Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.

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Books in July

I continue to enjoy reading on my commute (although I wouldn’t mind the temperatures dropping by a dozen degrees or so) and am ploughing through books. To save my bank balance a bit I went and investigated the library! What a wonderful place – they just let you take books away! The selection is a bit limited, but thus far I’ve been managing to find some classics and some random picks.

Sarah Whitfield – Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables
Full disclosure – the author of this book is one of my best friends and I’m even mentioned in the acknowledgements (!) so this isn’t exactly an unbiased review. Also I should note you will probably struggle a bit to follow some sections if you have not at least passingly familiar with the musical itself, or at least look up a few youtube clips as you read.
This little book tries to explain why people are such fans of Les Misérables by looking at a number of factors – the story, the music, the marketing, the history of the production and a little bit on fandom itself. Although Sarah is an academic expert in musical theatre, this book is never dry. Peppered throughout the book are quotes and anecdotes from fans of Les Misérables who were surveyed as part of the research for the book. The analysis of the musical techniques, or emotional manipulation to hook audiences is always balanced with the voice of that audience expressing how much it means to them. Sarah doesn’t stand back from this as a passive observer – she also shares her own anecdotes about growing up with a father who loved Les Misérables, and who passed away while Sarah was writing the book. The sharing of powerful emotions throughout the book is a perfect match for Les Misérables, which as Sarah says, only an Easter Island statue could fail to be moved by.
At only 60 odd pages long, the biggest problem with the book is that it’s too short. There’s plenty of room for expansion and I was a little disappointed that some areas weren’t probed a little deeper – particularly the bubbling counterpoint of why “serious” theatre people look down on the musical (and maybe by extension the fans). But as it is, it’s a charming little love letter to a musical, its fans, and a father.

Derek Thompson – Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular
Any book advertised as picking up from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point is setting a high bar, but also makes itself an easy sell to me. I find this kind of subject fascinating, it sort of spans marketing, business and economics, psychology, sociology and history. The trick that people like Gladwell, Seth Godin and Matthew Syed pull off is to blend in just the right number of case studies and stories and write the whole thing like a human being, rather than a dry text book. Thompson is a worthy addition to this pantheon. Hit Makers was not only a fascinating read, but also a fun one. The structure is clear and tidy, told with a journalist’s respect for grabbing attention, retaining it and landing messages deliberately and forcefully. The stories being told are a mixture of the familiar and the unusual, finding people and emotions that are relatable and inspiring. Thompson delivers a book that both explains why things are popular, explains why we’ll never understand why things are popular, and uses all the tricks he’s identified to write something that should be popular (except for the cover, which is stunningly poor). One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a very long time.

T. Kingfisher – Clocktaur War 1: The Wonder Engine, and 2: Clockwork Boys.
T. Kingfisher is one of my favourite authors and I’ve never seen a physical copy of her book. I’ve just checked and some of her books are available as physical books, but they’re far more aggressively priced as ebooks, so I don’t think anyone is really wanting us to buy the actual books. That means they have to rely more on word of mouth to sell and I continue to do my bit on that front. There’s something effortlessly simple and pure about her writing, which is of course anything other than effortless and far from common. Her stories are straightforward, retelling fairy tales, or in this case a fairly standard quest story. But the characters, worlds, and plots always sparkle. I read the two books back to back and I suggest you do the same as a) they’re impossible to put down and b) it’s really a continuous story and the first book by itself just sort of stops in the middle.
The story is a fairly straightforward quest set up with an unlikely team of experts sent off on an apparently impossible mission and a few heists and bumps along the road, plus the slightly inevitable romance of course. It’s all quite standard – the world has some magic and some steam punk type stuff going on, the team all have individual specialisms but aren’t used to working in a team and are a mixture of heroic rogues and roguish heroes. Everything jumps off the page, dialogue and thoughts of characters are immediately real, it’s laugh out loud funny, un-put-down-able action, a romance that even my cold heart fell in love with and some “unfortunate events” that had me reaching for the tissues. I cannot recommend this author highly enough and the ebooks are embarrassingly cheap so you really have no excuse to not read them.

