Books I read in 2016

I once again set myself the target of reading an average of 40 pages per day, and pleasingly I managed it with about 150 pages extra. I know it seems silly that I have to force myself to do something I enjoy, but I find that reading is one of those tasks that I just forget to do, or don’t prioritise over other things, so this method works for me. I don’t tend to read regularly still, generally I read a bit on the tube to work, but not always. So the page counts tend to come in dribbles and then a splurge of a few hours solid reading every now and then. Of course it always helps to have a good book, I have a stupid mental block that even if I’m not enjoying a book I still have to finish it, and that can really stifle my reading.

By the numbers

  • 49 books, 14,884 pages. Really wish I’d managed to get one more in!
  • 32 were new reads (67%), of the re-reads 14 were Brust’s Taltos series, one was The Secret Garden which I haven’t read since I was a kid, and I re-read a Terry Pratchett.
  • 36 authors, 19 of whom were new to me, only duplicated authors were Brust and Simon Mayo (once by himself and once in a pair)
  • 21 British (64%), 11 Americans (31%), 3 others (Canadian, Malaysian, French – not massively diverse)
    22 men vs 14 female (61:39%) that’s far from the worst it’s ever been and not bad considering I didn’t deliberately seek out women writers, but obviously not as even as I’d like.
  • 54% from 2010 onwards, so roughly half of the books were pretty recent by broad standards
  • 13% from 2000s, 13% from 1990s, 8% from 1980s. 3 each (6%) from early 20th, and pre-20th century.
  • Best book: The Martian – Andy Weir
  • Best book that everyone didn’t already know about: The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker
  • Or if you want to learn something: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice and Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

bounceI only read 8 non-fiction books this year (17%), which isn’t a huge number, but they were at least a fairly diverse set and mostly pretty good. I was lucky enough to see Matthew Syed speak in 2015 and finally got round to reading his book Bounce, which was so good I immediately sought out his second book Black Box Thinking which was almost equally as good. He’s a Malcolm Gladwell type, looking at the way people think and act but he frequently frames it using experiences and anecdotes from his own time as an international sportsman and subsequent time as a sports journalists. His books are entertaining as well as informative and I would recommend them to anyone. I also finally read Ben Goldacre’s Pharma, which is a superb piece of research, writing and campaigning, although would benefit from being shortened a bit as it’s somewhat repetitive. The only disappointment was Eureka! Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Greeks. The title may be true, but the style and structure of the book means that despite having all the information there it’s so incoherent you won’t take any of it in.

murder-on-the-orient-expressI continue to slowly pick off ‘classics’, with mixed results. Some of them are really classics for a reason, Agatha Christie is still revered today for very good reason, Murder on the Orient Express is an absolute masterclasses of crime fiction. The Secret Garden is one I have very fond memories of from my childhood and fortunately it stands up reasonably well. Unfortunately though there were a couple that I really don’t see what the fuss is about. I found Huckleberry Finn a complete slog and Far From the Madding Crowd quite tedious in places.

Sci-fi, fantasy… whatever
long-way-to-a-small-angryThe bulk of my reading is within the broad genres of sci-fi and fantasy, I’d say 32 out of 39 fiction books have some element of SF, fantasy, steampunk or related ideas in them. Fortunately, I have a couple of friends who read an INSANE amount, although mostly within science fiction and fantasy genres, and I rely on them heavily for recommendations. We know each other’s tastes quite well and they always lead me towards works I’d never have come across by myself that are either superb or interesting (sometimes even both at the same time). Even within ‘just’ the SF/Fantasy genre they find a huge range of styles and subjects. Three of the outstanding books from them this year exemplify this: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which is not just a brilliant title, but a rollicking fun read; The Golem and the Djinni is a beautiful and in depth study of characters and period; and The Just City is a fascinating way to think about Greek philosophy. Meanwhile, I’m probably the last SF fan in the world to read The Martian and it’s just as good as everyone says, I think I read the whole thing in just two sittings.

