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The book reports will continue until morale improves.

No, I don’t know what that means.

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Chinua Achebe before, but he’s been namechecked by a lot of people as one of those writers you need to check out if you want to read more fiction from Africa. This is his first novel (published in 1958) and not only is it regarded as the first significant English-language novel to originate from Africa, it’s also heralded as a literary classic in its own right – and having now read it, I can see why.

The story takes place in Nigeria in the 19th century, and follows Okonkwo, a man at the top of the social order of his clan in the villages of Umuofia, which he had to achieve entirely on his own since his layabout debt-laden father left him with nothing to inherit. Consequently, Okonkwo is tough, mean, angry and cruel, even to his own family, and completely obsessed with his own masculinity. The first half of the story tells how he came to power – the second half tracks his downfall due to a mix of bad luck and the arrival of white British missionaries and colonists who disrupt the traditions that Okonkwo relies on to advance and maintain his position and success.

It’s a depressing and disturbing read, not least because Okonkwo is a textbook example of toxic masculinity – he hates women, beats his wives regularly, wishes his daughter had been born a man, and despises any man who shows the slightest sign of weakness (to include himself). A lot of this is reinforced by the traditions of his culture, but even other men in the village aren’t as hardcore as Okonkwo. So he’s just about impossible to like. At the same time, it’s an engrossing story, thanks to Achebe’s excellent prose that draws the reader into the culture Okonkwo inhabits and portrays him as a monstrous yet tragic protagonist. Things get really interesting when the missionaries show up, representing both the positive and negative impact of Christian missions at the time on traditional cultures. For such a short novel, there’s a lot to unpack here, and plenty of scenes stick in the mind.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth (Hilo Book 1)Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first time reading Judd Winick, and I confess I mainly picked this up in part because it turns out I’m friends with one of his cousins who hipped this book to me when it came out. That said, I also liked the art style on the cover, so I decided to give it a shot.

As the title implies, Hilo is a boy who literally falls from the sky and crashes into the Earth like a meteor, with no memory of who he is or where he’s from. He’s discovered and befriended by DJ, a nerdy 13-year-old boy, who lets Hilo stay at his house. This first volume involves Hilo figuring out why he’s here, which may have to do with the giant robot ant trying to kill him. There’s also a subplot with DJ being reunited with his old childhood friend Gina and dealing with being an underachiever in a family full of overachievers.

I can’t say it fully resonated with me, but then I’m not the target demographic – I think 13-year-old me would have enjoyed this a lot. Also, the art is great, the story well paced and the humor is reasonably wacky – it would make a good TV series on Cartoon Network.

City of IllusionsCity of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is Ursula K Le Guin’s third instalment of the Hainish cycle, and (as far as I know) the first in the series to have some kind of continuity from a previous book, although it also works as a standalone novel. This one takes place on Earth (Terra), which is now a post-apocalyptic barbarian wasteland ruled by the Shing, an alien race who defeated the League of Worlds and took over Earth 1,200 years ago.

This is the backdrop for the story of a man with golden cat eyes and no memory or identity at all who stumbles out of the woods into a village. The locals take him in, and he builds up a new identity as “Falk”. Eventually Falk is told he needs to find out where he is from, who erased his previous memory/identity and why. To do this he must go to the city of Es Toch where the Shing rule. Very much walking ensues, during which Falk meets a lot of strange barbaric tribes along the way, and eventually finds out that everything he has learned is wrong. Or is it?

Of Le Guin’s first three early Hainish novels, this one works the best for me. It gets off to a slow start, but picks up speed the closer Falk gets to Es Toch, and it’s when he arrives that the real fun begins. Le Guin explores the implications of having your identity erased and restored (what then to do with the identity you’ve constructed in the interim?) and the problems of discerning truth from illusion – i.e. if someone tells you that they just told you a lie, are they lying when they tell you that they lied? I felt there was more meat to chew on here, and Falk was a more fleshed-out main character.

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions (Japanese Devil Fish Girl #1)The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions by Robert Rankin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of Rankin’s work, though I took a break for a quite awhile, mainly because the series that starts with this novel was released in trade paperback, and I was waiting for the cheaper mass market versions, which it turns out were not forthcoming. Fiddle de, fiddle dum. Anyway, this kicks off Rankin’s take on the steampunk genre, and doubles as a sequel to HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Around ten years after the Martian invasion was defeated (for which the British Empire took full credit), British engineers have reverse-engineered Martian spaceships, and now there is steampunk tech and space travel, and it turns out there are also Venusians and Jupiterians, who are much more friendly. Or are they?

This is the backdrop for the story of George Fox, an innocent lad with big dreams who works for Professor Coffin, who runs a sideshow circus with freakish attractions. Together they end up on an epic quest to find the ultimate sideshow attraction – the fabled Japanese Devil Fish Girl, who may or may not be a goddess. This being Rankin, there’s also lots of conspiracy theories, a monkey butler, and cameos from famous historical figures, including PT Barnum, Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla, Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, regardless of whether or not they were technically alive in 1895, because who says you can’t do that?

I’m not big on steampunk, but I do like Rankin’s humor and his lyrical, whimsical writing style, and he does tell a good tall tale. He also has a lot of fun with the premise, and while he does sometimes go a bit overboard with the British Empire love, and the bit with the jungle cannibals is in questionable taste, they do serve as a satire of Victorian adventure literature that tended to put a premium on both British Empire and stereotypical jungle savages as convenient dangers for the hero to wallop, which I think is what Rankin intended. Anyway, I liked it.

A Fall of MoondustA Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written in 1960 – well before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon – this novel from Arthur C Clarke imagines a future in which mankind is colonizing the solar system and numerous bases have been established on the Moon to the point of enabling tourism, which includes tours of the surface on “dust cruisers” that ski on the film of dust covering the ground. The moon dust also collects in lakes – some of them quite deep.

That’s the backdrop for the basic plot, in which the dust cruiser Selene sinks into the so-called “Sea of Thirst” without a trace following a rare moonquake. As Captain Pat Harris tries to keep his passengers alive (and calm), on the surface Chief Engineer Robert Lawrence is racing against time to locate the submerged Selene and rescue the passengers and crew.

This is the kind of stuff Clarke generally does well – create a hard-science future and throw the characters (usually scientists) into a situation that they have to repeatedly science themselves out of. Like pretty much all of Clarke’s books, he’s less adept at the human characters – especially when it comes to women and relationships, or really anyone who isn't a male scientist or engineer, who as a group Clarke tends to portray as calm and professional (he also stacks the deck here by making the majority of the Selene’s passengers academic types, perhaps to insure against the inevitable panic scene). In any case, it’s a relatively fast-paced rescue story that holds up surprisingly well (apart from the moondust itself, which is the major scientific inaccuracy, which Clarke himself acknowledged in post-Apollo editions).

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Done and dusted,

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Well that escalated quickly, didn’t it?

"Rommel?" "Gunner Who?": A Confrontation in the Desert by Spike Milligan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spike Milligan is one of those legendary comedians who gets namechecked by lots of comedians I admire, and I’m aware of his role as a co-founder of The Goons, but I’ve never actually seen much of his stuff, and I haven’t read any of his books. So when I found this in a charity book sale, I figured it was a good excuse to try him out.

