Catch-22


I have read Catch-22, but it was in 2006 and I have no direct memories of it. Fortunately I’ve been obsessively reviewing things for a long time so can look up what I thought of it:

I didn’t actually like this book very much, and to be honest, didn’t really think it was that good. There were definitely some funny and some powerful scenes, but as a whole I found the book overly complicated and poorly structured. I continuously lost track of which character was which and how the various incidents fit together in the time line and while I’m sure with a bit more effort it would have become clearer, I didn’t really feel it was worth the effort. The whole thing just left me with a craving to watch M*A*S*H again.

The good news is that I liked the mini-series a lot more. Although I still struggled a little bit with the characters (I’ve got a poor memory for faces and they’re all fairly similar 20 something white boys in the same uniforms) the jumping timelines were smoothed out and a lot clearer, and I had no problems tracking the events.

The tone of the series is rich and unusual, there’s absurdist humour, irony and satire; but also psychological drama, action sequences, gory horror and jump shocks. Sometimes they blend together, and sometimes they smash into one another. It managed to find some interesting place between credible reality and absurdist fantasy that somehow really worked, each reinforcing the other. So the visceral brutality of the war is simultaneously emphasised and reduced, while the ridiculous situations are made both more ridiculous and yet more believable. If vibrant lives can be snuffed out in an instant in front of your eyes and people can justify that as “heroic” or “not in vain”, how is anything unbelievable?

Tying everything together is Christopher Abbott as Yossarian. Even as his character falls apart, he holds everything together and is a voice of sanity (or maybe the voice of understandable insanity) throughout grounding the series as the ‘normal’ person struggling to remain normal by becoming abnormal.

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed the series, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and beautiful direction and cinematography to get lost in, but the heart of it is quite depressing. There were also moments that genuinely shocked me, leaving me open mouthed and unable to move from the sofa even if I’d wanted to. At only 6 episodes long it doesn’t drag things out and is best binge watched in a couple of sessions rather than lingering on it too much. I do think it’s one of the few times that I can confidently say that I preferred it to the book, and it’s unusualness makes it worth a watch even if you do then need to try and forget what it’s saying about the world.

Stranger Things: Season 3

strangerthingsWhile many hailed season 1 of this series as some sort of incredible phenomena I couldn’t really summon up much more than ambivalence towards it. It was absolutely fine, even good, but I failed to experience the magic that some others had. Season 2 faired even more poorly as I didn’t connect with either the characters or the plot. So I wasn’t particularly enthused by season 3. It did however perfectly match my mood for a weekend where I couldn’t summon the energy to really commit to anything and just wanted something to put on that I wasn’t really invested in and wouldn’t challenge me too much.

I’m not sure whether it was those changed expectations, or a change in the series, but I enjoyed season 3 a lot more than I remember enjoying the previous series. I think there was a bit of a change of scale, although the situation the kids found themselves in did end up being pretty serious, it didn’t feel quite as emotionally intense as previous seasons. It felt like there was time to breath and muck about, that interludes of teenage relationships weren’t just a distraction. In fact while the plot itself was absolutely fine (and less confusing than the whole upside down thing), it was these relationships that are the heart of the season.

These relationships covered the whole lifecycle of romance and friendship. There’s the initial flirting and crushes, first love, relationships moving beyond high school, marriages on the rocks and grown ups acting like teenagers circling round each other. There are also some beautiful moments of friendship, new pairings, changing relationships and even the sadness of groups that are drifting apart. There’s heartbreak and humour, silliness and real heart. All the actors are charismatic individually, and together, with some great additions to the cast and I really found myself enjoying spending time with them regardless of what they were doing.

Without spoiling, I will say that I wasn’t a big fan of the ending as I think it reverted a little to the darker side of storylines which I didn’t really want. I like the easy going adventure style, where although in the moment it seems perilous there’s a safety that nothing bad will really happen. The ending made sense, it wasn’t forced or anything, I just didn’t think it was really necessary and was disappointed that a season I’d enjoyed so much actually left me feeling sad.

