Best Books I Read in 2018

This is a shorter-than-usual look back at my most memorable reads of the year, mainly because this time, there were only a few books that were so good that they motivated me to put fingers to keyboard and rattle off a few hundred words about the immense enjoyment gained by reading them.

That’s not to say that the other books were bad – some were alright, some were good and some were great – but even the best of this bunch ended up relegated to the Honourable Mentions.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

EXIT WEST.jpg

Four months into the year, I was happy with what I’d read so far but at the same time was yearning to find something truly exceptional, something that would knock my literary socks off and linger in my memory for months afterwards.

Then, completely ignoring the old saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, I picked up Exit West from a Waterstones display table and impulse-bought it, with no regrets.

Hamid writes in such a smooth and simple style that beginning a sentence feels like being swept along in a strong current and 70 pages pass in the blink of an eye.

This short novel was consumed in three long gulps and there was a long break between the second and third ones because, in less than 200 pages, I’d become so attached to Saaed and Nadia and concerned for their safety and happiness that I was afraid to continue.

As I flicked my fingers over the thin wedge of paper that remained between me and the last lines, I found myself taking a deep breath, not quite ready yet to dive back in and face whatever Hamid had in store for the couple.

Their journey is the heart of the book.

We follow them from the minute they first meet, just before the occasional military skirmishes in their unnamed Middle-Eastern city escalate into full-blown civil war and their lives are changed forever.

Around the same time, strange doorways appear all over the city, mysterious portals offering a tempting escape to an unknown elsewhere.

These doors are a clever device that allows Hamid to streamline their journey, as he’s less concerned with how they get from A to B and more focused on how living in an unfamiliar land affects them, their relationship, and the attitudes of that country’s native population.

Throughout their tale, he offers a timely exploration of how the world could deal with the increasingly-high number of refugees that seek sanctuary abroad and of the uneasy relationship between them and local residents who see their arrival as an unwelcome intrusion.

He has an exceptional way with words, sketching out the lives and histories of his protagonists, and of other migrants who tempt fate by travelling through the dark doorways, in just a paragraph or two through prose that is clear, compelling, and often full of warmth and melancholy.

When I did, at last, dive back in and allowed myself to be swept through the concluding chapters, I found an ending that was sweet, sad, hopeful, and poignant.

This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay

this is going to hurt

This collection of diaries, which were written while the author worked as a junior doctor, describe in vivid detail the realities of being part of an increasingly mismanaged and under-funded National Health Service.

Adam’s sarcastic and morbid sense of humour chimed perfectly with my own and lead to a lot of laughs, but this humour does not hide how harrowing and exhausting the day-to-day life of a doctor can be; the toll his job takes on his friendships, relationships, and his mental and physical well-being is made abundantly clear.

Frustration and anger bubbles under the surface of several entries – frustration at needless bureaucratic changes that cut costs and make worker’s lives harder, and anger at the health secretary’s clear lack of empathy or understanding for those working in the medical profession.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with him or share his concerns by the end of the book, when the reason why Adam hung up his stethoscope for good is revealed.

It moves from hilarity to tragedy to horror and back again at lightning speed but the tone never feels too jarring or inconsistent.

As an unexpected extra, it also taught me at least a dozen different ways that pregnancies can go horribly wrong, in graphic detail, so that’s… something.

 

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

cannery row

This novella follows the lives of a motley crew of characters surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s in a small working-class Californian town.

The same compassion, eye for detail, and knack for creating realistic and flawed characters which made Of Mice and Men the best book that English teachers made us read in high school can be found here in abundance.

Full of affection, warmth and wit, the threadbare story of homeless man Mack and his friends trying to throw a party to thank their kind-hearted marine biologist friend Doc unfolds like a series of interlinking anecdotes that play out over the course of a few weeks.

In that time, Steinbeck makes the titular town come alive by filling his pages with vivid sensory detail,  believable and fully-realised characters, and a keen understanding of how unemployment and poverty can affect a tight-knit community.

The blurb for this edition of the book wisely uses the novel’s very first paragraph to convince would-be readers to give it a go, and it’s difficult to think of a better way to do the same here, so… enjoy:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

 

If Only They Didn’t Speak English – Jon Sopel

if only they didn't speak english

At the end of another year of political insanity that overturned every notion of what was thought to be acceptable behaviour in both the American and British governments, it was nice to have this book on hand to dip into whenever it all got a bit overwhelming.

The BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel, who at times reports the news from the other side of the pond with an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow and noticeable smirk which suggest that even he can’t believe the absurdity of what’s going on over there, has written a useful guide which explains the various conditions in America which led to Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential election.

The buffoonish businessman’s triumph left many people completely gobsmacked, but Mr Sopel argues, with a calm common-sense approach that feels sorely-needed at such a chaotic time, that we could have easily seen it coming if we’d stopped thinking of America as being at all similar to the UK.

If they didn’t speak English over there, he suggests, we would treat it as an entirely foreign land, and in doing so we would better understand its many problems and complexities.

Through a mixture of short history lessons, the occasional flash of dry wit, and interesting anecdotes from his privileged press position that allows him entry into every presidential conference and onto Air Force One, he gives an in-depth overview of America’s issues with guns, God and government, plus the causes of the anger and anxiety which surged in parts of the country, and the new president’s worrying penchant for bending or entirely ignoring the truth.

Concepts which had been vaguely familiar to me became easily-understandable, law cases and wars which I’d seen referenced innumerable times but never fully researched were simply-summarised and their effects described in a way that was easy to follow but not intelligence-insulting, and many alarming but enlightening facts and figures were revealed and filed away into my memory vaults for later use.

Though the book describes massive, deep-seated issues which are hugely concerning and extremely difficult to fix, I felt oddly reassured by the end of it, because it succeeded at doing exactly what it set out to do – give the reader a better understanding of America’s issues and how on Earth a man like Trump became the most powerful person on the planet.