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
I’m not sure about this book. The writing style is refreshing, bluntly honest (although maybe not quite right for a sheltered 15 year old) and laugh out loud funny while also gut-wrenchingly painful. It’s the kind of book that is both hard to put down and difficult to keep reading because the emotions are so powerful at times, and various disasters loom like icebergs on the horizon. I can see why some people would love it and connect incredibly deeply with it, but it didn’t quite work for me on that level. It’s the kind of book that I respect more than I like. (573)

Agatha Christie – By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Another random Agatha Christie, but not one of her better ones. I did enjoy the characters of Tommy and Tuppence for the most part, although they occasionally got a little too smug and prim. Unfortunately the story itself let the book down, the mystery was slow to develop, relying on epic numbers of coincidences to keep things moving and come up with reasons that the characters should keep searching for a crime that was completely hidden. Then there was a rush of exposition at the end to bring everything together and explain the solution to a puzzle that I still didn’t quite believe was there. It’s as if Christie started writing hoping the plot would come to her, and then when she eventually found one, she didn’t bother going back to the beginning so that it made sense.

Seni Glaister – The Museum of Things Left Behind
A random pick from the library based mostly on the title, which then proved to be completely inappropriate as the Museum in question makes barely 2 appearances and even as a metaphor is pretty far stretched. The quirkiness sort of matches the book for the most part and it’s an interesting set up, but about half way through the author seems to decide they don’t want just a nice little story and tries to add more depth with more pointed political and social satire. The bait and switch unsettled me, I wanted something nice and quirky, not something that made me sad and thoughtful. I think the author was capable of delivering either approach interestingly, but the mixture was ill judged.

Films in July

New Films
Incredibles 2 – I have always felt that The Incredibles was one of Pixar’s quietest gems (see review further down the page). For some reason it never seemed to get the rabid response that Toy Story or Finding Nemo got, but for me it was always one of my favourites. The story, the characters, the voice work, the understated humour, and most of all the visual style all just really spoke to me and I was thrilled when I heard a sequel was on the way. I’m even more thrilled that it was everything I hoped for and more. The story and the quality pick up seamlessly from the end of the first film and just keep improving. I can’t remember the last film where I laughed out loud so much; scenes, phrases and even just wordless looks became instant classics. At two hours long, it’s apparently the longest Pixar film yet and I didn’t notice time passing at all, I would have cheerfully sat there for another 2 hours. Absolutely wonderful.

New to me
A Ghost Story – I sort of sank into this film. At first I was a bit eye-rolly and bored by it. Everything took so long, each scene lingered and dragged, and although the cinematography was very beautiful, rather than pull me into the story and the characters, it pushed me away from an emotional engagement. But the film went in a direction I wasn’t expecting and that drew me back in a bit. I wouldn’t say I entirely fell in love with it, or thought it was a revelation, but I didn’t hate it anywhere near as much as I thought I would.

Dark Skies – I seem to have watched a few of these theme of film recently, family terrorised by supernatural and/or aliens and/or their own paranoia. They’re all much-of-a-muchness with most of the success resting on whether the kids are annoying and whether the parents make dumb choices. Dark Skies is a middling success. The kids are just slightly the wrong side of the line, but the parents are sufficiently sensible to average it out. There are some genuinely creepy setups, a couple of acceptable jump scares and a fairly well managed conclusion. But I suspect in a few days time I will have completely forgotten it.

Frida – I knew nothing about the artist Frida Kahlo’s life and to be honest I don’t much like her art. But this is well put together character study of a very interesting woman. I was a little frustrated that so much of the story of her life was told as the story of her relationship with Diego Rivera, I’m not entirely convinced it actually passes the Bechdel test. But I was completely engaged with the film throughout, the little animated sections providing an interesting contrast, and was inspired to read a little bit more about her life.

Get Shorty – I probably wasn’t in the right mood to watch this. From very early on I lost track of the plot and couldn’t be bothered to pick it up again. I really do think this is more me than the film, because I liked the idea of the story a lot, and the characters all seemed to work, I just didn’t engage with it at all.

Misery – A quite minimalist and very well constructed creepy horror film. The gradually building tension and unpleasantness is well paced although slightly undermined now by the fact that it’s been parodied so many times. I particularly liked the well timed interjections of lightness from the local sheriff which broke the tension. Kathy Bates is superb.

Rewatches
The Social Network – When I read a few years ago that my favourite writer, Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, Sports Night, The American President) was going to move on from the flop of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (I liked it a lot more than most, but could still see it had big problems) with a film about Facebook, I really thought it was a joke. A couple of years later and I’m watching the unlikely scene of a fast paced coding and hacking session unmistakably written by Aaron Sorkin. I was engrossed from start to finish. The different ‘truths’ are intertwined flawlessly, jumping points of view and back and forth in time effortlessly. It’s not a simple film to watch, you will need to pay attention to keep track, but if you do, you will understand. The only problem the film has is that it’s a bit difficult to feel sorry for most of the characters, while they’re not necessarily assholes, they all have reasons for behaving as they do, they’re not particularly pleasant to be around. And by the end of the film all these extremely young, arrogant, fairly obnoxious characters are all richer than you will ever be.