This is Volume 2 (of 7) of his WW2 memoirs, covering January to May 1943, in which his artillery unit arrives in Algeria and fights its way to Tunis. It’s a mix of embellished diary entries, fake dialogue between Hitler and other Nazi officials (and occasionally Churchill, Mussolini and others), drawings and humorously illustrative photos (many of them not actually from WW2). And I’m not really sure what to make of it.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of funny bits, and the slapdash, jumbled narrative (such as it is) conveys what it’s like to be a soldier on the ground without the benefit of a bigger picture of what’s going on. On the other hand, I’m not really a fan of war memoirs, though they’re better when they’re funny. Still, I think Milligan didn't strike the right balance between refusing to take the war seriously and conveying the seriousness of what it was like to be in the war. (The casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the time doesn’t help, although at least it’s honest.) I don’t think this will put me off investigating Milligan further, but I don’t think I’ll be checking out any more of his war memoirs for awhile.

Pebble in the Sky (Galactic Empire, #3)Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is Isaac Asimov’s first novel (although, confusingly, it’s the third novel in his Empire series), and I’ve always wanted to read it, as I really enjoyed Asimov’s Foundation series and his robot novels. The premise is also pretty good: an unspecified nuclear accident suddenly transports innocent bystander Joseph Schwartz into the far future in which the Galactic Empire has been established and Earth – regarded as a barbaric radioactive backwater – is run by the Society of Ancients that believe (contrary to all scientific evidence) that humankind actually originated on Earth.

The story follows Schwartz, an Earth scientist named Dr Shekt (who has developed a machine to help humans learn faster) and an archaeologist named Bel Arvardan who is visiting Earth for research purposes – namely, to prove that the Society of Ancients are right, only to eventually discover that Earth is planning to rebel against the Empire (again), and this time they might win.

Which would be great, except Asimov’s writing here is disappointingly clunky, with sudden and jarring shifts in viewpoint, clumsy foreshadowing and sometimes terrible dialogue, all of which proved rather distracting for me. His handling of the one primary female character, Shekt’s daughter Pola, also hasn’t aged well. There are some good scenes, and Asimov’s attempts to address issues like racism and bigotry are admirable. But this was a letdown for me – not least because I know he could write far better than this.

The Complete Yes MinisterThe Complete Yes Minister by Jonathan Lynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yes, Minister is probably one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, not least for its smart writing and savage-yet-subtle political satire. That said, when I saw this in a charity book sale, I only hesitated because I didn’t know if I just wanted to read the show scripts. But this omnibus (which covers all three seasons of the series) isn’t just scripts, but all the shows rewritten as short stories in the form of Minister Jim Hacker’s recorded diaries, along with other memos, BBC transcripts and interviews to cover bits of the show that Hacker wouldn’t have been able to talk about as he wasn’t present at the time.

As such, this collection offers not only a different presentation of each episode, but a lot of bonus material – the equivalent of DVD commentary and extras – in the form of backgrounders, context, some explanations of British govt terms and acronyms, and plenty of witty commentary from the “editors”, among other things. So I learned a lot, and also got a deeper sense of the three main characters – Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley (who I always assumed was the main character, for some reason – it seems I may have been mistaken there). Still, it’s arguably a better experience to watch the show than to read it, especially when it comes to the dialogue pacing and performances of Paul Eddington, Derek Fowlds and Nigel Hawthorne that really made the show such a delight to watch.

Between PlanetsBetween Planets by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robert Heinlein was doing YA sci-fi decades before YA was a thing, and this 1951 novel is regarded to be one of his better works. As it happens, this was the first Heinlein book I ever attempted to read, but despite being 13 (a.k.a. the target demographic), I didn’t finish it – mainly because I was only just getting into sci-fi novels and my expectations had been set by Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, which is totally unfair, I know, but did I mention I was 13?

The premise is a good one – the human colony on Venus stage a rebellion against the Earth-based Federation, which makes life complicated for teenager Don Harvey, who lives on Earth but has dual citizenship thanks to his parents being from both planets. With war looming, his parents instruct him to join them on Mars, but Don’s journey gets complicated fast as events unfold and he finds himself under suspicion of being a spy – especially after an old family friend asks him to deliver a package to his parents.

The story itself is okay and goes in a direction I didn’t quite expect, although – like a lot of Heinlein – it hasn’t aged too well in terms of science (i.e. Venus having a breathable atmosphere) and cultural stereotypes (i.e. the bit about Chinese immigrants on Venus). And for my money, at least, Don Harvey is one of Heinlein’s typical “rugged American individualism” characters that I find a bit annoying, although his naïve ideologies do get a walloping by reality. Anyway, I can see why 13-year-old me didn’t get into it. 53-year-old me thought it was all right, but I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking I’ve read enough of him for the time being.

Tall TalesTall Tales by Al Jaffee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you know Al Jaffee’s name at all, it’s probably because you read Mad Magazine on a fairly regular basis at some point in your life. Like me. One of the many things Jaffee did outside of Mad was a newspaper strip with a unique gimmick – a vertical format rather than the usual horizontal or four-square panel format. The strip, “Tall Tales”, were one-shot visual jokes that took advantage of the format. It ran from 1957 to 1963, and this book collects what Jaffee thinks are the best of the lot.

Most are pretty good, some are laugh-out-loud funny, but I mostly got a kick of the gimmick itself and how Jaffee made maximum use of it to create a gag. Some of the humor is dated, but if you’re a fan of Jaffee or a comic-strip aficionado, I’d highly recommend this.

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Walking tall,

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And so it’s a new year of reading fun!

Though I’m off to a slow start this year, thanks mainly to having spent the month (1) hunting for a new flat to move into and (2) moving into it (which we did this week). But it’s not like I set a goal of reading 42 books again this y–

Oh wait. I did.

Oh well, it's not like Goodreads will rescind my membership if I fail. And I’m sure I’ll make up for lost time once everything settles down a little.

Random Walk: a Novel for the New AgeRandom Walk: a Novel for the New Age by Lawrence Block

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block since the mid-80s, but somehow I missed this book that came out in 1988. And there may be good reason for that – it’s a novel that not only steps outside his usual turf (crime novels) but also didn’t do well at the time (also unusual for a Block novel, at least by this point in his career).

According to Block, he just had this idea of a man in Oregon who isn’t satisfied with his life, hears a voice suggesting he literally walk away from it all, upon which he packs a bag, starts walking east and keeps going – and Block ran with it until three weeks later he had a novel. A mysterious force compels others to join Guthrie’s walk, protects them from the elements and even provides healing miracles. This being Block, there’s also a very nasty serial killer on the loose somewhere in the Midwest.

As always, Block is good at keeping you turning the pages, if only to find out (1) where all of this is going and (2) what the serial killer has to do with anything. However, the eventual explanation for the walk isn't very convincing, and the resolution regarding the dual narratives – while perhaps daring – beggars belief even within the New Age spiritual framework Block employs, which itself is problematic. As a fan, I did enjoy watching Block try something different (although the serial killer angle is vintage Block), and it was a nice try. But ultimately I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to accommodate it.

The Lottery and Other StoriesThe Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read several of Jackson’s novels before and liked them, so I was keen to try this collection of her short stories – not least because I’d read “The Lottery” when I was in high school. The striking thing about it is that it shows Jackson didn’t just write horror stories – most of the stories here are more focused on suburban middle-class angst, with the protagonists often dealing with the pressures of conformity, deception, duplicity, etc.

That said, these aren't exactly slice-of-life mini-dramas – Jackson manages to put a unique twist on many of them, and her eye for social observation is sharp as a tack, especially the ones that tackle heavier themes like racism. That said, I have to admit I prefer Jackson in weird/horror mode, and while a couple of stories here fit that description, “The Lottery” is the main attraction. It perhaps says a lot that it’s the last story in the collection – as if putting it first would overshadow everything that follows. Or maybe it’s like bands who save their biggest hit song for the finale.

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Winning isn’t everything,

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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2018 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2017 for yr country, but 2018 for Hong Kong. See?


