The Queen’s Gambit

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, by the time I finally got round to watching it Queen’s Gambit had already won a flock of awards, including the Golden Globe for best limited series. But if I’m late to the party, at least I’m showing up with enthusiasm. This is a great series, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and one of the best crafted and presented characters I’ve seen in a very long time.

The first thing I will say, is that the series is overall a positive one and it ends well. That’s one of the key things I look for in a series at the moment, and although I guess it could be considered a spoiler, I think it’s more a part of the genre description. It’s no more a spoiler than saying something is “feel good”, or “gritty”, one gives away a happy ending, and the other means there’s going to be a lot of darkness (although something gritty can still have a positive ending, and something feel good might have darkness along the way). I wouldn’t describe Queen’s Gambit as light and fluffy, there are certainly dark moments along the way, but throughout there were more moments that had me smiling with happiness and satisfaction than there were that had me tensing for disaster.

The series tells the story of Beth Harmon – an orphan chess prodigy (or maybe a math prodigy who happens to get hooked on chess first). Give or take a couple of flash backs and flash forwards, the series tells her life story quite linearly from her arrival at the orphanage at age 9 in the mid 1950’s through the next 15 years or so. It’s not the most original or surprising of stories, but it’s well put together and well paced with ups and downs. Beth’s life is full of contrasts, she’s lucky and unlucky, smart and ignorant, aloof and needy, studious but rebellious, capable of planning ahead but also out of control. It would be easy for all that contradiction to come across as an incoherent, badly written character, but she’s in fact a brilliantly written and incredibly complex character where every seeming contradiction actually always makes complete sense.

That writing is brought to life by a completely mesmerising performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who is very deservingly picking up all the awards. She delivers so many layers in every scene that I frequently found myself rewinding just to focus on her word, or her face, or her body language and truly appreciate all the nuances. It would have been very easy for the series to get very dark and heavy under the weight of some of the stories, and even just the weight of chess, but Taylor-Joy brings the lightness to, delivering humour and vulnerability just as well as she delivers the dramatic moments, the controlled moments, and the quiet.

The only thing that slightly let down the series for me was actually the chess. I have absolutely no interest in chess (I haven’t the patience to play and watching makes no sense to me) and the series did not manage to change that. There were a couple of visual tricks to try and make it more engaging, but I was utterly unengaged for the most part in long recitations of different strategies and watching boards. The psychology elements of the game were interesting (the posturing, the confidence tricks etc) just like they are for any sport, but I’m not sure if the series could have lifted the game more, or if chess is just a completely lost cause for me.

Still, the subject of the story is just a means to an end and the character, writing, performance and story are easily enough to make this one of my favourite series of recent years.

The Queen’s Gambit is 7 roughly hour long episodes and available on Netflix.

Books in March 2021

T Kingfisher – Paladin’s Strength
Another wonderful warm hug of a book from T Kingfisher. Like the previous book in the series Paladin’s Grace this is a pure romance novel dressed up in fantasy adventure clothes but it can’t help wearing it’s awkward heart on its sleeve. The characters leap off the page immediately becoming old friends and the relationships are just adorable, never feeling forced or unrealistic. While the story is of secondary importance it still delivers plenty of excitement, a bit of horror and some gloriously unsettling bunny rabbits. I ADORE these books.

Natalie Haynes – Pandora’s Jar
This book takes a dozen or so female characters from Greek mythology and shows how the telling of their stories has changed over time, not so much giving new perspectives on them, but sometimes just re-promoting older versions. Haynes focuses on the ancient sources themselves for the most part, but also covers the rest of history – art, theatre, opera and modern media too. Each story is fascinating and shows how rich the myths were in the first place, and how the telling of stories is linked so strongly to the beliefs and fashions of the period of the teller, not the period of the events. It’s interesting to take a chapter per character, but I do wish there was a way to also do the opposite presentation and focus a bit more on how each period of history retold all the myths, joining the two sides of the story together. The other frustration is that for a book that talks a lot about representation in art there is only one picture per chapter, so you have to read a lot of descriptions (and/or google the images in parallel). Despite these quibbles though, it’s a fascinating book that really made me think.

Eoin Colfer – High Fire
The title and cover of this book makes it look like just another generic dragon book. It’s not that book and it’s not that dragon. This dragon lives in a swamp in New Orleans where he is hiding from humanity, drinking heavily, swearing a lot, watching a lot of television and generally wallowing in a really bad mood. His mood gets considerably worse when a showdown between a trouble making kid and a local policeman/criminal overlord wannabe lands in his back yard. The book is about as far from a generic dragon novel as is possible, the book and the characters embrace the insanity of the situation without undermining either the drama or the emotions. It was both a lot of fun to read, and genuinely thrilling as it twisted and turned.

Eva St. John – The Quantum Curators and the Faberge Egg
A team of Quantum Archivists travel from an alternate timeline version of Earth where the library of Alexandria was never destroyed and they travel to various points in history on our Earth to rescue important objects before they are lost of destroyed. It’s a bit Indiana Jones but with more wibbly science and better gadgets and I really enjoyed it. We’re launched straight into everything and the plot moves quite fast, I could actually have enjoyed spending more time on the set up and just spending time with the characters and this has the potential to become a fun series.
The Quantum Curators and the Enemy Within
The second book in the series continues to move quickly but smoothly, expanding the world’s that the author has created and delving deeper this time into how the alternate Earth of the curators works. We’ve jumped forward in time a bit which works really well so that our eyes into the world has been there a little while and can act as both our guide and the audiences questioning voice. The mystery/conspiracy elements are well paced and kept me guessing throughout, but not in a frustrated way where it felt like I was being deliberately misled at all. A fun and easy to read series, I look forward to the next one.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs 5: The Long Bad Friday
I’d been really disappointed by book 4 of this series, but having got that far, I figured I might as well read the final book. It was better than the previous one, back to the main characters and the familiar locations of Birmingham, but it inevitably lost its way. The problem with the series is that what I loved was the contrast between the mundanity of civil servants/academics dealing with alien gods who are bringing about the apocalypse. It was just normal (ish) people dealing with the periphery of an extraordinary set up. But when everything starts getting bigger, the books lose their charm. Also unfortunately this book is way too long, too many weird names and gods to keep track of, too many different threads and an ending that I didn’t really understand or like. Unfortunately given the way the series ends, I’m not sure I can really recommend it.

Films in March 2021

I watched a respectable 20 films in March, although only one of them is really a new release. Normally when the Oscar nominations are out I’d be ticking as many of them off as possible, but the options are a bit limited this year, and frankly not very inspiring. Of the ones that I managed to find, by far the most impressive were two documentaries – My Octopus Teacher, and Crip Camp both of which are brilliant and on Netflix. Other than that, I’ve mostly been re-watching stuff. I gave Soul another try, but remain underwhelmed, so I re-watched Inside Out again and it was infinitely better. I also trudged through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Fellowship is 20 years old this year) which is now a bit dated in places, but still a stunning achievement, and watched Avatar again for the first time since seeing it in the cinema 12 years ago and that still holds up really well. On the other hand, Aquaman is a complete pile of rubbish.

Moxie – new release
Vivian is 16 and starting a new year at school. A new arrival points out that a lot of the activities are not just weird (pep rallies) but massively sexist – dress codes, harassment, worship of the football team, sexualised behaviour and public ‘ranking’ of the women. Vivian is suddenly absolutely furious about this and secretly prints a pamphlet. Yup, an actual paper print out. And that’s apparently enough to get girls who had previously done absolutely nothing about anything to rise up. I wanted to like this film, but I’m afraid I found it rather trite. It’s taking hugely difficult and complex issues of multiple types of discrimination and harassment, racial inequality, cultural differences and even rape and trying to mush them all into a 2 hour film with a perky soundtrack and a happy ending. It oversimplifies things to a point that is insulting rather than engaging. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but if you’re not going to handle these things properly, then just make a different film.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Crip Camp
This documentary has an incredible arc to it. Through some incredibly archive footage we start out in the 1970’s at an American summer camp for disabled kids. They talk freely about their lives and this is then combined with present day interviews with them reflecting back with an adult’s eye view. These stories alone would have been a fascinating insight into lives that have been under-represented. But the documentary keeps going, as many of the people from that camp go on to lead the disability civil rights movement of the next decades. The film is incredibly well put together, elegantly explaining the context and history of the period, while weaving in all the incredibly personal stories and emotions. The blending of archive footage and present day remembrances is flawless, I was completely gripped throughout and deeply moved.
Ranking: 9 / 10

My Octopus Teacher
This is the beautiful story of Craig Foster, a film maker who found himself disconnected from his job and his life, and then re-connected with it by forming a bond with an octopus. It’s an incredibly personal story for the film maker, and the film is at its best when it feels like he’s filming and talking just for himself as a form of therapy. At times it does break out of that though (who was filming him walking?) and then it starts to feel a little staged and artificial. But when it’s just Foster observing and becoming part of the ecosystem, and connecting with the octopus, it’s mesmerizing. I was really quite profoundly moved by this documentary.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Hillbilly Elegy
This seems like the kind of film that was clearly aiming for awards nominations, almost through a checklist – multi-generational family drama across different time periods, colourful characters battling with challenges, sweeping cinematography along with a big dollop of liberal guilt for our judgement of ‘hillbillies’. But 80% of the film overshoots the target and ends up a mess of over-writing and over-acting. It’s based on true people and events, so maybe it’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction but it felt constructed and fake. The only thing that actually rang true was the much more understated performances and relationships between the two siblings. Maybe if the film had just stuck in that time period rather than forcing flashbacks to tell a history that was quite obvious, then it would have been more successful, but this is just painful.
Ranking: 5 / 10