Reading this book was part of my new effort to consume more non-fiction, which began when I noticed a few embarrassing blind-spots in my cultural and historical knowledge that I’m now very keen to cover up. Now that I ‘get’, to some extent, what’s going on in America, I need to fully comprehend what’s going on closer to home, so perhaps it’s time to finally tackle the enormous, daunting paperbacks of Tim Shipman’s Brexit-tastic All Out War and Fall Out that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves…

Honourable Mentions: Train Dreams – Denis Johnson, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman, Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames, Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett, All That Man Is – David Szalay, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami,
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2018’s Top TV: Three Top Miniseries

Sometimes, the prospect of starting a new long-running series with dozens of episodes to sit through just doesn’t seem like an attractive prospect, no matter how much praise and prestige it may have attracted, as there isn’t as much free time available to me as there used to be.

Luckily, this year offered a bountiful crop of short, succinct and satisfying dramas which arrived, amazed, and au-revoired before they could outstay their welcome..

Here are my favourite three.

Sharp Objects

sharp objects
Copyright: HBO.

A reporter from St Louis returns to her rural home-town after being told by her editor to cover an ongoing investigation into the murder of a young girl. Her boss thinks that going back to Wind Gap and dealing with her long-festering issues head-on will help her finally achieve some closure and do her no end of good. Well…

For Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, in what might be a career-best performance), confronting her past ends up being more traumatic than the crimes she’s supposed to be writing about, as Wind Gap’s suffocating atmosphere, gossipy locals and, worst of all, her nasty, overbearing mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson, impressively unpleasant in a difficult role) make her unconventional homecoming a living nightmare.

Then the police find another body.

Discovering who’s behind these murders becomes secondary to a claustrophobic character study of Camille and the toxic community in which she grew up.

However, this doesn’t mean that the crime plot is disappointing – when the killer is finally revealed, it’s shocking but satisfying and, like all the best crime drama whodunnits, seems incredibly, head-slappingly obvious in hindsight.

The show is lethargically paced, but anyone tempted to start staring at their phones would miss crucial details that flicker on-screen and disappear without making a sound. These can be jumbled memories from Camille’s past which her return has brought bubbling up to the surface, or subtly-hidden words that appear on objects around her to indicate how she’s feeling.

They are director Jean-Marc Vallée’s ingenious tricks which he uses to get us inside her head without the need for exposition or a voice-over narration. These confusing glimpses of her history and did-I-really-just-see-that tweaks to the environment contribute to the show’s slightly off-kilter atmosphere that make every encounter feel uneasy and sinister.

The eight-episode miniseries is adapted from a book by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, which may give you some idea of what to expect.

From the first episode’s dreamlike opening scene to the finale’s final post-credits shot, it’s a truly haunting, transfixing, disturbing, and thoroughly, thoroughly uncomfortable watch. Anyone looking for a feel-good binge, or who has suffered similar issues to Camille, should probably look elsewhere.

Maniac

maniac.jpg
Copyright: Netflix.

Amy Adams is far from the only Hollywood A-lister to star in a TV drama this year. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill headlined Netflix’s sci-fi comedy-drama Maniac, with Jonah playing against type as a depressed schizophrenic who takes part in an experimental trial for a drug that apparently cures all trauma, and Emma playing a grieving junkie who cheats her way onto the same trial just to get her next fix.

Each test subject is supposed to get an individually-tailored dreamlike experience that brings all their deepest fears bubbling up to the surface so that they can confront and overcome them while inside their own minds.

However, after emotions run high amongst the scientists in charge of administering the tests, a glitch causes Owen (Jonah) and Annie (Emma) to become mentally interlinked, leading to all sorts of surreal havoc when the tests begin.

This is the main hook of Maniac – it’s a playful, Inception-style jaunt through a series of different settings and genres that freewheel from 80s heist to mafia drama to fantasy epic and spy thriller, amongst others, that gives its leads plenty of chances to play different variations of their characters.

Before getting to the tests, the series takes its time to introduce us to its grey, slightly-dystopian near-future world and show why Annie and Ollie were drawn to the drug trial in the first place. The background details and minor characters in those first episodes reappear during the trials in surprising and often bewildering ways.

The show’s sense of humour can take a while to get used to, but once it all clicks it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, especially whenever Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) is on-screen, and it’s directed with eye-popping visual flair by Cary Fukunaga (who also did the good season of True Detective and will direct the next James Bond movie).

It’s not all goofy quirks and knockabout silliness, either – the central relationship between Owen and Annie is convincing and touching, and their attempts to grapple with their inner demons and connect with each other provide moments of genuine emotion amongst the high-concept daftness.

Patrick Melrose

Patrick Melrose
Copyright: Showtime/Sky Atlantic.

Benedict Cumberbatch is very good at acting.

This is a well-established fact, one so obvious that merely mentioning it feels redundant, yet when watching Patrick Melrose, it feels revelatory.

A few years ago, he publicly expressed interest in playing Patrick Melrose – at which point, presumably, a TV executive suddenly saw dollar signs and awards statues appear before his very eyes and immediately got to work assembling this stellar adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical novels.

As the titular character, Benedict grabs the viewer’s attention and refuses to let go, commanding the screen throughout the series and giving an awards-worthy performance without a hint of self-consciousness or vanity, pulling out all the stops to bring this complex person to life.

Cumberbatch’s astonishing portrayal of Patrick Melrose, a vice-ridden self-loathing Brit from a wealthy background who uses withering put downs and exaggerated bravado to hide his emotional scars, makes him as sympathetic as he is unpleasant, as hilarious as he is heartbreaking, often performing with such realistic vulnerability that the camera almost feels like a hovering intruder.