Old favourites (?)
jheregThere are a few authors who I pounce on with a new release. T Kingfisher is an author very few have heard of but is absolutely wonderful and The Raven and the Reindeer is another lovely and entertaining entry to her fairy tale series. Hugh Howey (of the Wool series) stuck together a few short stories to make Beacon 23 which showed again just how good his writing is, although I wish he’d edited them together to a proper novel. Claire North’s second SF book Touch proves she wasn’t just a one idea pony, and shows that she can continue to add new life and depth to old tropes. David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) confirmed to me that I don’t like him, and SJ Watson (Before I Go to Sleep) let me down.

After a few disappointing reads that left me behind my target, I opted for a familiar old friend re-reading the 14 books of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. The quality of the books varies quite a lot, Jhereg, Phoenix, Iorich and Hawk at the positive end and Taltos, Athyra and Tiassa at the not-so-great end. But even the longest is only about 350 pages, so if you’re not enjoying one so much, it doesn’t matter because the next in the series will be along soon enough and usually a completely different style and story. I rarely re-read books so it made a nice change to go back to the familiar and comfortable for a while, although I was surprised at how little I remembered of how the actual capers worked out.

Random picks
And to round everything out, the stuff that doesn’t really fit anywhere else. Mostly sourced from the 3-for-2 shelves at Waterstones, often chosen solely because of a pretty cover and you know what they say about judging books that way.

A note from me

I started this blog as a home for my thoughts and ramblings on television shows. After a few years (erm, about 7 as it turns out) I’ve decided to expand the blog to also cover films and books. A good chunk of my time is divided between those three loves – TV, film and books, and the relative balances wax and wane, which means if I’m focusing on films, this blog suffers a lack of content. I’ve always written reviews of the books I read and the films I watch and just kept them on my personal site where no one ever goes, so I just decided to start sharing some of the them here, all my reviews together on this one blog. I’m not sure yet if, or how I will bring over the archive of review (over five hundred book reviews and nearly 1500 film reviews) but at least thanks to my choice of a stupidly generic name for the blog, it all seems to fit together in theory at least.

See - I love books, and television and film. (And also minions and fairy lights and cluttered shelves.)

See – I love books, and television and film. (And also minions and fairy lights and cluttered shelves.)

My film reviews will likely cover the sublime to the ridiculous, via the sublimely ridiculous and the ridiculously sublime. I watch almost any genre, although I struggle to stay awake during westerns, and while I try to keep on top of current films (good and bad), I also go back and watch the classics to try and understand what all the fuss is about. I take a similar approach with reading, trying to balance between classics of fiction and non-fiction, while also being a sucker for things on the “buy one get one half price” shelves at Waterstones. My reading also tends to be where my true nature of a sci-fi geek tends to come through.

I don’t profess to be a great writer or reviewer, I mostly write for myself more than anyone else anyway as I have a terrible memory and this means I can actually look up what I thought of something rather than just flounder about claiming to have seen stuff and then being unable to remember whether I even liked it or not. Neither do I claim to be ‘right’ on all these reviews, but if you want to discuss, then feel free to leave a comment!

Conviction: Season 1

In my previous post I was talking about Bull, which takes a collection of bog standard TV tropes, combines them with a charismatic lead actor and sticks the ingredients together with just about enough competency to make it a viable show to accompany your ironing. Conviction does absolutely the same thing, in fact it’s got even more good elements thanks to more recognisable TV talent in the supporting cast, and yet it fails spectacularly. This is a show that manages to be orders of magnitude worse than the sum of its parts.

Hayley Atwell is a wonderful actress and I adored her in Agent Carter. There’s something about her that feels both original and old school, like she doesn’t even know what the ‘standard’ way to act these roles is and is just bringing an entirely fresh energy to them. This could be a great, chewy role – a woman who’s brash, selfish and knows that she’s the smartest person in the room. But the writers bottled it. Each episode either starts with her being awful and then softening, or does the opposite. She ‘learns’ that other people matter, and then forgets, or starts off trying to be softer and then forgets that. The episodic nature just didn’t work.