1. The Shape of Water
In which Guillermo del Toro basically reimagines Creature From The Black Lagoon as a love story, in which the creature is held in a secret govt lab for cruel experiments, where mute cleaning woman Elisa bonds with him. It’s as weird and tragic as you’d expect, and it’s a nice twist on a classic horror movie.

2. 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I went in not really knowing much about it apart from the cast and the director – both of which were enough to convince me to see it. I really enjoyed Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and any film with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell seems like a good bet. It was – it’s a powerful story about what happens when the rage of loss is compounded by injustice, and the depths people sink to when desperation sets in.

3. Muppet Guys Talking
This Frank Oz documentary was originally filmed in 2012, and Oz sat on the footage for years before finally having the time to edit it down to a feature-length doc. The title says it all – it’s mainly five Muppet performers (Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz and Bill Barretta) sitting in a room talking about Muppet history, the characters they played, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and Jim Henson. It’s a simple concept, and it works wonderfully – all five performers are good storytellers and have plenty of great anecdotes to share. Essential for anyone who’s a Muppet fan.

4. Black Panther
I only saw a couple of MCU films last year (Infinity War was not one of them because I’ve been assured it’s really for fans only, a.k.a. people who have seen all the MCU films and remember every detail about them), but Black Panther was by far the best of the bunch for me for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s a character I’m not as familiar with, compared to Captain America, Hulk Iron Man, etc, so it offered something different, and (2) the rich worldbuilding of Wakanda, and reasonably well-developed characters (by MCU standards, anyway), to include the villain, Killmonger. Like with all MCU films, the rollercoaster CGI action is overdone, but that’s the price of admission.

5. All The Money In The World
The strange but true tale of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III, which I only tried because Ridley Scott is usually a dependable director and he’s good at this kind of film. Of course the race to find Paul and secure his release is interesting, but the film also succeeds as a family drama and an indictment of greed so engrained that it will drive people to put money before family. It’s flawed in places, and of course they made up some of it. But I’ve learned to expect that with “true” stories. DISCLAIMER: It was only after seeing it that I found out this was the film where Kevin Spacey was edited out and replaced by Christopher Plummer. All I’ll say is that it looked seamless to me – I’d never have guessed if TwitterBook hadn’t told me.

6. Isle Of Dogs
I’ve said before Wes Anderson is one of those directors you either like or you don’t, and this doesn’t change that. This animated homage to Japanese cinema is one of his better films – not quite as good as Fantastic Mr Fox, mainly because the characterization isn't as strong, due to it being more of an ensemble cast. But it’s full of Anderson’s usual dark humor and visual panache.

7. Bohemian Rhapsody
Oh, YOU know. And I have to say that as flawed as it is – and it is flawed, from the standard dialogue and rock’n’roll clichés to the unnecessary revisionist history (“Fat Bottomed Girls” coming out in 1974, Freddie Mercury adopting his Tom From Finland look in the late 70s, etc) – I liked it. I think it’s partly because the music is great, the cast (not just Rami Malek, but everyone) really look and act like the band, and I’ve read interviews with Brian May who says the film isn’t meant to be real life but a “painting” of Freddie, so I figure if he’s okay with it, why should I complain? That said, I maintain that if you’re going to call the film Bohemian Rhapsody, there should be at least one sequence in the film where they play the whole song through in its entirety.

8. Early Man
The latest animated film from Nick Park. I think I would have liked this less if I’d seen any trailers for it – it’s more fun to watch it unexpectedly go from a prehistoric comedy to a satire of English football. Once it does, it’s pretty predictable, and there are moments where I felt they could have done a little more with the material. But it’s still a goofy, fun and enjoyable film.

9. Incredibles 2
I don’t think we really needed an Incredibles sequel, but we got one anyway, and it’s pretty good for what it is, maintaining more or less the quality level of the first one, as well as the themes of how vigilante superheroes don’t quite fit into a world of real-world laws and regulations, and the challenges of raising kids with superpowers. Anyway, it’s one of the better superhero movies on 2018.

10. Solo: A Star Wars Story
I have so much to say about this, and you can read it all here. For the capsule review, I’ll just say that as a straight-up big-budget space-adventure film, it’s actually pretty good fun. As a Star Wars film, it’s predictable as far as the established characters are concerned (Solo, Chewbacca and Lando), and it doesn't really add much to the characters that we didn’t already know. Also, I’m one of those fans who feels that Han Solo didn’t need an origin story – part of Solo’s appeal has always been his braggadocio and exaggerating his own accomplishments, and the references to the Kessel Run work better when you don’t know how he did it.


Ant-Man and The Wasp
The other decent MCU film of 2018, in which Ant-Man is under house arrest and estranged from the Pyms because of some other MCU film I couldn’t remember, but that changes when it turns out that during the first film he somehow became quantumly entangled with the original Wasp, who is believed lost in the sub-atomic realm. The Ant-Man films get by mainly on having their own specific sense of humor (Paul Rudd and Michael Pena are still great) and the writers having fun with the concept of being able to shrink and enlarge objects and people at will. This one also has a more interesting villain with Ghost.

The Crimes That Bind
This Japanese film is based on the last instalment of the Detective Kaga novels by Keigo Higashino. It’s also the last of the film/TV franchise based on those novels. I haven’t watched those, but I have read one of the novels, and I do like lead actor Hiroshi Abe (who has played Kaga before and does so here), so I gave this a shot. The story involves Kaga helping a young police detective investigate the death of a woman in Shiga in part because he suspects the case has a connection to the unsolved mystery of his own mother’s death 16 years earlier in the same town. Like a lot of Japanese murder mysteries, the truth is both insanely convoluted and melodramatic, and the film gets by mainly by good performances from Abe and Nanako Matsuhima (as a theatre owner who was the last person to see the victim alive).

Mission Impossible: Fallout
By now the M:I franchise template is pretty solid – insane action sequences, insane technology, insane plot twists, insane interdepartmental squabbles, and insane Tom Cruise putting stuntmen out of work. And that’s okay, since the franchise tends to work best when the writers and director embrace the utter insanity of the premise, take the “impossible” part literally and run with it. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie does all of that and more. This time out, Ethan Hunt is out to recover three stolen plutonium MacGuffins that a terrorist group called The Apostles (formed from the remains of The Syndicate, which Hunt defeated in the previous film) are attempting to acquire. Insanity ensues.

A Korean monster movie with a slight twist in that it’s a period piece, taking place in the 15th century during the Joseon era. Following reports of a giant monster killing villagers and spreading a plague, King Jungjong asks disgraced general Yun Kyum to investigate whether the “monstrum” is real or a rumor spread by his political enemies to undermine his leadership and stage a coup. It’s a great set-up for what turns out to be a predictable story with average CG and a cop-out ending, and I think director Huh Jong-ho could have waited longer to reveal the truth behind the monstrum. But for all its flaws, I found it interesting.


The Meg
Actually, the film overall was better than I expected – not great, but I was entertained. My main disappointment is that Jason Statham didn’t kill the megalodon by kicking its head off.


A Wrinkle In Time

My Twitter feed was full of people who loved this live-action version of the classic novel (which was one of my junior-high reading staples), and … well, it didn’t work for me. I thought it just tried too hard to be Amazing (cue “this is Amazing” reaction shots from all the characters every time they arrived at a new planet), the dialogue just doesn't flow at all, and the three Mrs Ws are kind of annoying. And while I understand why Ava DuVerny and the writers stripped out the Christian elements of the book, those elements were also crucial to explaining more or less what is going on and why, and what the Mrs Ws have to do with anything – without that context (or a workable replacement), the result is a generic good vs evil arc with no good explanation as to who the Mrs Ws are and why it’s up to the Murry children to fight IT to save their dad.