Over five episodes, each adapting a different book, we see him go on a three-day bender to grapple with the death of his dad (Hugo Weaving, monstrous), remember days from his seemingly-idyllic childhood which traumatised him for life (Sebastian Maltz impresses as young Patrick), become a father, attend a royal function at his old home, and perhaps, at last, achieve some sort of closure at the funeral of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, fragile and narcissistic).

Tonally, the series flits from a dark comedy of errors to a harrowing drama about abuse to a savage satire of upper-class callousness, which in the wrong hands could be a disastrous mess. Careful, insightful writing from David Nicholls, who knows when to hammer home the horror and when to slip in an acerbic one-liner, is matched with top-notch performances from all involved to make it work wonderfully well.

Without being in-your-face stylish (unlike, say, Maniac), it has a rather over-saturated look which suits Patrick’s often-addled perspective, and the lavish finery of the classy restaurants and mansions in which the drama plays out are shot beautifully.

Patrick Melrose is a masterpiece, and Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better.

Honourable Mentions: Bodyguard, A Very English Scandal.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the 2018 Oscars’ Best Picture nominees

This year, I decided to put my Cineworld card to good use and try to watch every Best Picture nominee for this year’s Oscars.

They’re quite a varied bunch, each film has something worth celebrating in it and, apart from Call Me By Your Name, I managed to see them all before the ceremony.

So here’s a quick little post with my thoughts on eight of the nine nominees.

Three Billboards
Copyright: Film4.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother who is fed up with the police’s lack of progress in their investigation of her daughter’s killer and decides to take matters into her own hands.

Her unpredictable quest for justice has consequences which are both darkly funny and immensely tragic -the film switches from hilarious to heartbreaking so quickly it can cause whiplash.

All the characters are believable, perfectly-performed, and well-served by a script that features verbose and vulgar one-liners mixed with moving sentiments.

The Post
Copyright: Amblin Entertainment.

The Post: Sometimes, it’s nice to just watch a group of actors you know and love doing some capital-A Acting, even if the film itself isn’t very remarkable.

Hanks, Streep, and a cast full of people from a few of my favourite TV shows stand around in newsrooms and mansions debating over whether or not to publish classified government documents about the Vietnam war.

The film flies through the plot and is always entertaining but it’s not as good as most of the other nominees.

One suspects it got in because it’s a Steven Spielberg film with topical subject matter and the Academy wanted to give Meryl Streep yet another nomination.

Near the end, there is quite a lot of slightly-melodramatic talk about how Journalism Is Very Important but, funnily enough, I didn’t really mind.

Darkest Hour.jpg
Copyright: Focus Features.

Darkest Hour: Gary Oldman is terrific in a film which is otherwise perfectly fine.

Joe Wright pulls off some distracting and self-consciously stylish direction in a failed attempt to make his slightly-above-average film look better than it actually is.

The true story of all the political infighting just before the Dunkirk evacuation is worth telling, but it would be more interesting to show the fighting on the beaches rather than Churchill talking about the fighting on the beaches.

Dunkirk
Copyright: Warner Brothers.

Dunkirk: Oh hey, what are the chances?

Watching Dunkirk was one of the best cinema experiences I had last year – a tense, terrifying and very very LOUD assault on the senses.

The soundtrack, the practical effects, the unusual structure, and the sound design all work together perfectly to make a memorably immersive experience.

I fear that its effect will be somewhat diminished when watched on the small screen because without the breathtaking spectacle, it’s fairly light on plot and character, which would make a re-watch at home underwhelming (I call this the Gravity effect).

Phantom Thread
Copyright: Universal.

Phantom Thread: Watching this was one of those odd occasions where even though it’s clear that everyone behind and in front of the camera is immensely talented, even though the film is immaculately made, it still left me cold.

There are flashes of brilliance in its exploration of the relationship between Daniel Day Lewis’ posh controlling man-child fashion designer and Vicky Krieps’ waitress who isn’t as innocent as she first appears, but when it ended I felt unsatisfied without being able to fully articulate why.

It’s been showered with praise but I’ve struggled to muster much enthusiasm for it.

Lady Bird
Copyright: A24.

Lady Bird: This gentle coming-of-age drama about a California teenager who is desperate to leave home and live somewhere more exciting is deceptively simple.

The way it flits through the life of its titular protagonist and sketches out the convincing and complex relationships she has with everyone else in the town is done with such seemingly-effortless ease that the film could be dismissed as lightweight or unimpressive when it is anything but.

It’s warm, touching, clearly made with lots of affection, and just really, really lovely. At the start I was amused but fairly nonplussed, then by the end I was moved to tears.

The perfect Mother’s Day film.

Get Out
Copyright: Universal.

Get Out: The fact that a comedic horror-satire got a Best Picture nomination is a bit of a surprise, but a welcome one.

Daniel Kaluuya is fantastic as the black boyfriend who is invited to his WASP girlfriend’s mansion and begins to suspect that something deeply disturbing is being hidden from him.

It’s strange, funny, topical, uncomfortable, and enjoyably creepy. Its nomination is made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s Jordan Peele’s first ever film.

It won’t win, though.

The Shape of water
Copyright: Fox Searchlight.

The Shape Of Water: Hopefully, this will.

Guillermo Del Toro’s visionary and unashamedly-sentimental fantasy historical-drama is one of the weirdest Best Picture nominees ever.

Bathed in beautiful blues and greens, accompanied by a romantic Alexandre Desplat score, and set in a wonderfully-realised version of 1960s America, the film portrays that classic, timeless love story of a mute woman who falls for a fish-monster.

Building an entire movie around a girl-meets-koi romance is a fairly risky decision, but Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones make this relationship genuinely convincing – no, I can’t believe I’m saying that either.

Any initial scepticism is destroyed by the scene where, without saying a single word, Sally tells her neighbour why the strange creature who was brought into the secret government lab where she works as a cleaner is so important to her.

The fact that this film works at all, let alone works as well as it does, is near-miraculous and deserves recognition.

