Tagged: books

Saying goodbye to 2011

It’s that time of year when everyone starts putting together their top ten lists. I managed to do a top 5 list last year but this year I was a bit lax on my cinema/theatre going, not because it was a bad year for cinema or anything but because I got given notice of redundancy in February and with my uncertain future I had to cut back on luxuries for a bit and sadly got out of the habit.

Looking back, I think the best thing that happened to me this year was being under threat of redundancy. It gave me the kicking I needed to get my CV out there. I’m grateful for everything Dirty Dancing (and the Aldwych) gave me in the five years I worked there but towards the end it was starting to do me more harm than good, moving to Lend Me a Tenor was the best decision I’d made in a long time.

Lend Me a Tenor was a fun show. It was silly, farcical and a good old-fashioned musical with a great company who were all vastly talented, in contrast Dirty Dancing felt like a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of a mildly successful film. Don’t get me wrong, I liked working at the Aldwych (most of the time, there were days when I seriously thought about doing something else) and I made some fantastic friends but I learned a big lesson there – you need to move on. If Blood Brothers (Phoenix Theatre) was my crash course introduction into the darkly cynical world of British Theatre, Dirty Dancing was my adolescence and breathing space before Lend Me a Tenor led me blinking into the light of adulthood and the reality of theatre. I feel more settled into the reality of my work and I’m much more comfortable, I’m also making steps towards my current goal. Last month I had an interview where I was told I’m on the right path and that out of seventy-five applicants, he was only interviewing five people.

On a more personal level, I decided to get help for my social anxiety issues and I think this has contributed greatly to my general feeling of comfort in myself. Sure, I’ve got a long way to go and I need become more active socially but change doesn’t happen over night. I’ve also successfully passed my first two Open University modules and am part way through my third module, if all goes well I should complete my degree in 2014.

I managed not to pick up any new obsessions this year (thankfully!), poked around in the Steampunk community and hopefully will start joining in a few events in the new year as well as getting out  more with my camera. I have rekindled my joy with The Thick of It, partly because watching Peter Capaldi in Getting On and The Ladykillers reminded me how brilliant he is and partly because I genuinely cannot wait to see how they deal with the coalition. We’ve already seen what happens to Malcolm when you take his job away (which I didn’t find funny, just fucking terrifying!) so whether he’ll thrive with the challenge of being in opposition or if he’ll get shafted by the Dan Miller cabal, who knows? Apparently they start work in March 2012 so fingers crossed for a series at Easter (my dream would be a two part election special covering the election [obviously] and the coalition negotiation, followed by the leadership election… then a series).

I’ve been watching Glee (mostly on fast forward, some of those songs are so badly auto-tuned it’s painful) and can’t quite decide if I like it or not. I go through phases where I think it’s doing a really good job of bringing out issues that do need to be talked about ( Kurt’s storyline with the closeted bully, first time sex and when Sue’s sister died) but other times they make me want to strangle the writers. I’m a particular fan of Santana and a huge supporter of her coming out storyline but I thought it was really badly handled. Finn had absolutely no right to publicly out her (I don’t care what you say, yes she is a bully but what Finn did actively endangered her life and threatened her home life, did he not learn anything from what Kurt went through?!) and nor did he have the right to ride in on his horse of white male privilege to make it all okay. That was all awful, but what was worse was Finn insinuating that Brittney doesn’t love Santana back, way to attack someone’s self-esteem when they’re already struggling to accept their same-sex feelings. Also, on the subject of Brittney – last season we saw how she’s not actually that stupid but she seems to have gone completely backwards this season, and did no one else think Rory was incredibly creepy and borderline rape-y pretending to be a leprechaun to get into her pants thing? A lot of this has been echoed by the larger Gleek community and I have hopes that they’ve listened and we’ll see some better things in the next half of the season, oh and would it be too much to ask for Santana to actually kiss her girlfriend?