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

This is the direct sequel to Jurassic World, both in terms of bringing back Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Blue The Velociraptor, and in terms of the fact that the whole story depends on just about everyone besides them being a complete and utter idiot with absolutely no memory of anything that happened in the previous films. The “save the dinos” angle is interesting in that it echoes the original film’s point that the regenerated dinosaurs are in a sense victims of man’s arrogance, but the bad guy plot is beyond ludicrous and the set-up for the next film isn't that convincing.

The balcony is closed,

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Well, sure you do.

I’ll open with the fact that I changed the criteria this year in that I’m no longer limiting myself to music I bought, mainly because my music budget has been slashed considerably to the point that it’s hard enough to put together a Top 10, and there’s almost always going to be more albums I want to buy than I can actually afford. So now I’m including albums that I have streamed online, either via Spotify or NPR First Listen and whatnot.

That expands the field considerably, although not this year, since I only decided to implement this policy a month ago. But this year’s field is certainly bigger than the last couple of years.

As for that field, as usual it seems most of the best albums, as usual, came from the old pros instead of new artists. Even more telling, perhaps, is that it seems 2018 was the year for cover projects, whether paying tribute to a particular artist or covering a classic album. And there’s nothing wrong with that – you don't always have to write your own material, and as long as you bring something new to the table – or can at least demonstrate why the song is worth covering – it’s all good.

Is that a major indication of the state of music in 2018? Probably not. As Tom Waits once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “No one ever says we have enough songs. There’s always room for one more song.”

That said, overall I felt 2018 wasn’t really a knockout year for music. I like everything in this Top 10, but only a couple really made a big impression on me. This was also a year where albums from several artists I really like (Janelle Monae, Neko Case, The Breeders) didn’t really connect with me, whether because they were underwhelming or overhyped – which is of course my problem, not theirs.

So here’s what impressed me the most this year.

TOP 10 DEF LPs OF 2018

10. Angélique Kidjo, Remain In Light (Kravenworks)
In which Kidjo covers an entire Talking Heads album. It works – which is perhaps unsurprising, given how the original was influenced by Afrobeat rhythms. For the most part, Kidjo takes that element and puts it at the forefront. It’s interesting too that she seems to have opted for the Stop Making Sense versions of these songs, tempo-wise. David Byrne reportedly loves it.

9. Ry Cooder The Prodigal Son (Perro Verde/Fantasy)
This has been billed by some music journalists as Ry Cooder’s gospel album, though that’s overselling it. While there’s some gospel covers here, Cooder (who openly admits to being non-religious) is more interested in gospel as an American roots music style – which makes a kind of sense as gospel is probably the only form of American folk music he hasn't done yet. Like with most Cooder albums, the vocals don’t always do the material justice, but musically it’s beautiful, fun and rowdy as required.

8. Hedgehog, Sound Of Life Towards … (Tai He)
Hedgehog are a band from Beijing who specialize in indie rock, albeit the kind of indie rock where they play around with different templates rather than stick to one formula – a little Pixies here, a little Nirvana there, a little Blonde Redhead thataway, etc – although none of those comparisons really tell you what they sound like. In any case, this is (I believe) their tenth album, and it’s a pretty solid set of songs with some pretty nifty arrangements.

7. Mighty Jabronis, Mighty Jabronis (Bandcamp)
The Mighty Jabronis are the latest music project featuring Cat Taylor, who fronted Nashville hardcore legends Rednecks In Pain and later Fun Girls From Mt Pilot. Their main gimmick is to combine punk rock and pro wrestling (and Cat has actually done both), so all their songs are wrestling-themed, as are their cover songs (to include a parody of a Loverboy hit). It may be a gimmick, but it’s a good one and it’s catchy fun. You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling to like this, but it will help you get a lot of the in-jokes.

6. Kim Wilde, Here Come The Aliens (Wildeflower/Edel)
Yes, THAT Kim Wilde (a.k.a. “Kids In America”). She’s still around, and has been recording more or less steadily since her 80s heyday, apart from one ten-year break.. I was a fan of her first four albums released in the early 80s, and this – her 14th album and her first in five years – sounds like she and brother Ricky haven’t changed their production standards (or keyboards) one jot since then, except the guitars are louder to the point that at times it sounds like the 80s-era Billy Idol comeback album we didn’t ask for. The few ballads are too generic for me, but overall I have to say I liked this more than I expected I would. If you like 80s pop ladled with Eurocheese and not taken too seriously, this is actually a lot of fun.

5. Cambodian Space Project, Spaced Out In Wonderland (ABC)
Cambodian Space Project is a Cambodian 60s psychedelic pop tribute band from Cambodia who do a mix of covers and originals. Sadly this may be their final album, as their lead singer, Channthy, was killed in a traffic accident in March last year. I think this is their best album to date, mainly on the strength of their selection of Western classics to which they apply their Cambodian pop-rock sound (like “Paint It Black”, “Proud Mary” (the Ike and Tina version) and “Summer Wine”). The original songs are a mixed bag – some work great, some don’t – but the album is worth the price of admission for their cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”.

4. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, Everything's Fine (Mello Music Group)
I’m not familiar with Quelle Chris, but I’ve been a fan of Jean Grae from back in the late 90s when she was rapping under the name What What. This is their first full-length collaboration, a concept album about the state of the nation and how all of us – but racial minorities in particular – often say “everything’s fine”, even if we’re on the edge of losing it, because it's what we’re expected to say, whether it’s about our personal lives or the society around us. It’s musically inventive and packs a bigger punch than any so called gangsta rap.

3. Kristin Hersh, Possible Dust Clouds (Fire Records)
This is Hersh’s 11th solo album, and if you’ve ever heard her previous albums, this doesn’t vary too far from her usual songwriting template – in fact, the biggest deviation is the heavy, distorted production and what sounds like greater use of effects pedals, which gives it a more layered sound, though not to the point of being overproduced. What’s really striking is the occasionally ambitious songwriting structures and the fact that Hersh can take the same three or four basic sets of chord changes and somehow still make them sound fresh.

2. Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall (Nonesuch)
This is music from their multimedia show about Anderson’s experiences when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, so in a sense this is an incomplete experience – but the music holds its own, though it’s when Anderson recites her spoken-word bits that it really comes to life. But the music speaks for itself to the point that the song title is often all you really need to create your own visuals in your head.

1. Juliana Hatfield, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (American Laundromat)
Just like it says. Hatfield does mostly the hits and a few album tracks, and while most critics have complained that she didn't do enough to take ownership of these songs or mess around with them enough – which is technically true – I thought she struck almost the right balance between tribute and doing her own version. Admittedly there’s a couple of songs where I found myself wishing she’d done just a little bit more with it. That said, her voice is perfectly suited for ONJ’s songs, and she sounds like she really had a blast recording these – and her enthusiasm is contagious, because I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. Your own opinion will likely depend on how much you like ONJ and to what extent you expect cover versions to reinvent the original song.


David Byrne, American Utopia (Todomundo/Nonesuch)
This is Byrne’s seventh solo album, and it’s part of larger multimedia project called Reasons To Be Cheerful, Byrne’s attempt to find optimism in the current grim reality, even if that means pointing out that dogs, chickens and bullets are lucky that they don’t have to worry about sociopolitical problems. Of course, there’s nothing here to beat his Talking Heads material, but taken on its own terms, it’s his best solo effort in awhile.

The Damned, Evil Spirits (Spinefarm/Universal)
The Damned return after a ten-year break with their 11th LP, with more or less the same line-up they've had since 2001’s Grave Disorder (including original members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible), except that Paul Gray is back on bass. Musically it’s sort of a return to form, with producer Tony Visconti catching them somewhere between Machine Gun Etiquette and Phantasmagoria music-wise, although the horn section may be a bit much. Like all latter-day Damned albums, it pales in comparison to their classics, but there’s a lot to like here – Vanian sounds as good as ever, and a fair number of songs here show they still have a sharp eye for social observation.

