July 2019 reading round-up

Janelle Monae

July was a good month in many ways, but most importantly because we saw Janelle Monáe! In the real life! We went to Manchester for the first four days of the Manchester International Festival and it was excellent. She is amazing and I love her.

I also went to see Amélie the Musical and survived the UK’s mini heatwave. In the world of books, I read 12, which is loads! Quite a variety of types of book, as well. My favourite was probably The Night Circus by Uršuľa Kovalyk.

Our August will end with a weekend away, but for now we’re going to enjoy the summer in Bristol.

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The chemistry and physics on which we fed were the antidote to Fascism

The Periodic Table book coverThe Periodic Table
by Primo Levi
translated from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

This is my Italy book for my EU Reading Challenge and is also on my Classics Club list. It seemed appropriate right now in multiple ways. I’ve seen a few people recommending we all read Primo Levi this year to remind us what Fascism and Second World War concentration camps were like (to refute the argument that the US detainment camps aren’t really concentration camps). Plus, 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, as designated by UNESCO.

This is a difficult book to describe. Not quite a memoir, but not quite popular-science either, and certainly more than just a loose collection of tales. Each of its 21 chapters is framed around one element – sometimes abstractly, sometimes very directly. Levi was a professional chemist and himself describes this book as “events, mine and otherwise…to convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavour of our trade…stories of the solitary chemistry…which with few exceptions has been mine: but it has also been the chemistry of our founders…who confronted matter without aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination.”

Levi begins with his ancestors and a dissection of the language he spoke as a child, a product of the Jewish community in the Piedmont region that combined Italian, Piedmontese and Hebrew. I’ll admit that the link is a little tenuous between the inert gas argon and Levi’s assessment of his ancestors’ general character, but I do love a bit of etymology and Levi has a knack for turning anything into a great story.

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Theatre review: Amélie the Musical

Watermill Theatre Company
Bristol Old Vic, 20 July 2019

Amelie: the musical photo by pamela-raith-photography
Courtesy: Pamela Raith Photography

I first watched the film Amélie (or Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) fairly soon after it became available to rent in the UK – I think it was late-2002. I later bought the DVD and for a few years watched it often. I loved it, and its star Audrey Tautou, and its whimsical take on love and the responsibility we have to live our lives. And then I largely forgot about it.

Fast forward to this year when a friend invited me to see Amélie: the Musical. I knew nothing about this play’s Broadway background or how it would be staged, but I was pretty sure I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did.

This production is a joy from start to finish. The set is spectacular, the songs are beautiful (think Once but more upbeat), every member of the cast is an outstanding musician, and it all perfectly captures the tone and feel of the film without being an exact replica of the story.

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K-drama review: Memories of the Alhambra

Memories of the Alhambra poster

For a while Memories of the Alhambra (a 2019 joint production of tvN and Netflix) was being heavily trailed on Netflix (at least, it was being advertised at me, but I guess I’m the target audience). It got lots of online hype (and apparently a petition for a second season), which I’m a bit bemused by. Honestly, this was beautifully filmed, well acted, had an original sci-fi thriller concept and unexpected plot twists, but I wound up disappointed overall.

It starts out well. Park Shin-hye (Doctors, Pinocchio, Heirs) plays Jung Hee-joo, a woman running a hostel for Koreans in Granada with her grandmother. She supports her younger sister Min-joo (who is still at school) and her brother Se-joo (a freelance game developer) by working two other jobs in addition to the hostel management. She has a Korean best friend who’s in love with her and a secret talent for playing classical guitar. It’s all very cosy and lovely.

Then along comes Yoo Jin-woo (played by Hyun Bin of Secret Garden) – the CEO of a tech company called J-One. He receives a mysterious phone call begging him to go to a certain hostel in Granada to discuss a business deal. When he gets there, he finds no sign of the man he was supposed to meet (who turns out to be Se-joo), but he does have an e-mail with a game attached to it – a game designed to work with J-One’s augmented-reality contact lenses. A game that could be worth billions.

