Oddly specific book recommendations #1: Shoeburyness

According to the Meaning of Liff, ‘Shoeburyness’ is:

the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat that is still warm from somebody else’s bottom

I think what you need in that situation is either an extremely immersive book to distract you from that vague warmth, or to lean fully into it with something that transforms the feeling from discomfort to a feeling of connection to other humans. Or maybe something that manages to be both.

the-gigantic-beard-that-was-evil-3The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins is a beautiful graphic novel about a man called Dave who lives on an extremely well-ordered island called ‘Here’, with everything beyond Here full of chaos, fear and disorder, called ‘There’. Dave, who is bald apart from one stray hair, one day finds the data he works on scrambled, forming shapes he has only seen in his nightmares of There. His face begins to burn, and a gigantic, ever-growing beard erupts from his chin. It’s a kind of Roald Dahl-esque fairy tale about the the fear of ‘other’ (what is There and not Here), the fear of what cannot be controlled (and how chaos finds a way nonetheless), what it means to be different, and just a beautifully drawn weird and melancholy story. “Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show”. Read it for connection and to embrace the lack of order and control you have over your bus seat.

the-arrivalAnother great graphic novel for shoeburyness is The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is basically a book I’d shoe-horn in to any recommendation list. It’s completely wordless, so perfect if reading while travelling makes you queasy, or you’re in a medical waiting room and finding it difficult to concentrate. The illustrations are absolutely stunning, and tell the story of an immigrant arriving in a new city populated by strange creatures, unusual contraptions, and a language of symbols that he doesn’t understand. The man can’t communicate with words so we experience the world as he does – without words. He meets other immigrants, who welcome and help him, and we learn their stories about why they left their homes to make new ones in this city. Read it to connect to others and to escape into the beautiful illustrations.

nagasakiFor a different kind of solution, Nagasaki by Eric Faye (trans. by Emily Boyce), is an excellent choice. It’s very short (about 100 pages with very large font) so perfect if you want something you can read all in one go. Shimura, a middle-aged man living alone in a quiet suburb, begins to notice food has been going missing from his kitchen. He sets up a webcam and monitors it from work, hoping to catch the intruder. It’s a quiet, understated, novella about loneliness and disconnect, particularly as you age and particularly if you have no real friends or family around you. It’s almost as if the more Shimura detaches from the world, the more it forces its way in – not to bring connections, but just to highlight that it is there. Read it to transform the shoeburyness from discomfort to a reminder that the world is there.

life-after-lifeFor a longer novel, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is 600 pages of very readable and engaging writing. This is the story of Ursula’s many lives. You follow her life until she dies, then the story starts again and tiny or radical changes to decisions means her life takes a different course, until she dies again. It’s a bit like Sliding Doors, except rather than being completely separate, each of her lives seems to build on each other and she somehow retains unconscious knowledge of the lives that have come before. Kate Atkinson is incredibly good at writing believable characters, particularly within ‘family saga’ type stories, and this is no exception. Read to transform your shoeburyness into an exciting possibility of the path you have unknowingly chosen.

a-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planetFinally, an excellent shoeburyness read is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. It’s very easy to read, cosy sci-fi, exploring how people from vastly different cultures and races find ways to interact and work together, as well as issues around gender and sexuality. The writing isn’t the best, with far too much exposition, but it’s written in an episodic way that makes it very easy to pick up and read little bits at a time. It’s very optimistic, especially for sci-fi, as to what the future of human race will look like and how well different species/races accommodate each other. Read it to escape to another world and for the possibilities of human (or alien) connection.

Happy shoeburyness!

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June screentime 2017

I don’t play games as much as I used to, but I’m going to start including games here as well as tv and film because screentime.

monument_valley_2Monument Valley 2 iphone app

This is even more beautiful than the first game. It’s very easy, which makes it difficult to go through it slowly and properly savour it, but I still love it. It’s just the most relaxing and beautifully designed game – from the music to the Escher-esque illustrations to the colour.