Gwenno, Le Kov (Heavenly)
This is Gwenno Saunders’ second solo album after leaving the Pipettes, and where the previous one was a sci-fi concept album sung in Welsh, the main theme here is that all the songs are sung in Cornish as a protest against the British government’s proposal to cut funding for teaching and supporting the Cornish language. In any case, it’s more ethereal retro-psychedelic pop, and I like it.

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas, The World Of Captain Beefheart (Knitting Factory Records)
12 Beefheart classics served up by Gary Lucas (the last guitarist to serve with Beefheart) and Nona Hendryx filling in on vocals – which sounds weird on paper but it really works. If nothing else it provides a new perspective on Beefheart’s music (the song selection covers a pretty wide range) and shows that even his weirder songs were more mainstream than they sounded at the time.

Thought Gang, Thought Gang (Sacred Bones)
This is the legendary jazz/spoken-word side-project of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, created somewhere between the second season of Twin Peaks and the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, in which Badalamenti and his jazz musicians would improv music to go with whatever weird scenario Lynch would pitch at them. A couple of tracks surfaced on the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack, but the whole album (recorded in the 1990s) was only just released late last year. It sounds more or less the way you’d expect – Lynch fans may dig it, but beyond that, it’s hard to say.

Tony Joe White, Bad Mouthin' (Yep Roc)
This is the final album from Tony Joe White, who passed on shortly after its release. It’s a good note to go out on. Here, White performs the first two songs he ever wrote (before his breakthrough hit “Polk Salad Annie”), but the real attraction here is the covers – mainly classic blues songs, but also “Heartbreak Hotel”, which White transforms into a dark blues lament.


Marc Ribot, Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 (Noise Inc/Anti-)
It seems there were quite a few protest albums or songs released this year for some mysterious and inexplicable reason. This was the most interesting of the bunch for me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of protest songs – a mix of originals and classic songs from World War II anti-Fascist Italian partisans, the US civil rights movement and Mexican protest ballads – inspired not just by the 2016 election and the subsequent return of neo-Nazis, but the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world. Ribot’s eclectic musical style can make for some uneasy listening at times, and I think the older songs work better in the sense that they’re more timeless (as opposed to the new songs that point fingers and name names, which is fair, but I don’t see myself listening to many of these five years from now). But it’s a great idea, and it helps that Ribot roped in some great guest vocalists – Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, Justin Vivian Bond, Fay Victor, Sam Amidon, and Ohene Cornelius. Oh, and Tom Waits, whose rendition of “Bella Ciao” is worth the price of admission alone.


Metric, Art of Doubt (BMG)
For me, Metric is one of those bands that put out one great album (Fantasies) and – at least for me – have not yet managed to clear that bar again. On first pass, their latest seemed to be trying a little too hard to come up with anthemic air-punchers, but with each new listen, some songs are starting to grab my attention, especially the title track. I didn’t get a copy until around November, and sometimes it takes a while for an album to win me over – that may well be the case here.


Banäna Deäthmüffins, Kawaii Five-0 (Terribly Frog Records)

Yes, it’s a shameless plug. But why not? Yr all lucky I didn't put it in my Top 10.


Various Artists, Make Mine Mondo! (Ace)
This collects novelty songs, garage rock, rockabilly and 60s pop psychedelica from Doré Records, a small LA label run by Lew Bedell, a former stand-up comic who welcomed just about any oddball who showed up with a master tape looking for a record deal (which included Kim Fowley, Mike Curb and Shel Talmy, among others). Bobby Troup is probably the most recognizable name here, but the whole comp is a lot of fun – not just for the Doctor Demento fodder (The Zanies’ “The Mad Scientist” and “The Blob”, The Altecs’ “Gorilla Hunt”, Johnny O’s “Meet The Bongo Man”) but also bands like The Wrench, Chuck Miles and The Styles, Spencer’s Van Dykes, and Basil and the Baroques, among others.

Tomorrow: the films!

Mondo bizarro,

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I meant to post this ages ago, and I’m obviously late to this discussion, but with a Top 10 Films list about to be published, I figured I could post this for posterity to fulfil my obligations as both a blogger and a Star Wars fan.

So anyway, back in October I finally saw Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was a flop by Star Wars standards. My not so hot take:

1. I went in with low expectations – and it probably helped. As a straight-up big-budget space-adventure film, it’s actually pretty good on its own merits, especially if you can forget that the main character is supposed to be the Han Solo of the original Star Wars trilogy – which surprisingly isn’t all that hard, since Aldren Ehrenreich plays Solo his own way rather than try to do an Harrison Ford impression, which very likely would not have worked even if it was a good impersonation.

2. However, it IS part of the Star Wars canon, and the three main problems for me were (1) the Kasdans tried too hard to reference the original films (did we really need another scene of TIE fighters chasing the Millennium Falcon through a field of space debris?), (2) it’s often predictable as far as the established characters are concerned (Solo, Chewbacca and Lando), and (3) it doesn't really add much to the characters that we didn’t already know. Also, I’m one of those fans who feels that Han Solo didn’t need an origin story – part of Solo’s appeal has always been his braggadocio and exaggerating his own accomplishments, and the references to the Kessel Run work better when you don’t know how he did it.

3. On the other hand, Solo is a fun movie. It’s been criticized for being lightweight compared to The Last Jedi and even Rogue One, but since the original film succeeded as a fun space adventure, I can’t be too hard on Solo for attempting the same – surely there’s room in the SW canon for different kinds of films.

Maybe you can say Solo plays it too safe and doesn’t take chances compared to TLJ and R1, and that's true. But that’s how it is with prequels featuring established and beloved characters – yr beholden to the future to the point that you can't monkey around with it too much. Which is why I’d really rather that future standalones introduce new characters (as Rogue One did) and tell new stories that don’t simply fill in the blanks (as Rogue One also did, ultimately).

Indeed, the biggest problem with Solo isn’t that it’s fun, but that it doesn’t contribute anything to the canon apart from character backstory that, as I say, we arguably didn’t need. The original Expanded Universe that Disney eventually scrapped proved that there’s plenty of room in the Star Wars universe for innovation and new ideas – the new batch of post-Lucas Star Wars films have also proven that. By comparison, sticking with established characters feels like a step backwards to me.

4. I don’t think that’s why it flopped – I think that’s ultimately down to Disney’s overambitious decision to release it just six months after TLJ, and at a time when it had to compete with other major Disney franchise tentpoles. But I also think releasing a film featuring a younger version of such an iconic set of characters was always going to set the film up for disappointment.

So overall: I think it’s a fun film, and the second best prequel film, but of the Star Wars films to date, I would rank it pretty much below everything that isn’t the Lucas prequel trilogy.

Punch it,

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I meant to post the November edition November 30 but got seriously sidetracked, and then I spent the second half of December on an extended road trip in the US for the Christmas holiday. So this is a combined Nov/Dec instalment.

And that wraps up the 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge, in which I pledged to read 42 books. The first book on the list below marks Book #43. So I pretty much nailed it.

And so here’s how I read my way to the end of 2018.

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture)Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K.A. Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about how postmodernism is a major challenge to Christianity, but denunciations of postmodernism often sound unconvincing to me, if only because it often sounded to me like too many people use “postmodern” as a descriptor with little indication that they understand the underlying philosophy. This book by James K.A. Smith (who is both a Christian and a philosophy professor) argues that postmodernist philosophy is highly misunderstood by theologians, and that if you read the works of postmodernist philosophers Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault closely, you’ll see that contrary to postmodernism being anti-Christian (i.e. anti-religion), it actually strengthens Christianity’s position in a postmodern world by bringing it back to its traditional apostolic roots.

