Book #85: Something Like Lightning (2014)

Something-Like-Lightning_by_Jay-Bell_Cover-ArtAuthor: Jay Bell
Language: English with a bit of German
Length: 367 pages (virtual)
Finished reading: April 22 2015

I read the previous book in Jay Bell’s Something Like… gay romance series, Spring, about a year ago, and I think the series dropped off my radar for a little while because I didn’t realise this was out until this year. Fortunately, this is written as a much more original story, similar to its direct predecessor and unlike some of the previous entries in the series.

It’s from the perspective of Kelly, the boyfriend’s ex in Spring. There he was quite a minor character, and it took me a while to remember any details about him, so I was midway through the second or third chapter before I remembered that he loses his leg, as is depicted on the front of the cover. To be fair, this is a known event if you’ve read the last book, but I imagine it would have had more impact if I hadn’t been expecting it.

Perhaps that’s the danger of reading about the sane events again. That said, I had either forgotten or not realised in the first place that Kelly was black – I think I’d pegged him as an emo kid when the last book described him as “dark” – perhaps it’s my personal failing that I don’t pick up on similes so easily. Or I just didn’t remember anything about him. Anyway, the author doesn’t explore racial issues as much as he explores the identity crisis that happens when Kelly, formerly a star athlete, loses his leg and becomes disabled.

I thought the writing was, as always, compelling enough to keep me reading at a fast pace, and like the last book, I was finished in a few days. I thought the characters were fleshed out well. I was a little disappointed that it was moving so much further from the original storyline – in particular, the character Ben from the first book is met only briefly, and it’s not clear what his relation is to the other characters. Maybe that’s realistic, though.

I was also rather disappointed with the ending – it’s not as unambiguously happy as the previous books, and it ended on a sequel hook, as it looks like Bell has actually planned the next book now, from Kelly’s new boyfriend’s perspective (it turns out he’s another character that was briefly mentioned in the last book but not fully explored – here he seems troubled but we don’t really know why).

I’m still wondering whether the reason why I like these books is because they’re one of the vanishingly few gay-themed series I’ve read, but I find them so easy to read that I have to recommend them whole-heartedly! But as I think I’ve said before, this is the fifth book in the series, and it’d be better to start with the first.

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Film #147: Pride (2014)

n-pride-2321-14Director: Matthew Warchus
Language: English with about one line of Welsh
Length: 119 minutes
Watched on: April 4 2015

As usual, this film was released many months late in Japan. I was surprised it was released at all, if I’m honest – but then again, it was only out in one cinema in Ginza. I realized later that the day we saw it, and the release date of the picture in Japan, is sometimes known as Gay Day, mostly by primary school children and those who think that gays are halfway between make and female (it’s halfway between girls’ day on 3/3 and boys’ day on 5/5), so it may be missing the point somewhat, but I find it funny. April is also the month of the Rainbow Pride parade in Tokyo, since June is the rainy season and summer is far too hot, which coincided nicely with this.

Pride is about a group of young activists in the 80s who decide that an alliance with striking miners would be beneficial to both parties, and is based on a true story – apparently pretty faithful to the real life situation, although some characters were taken out or merged.

It starts with a young guy, the clueless-looking blond in the photo above, sneaking out to attend the pride march in London. He gets dragged along by a very charismatic young man, who comes up with the idea of joining the miners’ strike. They travel to Wales, and after some initial homophobia, they win the trust of the locals after they show them how to get out of being illegally held in jail.

But after all, summarizing a plot is boring. The film covers so many themes it risks getting bogged down, but it always keeps its head above the water, effectively engaging its audience at all times. Sometimes it whiplashes when it switches topics – after all, it takes place during a time when the AIDS crisis was still poorly understood but coming into the public consciousness, never more obvious than when the middle-aged Welsh ladies barge into a gay bar to talk to the nice young men wearing leather, a comedic scene bookended by a cameo by Russell Tovey as a young man coming to terms with his quickly-approaching fate in what I’d say was one of the most heartbreaking scenes.

Despite this ongoing epidemic, the film retains an upbeat message, however. Perhaps it’s undermined by the fact that the miners eventually lost to Thatcher, but it’s still optimistic about the future, and notes that the whole incident played a significant role in the Labour party’s decision to officially support gay rights.

I don’t think I’ve even seen such an optimistic gay movie, in fact. I loved all the characters in the movie, running the full gamut of gay and lesbian stereotypes, and then some. I liked the comedic moments, especially inconsequential things like the lesbian splinter groups with a definite air of the People’s Front of Judea.

This film was a gift, frankly, and it’s something I think everyone should try and see, post haste! I want more of this. And let’s translate it into real life too!

Film #146: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

jupiter-ascending-still03Directors: Andy & Lana Wachowski
Language: English, Russian, and some creative gibberish
Length: 127 minutes
Watched on: 1 April 2015

As usual, Japan is late in releasing movies. In this case, it was only about a month late, so it was still within the window where there was a bit of hype going around about the movie.