From the same writers of Glee I gave American Horror Story a go and it’s actually pretty good. I’m liking the vibe and really enjoying the overall creepiness. I don’t think it’s the type of show that could lend itself to more than one series but you never know, I’ve got the end to watch later today so fingers crossed. Parks and Recreation is another of my recent favourites, I tried to like Community and I did get into it but something about the characters bothers me a bit.

So, top lists.

Top Five TV Shows:
1) Getting On
2) Downton Abbey
3) Frozen Planet
4) Game of Thrones
5) Parks and Recreation

(Honorary mention to The Thick of It because I re-watched it recently and it’s awesome)

Top Five Films:
1) We Need to Talk about Kevin
2) Snowtown
3) Monsters
4) Hugo
5) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Top Five Books (that I read this year, not necessarily new):
1) Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
2)  The Lost City of Z by David Grann
3) The Help by Kathryn Stockett
4) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
5)  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Top Five Audiobooks:
1)  Night Watch (unabridged) by Terry Pratchett (read by Stephen Briggs)
2) the Jack Daniels series by JA Konrath (read by Susie Black and Dick Hill, and Angela Dawe)
3)  The Dark Tourist (unabridged) by Dom Joly (read by Dom Joly)
4) Freedom (unabridged)  by Jonathan Franzen (read by David LeDoux)
5) Rivers of London (unabridged) by Ben Aaronovitch (read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith)

Only saw nine theatre shows this year so I can’t really do a top 5 (particularly as I didn’t like most of them!) but I definitely think that Seasons Greetings, Frankenstein and The Ladykillers are my highlights of the year. I could always put Lend Me a Tenor down as my favourite show of the year but I don’t count stuff I’ve worked on.

Roll on 2012.

Recommended Reading: 'The Lost World' by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

Synopsis: Unlucky in love, but desperate to prove himself in an adventure, journalist Ed Malone is sent to interview the infamous and hot tempered Professor Challenger about his bizarre South American expedition findings – especially his sketches of a strange plateau and the monstrous creatures that appear to live there. But rather than being angry at his questions, Challenger invites him along on his next field trip. Malone is delighted; until it becomes clear that the Professor was telling the truth about the terrible lost world he has discovered.

Review: During the nineteenth century science fiction was known under the much less inspiring name of ‘scientific romance’, and whilst there are stories dating back to the second century that you could put under the sci-fi heading the genre really started with the publication of ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelly in 1818 later to be continued with stories by HG Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe.

Someone who is often forgotten about because of his contributions to the crime genre is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He tends to get forgotten a lot, his historical fiction (‘Sir Nigel’, ‘The Refugees’, ‘The White Company’ etc…) and his ‘Brigadier Gerard’ short stories, also forgotten is his science fiction story ‘The Lost World’ featuring another classic character in Professor Challenger – a disagreeable pompous scientist with a tendency to throw journalists down stairs.

Other characters include our narrator Edward Malone, who is looking for adventure to prove to the woman he loves (Gladys) that he is the type who takes action, looks for adventure and will have his name remembered. He’s sent to interview the journalist hating Professor Challenger about his mysterious visit to the South American jungle two years previously, after a brief fight Challenger agrees to speak to him and we hear some extraordinary claims.

A deceased American explorer was found to have a notebook that had illustrations of a mysterious unexplored plateau deep in the South American jungle nothing really unusual in itself, except there appears to be a drawing of a dinosaurs in the picture. Challenger went to see for himself and also encountered strange creatures, he personally shot what appeared to be a pterodactyl but lost his specimen in an accident, he’s due to present his findings and challenge the established science at a meeting of the Zoological Society where predictably he’s met with jeers and scorn over his claims.

Lord John Roxton, a celebrated hunter and explorer who knows the Amazon volunteers, along with another scientist called Professor Summerlee, to join Ed Malone in verifying Challenger’s claims and so with directions and a cryptic envelope only to be opened a certain time and date they set out for the Amazon. During preparations for the mission where they recruit several ‘half-breeds’ to help them with their equipment and guide them. Challenger joins them at the appointed time they were supposed to open the envelope and leads them off on what will prove to be the journey of a life time.