2017’s Top TV: The Best of the Rest

After writing at length about how much I enjoyed American Gods, here’s the usual round-up of the rest of my favourite shows of the year,

The Good Place – “Dance Dance Resolution”/”The Trolley Problem”

the good place
Copyright: NBC/Netflix.

After mining comedy gold from offices in The Office (US), local governments in Parks and Recreation, and police stations in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Michael Schur has tackled a more ambitious environment in his newest series – the afterlife.

The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) from the moment she’s told some very good and very bad news: the bad news is, well, she’s dead, but the good news is she’s now in the Good Place, a version of heaven where all of humanity’s best and brightest live out eternity in a blissful wonderland paired up with their soulmate as a reward for all the good they did during their time on Earth.

However, Eleanor didn’t do much good while she was alive, quite the opposite in fact, and feels that she must have ended up here by mistake.

American sitcoms don’t usually concern themselves too much with plot, as they’re often content to just act as a comfortable half-hour hangout where characters deal with their day-to-day lives at a leisurely pace while getting involved in increasingly-daft misadventures.

This show is different.

It delights in constantly surprising us with different aspects of its surreal setting and new information about Eleanor and her neighbours, then ending every episode in a cliffhanger that leaves us dying to see what happens next.

The plot is so chock-full of big reveals that talking about the second season without spoiling anything is actually a very difficult task.

What I can say is it’s absolutely brilliant, hilarious, and endlessly-inventive.

Highlights so far include ‘Dance Dance Resolution’, which doesn’t stop to take a breath as it zips through several seasons of potential storylines in one dizzying episode, and ‘The Trolley Problem’, where Eleanor and her friends try to explain human concepts of morality to a higher being through an ethics lesson that spirals out of control.

Following Eleanor’s experiences with her ethics professor ‘soulmate’ Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the posh British socialite next door (Jameela Jamil), all-knowing AI assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and the neighbourhood’s supernatural architect and guardian Michael (Ted Danson, clearly having a great time in the role) is great fun and I can’t wait to see what future episodes have in store for them.

(The Good Place is on Netflix)

Mr Robot – “Runtime Error’/’Kill Process’

mr robot season 3
Copyright: USA/Amazon.

Picking up immediately after the ending of its divisive second season, Mr Robot quickly tackles the criticisms of that season by clearing up much of the confusion over character motivations and filling in gaps in the narrative which were infuriatingly teased but left unexplained throughout 2016’s episodes.

The psychological conspiracy thriller puts the emphasis firmly back on ‘thriller’ with a fast-paced rollercoaster of a season which focuses on a newly-motivated Elliot (Rami Malek) attempting to undo some of the damage his well-intentioned revolution has caused.

This goal puts him in direct conflict with powerful forces that have mysterious motives while his nearest and dearest hide devastating secrets from him.

Meanwhile, the show’s continued exploration of the rise of digital currency, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of privacy in the digital age makes it as timely as ever.

To call it a return to form would be a bit of an insult to season two, which I quite liked despite its issues – and its emphasis on character and backstory made a great foundation for this season to build on – but these new episodes are astoundingly good.

They’re full of memorable moments, shocking twists and astoundingly cool and clever tricks, and they maintain the show’s signature atmosphere of dread and disorientation.

‘Runtime Error’ follows Elliot and Angela (Portia Doubleday) in real time as he has a bad day at work and she struggles to follow instructions, tracking them in a way that makes the whole episode look like one long uninterrupted shot.

Far from being just a gimmick, this is an impressive and immersive way of building tension during a crucial day in the life of these characters – it’s thrillingly-executed, ambitious and just a hell of a lot of fun, even as the tension keeps relentlessly building over 45 long minutes.

Then ‘Kill Process’ sustains this tension by constantly cutting between several characters as Elliot tries to avert disaster and the FBI closes in on its targets until the suspense is almost unbearable, with a few gags and unexpected moments of slapstick comedy included to give viewers a bit of a breather.

The aftermath of these episodes dominates the rest of the season, as Elliot and Angela struggle to deal with what they’ve played a part in causing and the show flirts with the possibility of introducing sci-fi elements before quickly grounding itself firmly back in reality.

The cast still deliver brilliant performances, the direction is as stylish as ever, the writing is on point, the soundtrack is eclectic and Mac Quayle’s electronic score complements the action perfectly.

Most remarkable of all is that, three seasons in, it’s still very difficult to tell how this show will end, but I’m on board for whatever the future has in store.

(Mr Robot is on Amazon Prime Video)

Legion – “Chapter 7”

legion
Copyright: FX.

Legion is like watching an eight-episode psychedelic fever-dream.

The series sticks the viewer firmly inside the head of David Haller (Dan Stevens), who begins to suspect that the voices and visions he hears and sees, the same voices and visions that have lead to him being sent to a psychiatric hospital, may actually be real.

He might not be insane, but he may be insanely powerful.

David starts a relationship with another patient (Rachel Keller) just before he is caught up in a battle between a sinister government agency who wants to experiment on him and a misfit band of rebellious mutants who want to help him control his powers.

Film and TV are saturated with stories about superheroes these days, but Legion is unique.

It’s bursting with style, creativity, and confidence, flicking between reality, memories, nightmares and something else altogether at such a dizzying pace that it is, at first, a bit difficult to keep track of what’s what.

Thankfully, this is not a show that obfuscates and confuses just for the sake of it.

Things  settle down slightly as David gets a better grasp of his abilities and the plot, which is fairly straightforward when all the visual pyrotechnics and unreliable narration are stripped away, reveals itself.

Each episode has an audacious showstopper of a sequence designed to leave jaws on the floor and minds well and truly boggled, and the main cast all give excellent performances.

It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive shows on TV right now.

(Legion is on DVD, Bluray, and NOW TV)

Doctor Who – “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls”

doctor who capaldi
Copyright: BBC.