For the most part, Smith makes a lot of very good points, and does a really good job of explaining what the core tenets of Derrida (“Nothing exists outside the text”), Lyotard (postmodernity is “the incredulity of metanarratives”) and Foucault (“power is knowledge”) actually mean, and how they aren’t as anti-Christian as they seem if you just take them at face value. His use of films as an illustration of each point is also engaging. Where it falls apart for me is the end, where Smith ties all of this into his view of how the church should evolve by adopting “radical orthodoxy” (a topic he’s written about extensively elsewhere) – which may be a valid point of view, but in terms of practical application it seems unconvincing and unrealistic to me, not least because Smith’s views are rooted in catholic orthodoxy, so his points are going to be lost on denominations that aren’t.

So as a call to action in regards to church reform, I don’t think the book really works. But it will definitely get a discussion started, and that’s a good thing. If nothing else, I think it’s a good primer on understanding postmodernist philosophy, and makes a good case why it’s not the boogey man some Christian leaders make it out to be. But obviously, an open mind is a prerequisite.

The Serpent of Venice: A NovelThe Serpent of Venice: A Novel by Christopher Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Fool, Christopher Moore’s rewrite of King Lear that puts the jester Pocket at the center of the story. This time, Moore stretches the concept further by mashing up Othello, The Merchant Of Venice and (for no apparent reason except for fun) Poe’s “The Cask Of Amontillado”, whilst throwing in a horny dragon for good measure. To say nothing of Marco Polo.

I’d offer a plot summary, but it’s arguably better if you dive in without knowing too much. Suffice to say that Pocket is betrayed in Chapter 1 by Brabantio, Antonio and Iago, and spends the rest of the novel seeking revenge whilst being caught up in the various plots, subplots and double dealings of the various characters in the story.

As with Fool, there are tons of bawdy shagging jokes (which Moore frankly overdoes here). On the other hand, he does a great job of not only blending the various stories into a (mostly) coherent narrative, but also poking fun at Shakespearean conventions (the use of the Chorus character, for example) and shining a harsh spotlight on the racism and anti-Semitism of the times, particularly regarding the infamous character Shylock. Overall, it’s a rare case of the sequel outshining its predecessor.

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Paulo Coelho before, though of course I’ve seen his books everywhere. I’ve never been particularly inspired to read any of his stuff, but I came across this at a charity book sale, and I figured since this is his most famous book, this would be the perfect excuse to give him a try.

And … well.

The book is nominally about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who is encouraged by a Gypsy and a mysterious vagabond king to seek out his Personal Legend – which is to travel to the pyramids of Egypt to find his treasure. But all of that is really just a vehicle for Coelho to ruminate on the meaning of life, love, and listening to your heart to tap into the Soul Of The World to fulfil your destiny. Which is fine as far as it goes, but as a reading experience it just didn’t click with me.

That’s not to say Coelho isn’t a good writer – he is, and this book has a fable-like quality to it. The problem isn’t so much the narrative or his philosophical/religious views, but a lack of suitable balance between the two. Oftentimes it feels like Coelho is trying too hard to say Important Profound Things About Life, and Santiago as a character seems to learn these things too intuitively, as if out of convenience to keep the narrative moving along. I wouldn't rule out trying Coelho again – I’d like to read his book about his pilgrimage on the Road of Santiago de Compostela, which I’ve become interested in lately – but I can’t say I’m in any hurry.

A Drop Of The Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder, #17)A Drop Of The Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 17th novel featuring former NYPD cop and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder, who makes a living as an unlicensed investigator. Scudder has aged and mellowed along with the series, but this one returns to his harder-edged days (set almost a year after he quit drinking) via a flashback frame – modern-day Scudder tells his friend Mick Ballou about Jack Ellery, an old childhood acquaintance who became a small-time criminal and an alcoholic. They meet at an AA meeting where Ellery tells him he’s making amends to the people he’s wronged (as per the 9th Step). Then Ellery is murdered, and Scudder ends up investigating.

Which sounds like a familiar set-up for your standard violent revenge tale. Luckily, Block has generally been good at taking a standard set-up and doing the unexpected with it, or at least something different – in this case, by staying true to Scudder’s character. The real story here is Scudder’s struggle to make it to his first anniversary as he delves deeper into Ellery’s past, and as his relationship with his girlfriend seems to be crumbling. Even the ending, which exercises another genre trope, goes against the grain of the set-up precisely because it would be out of character for Scudder to do anything else.

Credit to Block also for masterfully returning to a time period when NYC was a much darker and grittier place, and where being a PI required library visits, working pay phones and a pocket full of quarters. As a long-time fan of the series, I thought it was also nice to see Block bring back several of the regular minor characters from the early books. A few minor flaws aside, it’s a solid addition to the Scudder canon.

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A blast from the past,

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Another slow month for reading, and that’s how it goes sometimes. Good thing yr not paying money to read this blog, right?

The Parables of PeanutsThe Parables of Peanuts by Robert L. Short

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Short’s The Gospel According To Peanuts, which explored how Peanuts cartoons reflect the teachings and message of Jesus. This one casts a wider and deeper net, starting with the idea of art as parable, the role of parables in the Bible and how Peanuts serves a similar function. It veers off from there into a theological exploration of what is required to lead a Christian life (which is itself a criticism of the watered-down theology American churches were apparently preaching in the 1960s when he wrote it).

For me, this one is less successful in its mission statement than the first one. What is billed as an exploration on how Peanuts strips double as Biblical parables is really more Short’s theological treatise on Christian living using Peanuts strips to back his point – which might be okay, except that frequently it’s not clear to me what a given strip has to do with what he just wrote. The other big problem is that he also backs his points by quoting his favorite theologians, philosophers and novelists (mostly Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, Dostoyevsky and Albert Camus) at length – so much so that I felt as though if you edited out all the blockquotes, the book would be about half as long.

In any case, the result is a somewhat jumbled argument bogged down by excessive quotations that tries too hard at times to make a connection with Short’s favorite comic strip. (I’m sure some of Short’s more controversial theological beliefs will put some readers off too, though they're not idiosyncratic – I’ve come across them before.) Short does make a few good points here and there, and like the previous volume, at the very least you get a nice collection of classic Peanuts strips for your money, which is fine. But you can get those elsewhere, so I wouldn’t recommend getting a copy just for that.

Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-RichPlutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich by Chrystia Freeland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book from 2012 examines the issue of widening income inequality as the 1% (or, more accurately, the 0.1%) get richer and the rest of us, for the most part, don’t. As the title implies, the book focuses on the plutocrats, but it’s not Lifestyles Of The Uber-rich profiles so much as a study of the economic/political conditions that enabled their rise, how they see their role in the world – and what that means for the rest of us.

Chrystia Freeland – who has written previously about the rise of the Russian oligarchs – does a really good job of explaining how technology and globalization are combining to enable a new wave of plutocrats, how this wave is different from the rise of the super-rich during the first industrial revolution in the West, why the resulting concentration of wealth (not just in the US but globally) is not good news for everyone who isn't already in plutocrat class –and why most plutocrats fail to understand this.

Notably, it’s by no means an anti-capitalist screed about how the 1% are evil and need to be taxed out of existence, but rather a call for reason that the normal rules and tropes of capitalism that shaped economic prosperity in the 20th century – especially low taxation and deregulation as innovation/investment drivers – don’t apply in a globalized economy when the 0.1% have the money, power and influence to write their own rules. What others think about this will undoubtedly depend on the political ideologies they bring to the table, but personally I got a lot of out of it, and I certainly came away with a better understanding of why the wealth inequality issue is so important.

