Book #91: A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

ba2i-square-1536Author: Marie Brennan
Language: English
Length: 592 minutes (9 hours 52 minutes)
Finished listening on: 9 October 2015

Audible had a promotion on audiobooks back in September or October – they offered two books for the price of one, and there was a book on my wishlist on the list of eligible books. This book was the freebie, essentially – it had been between this, and a Dawn French book with mixed reviews.

This book is a fantasy memoir told by the fictional famous naturalist Lady Trent, who specializes in dragons. Much of the book, therefore, concerns dragons, but this might be misleading: the main focus is probably the political situation of her world, which is a cypher of Victorian Europe with exotic names like Scyrland and Vystrana (those names are probably spelled wrong: such is the peril of only “reading” audiobooks).

Confusingly, the title of the book refers to a book in the setting about dragons, which sets off the narrator’s interest in childhood, but that because she’s a girl, she’s not really allowed to access (being precocious, she sneaks it out of her father’s study). I must admit it took me a while to realize this, as I was expecting a longer story, or more details about the dragons. The physiology of dragons is well-explored in parts, though, and the author tries hard to reconcile the idea of such a large animal being able to fly by describing a wholly new kind of skeleton.

The narration is quite funny in places, and the audiobook’s reader suits the role well. It’s told from the perspective of the older Lady Trent recounting a story of her youth. It’s implied early on that the world stretches out beyond the bounds of the story, especially when the narrator mentions her other (also fictional) books and tells the reader they should read those to get a fuller picture. I always appreciate touches like that in books.

The political situation, as I mentioned, is very well imagined – colonialism is definitely a force in this world, and it mirrors the real situation on Earth. Ultimately, we only get tantalizing glances of this, but the book does go into detail about the gender politics of the world, pretty much a given when your main character is a woman in a historical(-ish) setting – in fact, in doing so it matched the last book I read (The Privilege of the Sword) well, as many of the themes there were also about that.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where Vystrana, the main setting of the book, is supposed to represent (since Scyrland is a very clear cypher of England). At first I thought it might be India, just based on the sound of the word, and the mountainous setting that is originally reminiscent of the Himalayas, but later I decided it must be either Russia or somewhere like Transylvania, based on the Slavic-sounding names. I think it would have been better if the author had spent a little more time making the country its own thing, rather than just being based on a real place – but this isn’t a huge complaint, as there is a good amount of world-building overall.

Despite these small flaws, I enjoyed the book a lot, and as I mentioned, it’s tantalizing! I now quite want to read the next book in the series. We’ll see, anyway.

Book #90: The Privilege of the Sword (2006)

privilege-of-the-sword-fantasy-audiobookAuthor: Ellen Kushner
Language: English
Length: 940 minutes (15 hours 40 minutes)
Finished listening on: 24 Sep 2015

This book is the second in the series by Ellen Kushner that started with Swordspoint – which I listened to on an audiobook last year – set in her fictional city of Riverside. I’d enjoyed listening to that book because of its LGBT themes and the unique way in which it was made, with sound effects and background chatter added in later, and I thought it’d be a good idea to catch up with the series.

This audiobook presentation was again introduced by Neil Gaiman, who took more of a part in the production itself too this time. This time they used Kushner to narrate the subjective sections told from the main character’s perspective, and another performer, with one of the most amazingly androgynous voices I’ve heard, for the third-person omnipresent sections. Then they had a full cast, like in the previous book, for the more important setpieces.

I found this whole setup a lot more distracting than it had been in Swordspoint, and I found myself paying more attention to the sound effects and music at some points than at the performers. This was a shame, because the book was reasonably compelling, but I suspect that if it’d been more interesting, it wouldn’t have mattered so much.

I guess the reason I thought it could have been more interesting was that it has quite a slow pace, and the plot isn’t its strongest point. It is much more focused on the characters and the situations they find themselves in. I think this stands it apart from the previous book – I noticed an immediate difference when I listened to the sample chapter at the end of this one that came from Swordspoint.

Like its predecessor, it has a lot of LGBT-related content, including the “Mad Duke” Alec, a character from the previous book who likes orgies, and its main plot is that he hires his niece Katherine to be a swordsman – traditionally a male occupation. She has to wear men’s clothes for her uncle – and I guess it’s probably a spoiler, but develops feelings for women later in the novel, causing her to worry that she’s going to end up like her depraved uncle. (She is a good example of a non-straight female character who doesn’t die at the end, and I wish that was not such a radical statement – and after all, Kushner herself is lesbian, so there’s an obvious element of the author inserting her own experiences.)