Taking a year off has done the show a world of good, as it returned reinvigorated with new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) and a fantastic-as-ever performance from Peter Capaldi.

Through Bill, the familiar tropes of the show seemed fresh and exciting again, as the writers managed to find plenty of inventive ways to introduce the Doctor’s new travelling partner to his time machine, his alien features and his complex morality.

I immensely disliked Matt Lucas’ character Nardole when he was first introduced two Christmas specials ago and the news that he would become a regular was met with a loud sigh, but he proved to be a fine addition to the TARDIS team.

He’s a well-written and likeable robot-human thing who is in the unusual position of being the Doctor’s travelling partner, his intellectual equal and, occasionally, his boss.

This season was intended to be a soft reboot, a good jumping-on point for new viewers, like Matt Smith’s first season was, and it does a wonderful job of showing how diverse and ambitious this show can be, enticing new viewers and reminding old ones why they like it so much.

Its first half features a string of great episodes that show Bill struggling to get used to the implausible sights and sounds she’s experiencing with this eccentric, wild-haired old Scottish man.

Even the episodes with plots that sound God-awful on paper (killer puddles, deadly emoji robots, etc) are surprisingly decent, and a few of the rest are the best in recent memory.

Victorian caper ‘Thin Ice’ is a perfect example of what a stand-alone Doctor Who episode should be, with a cool and unusual setting, a mysterious monster, good jokes, and well-performed character drama caused by a conflict between the differing perspectives of the Doctor and his companion, while space-zombie chiller ‘Oxygen’ has an intriguing premise, good twists, and – gasp – actual lasting consequences for the Doctor.

But these episodes, as good as they are, aren’t the ones mentioned at the top of this entry. With ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’, Stephen Moffat, in his final year as showrunner, has managed to outdo himself.

His tenure has been far from perfect and he’s written some cringe-worthy dreck over the years, but these two episodes show off everything he’s best at: cleverly-constructed out-of-sequence storytelling, impressive quotable speeches that show a keen understanding of the Doctor’s character, and well-devised concepts that are not just ‘scary for kids’ but scary full-stop.

‘World Enough and Time’ starts amusingly enough, with Moffat cramming in a few more self-referential ‘Doctor Who?’ gags while he still can, then it abruptly turns into a nightmare that gets darker and grimmer and bleaker as the minutes tick by before ending on an iconic final shot and a heartbreaking cliffhanger.

‘The Doctor Falls’ is about as cheery as its title suggests, putting the Doctor and Bill in a situation where it seems actually impossible for them to succeed and there’s an inescapable feeling of inevitable death over the whole episode because both writer and viewer know full well that Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor is on the way out.

All this doom and gloom is occasionally interrupted by one baddie merrily chewing the scenery and some touching moments from a surprising source.

Capaldi’s time as the Doctor has seemed oddly brief compared to his immediate predecessors, despite having as many full seasons as Tennant and Smith, but it’s great that he’s going out on such a high.

(Doctor Who is on DVD and Bluray)

Better Call Saul – “Chicanery”/”Fall”/”Lantern”

better call saul 3
Copyright: Netflix.

Another year, another stellar season of Saul. After opening with a couple of episodes that seemed like they were intentionally trying to frustrate those who complain that BCS is far too slow, the show ramped up to a long-awaited mid-season showdown between the brothers McGill.

The rest of the season explored the aftermath of that courtroom battle, which saw the first proper manifestation of Jimmy’s ‘Saul Goodman’ persona.

This was also the year that Better Call Saul became more like the Breaking Bad spin-off it was expected to be when it was first announced, with more characters from the original show popping up and playing key roles – the most notable one being Gus Fring.

I sometimes wonder whether this series would work for someone who’s never seen Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul still does because it manages to skilfully introduce more explicit ties to its predecessor without letting them take over the show and steal the spotlight from Jimmy.

Though Mike’s meetings with Gus and Nacho’s dealings with the Salamancas are gripping and also work as fanservice that doesn’t feel gratuitous, Jimmy’s slow transformation into Saul is still very much the focus.

In “Fall”, Jimmy is finally the amoral asshole he was always going to become, using his persuasive charm to manipulate and deceive one of his clients as the audience watches, stunned at his complete lack of empathy or remorse and finding themselves suddenly starting to hate this lovable wise-guy they’ve followed for three seasons.

This episode and the finale, “Lantern”, are a rough one-two punch that act as a dramatic reminder that, despite its slower, low-key feel, Better Call Saul can be just as shocking, upsetting and devastating as Breaking Bad when it really wants to be.

(Better Call Saul is on Netflix)

Fargo – “Aporia”/”Somebody to Love”

fargo season 3
Copyright: FX.

While it was good to have Fargo back, something just wasn’t clicking at first.

The characters were the sort of motley crew that wouldn’t feel out of place in either of the previous seasons, there was the requisite moment of shocking violence to kick off the plot, and the performances were all top-notch, especially Ewan McGregor playing the dual roles of Emmit and Ray Stussy.

During the slow early episodes, there was a well-executed episode-long diversion to another city that was like a short story tangentially-related to the tale the rest of the season was telling, which seemed like the sort of cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decision I’d be going gaga over in previous years.

But not this year. I was appreciative but distant, not fully engaged in the story this time around for reasons I couldn’t explain.

Then, around the half-way mark, something changed. The stakes were suddenly raised, dots were joined, ill-thought-out actions were having horrible consequences and I suddenly found myself caring immensely about characters I had previously thought of as quirky but fairly flat.

At the same time, the theme of the season was being hammered home with little-to-no subtlety but at least now I had a better understanding of what the show was trying to say, and it was saying it through the snaggle-toothed, bleeding-gummed mouth of the villainous V.M. Varga.

David Thewlis’ deliciously disgusting scene-stealing performance as this human ooze is a sight to behold.

His larger-than-life loan shark rambles about irrelevant trivia to sound clever and disarm his victims before telling lies so effortlessly that they became accepted truth through the sheer conviction of his slimy delivery.

