Review: Lilus Kikus and other stories (Elena Poniatowska)

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Illustration by Leonora Carrington.

I’m grateful to the same person who introduced me to the work of Tómas Eloy Martínez for also pointing me towards Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most celebrated and talented writers. Poniatowska, now 85, has been writing since the 1950s, pushing boundaries in both journalism and fiction. It’s a pity more of her work hasn’t yet been translated into English (and I deeply regret not knowing Spanish), and she remains little known outside Latin America; certainly it is an apposite time to return to her polemical writing on the 1968 student massacre and on the government’s failings surrounding the 1986 earthquake.

This little collection, translated with a substantial introduction by Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, focuses on Poniatowska’s fiction writing, bringing together short stories and novellas she wrote and published during the 1950s–70s. These are arranged together to give an overview of Poniatowska’s feminist thinking and to highlight the lack of equality between men and women in Mexican society at the time of writing. Though of course, it would be ridiculous to say they have no resonance today. They are: Lilus KikusThe Philosopher’s Daughter, Fifth CallHappiness and You Arrive by Nightfall.

It’s a surprise to hear Lilus Kikus described as a children’s story, as although she makes heavy use of fairy tales and rich description, Poniatowksa’s writing evokes Kafka and D. H. Lawrence for me more than Dahl or Carroll. Lilus Kikus is a series of vignettes from the life of a young girl, Lilus, who is going through the process of understanding the world around her, and who gradually must become aware of how the world sees her. She watches passers-by and discovers the minutiae of her world through rich sensory encounters, from the warm birds she has held to the visceral pride she feels in displaying her cuts and scrapes to curious boys (but she’ll be paid in cash rather than kisses thank you). She sits on a wall, fascinated by an old philosopher, who looks for meaning only in his books rather than outside his window. When he notices her, the philosopher is charmed, but Lilus is soon drawn away by her mother, who will send her to convent school, where she’ll be taught the proper way to see the world. Lilus relishes a lot of the knowledge she’s taught, and she has rebellious friends and good friends; the rebellious one is banished, and the good one is strangled by her husband.

Lilus is moulded by her surroundings, and in the end we are told that she is able to recognise the signs around her and act accordingly. Interpreting the close of the story is tough; it’s long been seen as an ending in which she straightens up and conforms, leaving her tomboyish, inquisitive youth behind her in order to become an obedient, proper young woman. Martínez thinks it’s more hopeful than that, though I struggled to see it in the ending’s abruptness. Reflecting on the story as a whole, perhaps there’s hope in the fact that if Lilus can observe the ways in which society seeks to control her, she can control her own responses, but it’s a tenuous hope at the end of a dreamy, meandering little tale.

Things don’t improve for The Philosopher’s Daughter, which seemed to me like a nightmarish, feminist reading of one of Kafka’s nasty little stories like A Country Doctor. The references to fairy tales are explicit, and the descriptions of the philosophy master’s room are consistently otherworldly: the place seems almost submerged in Poniatowska’s watery metaphors, the challenger to the master’s dominance a barely-there shadow of malice as his mere presence brings destruction into the house.

She stops smiling at her fairy godmother, at the enchanted carriage, at the crystal slipper and the well, and instead looks intently at her pricked fingers.

The philosopher’s daughter is not accomplished; she’s pricked her fingers with her poor efforts at binding her father’s books, confined to a dark corner of his debating chamber where he and his pupils share and consume knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and she keeps them well supplied with port and biscuits, but is not permitted to join in. Her pricked fingers are very real, but like Sleeping Beauty, her parent is neglectful of the danger facing her, and she is about to be enchanted into an affair that is nothing but artifice. Her father’s challenger, stung by the lack of recognition he receives from the group, seduces her as a way to get back at his master, and his victory is a tragedy for the daughter.

Each furnishing the poet touched fell to the floor in pieces. The girl had to reconstruct them piece by piece quickly, before his imagination could destroy the final details. His cup of coffee evaporated in his hand and she had to take great care to bring him back to reality and prevent the others from becoming aware of his many destructions.