The book and author are expert at creating the atmosphere of the time period and fantasy setting, and this aspect is certainly supplemented by the sound effects and music. Her characters are also interesting, and Katherine in particular has a well-defined arc over the course of the plot. For me, though, it started to drag a bit, and I wished that the sound effects weren’t distracting me so much. I’d say I liked it overall – but I’d recommend not this book but the previous one, just in terms of pacing and world-building.

Film #164: Disc of Love (2013)

disc-of-lovedirector: Ryan Davey
language: English
length: 8 minutes
watched: Sep 23 2015

This was another short that I watched on the same day as the previous one. It’s a bit shorter and depicts two Australian boys living together, but one becomes weirdly attached to the other and gives him a kind of mixtape CD to listen to in the car. Then it gets a bit weird.

Like the last one, it’s not like it’s a particularly profound movie or anything, and the production is noticeably cheap, but unlike the last one, it stays firmly on the side of comedy and isn’t aimed at closeted people or talking about any kind of issues.

Basically, it’s short and funny enough that I’d recommend just checking it out on Youtube (or wherever it was that I found it) – but it comes with a slight warning, because the punchline at the end made me groan, especially after all that build-up.

Film #163: The Perfect Plan (2013)

perfect-planaka: Kế hoạch hoàn hảo
director: Ngo Thanh Phat
language: Vietnamese
length: 11 minutes
watched: 20 Sep 2015

I recently followed some Tumblrs that post gifs of gay movies, and it made me realize that there’s a whole world of gay shorts that I haven’t explored much. This was the first full movie that I found via such a Tumblr. I think it’s available on Youtube if you want to search for it (if that doesn’t work, leave a comment and I’ll try to re-find it).

The movie is Vietnamese, and is a quick story about a gay couple living together – but when one’s mother shows up to stay, they are forced back into the closet. Then we basically discover that she doesn’t mind at all.

It’s quite sweet, and the actors are attractive and not bad at what they do. The production needs a lot of work, though. Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect the same level of production as a professional setup, but the biggest issue is the sound balance. The actors are recorded in situ, and the music during montage scenes and scene breaks is far too loud.

I also liked the brief glimpse into another culture for me. I don’t know how accepted gay and LGBT people are in Vietnam, but I suspect not a lot, based on the reactions of the characters. I hope that this movie is able to reach young closeted guys in Vietnam and give them hope – if that’s possible, then this film has achieved its goal.

Films #160-162: A London Trilogy by Saint Etienne

what-have-you-done-today-mervyn-day-2005-001-noah-kelly-shot-with-bicycle-in-front-of-houseDirector: Paul Kelly (and Kieran Evans)
Language: English

  • Finisterre (2003)
    Length: 59 minutes
    Watched: 17 Sep
  • What Have You Done Today Mervin Day? (2005)
    Length: 45 minutes
    Watched: 18 Sep
  • This Is Tomorrow (2007)
    Length: 54 minutes
    Watched: 18 Sep
  • plus DVD extras and other shorts: total 43 minutes

I got this… last year? the year before? for Christmas, and finally dug it out to watch over two days in September. I’ve been a fan of Saint Etienne’s music for a long time, and I’d seen the titles of these documentary movies floating around before, so it was nice to finally get to see them.

The first movie, Finisterre, was made around the same time as the eponymous album by Saint Etienne, and it’s a series of images of London set to music from that album with a voiceover that also featured on the album – the two are actually more intertwined than I thought. Like Saint Etienne’s music, it’s a love song to the city, but the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show the gritty side too.

The second is What Have You Done Today Mervin Day?, which has a very similar purview to the previous film, but focuses in on the Lea Valley in East London, on the eve of its choice as the site of the Olympic Village for the 2012 Olympics. It features more voiceovers from interviews with locals, but it follows a fictional character Mervin as he visits different dilapidated and abandoned places on his bike. It has a rudimentary storyline, as well, as he’s kind of on the run from his boss, but it’s obvious that none of that matters in the slightest.

The third is This Is Tomorrow, which has a very different feel and purpose, as it is more of a straight documentary about the rebuilding of the Festival Hall in central London. I didn’t connect so easily with this movie in total. However, I’d literally been there, to that hall, two months before watching this, so I knew where it was and had an idea of what they were talking about. But unlike the other movies, this one doesn’t show the random images of the city so much, so it wasn’t such a window into daily life in London. It did talk about the history of the area, which was interesting.