Truth is the theme of the season, as the show confronts the lie it inherited from the film it’s based on which has appeared at the start of every single episode: “This is a true story.”

It examines how easily the truth can be distorted,  moulded and transfigured for the malicious ends of the powerful and the greedy (no real-world subtext here, no sir), and how, sometimes, the truth is knowingly disregarded and deemed unnecessary when the lie is more convenient.

This analysis is wrapped in the riotously-entertaining second half of the season which features more of those cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decisions that I normally go gaga for – and this time I did.

Back on the top TV list you go, Fargo.

(Fargo is on DVD, Bluray, and Netflix)

Honourable mentions: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – “The Miserable Mill” (both parts), Blue Planet 2 – “The Deep”, Marvel’s The Defenders – “Royal Dragon”, Game of Thrones – “The Spoils of War”, Bojack Horseman – “Thoughts and Prayers”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy.”

2017’s Top TV: American Gods

american gods
Copyright: Starz/Amazon.

This genre-defying series based on a Neil Gaiman novel follows a convict (Ricky Whittle) who is released from prison early after his wife dies.

That tragedy soon becomes the least of his worries when he meets a mysterious stranger (Ian McShane) on the flight home who offers him a job as a bodyguard.

Shadow Moon (yes, that’s the convict’s actual name but bear with me) is then drawn into a world he doesn’t understand, a world where old gods that came to America centuries ago, brought into the country by immigrants who believed in them, now wander around lost and bored and far from the height of their powers.

In the meantime, humanity has channelled its belief into man-made concepts like media, technology and globalisation, creating new gods that are quickly becoming unstoppable.

The show explores old myths from foreign lands and creates new ones right in the middle of 21st-century America: a fateful game of checkers against the god of war, a meeting between a salesman and a djinn that gives both of them new purpose, and a mortal’s chance encounter with a love goddess which ends with her swallowing him whole.

Before working on this, the series’ co-creator Bryan Fuller had just finished turning a crime thriller about a cannibal into a grandiose, mythical confrontation between good and evil and now he’s turned his eye towards adapting a book about an epic confrontation between actual, honest-to-god Gods, which is the sort of subject matter that fits perfectly with his love of the melodramatic, stylish and surreal. Everything is turned up to 12, because 11 just isn’t enough.

Despite having a rock-solid suspension of disbelief that has withstood all sorts of high-concept nonsense over the years and remained intact – six increasingly-insane seasons of Lost, dozens of dumb Doctor Who storylines, the arty-farty third season of Hannibal – I found it difficult to get on board with American Gods at first. As the credits rolled on episode one, I stared at the screen speechless and baffled, but not in a good way.

It was the two mid-season episodes “A Head Full of Snow” and “Git Gone” which fully sold me on it.

The former went from a touching exploration of death to a rooftop conversation that’s filmed like a fairytale to a tense high-stakes rematch to an unexpected love story between two strangers to a comical heist to a moment of pure wonder, all without skipping a beat. It was a seriously impressive and seamless series of scenes that fully displayed the show’s high ambitions and abilities.

Then “Git Gone” resolved the moment from episode one that had caused my previously-mentioned bafflement in a way that was unexpected, satisfying, and absolutely hilarious.

There are a lot of things about American Gods that viewers may find difficult to accept, but belief is a central theme of the show and this disbelief, if anything, helps us relate to the show’s protagonist, who is just as bewildered and overwhelmed by what he’s witnessing as we are.

He is the stoic centre around which the crazy and colourful cast of characters revolve and though he’s perhaps the least interesting character, he is the most important.

Shadow’s endless road trip around America with his eccentric employer makes up the fairly-thin plot of the show, which often prefers to leave the pair entirely and show us little unconnected vignettes about the old gods’ journeys to the country and what they’re getting up to these days.

This is why, after eight lengthy episodes, it still feels like the story’s barely getting started and we’ve only gone a few chapters into the 600-page book that the show’s based on, but it’s hard to complain when the performances are this good and it’s so easy to be enchanted by American Gods‘ dreamlike visuals.

It’s happy to leave us wanting more, and I’m happy to wait as long as Michael Green and Bryan Fuller don’t stretch this out for too long – oh, they’ve left the show.

Yes, as 2017 began to draw to a close, the pair abruptly exited after creative differences with the show’s network. Apparently, the budget was ballooning into the tens of millions without attracting the audience that would make that expenditure worthwhile

It remains to be seen how this will affect the show – most of season two’s scripts have already been written and it still has the same talented cast and crew, but it won’t quite be the same without Green and Fuller’s style and sensibilities.

Best Books I Read in 2017

Much of this year was spent getting used to my new full-time high-pressure job in an unfamilar town surrounded by strangers who soon became good friends or important contacts.

Luckily, despite an increasingly busy schedule, I still found time to read a few books. These were my favourites.

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth of december
Copyright: Bloomsbury.

Hype can be a dangerous thing.

A couple of pull-quotes on the front cover of a book can be good for attracting potential readers, but it’s all-too-easy to overdo them, to plaster the cover and front-load the first few pages with so many superlatives that the readers’ expectations become so impossibly-high that the book can no longer reach them.

This was the case with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a novel following the perilous journey of an escaped slave, which was showered with prizes and praise earlier this year.

Along with the usual short snippets from positive reviews on the front cover, the book had an extra cardboard flap behind the front cover full of lengthy paragraphs promising that the story was an unforgettable future classic with writing that was similar to half a dozen different literary greats, followed by a few pages which featured even more examples of critics singing its praises at the top of their lungs.

This absurd amount of hyperbole ended up hurting the book instead of helping it.

The Underground Railroad is a well-told tale with a great protagonist, an interesting structure, fully-developed characters and moments of extreme tension, sorrow and joy, yet I still felt a slight twinge of disappointment when I finished it because it had been merely excellent rather than an unquestionable masterpiece.