The Incredibles – Remembering that this film came years before the Marvel cinematic universe really re-energised the superhero genre makes it even more impressive. It fits into the modern take on superheroes so well, simultaneously respecting and parodying the tropes and cliches. Rewatching it for the nth time, there are still lots of little moments, references and background bits that surprise and delight. The animation is a little dated and over simplified compared to current films, but given it was made in 2004, that’s not surprising. While the movements and the textures may be basic though, the style is still gorgeous and the voice acting is everything you’d expect from Pixar.

Wind River – I was extremely satisfied by this film. For a start, it’s beautiful to look at, with a dramatic setting that looks great on the big screen. Another thing I found very satisfying was the treatment of the principle characters. None of them were stupid or small minded, they all had respect for each other and behaved professionally and competently. Too often that’s not the case, petty rivalries or incompetencies are used to drive the plot along or create tension. The personal weaknesses and issues of the characters were well deployed into the story without feeling like they were being overly manipulative. The crime itself maybe lacked originality or sufficiently credible motivations, and I think the reveal could have been made a lot more elegantly, rather than degenerating into flashback and way too big gun battle. All-in-all however it was a really satisfying watch.

Star Trek: Beyond – When I was going to the cinema to see this the first time, I re-watched the previous two Star Trek films before going to see this one at the cinema, and my expectations were therefore mixed. I anticipated a continuation of the big blockbuster pop-corn flicks that we’d been getting. Big effects, respectful nostalgia, excellent casting, not quite enough one liners, and dumb as rocks plot. Happily though, they seem to have managed to keep the good and actually fix the problems with the writing! This film actually makes some sense, or at least it made enough sense while I was actually watching it, which is more that the last two did. It’s still fun, it’s still spectacular (although the effects are all a bit digital and over-processed for my tastes), the characters all still have soul and it really felt like a Star Trek film.

Notting Hill – Sometimes you have to decide whether you’re going to enjoy a Richard Curtis film before you really start watching it. Most of them have a central problem that they’re about rich people having problems that we could only really dream of having. if you go with the posh charm than all is well and they’re funny, sweet and like a warm blanket. But if you can’t let it go they can be massively frustrating. The Julia Robert’s character at the heart of Notting Hill makes it extremely hard to just let the irritation go by complaining about her massively successful but demanding job, while making no movement to actually take control of her own life. Of course seemingly successful people can be miserable, but it never seems to occur to her that she is choosing to remain in the miserable situations and instead just grumbles and snaps at people around her. Everything beyond that character manages to be lovely, but the black hole at the centre really dragged this film down for me.

The Boat That Rocked – This is possibly the least Richard Curtis of Richard Curtis’ films. I enjoyed this film a lot, it’s hard not to get swept along by the feel good soundtrack but the collection of characters were also just fun to spend time with. I found myself wishing that it was a sitcom instead of a film as it was almost more fun to just see the little day-to-day activities than it was to pay attention to the plot. It avoids Curtis’ usual problems of “posh people problems” and felt like there was something important at the heart of it. It’s very silly in places, which I’d usually find irritating, but for whatever reason, it worked for me here.

The Death of Stalin – An odd film. Armando Iannucci is a superb comedy writer and this is certainly a laugh out loud funny. The hilarity of a well timed swear word, of a well timed silence, of physical comedy, farce and wordplay – it’s a masterclass. There are loads of characters with complicated backstories and relationships that can be a little hard to track, but thanks to some brilliant ‘character actors’ they all leap off the screen. The problem is that, while the farcical elements of the grabs for power are inherently funny, the overall situation is not. The film doesn’t entirely shy away from the fact that thousands of people are being routinely rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed; but by interspersing it with comedy it does be-little it and leave a very bad taste in the mouth. It’s not like you can watch the film and ignore it, because it’s integral to the story; so I’m not quite sure what reaction we’re supposed to have. Overall I think I just wish that Iannucci and the cast made a different film.

Big Hero 6 – Like Wreck it Ralph, this is a film that doesn’t look like a Disney film, but actually when you think about the story and the characters, it’s Disney through-and-through. It’s a lovely story looking at loss and what it means to be a hero, it’s quite heart breaking at times, but balances it with some good-old-school superheroes and robots. The animation is absolutely beautiful, the level of detail on the city is contrasted with the minimalist style used for the characters. You completely forget that Baymax is nothing more than a couple of eyes, he’s so elegantly expressive. Another really great movie from Disney.