One Night in Miami
Films of theatre productions just don’t really seem to work very well. It doesn’t really make sense, but they always seem to feel small, claustrophobic and overly artificial. This feeling is compounded for One Night in Miami because it’s an uncomfortable blend of real people in a situation that never actually happened, which feels somehow more fake than an entirely created storyline. The performances were excellent within the context of the film, but again because of the theatre constructs felt slightly unnatural – like each character had an allotted moment for a monologue, each combination had an allotted confrontation. The final frustration for me was that I just didn’t know enough about most of the individuals, and the historical context they were in and the film didn’t really help me with that, although at least it drove me to do some wikipedia research and learn something important.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Aquaman
I really have no idea how so many people, can spend so much time and money making something so truly terrible. With the notable exception of Jason Momoa who manages to somehow deliver natural and charismatic performance, everything about this film is ill advised and dumb. The plot is an absolute disaster of names, places, quests, politics, running around and fighting people that I neither followed nor cared about in the slightest. The script is woeful – aiming for Shakespearean and ending up like bad Dr Seuss and the actors clearly have no idea what they’re even saying half the time. Maybe on the big screen it would have at least been a good visual spectacle, but on my TV there was way too much going on to get any real sense of style or spectacle. A truly awful film.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Soul
I gave Soul a second attempt. The first time I watched was on Christmas afternoon when it premiered to much hype and I wondered if that had damaged my appreciation of it. The second viewing unfortunately confirmed my disappointment. I feel Soul was trying to re-capture the astonishing achievement of Inside Out and just came across as trying too hard, missing the elegance and the lightness of touch that made Inside Out so impressive (I re-watched Inside Out immediately afterwards and there’s just no comparison). There was too much going on in Soul, too many mechanics to understand, too many clunky chunks of exposition. The film felt bitty and rushing between those bits so everything feels like it’s only shown at a very surface level and I found it a struggle to keep up and frankly I wasn’t really engaged enough to make the effort. The eventual resolution felt equally jumbled and I still don’t really understand what I was supposed to take from it.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Inside Out
What an incredible film. The writers have clearly done a huge amount of research on neuroscience and psychology, but combined that science with observation and careful thought about how people really feel and act. Then they’ve turned all that into a beautiful looking film with wonderful characters, compelling plot and plenty of laughs that will appeal to people of all ages.
The film somehow manages to explain the complexity that exists in people’s heads elegantly and through the story and natural character conversations, it never felt like there were big moments of exposition needed, it all just flowed organically. The simplicity of the presentation and the progression towards the overall messages of understanding the contributions of different emotions are incredibly powerful. I’m tearing up just thinking about it, and I was pretty close to a blubbery mess in the film itself. I’ve watched this film multiple times and I find new things every time while watching and it keeps coming back to me; when I talk to people about it they keep pointing out additional levels and interpretations. It really is an incredible achievement.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Avatar
When I first saw this film I was surprised and thrilled to find that Avatar actually lived up to its budget, hype, and box office take. Over a decade later, I was equally surprised to find it was still very satisfying even on the small screen. Avatar is not only a stunning use of technology, but has a gripping story, well developed mythologies and technologies, charismatic characters and a genuinely entertaining plot. The depth of detail in the world is astonishing and completely immerses you in the world.
The plot is a bit predictable, there’s a palpable sense of doom across the whole thing followed by some rousing speeches and underdogs fighting back. But the range of emotions are evoked without feeling too manipulative. It’s maybe a bit long as I really do think two and a half hours should be the limit for a film, but I split it across two viewings at home and I was never bored.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Lord of the Rings Trilogy
According to my tracker, I’ve watched each of these films at least 6 times in the first decade after their release, but it was then a whole decade gap before I watched it again. They’re still great films but there are bits that are now started to look a bit scruffy (the green screen in particular), and feel a little bit cheesy and plodding at times. But there’s still plenty to look at to keep the interest, and while the effects may suffer, the production design and craftsmanship is still breathtaking. The Two Towers is definitely the best of the three with a good mix of comedy, so much action, drama, prettiness, romance – nothing is missing, it’s well mixed and it’s all done beautifully. Unfortunately the trilogy slightly stumbles at the last film, although it’s still better than 90% of the films out there. There’s too many threads going on and they feel too disconnected and none of them really satisfying enough to anchor the film. Plus some of them are down-right odd (ghosts… why did Tolkien thing ghosts were a good idea?). But the trilogy as a whole is still a monumental achievement.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
I’ve got no idea about Pokemon, but this film quite slickly delivers the basics for newbies. I wouldn’t say I understood everything completely, but it was a kind of happy lack of understanding as it all just bubbled over me. The universe of the film feels utterly credible even if it is bonkers, it all seems to have just about enough internal consistency to let you go with it. The plot is well paced and even if elements are predictable, and twists are telegraphed it manages to put enough spin on old tropes to get the job done. But if all that sounds a bit underwhelming, the most important thing is that it’s really fun. I laughed loads and was charmed even more; Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds both have such a natural delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed into going with whatever they say. It’s also visually stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city) that it stands up to repeated viewings well.
Ranking: 8 / 10

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson movies have an unmistakable style to them, sort of other-worldly, with a bit of child like wonder about them combined with a black humour and a sort of sing-song style to them that can sometimes become cloying and tiresome. Grand Budapest Hotel however continually snaps you out of that style with an abruptness to the dialogue that continued to surprise me all the way through. Who knew Ralph Fiennes was such a great comedian? This is the sort of film that almost defies review and description, you’ve just got to see it and you’ll either love it like I did, or be utterly unmoved. Take your chances.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Antz
This is one of the early computer generated films (2 years after Toy Story) but it’s not by Pixar and it unfortunately shows. The animators have done some good tricks to cover the limitations, but there are some locations, action sequences and character details that look rather uncanny. The second problem is that the voice cast is too recognisable and so I never felt like I was listening to a true character, but always Woody Allen, Gene Hackman and Sylvester Stallone pretending to be an ant. It’s a shame because the story is quite well done and there’s some good ideas in there.
Ranking: 6 / 10

La La Land
It actually got off to a good start, I really liked the opening musical number – proper traditional musical stuff with everyone bursting into a coordinated song and dance number. I liked the old style combined with the modern setting of a traffic jam and some modern dance (parkour and skateboards and the like). Then we meet our ‘heroes’ and my hackles immediately go up because I didn’t particularly sympathise with either of them. He’s a sanctimonious jazz fanatic who’s more interested in telling people why they’re wrong then he is in paying the bills. She was sort of better as the wannabe actress reaching the end of her patience with awful auditions.. until the writers decided to take a break from reality and give her a shiny new prius and beautiful apartment.
The rest of the film swung wildly between two distinct tones and I’m not sure either held up. The old-school fantasy musical/screwball romance, would have made a nice change from the usual Hollywood stuff, but the two leads were no Debbie Reynolds or Gene Kelly, their singing and dancing was acceptable but far from outstanding. The more gritty reality of their relationship was more within their talents but felt disjointed. To add insult to injury, as per usual it was too long, and the fantasy ending tacked on felt like a cop out from the writers who still couldn’t make their mind up whether it should be fantasy or reality.
I know a lot of people have really loved this film, but I just don’t see it. I *wanted* to love it, because heaven knows some escapism is much needed, but I just didn’t think it was very good.
Ranking: 5 / 10

The Breakfast Club
I re-watched this film for the first time in years thinking that I would have to approach it more as a period piece, trying to overlook the “of its time” attitudes. But I was really pleasantly surprised to find that other than the fashions and the technology the film was just as relevant today as it was in the 80;s. The American High School is still a pretty foreign concept for non-American’s, and the characters are dialed up, but the core emotions and issues the teenagers are dealing with are pretty universal. Playing out in a single day, with very limited number of sets and small ensemble cast gives real energy to film and I really enjoyed it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Sixteen Candles
This is a lovely eighties teenager film. It’s got great characters, a good mixture of comedy and heart, with a little bit of bite to it, and is filled with the fashions and music that we expect from the eighties. Of course it’s also now filled with some quite uncomfortable aspects that we also now expect when we look back at pop culture from decades back with some incredibly inappropriate behavior that I struggled to dismiss as “of its time” and unfortunately pushes this film away from the fun and charming entertainment that I would have classed it as if I’d watched it 20 years ago.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Stargate
I’ve been reviewing all the films I watched since 2002 and Stargate wasn’t on the list, so apparently I’ve not re-watched it in at least 19 years. In the meantime though I have watched over 350 episodes of various Stargate television franchises so the movie felt very familiar. The amount of media that’s expanded out of this one film is incredible, particularly given that it’s not actually very good! The plot doesn’t hang together at all, there are huge holes in the science, the history, and just the general common sense of how plots fit together. Kurt Russel lacks any of the charm, strength or humour that Richard Dean Anderson would bring to the character on TV. Thankfully James Spader is working a bit harder, all be it with a terrible script and the stunning score by David Arnold does a lot of the heavy listing too. I’d skip the film and just watch the TV series, although that is a substantially bigger time commitment.
Ranking: 6 / 10

All Is True
The history of the last few years of Shakespeare’s life, and actually his family and background, wasn’t one I really knew. This film tells it like a Shakespeare play, and like I do with most Shakespeare plays I found it an interesting story that I would probably have understood better reading a wikipedia page. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the film, it’s well written and acted, but I found it hard to engage with and get lost in. Even the amazing cinematography while beautiful, felt forced and unnatural, everything framed for effect rather than reality.
Ranking: 6 / 10

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Films in February 2021

Not a great month for my film watching. I’m finding it increasingly hard to find things that I want to watch, for the most part I’m avoiding anything too serious, at the end of each day I just don’t have the energy to be thinking or feeling too much and most nights I’m drifting more towards easy going television.