The boundaries between reality and Poniatowska’s fanciful, elaborate metaphors are thin, adding to the fairy tale-like tone of the story. The ending is again a mixture of the abrupt and the obfuscated; details, like the detail of Lilus’ friend’s transgression that got her sent from convent school, are omitted. Poniatowska prefers to be allusive than to be vulgarly direct. This is somewhat carried over into Fifth Call and Happiness, both of which are about the joy of physical intimacy and the feeling of overwhelming love, but both remain underpinned by the isolation of the individual. The prose in these reminds me strongly of D. H. Lawrence’s rich, indirect descriptions in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love: it’s an ambitious shot at pinning down aspects of intimacy that are personal and mutable, and I think Poniatowska on the whole is more successful than Lawrence, not least because of the empathetic female gaze she uses.

Fifth Call is about an unmarried couple who meet up in hotel rooms for sex; they idly browse local apartments, but they never commit to them, nor to the relationship. The woman, Julia, is clearly more invested in the relationship than Rodrigo is, and the story opens with an effective, telling juxtaposition of introduction and dialogue:

And words of love—that awkward, stuttering language—surged.
“…”
“…”
“Are you cold?”
“No.”

During sex they have no problems expressing themselves, but afterwards they grow apart almost instantly. The story is structured around Julia’s observations, particularly of Rodrigo, whose face and demeanour seem so different to her as they dress, and when they’re outside the hotel room. It’s a tale about inertia, and though there is no judgement of the young couple it’s clear that Rodrigo has the autonomy to be able to come and go as he likes, whilst Julia must be content with accepting her lot. She’s a willing participant in the relationship, but she’s never able to have any control over it.

In Happiness things seem a little more equal, at least because the relationship appears to be more established, with a slightly personalised room rather than a thin-walled, multicoloured hotel room. Yet it is again very clear that the woman is the more vulnerable person here: she knows how necessary she finds her partner, her thoughts circling this fearful realisation even as he dozes off. I’m not a fan of the ‘needy girlfriend worrying about what her boyfriend’s thinking’ trope, because it’s usually used as another stick to beat women with: ‘ugh chill out, he’s just thinking about sport! Don’t be so clingy!’ In this setting though — precisely the kind of cultural and social setting that helped to form the stereotype — how can you blame the one with no power in the relationship for worrying that she isn’t needed as much as she needs her partner? The narrator of Happiness is, for the most part, happy, but she fears the gulf that must always exist between two discrete entities, eventually leaving the room when her partner falls asleep; as he leaves her for unconsciousness, she must physically leave him too, in order to remind herself of her separate nature. It’s perhaps the most honest, explicit narrative in this collection of short stories.

Finally, You Arrive by Nightfall is the funniest of the group, again returning to the Kafka-esque, but confounding bureaucracy with a guileless femininity that one suspects Kafka would have found as threatening as the judge in this novella does. Apparently the movie it was adapted into was just an OTT piece of erotica, which makes it sound like those who adapted it never read the story at all. The story is of a woman called Esmeralda who is married to five men: one of the men finds out and his pride is hurt, so he brings charges of bigamy. In the court, the judge sweats over the imagined depravity of this woman’s life, whilst she smiles sweetly and fails to understand any of his stuttering references to her sex life. She maintains that, as a nurse, her five marriages are just an extension of her desire to help others: she met each man when he needed help with some injury or ailment, and now she organises their lives, and she knows that in this story, she is the necessary one. Their lives fall apart without Esmeralda spending a day of each week with them and devoting her weekends to their ironing.

Eventually her situation wins the whole court-house over, the story culminating in a conviction that no one seems to want, with all those who have been touched by Esmeralda’s presence congregating at the prison for cakes and a catch-up. Even the husband who brought the charges regrets his actions and continues to visit her in prison. The women in the court-house are smitten, proud of Esmeralda’s unapologetic responses, and the isolated existence each seemed to have is swept away as they are united in their responses to her trial. A few references here and there make it clear that, had this been about a man with multiple wives or mistresses, no one would have batted an eyelid.

The collection ends on a relatively triumphant note then, moving past the isolated fears of the women in Fifth Call and Happiness to Esmeralda’s strange kind of saintliness. Poniatowska’s writing is synaesthetic and rich, evoking vivid internal monologues and a clearly-defined sense of place. I’d love to read more of her writing, particularly if it’s translated in the sensitive, idiosyncratic manner that Martínez seems to have achieved so well.