My Best Friend’s Wedding – What a horrible film. On the surface it appears frothy and fun, big characters played well, a snappy script and some great actors and Rupert Everett absolutely stealing the film. But when you actually pay attention to the plot and the characters – they’re almost all horrific. The central story is pretty nasty – a woman realises she’s in love with her best friend just as he’s about to marry someone else, so she decides to split them up. The tactics she uses are awful, and her acknowledgement that she’s being horrible don’t excuse that. Even worse though was actually the relationship between the best friend and his fiance, which felt even more uncomfortable. She is a student, considerably younger than him and seems pretty sweet and lovely. But she’s going to drop out of school and ‘suspend’ her dreams to be with him while he travels for work and when she tries to present an alternative, he shouts at her in a crowded restaurant until she cries and promises to never mention it again. I’m sorry, but that’s not something I want to see presented as absolutely ok. The fiance should have run for the hills and left the two horrible people to each other.

Good Will Hunting – I’d forgotten how good this film was, even more outstanding considering how early in Damon and Affleck’s career it was. I wish they would write again to see whether this was the only story they could tell. The acting of all parties was inspired with Robin Williams doing an outstanding job playing it (mostly) straight and Stellan Skarsgard also doing a good supporting role.

Romancing the Stone – Twee 80’s action/romance. Indiana Jones with slightly more smarm, slightly less charm, a bit less humour and a lot less polish. Passes the time.

Station 19: Season 1

Despite my unashamed love for Grey’s Anatomy (with the exception of a few plot lines that I try to forget about) I’ve never found the same level of joy for the rest of Shonda Rhime’s work. I stuck with Scandal for a few years but it just got too ridiculous, I barely made it through the pilot for How to Get Away with Murder and even the direct spinoff from Grey’s, Private Practice, didn’t really land with me. As I’ve made it through the full season of Station 19 that makes it the most successful of the bunch, but this isn’t exactly going to be a glowing review.

The first problem is that I’ve never really understood the American emergency services structure which seems to merge paramedics and the fire service into one shared skill set (although this may be an affectation of TV/films based on the way things work in LA and may not be representative of the country as a whole). Station 19 adopts this, meaning that all the firefighters also act as medical first responders and it left me constantly bemused at the different skills and roles that the characters fell into, making them slightly hard to differentiate.

Sometimes the characters seemed to be able to do everything, but other times they were startling inept with storylines being driven by characters making mistakes. Grey’s Anatomy started with, and tries to maintain, a tiered approach to its characters with people at all stages of their careers. The new people understandably make mistakes for drama or entertainment, while the more senior staff can teach both audience and characters while picking up the pieces. Station 19 seems to lack that hierarchy as the only person treated as having significant experience is quickly sidelined.

The rest of the season is structured around a leadership contest between two people who are clearly completely unsuited to lead. Neither has the required experience, neither can put aside stupid quarrels even in literal life and death situations, and neither gives or receives sufficient respect to inspire confidence. Too many of the stories were driven by the mistakes of the characters rather than the inherent challenge of battling fires and disasters. People died because of their pettiness and ineptness and we were supposed to feel sorry for those that made the mistakes.

The personal elements have flashes of the Grey’s strengths, but only flashes. There are some interesting and well delivered relationships (both romantic and otherwise) and some hints at rich backstories that could be developed. Sadly the voiceover doesn’t work, Herrera just doesn’t have as strong a voice as Meredith Grey and everything she says comes across as trite. I also wasn’t a big fan of the flashes of future moments that top and tail each advert break, they just felt like padding and a cheap way to build drama. As a whole, it just doesn’t reach the standards that Grey’s has set and I’m not sure it’s adding anything to a TV landscape that already has Chicago Fire (and its siblings).

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 14

I stopped watching last season because of the Alex storyline. I’ve always had a soft spot for Alex as one of the less perfect characters who has actually had impressive character development over the years. But the final moments of season ???? set up a storyline that ran through the following season that I just didn’t want to watch. Fundamentally he seriously assaulted a colleague and then he, his colleagues and the writers seemed to look for excuses for why it happened. I could follow the logic that he lost his temper (his anger being a central character element) but not the machinations everyone went through to excuse it. He should have gone to jail. I didn’t want to watch that happen, and I can’t quite forgive the other characters and writers for forgiving him. So I’m pretending that whole season didn’t happen, that they characters didn’t take sides against each other. The writers seem to have done the same, which is equally offensive really, but I guess we all just pretend the season didn’t happen.