News of the World
I adore Tom Hanks, and he’s on good form here playing to his strengths as the fundamentally nice guy trying to do the right thing. This particular iteration sees him taking responsibility for an orphaned girl just after the American Civil War, trying to get her to her family. It’s beautifully shot, well acted, solidly put together… and I was bored. I really can’t put my finger on what didn’t work for me, it just didn’t. Maybe if I’d been watching in a cinema I would have been more appreciative of it and less easily distracted.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Saint Frances
Bridget is in her mid thirties, all her friends are getting married, having babies while she is a waitress and has just had an abortion. Despite seemingly having zero experience with children, she gets a job as a nanny to a precocious 6 year old (Frances). This is the kind of noodling, introspective film that I would tend to find quite irritating, but I really enjoyed this one. There’s not much subtlety to the film, the characters talk like real people who have no idea what they’re doing or feeling, and as they each figure it out a little bit the audience is just along for the ride. It felt very natural, nothing was a simple black and white problem, there were no particularly big revelations, it was just human beings slowly growing. I loved it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Sylvie’s Love
This is in many ways a very simple film, it’s just a love story. It’s set in the 1950’s and 1960’s, so there’s a bit of history thrown in, but the emphasis beyond all else is just on the two characters and their relationship. It’s not smooth sailing for them, and they occasionally do things that might have the audience sighing in frustration, but all the twists and turns, and ups and downs feel perfectly natural. It’s just a lovely film to watch.
Ranking: 8 / 10

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin is at his best with this film. He’s got a combination of politics and court room drama, a large cast of characters, a talented acting ensemble and masses of dialogue. After the first 10 minutes I was a bit lost with so many people and my lack of knowledge about the American politics and civil rights movements around the Vietnam War. But Sorkin trusts his audience to stick with it and I trusted in Sorkin and before I realised it was happening, it did all come together in my brain. I did feel that the Judge was maybe written too much as a pantomime villain, but reading into it a bit, while Sorkin has played a little casual with the truth of events, the Judge may actually have been even more horrific then here presented. I’m not 100% sold on the way the flashbacks were handled and almost wish the film had found a way to do without them as getting in and out of them was just a bit clunky. But as is usual with Sorkin at his best, it has heart, humour and passion and I heartily recommend it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Moana
This is now one of my go-to happy movies, even though the bit with the grandma makes me cry like a baby every time, the rest of it just makes me smile and feel better. Moana’s focus on a very different culture is respectful of traditions without compromising on incredibly strong female characters. Like Frozen there are complexities in who the ‘baddie’ is which adds a lot of depth to the story. The animation is beautiful, and the voice acting is superb, completely integrated with the animation, never feeling like celebrities putting on voices and disjointed. The songs are catchy, and actually grow on me every time I hear them.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Indiana Jones trilogy – I dusted off the box set of dvds for some nice adventure and easy distraction and was… disappointed.

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark – It all seems rather contrived and dated now, and the special effects look really rubbish. If you switch your brain off and just watch it there’s still good fun. No one can delivery the flat one-liner quite like Harrison Ford can, and you’ve gotta love the hat! And the music! But not so much the plot. Ranking: 6 / 10
  • Temple of Doom – The special effects, particularly the blue screening, really do look quite dreadul now, Short Round is moderately endearing, but Willy is quite spectacularly irritating. Gains points for having elephants in it. Ranking: 6 / 10
  • Last Crusade – This film is played more for laughs than previous ones and it makes it easier to like, but oh dear there are some real clangers now in terms of the female lead and the relationships which really made me cringe. The extra 5 years on the previous film has made the special effects slightly less un-special compared to the others and there’s still the hat and the music to rely on.
  • The Chaperone
    It took me two attempts to get through this film, and while the second half was slightly better than the first half that’s not saying much. The script is clunky beyond belief, the acting a bit bland and occasionally rubbish (particularly Elizabeth McGovern as the eponymous chaperone) and the direction flat – I shouted at the screen when there was a soft focus fade into a flashback. Despite some interesting source material from the real life of film star Louise Brooks the film smoothed everything out and shied away prudishly from any real drama until it was just a disappointing bland nothingness.
    Ranking: 4 / 10

    Books in Jan and Feb 2021

    As I only read two books in January, I decided to save this post until February when I would make sure I read a bit more.

    Bone Season – Samantha Shannon
    I’d loved Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree so thought I’d delve into her back catalogue a bit, but in ‘good news/bad news’ she has clearly grown as a writer over the last few years, because this book isn’t very good. There’s a solid idea – the spirit world and people with clairvoyance are real but criminalised by the authoritarian government, but there’s more behind it than simple fear and there’s actually a complex conspiracy being hidden from the public. So far so good, but the story is told from the point of view of a 19 year old caught up in all this and she is deeply annoying. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or poor writing, but she’s very inconsistent in her thoughts and actions, very short sighted and not really engaging with the bigger issues. There’s a bit of jumping about with memories/dreams and a few lurches in the timeline when the plot moves forwards but the characters’ emotions don’t. The book is at least 100 pages too long and I found it really dragged. It’s a seven book series, but I don’t think I’ll even be bothering with the second.

    Peter Swanson – Rules for a Perfect Murder
    The central character of this book is a murder expert – he runs a crime bookshop, and he compiles a list of the perfect murders in crime fiction… which someone then seems to be using as a guide in the real world. It’s a really really good set up for a novel (or in fact a TV series with an odd couple of a detective and a book seller, I’m surprised no one has made that yet, Amazon would make a killing on tie-in book sales). Peter Swanson certainly knows his crime fiction and knows how to write a twisting and turning thriller. The things I didn’t like about it were personal preferences – the main character is quickly revealed to be not as innocent as he first appeared and I didn’t really like that, I wasn’t expecting there to be that much moral angst in the book and I felt a bit side-swiped by it. It’s a good book though, (maybe the ending is a bit contrived? A bit smug?) that’s a great page turner even if on occasions I didn’t want to go back to it because I didn’t want the internal conflict of trying to justify the actions of the narrator just because I liked him.

    Madeline Miller – Circe
    I’m reading a lot of classical history at the moment, non-fiction books that are re-evaluating how historians approach history and how much our view of myths and ancient histories have been tainted by being written and re-written by historians bringing their own baggage to the past, most notably their white, male baggage. This book stuck with that theme, but through fiction instead of non-fiction and it paints a much richer picture of a character that featured in multiple myths. Here Circe is made the hero of her own story, or sometimes the villain, or the victim. Miller creates an incredibly rich character, and in turn the surrounding characters become richer through her eyes too, bringing real human complexity where previously there’d only been basic characteristics necessary to get the messages and morals of the myths across. The book does occasionally drag a bit, although the slight meandering does fit the classical style of an epic and Circe’s story does at least deserves the page count.

    NON-FICTION
    Randall Munroe – What If?
    Randall Munroe is a genius. Not only is he clearly incredibly smart, but he’s very curious and has a way with words and images that turns even the most complicated of ideas into something informative, entertaining and inspiring. In What If he takes the most weird and wonderful questions that the internet can throw at him and thoroughly researches them as if they’re completely viable academic questions, and not totally improbable craziness. Then he takes his comprehensive research and turns it into something understandable (usually) and funny (always) and (sometimes) really rather sweet. This book is an absolute delight, and while some of the explanations did rather get away from me, I learnt a lot of amazing stuff and laughed a lot along the way.

    Humble Pi – Matt Parker
    A book about maths errors – how ‘boring’ maths can have really quite serious impacts on the real world. I find I have rather muddled feelings on this book. On one hand it’s a fairly easy read, but part of that is because the chunks that go into the maths go so far that I found myself glazing over and just skimming it quickly rather than really understanding it because it was just a bit too hard (and I studied maths a bit at university). Also it’s got a jokey tone throughout which is really nice, but some of the examples used are really serious causing suffering and death. I did enjoy the book, and I did learn some stuff, it’s just that it felt a bit odd at times.

    Films in January 2021

    Not a massively long list. Usually January is full of cinema trips to see as many award contenders as possible, but that’s really not happening this year.