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Double bill! Pride & Prejudice and Zombies (2016) and Magic Mike (2012)

I’m putting these two together because I wasn’t paying terribly close attention to either, but I’m nevertheless going to try and make myself write up some thoughts. Spoilers ahoy for both.

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I really, really, really don’t care about zombies. Luckily, neither does this film; background and explanation are rushed through (a plague, probably the French? Ho ho ho), the mythology is never investigated in any detail, and I wasn’t required to contemplate whether zombies might actually be a stand-in for our fear of death, or the fear of mass migration, or whatever. (Actually, if a film seriously did the latter I might be interested. Might.) It’s a pity in some ways I suppose; how would a Mansfield Park and Zombies work if it had to tie the wealth of the Bertrams, gained from the repulsive slave trade, to the fact that the word zombie entered the English language through West Africans who had been forcibly taken to colonies in the Caribbean? Could a story be told of zombies as the righteous justice returning to Imperial heartlands, seeking anything from revenge to the means to reclaim their independence? And then, when you have a character who champions their cause, keeping them fed with pig brains and keeping them social by maintaining their forms of worship, that character wouldn’t need to be the villain of the piece… hum. Well, now I’ve described the Austen/zombie cross-over I’d rather have, back to the one I actually watched.

I don’t have much to say about it, really. I was underwhelmed by the whole cast, barring Matt Smith as a gloriously goofy Parson Collins. Even Lena Headey was disappointingly staid: as soon as I saw the portraits Lady Catherine had of herself vanquishing all kinds of beasts on the battlefield I was hoping for some real scenery-chewing and scene-stealing, but the character was sadly muted and underused. And whilst my first instinct was to be glad I didn’t have to put up with much world-building, it was a pity that the idea of everyone going for martial training in Asia wasn’t better integrated into the story. Imperial Britain, admitting that the Chinese have something to teach them? And why not bring some of your mentors back with you; I very much like the idea of the moneyed young things getting competitive about their standard of spoken Mandarin or Japanese, but I’d rather it wasn’t completely divorced from the places and the people who taught them. Still, the story is ostensibly trying to stick as closely as it can to the original, just with a zombie apocalypse going on, so it doesn’t leave much time for exploring the nuances of throwing zombies and closer contacts with Asia into the setting.

To be honest, I took a sort of glee in London falling to zombies. And there is a shallow pleasure in the sight of primly Empire-waisted sisters kicking ass with barely a ringlet out of place. But I was actually on Wickham’s side when it comes to containing the problem by trying to integrate the zombies back into society (of a sort); why not try the humane fix? Oh, because Wickham’s still a nasty piece of work when it comes to everyone’s younger sisters… that detail had to be retained because otherwise he’d look too reasonable I suppose, and then gravel-voiced Darcy wouldn’t be able to save the day by stealing dead soldiers’ brains to feed to those placid, church-going zombies. Grim.

Yes, Jane and Elizabeth save their men. Yes, the women all rule at fighting. But it’s all about as deep as a puddle, a vapid take on ‘you know what would be really cool???’ And I didn’t really expect any more from the movie, so it’s all well and good I suppose.


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Why yes, I watched these two movies during a girly afternoon with a friend and lots of Baileys in coffee, how did you guess? As everyone knows, Magic Mike isn’t the story of gratuitous sexy dancing and lots of abs, it’s really about a man who just wants to be able to sell his fugly homemade furniture to gullible saps in the area of Tampa. It also features far more of Matthew McConaughey than any person should be made to see. I’m going to be having nightmares about that sparkly butt-crack tassel for the rest of my life.