What follows is an awesome adventure to a place that evolution forgot about, where dinosaurs are still part of existence and a fearsome tribe of ape-like beings (the ‘missing link’) wage war on a tribe of humans, which our are heroes are unwittingly caught up in, and a journey to find a way home. The action is packed and it’s a juicy romp of a story with great characters and a wonderful land that I would give anything to visit (if nothing for the 10ft guinea-pig!).

This is highly recommended to lovers of science fiction, adventure stories and more importantly fans of dinosaurs.

Weekend in a Bookshop

I’ve spent the majority of the day with my friend, who is not only someone I’ve known since primary school but also someone not involved in anything theatrical (pretty much all my friends have some link to my job). I’d forgotten how refreshing it is to meet up with someone you know so well that you can have a really good conversation about books because you both have similar tastes and feelings towards things – not only that but work doesn’t get mentioned once (I love my other friends but often we end up talking about work because it’s a large part of our lives).

We had dinner and then went to the big Waterstones on Regent’s Street where all we did is wander round looking at books, talking about books and recommending books to each other. We talked about our mutal love for Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing (I want her to be my grandmother) as well as touching a bit on Margaret Atwood and gushing over ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’.

I did my best to pimp sci-fi to him and showed him some of my favourites that I think he’d enjoy (‘Foundation’, ‘Caves of Steel’, ‘Ender’s Game’…) and between us we looked at some interesting titles. I also found a Steampunk anthology called ‘Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology‘ that sounded interesting. I have other friends who are really into this and to be honest I’ve never read anything that could be considered steampunk-y so have been feeling out the loop, now I’ve found this anthology and added to my Amazon wishlist I intend to education myself! I also pimped ‘The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters‘ by G.W Dahlquist as I think it’s an awesome read. We found some books we thought sounded really interesting (I managed to resist buying them as I’d already bought ‘Necropath‘ by Eric Brown today), ‘The Alteration‘ by Kingsley Amis, ‘My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time‘ by Liz Jensen and Susanna Clarke’s short stories involving her world of Faerie and others called ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other Stories‘.

A great way to spend a Sunday.

Recommended Reading: 'Coward on the Beach (vol 1)' by James Delingpole (2007)

Synopsis: Dick Coward is an ordinary chap forever caught up in the most extraordinary circumstances. Whether flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain or acting as military advisor at Stalingrad, he has a knack for ending up in the thick of the action. But to Coward there are worse things than war, not least the possibility of the family estate ending up in the hands of his undeserving brother James. And then there is the gorgeous Gina… Only by amassing military glory on the beaches of Normandy can Coward satisfy his father and see that justice prevails.

Review: James Delingpole, former ‘War Life’ columnist in the Spectator (he interview second world war veterans about their experiences) has created an extraordinary character in Dick Coward. He’s an amalgamation of many different people with vastly different experiences. Throughout the book you are teased with hints about Coward’s other military exploits (Burma, Stalingrad, Battle of Britain) and from a quick hunt around the internet I’ve discovered that this is the first in a series of ten planned books and let me say that I can’t wait until I have devoured all ten as it looks like it’s going to be one heck of a series. Think Flashman updated to WW2 and you’re on the right lines if you’re looking for a not-too-bad comparison.

This one throws Coward into the deep end with the Normandy landings as the backdrop, fresh out a military hospital and tricked into agreeing to re-enlist to keep an eye on a certain someone for a certain young lady, Coward has to battle through as part of the (fictional) 47th Commando Unit. Accompanied by his former bateman, now his sergant, Price, Coward finds himself in some tricky situations.

A nice antidote to gung-ho-charge-in American novels about war and is just begging to be made into a film where for once the British aren’t useless soldiers who have be bailed out, but really a TV series would suit the format much better. Very much an adventure in the style of the ‘boy’s own adventure’ series.

10/10, throughly recommended.

Recommended Books: 'Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror' by Steve Alten (1997)

Synopsis: There is a rather long synopsis for this book but all you really need to know is that it it’s ‘Jaws’ with a much bigger shark! In fact this stars a megalodon, and the LA Times sums the book up very well with it’s review “Two Words: Jurassic Shark.”

