Books in March

Sometimes I actually read things rather than watch them flicker before my eyes. March was actually a good month for reading, so makes a good starting point for my monthly summary of what I’ve read. (Plus I didn’t watch much TV so haven’t got much to write about on that front.)

Neil Gaiman – Sandman Vol 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
A couple of decades ago at university (oh, how it hurts to write decades) Sandman was the thing that all my friends obsessed with. It’s taken me this long to get round to finally reading it and I was left significantly underwhelmed. Nothing about it worked for me. I’m going to blame 3 factors.
1) I don’t really get on with graphic novels. I find it hard to take time to ‘read’ the pictures rather than just the words. I also didn’t really like the graphic style of this one.
2) I don’t really like it when I’m forced to join a lot of the dots together. I struggled to keep track of some of the characters given the jumping time frame and never really cared about any of them.
3) As I was reading I couldn’t help but think of how obsessive people got about the series, particularly of course the more goth end of the spectrum of my friends. That just made me feel rather grown up and dull.
I don’t think I’ll bother reading the rest of them, I certainly won’t buy them, as they’re a far more expensive cost per minute than non-graphic novels, and I don’t get the proportionate increase in enjoyment.

Agatha Christie
There’s something comforting about Agatha Christie. I’ve never read one and been disappointed, although I can’t say as I’m ever blown away by them either. It’s like settling into a comfy sofa with a good friend and a nice cup of tea – relaxing, unchallenging and just plain nice. I read two this month, both very cheap on Amazon kindle.
Mysterious Affair at Styles: has a fairly mercurial Poirot as seen through the eyes of a rather dim-witted Hastings, investigating a family full of pretty unlikeable people. Poirot’s smugness gets a little waring at times, but as Hastings feels the same way, it has a muted impact on the reader. The mystery develops very well and I found it satisfying that I was sometimes ahead, and sometimes behind of the reveals.
Cat Among the Pigeons: A slightly odd Agatha Christie, given that it’s billed as a Poirot novel but he doesn’t turn up until about 2/3 of the way through the book, giving it an odd lack of focus. I’m not sure the mystery is one of her best, and the setting at a posh girls’ school and all the usual character types is also a bit cliche (although of course it may not have been at the time). So it’s not one of her great classics, but it’s still perfectly readable.

Roger Zelazny – Amber 1: Nine Princes in Amber
It’s always interesting to finally get round to reading classics, they can feel cliche because so many have imitated them, but there was something still very fresh about Zelazny’s work. It comes from an era of SF that didn’t waste any words or pages, leaping straight into things and just getting on with them. The initial amnesia of the central character is both a useful way to introduce the audience, but also very carefully done with the gradual realisation of memories and experiences. It wasn’t something that I finished and immediately jumped on the second book, but I think there’s a good chance I’ll continue reading the series.

Genevieve Cogman – The Invisible Library
A first time author who has come up with a passable excuse for throwing together all the tropes that she wants to. You’ve got steampunk zeppelins, great detectives, magic, werewolves, dragons… pretty much anything you want. It’s quite blatant, but the glue holding them together is just about solid enough that she gets away with it. I’m not sure anything made a huge amount of sense, but things move along quickly enough it doesn’t matter. The central character is vibrant and pleasant company, although everyone around her is rather one-dimensional and clunky. A fun read and I’m not ruling out picking up some more books in the series.

London Transport Museum – London by Design: The Iconic Transport Designs that Shaped our City
This is a beautiful book, but ultimately rather unsatisfying. Visitors and curators at The London Transport museum picked their favourite pieces of design, an impressively wide sample including specific posters, architecture of stations, specific types of bus, pieces of equipment, fonts and layouts of public spaces. Each item then gets a double page spread, mostly comprising of photos with a short quote from a member of the public about why they chose it, and a very short piece from a curator explaining its importance. The problem is that I wanted to know more about most of the things, and I wanted it to be told a bit more chronologically about how each type of item (eg design of tube stock) evolved. It whetted the appetite but left you nowhere to go next.


Books I Read in 2017

Oh dear – only 22 books this year, that’s not great. A long way down on last year’s 49, but also a bit above my worst (10). I got ‘blocked’ a couple of times this year, either in the middle of a mediocre book that just didn’t inspire me to pick it up (and I’m pathologically unable to stop reading a book I’ve started) or with a lack of inspiration for what to pick up next. I need to get in a mind-set again of defaulting to reading at certain times (tubes etc) rather than just reaching for my phone, so I’m setting another page count target for the year to see if that helps.