    The Dig
    I want to describe this film as “gentle”. It’s the true story of the discovery and excavation of an Anglo-Saxon boat and treasures, the two main characters are the landowner (a young widow) and the self-taught archeologist. The story is hardly white-knuckle stuff and it’s accompanied by some very soft direction and score that makes it all feel very pastel. But there’s also some real grit to it, the events take place just as World War 2 is starting, there’s a lot of death sprinkled through the past and present, and the natures of the discoveries have their own excitement and drama. It’s a lovely film to sink into, not really seeming to try very hard, but having more to it than you might expect.

    White Tiger
    A rags to riches story of Balram Halwai and his journey from a very poor village, to becoming a driver for a rich family, to his dream of being an entrepreneur. It is introduced and narrated by the successful Balram, so that’s not a spoiler, but the way his journey goes there are plenty of unexpected events along the way that had me really quite tense. It’s been described as a black comedy, and while it does have some humour in it, the nature of the story is quite dark and it’s much more a drama than a comedy, but the humour is well judged to make the film still enjoyable rather than too much of a slog. I’m not sure how genuine the type of story is, I can believe it’s grounded in reality, but that’s also rather depressing. It’s an entertaining film, but that doesn’t stop it being very pointed in places.

    Galaxy Quest
    A cute idea – years after a sci fi series was cancelled, it’s fans still obsess over it and the cast can’t/won’t move on – attending conventions and signings. That in itself would be pretty interesting, but a naive bunch of aliens turn up thinking the television signals they received was history and seeking the help of the crew. I remember watching it at college and feeling slightly offended by it, thinking they were making fun of science fiction fans, but rewatching it now I can see it’s actually quite lovingly done. The geeks are mocked, but they turn out to be the heroes and celebrated for it. It’s rather cheesy in places and the effects are a bit shonky (although that’s possibly deliberate) but it’s got a solid heart.

    Never Surrender
    If you don’t already love Galaxy Quest, this documentary will make you love it. I enjoyed Galaxy Quest and thought it had some nice ideas, but when I watched this documentary a couple of days later I started looking at it with much more love. The documentary covers all angles – the context that the film came into, the ideas, the making of, the reception and then the long life of the film. It’s got pretty much all the key players in front of and behind the camera as well as science fiction royalty like Wil Wheaton talking about the cultural importance. The film was clearly made with love, this documentary was made with even more love and the combination is geek heaven.

    Vanity Fair
    Reese Weatherspoon excels as the incredibly complicated Becky Sharp at the heart of Vanity Fair, she would be a complicated character at any time, but in the early 1800’s her ambition is particularly hard to reconcile with what should have been ‘normal’ for a woman of her ‘place’. It’s a bit of a shame the supporting cast isn’t quite as excellent, a couple of hams and a few damp squibbs that make it hard to engage with the wider landscape and makes the film drag a bit in places. But it’s a wonderful story, beautifully produced with wonderfully rich locations and costumes, and Weatherspoon’s performance makes it worth a watch.

    Hotel Artemis
    The eponymous hotel is really more of a hospital, just a very exclusive one for a club of criminals. The film takes place in just one night, and almost entirely within the hotel while a riot rages outside. Those constraints build tension through the film, we’re just getting a tiny snapshot into a world that we don’t know about (it’s set in 2028), and a group of characters that have some connections and some agendas that may or may not align. Jodie Foster is wonderful as the Nurse who runs the hotel and is either having “just another Wednesday” but has a huge amount of backstory. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was really engrossed and quite impressed.

    The Devil Wears Prada
    I’ve got two sets of feelings about this film. The characters made me so mad that I wanted to stop watching. They were all rude, disrespectful and completely selfish, and the lack of human decency from ALL of them made me want to scream at them. And it’s not just the ‘devils’ of the fashion magazine, but the ‘heroine’ who thinks her job is beneath her, then buys into it like it’s a game, then turns her back again. They’re all hateful and inconsistent. But… it’s also watchable with some fun sequences, Meryl Streep being wonderful as usual, and Emily Blunt having great fun being horrible.

    Mortal Engines
    Centuries in the future the humanity are all wandering the wasteland of Earth on giant cities that hunt each other for resources. What a great idea! There’s a stunning steam punk style to it and the effects are stunning, I wish I could have seen it on a cinema screen there was so much detail in the designs. Which is a good job because while there was something to look at it didn’t matter quite so much that the plot and the script weren’t as good. I think it might have been the story that was the biggest problem, lots of clunky exposition, coincidences and contrivances that didn’t really engage me. The characters are almost all either ostentatiously over-the-top or astonishingly bland and nothing really came together with any coherence. Still, at least it’s pretty!

    Skyfire
    This film is rubbish. It’s a massive, expensive big screen disaster movie, but it managed to feel small, cheap and unexciting. Nothing was quite right – the setup of the hotel on the volcanic island didn’t make sense, the group of characters weren’t charismatic enough, and the action sequences all felt a little bit flat. And there wasn’t nearly enough Jason Isaacs (Hello). It also didn’t quite feel like it got the right tone, dozens of nameless bodies littered the streets, but we were supposed to be completely focused on the small number of core characters. It just about passed muster for brainless entertainment, but it’s a shame the money wasn’t better spent.

    Films I Saw in 2020

    I watched 211 films in 2020, beating my previous record of 208 in 2016. The fact that there was really nowhere to go for most of the year, and that I had a lot more available time in the evenings thanks to working from home increased my film watching quite considerably. While there was a strong temptation to just watch safe and familiar films, I’m quite pleased that 134 (64%) of what I watched was new to me, and that’s about the same percentage as last year. However fewer new releases meant there were only 33 films from this year, 16% of the total, down from 21% last year. I went to the cinema just 12 times, and all but 2 of those were in the first two months of the year. That’s just half the number compared to last year, which was already substantially down on the previous year with 39. I really do miss cinema, even when I go by myself it’s nice to have a shared viewing experience, and watching a film on the sofa just isn’t the same escape from the real world.

    So almost every film on this list was watched from my sofa via streaming services. Netflix led the way with 71 films (34%) including a lot of the more diverse titles from documentaries and world cinema. Amazon Prime was second with 45 films (21%). I finally subscribed to Disney+ at the end of the year and powered through their back catalog with 34 films (16%) although other than occasional new releases I’ve probably exhausted their supply. I also watched 38 films (18%) on dvds, 12 films (6%) that were on normal telly and ONE film that I got bought from Sky (except I didn’t buy it as it was a free gift). I didn’t pay for any new releases through any of the (I’m sure) excellent cinema replacement sites like Curzon Home Cinema, simply because there wasn’t anything that I really wanted to pay for over the options on the services I already pay for.

    FILMS OF 2020
    I only rated one film from 2020 as 9/10 and utterly amazingly, it’s also the film that won the Academy Award for best picture – Parasite. I’m usually a bit snippy about the Oscars, but this year they were spot on, it was original but timeless; easy to watch and enjoy but challenging and thought provoking. I was completely blown away.

    Other standouts from the year are a bit more eclectic. If you’re looking for pure entertainment there’s Enola Holmes or Birds of Prey. Dating Amber and Rocks are both a bit more deep, offering powerful insights into the challenges of being a teenager, and to a certain extent the same description could be applied to Mulan the first of the Disney live action remakes that I’ve seen that’s a real step change from the original animation. If you’re after more traditional dramas I’d recommend The Midnight Sky and Uncle Frank, and if you really feel like going all in Uncut Gems is an anxiety attack in film form. For outright technical genius 1917 has to be seen to be believed. And the closest that I can come to a comedy recommendation is the harsh but hilarious, Death to 2020.

    Unfortunately, the biggest miss I have of the year was Saint Maud which a lot of critics have raved about but I found boring and uncomfortable (and not in a good way). The film that probably made me crossest was Artemis Fowl because I like the books so much, they would have made a great film, and this one completely missed the whole point. And the one that I found most disappointing was Tenet which wasn’t terrible, but was distinctly mediocre and had some very clumsy film making errors (why can’t Nolan make his dialogue audible?). Incidentally Saint Maud and Tenet were the only two cinema visits I made between lockdowns, which made the disappointment even worse.

    The rest of this post breaks the films down roughly by genre (very roughly in places) and I try to highlight the best of 2020, the best of the films I caught up on from the last couple of years, older ‘classic’ films and then some stuff that you should avoid.

    DOCUMENTARIES – 9 films (4.3% – slightly up on last year’s 3.5%)
    Best of 2020: I only watched one documentary from 2020, the rather underwhelming Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.
    Best of recent years: For Sama is an unparalleled look at the lives that are going on behind the short news coverage you might see of the conflict in Syria. It’s brutal, heartbreaking, intimate and sometimes joyous – everyone should watch this film. I’d also recommend Circus of Books an absolutely fascinating look into LGBTQ+ history by telling the story of a LA sex shop run by a terribly nice middle class Jewish couple, now in their 70’s; American Factory, an intriguing look at a culture clash between American and Chinese working practices; and Three Identical Strangers which starts out as a fun “weirder than fiction” story and develops into something even more incredible that really impacted me.
    Classic: Well, the only one I watched that was older than 2019 was Filmed in Supermarionation which is a bit middling, but if you’re a Gerry Anderson fan you’ll find it lovely.
    To be avoided: Democracia em Vertigem (Edge of Democracy) unless you want a rather jumbled and one sided view of Brazilian politics (which admittedly sounds INSANE), and I was disappointed by Diego Maradona which I found boring and failed to make me understand who Maradona really was.

