Nicholas is often doing it because he is actually not a nice person and doesn't want to do the right thing), but his colleagues and companions continue to grow and develop their personalities, and I particularly liked how many strong and powerful female characters there were.

I'm still not sure I really understand where Nicholas's story is going, but I'm definitely enjoying the ride.
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2017-04-23 03:52 pm

Cinema-going

T has been away for a couple of weekends recently, leaving me at a loose end, and I've discovered that when I'm on my own on a Saturday going to a lunchtime showing at the Picturehouse is rather a pleasant way to pass the time, especially when preceded by cake at the Jericho Cafe and followed by a walk to Summertown along the canal.

By coincidence, both times I've done this the films have been about the lives of women born in the nineteenth century. A couple of weeks ago I went to see A Quiet Passion, which about Emily Dickinson. I'm not generally a big fan of biopics, and to be honest, this reminded me why; you can't really compress a real life, with all its messiness and lack of narrative coherence, into an hour and a half and make much of a film, so it felt oddly episodic and didn't really seem to know what it was trying to say. I also felt that it didn't really manage to convey the passing of time; the opening scenes feature a younger Emily, and then there's a sequence where the younger versions of the characters are gradually morphed into the older versions, but once that has happened the film spans a period of 25 to 30 years with no sense of any real change or aging. As I often do with films purporting to depict real people or events, I also spent a lot of time wondering whether the filmed sequences actually bore any resemblence to the real life of Emily Dickinson, or were simply Terence Davies' imaginings. (Mainly the latter, I think; he has been quoted as saying he was seeking 'narrative truth' rather than factual accuracy.) It felt rather lacklustre (despite fabulous costumes) and certainly didn't leave me feeling I know any more about Emily Dickinson than I did when I went in.

By contrast, yesterday I went to see Letters from Baghdad, which is about Gertrude Bell. This takes a very different approach; it mainly consists of Bell's own letters, read by Tilda Swinton, over a montage of photographs of and by Bell and old film clips. The only fictionalised element is the inclusion of various 'talking heads' of Bell's family, friends and colleagues, though even in these cases it's clear that least some of the comments are based on letters and diaries. It's clearly the result of painstaking and dedicated archive research; it's a beautiful and interesting film, but it's very definitely a documentary rather than a drama, and I think I much prefer that to films which attempt to dramatise actual events, which always ends up fictionalising them. I'd recommend it highly.
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2017-04-21 11:40 am

(no subject)

Very happy birthdays to [personal profile] ankaret and [personal profile] lexin!
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2017-04-16 07:15 pm

Reading: All Change

All Change is the fifth and final volume in Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles. Published nearly 20 years after the previous book, and shortly before Howard's death in 2014, it picks up the family's story in 1956. The younger generation of the previous books are now young adults and parents; there's a new generation of children and Hugh, Edward, Rachel, Rupert and their partners have become the older generation, trying to come to grips with a very different world from the one they grew up in.

I'm not quite sure why Howard felt the need to revisit the Cazalets after such a long break, and although I actually prefer the more bittersweet ending to the series All Change provides to Casting Off's neat conjunction of happy endings, I'm not sure the book lives up to the earlier ones. It feels less subtle, the characters much less three-dimensional than before. There's a lot of infodumping about the events of previous books, but the "new" story feels rather thin; some characters hardly appear, while others have stories which are compressed into onto a handful of chapters, and a lot of time is devoted to the children born since the end of All Change, who I wasn't particularly interested in. There are also quite a few continuity glitches (a character reflecting that she's sick of breastfeeding in one chapter, only to still be clinging on to feeding the same baby over a year later; a parent inexplicably only addressing an issue discovered in a "January/February" section in the "November/December" of the same year). It isn't dreadful, but it's my least favourite by a long way.
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2017-04-14 07:08 pm

Reading: First Class Murder

The third of Robin Stevens' Wells and Wong mysteries is set on the Orient Express, where Hazel's father has taken Hazel and Daisy in the summer holidays, hoping to take their minds off detecting. However, they quickly discover that there is a spy on board, and then, shortly after crossing the border into Yugoslavia, one of their fellow-passengers is murdered. Despite Mr Wong's attempts to prevent them, the girls are determined to discover who the murderer was. (It's very obviously and explicitly a tribute to Murder on the Orient Express, of course, although the actual plot isn't particularly similar.)

Like the others in the series, it's a lot less cosy than you'd expect it to be: the racism encountered by Hazel (and, this time, her father) is still present, and there's some very unpleasant period-typical antisemitism as well. To be honest, this one didn't grab me as much as the others, possibly because I worked out the identity of the murderer straight away (though I was wrong about how the murder was actually committed) and also worked out one of the subplots a long way ahead of the girls. Also, one of the things I really liked about the first two was the way they showed the effects of murder on a close-knit community, and made it clear that it wasn't just a case of solving a puzzle, unmasking the culprit and making everything alright again; although the train setting provides a similar closed environment, the connection between the passengers is only a temporary one and the emotional impact of the crime is therefore a lot less. It was still an enjoyable read, but I liked the first two a lot more.