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Mind the gap,

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And so, you know, the book reports, eh?

Planet of ExilePlanet of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is Ursula K. Le Guin's second standalone novel of the Hainish Cycle (and also her second novel overall). This time, the setting is Weral, a double planet that takes 60 earth years to complete one orbit, which means its winter season lasts around 15 earth years. The Hainish colony of Landin has been on Werel for 600 earth years, and has effectively been marooned there, with no contact from the League of Worlds. Their numbers are dwindling, and they have an uneasy relationship with Tevar, a nomadic agrarian tribe that lives nearby and regards the “farborns” as witches because they have telepathic abilities.

That’s the backdrop for a tale in which the farborns and the Tevarians are forced to unite when the barbaric Gaal – who are migrating south as they typically do when winter starts to set in – make it apparent that this time they intend to raid both Tevar and Landin on the way. But the alliance unravels quickly when the de facto leader of the Landin, Jakob Agat, falls for Rolery, the daughter of Tevarian chief Wold.

I generally enjoy Le Guin’s work, but this one didn’t really come together for me. The world-building is interesting, but the romance between Agat and Rolery wasn’t convincing, and the climax was rather jumbled and confusing. I get the basic themes she was trying to get across here – cross-culture clashes, the challenges of the Hainish version of the Prime Directive and the consequences of foreigners being unable or unwilling to adapt to local culture, etc. But the narrative vehicle to deliver those ideas doesn’t quite work.

SilenceSilence by Shūsaku Endō

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those instances where I saw the movie version before reading the book, which I admit I’d never head of until Martin Scorsese filmed it. The film was fascinating and moving enough that when I found a copy of the book, I was keen to read it.

The book is a fictionalized depiction of Japan’s persecution of Christians in the 17th century as experienced by two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel there to discover the truth about the fate of their mentor, Father Ferreira, who reportedly apostatized under penalty of torture, which they cannot believe he would do. The story focuses on one of the priests, Father Rodrigues, who finds himself struggling with his own faith in the face of all the suffering he encounters and experiences and God’s silence throughout it all, as well as his own personal Judas, a local Christian named Kichijiro who betrays Rodrigues more than once.

The movie doesn’t stray far from the book, so there were no surprises here plotwise, but I have to say it’s still a moving story – perhaps more so in that it gets much deeper into Rodrigues’ internal struggles as he realizes the reality of Christian persecution is much different from the glorious martyrdoms he envisaged, and the impact this (and God’s apparent silence) has on his faith. I did find it odd that the narrative starts via Rodrigues’ correspondence to Lisbon about his journey, only for Endo to abandon this a third of the way through for a more conventional third-person narrative. But that’s a minor quibble. Overall I found this fascinating from a historical, literary and spiritual perspective.

The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy NoirThe Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir by Gary Phillips

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The pitch for this anthology sounded right up my street – 15 stories where the basic instruction for each writer was: “Pick any conservative conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama – no matter how loopy – and just run with it.”

The result – at least for me – is disappointing. For the most part, the stories here either aren’t very well written or don’t really follow the instructions – at least as far as I understood them. Maybe I misunderstood the overall premise, but it seems like at least half the stories here are less about exploring the fun fictional possibilities of Obama conspiracy theories and more wishful-thinking revenge tales where conservatives who badgered the Obamas for years finally get theirs – which is fine as far as it goes, but in my mind it isn't really in the spirit of the stated mandate. And what a Robert Silverberg story from 1982 is doing here is a mystery in itself.

To be sure, there are a quite a lot of good ideas here – Michelle Obama as covert operative, Barack Obama leading a secret resistance movement after Trump goes full fascist, the true secret of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s longevity, Obama and Biden as Star Trek time travellers – but not many develop into decent stories. Notable exceptions include Walter Mosley’s “A Different Frame of Reference”, which riffs on that photo of Obama sneaking a smoke (or was he?), and Christopher Chambers’ “The Psalm of Bo”, which gets points for coming up with the idea of Obama’s dog leading an army of weaponized dogs against the last MAGA stronghold in post-apocalyptic America – written in semi-Biblical language, no less.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin WallStasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was hipped to this book by Jon Ronson, who mentioned it in his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. It’s an account of Anna Funder’s time in Berlin in the mid-90s in which she started interviewing people who had lived in (or worked for) the East German regime. She was inspired to do so in partly to get a sense of what it was like to live in a walled-off society where the Stasi (East Germany’s infamous secret police) ruled, and partly because up to then – six years after the Berlin Wall came down – no one had really bothered to chase down those stories, and many people seemed to want to forget the whole thing and move on.

The result is sort of a people’s history of East Germany and the Stasi, as told by various former Stasi officials, their informants, and of course their victims, including Miriam (whose husband died in a Stasi cell under mysterious circumstances), Julia (Funder’s landlady who was harassed by the Stasi because of her Italian boyfriend) and Frau Paul (whose sick infant son was in West Berlin when the wall went up). She also meets the man who painted the line where the wall was to be built, and goes drinking with Klaus Renft, East Germany’s biggest rock star.

The book is as much about Funder’s experiences during her investigation as it is about the stories she retells, which may put some people off, but I didn’t feel as though it got in the way of the overall story. This is a fascinating account of what it’s like to live in a fascist dictatorship so obsessed with control that it will micromanage people’s lives with intimidation, blackmail, lies, fear and twisted logic. And interestingly, it’s also a testament to the fact that it’s difficult for people who grew up in a strict panopticon Communist state for decades to find themselves living in a capitalist society overnight – not least those who were empowered by it.

Spies like us,

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Burning through the to-read pile like Mario Andretti, y’all.

Invisible PlanetsInvisible Planets by Ken Liu

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most of my early SF/F intake originated from either the US or UK, so for a long time now I’ve been interested in how writers in other countries approach SF/F, especially here in Asia where I live. Chinese science fiction is generating a lot of interest outside of China, thanks mainly to the success of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. This anthology – edited and translated by SF/F author Ken Liu, who also translated The Three-Body Problem and other Chinese SF works – collects 13 stories from seven contemporary Chinese SF writers (including Cixin Liu, who contributes two stories here). There are also short essays from three of the authors regarding SF in China.

What’s most notable about this collection – apart from getting an interesting glimpse into how Chinese writers approach SF, and the fact that four of the featured authors are women – is the variety. Like western SF (which has been an influence on SF in China from time to time), Chinese SF is pretty diverse, covering hard SF, alien contact, cyberpunk, Big Brother dystopias, bio-horror, post-apocalyptic robots, Gaimanesque spirit worlds, surrealist mythology and interplanetary travelogues, among others. Like many anthologies, there’s something for everyone, but not everything may be your cup of tea. Personally, the highlights for me were the contributions from Cixin Liu, Ma Boyang and Tang Fei, and a couple of the stories from Xia Jia.

AutonomousAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Annalee Newitz for years via her work as founding editor of io9 – between that and the rave reviews I’d read about this debut novel by her, I was keen to pick this up. The jacket synopsis sounded promising too – in the year 2144, Jack Chen is a pharmaceutical pirate who violates ultra-strict patent laws by making and distributing cheap copies of drugs to benefit poor people. When her pirated copy of pre-release Zacuity – a drug that literally helps you love your job – starts killing people, she races to find an antidote whilst on the run from two international patent enforcers – one of which is an indentured military-grade robot named Paladin that starts to develop an unexpected relationship with his partner Eliasz.