    ANIMATIONS – 29 films (14% – slightly up on last year’s 12%)
    Best of 2020: slightly slim pickings. Even the best rated only got 7/10 – Pixar’s Onward and The Willoughbys, both of which were absolutely fine, but felt like they just didn’t do enough with the ideas.
    Best of recent years: Why did I not watch Spies in Disguise earlier? Will Smith as James Bond (basically) who gets turned into a pigeon. It’s HILARIOUS. A close runner up was Klaus which is a brilliant Christmas animation in the spirit of The Nightmare Before Christmas but with a style and charm all of its own. And although I found recent Pixar films Onward and Soul underwhelming, there’s always the beautiful Finding Dory.
    Classic: I enjoyed re-watcing a lot of Studio Ghibli on Netflix and Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso were the standouts. Does 2014 count as classic? If it does then The Boxtrolls is a lovely grungy alternative to Disney, and I also rewatched Disney’s animated Aladdin and it’s still great entertainment.
    To be avoided: Over the Moon was a Netflix release in 2020 and although the opening bit in China is really great, as soon as we go over the moon it turns into cliche ridden chaos that bored me. I’m not sure whether Space Jam counts as animation, but whatever it is, it’s really rubbish.

    HORROR – 21 films (10% up on last year which was 6%)
    Best of 2020: the only 2020 horror film was Saint Maud and I thought that was rubbish.
    Best of recent years: Prevenge from 2017 was incredibly acted, directed and written – all by a heavily pregnant Alice Lowe, it’s creepy, gory, unpleasant and occasionally also really funny; a masterpiece in 88 minutes. Also worth a watch are Split which I’d always written off a bit as just an acting exercise for James McAvoy playing multiple personalities, but there’s a lot more going on. Midsommar is also pretty good and it’s a nice to see a very sunny horror, but it was let down slightly by the 2.5hr runtime.
    Classic: El orfanato (The Orphanage) is a great creepy horror and The Shining is a beautiful piece of film making, although having read the book there’s a lot that was sadly lost.
    To be avoided: I really don’t know why I watched Interview with the Vampire which was actually worse than I expected with a meandering plot and catastrophically bad casting. The 2019 Hellboy is an absolute muddle that utterly fails to recapture the magic of the del Toro version and Van Helsing is just plain rubbish from start to finish.

    SF/FANTASY – 44 films (21% up on last year which was 9%)
    That’s a lot of SF/Fantasy although my definition is pretty broad and to be fair it includes 14 Star Wars films and 4 Alien films.
    Best of 2020: The Midnight Sky, it’s not the cheeriest of films at the moment and didn’t always feel like it was working, but it comes together at the end. It’s not exactly amazing, but it’s rather slim pickings from new releases and I’m afraid I really didn’t get on with Tenet.
    Best of recent years: Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi is the best of the recent Star Wars films, and thanks to new effects, a great cast, and the joy that the nostalgia brings, I’ve actually ranked it higher than most of the original trilogy. Ready Player One and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom both stand up well for entertainment value.
    Classics: Moon was released in 2009 so is now firmly the classic that I thought it would be as soon as I saw it in the cinema. A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back still stand up really well (sadly the same can not be said of Return of the Jedi or ANY of the prequels.
    To be avoided: I’m sorry, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is just rubbish. I mean it still looks beautiful, but it’s INCREDIBLY boring. Jabberwocky somehow completely missed the the Monty Python sweet spot, and Battle Beyond the Stars is an incoherent mess.

    MUSICALS – 16 films, excluding animations (7.6% up on last year’s 3.5%)
    Best of 2020: The highest rated is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga but that’s not saying much as it only got 6/10. Half of it is brilliant, perfectly capturing the charm and insanity of Eurovision, but the other half is awkward and uncomfortable. The only other 2020 musical was The Prom which was even worse.
    Best of recent years: I’m as surprised as anyone to say that it’s the 2019 live action remake of Aladdin. I was expecting to declare that no one could replace Robin Williams and there was nothing to be gained by remaking the original. But Will Smith brings a different and wonderful energy to the Genie and the writers have added more depth and complexity to the story, the only thing that let it down was actually the direction of the musicals which are really not Guy Ritchie’s strong suit.
    Classics: Into the Woods is a full on all-singing musical and it’s charming and clever. Funny Girl is a great film, with a stunning performance from Barbra Streisand but to be honest I felt it was the musical elements that pulled the film back. Oh and of course, The Muppet Christmas Carol every time.
    To be avoided: The News Boys (Newsies) felt incredibly flat, has a rubbish script, mediocre songs and Christian Bale failing to sing, dance or act like a teenager (despite actually being 18). All three Descendants films are a waste of a good idea and Pitch Perfect 3 is an incredibly sorry end to an otherwise joyous trilogy.

    COMEDY – 28 films (13%, down on last year’s 19%)
    You’d think I’d go searching for comedy as an escape from the real world, but I actually tend to avoid them as I just don’t tend to find them that funny, and a non-funny comedy is just more depressing.
    Best of 2020: Death to 2020, maybe this should have been in the documentary category, but it was the fictional characters and the comedy that really stood out. It’s impressive to take the rubbishness and deliver something with both impact and big laughs.
    Best of recent years: Two categories in a row with recommendations for Guy Ritchie films, The Gentlemen is back in more familiar territory for him with violence, intertwining stories, blokishness and a lot of swearing, and I really enjoyed it. For contrast – Book Club is all about women and has four absolute acting legends (Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen) being friends, drinking copiously and making dirty jokes, I roared with laughter. Honorable mention to Knives Out which is just as much fun on second viewing at home as it was on first viewing in the cinema.
    Classics: The film I was most pleased to see remains wonderful was Cool Runnings, 27 years young and probably the quintessential sports underdog story. Impressively still funny after 61 years is Operation Petticoat, Cary Grant at his downtrodden best. There are also a couple of relatively low key cooking movies – Chef and Julie and Julia both of which have a lot of heart and a lot of laughs, they’re both warm hugs of comfort food. Finally I’m still not entirely sure if A Cock and Bull Story was inspired or bonkers with the walk between parody with laughs and tender observation with heart.
    To be avoided: Two films were so unfunny they made me angry. The Hippopotamus was Stephen Fry dialled up the annoying pretentiousness and crudeness that even Roger Allam couldn’t rescue. The other was The Seven Year Itch which charitably may have been funny in the 50’s, but despite Marilyn Monroe’s quirky performance I found little to laugh at about marital infidelity and the treatment of Monroe as nothing more than a target. (On a similar note You’ve Got Mail really hasn’t aged well.)

    ACTION – 27 films (13% – I didn’t track this last year)
    Best of 2020: Rather wonderfully, both of my top action films from this year have female eponymous heroes! The original Mulan animation was fine but nothing special, but this year’s live action re-imagining adds a lot of richness, takes away the silliness and songs and results in a really entertaining film. Enola Holmes is a lovely spin on Sherlock Holmes, maybe it’s not really an action film, but it’s got so much spark and speed that it felt like a really satisfying roller coaster.
    Best of recent years: Slightly surprisingly I really enjoyed a Transformer’s film – Bumblebee was fun, charming, and had action sequences that I actually followed. The Meg is a wonderfully stupid film about a giant shark, it’s objectively rubbish, but hugely fun. And in another nod to Guy Ritchie (what’s going on?), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is still cool and a great reimagining, it’s a shame that it didn’t lead to a franchise.
    Classics: Speed was made in 1994 and although it’s clearly not imax screen quality, the central ideas and action sequences are still brilliant. I also watched all the Mission Impossible films and the standout was definitely 2011’s Ghost Protocol
    To be avoided: For reasons I cannot now remember I watched all the films in the The Da Vinci Code series and they are all pretty poor, but the first one really is the worst. Deep Blue Sea is also rubbish, getting everything wrong that The Meg got right.

    DRAMAS – 46 films (22%)
    This is the generic catchall category at the end, capturing intense dramas, biopics, a couple of westerns, some non-animated kids films, some murder mysteries and some utterly undefinable stuff.
    Best of 2020: Uncle Frank is a really easy to watch film that packs quite a lot of emotion, Uncut Gems is pretty much the opposite and is incredibly high intensity and a really quite uncomfortable watch.
    Best of recent years: Monos is a Columbian film that had me completely gripped from start to finish with some incredible performances by very young actors. Bombshell meanwhile has a very well known cast telling well known recent events in a way that had me cheering and swearing at the screen. Little Women came out at the very end of 2019 and I rewatched it this year in the privacy of my own home where I could laugh, cheer and sob uncontrollably all by myself and it was glorious, one of my favourite books of all time told by someone who loves it, and gets it completely. I’d also recommend the little heard of, and gloriously named Peanut Butter Falcon which is just the kin of warm hug of a film that we need at the moment.
    Classics: Educating Rita could have been incredibly trite, but the film brings such nuance and complexity to the characters and the situation that I was completely gripped (just a shame about the synthesizer music). The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an absolute defining moment in film, a perfectly crafted slow and thoughtful spy film that was unsettling throughout and satisfying in the end.
    To be avoided: Two films with 3/10! Disappearance at Clifton Hill was so badly written, badly acted and badly directed that I did something almost unheard of for me – I gave up. I did jump to the end and discovered that the ending was even worse. 1995’s Sabrina meanwhile wasn’t badly made but committed crimes against feminism that even in 1995 I don’t think were acceptable, the age gaps between characters and actors are nauseating and the single track mind of all the characters are abominable.