George Saunders also received a lot of acclaim this year for his new novel and I noticed that one of his short story collections, Tenth of December, had been gathering dust on my shelf, so the time seemed right to give it a go.

I glanced warily at the cover quotes suggesting that it was ‘the best book you’ll read this year’ and that George Saunders was ‘the best short story writer in English’, though compared to The Underground Railroad‘s cover this was fairly restrained and understated.

After skipping the introduction because it was 20 pages long – longer than some of the actual short stories in the collection – and because it began by repeating the ‘best book you’ll read this year’ comment which made me concerned that the rest of it would be similarly hyperbolic, I began the first story.

250 surreal, whimsical, disturbing, intense, laugh-out-loud funny and – quite often – extremely moving pages later, it was clear that the promises of the cover quote had been kept.

These stories are incredible.

They range from slice-of-life character dramas to sci-fi-inflected satires, they focus on dark and uncomfortable subjects but also have a silly sense of humour that doesn’t feel out of place, and Saunders writes with sympathy for his characters while putting them into desparate situations and observing how they cope.

So, with more than a little surprise, I must echo what the critics have said, because, once in a while, against all odds, despite their fondness for hyperbole, they’re right.

George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

margaret_atwood_the_handmaids_tale
Copyright: Vintage.

At the start of the year, soon after America inaugurated its new president, there was a sudden boom in sales of classic dystopian literature. What a coincidence.

The biggest bestseller was The Handmaid’s Tale, a chilling look at a society where women are treated as little more than walking wombs after a catastrophe which decimated the population of the USA and lead to widespread scapegoating of Muslims was used by an extreme right-wing Christian regime to stage a coup and strip women of their rights and freedoms.

In this new America, many women are assigned to wealthy married men as Handmaids, mistresses who must procreate with the head of the household since radiation has left the wives sterile.

Offred is our narrator and guide to this horrible society. She tells us about her miserable life, the life she once had, and how she got from there to here – the family and friends she lost along the way, the strict inhumane Aunts who taught her the rules of this new order, the day-to-day life of a Commander’s slave.

Her tale is a testimonial, a historical document from someone living under a totalitarian regime who wants to tell future scholars what it was like to live in such miserable conditions.

Abortion doctors are strung up on hooks on the Wall that encloses the community, uncomfortable quasi-religious ceremonies and rituals are unavoidable, women less fortunate than Offred (yes, that’s possible) regard her with hate and jealousy.

It’s all very bleak, yet it reads like a page-turning thriller with sharp lashings of wit, sympathy for characters who at first glance seem callous and even the possibility of hope.

Her story provokes plenty of questions that remain unanswered due to Offred’s limited perspective and it ends on an ambiguous note that’s frustrating but rings true, as it provokes the same feeling that anyone who’s ever perused personal letters in a history museum exhibit about any historical atrocity, only to find that the letter ends with a paragraph saying ‘It is unknown what happened to X after this was written, but there are several possibilities…’ will find familiar.

Berlin Stories – Robert Walser

robert-walser-berlin-stories-nyrb
Copyright: New York Review of Books.

In May 2016, I travelled to Berlin for three weeks as part of a work experience project. While I was there, I bought numerous books which were by German authors or about German history or just had the word ‘Berlin’ in the title because I planned to read one of them during that same three week period next May, and the May after that, and so on.

As this May began, I didn’t have the time or concentration to commit to a massive tome, so Robert Walser’s slim collection of even-slimmer pieces of writing about his time living and working in Berlin was the perfect book for this hectic period.

Rarely longer than four pages each, many of these notes and musings do a lot with very little. Walser’s joy in describing the minutiae of city life is infectious, expressed in lengthy paragraphs of conversational, personable, and endearingly rambling prose.

Sections near the end of the book have a more reflective and melancholic mood but are no less engaging and wonderfully imagined.

It’s like an old, exceptionally eloquent traveller telling you about where he’s been and though his anecdotes are all rather mundane, his storytelling ability and careful observations elevate them immensely.

It usually takes me a couple of minutes to read a couple of pages yet I spent considerably longer on some pieces in this book, like ‘Friedrichstrasse, ‘The Metropolitan Street’ or ‘The Theater, A Dream’, as I kept going back and re-reading, pausing on a particularly nice turn of phrase, or just waiting a while before reading the last couple of lines to let it all sink in.

The bar has been set very high for whatever I decide to read next May.

Before the Fall – Noah Hawley

Before the fall
Couldn’t find a big enough pic of the UK cover, so I took my own.

This tense, character-driven thriller about a mysterious plane crash, written by the creator of two of the best shows in recent years, seems almost like it was tailor-made for me.

After all, a character-driven thriller about a mysterious plane crash was a teenage obsession of mine, so when I discovered that the creator of Fargo and Legion had somehow found the time to write a book in-between planning, writing and directing the two shows, it was an obvious instant-buy.

Before the Fall examines the malleability of truth by looking at how an amoral journalist at a ratings-hungry 24-hour news network covers the aftermath of the disaster and how he affects the reputations of the survivors and the relatives of the dead through his wilfully-misleading and unethical reporting.

Down-on-his-luck artist Scott Burroughs becomes a last-minute addition to the list of passengers on a private jet’s flight to New York City after he meets the wife of a TV mogul hours before take-off.

When the plane unexpectedly crashes into the sea, Scott rescues the only other survivor, the mogul’s five-year-old son, by swimming several miles to shore and is quickly scrutinised by the media and the government.

As Scott attempts to adjusts to his new life in the spotlight while coming to terms with the trauma and tragedy he’s experienced, flashbacks reveal the personal histories of everyone else on the flight and offer up several possible causes for the crash before some shocking and satisfying revelations in the novel’s final pages.

This page-turner is a wonderfully well-written book, full of richly-developed characters and intriguingly-structured, a gripping and satisfying read that’s tense, funny and often quietly, heartbreakingly sad.

