16Nov Reviews For, Well, the Last Ten Months
My last series of reviews was back in January (it was meant to be monthly). I'd like to blame covid, but alas, it's mere forgetfulness. Anyway, on with it.
I've read a good 60 books since January, so it's going to be tricky to narrow it down. I'll start with the absolute standout titles and those would have to be the Malazan books from Steven Erikson. They're hefty tomes (standard fare for fantasy), but I've gotten through books three, four and five. Erikson, with his friend and co-writer Ian Cameron Esslemont, has created a world that is rich in its depth, far surpassing any other worldbuilding we've encountered in literature (except perhaps Tolkien, though I've not read enough of Tolkien's to compare). The continents, countries, creatures, creeds, cultures and conflicts are all redolent with history. Each book peels back different layers of the 300,000 year history examining a truly epic saga from various angles. The writing heads down dark alleys on occasion and the context is very dense meaning whole paragraphs can make little sense, but enough is gleaned to make it through. The picture coalesces organically as you read. But most of all, the series edges into the sublime with many an episode. I don't like military fantasy, but the military scenes are superb in this. Even the more pastoral / rural episodes have a real charm to them. The characters are varied and you follow their journeys. All in all, it's a highly recommended series. If you can get past the Seige of Pale in Gardens of the Moon, and find yourself in Darujistan, I think you'll last through the remaining nine volumes (of 26 books).
Other excellent books have been Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter which is a delightful fantasy drawing on the narrative of fairy tales (because fantasy didn't really exist then) but providing a more serious theme of mortality and its fleetingness. Borges' A Universal History of Iniquity I found superior to Ficciones. Walter Tevis' Mockingbird is a superb dystopia, quite the equal to its earlier and more famous precedents. As to non-fiction, Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens was enlightening in a number of places, Ben Goldacre's I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated than that, was a refreshing look at the increasing reliance on opinion over fact, and Stephen Carver's The 19th Century provides a wonderful background to Victorian and earlier England. Other notable entries are Alcestis by Euripedes, The Sea, The Sea by Xenophon and The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose,
The bad? Well, plenty of those. Breverton's Phantasmogoria conflated too readily fact and fiction, Thomas Ligotti's The Agonizing Ressurection of Victor Frankenstein was a fun idea, but the execution was lacking. And finally, Banks' Excession was the first of his books I haven't finished. I'm told that the ending pulls it together and makes it worthwhile, but half-way through I found I just wasn't picking it up. Sacrilege, I know.
The good: Ford vs Ferrari was a slow-burning thriller, perfectly matching depth with pace. Big Fish and Begonia was a surreal take on love and finding one's place, Jojo Rabbit had some comedic moments and took a brave look at a dark subject, Dogman was a grim, melancholic vignette exploring escalation and desperation, Thelma is certainly worth a look and is a subtle tale of belonging (seemingly a persistent theme in the 21st century). Come to Daddy is a superb comedy, if a little grotesque, Pulp Fiction done right if you ask me. Sunshine is a science fiction I hadn't seen before, though it had been on my watchlist for years, not an exceptional film, but unique and tense. Great Expectations (1946) was a perfect renderding of the Dickens book. Chungking Express I hadn't watched for years, so it was brand new for me and it remains a firm favourite - it's rare to get a film in which the location plays such an intimate part. To Catch a Thief was a classic that I'd never actually gotten round to watching, it was fun, though a little dated now. My three favourites of the year though would have to be Mirai, a charming look at adjustment to a changing family, Kaili Blues a film about getting by, with perhaps the most subtle science fiction conceit I've ever seen, and The Shape of Water is just a masterpiece of storytelling. The Imposter was a dark documentary with plenty of twists. Honeyland and American Factory are two superlative examples of documentary filmmaking, the former offering a contrast to western life, the later contrasting two cultures. Both superb.