Essentially, Jupiter Ascending (known as only Jupiter in Japan, for what it’s worth) seems to have been a pretty polarizing movie, with some people really liking it, and others really vehemently hating it. A lot of this has been blamed on gender, as the movie attempts to be a trashy B-movie made for women, with a female lead and a smouldering Channing Tatum as the love interest. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy aimed at women, essentially, where the main character discovers she’s a space princess. It’s not so ridiculous, but apparently the public is more willing to forgive a movie for being trashy wish fulfillment if it’s got a male lead, as most movies have. I think that there’s an element of truth in this, but I don’t think it’s, at the end of the day, the reason why it’s flopped.

The Wachowskis have never quite managed to hit the high they did with The Matrix, again, and this is no exception. They wrote V for Vendetta, which has taken its place, for all the wrong reasons, in popular culture, with the spread of those awful Guy Fawkes masks to represent 4chan and Anonymous culture. In the interest of disclosure, I used to like V for Vendetta when I was a teenager, but it didn’t bear repeat viewings. By the third or fourth time I just wished the Wachowskis’ brand of pop psychology that ran so rife would die its well-deserved death.

The thing is, this movie can be very fairly described as a gender-flipped version of The Matrix. It’s pretty much the same plot point that supports the movie: the deception of humanity by a higher order that is using human beings to power their nefarious means.

Except that that’s not quite right. Mila Kunis’s main character, called Jupiter, has two or three male love interests over the course of the movie and much of the movie is them using her as a pawn in their galactic war-of-sorts, a kind of family feud. She often doesn’t have a lot of agency of her own, being literally dragged from place to place and constantly bailed out by Channing Tatum.

I’m also very bothered about the portrayal of the evil men: although they were ostensibly straight (and trying to marry her against her will), in contrast to Tatum’s gruff, muscular werewolf character, they were portrayed as feminine and lithe. I think if we’re going to examine any gender biases in this movie, it should be that one. I don’t take too kindly to movies that code their villains as gay – as a society, we should be over this by now. The Hayes code is out of vogue!

The other reason I think this could never be as groundbreaking as The Matrix is that there is no innovation in this movie. It’s a space opera. Space operas are two a penny, frankly, and this one didn’t do anything new. The Wachowskis are going to have to step up their game if they want to repeat the success of that movie. (As an aside, recently I’ve been hearing about their new TV series Sense8 which seems to be more innovative and unique, so perhaps I’ll check that out.)

That said, Jupiter Ascending didn’t have absolutely zero merit – its graphics were amazing, and the depiction of many different galactic worlds was really cool. There was also a sense that some background detail had gone into the planning of the film’s universe, that we’re getting an inside look into something larger. Things don’t happen particularly randomly, or without consequence. A couple of scenes stand out as memorable, including purely comedic scenes with the gay robots and a cameo from Terry Gilliam when they go to the bureaucratic homeworld, reprising what looks a lot like his role in the Monty Python movies.

I also liked the idea of actually plunging into the clouds of Jupiter and having a space base hidden from view inside the great storm – this itself was pretty unique in my experience, although my instinct was then to question why the gravity of Jupiter didn’t crush the protagonists. Ever the literalist.

So if you enjoy a simple romp through the galaxy, and don’t mind movies that are a bit simplistic, this might be for you. It’s no classic, but it’s not terrible. Perhaps Mila Kunis could actually do some more fighting of her own instead of relying on Channing Tatum, and the film has its fair share of problems. It’s not flopping because of the protagonist’s gender, though.

Book #83: Advanced Language Construction (2012)

ALC-CoverAuthor: Mark Rosenfelder
Language: English, plus example sentences from a whole slew of languages, real and fictional
Length: 267 pages
Read on: 29 March 2015

The audience for conlanging books is pretty niche, so I’m not going to recommend this to the general populace, but I would recommend it to its intended audience. This is the sequel to the Language Construction Kit, by the same author. I believe I’ve already reviewed that on here if anyone’s interested.

I actually got this and read the entire thing in a single day – it took about eight or nine hours and I felt tired afterwards, but I did it all the same. Mark’s writing style is fairly compelling, and easy to read. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the guest chapter focusing on Northwest Caucasian languages – this was full of examples, but wasn’t coherently linked together or explained very well, and I ended up skimming most of it.

Other than that, though, the book contains plenty of examples from such a wide variety of languages that it would be difficult to list them all here. Mark’s own invented languages, including Verdurian, are of course included, as they were in the first Language Construction Kit, and many of the examples come from languages that I haven’t even heard of.

Actually, scratch my first paragraph, I think even if you’re not interested in conlanging, but are interested in linguistics, this makes a great linguistic primer. Like the Conlangery podcast (also recommended, by the way!), the things it talks about have a broader audience than simply those conlangers who want to make their work more realistic, even if it’s written from that perspective.