Films in August

I thought I’d had a very quiet month for films (compensating for the increase in books being read), but when I looked at the list it looked pretty healthy. Then I remembered that I had a weekend of lego building and film watching which accounts for eight out of the eleven films.

New
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywoodonce upon a time hollywood
I have a great many conflicting thoughts about this film. I’m going to broadly approach them chronologically as they hit me.
As the film started, I immediately settled into it, warming to the characters and wanting to know more about them and spend time with them. DiCaprio and Pitt are both playing characters that are comfortable for them and the audience, just enough depth and complexity to be interesting, but neither massively challenging. After a while I also began to appreciate the style of the film, the loving way 1960’s Hollywood was presented. It as shot with a creative eye, but not an “overly arty” one that felt contrived. I was also lucky enough to see the film on 35mm which just added to the period feel.
I forgot it was a Quentin Tarantino film. It was smart, but not in the smug or deliberately shocking way that his other films were. It was also gentle and felt safe. Even with Sharon Tate as a central character and the knowledge of what happened to her, it still felt as if everything was controlled, not as chaotic as Tarantino usually feels.
Then I got bored. It was still interesting and pleasant spending time with the characters, but it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. Tarantino’s lack of ability to edit was showing again. I began to wonder whether the film was actually not going to show what happened to Tate as we were still firmly stuck 6 months before that date and noodling around.
Then suddenly we were back in a Tarantino film. The dry narrator reappeared, the events edged from quirky but believable into more extreme and the violence cranked up to levels that I actually closed my eyes for. I’m not going to spoil it but I’m genuinely not sure how I feel about the ending, whether it’s a cheap trick or a clever twist. I genuinely can’t decide.
Overall – There were bits that I loved, bits that I found frustrating and bits that I have no idea about. If you watched the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes I don’t think you’d ever connect them as the same film and I don’t think that the transition is managed very well. It’s an interesting film, and almost a film that’s designed to be studied and talked about, but there’s also a lot to enjoy in it.

New for me
simple favourA Simple Favour
This film covers the full range from daft physical comedy to fairly tragic drama and I really cannot decide whether it’s a complete muddle, or a delicious mixture. In Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively it certainly has a charismatic pair of actresses, both mostly playing to type but adding in a twist of something unusual. Kendrick is the perfect soccer-mom, simultaneously insufferable and lovely, but develops (or reveals) a thread of ruthlessness. Lively is all glamour and attitude, but with a thread of vulnerability buried underneath. The plot and the actresses just about keeping the guessing game going of who is the victim and who the aggressor. I don’t think the blending of the black comedy quite worked, but if it fails, it’s an admirable failure, and the actresses make it an enjoyable watch anyway.

rawRaw
First off, this is definitely not a film to watch while eating dinner, I’m not incredibly squeamish, but I did avert my eyes from the screen quite a lot while watching and I certainly wouldn’t want to watch it at the cinema. The film is a very slow build, it feels like each scene lasts a long time and each step of the story is a long time coming. During that time I did get a little bored and it gave me too much time to start thinking about what people should be saying, asking and doing. If the film had moved along a bit faster, or supporting characters had been fleshed out a bit more (pardon the pun) I wouldn’t have had the time to find the flaws.

man upMan Up
This film is a roller-coaster. There are bits that I found utterly charming, refreshingly truthful and pleasingly self aware; but there are a few bits that I found myself getting very cross about (playing stalking and attempted sexual assault for laughs, some gender double standards that aren’t challenged quite quickly enough) that rather soured it for me. There were times I completely believed in the characters and their vulnerabilities, but other times they just tipped out of credibility for me. I think it’s probably a ‘good enough’ – solid rom com set up, charismatic leads and a tight pace thanks to all being set in one day. But it’s not going to be one I go back to.