The rest of the cast has some good names in it too – Eddie Cahill (CSI: NY’s Detective Flack), Shawn Ashmore (The Following, and the first round of X-Men films) and Emily Kinney (Beth from The Walking Dead). And then the writers strike again and give them nothing to work with but one single defining characteristic each – Cahill is all about politics and presentation, Ashmore is all about the law, and Kinney is all about innocence and see miss-carriages of justice everywhere. There’s also a drug addict former cop, a former convict forensics expert, and an overbearing politician mother. They’re all just plain dull to be honest. The only interesting character was the brother, but maybe that’s because he got such limited screen time that his one note characteristic (he loves his sister) didn’t get old.

Then there’s the plot driver – the “Conviction Integrity Unit” is set up to check cases and make sure the right person is in prison. It’s not a bad idea, but it is stunningly badly actioned. For some reason they only have 1 week to investigate each case. ONE WEEK! I mean, it would take that long to obtain the paperwork, let alone read it all, review all the evidence, track down witnesses, re-process forensics and come up with a legally meaningful conclusion. The ticking clock makes absolutely zero sense and is just an insulting cheap attempt to drum up tension. The fact that they started out with an incredibly obvious re-hash of the Adnan Syed case from the Serial podcast, set the bar for the level of creativity they were going to bring to the cases.

Also stretching the bounds of realism to breaking point is their success rate finding ridiculous coincidences to prove miscarriages of justice. They ducked a couple of times, but broadly the team always came out right, although they had to take a very flexible approach to the law at times which in my book doesn’t make them any different to some of the ‘shoddy’ lawyers they were getting morally indignant about. There are a number of other moral questions raised that are dealt with in offensively simplistic ways, one that jumped out was when someone sleeps with a guy when she knows he has a girlfriend and absolutely no mention is made of that. In fact the other woman is treated like a villain of the piece for absolutely no reason.

So, a poorly developed concept and mediocre characters, with some pretty questionable morals. Why did I watch it so long? Just because I kept hoping it would get better, that Hayley Atwell would get the material she deserved. It didn’t, she didn’t, and I would not be returning for a second season, although it looks extremely unlikely that it will be getting one.

Bull: Pilot Review

I’ve slightly got out of the habit of reviewing pilots, I keep thinking that I want to give them more time to see how they’ll play out. But given that I didn’t have anything else to write about this week, I figured I might as well try it again. Then I cheated and also watched the second episode, but it’s close enough right?

Bull is so generic it could be used in a text book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I mean the ‘standards’ are there for a reason, but it does mean that it’s entering a crowded field and trying to stand out on charm alone. The good thing is that the one thing that it has going for it is Michael Weatherly who is charm personified. They are pretty much pinning the show on the fact that millions of people tuned into NCIS each week, and heaven knows it wasn’t for the plots, so a good chunk of them must have liked the cast, and Michael Weatherly is one of the few that had been there from the beginning.

I’ll confess, that would likely be enough for me to give the show a chance, I’ve actually like Weatherly since his earlier role on Dark Angel and he has one of my favourite traits in an actor, the ability to be funny and heartbreaking all in the same simple line of dialogue. I got tired of the character on NCIS because the writing was so inconsistent, frequently reverting to him being the immature fool just to support whatever gap there was in the story each week. This then, is a great opportunity, he’s not the comic relief, he’s the boss. Yes a ‘quirky’ one who seems to let his team boss him around a fair amount, but he’s the expert and he’s in charge.

Everything else you could almost fill in from a book of cliches and the writers make very little effort to hide that. I mean the idea itself is just a bog standard legal drama, with the variation on a theme that this one is focussed on understanding and manipulating the jury, by understanding what their psychological drivers are. It’s Lie to Me or Criminal Minds in a courtroom, The Good Wife with psychology.

