Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Best of 2015

If the Big Fat Quiz of the Year is on, it must be that time of our annual journey around the sun: the time to look back and reflect on out triumphs and disasters over the past twelve months and promise ourselves that, no, we're not going to do THAT again. It's also the time of year for those irritating 'best of' lists which leave the reader cold and the writer frustrated.

I wasn't going to do one this time out. But, as I've written little and consumed plenty this year, it seems the ideal chance to sum up the best - and worst - of the year.

Film of the Year

No prizes for guessing this one. Although Avengers: Age of Ultron was great fun and Bridge of Spies was a good, engrossing film, if the new Star Wars was any good, it was always going to be my film of the year. I've seen it three times in a fortnight. That probably answers the question about whether it's any good. No spoilers, though. If you haven't seen it: see it.

Game of the Year

In the running for this are a few titles. For the first time in quite a while - possibly as a result of spending most of my reading time consuming material for my dissertation, making reading a little less fun - I spent quite a bit of my downtime playing video games. In February I treated myself to a 3DS XL so I could finally play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. I still haven't finished it at the time of writing (though I'm up to the Spirit Temple), but it has been a cracking experience. I also got a PS4 and spent a significant amount of time on Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 - it's probably the best title since Pro Evo 6, with second flights appearing on the game at long last.

Completed titles were Final Fantasy X HD and Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner HD, both on the PS3, while the likes of Civilisation V got a good play on the Mac. Also played were NHL 10, International Cricket 2010 and Virtua Tennis 3. Although I have played on a few others, it's not fair to compare them as I've not got fully to grips with Destiny and Star Wars: Battlefront yet.

Ocarina of Time just about wins in this category. In some ways it hasn't dated well, but it remains an engrossing game.

Novel of the Year

Where in years gone by I would be able to break down the novels I read into a number of categories, this year has been a difficult one. Novels have been in a minority of books I've read (or, at least, it's felt that way at times). The best new novel I read was Robin Hobb's Fool's Assassin, the continuation of the tale of FitzChivalry Farseer, protagonist of the Assassin and Fool books. It's not quite as good as its forebears, but it improves immeasurably on the Rain Wild Chronicles. And 'not quite as good' Hobb still outstrips the overwhelming majority of other writers as her characters shine through.

History Book of the Year

If it was tough to pick a winner out of the novels I read, it was much less tough to pick a (very clear) winner out of the histories I picked up this year. Richard J. Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich is a magisterial history. Running to over 600 pages, it's the definitive history of the emergence of the Nazi Party in Germany and the circumstances leading to their seizure of power in 1933. It's the sort of book that combines exceptional scholarship from a writer utterly in command of their source material with a powerful narrative told through compelling prose. Evans' books are always worth reading (his critique of postmodernism, In Defence of History, is one of the most compelling texts on historiography I've come across and is probably as much of a subject primer as E.H. Carr is these days), and in his Nazi Germany trilogy he's at his imperious best.

Football Match of the Year

From a footballing point of view, 2015 has been a bit of a disappointment. I've not played as much as I would like through a combination of being too busy for my own good and recurring injuries, and Chris Powell's tenure as Huddersfield Town manager produced too many non-events on Saturday afternoons. A 1-0 defeat to Reading in the FA Cup stands out as being probably the worst game of the year - one shot on target from either side all afternoon. On the other hand, a 4-4 draw with Derby County was football at its very best, both sides attacking and scoring some great goals. Here's to a prosperous 2016 under David Wagner and an injury-free year providing me with the chance to score some Thursday night goals.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Richard II

I'm going through something of a Shakespeare phase. It all started about three weeks ago, when I finally got round to reading Henry V. Although I'm not much of a nationalist, I loved it. From there I downloaded the 2012 BBC miniseries The Hollow Crown and began making my slow way through the Henriad. Over Friday and Saturday I reacquainted myself with Hamlet. And, finally, over the last couple of days I read Richard II. 

Richard II covers the last couple of years from the real-life Richard's reign, from his exiling of Henry Bolingbroke to his eventual murder at Pontefract Castle. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is a certain amount of artistic license on display with liberal application of fiction to the historical fact. For one thing, Richard may not have been bloodily murdered a la Thomas a Becket, with it being far more likely that he was simply neglected and starved to death in early 1400. But the banishment and return of Bolingbroke - better known to the casual historian as Henry IV - and the circumstances surrounding the deposition are accurate enough to satisfy the more pernickety reader of the play.