Rewatches
shaun of the deadShaun of the Dead
A brilliantly entertaining film from the first second to the last. There is so much going on, packed in something that on the surface is quite small. To say it’s funny is an understatement and not a surprise, every single second is packed with visual gags, directing jokes, one-liners, long running jokes, callbacks, fart gags and wit. More surprising is that there’s real drama being delivered, commentary on different aspects of life and being out of step. My only frustration is that Nick Frost’s character pushes too far into caricature at times to be believable even in this slightly out of reality setting. I’ve also previously felt that the ending was a bit abrupt, but actually I can now see it’s perfect as the film has done all it needed to do and doesn’t need to outstay its welcome. Every time I watch this film, I love it a little bit more.

kung fu pandaKung Fu Panda
The quality of the animation of this film is really very beautiful – it has a lot of style to it, creative ways to ‘shoot’ action sequences that really make if feel like a kung fu movie. The story is fairly standard fair, but occasionally manages to swerve around a couple of cliches in a pleasing way. Unfortunately it’s the dialogue that lets the side down a bit, it’s just a bit flat and unremarkable, not using any of its voice cast to their full ability, but most key is that there is absolutely no spark from Jack Black at all which was incredibly disappointing.

in brugesIn Bruges
I wasn’t expecting this to be quite as dark and violent as it turned out to be, I was expecting a fairly disposable fish-out-of-water style comedy of a couple of Irish blokes stuck in Belgium. The deep emotional trauma thing came a bit out of left field. That said, once I got over the mental gear shift, I found myself completely immersed, laughing out loud at the comedy and quite moved by the drama. The farce elements were really well done so they were utterly believable in a Murphy’s Law kind of way and it was refreshing to see such a smart and funny film.

easy aEasy A
I loved this film. The story was original and relevant but grounded in classic literature (as is called out), raising interesting questions and playing with them to extreme but just about credible conclusions. The cast were utterly charming and all had great chemistry, with both adults and teenagers actually feeling realistic. The direction is bright and fresh feeling without being overly arty or fussy, and the dialogue is absolutely hilarious. One of the best teen/high school films of recent years.

lion kingThe Lion King
Another real gem in the Disney catalogue. I opted to watch this film on dvd rather than going to see the new version in the cinema, because the trailers left me craving the film but uncomfortable with the new photo-realistic animation (impressive, but too uncanny valley for me). The story blends an emotional plot with some entertaining characters, with the very talented and well cast voice actors mixing and alternating humor and seriousness effortlessly. The songs are catchy and clever (I’d forgotten that even the sappy Can You Feel the Love Tonight had an entertaining top and tail). The ‘diamond edition’ blu-ray I watched did a beautiful job of showing off the animation and the animators clearly spent a lot of time on how to combine realistic animal movement with more anthropomorphic actions. All in all, a joy to watch a truly timeless classic.

life of brianLife of Brian
This film is 40 years old. 40. I (like many people) can quote chunks of dialogue from it by heart and have probably seen it a dozen times. But it’s been a good few years since I last saw it and put the dvd in thinking I was going to be disappointed, or even bored. But it is still completely brilliant. Somehow even 40 years on (40!) the material is still shocking and challenging, the jokes that I remembered are still comedy gold and there are hundreds of jokes and visual gags that I had forgotten or just not noticed. The thing I was most surprised about was the production quality – the scale of the sets, costumes and number of extras that make this a proper film rather than jut a collection of sketches. If you haven’t revisited Python recently, I can really recommend it.

layer cakeLayer Cake
I’ve just seen this film for the first time and it’s 15 years old. In the meantime Daniel Craig has become so familiar as James Bond (a character and film series I have some substantial reservations about) that it’s hard to think of him as anything else. The character he plays in Layer Cake is actually a far more interesting one, or allowed to be so without the pressure of a massive franchise and bevy of fans that refuse to see Bond as the morally ambiguous historical artefact he really is. Craig is charming and likeable, a ruthless criminal capable of violence, and a real person who’s shocked and emotionally impacted by what he sees/does; it’s easy to see why casting people would see a huge star. The film itself is no slouch either, it’s got style, pace, humour and shock, still feeling fresh after 15 years.