Surrounding Bull is the usual collection of sidekicks – hackers, lawyers, investigators, advisors. It’s like a mix and match recipe with elements of characters from other series all muddled up. It’s a little unfortunate that rival new show Conviction came up with almost exactly the same characters from the mixture, but that show has tanked in the ratings so I guess Bull will win by default. Again, the tropes that are being used do work, they make for quirky and likeable characters with enough hints at depth that their backstories can dribble out over multiple seasons. But it’s just a bit tiresome.

The first two episodes follow the standard ‘Case of the Week’ structure, plenty of opportunity to explain how things work to both the clients and the audience (that’ll get tedious quickly though). The stories were unremarkable and fairly predictable, and each focused a little too lecturingly on built in biases, but optimistically the writers were just hoping we’d be too distracted by all the introductions to really care about the plot and are holding the good stuff for later.

The above all sounds pretty critical, but for all the cynicism, all those tropes exist for a reason – they work. The building blocks are immediately there for Weatherly to work with and get the charm across and I was engaged enough to come back next week. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to win awards, have any critical praise at all, or even really make it onto any “must watch” lists, but it is the kind of thing that is very watchable and easy enough to watch while eating dinner. So long as that’s what they’re going for, then they’ve done just the bare minimum they need to succeed. If they wanted more than that, then they need to buck things up.

Westworld – Season 1

There was a lot of buzz around this. The trailer looked stunning and the ideas were fascinating, clearly HBO and Sky in the UK were hoping that this would be the next Game of Thrones, particularly given that we’re heading towards the end of that series. So why was I just not bothered with it? I let a few episodes back up and then watched the first couple and my response was distinctly… meh. It just didn’t grab me. I watched with a couple of friends and they seemed to feel the same, so our meh-ness somewhat reinforced each other and we agreed that there was something that just didn’t quite work about the delivery of the concept.

Westworld (the setting) is basically an evolved computer game. The people who built the park are running a real life massively multiplayer role playing game, one that’s been running for decades and is hugely successful. The hosts (non-player characters, robots) have all been crafted and written in order to support either specific narratives that the guests can participate in, or just to flesh out the background so the guests can immerse themselves in the period setting. Now, my friends and I have played a lot of games between us, and we could quickly predict how some things were going to go, leaving us a little bored waiting for it to play out slowly. Plus we could spot various flaws in the ‘game’, either deliberate ones necessary to get the show’s narrative to work, or accidental ones that were just mediocre writing by people who hadn’t really thought about how this sort of game would work in reality.

So after watching a couple of episodes, I just wasn’t grabbed by it, and let it flounder on my sky box for a while. Eventually though I exhausted most other options (I still can’t be bothered with The Walking Dead!) and figured I might as well finish it off, not least as I’d heard there were a few twists later on that were interesting (although sadly I was spoiled on them which rather reduced their impact). At that point I managed to power through the rest of the 10 episodes, gathering momentum until I watched the last 4 episodes back to back last night (sadly the final episode was double length leading to a rather late night).

It did get better, or maybe more accurately the good bits expanded and made the not-so-good bits tolerable. There are characters in the first couple of episodes that are almost background, but really develop into something interesting and start to actually explore the issues around consciousness, manipulation and desire. Once it starts getting into the mystery elements more fully, and the characters and audience realise that not everything is what it seems it starts gaining momentum. Bits of the story make very little sense and at best require characters to take particularly convoluted routes towards their aims, but it does finally give the show some momentum that made me want to watch the new episode.

There were still threads that I didn’t care about and slowed everything down, the idea behind Delores’s “narrative” was interesting, but I found her an excruciatingly tedious character to actually spend time with. Some elements were uncreatively cliché which was a bit frustrating, and also slowed everything down when you know how things are going to go but they take an age to get there. There are also characters and ideas which had a lot of potential that was frustratingly ignored, some of which may be expanded in the second season, but not all of the characters will have the opportunity and that’s a real waste.