zelda majora's mask.jpgZelda: Majora’s Mask 3DS

Finally finished this after playing it off and on for a while. I don’t really like games with a time limit because I prefer taking my time to wander about and work things out, especially in a more open game like Zelda. As a time limit is half of the point of Majora’s Mask, I should hate this game, and, at times, I did, especially when I’d finally work out how to do something but didn’t have enough time to finish so would have to go back in time to do that whole section again. But, this is really great. I like the character transformation aspect as it adds an extra dimension to the puzzles and figuring out which masks were really key to collect. When I wanted to play but without the clock-watching stress, I would look through a walk-through before I started the section to have a rough idea of what I needed to do. I know it’s not the ‘thing to do’ but I don’t give a shit – I still enjoyed playing it (sometimes more) when I used a walk-through. Really wish I had Switch so I could play Breath of the Wild.

handmaid's taleThe Handmaid’s Tale series, All4

The series still isn’t finished yet but I’m loving it. It’s such a good adaptation – it changes things from the book to suit the medium of tv better but retains the feel and themes of the book perfectly. The only tiny gripe I have is that the commander is quite a bit younger than I see him, but that’s really nit-picking.

orange-is-the-new-blackOrange is the New Black (season 5) series, Netflix

As Piper is the least interesting character in OITNB, the fact they spend little time on her this series helps, but it felt a little bloated overall, like the whole thing needed to be condensed into fewer, tighter episodes. Saying that, there were some great moments and episodes in there too, but the bloat made the series feel just okay, not great.

independence day resurgence.jpgIndependence Day: Resurgence (2016) film

I was expecting this to be fairly terrible, but was hoping for the good kind of terrible, especially as I’m always here for Goldblum. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much just terrible in a boring way that even Goldblum couldn’t save.

house of cardsHouse of Cards (seasons 1-5) series, Netflix

I love a good fourth-wall break, so it’s no surprise that I loved this. Kevin Spacey is excellent, especially his simple Spacey-head-tilt fourth-wall breaking and understated quiet rage. Some of season 4’s plot points are bit too ridiculous, but season 5 brings it right back and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

the dispossessionThe Dispossession (2017) film, cinema

This is a documentary about social housing, and the mess policy and greed has made of it. What’s really great is that it centers the people who live in social housing, and doesn’t fall into the trap of talking about them instead of with them. It packs a lot of factual information and stats in as well as personal stories but it doesn’t ever feel too much. Unfortunately, given the topic and the political situation, there’s very little hope – you come away with the impression that there will be no happy endings for the people involved. At my screening there was a Q & A afterwards with the director, an academic involved with the film, our local councillor involved in housing, a local housing charity, and a youth project. Really interesting discussion applying what was in the film to the local area. Do check out the film if it screens somewhere near you.

a cure for wellnessA Cure for Wellness (2016) film

Beautifully shot and crafted from a cinematography point of view, but let down by the writing. This would have been a much better film if it had stuck to creepy realism rather than [spoiler]. The ‘twist’ is also something that you can see a mile away, as are most of the plot points, so what could have been an interesting film was just kind of ordinary blah. Shame, as the visuals are really great.

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June reads 2017

bitch planet triple featureBitch Planet Triple Feature #1 (comics, fiction)

This is three short stories that take place within the universe of the main Bitch Planet series. I really like getting snippets of people and stories outside of the main narrative in dystopias, and these worked really well as being both true to the world of the story and as stories within themselves. I’m not sure what they’d be like to read if you’re not already familiar with the series, but they’re definitely worth a read if you like Bitch Planet.

plum hollie mcnishPlum by Hollie McNish (poetry)

I was lucky enough to see Hollie McNish perform some poems from this collection. She’s a great performer and it made a real difference to how I read the collection. This is the kind of poetry that I don’t often get a lot from just reading it on a page (though there were a few in here I loved that way), so I liked that I read it very soon after seeing her perform so I had her voice, intonation, and rhythm in my head. It’s a collection about growing up, particularly growing up as a young woman, and I liked that she included poems written when she was younger – it’s not just her current self looking back, but also her younger self in conversation with her older self. She’s great.

fullmetal alchemistFullMetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa, vols 1-3, trans. by Akira Watanabe (comics, fiction – Japanese in translation)

This is the first bit of manga I’ve read and I was surprised how easy it is to get used to reading pages and panels right to left. I chose this first because at the beginning there’s a little note from Arakawa talking about how he loves B-movies and wanted to bring that ‘over-the-top’ flavour that still draws you in to his work. I love a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie, so this seemed a perfect place to start. It’s a lot of fun and very self-aware, and I like how the art style of the characters changes occasionally to reflect more comedic moments. I found Edward’s angry reaction to whenever someone mentions his height a bit tiresome, but I think that’s because the anime I’ve been watching recently has featured whiny male protagonists with anger issues so I’m just a bit sick of it. But, I will definitely be continuing the series as it’s just really enjoyable.