For a seasoned linguist-slash-conlanger like myself, it’s still nothing strictly new, but it would contain a lot of new information for someone less experienced than me. What it excels in for me is the examples from such a wide variety of sources.

Apart from the guest chapter, most of the complaints I have are very minor and mostly to do with typesetting, especially of the Japanese, which is a bit dodgy, but Mark also has a habit of typesetting dashes weirdly and other such minor nonsense. In this case I’d say my complaining about that in particular is a sign that there aren’t many real complaints to be made.

Anyway, it’s definitely worth the few quid I spent on it, and I hope I get a chance to use it as a reference book at some point.

Change of address

Just updated this blog so it has its own custom domain at reuoq.com instead of reuoq.wordpress.com . I thought I should write a post to that effect. More reviews on the way soon…

Film #145: Nobody Knows (2004)

nobodyknowsaka: 誰も知らない (Dare mo shiranai)
Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Language: Japanese
Length: 140 minutes
Watched on: March 28 2015

Along with the previous Japanese movie I watched, I picked this up in the UK with my Christmas money. The director, Koreeda, seems to be one of the more well-known Japanese directors abroad, and this is often considered his tour de force. I knew a few scant facts about the movie before I watched it: it’s based on a true story of parental abandonment in Tokyo, and the movie predominantly features child actors.

In the movie, the central family moves into a new apartment at the beginning, but it’s obvious that they’re sneaking around and trying to hide something – presumably that they’re trying to squeeze four children and their mother into a one room apartment, the setting of which gives the film a very claustrophobic atmosphere. Only the oldest child, 12 years old, is allowed to leave the apartment and run errands. Then the mother takes off with a new boyfriend, and only returns once before never being seen again. The film then depicts the slow decline into squalor of the other children.

Despite being grisly at times and ultimately heartbreaking, the film seems optimistic about its protagonists’ fates – most of them, anyway. Seasons are used effectively throughout, as the film shows the summer heating up to unbearable levels. It is preoccupied with the oldest child, socially isolated while he is unable to attend school, and he seems to be the main character of the work, if any.

Much has been said of Koreeda’s method of directing the children. He essentially left them to their own devices and captured the best of their reactions. It seems implied that no plot details were planned out in advance. I thought this was the most effective part of the whole story: I remember looking at the younger, boisterous boy in particular and thinking that he was acting very similar to the kids I used to teach in my last job.

In any case, because I had the passing familiarity with the real case – which, incidentally, is a lot more gruesome than the movie’s story as it involves an element of sexual abuse and features an infant corpse – I was expecting the children to be taken into custody at some point. And actually, that didn’t happen. The landlord discovers them living in squalor when she comes around to collect rent, but she seems to be from Ebisu or Shirogane, with a tiny toy dog in her handbag – the Japanese equivalent of a bimbo. She appears briefly in one scene, then stumbles away never to be heard from again. That kind of thing is what makes me think the whole thing is ultimately kinder on the children than real life was.

Overall, it’s a very affecting movie, and I was left thinking about it for days afterward. Considering its subject matter, it’s not for the faint of heart, but I’d certainly recommend it.

Book #82: Raising Steam (2013)

RaisingSteamAuthor: Terry Pratchett
Language: English
Length: 475 pages
Finished reading on: March 15 2015

I’ve been a bit lax on actual reading recently, preferring to use audiobooks as they allow me to multitask. Thus I spent quite a long time reading this, probably in the region of months. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve become a bit bored by Pratchett’s books, as recently I’ve found them thematically repetitive.

But perhaps what finally spurred me into finishing this was Pratchett’s death back in March. I don’t even know whether to call it untimely – it’s certainly young, as he was still only in his sixties, but Pratchett’s fans have known he was on the way out for the past nigh-on eight years, and have had the time to come to terms with it to some degree. Even then, I was kind of expecting him to power through it like the machine he’s been so far, so I still couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I read it.

Before I continue, I should mention that Raising Steam was fairly average for a Discworld novel – it’s not an instant classic, anyway. It is basically, I the vein of recent Discworld novels, about the rise of modern and industrial technology from the real world, in this case trains. The book shows that its author had a real love of trains, and alongside the rise of trains, there was also the rise of trainspotting, practically immediately.

I guess I was more expecting to get some kind of background to the development of the train, more than we do get in this book, anyway. It springs into the book basically fully formed, which allows the story to examine the effects of the new technology on the Discworld society. But it sort of felt like it had just been imported directly from the real world, and given a character.

Speaking of Discworld society, though, it feels by this time like it’s taken on its own life, what with the sheer amount of in jokes and references to various previous happenings. I feel like the time and effort that I’ve invested in the series is paying off.

It is thus with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Terry Pratchett. I’d like to thank him for all the books that have been such a big part of my life during my teenage years and will presumably continue to be in the years to come. This isn’t even his last book: there’s another Long Earth book coming out later this month, and a final Discworld novel to be released in November or so. I’m sure I’ll have a chance to review them here later.