One of the most interesting things about the movies was seeing how London’s changed. Part of the reason I decided to watch it now was that I’d been to London in July, so my own impression of the city was still fresh in my mind. London’s skyline has changed a lot in twelve years – the Gherkin (or “butt plug”, as I like to call it) is conspicuous in its absence in Finisterre, such an integral part of the skyline is it now, and of course, more recently there’s the Shard and the Walkie Talkie and all manner of other ridiculously-named skyscrapers.

On a similar note, one of the extras was a remake of Mervin Day narrated by Sarah Cracknell which revisits the Olympic Village in 2012 to see how the Lea Valley’s changed in the seven years since they made the earlier documentary. Again, it was interesting to see that. I still haven’t been there yet, but I guess Tokyo is gearing up for similar transformations now. I don’t plan to still be in Japan in 2020, though.

I liked these movies, but I have a particular interest in the band who made them, so I guess they don’t have general applicability. But if you’re at all interested in Saint Etienne, or if you want to see something visual about London that has no plot, you’d do well to see this.

Film #159: Jurassic World (2015)

jurassic-world-sb-header-2Director: Colin Trevorrow
Language: English and a tiny bit of French
Length: 124 minutes
Watched on: 30 Aug 2015

I’m fairly sure I saw Jurassic Park as a kid, but I can’t remember many details of the movie now, except for the basic plot. Seeing this movie was quite opportunistic, as it happened to be on just after I finished work and just before I was to go back for a work party. I was also testing what I’d heard – that the local cinema in Tachikawa has a membership scheme, which means I can get cheaper tickets. I don’t intend to pay full price if I can help it! (After all, full price in Japan is ¥1800 – it’s pretty steep…)

Jurassic World follows a very similar plot to the previous movies in the franchise, but in this, they’ve colonised a small island with dinosaurs and made it into a big theme park. Sound familiar? History repeats itself. The story goes that the scientists develop a new dinosaur, which then gets loose. Violence and threat ensue.

There wasn’t a lot original in the movie overall, as the basic plot arc is just the same as the first movie, but with this new dinosaur instead of the T-Rex. Actually, I tell a lie, as the main character, played by Chris Pratt, is a velociraptor trainer, which as far as I know hasn’t been seen before, and the military wants to harness his power over the raptors to make a weapon (spoiler alert: they can’t). He’s buff but bland (I saw a photo of him in a magazine where he’d shaved and he actually looked boring!), but is able to put in a good performance with a good sense of humour. He has no screen chemistry with the leading lady, unfortunately, and the romantic subplot seems tacked-on. A little more focus here would have been nice – keep them platonic and let’s get some more dinosaur scenes instead.

The two kids who the movie follows around the park are slightly lazily written, especially the teenage character, who is a special brand of disinterested that I’ve only seen in movies. I did get a nice insight into life in a world where dinosaurs are alive and real – the older kid sees them as boring, and the younger kid’s obsession takes on a different aspect when he actually has the chance of seeing them in real life. His desire to get to Jurassic World is parallel to kids going to Disney World. This is compounded by the park’s directors wanting to make things by fresh by introducing a new species of dinosaur.

Speaking of which, it’s mentioned a lot that they spliced together the DNA of different dinosaur species, which led to one of my pet peeves of the new dinosaur taking on personality traits and random very specific abilities of different dinosaurs. There may be an element of truth to this, but I’m not convinced. It all seems a little too convenient.

Aside from that, Jurassic World delivered on its expectations – there are enough action setpieces and foreshadowing to make the conclusion exciting, and there are plenty of different kinds of dinosaurs depicted (I noted with a bit of a chuckle that the makers have cornered themselves into not being allowed to depict the dinosaurs with feathers, as they have to follow the other movies in the franchise). For that reason if it was still on in the cinemas I’d recommend going. As it stands I’d recommend watching the other movies in the franchise first – but I also have to reacquaint myself with them! I’ll let you know if I get around to it.

Book #89: The Art of Breathing (2014)

61Of1KD6q4L._SL300_Author: T.J. Klune
Language: English
Length: 921 minutes (15 hours and 21 minutes)
Finished listening on: August 17, 2015

I already reviewed the first two books in this series, Bear, Otter and the Kid and Who We Are. This is the third book in the series, but unlike the other two books, which were separated chronologically by only a short time and featured the same main character, this book shifts the focus onto Tyson, The Kid, and takes place after a ten year time jump.