(I was going to do an awful pun involving that immortal line from ‘Jaws’ “we’re going to need a bigger boat” but putting ’shark’ instead of ‘boat’… you get the idea.)

Review: Published in 1997 this was Steve Alten’s first book and by all accounts it hit the best-seller charts and was a bit of a runaway smash. A film was on the cards and is somewhere in hiatus hell as of 2008, although I would love this to be a film – it’d be up there with ‘Shark Attack’ and ‘Deep Blue Sea’ as one of those cheesy as hell monster films full of bad clichés but oh-so brilliant fun. That pretty much describes the book, brilliant fun…definite airport fodder (possibly not cruise ship fodder) and certainly a brilliant commuting book.

Let’s not beat around the bush, good literature this is not and neither is it particularly good science-fiction but it does win some points for originality. The idea that the greatest living predator of all time is still roaming around, albeit a long way down in the Marianas Trench is fairly original and a wonderful idea… I found myself wishing that perhaps this theory holds water and there are million year old mega-sharks still around.

As with every book trying to do a Clive Cusslar (or even Michael Critchon) it has it’s stock genius (a somewhat Dirt Pitt type character called Dr Jonas Taylor) who due to some accident involving a submarine/wedding cake/gerbil is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, has an inexplicably hot wife who is a wannabe be media star who also happens to be shagging the husbands best friend… there’s the enemies of the genius who you know are all going to be eaten somewhere around the half-way mark.

I particularly loved Taylor killing the megalodon from the inside (seriously).

You know what? I loved this book so much that I’ve bought the sequel ‘The Trench‘!

Recommended Books: 'Spock's World' by Diane Duane (1988)

Synopsis: “Captain’s Log, Stardate 2410.500; the 23rd Century. From halfway across the galaxy, Captain James T. Kirk and the USS Enterprise are summoned by the ruling council of Commander Spock’s home planet – Vulcan. At stake is the planet’s future as a key member of the Federation. At issue is Vulcan’s mysterious past and its historic struggle for the meaning of logic. Torn between his duty to Starfleet and his unbreakable ties to Vulcan, Spock must find a way to reconcile his own inner conflict and the external threat his planet faces – or the Federation will rip itself apart.”

Review: You might be thinking (and quite rightly I suppose) “a Star Trek book?!”, well bare with me because believe me this is not only a brilliantly written Star Trek book but it is also an excellent piece of political science fiction.Diane Duane explores not only Vulcan’s past, but it’s future in this cleverly written and well-plotted story which is just as much a mystery as a conspiracy. Duane looks back to the original series and uses elements from the popular ‘Amok Time’ and can be congratulated for developing a character beyond what we saw on screen.

One of the ruling groups of the Vulcan council has posed the vote that Vulcan leaves the United Federation of Planets, it’s a vote that has personal ramifications for Spock and Sarek as they must ultimately make the decision if the vote is successful to leave their loved ones and remain on Vulcan or leave their home and be cast out.

Sarek faces a battle of concious, does he speak from his heart or do what his government requests of him? He makes the decision to do what ever ‘cthia’ – reality-truth, a word that has been mistranslated as meaning ‘logic’ and misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of the matter – tells him to do.

Duane has interestingly created characters, such as K’s’t’lk a twelve legged glass spider type being who is a physicist who more or less exists in a different plane of existence and her work with physics reflects this… as well as the now-famous Horta crew member. She deals with the established characters very well, no one seems out of character including characters we’ve only briefly met.

In typical Vulcan fashion, they want to hear all the reasons, all sides from pro-succession presentations to anti-succession and T’Pau has called upon Kirk, Spock and McCoy as not only voices of the Federation but as people who have a more personal relationship with Vulcan.

McCoy though has a bee in his bonnet, something doesn’t seem right. He starts digging into the archives and asking the right questions and soon uncovers a deep conspiracy that lies at the core of the matter, McCoy’s evidence eventually gives reason for Vulcan to stay after throws apart the whole matter.