Books in August

I treated myself to a new kindle last month as my poor old generation 4 decided it no longer wanted to talk to the world, which I can fully understand, but did make it a little frustrating to get new stuff on to. The new generation 10 came with 3 free months of kindle unlimited so I’m rummaging through that. It’s a bit like the library, there’s usually something worth reading there, but if you’re after something specific you’re unlikely to find it. I doubt I’ll extend it after the 3 months are up given I’d rather spend £7.99 a month on one book I actually want than unlimited books that I’m a bit ambivalent about. But for now, it’s meaning I’m charging through books!

Meg Elison – The Road to Nowhere Series
1: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife –
I didn’t think I liked this book much, but I also found it quite hard to put down and read it in just two days. The story is in some ways a fairly standard post apocalyptic one, told with an eye to practical realities that make it feel very believable. By focusing on what it means when far fewer women than men survive, it provides a satisfying (if scary and depressing) spin on the classic. The story makes central character is incredibly pragmatic, but she’s also human and still reacts and feels, changing as necessary to survive in the new world that is emerging.
After a bit of reflection I think that my problems with the book stemmed from two literary constructs that irritated me. The first is the “unnamed” bit – the character gives herself a new name each time she encounters another group which makes sense, but there are a few jarring times where it makes no sense that she doesn’t use her name. The second problem was that it’s mostly written as a diary (and in my kindle version those sections had an incredibly annoying font), but drops in significant sections of 3rd person, and occasionally drifts away from the central character altogether to tell bits of the story that she couldn’t possibly know which felt like cheating. Both these problems really frustrated me, impacting the otherwise incredibly strong first person narrative.

2: The Book of Etta – The second book in this series continues all the incredibly powerful strengths of the first book, and eradicates the gimmicks that frustrated me. The world has stepped forward a hundred years or so, fast-forwarding so that we can see how societies re-form and people live without the constant memories of how it used to be. We get to see a few different places that live very differently which could run the risk of feeling a little like short stories, but they are bonded together by the central character, similar themes and an ongoing storyline that gradually builds giving the book pace and direction. Etta is a fascinating and rich character, a really interesting person to spend time with and to narrate events, a person who is completely recognisable today, but also a product of a very different world. The first book had some great ideas, but the second book builds those ideas and also delivers a much better reading experience.

3: The Book of Flora – The conclusion of the trilogy continues to develop the key themes around gender in a really interesting way, but unfortunately the writing of the narrative lets the book down a bit (just as in the first book of the series). The book is almost exclusively told by a single character which gives a satisfying focus in that regard, but there are two distinct timelines and several narrative styles. The primary story is about Flora’s journey after the end of book 2, and is told in a mixture of direct 1st person narrative and diary entries made at the time; these are then interspersed with a much older Flora reflecting back on that time, while also telling the story of the ‘current’ events. The first problem was that I got very muddled, it was hard to keep track of whether it was an older Flora reviewing the past, or a younger Flora reacting at the time. When one of the key themes of the book is about people changing and accepting and celebrating themselves and others, it was easy to get lost on the different journeys. Secondly it meant there was a lot of frustrating hinting at what was to come (“If only I’d known then what I know now…”) that just felt over-egged.
Overall I think this is a really interesting trilogy, the ‘universe’ that’s been created is brutally believable and forms a strong foundation to explore themes and subjects that are incredibly relevant today. It can feel a little episodic at time in terms of the stories, but the characters’ journeys pull things together. I think the writing itself lets the ideas down occasionally, but even though I was at times frustrated, I found it hard to put any of the books down and charged through each in just a couple of days each. Flawed, but fascinating.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island
A ‘classic’ that I actually enjoyed reading! It’s a proper adventure story that I think probably appeals to children and adults today just as much as it did when it was written over 130 years ago. It’s a confident book that doesn’t bother to explain some of the stuff that’s going on, pirates use vocabulary and language that I don’t think would have made much sense to a general reader in 1885 than it does today, but it sort of doesn’t matter. I just found myself reading those sections at a pace and picking up general ideas rather than the specifics of the sailing, or the pirates plans and I don’t think I missed out on a huge amount. As the whole thing is told from the point of view of the young Jim Hawkins, it doesn’t really matter if things make a huge amount of sense, because it *feels* right. This is a true adventure story and it’s fun to read, what more do you want?