So, ignoring the dancing for the moment, this movie is a neat little character piece. Mike is 30, he’s the biggest draw at the strip club, and he’s also really good at his other part-time jobs. He’s got $15,000 of cash stashed away to get his own business going, it’s just that the pesky bank won’t give him a good rate on a loan because of his credit issues. Seems pretty unfair, but the movie never tells us how he ended up with credit problems, nor do we get to see what measures the bank want him to take to improve his rating. Instead we get Mike apparently hoping to charm the clerk (who’s flustered because she’s seen him on stage), whilst lying about what the manager has said to him previously. He’s also shagging sociology master’s student Joanna, and what’s clearly just a bit of fun for her is rapidly becoming something like much-needed emotional crutch for Mike. Oh dear. Then Mike meets Adam, gets him a job at the club, promises to take care of him for his big sister Brooke…this is standard Western cinema, so Conflict Must Ensue, have no fear!

Mike starts off seeming very much like a guy who’s got it all together: he’s like a big brother figure at the club, diligent and organised behind the scenes, surely the perfect person to take young, aimless Adam under his wing? But of course no: Mike wants a different life, but he’s got too much inertia to change his way of getting there. He seems to think if he just earns enough cash the problems at the bank will disappear; if he just keeps saying he wants to go to Miami, he’ll want to go; if he just keeps on meeting up with Joanna it might become something more. It’s not until grindingly late in the movie that Brooke tells him in no uncertain terms that he can’t expect to stay on that track forever and Mike develops a flutter of self-awareness.

Meanwhile, Adam takes to his new job with the predictable enthusiasm of a nineteen-year-old, ends up involved in drugs, is a smug little prick about everything, blah blah, Brooke finds him in a pile of his own vomit, the mob want their money back, oops, there goes $10,000 of Mike’s savings. When all this predictably unfurled, I found myself continually thinking of Les Intouchables. There’s that whole sub-plot about the Fabergé egg, and I remember worrying when it would come back to ruin Phillippe and Driss’ relationship, if Driss would have to try and track it down, all that stuff. But it doesn’t. It goes, and that’s it. That is a movie where people drift apart, not a movie about conflict with the standard arc of narrative. It was so refreshing in that respect (I mean, yes it is a blatant example of the Magical Negro trope still), and I just wonder whether Magic Mike really needed Adam’s predictably berkish behaviour in order to tell its story. Arguably, that’s just Adam’s character, but the narrative decision to have him leave $10,000 worth of ecstasy behind wasn’t really anything rooted in character. I suppose this seems like a really weird, specific gripe, but having found a few films that I adore that just quietly do character studies, without the usual crescendo of tension found in so many narratives based in conflict, I’ve been kind of spoiled. If Magic Mike really wanted to do something different it could have done. But it doesn’t.

So having found the character arcs somewhat predictable, and finding that I didn’t much like Adam or even Mike all that much, I’m left with the dancing. Everyone’s got their own thing, desire is individual, and I’m not here to kink-shame anyone. But personally, the idea of lying on a gurney on a stage whilst someone thrusts their crotch in my face is really, really not my idea of a turn-on. The dancing is super impressive, the muscles the guys have to be able to dance like that are also impressive, but none of them do it for me. So basically, this whole movie was an exercise in ‘well I guess other people like this because…’ Unsurprisingly, I did quite enjoy Brooke. If the whole thing had been centred on her rather than Mike I might have had more fun. Still, it was a light, generally sweet movie, even if it was predictable and rather unsatisfying at the end.

Review: Detroit (cinema)

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Fairly early on in Detroit, Carl is demonstrating to two white girls what it’s like living as a black person in the US. He’s holding a palm-sized starter gun that looks enough like a real gun to make his spectators hold their breaths. He rants and shouts contradictory orders at Lee, who tries to answer swiftly and politely even as Carl starts shoving him and waving the gun in his face. Lee can’t give Carl the right answer, because Carl, representing the white police force, doesn’t want to hear the right answer. Finally, Carl shoots the pistol and Lee drops — and the two dissolve into laughter, as this gun is all bang and no bullets. The girls watching, and the young friends Larry and Fred, don’t find it quite so funny, and Carl laments that they can’t take a joke. The girls don’t really want to hear this lesson, and nor do Larry and Fred; they’d been hoping their night at the Algiers Motel would be an escape from the imploding city outside.