I had the benefit of having seen the TV adaptation starring Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart and various others prior to reading the original source material, and I'm coming round to the fact that this is how Shakespeare should be read. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the passion and the fire in a play without performance. Words, words, words, as a certain Danish prince would put it, are just those. Once performances are fixed in the mind of the reader, the depth of the text can be seen more easily.

That isn't to say it isn't possible to appreciate the beauty of a play without having seen it performed, however. I've never seen Henry V in a performance theatrical or otherwise, but the strength and power of Shakespeare's poetry in the words of Harry's St Crispin's Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt shine through. It's impossible for me to not read Shakespeare aloud, and even though I have seen Richard II I still read memorable passages aloud, putting my own slant on them. Through action comes interpretation, and without action meaning can be lost to the casual modern reader.

I found Richard himself to be a fascinating character. Ben Whishaw's performance disagreed with my own interpretation; I found him to very much be a narcissist, while Whishaw gave him a more sympathetic edge, even while he seemed at times to be tinged with madness. He's ruthless and badly advised. He's given to despair even whilst defiant. He's also prone to the most flowery speeches of the play, which includes the best speech in the entire play:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchise, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Is he miserable or angry? Or both? His despair is palpable, but he sees the bitter irony in his situation. The beauty of the passage is undeniable. Better scholars than I will, no doubt, still be dissecting it more than 400 years after it was written to work out all the imagery and see where double meanings change interpretations.

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard II, and I'll be continuing to read Shakespeare's histories over the course of the summer. The subtlety and power of even Shakespeare's lesser works always makes them worth the time to digest. It's been a treat to spend so much time with him recently.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Broken Monsters

Getting into a serial killer's mind was something Lauren Beukes did brilliantly in The Shining Girls. It helped that it had an interesting premise beyond the normal serial killer plot, with the time travel twist. I read a lot - certainly more than the vast majority of people - and when I describe The Shining Girls as the best book I've read in a very long time, it's a compliment that should carry some weight.

Broken Monsters is Beukes's new book (released in paperback last month). Like The Shining Girls, it's a serial killer thriller. Unlike its predecessor, however, there isn't a supernatural twist. The monsters are purely within the real world. But the horror elements are dialled to the maximum. This is no cosy crime caper. It's a book that will get under your skin and leave you seeing things in the night.

The first murder in Broken Monsters is graphic and chilling. A boy is found with his bottom half removed and with his legs replaced by the back half of a deer. The ensuing investigation goes deep into the weird art underworld of Detroit.

There's more going on than just murders. As is Beukes's trademark, there's a tech-savvy undercurrent, a la Moxyland. This time, the horrors of the underworld of social media are exposed by detective protagonist Gabi Verdaso's teenage daughter, Layla. And there's 'journalist' Jonno, who follows the case from its outset.

A lot goes on. It's a complex book that always manages to stay the right side of convoluted. Plotlines stay a long way apart at first, but gradually bind themselves up into one. It's difficult not to admire the skilful plotting that has gone into the book. I seem to remember from the extra bits in The Shining Girls that Beukes plots her books like a detective charts a case, making links and following leads. Her planning shows, as does her growing confidence and assurance as a writer. It needs to be remembered that Broken Monsters is only her fourth novel.

I enjoyed the book immensely, from the nicely-paced opening to the pulse-pounding conclusion, but that isn't to say I didn't have complaints. The main one of which is that it's too long.

There are three distinct climaxes in the book. The killer is known to the police by just past the halfway mark, at the party that marks the first of those climaxes. The second - abortive - climax happens a little later. The final climax is the conclusion.

Although the conclusion is exhilarating, I can't help but wonder whether the back half of the book needed to do everything that it did. There was particular one strand of the narrative that felt like it was unnecessary. Although everything needed to be brought to a conclusion, it felt drawn out, slowing the pace, albeit without killing it.

But the question should be asked: did I enjoy the book despite this weakness? Absolutely, and immensely. The next time I see that Lauren Beukes has a new book out, I'll be in the queue waiting for it. It's refreshing to see a writer trying alternative takes on the old tropes. If you're looking for a thriller with horror elements which both scares and compels, I can recommend Broken Monsters.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Fool's Assassin (Robin Hobb)

I can easily explain my love for Robin Hobb's work.

Her books are slow, that much is true. Hundreds of pages can pass without anything significant happening. The 2,000-page Assassin books contain perhaps fewer than four or five hundred pages with significant action. If you're looking for fast-paced action with your fantasy, look at Scott Lynch.