the essex serpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (novel)

There’s so much hype around this book, and my reading of it did suffer a bit for that. The first half or so was enjoyable enough but nothing particularly special, though that could have been too-high expectations. But then I got really pulled in to the characters and the relationships and the environment. There are a lot of threads you could unpick, like the young girls and the tension between childhood and womanhood, the different ways the Essex serpent embodies ‘haunting’ for different people, and about friendship and what friendship looks like. I found it well-written and, for the second-half, extremely enjoyable. It didn’t quite live up to all the hype for me, but still a really solid read.

Also on the blog this month:

Some post-election reading recommendations

Currently reading: Creating Freedom by Raoul Martinez, non-fiction

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Post-election reading recommendations

Whether you got the result you wanted or you didn’t, there’s always work to be done to ensure the issues you care about get attention, get policy change. There’s also always more to learn about just what the hell is going on.

Irish Political History

England is extremely insular when it comes to what topics are included in education, and that’s no different when in comes to Irish history (even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK and its representatives form part of our parliament). After this election, suddenly Northern Ireland has a bigger part to play and England is finally starting to take notice.

As books can take a while to catch up, this article is a good summary of the current situation and what it means if a Northern Irish party has a part in the government in Westminster (TLDR: the government can’t be neutral in peace talks, which have been unstable over the past few months, so it really fucks stuff up).

making sense of the troublesI haven’t read any books on the Troubles, but someone recommended Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA by Richard English, though said it was a bit biased. And also Making Sense of the Troubles by David McKittrick & David McVea, but that it lacked a bit of background to help you understand the different perspectives. I’ll probably pick up the McKittrick/McVea, but if you have any good recommendations I’d love to hear them. I don’t really know where’s good to start.

Activism & making changes

hope-in-the-darkHope is often seen as naive or ‘weak’, but it’s not. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit is a beautifully written book about how hope means action, and that action works because it has done so many times before, even if you don’t get to see the broader changes in your lifetime. I don’t agree with everything she says, but I find it very motivating and uplifting. As she says, it’s despair, not hope, that’s unhelpful because “if the world is totally doomed no matter what, little or nothing is demanded of you in response.”

creating freedomThe book I’m picking up after I finish my current read is Creating Freedom by Raoul Martinez. It’s a book about how the ‘lottery of birth’ (you don’t choose where to be born, what your genes will be, how much money your family has, etc), undermines our cultural/societal beliefs in freedom (free markets, free media, free thought, free will, etc). It’s about how we need to understand the limits on our freedom so we can transcend them, and calls for deep and radical change in so much of our current system, from education and prison reform to change in the structure of society. And about optimism and empathy. Looking forward to getting stuck in.

protest stories of resistanceProtest: Stories of Resistance edited by Ra Page isn’t out until July but is definitely one to pick up. It’s a collection of fictional stories about characters in the middle of a range of different British protests, from the Peasant’s Revolt to the Suffragettes to the Anti-Iraq demo and everywhere in between. What makes me excited about this are the great authors involved (like Kit de Waal), and that they’re each paired with a historian or witness so the story is factually correct, and each story comes with a short non-fiction afterword about the event. It looks ace.

how to survive a plagueAnother great example of activism can make a change is the Green Carnation Prize-winning How To Survive a Plague by David France. This is about the activists and campaigners who fought for research and treatment in AIDS against incredible amounts of stigma and homophobia, and beautifully balances reporting and France’s own experiences as a gay man and reporter at the time. Another one I haven’t read yet, but it’s very high on my list and comes highly recommended.

If you have any other recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Just leave a comment below.