Lucy Maud Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables
One of those classics that I’ve never read, which is odd because I read loads of this type of book as a child thanks to being given my Mum’s childhood books like Little Women and What Katy Did. Still somehow Anne of Green Gables must have passed my mother by, which is a real shame because I think I would have loved it as a child. Anne is a great central character, full of spirit and energy, always getting up to mischief, but never through any real failings, just through clumsiness and childhood ignorance. The adventures she has would have appealed to young me as well – the all consuming friendships, the anxieties of school and the occasional unfairness of the real world. Unfortunately I’m reading this as a cynical grown up and I wasn’t quite as charmed. I found the triviality of her ‘adventures’ quite dull, particularly when I could see hints of bigger stories going on just out of sight with the grown ups. A plot does sort of appear in the last few chapters, but not much of one. I also think even younger me would have found Anne’s flights of imagination and whimsy somewhat insufferable.

H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds
Most classics of literature, even those as ‘recent’ as the first half of the 20th century, are dreary and hard to read. Meandering about, waffling on and telling even interesting stories in a way that puts me to sleep. But classic science fiction somehow is the opposite, the stories are tight and focused, and the characters come alive through their actions within the story. The War of the Worlds was written in 1898 and is still a really good read. The story of aliens invading is now a classic, but even this early entry into the genre was written with a practical eye that made it completely believable (once you accept the concept of Martians). Telling the story exclusively from the eyes of a single character makes the extraordinary story very personal, and Well’s expertly crafts the narrative so we can understand what is happening globally without losing the focus of the 1st person narrative. Still an absolute masterpiece.

Films in July

New Releases
Yesterday
Review 1: This is a classic Richard Curtis – sweet, funny, and escapist. The construct (everyone except for one struggling singer-songwriter has forgotten The Beatles) is daft, but just about holds together and provides a solid driver for the rags to riches storyline, as well as an excuse to play lots of great Beatles songs. I’ll confess that I fall in the middle ground of Beatles fandom – I’m very familiar with their songs, and I like them, but I’m not overwhelmed by them. That meant when they came on in the film, I smiled, but I didn’t feel the sense of joy and desperation to rush out and listen to their back catalog the way I did with Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. It will not have a lasting impact on me, and I can’t imagine it becoming a classic, but it’s entertaining mush for a lazy brain.
Review 2: This is classic Richard Curtis – contrived, wafer thin and sexist. If you don’t think about anything too hard it’s ok, but it’s all surface polish over something darker. The concept was fun, but the details were inconsistent with an erratic approach to what/who were so influenced by The Beatles that they no longer exist. The central love story meanwhile is deeply problematic, I didn’t get a huge amount of romantic chemistry from the pairing and the lead female is reduced to a besotted groupie following him around. She just about rescues some agency for herself but it’s presented as making his life difficult. The resolution of the plot was a lot less satisfying than the set up of it, including a scene late in the film (in a cottage) that I felt rather uncomfortable about and an ending that tied everything up in an utterly improbably neat bow. Haven’t we moved on from this stuff yet?

I Am Mother
One of the annoyances I have with Netflix (or maybe it’s just on the xbox Netflix app) is that it automatically starts playing the trailers whenever you even hover over anything AND that so many trailers give away too much of the film. That’s the case with I Am Mother and it spoiled the film for me because I knew too much of where it was going and it’s a film that would be much better to just naturally grow the tensions instead of being one where you’re waiting for the inevitable. Excepting that there’s a very solid science fiction story here which works on multiple levels. I was surprised by the quality, even if the surprise of the story was spoiled.

New to me
McQueen
This is one of those rare documentaries that in the space of just 111 minutes gives you a startling informative and emotive look into a world, even one that you know nothing about, and possibly care even less about. I probably somewhere in my brain knew that there was a fashion designer called Alexander McQueen, I’d maybe even read news stories that he had commited suicide (and the tone of the film is immediately doom laden enough that it’s obvious his story is not going to have a happy ending), but I had no idea that one of the UK’s leading fashion designers was in fact a Lewisham lad from a very ‘normal working class family’. The documentary had me absolutely gripped, the candid interviews with his friends and colleagues and lots of archival footage digging in to how and why he was such a superstar, and how that effected him. For the first time I really feel like I understood fashion as an art form, an expression of ideas rather than something to wear. I was completely engrossed and deeply moved.