The movie as a whole shares a lot with this scene: the camera hovers at peoples’ shoulders and backs, it gets in too close to their faces and shudders and rocks as the perspective shifts and situations escalate. Detroit wants you to know what that constant level of tension feels like. It shows you a hopeless situation that the victims cannot get out of, and no matter how polite, compliant and nonthreatening they are, nothing they do or say can end it until the aggressors decide it’s over. This is probably the clearest indication that it’s a movie made by a white woman, probably aimed largely at white audiences. Non-white viewers in modern America presumably don’t really need informing of society’s ongoing, inherent racism. If Detroit can be a slap in the face and a wake-up call for people who don’t realise that institutional racism is real, then that’s great. It’s a dramatic, well-acted, well-shot movie. But it’s not a story that’s told for the victims or the oppressed themselves; its black characters are universally helpless in the face of what happens, which may be accurate enough when it comes to these events, but could be handled better by allowing them more agency in the events that bracket the violence at the Algiers Motel.

It takes a while to ramp up to the events at the motel. The movie begins by meandering through the chaotic streets, offering a taste of what’s to come here and there: even as the social contract breaks down, people still want to just be people and have fun and drink and dance and sing. The heightened emotions that occur when fun and abandon collide with hard, humourless law-keeping don’t bubble over initially, but it’s clear how recklessness is going to grow, both in the oppressed black population of the city, and in the institutionally racist police force. The police know that their raid on an unlicensed venue will inflame tensions in the area: it’s with great reluctance that they accept they’ll have to bring the party-goers out through the front door, onto the street, rather than round the back of the building. Here, in plain view, locals gather to watch as the whole party is bundled roughly into vans with no questions asked. But the knowledge that their tactics are provocative doesn’t stop the police from carrying on, doubling down and telling themselves the blame lies only on the city’s black population, not on the failings of the state.

Gradually, the camera starts to pick out individuals, bringing areas of the chaos into focus. Leon, one of the frustrated onlookers at the party raid, is spotted looting groceries. A white police officer, in the middle of claiming that they are ‘failing these people’, chases Leon down and makes it clear precisely what he means by that: Krauss shoots the fleeing man in the back repeatedly, even when he’s dropped the tins and packets he’d taken. Krauss’ superior is pissed with him: he knows this man is actively racist in his dealings with Detroit’s black population, he disagrees with Krauss’ approach and he slaps down his suggestion that looting can only be stopped by shooting looters in the back. But he sends Krauss back out. And he’s the first of a bunch of cowards we meet who could have done something to prevent the crimes committed at the Algiers, and he’s not even the worst of them.

Although John Boyega’s security guard, Melvin Dismukes, is billed as the main character in the trailers for Detroit, it’s really Larry, played by Algee Smith, who’s at the movie’s heart. Dismukes is caught between sides, able to do little more than look on in horror at what unfolds under Krauss’ reign of terror at the Algiers. He does what he can — like the first time we meet him, he tries to divert the anger of the white police, and he seems to share an understanding with the man from the military. But none of this makes any difference; Krauss has nothing to fear from Dismukes or his account of the night. Dismukes’ complicity in what happened led him to be tried alongside the white officers, and although Detroit implies that there’s little he could have done, it would have benefitted from letting us inside Dismukes’ head a little more. Boyega is perfectly capable of showing us what isn’t said out loud, and his performance is affecting, but he’s still not given a lot to work with.

Larry, meanwhile, is a swaggering, confident young singer in The Dramatics: he is certain of a big record deal in his future, he just wants to see a theatre full of people dancing and moving to the sound of his voice. Still, he wants his best friend, Fred (Jaboc Latimore) to be there for all of it, even though Fred isn’t in the band. Fred’s sweet and quiet and conscientious, and when Larry’s dreams of taking to the stage in front of a big name from Motown are scuppered by a police order to clear the venue because of unrest in the area, Larry makes like any other teenage boy: he’s going to find his sweet, introverted friend a girl, and he’s going to find one for himself while he’s at it. But by the end of the ordeal at the Algiers, Larry’s a totally different person: he turns in on himself, and when he looks at a theatre audience, or even at record company execs, and he sees white people dancing, and the police guarding the exits, he relives the trauma of the night at the Algiers. The police stole the lives of those who survived that night as much as those who were killed. Larry is the only character whose inner life is explored to any depth, and it’s an effective arc to show, even if it felt abbreviated in between the overruling need to move on with the action.