    Books I read in 2020

    I read a nice and tidy 50 books this year. I usually rely on my commute to get a lot of reading done, so given that I was last in the office in mid March, I’m pretty pleased with getting to that figure. After the first couple of months of working from home I set myself some better routines, and got into the habit of reading a bit over breakfast and whenever I could take a lunch break. The summer months also helped and I spent a lot of time sat in my garden with books (not much else to do). They weren’t even short books – the page count comes in at about 18,000 with an average of just over 50 pages a day. So somehow I’ve actually managed to read slightly more than last year (46 books, 41pages per day) even without having 2 hours to kill each day on the tube.

    The state of ‘all this’ has influenced the books I’ve read. I’ve deliberately sought out escapist books, avoiding anything that’s “heartfelt” or “moving”. Thrillers have to be fairly disposable, and I avoided anything apocalyptic like the plague (pardon the pun). I actually thought I’d end up re-reading books I knew would be ‘safe’, but in fact only re-read 2 books.

    I really missed bookshops and the library this year though. I just don’t enjoy browsing for books online as much as in person. I would probably have read more on kindle, but it took me a long time to replace the one that had been stolen at the end of last year, so I only read 13 books on it. Eight of those were through the Kindle Unlimited, which continues to be worth a month long subscription every now and then, but lacking enough quality stuff to make it permanently worth while.

    I seem to have read a lot more ‘new’ books than usual. Last year I only read 4 books (9%) from the same year, and a further 9 books (20%) from the previous year. But this year I’ve had 18 books (36%) from 2020 and 14 (28%) from last year, and in fact 86% of the books I read were from the 2010s.

    The 50 books were spread over 41 authors (including 2 sets of pairs writing together), and I’m pleased that 23 (59%) of them were female. Also 21 (54%) of them were new authors which I’m quite pleased with. Less impressively though only 3 of the authors were from somewhere other than UK or USA.

    Non-fiction
    Of the fifty books in total, only eight of them (16%) were non-fiction, that’s higher in number and percentage than last year (6 books, 13%) but still seems weirdly low to me as I usually try to have a non-fiction and a fiction on the go at the same time and I was sure I’d read more. Given the small sample set there’s not a huge amount of range, and looking at them now five of them have a feminist theme running through them. That wasn’t a deliberate choice, and in fact I usually gently avoid outright feminist works. But most of these books comes at the topics of discrimination and bias obliquely through history, psychology, business management or statistics.

    My favourite non-fiction book was Agrippina by Emma Southon. I studied classical history and literature to A-Level and even elements of it through a masters in History of Science and Medicine, but Emma Southon came at the subject I slightly knew from such a completely fresh point of view that it blew me away. She shows how one sided the history telling has been, how biased from a modern and male point of view. And she’s also hilarious, the writing is so natural as if she’s just chatting over the dinner table. Her second book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, isn’t quite as revelatory, but is still fascinating and entertaining.

    The other standout for the year was Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, an impeccably researched, challenging and slightly heart breaking book that shows the inherent bias and discrimination in the world of numbers. I also recommend Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed as a great book talking about diversity in an entirely practical and logical way, it’s not about the unfairness or emotional heartbreak, but the practicalities of why businesses, countries and societies do better with greater diversity of all sorts.

    The others:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a little more “woe is us” which I found annoying, but it did explain introversion clearly and openly, it would be nice if more extroverts would read it to understand the rest of us.
  • A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection by Jenni Murray – some interesting people, but each section was too short
  • Ships Of Heaven: The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville – a little muddled, a bit light and a bit forgettable
  • Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson – an overly simplistic approach that left me hating everyone (myself included)
  • New Fiction:
    I read 16 fiction books published this year, including seven hardbacks which is probably a record for me. Most of them were from authors that I’ve read before, and indeed all three of the new reads which I rated outstanding this year were new works from two of my very favourite authors. I not only pre-ordered A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik in hardback, but cleared my weekend to read it immediately and was not disappointed. It’s a really fun read but also has an incredible depth to it, playing with classic tropes and turning them on their head. T Kingfisher somehow managed to produce two absolutely wonderful books that had me utterly charmed from start to finish – Paladin’s Grace and the amazingly named A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Minor Mage from last year was also very good).

    Other favoured authors who didn’t disappoint me with their 2020 publications were Ben Aaronovitch with a slightly more standalone Rivers of London book (False Value), Philip Gwynne Jones with another satisfying crime novel Venetian Gothic and Robert Galbraith’s fifth Cormoron Strike novel Troubled Blood, which is still entertaining, but is too long and therefore just not as good as the previous novels in the series (I reread Lethal White and it’s still outstanding). Richard Osman is a new author, but one of my favourite people, so it’s relieving to be able to say that his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club is a lot of fun, and an absolute hit on the sales charts.

    Sadly however I was let down by some authors I’d been eagerly awaiting new books from, weirdly while Kingfisher and Novik can pump out exceptional books every year, some of the authors I’d been waiting longest for were the most disappointing. Ernest Cline (Ready Player 1) and Erin Morgenstern (Night Circus) have both had a lot of years to work, but both Ready Player 2 and
    The Starless Sea were underwhelming and at times annoying. Susanna Clarke finally wrote another novel after Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and although Piranesi wasn’t bad, it was still rather underwhelming.

    Older books:
    None of the older books I described as ‘outstanding’. If I was forced to chose, the standout would probably be The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. At nearly 1000 pages long this is the kind of commitment that I normally avoid, but at least this is a standalone fantasy book rather than the traditional trilogy, so it’s probably shorter than most and it’s a really satisfying page turner that I found flying by and was grateful that I’d bought it online without noticing the thickness.

    Other recommendations:

  • Early Riser by Jasper Fforde, a long awaited return to old form for Fforde
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – as historical dramas go, it’s a bit fluffy and everything turns out very well in the end, so if you’re looking for gritty it’s not going to be satisfying, but I wasn’t looking for gritty so it worked fine.
  • A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die by Mark Hayden – a solidly put together crime thriller that completely works (while the author’s King’s Watch urban fantasy series is a little more hit and miss – Eight Kings was pretty good, but The Seventh Star was a bit annoying).
  • The Woods by Harlan Coben – an absolute page turner, apparently it’s now a Polish drama on Netflix!
  • Oddjobs 3: You Only Live Once by Heide Goody and Iain Grant, another entertaining entry in the series. Sadly the next book, Out of Hours, took a swerve towards the rubbish with a poor decision to change the settings which meant the humour completely disappeared.
  • Books to avoid
    The worst book I read this year is A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson which is slightly tricky, because it’s certainly not badly written it’s just unpleasant. It spends the whole time focussing on the small sadnesses and disappointments of life and stepping quickly past any joy. And then the ending of it is so brutal and MEAN that it made me absolutely furious and wishing I had never ever opened the book.

    In comparison the other books I’d advise avoiding are just not very good and not really worth the time when there are other much better things out there. Neil Gaiman wasted his talent doing a re-telling of Norse Mythology but rather than using his creativity to make it interesting, he just told it absolutely flat as if he were doing an intellectual exercise in merging other people’s versions and wikipedia pages, he should have taken some creative liberties and actually made a proper novel.
    Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh has a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace and diverse characters, but the details of it are utterly ridiculous and I couldn’t suspend disbelief. Pine by Francine Toon was billed as a chilling thriller and it was stunningly boring. I gave Hilary Matnel another try with the blissfully short The Giant, O’Brien which was hard to read and lacking in a decent story, so I won’t be giving her a third chance no matter how many prizes she wins.

    Continue reading “Books I read in 2020”

    Films in December 2020

    A very busy month where I watched 43 films! I was supposed to be going on holiday to Chicago at the beginning of the month but instead I stayed home and subscribed to Disney+. I watched all 12 Star Wars films over a few days and reviewed them separately and also caught up on the various remakes that Disney have been churning out. Then over Christmas holiday I’ve been catching up on some recent releases on digital platforms, I’m really missing the cinema trips of this time of year for either re-releases of Christmas classics, the big blockbusters, or the start of the award bait films. Fingers crossed we’ll be back to cinemas in 2021.