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May screentime 2017

I mostly watched things I didn’t like that much, with a couple of stand-out awesome things. (If you have any anime recommendations I’d love to hear them, especially something a little bit dark that doesn’t have a really whiny boy as its central character, because I feel like I’ve had my fill of that).

mad menMad Men (seasons 5-7) series, Netflix

Annoyingly, Netflix doesn’t have the second half of the final season, which I didn’t realise until I got to the end of what they do have. Mad Men has some truly great episodes, and some really blah ones. I don’t feel the kind of love for the series as I’ve seen hyped because it was too mixed, but I’m glad I watched it (I just need the very end!).

the virgin suicidesThe Virgin Suicides (1999) film, Netflix

I wasn’t a big fan of the book, but I thought it had a kind of hazy summer quality that would work well as a film adaptation. I know this film is well-loved, and I did enjoy it more than the book, but it didn’t really do anything for me. It felt like most of Coppola’s films – a feeling without substance underneath it (the exception for me is Lost in Translation).

dear white people.jpgDear White People (season 1) series, Netflix

I watched and loved the film on Netflix a couple of months ago so was excited to see what they did with this. The series is even better. The extra time gives more space to explore the characters and themes in greater depth, but it still retains its super sharp humour. I loved it.

trollhunters.jpgTrollhunters (season 1) series, Netflix

This was perfect for when I was feeling under the weather (literally – I have temperature dysregulation as part of my health shenanigans so summer is not my favourite). It’s a children’s animated series by Guillermo del Toro (who is awesome), with the lead voiced by Anton Yelchin as one of the last things he did before he died. It’s a lot of fun, it’s got some monsters in it, it’s definitely a nice comfort-watch.

death noteDeath Note series, Netflix

This is the first anime series I’ve watched in full. The subtitles seem to have been translated literally, so it’s much better to watch with dubbing as that’s translated better and the voice actors are pretty good. I liked how the story moved relatively slowly, and didn’t judge any of the characters for what they thought was the ‘right’ way to do things – it gives you space to decide yourself. Light Yagami can get kind of annoying in a self-righteous teenage-boy way, but I enjoyed this.

attack on titan.jpgAttack on Titan (series 1) series, Netflix

More anime! I had this on in the background while I was notebook-making, and I’m glad I watched it that way for the first bit. I wasn’t too keen on the first 10 episodes or so because Eren is just so very whiny, and it’s obvious that [spoiler] is controlling the [spoiler] titan. But, once they reveal that it’s [spoiler], it all gets much more enjoyable, mainly because there’s greater focus on other characters and less of Eren whining every two minutes. I hope they put the second series on Netflix soon.

silence.pngSilence (2016) film

The cinematography is stunning – it’s a beautifully crafted film in that respect, and there are a few powerful moments. And that’s pretty much the only good thing I have to say about it. It’s too long, and both the writing and Andrew Garfield’s acting lacks any kind of real tension or conflict in his decision over whether to apostasize. It’s also a film that claims to be about Japanese Christians and their pastors, but it’s not, it’s about the pastors. All the Japanese characters are othered. They are all curiosities in the eyes of the camera. This is not a good film.

handmaid's taleThe Handmaid’s Tale (episode 1) All4

This is one of my favourite books and, one episode in, this is an excellent adaptation so far. Also extra points for the Margaret Atwood cameo where she slaps Offred.

pitch perfect 2Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) film, Netflix

I wanted something light and enjoyable but found this a bit disappointing. It’s not as good as the first one, and its minor characters are more poorly represented and even less well drawn than the first. Having a predatory lesbian, a kooky-weird Asian girl, a Mexican girl who had diarrhea for year, etc, and never developing any depth to their characters beyond the stereotype is just lazy, boring writing. It’s supposed to be a fluffy easy film, but it would be a good fluffy easy film if they actually developed the characters more.

sense8Sense8 (season 1) series, Netflix

I’m still not sure what I think about this. It took a few episodes to get into because there are just so many characters it takes a while to get properly going. Unlike my previous rantings, this series has really excellent representation, particularly of LGBT characters. The fact they are LGBT is part of their lives and effects them sometimes, but it’s not their main storyline (just like real life omg), and they have an actual trans woman acting in the role of the Nomi, who is a trans female character, and a properly international cast without whitewashing. But something about it didn’t quite hook me in; I don’t know what. I’ve seen that they’ve just cancelled the show after two seasons and I feel sad for the representation side of things but not for the show itself.