Yet that slowness is with reason. What Hobb does better than any other writer in modern fantasy is build. She builds characters. She builds worlds. She builds connections, between character and world, writer and character. Within a hundred pages she might not have taken her characters very far in their world, but she's created a bond between you and them which is hard to shake off.

Fool's Assassin is the seventeenth book I've read by Hobb, and the fourteenth I've read in her Realm of the Elderlings world. It's not without background that I came to the first book in The Fitz and the Fool. I'm used to Fitz - this is the seventh time he's been the point-of-view protagonist, following on from the Assassin and Fool books. I like Fitz. I'd even go so far as to say he's one of my favourite characters of all time.

Fitz, after his traumatic childhood and early adulthood as a royal bastard at Buckkeep, the seat and court of the ruling Farseer dynasty, is finally living a life of peace with his sweetheart Molly and his children and step-children. But that life is interrupted by mysterious messengers and then, in the later years of Fitz and Molly's lives, the arrival of a new daughter.

When I say Hobb's writing is slow, this is as slow a book as I can remember her writing. For more than 500 pages hardly any action takes place. But the writing is beautiful and evocative. Even when it feels like nothing is happening, the connections are being established between you and the characters. Every feeling is felt like an emotion of your own. The familiar phrase, 'Oh, Fitz,' was uttered more than once while I was reading Fool's Assassin.

Is Fool's Assassin as good as the Assassin novels? No. But then I rate the Assassin books as the best I've ever read in the fantasy field. Young Fitz is a more interesting character than older Fitz, and it reads less like a biography. But, having said that, saying I prefer the Assassin books to The Fitz and the Fool thus far is like comparing Lionel Messi to Sergio Aguero. Yes, Messi is better, but Aguero is still a world-class footballer.

Sunday, 1 February 2015


It will be a while until I next pick up a novel. With uni assignments biting hard, my main reading focus is currently on titles such as The Battle for Scotland by Andrew Marr and Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 by Linda Colley. It will be March the next time I have a novel in my hands.

The last novel I read before my temporary exile from the form, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, probably wasn't the best book to go on hiatus with. It's a highly-rated steampunk novel that kicks off the Clockwork Century series.

The American Civil War is ongoing in the 1880s; the point of divergence comes when 'Stonewall' Jackson didn't die as he did in real life. Fifteen years before the start of the novel, downtown Seattle was destroyed by the eponymous device, created by Leviticus Blue, the inevitable mad scientist. The device unleashed the Blight, which created a breed of the walking dead. Within months, a wall had been constructed around the affected area, containing the Blight.

There's a lot of backstory to take in, and it's all relevant in one way or another. One of our protagonists, Briar Wilkes, is the widow of Leviticus Blue, ostracised by society because of her husband's actions, as well as by her father's - he was the man who freed prisoners from the cells to let them escape the Blight. Our other protagonist, her son Ezekiel, sets off on a quest behind the wall in an attempt to clear his father's name.

The backstory is handled pretty well, considering the amount of it there is, but some of it is a little too contrived. The final twist could have been handled better. One thing about having two point of view characters is that we knew their thoughts - having the final reveal executed through one of them felt contrived, especially when the character had been thinking about it on a number of occasions without revealing specifics. It's from things like this that the feeling of distance between the reader and the characters arises, and I'd say it's this distance which is the biggest problem of Boneshaker.

There's a lot to like about Boneshaker. There's no pretensions of grandeur about it: it's a rollicking adventure with airships and kooky steampunk devices and crimelords and zombies, and it's unashamed about all of that. It wants you along for the ride. The writing has a good pace to it (though it lacks in subtlety and power when compared to such as Perdido Street Station). But there's a nagging distance between reader and characters that stops you from getting properly involved. You can't quite forget that you are reading a book, that it is just words on a page.

I've seen other reviews criticising Boneshaker for doing nothing with the idea of a divergence from the reality of the American Civil War. It's not a criticism I would share. Boneshaker read very much like an introduction to a new world where other stories happened to be taking place at the same time. That a war is going on contemporaneously doesn't mean it has to force itself on the narrative; sometimes world building for the sake of a rich world doesn't have to be a focus of the narrative. Besides, I have a feeling that those elements will be used later in the Clockwork Century series.

In all, Boneshaker was a fun diversion. Nothing too challenging, or too world-changing, but a fun read, despite its problems. I'll probably be back to read the second in the series at some point. But first, I'd better get this essay planned...