    NEW RELEASES
    The Midnight Sky (Netflix new release) – There were a lot of moments in this film that I wanted to switch it off, not because it was bad but because of the opposite. The situations it presents are ones that I don’t want to think about, the choices the characters have to make are ones that I don’t want to consider, and because the film is so well made and incredibly well acted, you really can’t hide away from them. I didn’t quite get the different elements as the film was playing out. There are two storylines and they play out pretty independently for the most part, and the flashbacks for one of the threads felt unnecessary (particularly with the oddness of younger actors playing George Clooney, but dubbed with his voice). However they did come together beautifully at the end in a way and there was a payoff that I really didn’t see coming, although that doesn’t really overcome the mild irritation that’s already been experienced. 8 / 10

    Rocks (Netflix new release) – This film is told exclusively from the point of view of a teenager, which is a really dangerous thing to do. Done well (which this film really is) makes the experience uncomfortable – it’s absolutely no fun being a teenager and having limited control over your life, but at the same time having enough power to make bad choices that are just embarrassing to watch as an adult. This film is a hard watch because it’s done so incredibly well, your empathy is pulling you in multiple directions as you know that the central character (and her friends) should make different choices, but you absolutely understand why she goes the way she does. The writing and direction are very light of touch, it feels incredibly organic, not like it came from a written page or a production team, but as if it’s just happening. I was really moved and impressed by this film. 8 / 10

    Uncle Frank (Amazon new release) – Set in the 70’s the eponymous uncle is a New York lecturer who stands apart from the rest of his South Carolina family. When his niece starts attending the same university, and then they have to travel home for a family funeral his true life gets revealed. This film could very easily have been trite and even comedic, but the film is written and directed by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) who makes the film straightforward and light with plenty of laughs, a simple plot and large characters. But there’s also a lot of heart, depth and impact. Paul Bettany perfectly delivers that range, there’s always something more going on within him than what is on the screen. The only downside is a truly terrible mustache. 8 / 10

    Death to 2020 (Netflix new release) – I went into this very nervously, 2020 has been depressing enough, did I really need to watch a retrospective? But Charlie Brooker and his producing partner Annabel Jones have set a high standard over the years with both Black Mirror and the ‘wipe’ documentary/review series so I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches and you’re not going to come out of it feeling any better about the miserable year that we’ve all suffered through. However it plays to the fine tradition of satire and comedy through the centuries which is if you can’t beat it, laugh at it. And I laughed a lot. the blend of documentary archive footage, biting narration and spoof talking heads are mixed perfectly to highlight the insanity and the horror that this year has been. My only criticisms of it would be around the weight given to the different stories and maybe a bit of confusion about whether it’s playing to an American or a British audience. Please god don’t let us need another one of these next year. 8 / 10

    Mulan (Disney+, newish release) – What a shame that this didn’t get the big screen release that it was supposed to have, because this is definitely one of the rare hits in the Disney live action remake series. The film builds from the animated version modifying the plot, adding richness, and adjusting characters. On one hand the film is played straight – there are no animal sidekicks and no songs, but there is a magical element introduced for the power some characters have to move and fight. That took me a little bit of getting used to, it didn’t quite feel like that magic blended with the historical details that are beautifully done. Yifei Liu as Mulan is absolutely stunning, she plays the early comedy just as well as she does the heartbreaking drama and I was completely with her at every moment of the film. As I say, it’s a shame this film may fall under the radar of many, as it’s a real standout for me. 8 / 10

    Soul (Disney+ new release) – Maybe I was expecting too much, maybe the pressure of a Christmas afternoon premier was too built up, but I was really disappointed with this film. I feel Soul was trying to re-capture the astonishing achievement of Inside Out and just came across as trying too hard, missing the elegance and the lightness of touch that made Inside Out so impressive. There was too much going on in Soul, too many mechanics to understand, too much clunky chunks of exposition. The film felt bitty and rushing between those bits so everything feels like it’s only shown at a very surface level and I found it a struggle to keep up and frankly I wasn’t really engaged enough to make the effort. The eventual resolution felt equally jumbled and I don’t really understand what I was supposed to take from it. I suspect I’m being a bit harsh on it, and maybe on future watches I’ll get it a bit more, but on a first watch, it was a disappointment. 6 / 10

    Mank (Netflix new release) – I suspect a lot of people will heap praise and award nomiations on this film, because, partially because there’s nothing Hollywood likes more than self-referential films, and a bit of black and white. I’m not going to heap praise on Mank except to say that Gary Oldman is going to get a very well deserved Oscar nomination for this, and Amanda Seyfried deserves a supporting actress nomination too. Their performances were interesting and their characters well written, but the film as a whole was baggy, confusing, and ultimately boring. I see what David Fincher was trying to do – recreate the style and structure of Citizen Kane in order to tell the story of the writing of Citizen Kane, but I found it distancing and harder to keep track of the characters, settings and time frames with the jumping plot. Most critically, the film was at least 1/2 hour too long. 6 / 10

    Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix new release) – This film comes from the same playwright and the same film production team as Fences did, and I felt largely the same way about this as I did that film. Both have a problem that they fundamentally feel “stagey” – minimal settings (just two rooms for most of this film), incredibly long scenes and very large performances. It lacks fluidity, there’s no sense of movement or spontaneity in any of it, just a series of long conversations and monologues that always feel like the characters are playing to an audience rather than just existing. I did find Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom slightly more engaging than Fences, I think maybe the music added some richness that was missing in Fences and a wider supporting cast added additional points of view as well, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it unfortunately. It’s an interesting part of history, and Ma Rainey seems like a fascinating woman, and I’d rather just watch a story about her that’s actually written as a proper film. 6 / 10

    The Prom (Netflix new release) – I wanted to let myself go and just enjoy this, but for some reason I just couldn’t. Despite the big star cast it just felt a little low budget and amateury, maybe because intrinsically it’s hard to turn broadway musicals into films that feel natural. Characters are played as one-note stereotypes until they eventually get their turn to have a song and spontaneously gain depth and backstory, but by then it just feels awkward. There was just something that set my teeth on edge, like people trying too hard to poke fun at themselves, but without any real sincerity; the knowing lyrics to the songs didn’t sound self deprecating they just sounded a bit smug. I’m not sure why I’ve taken so against this film, but I really didn’t get on with it. 5 / 10

    OLDER FILMS

    Spies in Disguise (Disney+, new for me) – Will Smith is a James Bond-esqua super spy and he gets turned into a pigeon. I mean, come on who’s not already sold on that? And the excellent news is that it thoroughly delivers to that concept. The script is sharp, the voice talent is really great (Will Smith completely nailing the dry wit, and Tom Holland is adorable), the animation style is vibrant and full of visual gags. This film is an absolute joy and I can see myself coming back to it over and over. 9 / 10

    The Muppet Christmas Carol (umpteenth rewatch of a dvd) – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at Christmas in 2018, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried. 9 / 10

    Queen of Katwe (Disney+, new for me) – This is one of those “based on real events” stories that are absolutely made for film, an incredible under-dog story that celebrates talent, passion, and those that seek to provide opportunities. However it doesn’t shy away from the struggle, the brutal reality of existence in a Ugandan slum where a natural talent just cannot magically make those realities change. It’s not the talent that changes her life, it’s the commitment of people around her to give her a chance, that’s why this is a Disney family film that left me with tears of joy. It’s the kind of film that probably wouldn’t have worked if it was just written, the audience would roll their eyes at the improbability of it all, but because it’s true it’s a hit, and it’s important. 8 / 10

    Sing (rewatch of a dvd) – When I first reviewed this I said I didn’t think it was going to be a “classic for all time”, but I’ve since found myself reaching for it when I need a thoroughly feel good bit of entertainment. Although it’s a star-studded cast, no one felt like stunt casting, they were all playing the characters so well that I didn’t even notice who the voices were. It’s bright and colourful, packed with great songs and just plain fun from start to finish, leaving you with feet tapping and face grinning. 8 / 10

    The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Disney+, new for me) – A solid, but maybe slightly forgettable Christmas movie. It takes the core of the Nutcracker ballet and adds some classic Christmas/Disney tropes of a dead mother, a ‘misfit’ heroine and a quest for a magical item and some personal development. The design is stunning throughout with the different realms (including the ‘real’ world created in beautifully rich detail. Mackenzie Foy is excellent in the lead, capturing the tipping point of a teenager’s childlike delight and having to deal with grown up issues. Stealing the show is Kiera Knightly as Sugar Plum, to explain why she is so great would be a spoiler, but it’s worth watching this film for her performance alone, and I wish there was maybe a little more of that spark scattered through the film to just raise it up a little bit. 7 / 10

    Onward (Disney+, rewatch) – The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
    The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film in the cinema, but when rewatching on tv at home I was really not gripped. 7 / 10

    The Nightmare Before Christmas (rewatch of a dvd) – A wonderfully quirky christmas film, that actually manages to be christmassy without being overly sappy. It is everything that you’d expect a Tim Burton film to be (although he didn’t actually direct it) – weird, dark, bizarre, creepy yet kinda endearing. The songs are a bit mixed, some a bit ropey and forced but others are absolute classics. It’s such a visual feast, incredible amounts to look at in every frame all done with a quirky and wonderful blend of Halloween and Christmas that it works perfectly. An absolute Christmas classic. 7 / 10

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (rewatch on dvd) – The name Fred Rogers won’t mean much to UK audiences, but to Americans he’s an absolute institution that many of them will have watched on tv as young children. For me, I may not have that sort of connection to the subject of the film, but I do have the same fondness for Tom Hanks who is playing him, so I was really looking forward to this film. Then the film throws in Matthew Rhys who I’ve loved since Brothers and Sisters and recently excelled in The Americans. The film itself is a bit odd, Mr Rogers is a slightly other-worldly character, and that’s played up with some surreal sections and even breaking the fourth wall. But it’s offset by Rhys’ character who is based firmly in an unforgiving reality. Both leads are excellent and somehow manage to connect the different tones elegantly. It did miss a few opportunities to delve deeper into understanding Mr Rogers the person vs Mr Rogers the character, but I went in wanting something engaging and comforting and it completely delivered. 7 / 10