It was refreshing to see McCoy the ‘hero’ for once, particularly as the plot itself gave little opportunity for Kirk to be an action hero and I loved that McCoy went off and learned Vulcan via RNA (basically language by absorption!).

Another character, who had a minor role, that I think was very well written as Uhura. Early in the story we see some of the posts on the internal bulletin board and discover that Uhura is working on a thesis that is going to essentially re-write everything to do with the universal translator. I thought that was a nice touch.

Keep an eye out for the sentient computer on the Enterprise’s rec’ deck, not only is it a clever idea but you find yourself becoming attached to it without realising that it is the computer.

One thing that I haven’t dealt with yet is the chapter framing. Each chapter set in the ‘present’ is followed by a chapter set in Vulcan’s past. These chapters are brilliant, it’s fascinating to see how Duane has established historic Vulcan from the dawning of their civilisation through the violence of the tribal days, finally up to the teachings of Surak and eventually the uniting of Earth and Vulcan by the marriage of Sarek and Amanda.

This book is a breath of fresh air in the Trek-genre, and is a good piece of science fiction writing. Whilst it pays to have at least a passing knowledge of the main characters, I think you could pick up this book without really knowing much about the world of Star Trek. A definite recommendation.

Recommended Books: 'Kiln People' by David Brin (2002)

Synopsis: “In a perilous, future, disposable duplicate bodies fulfil every citizen’s legal and illicit whim. Life as a 24-hour ‘ditto’ is cheap, as Albert Morris knows. A brash investigator with a knack for trouble, he’s sent plenty of clay duplicates into deadly peril, then ‘inloaded’ memories from copies that were shot, crushed, drowned… all part of a day’s work. But when Morris tackles a ring of crooks making bootleg copies of a famous actress, he trips into a secret so explosive it incites open warfare on the streets of Dittotown.”

Review: David Brin presents a complex vision of the future where mankind has mastered the art of perpetual procrastination, where war is a pre-arranged sport with league tables and armchair experts and anything goes. With the aid of ditto-technology, you can send off a ‘ditto’, a blank clay person which you ‘copy’ yourself into and send off to do whatever you need them to do for the day. Send one to work, another to school to study advanced quantum mechanics, another can watch Alfred Hitchcock’s entire back catalogue in preparation for a film club discussion… at the end of the day you can ‘inload’ all the memories/experiences from the day and they’re all yours.

It’s the perfect existence.

Or it is?

Albert Morris is a private investigator, he’s sent dittos off into dangerous situations and later ‘inloaded’ memories of copies that were shot, drowned, beaten up and sometimes worse. He’s just broken an illicit bootleg copying ring run by his Moriarty, ‘Beta’, but there’s something more going, something deeper, something that could change the entire course of humanity.

The story is brilliantly written with great concepts, especially the idea of dittos. Humanity has become lazy, buildings are condemned because people no longer work there just disposable copies, and only people with specialist skills are needed in person (such as Albert Morris). Society keeps ticking over but seemingly on the edge, you get the impression that it all could collapse at any moment and it’s hardly surprising that there are the ‘crazies’ either screaming that ditto’s are an affront to ‘god’ or screaming that these 24hr people deserve rights.

The mystery soon becomes deliciously deep, Brin creates twists and turns that give the best mystery writers a run for their money. The different stories from the dittos come together very well and the shift between them is smooth and unlike other multi-angle stories it doesn’t begin to frustrate.

I liked the characters, although I did feel that they were a little one-dimensional and very much like every other character in science fiction. There didn’t seem to be much more going on with them but the plot is so vast that it can be entirely forgiven. I was hooked by the plot and concepts not the characters.

For me the last few chapters got a little too much metaphysical and contained fantastical concepts of life that flew a little over my head, but it was gripping to see it all wrapped together. The final reveal felt a little weak, particularly after being lead on such a roller-coaster ride but despite feeling weak it felt ‘right’. If you’re an Isaac Asimov fan, particularly of his Elijah Bailey/R. Daneel books, you will like this book. David Brin has a similar writing style to Asimov and it’s no surprise that he is one of the writers continuing with the ‘Foundation’ series.