In short though, you should leave this movie angry. The sheer number of people who could have made a difference and didn’t is horrifying, from the State Police who turn away from what they fear will be a ‘civil rights issue’ they don’t want to get dragged into, to the military officer who plays along with Krauss’ intimidation tactics, to dumbass Demens who’d rather kill a man in cold blood than stand up to a racist bully. At the end of the movie, when text flashes up to update us on where Dismukes and Larry and Julie ended up, and to confirm that full, public justice was never received by the victims at the Algiers, you get a hint of how many people in local government must have been complicit in derailing any attempt to get redress for those who were killed and beaten and traumatised by the police that night. There’s no closure to this story, not least because of the resonance it still has in contemporary America.

As a film, Detroit is an effective piece that ratchets the tension up consistently, is acted brilliantly, and has a thing or two to teach people about white allyship. It’s not as revolutionary as it might have been though. Although I found it powerful viewing, having since read criticisms of the way it depicts the passivity of its black characters and of the attempted objectivity of its account, I’m inclined to agree with those criticisms. The movie begins by warning us that ‘change had to come’, but if the change refers to the sudden explosion of frustration that resulted in riots and looting, that story is never completed by the movie — what brought the riots to an end? And if it refers to what should come afterwards, to an actual catharsis or resolution that rights the imbalances of the segregated society depicted, then we’re still not there. That’s the kind of thing that an ambitious movie like this should acknowledge openly, rather than assuming its audience is all on the same page; it’s a lazy assumption that allows people to continue to ignore the problems in contemporary American society.

Review: Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig)

wexley-sloaneImage: Steve Thomas for Del Rey.

I need to vent. If you like these books, I recommend you don’t read this. And I say that as someone who likes a lot of the new characters: this is about the writing.

I’ll also say first that representation is important and it matters. Wendig goes out of his way to include characters of colour and characters from various parts of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This is good. It is unambiguously a good thing to do, and I don’t take away from it at all. None of it is a distraction from the plot, or from ‘what Star Wars is about’ or whatever. The distractions are all down to Wendig’s bad writing.

Well, that was a lot harder a slog than I was hoping for. I didn’t read any SWEU for years until in 2015 I realised Aaron Allston had written one last X-Wing novel in the old canon (Mercy Kill), and I was always going to enjoy another story about Piggy and the delight that is Myri Antilles. More recently, I wasn’t too impressed by Alexander Freed’s prose in Rogue One, but hell, I enjoyed a lot of other things about it. Catalyst by James Luceno was good though; and you can go through my archive here if you want my opinions on the YA/children’s lit offerings tied to Rogue One. I’m saying all this because at so many points during Aftermath I was going: really?? Is this just the quality of SWEU? Has it always been this bad? If I go and re-read favourites from a decade ago will I cringe and regret it? So, I think having reminded myself that I read and particularly enjoyed Mercy Kill and Catalyst in recent memory, I can safely say: no. This is not the standard quality of SWEU writing. This is just bad writing.

Ah, I hear you clamour: ‘But, I enthuse! Surely you noticed that it was bad…at the beginning of the trilogy? If you didn’t like it, why push through to the end?’

Well now. This is complicated. Partly, I think I was hungry for more stories about a rag-tag crew of found family saving the galaxy from evil (murder droid…hot soldier banging hot outlaw in the ship’s storage room…gorgeous Imperial defector…uh, a badass but traumatised mother and her infuriating son?). And the first book in Wendig’s trilogy did that very nicely, thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits of Norra Wexley, worst mother in the galaxy, and despite myself I fell head over heels for the smart-arse alcoholic ex-Imperial Sinjir Rath Velus. Also I read the first one because it claimed to be about Wedge Antilles. Spoiler: he’s not actually in it very much. And the second in the trilogy carried on in a fairly entertaining fashion. But this one just…dragged.

Since the first in the trilogy, Wendig’s tortured metaphors have driven me mad. Not least because most of them seem to rely on an animal of some sort, and he runs rings around himself as he tries to figure out the SWEU equivalent of an actual animal, or wanders off on tangents about animals he’s invented. It’s all so jarring. People seem to know metaphors about animals that are only native to one planet — one that these characters have no great familiarity with. Oh, and the present tense. Save me. I’ve read good things written in the present tense (usually fanfic tbh), and this is not one of those things. I’m really not sure what the point of it is, it just became a constant background annoyance by the end of the trilogy.