The numbers:

  • 22 books, of which 17 were new reads. All of them were read in dead tree form except one which I read on my poor neglected Kindle, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t make it through the pile of books on my shelves to read. .
  • A little under 8.5 thousand pages, that’s about 23 pages per day on average, this year I’ll set the target at 40 pages.
  • 16 different authors (two books had two authors, and there were two authors that accounted for 10 books between them). Mostly British (74%), a few Americans (38%), one Irish and one Danish (if Sandi Toksvig counts as anything other than a British institution).
  • Dead even split between male and female which I’m quite pleased with, (I’m counting Robert Galbraith as female as it’s really JK Rowling).
  • Genres – only 3 non-fiction (14%), about half were some form of SF/Fantasy, and the rest were some sort of drama, crime, thriller type. None that I would say are ‘young adult’ this year which is odd for me.
  • All of the books are from the 21st century except two (one from 1990 and the other 1932). 9 (41%) were published this year or last.

Read of the YearThe Power – Naomi Alderman. Lots of people have raved about the important messages in this book, and it is a fascinating (and slightly terrifying read), but what struck me more was that it was incredibly enjoyable to read. Many books that are delivering strong and complex arguments lose track of the fact that the plot and characters need to be believable and interesting, but this one didn’t. The plot and characters are well thought through and developed, and the way the book jumps though time moves things along quickly, but it’s always easy to fill in the gaps of what happens in the missing time.

Runner upRobert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series – something about the TV series spoke to me, so I decided to give the books a try and I wasn’t disappointed. I think seeing the TV series first helped because the actors gave a depth to the lead characters that was possibly not entirely there in the writing. They’re not going to go down as great works of literature or anything, but they are a very solid entry to the genre and I spent hours curled up in an armchair unable to put them down and they made me want to read again after some disappointments.

Lifetime Achievement AwardBen Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series – I re-read the whole series before moving onto the new book 6 and the novella that counts as 7. The series is just as good on second read through and a complete joy which I can’t recommend highly enough. From the first pages of the first book, Peter Grant leaps from the text and is one of the most natural characters I can ever remember reading. The plot occasionally gets away from me, but the characters, and London itself never feel like anything other than pure reality.

Non fiction – only three this year (pathetic!) and two of them were television related. Alan Sepinwall is one of my favourite TV writers and his book (unimaginatively called “TV (The Book)” co-written with Matt Zoller Seitz is a scientifically calculated list of the best American TV series. I don’t necessarily agree with all the entries, but they’re fascinating to read nevertheless. Watching The Crown left me wanting more information and Robert Lacey’s companion book delves a little deeper, although possibly still not deep enough to scratch the itch. Finally, Felicia Day’s autobiography (You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)) is just as vibrant, funny, inspiring and open as she is, and just as wonderful.


  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers – After the hugely enjoyable Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I was really looking forward to the second book in the series. Unfortunately I’m disappointed. The story being told was incredibly basic, with limited settings and characters and very little carry-over from the first book. It felt like it had been rushed out.
  • The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North – one of the books that killed my reading momentum. The great ideas and depth of development are here, but the delivery was awful. Way too much time telling us how we should feel about everything, long lectures spelling out all the nuances and intricacies of the issues.
  • Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor – I thought this could be a good entry way for the podcast, but it was just too weird for me, too incoherent.


  • Lying in Wait – Liz Nugent was a random thriller a friend gave me which was ok but predictable and disposable.
  • Flying Under Bridges – Sandi Toksvig – I love Sandi, but this was unremarkable and a bit of a drag.
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons – normally I make an effort to read some classics, but this was the only one I managed this year. It was quirky and fun, but not really outstanding.
  • Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton – does this count as a classic, it was 1990, which I guess now is a long time ago. I was slightly underwhelmed, while the fundamental ideas are great and the writing surprisingly as good as film at conveying both the wonder of the dinosaurs and the tension of the action, unfortunately the plot mechanics are a little clunky.
  • Revenger – Alastair Reynolds – a quilt assembled from very familiar panels from SF tv and books, but sown together competently.

Books I read in 2016

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

By the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note from me

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

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

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

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