The bulk of the first two episodes is establishing the game – in which users walk around real Granada collecting virtual weapons and fighting virtual warriors (think Pokémon Go but with almost realistic graphics). It’s pretty impressive, makes good use of the Granada setting and provides a source of some comedy as the camera view switches between Jin-woo’s point-of-view and what the rest of the world sees (i.e. some tourist flailing his arms around mysteriously and pulling strange faces).

There’s also some mystery about Se-joo, namely why both he and his business partner Marco have disappeared. There’s a fight over buying the rights to the game from Se-joo’s family between Jin-woo and his biggest rival (and former best friend) Cha Hyeong-seok. There are ex-wives and hapless assistants (including the adorable Seo Jung-hoon, played by Min Jin-woong). While there’s lots of ominous music and hints of something dark and terrible, for the most part it feels like a typical set-up of love triangles and business rivalry.

Then after just a couple of episodes, everything changes. A death in the game becomes a death in real life. The tone suddenly makes sense. This show is genuinely exciting, thrilling and even at times quite scary, with some good fighting scenes and special effects.

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A dead woman was spewing blood over the car

Now you see me book coverNow You See Me
by Sharon Bolton

I like Sharon Bolton’s thrillers as a general rule. This is the first in her series about rookie detective Lacey Flint (the other books of Bolton’s I have read were one-off stories). I hungrily consumed this and immediately bought its sequels. And yet, I do have some reservations.

Lacey is young, capable and eager. She frequently ignores orders, thinking she knows better, and puts herself in danger. She’s also not the most reliable of narrators, which plays perfectly into the mystery that Bolton weaves around her.

When we meet Lacey, a woman is dying in her arms, bloodily and messily. She’s stumbled into the middle of a murder scene and is both sole witness and, briefly, primary suspect. She’s not meant to be working murder cases at all (her intention is to work as a rape specialist), but she can’t seem to shake herself loose from this one. Particularly not when the police receive a letter addressed to Lacey claiming to be from the killer – who is planning to strike again.

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The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people

The Night CircusThe Night Circus
by Uršuľa Kovalyk
translated from Slovakian by Julia and Peter Sherwood

This is my Slovakia book for the EU Reading Challenge. It is a short story collection that was sent to me by the publisher after a contact heard about my challenge. I am so grateful to both contact and publisher for helping me with my challenge and for introducing me to a fantastic author I would otherwise not have heard of.

The stories are on the short side – mostly four or five pages – and all have female protagonists, often unnamed. While they have real-world settings, the tone is always slightly weird or off kilter. For instance, in the title story, Eleanora stumbles across a circus tent, and on entry finds herself the star of a very weird show with no audience. It’s a dark exploration of pain, psychology and blame, and it’s completely absorbing.

“Eleanora is irritated by the noise people make as they walk down the street. The sound coming from beneath their shoes is chaotic, restless. It strikes her ears with a vengeance and makes her feel anxious. At times like these Eleanora can’t hear herself. The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people. It makes her feel like she doesn’t exist. Like she’s just a ghost. A fiction. She’s losing her outlines.”

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All he has is an uncomfortable, dangerous virtue which is hard to satisfy

Zorba the GreekZorba the Greek
by Nikos Kazantzakis
translated from Greek by Carl Wildman

This is my Greece book for the EU Reading Challenge. It was recommended to me by fellow Bristol blogger Joanna Booth. It also counts towards my Classics Club list.

The novel’s narrator (a thinly fictionalised version of the author) is a young scholar who decides to go to a remote part of Crete to try his hand at running a lignite mine. As he’s about to set off from Piraeus he’s approached by a man called Alexis Zorba, a jack-of-all-trades who has some mining experience and offers to be the narrator’s second-in-command. The narrator is immediately entranced by the older man and agrees to all terms, despite all the evidence that suggests Zorba is neither reliable nor loyal. Over the months that follow they become firm friends and help each other to cope with the accidents and tragedies that come their way.

The narrator is clearly a man of some means, throwing himself into his new business and hiring a team of men without really knowing what he’s doing. He has a vague idea that he might stumble across something more valuable than lignite – presumably gems of some kind – but his main purpose is a more politically motivated one. As a socialist, he wants to get to know some working class men. The problem is, he sees all the local villagers as ignorant and foul, and he makes no effort to actually get to know anyone other than Zorba.

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