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May reads 2017

Slowly slowly being able to read more…

bitch planet 10Bitch Planet #10 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine DeLandro (comics, fiction)

It’s impossible to spoiler-free review a series as it gets further down the line, so I’ll just say, as usual, that I hate the delays between issues, but I love this comic forever and always.

paper girls vol 2Paper Girls vol 2 by Brian K Vaughan & Cliff Chiang (comics, fiction)

I loved the 80s’ vibe of the first volume, but found the plot a bit rushed and kind of so-so. Because of [spoiler], this has less of the 80s’ vibe but the story really got into its stride. Super enjoyable with excellent colour-work from Matt Wilson as always.

saga vol 7Saga vol 7 by Fiona Staples & Brian K Vaughan (comics, fiction)

I’d been going off Saga a bit, but this volume pulled me right back in. It mainly focuses on Hazel and family, which I much preferred to when volumes are constantly jumping around the universe. Fiona Staples’ artwork is beautiful as ever, and there are some amazing bits of writing from Vaughan, particularly when describing [sad spoiler] and when Hazel is giving a one-line insight/commentary in her narration. The way it ends on just black pages was absolute perfection and I hugged it to my chest. Can’t wait for volume 8.

dont let me be lonelyDon’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine (poetry / non-fiction)

This is about loneliness, grief, mental health, death, television, and how to live in a world where all that exists. What I love about Rankine’s work is that it’s always emotionally raw and flows freely but at the same time has this real control. I didn’t like it as much as Citizen, but even work that’s not her best is completely incredible. I think in narratively-linked prose poetry, especially Rankine’s prose poetry, I’ve found the kind of poetry I like.

do what you wantDo What You Want edited by Ruby Tandoh & Leah Pritchard (non-fiction)

There are no hard copies left of this limited-edition zine about mental health, but you can still get an ebook copy. And you definitely should. It’s a mix of essay, comics, illustration, and recipes that covers a wide range of mental health issues by a wide range of contributors. It’s so incredibly good and there will definitely be things in here that resonate deeply. I had to read it slowly, because the very first essay/interview about ‘why should I go to therapy?’ hit me hard in the heart. It’s good.

the tidal zoneThe Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (novel)

There is so much hype around this book so I was little apprehensive going into it. It wasn’t quite as good as the hype (though, what is?), but it was still a great read. Told from the perspective of a stay-at-home dad, it juxtaposes the family trying to rebuild and work out how to live a ‘normal’ life while living with the constant anxiety that one of the daughters could literally drop dead at any moment, with the rebuilding of Coventry cathedral and the rebuilding/anxiety of living through the blitz. There’s some really beautiful writing and thinking through of the ideas, but it got a little repetitive towards the end, particularly the Cathedral passages. Definitely worth a read, and I’m going to check out Moss’ other work.

Also on the blog this month:

Some book recommendations for Mental Health Awareness Week

A review of Richard III by Northern Broadsides at Hull Truck Theatre

Currently reading: The City & The City by China Miéville

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Richard III by Northern Broadsides @ Hull Truck

richard iii 2I’d never seen or read the play before, but I really want to see this because Richard III is such an interesting character and they cast Mat Fraser as the lead. You probably recognise Mat Fraser from the London Paralympics (he presented some of it and drummed with Coldplay in the closing ceremony), but in the past few years he’s been doing more acting, particularly with theatre companies. This is apparently the first time a disabled actor has been cast as Richard III, which is ridiculous and well over-due (usually able-bodied actors portray famous disabled characters & win awards for it, while actually disabled actors get overlooked).

It was a bit of a mixed performance for me.

It felt like the first half was missing something. Chunks of it were more like actors striding around saying lines to each other, rather than something more flowing or with more meaning. Because the set is very sparse, and, in the first half at least, there’s no changes in lighting, there was little differentiation between some of the scenes. Some, though not all, of this half felt a bit flat.

The deaths throughout, including of the two princes in the tower, happen largely off-stage. I liked the way the production used different coloured scarves to represent each killed character, and then used them again for the ghost/dream scene. But, because I didn’t connect with the first half, I didn’t care about deaths. They lost any impact they might have, especially the deaths of the princes.

The second half, however, is full of texture. The battle scene is incredibly well done. The cast is drumming and Richard is roaring and it makes excellent use of Mat Fraser’s punk drummer past. The night before the battle also uses lighting changes and smoke effectively to change the mood.

On the whole I liked Mat Fraser’s performance. At times his delivery loses some of the nuance of the lines and the character, but he’s good at switching between false charm and overt villainy and rage. I also thought Matt Connor as Buckingham was good, particularly as he realises Richard is not going to stand by his promises.

It’s got a week or so left of the run, and I think it’s still worth checking out despite my feeling the first half fell flat. The second half battle scene is well worth it, and Mat Fraser is especially good when he gets to really go for it.

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