Even the characters I made myself read this damned book for felt like they’d been twisted into caricatures half the time: I started the trilogy fully prepared to have precisely zero time for Sinjir’s fanbaity badassery, but his eloquence was laced through with enough self-knowing sadness that I was hooked. But by Empire’s End he was starting to sound like a parody of Joss Whedon dialogue; always a quip, never something I could actually imagine a human being saying. He was happily cured by the time his final scene came around, but I still had to plough through what came before, didn’t I? (Everyone I know: no, no you didn’t)

I’ll grant that Norra and Sloane (pictured above) at least had a satisfactory end to their arc. Unfortunately, as there was so much that this book had to get through in order to take us to where we needed to be in the set-up to the sequel movies, the characters’ internal lives were sacrificed. Norra’s situation was dealt with particularly perfunctorily, her various traumas stacked so high on top of each other that there was never a chance to delve into how her unresolved issues after the Battle of Endor had grown. And Jas had it even worse. Sloane, on the other hand, had plenty of time to reflect, and it gave her story more of a punch than I expected. Maybe, then, this isn’t Wendig’s fault entirely, but the problem that comes from having to slot into the saga’s bigger picture; Sloane had a lot of waiting to do whilst the other characters caught up to her. I did enjoy Wendig’s stories the most the further they were from familiar ground, but I was never grabbed by the events on Kashyyyk, and the political wrangling of Empire’s End was simply depressing rather than interesting in the way the various holo-report interludes in the first book were. He also had Lando use the word babe in a way that made my toes curl, and his Han often felt like a clip-joint pieced together from movie dialogue.

Having said that, the end wrapped up fairly nicely, and seemed to be written in a far less tortuous manner than the rest of Empire’s End. Some character deaths were achingly predictable, some were predictable in a tropey way, and some were fairly callously handled. I’m not really sure why some of the characters who died had to die, especially when they seemed to be original to the trilogy, but still fairly minor, unexplored players. I’m not opposed to character death (I live at the bottom of a pit of glorious despair called the Rogue One fandom after all), but there wasn’t enough to go on with some of Wendig’s characters to make their death have much of an impact. Other scenes in the climactic battle were robbed of any excitement by the fact that we know how things end up: we’ve seen Jakku and what crashed there in The Force Awakens. A better writer could probably have wrung some drama from this stuff anyway, but — uh, super strong tractor beams that I never mentioned before!! doesn’t really cut it.

I’m disappointed. I was kind of disappointed in the first one that there was so little Wedge, but then I got behind the new characters. The plot of the second one felt flimsy, but it rattled along easily enough. Empire’s End, unfortunately, got stuck between the demands of the franchise and a horrid prose style. Unedifying. What happened to characters I liked was unedifying, what seems to pass for some SWEU these days is unedifying, reading this book was unedifying. I’m going to try some classic, no-longer-canon SWEU next. But maybe not next, next. I need to read something more reliably good first.

Also I only just twigged that Snap Wexley is in The Force Awakens, and now I’m annoyed because I did not imagine him like that. Not one bit.

Bingley Music Live (Friday)

bmlrainbow
Photo credit: Bingley Music Live Facebook Page

Just a quick write-up rather than a review, as it wouldn’t be fair to judge based on only one day! It was a great day, however: Maxïmo Park and the Manic Street Preachers on the same stage on the same evening? Yes please, how did you know? First time I’ve been to (or heard of) Bingley Music Live, but it was worth missing a friend’s 30th in Italy for (and much cheaper) — sorry Alice. I may go again, line-up depending: this festival is great value, and much larger than I expected, packing quite a punch in its short line-ups. Sure, it’s September in Yorkshire and it’s going to rain, but it’s warm, end of summer rain, and who cares if you get a bit damp when the tunes are this good…

Dead Pretties
We rocked up a couple of hours after the gates opened to catch most of this set at the Discovery Stage for new bands. With a pint of fresh Butcombe Bitter in our hands, a beach ball being bounced listlessly around the afternoon crowd and a sense of glee at being at our first festival in about six/seven years, we quite enjoyed Dead Pretties. The tunes were good, rhythm section-driven indie, and the band members proved quickly that they were competent enough with their instruments to make a three-man band sound interesting. Shades of Nirvana and early Libertines were there, and the final track began with an entertainingly-Jim Morrisson-esque ramble by the singer, even if it sadly forgot where it was going about three-quarters of the way through. Taking themselves a little less seriously would help, but the singer has the voice and the presence to mostly compensate for that.