In the story, The Kid also comes out near the start of the book, and he’s already confessed his love at the end of the previous book for his best friend Dominic, a “gentle giant” character. Guess where the story’s going now. But in this story, it all quickly goes wrong when he graduates high school early and travels across the country, with his brother in tow to take care of him. He discovers that Dominic probably isn’t into him when he sees him kissing a girl, and freaks out, essentially cutting the other guy out, which provides the central conflict of the book.

The “art of breathing” in the title refers to a therapeutic method recommended to The Kid to get over his anxiety and panic attacks that come about from his separation from his best friend, and from finding that college life doesn’t suit him well. As a portrayal of anxiety in The Kid’s character, and of the realization that one isn’t as special as one had been led to believe in early life, it’s really true-to-life. As with many other books, I can’t help but feel that if people just sat down to talk about things like normal human beings, the situations between the characters wouldn’t have been so awkward, as perhaps The Kid could have averted the main onset of his anxiety and addiction issues.

Unfortunately, to the book’s detriment, the author doesn’t manage to distinguish the voices of Tyson in this book and Bear in the previous books significantly enough. This book is also written in a stream-of-consciousness style, which becomes tiring sometimes – again, I’m glad that I was listening to the audiobook, as I think it would have been insufferable if I’d been reading it.

At the same time, the book is significant character development for Tyson, as he overcomes some of the difficulties facing him. The same can be said for Dominic, but as for Bear and Otter, the main characters from the previous novels, their role in this story is diminished, and they become stereotypes of themselves.

There were a few more characters introduced too. Tyson is shown to have had a relationship with Corey, who is bigender (a relatively positive representation that I’ve personally never seen before, incidentally) – but his female alter-ego is called Korey, meaning that the narrator of the audiobook has to do verbal gymnastics all the time, reading it out as “Korey with a K” and “Corey with a C” whenever the character appears in a scene. At first I thought this would turn Tyson into a more sexually-healthy adult than his brother, but it’s later revealed that they didn’t actually have sex, and when he finally hooks up with Dominic later in the book, it’s said to be his “first time”. I don’t think the idea of having one true love forever is one that we should be pursuing, so I was a bit disappointed.

Similarly, I thought for a while that it would probably be better if he didn’t actually get together with Dominic – I mean, I know that it’s a romance novel and all, but sometimes we have to suffer rejection to turn into well-adjusted adults! I reckon that I prefer to style of the other gay romance author that I’ve read (Jay Bell), who seems to prefer having a rejection plot earlier on in the book, so that the later romance feels more fulfilling.

As with the previous books in this series, I was hooked from the start, despite being a little annoyed by the writing style. I also cared about the characters a lot. I will probably look into the other books by this author, as he seems to be quite prolific. In fact, there was also an afterword saying that he was planning a fourth and final book in the series, so I’ll probably come back to this series yet.

Film #158: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Language: English with a bit of German, French
Length: 90 minutes
Watched on: 31 July 2015

I actually bought this a few months ago, or even last year, when I was visiting my boyfriend’s outside Tokyo; I picked it up, like Team America, in the bargain bucket of an electronics store. It took me a lot longer to get around to this one, though. I finally took the opportunity to put it on one summer’s evening when a friend was over for drinks.

Let’s just get one thing straight: the science in this movie is basically atrocious. The main character invents a way to spontaneously turn water into all kinds of food (never mind the astronomical amounts of energy this would require in real life), and it gets loose in the atmosphere, leading to hamburgers and pizzas falling from the sky. Basically it’s ludicrous, but this isn’t the point of the movie, and not something that would stop me enjoying it.

The movie sets up a few running gags early on, and is very good at following them up later in the movie – such as the main character’s spray on boots, which he can literally never take off. It rewards careful viewers with sly asides like this throughout the action. At the same time, the humour doesn’t feel forced, and it was satisfying to laugh in all the right places.

Aside from that, the main character’s family arc was pretty standard – he has to redeem himself to his father, to whom he’s a disappointment, and who is a stoic fisherman to his aspiring inventor character. There’s also a tepid romance subplot with the nerdy-but-hot weatherwoman who comes to their small island to report on the mysterious weather. Sound familiar yet? It does to me – I think this kind of plot is overdone.

It’s also worth noting at this point that the side characters were all very imaginative and flamboyant, and the individual quirks of the main characters were also unique, but I’m mainly talking about the way they interact in the main subplots.

So it’s not a work of genius, but it’s funny, and it’s a good way to pass a couple of hours. The subplots and main characters aren’t particularly imaginative, but that doesn’t matter, ultimately. I’d recommend it.