So I returned nervously but soon settled in to the same drama of both a medical and a personal fronts, inducing the usual array of emotions from laughing out loud to sobbing incoherently, occasionally at the same time. What I love about the show (and hence why last season drove me away) is the depth of the characters. The relationships between all the characters all make sense, those that have known and worked together for decades, those that are brand new and trying to find their places, and those in the middle who know some of the stories but not all of them. The friendships and respect are inspiring, but everyone still gets on each others nerves occasionally, knowing exactly how to push people’s buttons. Watching makes me feel like part of the family.

I can’t really remember much about the stories themselves to be honest. Poor April had a miserable season, and although she’s never been my favourite character she’s always been interesting, her evolution has been wonderful to watch and Sarah Drew’s performance was never anything other than breathtaking and I’ll miss her on the show. I’m less bothered by the departure of Arizona who I always felt was one of the less well written characters with less consistency and less of her own agency. The ‘fix’ for Amelia was a bit tacky but served a purpose as it turned her back from the caricature she’d become and re-embedded her into the same level of ridiculousness that the others were in. The stories that tried to get a little more current (me too, immigration) were a little bit clumsy, but I can’t fault them for their intent.

I’m glad I could come back to Grey’s, it’s been with me so long that I did feel like I’d lost a friend for a while. While I can understand why it doesn’t get to compete for awards in the current TV landscape full of ground breaking shows, I think many underestimate the skill it takes to bring it to the screen. The usually spot on mixture of drama and comedy the writers script and the subtle but powerful delivery of the actors is unparalleled. Few things on TV bring me such joy.

The Americans: Season 6

I came into the final season of The Americans with a sense of dread which gradually built up to almost unbearable levels for the last couple of episodes. I was determined not to look up spoilers, but I came very close a couple of times to googling “does the Americans have a happy ending?”. I won’t give away the spoilers here, because I do think this show is more about the journey than the destination, I’ll just say that it has an ending that felt right, felt satisfying and most importantly made me feel an awful lot of emotions.

If you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series, then you will enjoy this final season and in fact, I think it’s probably one of the better seasons. While there have been some dead ends and long meanders in previous seasons, this is what it’s all been building and navigating its way towards, and everything is brought together. The characters and relationships have grown and evolved over the years, but really not fundamentally changed. The stories being told haven’t changed much either, there’s still a lot of complex politics going on that I didn’t entirely follow, but most of the missions can be understood in simple terms – get the thing, convince someone to tell you something, deliver a message, kill someone, keep someone alive. All with a combination of wigs, confidence games, tricks and gadgets.

The final season is the culmination of everything that has gone before and I found it incredibly tense, the secrets all feel very precarious and there were shouting at the screen for characters to look out, or to not dig themselves into a trap. The close shaves make everyone aware of how easy it would be for the characters to lose everything. That does mean though that the less tense moments could feel quite dull. Expositions of politics (particularly when in Russian with subtitles) were easy to drift off in.

The Jennings family is one of the richest, most interesting set of characters television has produced in recent years. The way the stories and plots provide opportunities for them to react and evolve was masterfully set up by the writers, and delivered with skill, nuance and emotional impact by the actors. All the feelings and all the twists and turns held together impeccably. Although I don’t think it’s had a huge audience watching it season by season, I hope that people will find it and box set it, I think it would work well watched reasonably intensely. I’ll miss checking in with the Jennings family each year, but it went out absolutely perfectly.

Books in June

I started a new job in June. Amongst other changes, I now have a much longer commute and I find myself with about 2 hours a day on tubes. Currently, I’m actually quite enjoying this time because I get to spend that time reading. My previous commute only gave me about 20 minutes on a tube and I often found that by the time I was settling into a book, it was time to get off, so I’d frequently just waste that time playing on my phone. Now though reading time isn’t something I have to squeeze in and I’m finding that really lovely.

Steven Brust – Taltos 15: Vallista
I usually pounce on Vlad books the second they come out, but somehow I completely missed that this came out last year. Still, I’ve now caught up, or at least I’ve caught up with reading the book, to be honest I haven’t caught up at all on the overall storyline because I have no real idea what any of the book meant. I don’t really mind that much, because spending time with Vlad is always a joy, and him wandering around a mystery house is a pretty solid set up. Working out the mystery was beyond me and not only did I not really understand the explanation, but it arrived in such a big chunk that it was actually a little dull. Still, more time with Vlad can only ever be a good thing.

Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
I’ve seen this described as the first “true crime novel” and it does hover between fact and fiction – a carefully researched retelling of true events, but written in the style of a novel, seamlessly moving between the points of view of different people, expanding their thoughts and flashbacks to their pasts. Capote himself has no presence in the book beyond his beautifully eloquence and turn of phrase. I’m sure there’s a lot of extrapolation in his work and maybe some complete fabrication too, even as you’re reading there are things that jump out that seem unlikely to have come from Capote’s research, but it all fits into the wider narrative and doesn’t feel too much like cheating, just enriching. This is now also a period story, and because the descriptions are so vivid it’s a fascinating look at history as well. I was utterly gripped for most of the book (there are a couple of sections that linger too long or get a bit repetitive) and if this was the first book of its kind, it set an extraordinarily high standard.

Jessica Fellowes – The Mitford Murders
A thoroughly entertaining murder mystery with a large and likeable cast of investigators and an intriguing group of suspects. It’s in the vain of Agatha Christie, but much richer given the length and details put in, there’s also a fair amount of Downton Abbey in there (not surprising given the author) although not really as much as the book cover might play up – the whole “six sisters” thing is actually a complete red herring as we see relatively little of the life of the main character as a nursery maid. It isn’t a book that will set the world alight, but it is a comfortable and easy read that is rewarding with the steps in the mystery and engaging with the characters.

Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
Incredibly dull. I got this because I haven’t read “a classic” for a while and this happened to be very cheap on Kindle. It got off to a bad start with a rambling introduction that took up 18% of the book (according to my Kindle) and left me very confused as to whether the book had started or not. The book proper also left me confused a lot of the time. Obviously it’s set in an incredibly different time, and it’s written in another different time, but I found it hard to pin down what attitudes the characters had, and what attitude the author had. It’s written very moralistically, but I could never quite settle what the moral stance was that any particular character was taking. Also the thing rambles on and on, twisting around and avoiding saying anything clearly. It was a slog to read and the ending wasn’t worth the effort to get there.

Peter Jones – The Venetian Game
A nice little easy read. The author’s love and knowledge of Venice is clear, but it’s not a fluffy and overly poetic love, more a very grounded one that actually feels real and tangible. The characters we spend most of the book with also feel realistic, big and charismatic enough to be fun to spend time with, but not quite so much as to be ridiculous. The same can’t quite be said for the plot and the villains of the piece which is a bit daft. But I approached the book more as a pleasant way to spend time than as a high quality thriller, and with that aim it heartily delivered. I’ve just ordered the second book.

M.L. Rio – If We Were Villains
This book is Shakespearean through and through. It’s written by a Shakespeare scholar, the characters are Shakespeare actors and it gradually becomes clear that the plot itself is a Shakespearean tragedy. That final characteristic is what really turned the book from disposable to outstanding for me. I was about half way through and already engrossed with the characters (which isn’t the same as actually liking any of them) and the story, but was a little frustrated with some of the twists of the plot that seemed to rely on somewhat unlikely decisions and actions. But with the realisation that the story was a Shakespearean tragedy, the irritations fell away. Suddenly, all the flaws became deliberate features, and while that can still be irritating, it just felt so right here. It’s not that the actions were completely unbelievable, just that they were unlikely, but with the added aura of melodrama and intensity that Shakespeare brings, they made sense. I’ve never really got on with Shakespeare, and many of the references went far, far over my head; but I found this book utterly compelling.

Nigel Slater – Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger
It took me a little while to settle into this book, but then I couldn’t put it down. The whole book is made up of hundreds of incredibly short, specific memories Slater has of his childhood mostly focusing on food. Each one is very vividly told but it can feel rather bitty. But after a while the overall narrative comes through and you see the people and the history building up. I read the entire book over a gloriously sunny weekend in the garden and I think it’s probably best to read it intensely like that, otherwise it would be easy to make the mistake that it’s just about food.

James Surowiecki – The Wisdom of the Crowds
The core concepts are very interesting, but it’s quite hard going. The author actually seems to have quite an easy style, in short bursts, but the pure density of the book makes it a quite a dry read, and I found myself speed reading chunks of it. It was hard to get a firm grasp of the different ideas he was trying to cover as many of them were quite subtle. It’s also a little dated now, being over 10 years old and I found myself often wondering what examples from the latest financial crisis and political situations would look like. I think I would have got more out of the book if it were shorter and more direct.

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