Ghost Rider
If I were being charitable to the film I would point out that I was exceptionally tired when I started watching, but it was only 7.30pm and I hoped that I’d at least make it through the 2 hour runtime to make it a reasonable bed time for a grown woman. I gave up after an hour and decided that the grown up choice was to not torture myself with any further drivel. I had to double check the year this was made as it looked and felt like a low budget 80’s film, not something that apparently cost only 20% less than Iron Man and was released a year earlier. It was truly terrible – awful script, stunningly bad acting and utterly horrific special effects (unnecessary blue screening meant even simple scenes were polluted by this). The basic plot would have been fine, but without even a quarter way decent scripts or performances then it’s just painful. I rarely quit a film in the middle, but this was just unbearable.

Den skyldige (The Guilty)
I watched the first half of the film thinking that this was something very special, but unfortunately I gradually turned to thinking that the film was trying to be something very special, but was actually falling slightly off the mark. The film is almost a single performance, Jakob Cedergren giving an absolutely storming performance as the less-than-perfect police officer who is on the receiving end of an emergency call from a woman reporting that she’s being abducted. He is constrained to the end of the phone, engaging with different people involved in the case – the public and other police officers. It’s a great set up and a great performance (also by the people on the unseen people on the phone), but the plot just slightly under-delivers. I found it predictable and frustratingly slow; the lack of proper process left me irritated and detracted from the drama rather than improved it. It’s still a really very good thriller, the tension at times almost painful, but it falls slightly short of being the outstanding piece that it felt like it was trying to be.

Atomic Blonde
What a great film. It’s fun and stylish, with a quirky tone and great soundtrack; but it’s also a really incredibly solid spy thriller that kept me guessing. The action sequences are exquisitely choreographed and performed, you can feel every hit along with the characters. It did occasionally wallow in the stylistic elements which I found distracting, but as soon as things started moving again it immediately grabbed me back again.

The Happytime Murders
There is a really great noir detective movie here, set in a world mixing puppets and people. It’s got all the necessary elements, traumatic pasts, Hollywood glamour and the darkness just behind it, stories and relationships with lots of history. It’s a real shame that they decided to make it a crude comedy rather than just telling it straight (see Detective Pikachu) or even just a knowing spoof. I don’t like crude comedies generally, but I don’t think this was a very good one. The design and creativity of the world they’ve built though is fascinating and still worth watching the film for, but it’s a missed opportunity for something clever.

The Dark Tower
Despite a lot of interesting stuff going on with this film, my over-riding thought during most of the film was “what is going on with Idris Elba’s accent?”. When Matthew McConaughey is in a film I know I’m going to have problems with understanding people, but I didn’t expect to have problems with Idris Elba! Writing my review 5 days after watching the film and that’s still my abiding memory. When I really think about it I can remember some stuff about the plot and some nice ideas, but they’re really fading from my memory leaving just a bit of a gap where something more substantial should have been.

Houseboat
I really wish I could let it go about the age differences between the romantic leads in films of this period, but it just taints them all. Added on to this is the discomfort of the lead character being pretty mean to his children at the start and there was a bad taste in my mouth that never quite recovered despite the sharp script and charismatic leads.

Rewatches
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Some classics, particularly science fiction ones, really don’t age well. Either the ideas become outlandish, or the filming styles and technology begin to look really scruffy, best case scenario is sometimes that the film ends up being so influential that everyone else builds on and parodies the ideas so much that the original ends up looking weirdly derivative despite having actually been there first. None of this happens with Close Encounters. Through some form of outright magic, Spielberg’s 1977 film is as much a masterpiece today as it was then. The characters and performances are all so grounded, the themes and filming techniques are so simple that they don’t really age, and the emotions are as real today as they were over 40 years ago. Even the simple 5 note refrain that is so incredibly familiar lands in the movie in a way that gave me genuine goosebumps.