The bad: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: I don't really like Tarantino, never have, he has talent, but it's just all pastiche and garish. The last fifteen minutes of Once Upon were spectacular though, but the previous however many hours didn't balance it. Solo was lovely to look at but just boring, Russian Ark started off quite fascinating but the lack of traditional storytelling soon wore thin. Code 8 I can barely remember and I think I only watched it because I liked the score. The Host, from the same guy who directed the excellent Parasite, was an overly obvious parable, lacking both tension and interest. Us had its moments of excitement but was ultimately a mess. The Station Agent was one of those films that creates the emotions, but unfortunately ended before the third act really got going.
The good: Wolf Hall was a superb adaptation of the Mantel books, the characters were solid and well-formed. Good Omens, though not my usual cup of tea, I found I was able to avert my pretensions and just enjoy a fun story. Psychoville I watched for a second time, the first season was superb though tailed off a little with the second (both are superseded by Inside #9). Attack on Titan series one remains somewhere between great and freaking-me-out. Race Across the World was inspiring, though the contestants at times were not. Seven Worlds, One Planet is superb, and sits alongside Attenborough's classics. The stand out series though for me would be Tales from the Loop a series of interconnected science fiction tales, wonderfully shot and perfectly paced.
The bad: The Handmaid's Tale tailed off for me as the show obviously started to mess with alignments in a Game of Thrones fashion, which just didn't ring true in this case. Jeffrey Epstein was a 45 minute documentary dragged over four hours. Channel Zero: Season Two was a bizarre mix of scenes serving no purpose - just a rambling yarn and nothing else. After Eight seasons of The Walking Dead, I gave up halfway through Season nine, it no longer has impact, drive or any semblance of narrative. The Librarians was, sadly, dire; we only got through episode one.
I find myself less attracted to action games nowadays, concentrating more or strategy. Something applicable both to video games and board games. I haven't played many video games this year, and most have been on Steam. Age of Empires II was nostalgic and remains a superb game, Defense Grid sucked up a good few hours, with a nice match of desperation and planning. Europa Universalis IV and Civilization VI I wanted to love, but just couldn't get over that learning hurdle to find the engine. Factorio occupied my time for a while but the narrative never came through and I just stopped, similarly with They Are Billions - though I may retry that one. As to board games, well, it's been a bit of a renaissance in our house and we spend more hours playing board games than watching TV or playing video games - only eclipsed perhaps by reading. I haven't played any that I haven't enjoyed. Concordia is really starting to settle in as is 7 Wonders Duel. We have had literally hundreds of rounds of One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Eva has an uncanny ability to win Quacks of Quedlinburg consistently. Wingspan I found a little random, and Terra Mystica hasn't yet revealed itself. Avalon the Resistance is a superb bluffing game, and Memoir 44 seems to have real opportunity for strategic and tactical depth. Spirit Island and Great Western Trail are starting to make sense, but the stand out games have been the cooperative strategy Robinson Crusoe and the bastardly Game of Thrones. Both are superbly balanced, offer great opportunities for planning and are supremely hard to master.
I'm finding it harder and harder to find decent drum and bass and I feel like the genre is running out of steam. Some stand out tracks I've discovered this year have been Drifting Away by Bop and Unquote, Don't Sleep by Dimension and Culture Shock, The People by 1991, Undercover by Nuage, Tectonic Plates by DRS and Dynamite MC and Skittles by Amoss. In other genres, where albums seem to rule supreme, I've enjoyed Chasm by Tony Anderson, an atmospheric collection of soundscapes, Everything Fades to Blue by Sleep Fish provides the perfect background to a Sunday morning, and Reykjavik Stories by Atli Orvarsson is a playful and sometimes melancholic group of traditional pieces. Dario Marianelli's Pinocchio score is a sublime bit of playful composition, MMXX by Diplo is purposefully hard to categorise, but reeks of electronic music. A State of Trance Ibiza 2020 shows that Trance still has a good bit left in the tank. Paul Leonard-Morgan and Philip Glass's Soundtrack to Tales from the Loop found its way throughout the house for a few months. Art in the Age of Automation by Portico Quartet took over Google Home for weeks, not at my behest, but the algorithm seems to think I love it (which I do). Waking Dreams by Philanthrope and the Beets albums by Birocratic are excellent.