It proves that Noah Hawley is enviously multi-talented. Hopefully, he can find time to write another novel in his increasingly-busy work schedule.

Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger

franny and zooey
Copyright: Penguin.

This “pretty skimpy-looking book”, as Salinger himself calls it in the preface, was an unexpected highlight of the year for me.

I say unexpected because the first story, in which Franny Glass spends a day with her college boyfriend that triggers a nervous breakdown, was thoroughly underwhelming. Perhaps my expectations were too high but it was fairly uninteresting and luckily the second story more than made up for it.

Remarkably, Salinger has made an engaging, painful and entertaining read out of a plot that contains little more than a letter full of family history, two lengthy conversations which turn into heated arguments, and one that doesn’t.

Zooey’s section of the book is narrated by his older brother Buddy, who calls it a “prose home movie” that lets us witness a typical day in the life at the Glass residence.

Despite being absent during the events of the actual narrative, Buddy’s presence is still keenly felt, though not as much as Franny and Zooey’s late eldest brother Seymour, who is mentioned repeatedly in hushed, reverent tones that speak volumes about how much the Glasses miss him.

All of the Glass children had been the stars of a radio quiz show and listener feedback was split: “the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth… [or] bona-fide underage wits and savants, of an uncommon, if unenviable, order.” If your opinion of them falls into the former camp, this will be the longest 150 pages you’ve ever read.

While Zooey reads a screenplay in the bath and Franny lies in a sobbing, starving heap on the living room sofa, their long-suffering mother Bessie is worried sick trying to figure out what’s wrong with her daughter while also dealing with the painters that are redecorating the house.

She has the achingly-relatable struggle of juggling problems that are immensely important and monotonously mundane while trying not to collapse under the stress of it all.

It was surprising, and slightly concerning, to see elements of my own personality distorted, twisted and unflatteringly amplified in certain members of the Glass family.

Zooey’s well-read but comes off as smug and self-important, his sarcastic smart-arsery regularly crosses the line from cheeky to cruel and his apologetic self-awareness about this bad habit doesn’t make his harsh jibes any more forgiveable.

Buddy’s need to reflexively criticise his own work as a self-deprecating tactic to stop anyone else mocking it quickly becomes irritating rather than endearing.

Mrs Glass’ unhelpful but well-meaning concern for the children who seem to find her endlessly annoying is met with constant disrespect and both of the titular siblings struggle with crises of identity and second thoughts about their life choices.

Though it could easily be argued that Franny and Zooey is a rather aimless book of annoying people bickering with each other, its characters are so well-realised that it’s a shame there’s only two more ‘skimpy-looking’ books which feature them.

Salinger is adept at creating characters who are equally loved and loathed by his readers (see also: Holden Caulfield) and writing them in a way that feels real and resonant.

Honourable Mentions: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead, Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Look At Me – Jennifer Egan, Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett, MR ROBOT: Red Wheelbarrow (eps1.91_redwheelbarr0w.txt) – Sam Esmail and Courtney Looney,

A Series of Unfortunate Events

asoue
Copyright: Netflix.

Dear Reader,

I regret to inform you that Netflix has made the baffling decision to turn A Series of Unfortunate Events into a different sort of series. The books, in which Lemony Snicket selflessly chronicled the tragic true tale of the Baudelaire orphans, have sold millions of copies and people all over the world have disgracefully delighted in the sorrowful story of these poor children. There is a great deal of misery contained within these volumes yet the books were sold as children’s literature, probably due to a malicious marketing mix-up.

Why anyone would think that a show involving a deadly house fire, an enormous serpent, killer leeches, dangerous lumber mill machinery, and terrible disguises would be suitable family entertainment is beyond me. It would have been far wiser and more commercially viable to make an 8-episode adaptation of the charming animated film The Littlest Elf instead.

A comic actor played the wretched villain Count Olaf in a film of the Series that plagued cinemas nationwide in 2004 but his repeated attempts to steal the Baudelaires’ fortune are no laughing matter and I daresay that, in their attempt to profit from the orphans’ misfortune, Paramount have something in common with the despicable count.

Now, another misguided attempt at adapting this miserable material has been made and Netflix has gone to great lengths to replicate the tone of the film. They even managed to clone Emily Browning and cast her as Violet again under the name of ‘Malina Weissman’.

The film attempted to condense the plot of the first three books into 90 minutes but the series is stretching this sorry affair into three seasons, prolonging the suffering of these brave, intelligent children. And casting a real baby as Sunny and thus forcing her to be part of this unpleasant production surely counts as some form of child abuse.

There are no photos of the elusive Mr Snicket that aren’t blurry or taken with a long-zoom lens from a great distance but casting Patrick Warburton as Lemony was an ingenious move by the show’s creators since he looks and sounds the exact opposite of how readers pictured Snicket in their heads, which will confound the many police officers and government officials looking for him.

A lot of care has clearly gone into this adaptation, with its storybook-style set design, very fine direction from Barry Sonnenfeld, perfectly acceptable performances, and high amounts of of whimsy – a word which here means ‘silliness and humour added in order to make the cruelty of this whole saga less upsetting’ – but nevertheless, anyone who decides to give this show a try should take its theme song’s advice and look away.

As a wannabe TV critic with nothing better to do, I have a self-imposed duty to sit helpless and watch every minute of these unfortunate events unfold in front of me but there is nothing forcing you to do the same. Be wary and be watchful, but do not watch this. There are plenty of other Netflix Originals available to view that would be more wholesome and worthwhile than this one, like the cartoon with the talking vegetables or the one about the snail that goes fast.

Do not be fooled into thinking that this is all some elaborate attempt at reverse psychology and binge it anyway or you will soon be surely dismayed to discover that A Series of Unfortunate Events contains exactly what it says on the tin.

With all due respect,

Daniel Angelini.