The Illusionist – The challenge with films about magic is that it’s hard to make the tricks seem impressive while not making them unbelievable. Unfortunately The Illusionist does not manage this, several of the tricks presented on stage and off it did not seem possible, pushed just a little too far to be truly credible and therefore undermining the whole story and breaking my investment in it. The other pet peeve of mine they hit were unnecessary and eratic accents – set in Vienna, some attempted accents while others didn’t and it was just jarring. It’s a shame because everything else is there and really drew me in.

Memento – An excellent film that tries to be clever and actually not only *is* clever, but is also enjoyable to watch! The twists are numerous and the plot complex, but it is followable on the first viewing, although I suspect it will gain much from a second viewing. The principle idea of a character with no short term memory is fascinating, and Guy Pearce is outstanding in the lead role.

Books in July

I’m back to doing about 2 hours of commuting each day on the tube which means my reading is back up to good levels. I must be one of the few people on the tubes in the summer heat that is still reasonably happy about the circumstances, there’s nothing like having to drive to work for a few months to really make you appreciate the ease of being able to completely switch off while travelling. The quality of the most of the books this month has sadly been a bit more erratic.

E.M. Forster – A Room with a View
This book feels like it falls between two periods, which I guess is appropriate the period in which it was written and set (Edwardian, start of the 20th century), but makes it slightly weird to read if you have no real historical grounding. It’s a weird mix of Victorian prudishness (a single kiss between single people could be a scandal) and the start of a move toward equality – that women could be allowed to have their own opinions. I found it really hard to get a handle on what would be considered extreme – either old fashioned or too modern, what the rules were and what the challenges were, and that made it hard to really settle in to the book. There were sections that I became fully engaged in, becoming comfortable with the voices of the characters, but then I’d stumble as something lurched to another extreme. The use of broad caricatures to represent the extreme views made it hard to see anybody’s point of view reasonably. I did find it more engaging than a lot of ‘classics’ that I try to read, but that’s not saying a huge amount.

Hugh Howey – Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue
A solid but unremarkable space adventure story. I never quite lost myself in the book, the main character had a strong voice, but I could not quite reconcile her as a 17 year old, she acted as a very experienced professional when the story needed it, but an overly emotional naive teenager when the story needed that. Because she was telling most of the story first person, that rather tainted the reality of the places as well, particularly in the centre section which was trying to say something interesting but couldn’t find an elegant way to do it. There are some nice ideas, and it’s clearly setting up a series that might actually get better. Although I was underwhelmed by this, I may keep reading just because I know that author will go on to write the Dust trilogy after this, which I absolutely love.

Ian Stewart – Significant Figures: Lives and Works of Trailblazing Mathematicians
One of the reasons I review all the books I read is because I have a terrible memory, at best I will remember I’ve read someone before but not whether I liked it or not. When I picked this book up in the library I didn’t bother to check my reviews which was a mistake. It turns out I’ve read one other book by Ian Stewart and summed it up as “avoid like the plague”. I will say the same about this one, with the slight concession that I didn’t actually read the whole thing. I managed about 100 pages but got very little out of it. Just like his other book, this is a muddle of history, biography and maths and none of them are very well served. You really do have to be a mathematician to understand and appreciate the importance of each mathematician and even then, I’m not sure that the history side of things is interesting enough to make it worth the effort.

Carol Baxter – The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit
I felt a little conned by this book. I’d found it in the science section of the library and the title and blurb implied it was focused on the science and technology of the 1840’s and how they fed into police work. Really though the book is 95% crime thriller with the telegraph and forensic science only playing the smallest of roles. It’s a shame this put me in a grump, because it is actually a really good historical crime story. Non-fiction and (seemingly) impeccably researched, but structured and told like a proper legal thriller with a rich cast of characters, well structured plot and interesting insight into different parts of society at the time. Go in with those expectations and you’ll be very satisfied.