    The Death of Stalin (rewatch on TV) – An odd film. Armando Iannucci is a superb comedy writer and this is certainly a laugh out loud funny. The hilarity of some creative swearing, 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 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. 7 / 10

    Lion King (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – To quote the great Ian Malcolm Disney were “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Yes, they absolutely can create photo-realistic animals and landscapes that are STUNNINGLY beautiful, there’s barely a shot in the film that couldn’t be framed on a wall and the movement of the animals is flawless. You can tell what the characters are thinking and feeling without them saying a word. But the problem is that the characters talk and sing and it’s completely jarring and uncomfortable. Photo-realistic lions don’t talk, they don’t sing and they don’t dance and as soon as you try to make them do that it just screams out wrong. The story is of course fine, because it was fine in the original animation and it’s just a direct lift. The voice performances are mostly solid (although I’m not entirely sure about John Oliver as Zazu or Seth Rogan as Pumbaa – neither of whom can sing). I just wish they hadn’t wasted the amazing animation on a film that it fundamentally didn’t work in. 6 / 10

    Race to Witch Mountain (Disney+, new for me) – There are few things in the world more watchable than Dwayne Johnson. This is just a fundamental truth for me. It really doesn’t matter what he’s in, he lights up the screen and makes me happy. There’s not much to say about the film beyond that to be honest, it has all the nuts and bolts and gets the job done, but without The Rock it would have been utterly forgettable and a bit dull. 6 / 10

    A Wrinkle in Time (Disney+, new for me) – I thought this had a lot going for it. At the centre are a couple of really charismatic young actors and a wonderfully bright and vibrant collection of settings. I mean the plot itself made very little sense, the script was a bit spotty in places and Oprah Winfrey was weirdly terrible, but those feel like fairly minor complaints in a kids film. Personally, I switched my brain off, opened my eyes and my heart wide and just let myself go and had a pretty good time. 6 / 10

    Dumbo (Disney+, new for me) – Thankfully this isn’t just a straight recreation of the original animated feature, a film that even nearly EIGHTY years on is still a really good watch. This film takes the main story of the animated film and moves it out of ‘talking animals’ territory, adding a whole cast of humans and focusing on their story more. That’s a very good choice, because for a start there isn’t really enough plot in the original to sustain a full length film, and for a second the photo realistic CGI just looks weird for talking animals. So the producers of this film have made some good choices, and then somehow utterly failed to add the magic. I really can’t explain why, but I was completely unmoved by the film. I had no sense of wonder, joy, sadness… nothing, no emotional engagement at all. I really have no idea how they managed that, it’s technically completely fine but I was just not interested. That’s almost magical in itself. 6 / 10

    X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Disney+, new for me) – As a franchise the X-Men series are really a bit all over the place, so much potential and scope from the comic series but the delivery just doesn’t quite seem to be able to consistently hit the spot. They all have a bit a of a problem over-egging the metaphor and message, forgetting that the films need to be fun to watch and we need to care for the characters. Dark Phoenix has a great concept at the centre of the story, but it then has too many complexities piled on top of it and the characters and relationships become bogged down and lost. Too much infighting and betrayal by the good guys left me just frustrated and disengaged. It’s a great cast that has been assembled, and yet somehow they come across as stodgy a lot of the time. I think the MCU set a very high bar for superhero films, Dark Phoenix isn’t bad, it’s just not quite good enough for these days. 6 / 10

    The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Disney+, rewatch) – Narnia looked amazing – very natural, even the unusual creatures fitted in very well, although some of the cgi/blue screening was a bit ropey. The acting was superb, the young children and voice actors doing very good jobs. The film as a whole though was too long and that just took a bit of a shine off the magic. 6 / 10

    Lady and the Tramp (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – Oh dear, talking photo-realistic animals. According to the article I just read, the film was made with a combination of real animal actors and supplementary animation so that they lip-synced with the dialogue, and it just felt weird. I was utterly charmed by the animals… until they started talking and then I was just a bit creeped out each time. It wasn’t a technical problem, the animation was flawless, but it just didn’t work in my brain. The film is also way too long, the original is 1h18m and this is 1h15m and it’s just unnecessary. Cutting the songs (which also didn’t fit in with the rest of the film) would have been a good start. 6 / 10

    Descendants Trilogy (Disney+, new for me) – This is such a fun idea – all the Disney villains have been exiled to an island, while all the Disney heroes live in fairy tale luxury. Now their kids are all teenagers and four ‘villain kids’ are invited to go to school with the ‘good kids’, but they’ve got a secret mission from the parents that will release all the villains from exile. Great concept, but sadly the reality is slightly underwhelming. There’s a lot of teen film cliches going on that the occasionally sly digs at Disney can’t quite overcome. It also all looks a little cheap (it’s definitely made for TV quality) and even the colourful and original design visuals can’t quite shine when they’re done in polystyrene. Most criminally the majority of the songs are unremarkable (with the exception of Kristin Chenoweth’s Evil Like Me in the first film) and the dance numbers feel quite laboured. Things get even cheaper and worse in the second and third films, I’ve really got no idea why I kept watching them, so I’ve only got myself to blame really. They’re not terrible, but it does feel a little like a school production, and it’s just a bit of a waste of such a good idea. 6 / 10 for the first, 5/10 for the second and third.

    Secret Society of Second Born Royals (Disney+, new for me) – This has a nice concept to it, the younger siblings of heirs to the throne have superpowers and form a secret society. Cute. This gets the full on Disney TV Movie treatment though and so cute is about as far as it gets. There’s just not really any heft to it, characters are pretty cliche, the plot is pretty predictable and there’s a lack of detail and richness that make everything feel very insubstantial and surface. The younger actors are all doing their best, but the script is pretty flat and there are no charismatic leading adults to raise any of it up. It’s fine, but absolutely nothing that you’ll remember 20 minutes after it finishes. 6 / 10

    Artemis Fowl (Disney+, new for me) – I really enjoyed reading the Artemis Fowl series, for a while they were one of my picks for reading anytime I wanted something fun but not too challenging to the brain, perfect for when you want distracting from the real world. They’re well written, but could still easily disappear in a flood of children/young adult fantasy series, but the twist is that rather than following a child hero, we instead follow a child villain, and that really elevates the series above the crowd. So it’s incredibly disappointing that the film completely missed the point. Artemis is still a genius, but without the hook that he’s a villain, the film falls flat. Holly is also lacking in the spark that she has in the book, and that combo means that the relationship between them falls completely flat. I think if you don’t know the books you could enjoy the film as a disposable kids film, but it’s a complete waste of the source material and it left me very frustrated. 5 / 10

    The News Boys (Newsies) (Disney+, new for me) – Christian Bale can do many things, but I’m afraid in 1992 when this film was made he could not lead a musical, he couldn’t sing terribly well, and weirdly despite being 18 he couldn’t seem to convincingly play a teenager. He was fighting an uphill battle with a clunky script, mostly unremarkable songs and surrounded by a cast of children struggling a bit and a few adults phoning it in. I was surprised when I read up on it that it was an original film not an adaption of a stage musical (it went the other direction) as it felt incredibly stagey. It really was a bit of a slog to get through. 5 / 10

    Books in December 2020

    Three books to polish off the year, and unfortunately they were all a bit disappointing. Check back in a couple of days for my overall review of the year.

    Francine Toon – Pine
    According to the review quote on the cover of this novel it’s “A literary gothic thriller to chill the marrow” (Guardian). It’s not. It’s utterly unthrilling. I wasn’t chilled, I was bored. It’s also described as a crime novel but given that the majority of the book is vague on whether a crime has even been committed it. It’s only the last quarter or so of the book that actually has any plot happen and it’s way too little, too late and too rushed. Another problem is that the story is told from the point of view of a young girl (10ish?), a point of view I always find tedious as they’re incredibly unreliable narrators, and a lazy writing technique as it gives an easy excuse for simplifying everything and building up the mystery because they’re not part of the conversations grown ups have that would immediately fill in the gaps. It’s clumsy and boring.

    Jenni Murray – A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection
    The good thing about a book like this is that it introduces you to (or reminds you of) a lot of different people from completely different times and places. But the bad thing is that with only about 10-15 pages per person you only get a very high level summary of where they lived and what they did. It’s a bit like reading a curated set of wikipedia pages, or a weird speed dating session. Jenni Murray is not an expert on any of the people in question, or their fields, and while she is a good journalist, I did feel that a lot of the sections were more editorial exercises summarising/combining other works than they were original writing. The best sections are those later in the book with modern subjects, many of whom Murray has met and interviewed which allowed her to add a more personal touch and something more original.

    Ernest Cline – Ready Player 2
    I loved Ready Player 1. It was a fun adventure romp that managed to capture the joyous spirit of what it meant to be a geek – getting lost in the things you love and finding a group of people to share those passions with. Ready Player 2 was a huge disappointment. In my review of the first book I said that I didn’t think it was necessarily a ‘good’ one, but it was the right one and it made me happy. It’s like Cline took the opposite direction – it makes perfect sense that having got all he wanted the lead character would turn into a bit of a dick, but just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it makes for good reading. I also got deeply bored and frustrated by the quest sections which spent way too much time in a very small number of settings that I was personally not interested in the slightest. The book eventually picked up and got some momentum, but I was really just disappointed.