I do have some conflicted feelings towards the level of nudity and violence. The nudity in particular is incredibly gratuitous. I can see that there is a point to the nudity – the people working in the park dehumanise the hosts by having them naked when not ‘live’. It is relevant to the plot and isn’t sexualised in the same way that other shows might do. Similarly the level of violence against things that look like people but aren’t really, is again an interesting look at what people are capable of (the last episode has an interesting counter point to that too). But in both cases I wonder if there was a more elegant way of making those points.

I don’t think this is the next Game of Thrones (although I don’t really think that Game of the Thones is the pinnacle series that the masses seem to think it is), or at least it isn’t yet. I do think that it’s got a lot of potential, particularly if they continue playing with some of the ideas and storytelling techniques that come up in the last few episodes. It could be that in a couple of years this is the kind of series that you explain the first season is a bit ropey, but stick with it as things get amazing. But it could also be that they have no idea what they’re doing and it will go down as a good idea that didn’t quite materialise. Still, at least it’s something different.


modusI seem to have a rule that I have to watch any drama that comes along with subtitles. It’s a mixture of pure pretentiousness on my part combined with at least a small amount of logic that if it’s a show that’s good enough to get picked up outside it’s country of origin, it can’t be that bad. Modus is one of the exceptions. It really was quite mediocre.

I don’t really know where to start on explaining its mediocrity, it was pretty much consistent throughout. The plots were contrived, the characters stereotyped and the scandi-ness overdone. A few times I wondered if it was actually attempting to be a parody. Everything just felt like they’d pulled dozens of ideas off a shelf and clumsily bodged them together. Too many ideas, too little imagination. The lead actress managed to bring some life to her character, but everyone around her either couldn’t, or wouldn’t do anything with their characters at all. Not that I necessarily blame them when the script gives them nothing but dumb cliches to work with.

It took me a few episodes to realise that it wasn’t very good, and by the time I did, thanks to the fact that the episodes were broadcast in pairs and it was only 8 episodes long, I figured I may as well just keep going to the end. Even at just 8 episodes it was horribly drawn out, adding boring and repetitive loops to stretch a couple more episodes. Then to add insult to injury, by the time the crimes were untangled and the criminals unveiled I was muttering and even shouting “oh come on!” at the television screen for its dubious presentation of… well… just about everyone actually, but particularly gay people. It wasn’t really good enough to feel outraged about it, but it was quite frustrating.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Season 1

dirk_gently_2016_logoI’ve never read the Dirk Gently books. That’s a terrible thing for a sci-fi fan to admit, but for some reason I’ve just never picked them up. I also hadn’t seen any press at all for this new Netflix series, I vaguely recall some mention that it was being made, but it appeared on Netflix with absolutely zero fanfare.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

2016 seems to be the year of many things, but one of the more pleasant themes is a glut of quirky television series, and I’m loving it! Braindead was one of my favourite shows of the year (so of course it got cancelled) and while I don’t quite think Stranger Things was the revelation that others did, it was still entertaining to watch. Dirk Gentley sits nicely alongside them in a sort of insane trinity.

The story is… well… complicated. I’m not really sure I could explain it if I tried. I’m not entirely sure that I followed it to be honest. There’s definitely body swapping stuff, weird visions, various types of superpowers and, well, just weird stuff. There are a lot of different sets of people that we follow and watch them gradually intersect but it’s nicely spaced out, so unlike other shows I could complain about (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) I never felt impatient spending too much time, or not enough time with any one group. If one group don’t appear in an episode I didn’t tend to notice until they appeared in the next one and I suddenly realised I’d missed them.

The cast is a mix of very famliar faces who bring reassurance, and relative unknowns who keep things fresh and interesting. They all deliver performances that are completely solid and believable in their delivery and involvement in utterly ridiculous and unbelievable situations.

I really enjoyed watching this series. It’s properly bonkers from start to finish, but it never feels out of control or as if things are being dragged our or manipulated just to make a television series. The series is renewed for a second season next year which is great news. There are plenty of ideas planted that could be developed although it might be tricky to bring some of the characters back which would be a shame, but I’m intrigued, mystified and slightly scared of the level of insanity that the series could rise to.