Dava Sobel – A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos
I studied history of science at University, and Copernicus was a big part of it, so I’m fairly familiar with the impact of his revelations, why they were so challenging and how they fit into the wider story of science. However I wasn’t that familiar with Copernicus as a person and his place in society. So I thought this book would be an interestingly new approach to the story. It gives an interesting insight into where Copernicus came from, the culture and society he grew up in and his day to day existence. It’s a little bit of a slog as there are quite a lot of names, places and dates to track and there was sometimes way more detail than was needed, or awkward sections told almost entirely in quotes from documents that 500 years later aren’t exactly easy reads. The real frustration for me was that the crucial section about the publication of the work, was framed as a play. For a start – I don’t find reading a script very engaging, for a second it was impossible to tell how much was actually true. When I’m reading non-fiction, I don’t want it dramatized, I don’t want to have to guess whether people said, felt or did what is being described. I felt significant liberties were taken with the truth which deeply frustrated me, and to add insult to injury, I’m not actually sure it made a very good fictional play either. That completely overwhelmed any of the good scholarly effort that had gone into the work and left me very frustrated.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 9: The October Man
I was slightly surprised when I started reading this novella and discovered that it not only did not feature the usual characters from the series, but wasn’t even set in London! It worked out ok though, because the new central character wasn’t a million miles away from Peter Grant in his character or tone and was just as well developed. I enjoyed the small scale nature of the story compared to the larger books which are adding to the overall storyline, but at the same time it opened up the scope of the series to know that there are other practitioners and professionals working with magic. I polished the book off in a couple of sittings and found it both entertaining and satisfying despite it’s short length.

iZombie and Lucifer: Season 4

These two shows both fall neatly into what I label as “ironing TV”. They’re shows that I put on when I’m doing something that needs some level of awareness but isn’t fully engrossing; if there’s an interesting bit of the episode, I can pause the ironing to watch it, but 90% of the time it just doesn’t need (or support) that much attention.

Part of the reason both Lucifer and iZombie fit this way of watching is that the structure of most episodes are built around a “case of the week” that is varying levels of forgettable, and occasionally outright annoying. This structure is better done on iZombie because it presents opportunities for fun with the zombie trick of taking on the characteristics of the person who’s brain was eaten, usually some sort of extreme personality (posh, germophobe, sports obsessed etc). It gives Rose McIver plenty of opportunities to shine and keeps things fresh. Lucifer however is less successful because the cases are always wafer thin with a completely obvious connection to the other stuff going on in the characters lives, I often felt like I was being treated like a bit of an idiot and it left me a bit bored and frustrated.

The 10% of the shows that are worth putting the iron down for are the ongoing storylines and characters that are building up. Both shows are playing with similar ideas about nature, destiny, self-awareness and acceptance – generally the fundamental themes at the heart of most of the supernatural genre. Also season 4 for both series are dealing with the fallout of “coming out”. On iZombie the world has found out about the zombies with all sorts of ramifications that each of the characters are having to deal with in different ways. That’s a rich canvas and the series juggles most of it fairly well, but it did sometimes feel like there were too many threads running and not intersecting often enough, with some left hanging and forgotten about by either writers or watchers. It also didn’t always blend well with the more quirky cases of the week and the caricature personalities being shown, the two elements were fighting each other at times.

Lucifer meanwhile has a more personal reveal with Chloe finally finding out Lucifer’s true nature, which in turn forces Lucifer to confront his own acceptance of who he is. The problem with this is that I’ve never really believed in Chloe as a character, she has little in the way of core personality, just her job really. Also the fact that she’s been with Lucifer this long and she’s never really challenged how he does what he does just undermines her. Lucifer is such a strong and charismatic character and I’ve never felt she balances him, it’s a missed opportunity for a strong female character which is disappointing (maybe due the gender inbalance in the writers room – imdb). There are more interesting threads going on with the supporting characters, but they’re not given much time to really breath.

Neither show particularly excited me, and both took me several months to get through, partly because of my lack of enthusiasm for ironing, but mostly because of my lack of engagement in the shows themselves. Lucifer is watchable because of the superb Tom Ellis, but fails to adequately support the richness of the potential. iZombie is doing something a bit more creative and interesting, but is maybe overstretching and trying to do too many things.