Twin Atlantic
tbh I wasn’t really listening to the end of their set on the main stage; I was too busy wondering who would get a tattoo done at a music festival, why the tattoo guys weren’t selling healing cream, and why on earth the main stage bar wasn’t selling the Butcombe, only Carlsberg. Still, I think I caught some heavy bass-drumming, which I’m always a sucker for.

Maxïmo Park
It pissed it down during their set: the photo above was taken about mid-way through, but doesn’t show the full double rainbow we all saw. Still, there was enough space in the crowd to dance, which is what you have to do, especially with the new tracks like What Equals Love and The Hero, so there was no time to get cold. As when I saw them in Cambridge, the crowd responded really well to the new tracks, and the set was heavy with them. Paul told us about his trip to Salts Mill (unsurprising), had a dig at the local bus services, and even allowed himself to get political in the intro to Work Then Wait again — to which he got a resounding cheer from the audience. It was a pretty similar set to the Cambridge one overall, but tracks like By the Monument always sound about ten times better at a festival, and I’m just so thrilled to hear Risk to Exist getting such a good response. Hopefully the Manics fans clinging to their barrier spots enjoyed themselves even half as much as I did…

Manic Street Preachers
Last time I saw them was on tour for the album they’re currently promoting the ten year anniversary of (Send Away the Tigers). It was also seated, in the gallery at Cambridge Corn Exchange. And the only time before that was the Lifeblood tour, in a huge arena, playing a set I don’t remember much of other than the fact that JDB had a flying V for a few tracks… So it was fun to see a full set I knew, at the front of a crowd full of fans all bellowing their heads off to everything from Ocean Spray (dedicated to the NHS, naturally) to You Love Us. They’ve obviously got an immense back catalogue to draw on these days, and they were never going to play everything I wanted to hear; still, it was a set surprisingly heavy on tracks from This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, with not a single one from The Holy Bible. Presumably this balance was designed for a crowd that was as likely to be at the festival for Saturday headliners the Kaiser Chiefs, as for people who’d come specifically for the Manics. And there were still some surprising highlights for me: No Surface All Feeling turns out to be an excellent live track, and it was a treat to hear My Little Empire as well as all the singles from TIMTTMY. Oh yes, and the acoustic Masses Against the Classes: excellent, along with the inevitable Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. Complementing Paul Smith’s tales of Hockney pilgrimmages, James Dean Bradfield chatted about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and merrily nattered to the audience about how they must get sick of ‘fucking tourists’ and the like. Obviously, Nicky Wire is the mouthy one in interviews, but it’s JDB’s genial stage presence that keeps an audience rapt, eating from the palm of their hand. The crowd were a generally good-natured bunch too, barring the usual drunk school kids, drunk middle aged women, and the men who stand stock still at the barrier, determinedly ignoring the short people behind them who are desperate just for a hand hold on the railing. Nevertheless, a cathartic sing-along to A Design for Life under a spray of Welsh-flag coloured-confetti will smooth over pretty much any differences.*

*Yes, I know the confetti at the end was white; I can’t remember what track the red, white and green stuff came down on. You Stole the Sun from My Heart?

So, better value and a better setting than Newcastle’s Times Square gigs (one of which I went to last summer). I mean sure, someone else would have had to pay me to attend the line-up on Saturday or Sunday, but I lucked out and Friday’s two headliners were two of my favourite bands. It was a great end to summer (what summer?) and on the whole had a fantastic, friendly atmosphere. Pull off a line-up like that again, BML, and I’ll be back. (Could you maybe get Kate Bush next time, too? That would really cover all my bases).