The chase plot is ostensibly a vehicle for Newitz to explore several ideas – the corporate notion of intellectual property taken to extremes (i.e. not just in terms of pharmaceuticals and sentient robots but even people who are born as corporate “property” – slaves, in other words), the emotional relationships between humans and robots (to include sex and even gender identity), and the meaning of true autonomy in such a world. Ultimately Newitz raises far more questions than answers – which is good in the sense that many of them are questions worth asking (even the uncomfortable ones), but some questions were the result of me not being able to buy into a couple of plot points, from aspects of the Eliasz/Paladin relationship to the rationale of the indenture system – to say nothing of the hackneyed “corporations are one-dimensionally evil just because” meme. Even if you frame it as a "what if" scenario rather than a predictive one, parts of her 2144 were a little unconvincing for me.

Another problem is that there are few likeable or sympathetic characters, apart from some of the robots – which may have been intentional, and if so, point made, but still. On the other hand, for the most part they’re believable characters, even if I had trouble identifying with most of them. As debut novels go, it’s pretty good and decidedly provocative – and Newitz demonstrates a gift for dialogue and pure inventiveness (I particularly love how she structures her robot-to-robot conversations), and it’s good enough that I’m likely to try her next novel. But ultimately it does come off to me as preaching to a particular choir, and people like me who aren’t full-time members might have trouble getting into it.

The GamblerThe Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to legend, this short novel from Dostoevsky was not only based on his own experience with gambling addiction, but also written quickly under a strict contract so he could pay off his gambling debts. The narrator, Alexei Ivanovich, is a tutor for a Russian family living in a hotel in Germany, all of whom are living a wealthy lifestyle but massively in debt in some way or other. The head of the family, referred to only as The General, is banking on his wealthy but ill grandmother in Moscow kicking the bucket soon to pay off his debts, which will also enable him to marry a French noblewoman who will only marry him if he’s loaded.

As for what all this has to do with gambling, part of it is related to Alexei Ivanovich being in love with the General’s stepdaughter Polina, who has debts of her own. She sends Alexei to the local casino to earn some money for her, and having never gambled before, he eventually gets hooked. There’s more to it than that, but I wouldn’t want to give away the big surprise in the story.

I have to admit this turned out to be a different novel than I was expecting – in a good way. What I thought might be a miserable road-to-ruin cautionary tale of gambling addiction turned out to be more of a satirical comedy of fiscal responsibility. For all Alexei’s manic behavior towards Polina and his eventual obsession with gambling, he’s arguably the most level-headed person in the story compared to almost everyone else, who are so obsessed with wealth and nobility that they’ll rack up massive debts to achieve both. I don’t know if Dostoevsky intended this to be a comedy, but it does have a mapcap quality to it. Once you work through the thicket of background/set-up to get up to speed with who everyone is and why they’re there (endnotes are your friend), it’s a strikingly entertaining story.

The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our TimeThe Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time by John Kenneth Galbraith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this up partly because it was dirt cheap (as part of a charity sale), and partly because I read and liked John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash of 1929 a few years back. This is Galbraith’s final book before he passed away in 2006 – a 62-page essay that is essentially a summary of his previously stated views on economic life circa 2004. In essence, Galbraith maintains that proper capitalism has long been replaced by a market economy in which corporate bureaucracies rule with power that is not held in check by sufficient regulation, consumer sovereignty or even the actual owners, and that most of the tenets of what politicians, Wall Street and the business press routinely laud as free-market capitalism – the invisible hand, market forces, the clear division between the private and public sector, etc – amount to a revered mythology that is nowhere close to reality. Galbraith describes this as “innocent fraud” – with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as he notes the degree of “innocence" regarding certain practices varies.

Obviously, what you make of this will likely depend in part on your current political affiliation and the degree to which you subscribe to the very mythology Galbraith criticizes. Personally – and as someone who (1) knows very little about economics and (2) considers himself more or less a centrist – I think he’s not wrong, for the most part. Hindsight goes a long way here – Galbraith wrote this just after Enron happened but before the 2008 economic meltdown, the root cause of which seems to retroactively validate a lot of Galbraith’s criticisms.

Where the book goes wrong – and the reason I’m not giving it more stars – is that Galbraith’s whimsically staccato writing style makes it a lot harder to read than is arguably necessary, even for a Harvard intellectual. Also, Galbraith offers little to back up most of his observations – it’s as though he felt his own career, experience and reputation as an economist to be all the empirical evidence you need that he’s right. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong, necessarily – but if you’re going to declare “conventional wisdom” a fraud (innocent or otherwise), it’s usually advisable to provide evidence to back your case.

The Night Masquerade (Binti, #3)The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is third instalment of the Binti series, and the first thing I should say is that I’m impressed that overall story arc didn’t follow the path I expected. The original novella (which I loved) seemed like a set-up to follow Binti and her alien enemy-turned-friend Okwu as they studied far-out science at Oozma Uni. Instead, the series has focused on Binti’s struggle to understand her increasingly complicated identity, and how difficult it is to cling to cultural traditions whilst simultaneously trying to move beyond them – which is far more interesting.

The Night Masquerade takes place where Home left off, as Binti – transformed by her experience in the desert – rushes home to her family, who are in danger as the ancient war between the Earth-based Khoush and the Meduse (Okwu’s people) threatens to reignite, with Binti’s tribe (the Himba) caught in the crossfire.

The resulting story is both fascinating and somewhat frustrating – one key plot twist just seemed too obvious a thing for the characters to have overlooked, while another key plot twist was not only predictable but came off as a little contrived to me. Which might not count against it except that the first two books didn’t have that particular issue, so it’s a little disappointing in that regard. That said, warts and all, it’s still an exciting, page-turning finale to an excellent character-driven series.

The DispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novella was initially written as an audio book, then later released as a print/e-book, rather than the other way round. I read the e-book version, and on the one hand I can sort of tell it was initially written to be heard rather than read – the narrative skews towards dialogue over action and doesn’t spend a lot of time on description. On the other hand, Scalzi’s books almost always tend to be dialogue-driven, so I’m not sure I would have guessed it started life as an audio book if I hadn’t already known that.

Apart from the format experiment, this is also something of a departure for Scalzi as he tries his hand at urban fantasy/police procedural with a weird but interesting premise: people who are killed by other people – intentionally or otherwise – come back to life unharmed (or at least in the condition they were in a few hours before they were killed), although 999 times out 1,000 they stay dead. One eventual result of this new reality is the creation of an agency that employs ‘dispatchers’ – agents authorized by the govt to humanely kill critically injured or ill people in order to save them.

Scalzi explores this concept via Tony Valdez, a dispatcher roped into a police investigation when one of his fellow dispatchers goes missing. The mystery itself is interesting – can you get away with murder in a world where your victim won't stay dead? – but so is the background world and the societal consequences that result in such a world. Scalzi leaves a lot of potential ground uncovered and doesn’t dig too deeply – mainly due to the length and audio-format limitations, I presume – but he does manage to cover quite a bit of ground within those limitations, such as the ethics of dispatching and the return of duelling. In any case, it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking story, and it’s a world I hope Scalzi returns to one day, because there’s a lot to play with here.

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I shall return,

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Picking up the pace again. Isn’t that exciting?

Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and SalvationFierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation by Alice Connor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where I was sold on the premise alone: an exploration of various females mentioned in the Bible (the famous and the not so famous) that not only puts them front and center in whichever narrative they’re a part of, but takes a closer look through a feminist filter and reveals them to be much tougher, resilient and important than traditional takes on these stories make them look. It’s all that – and it’s a lot more personal, passionate and often angrier than I imagined, as Connor is pretty fierce herself (to the point that this is easily the first Christian book I’ve read to date written by an ordained priest with lots of salty language). Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does sometimes distract from the stories she is trying to tell (or retell) and their theological message – at least if yr expecting a relatively straightforward Bible-study book, which this isn’t.

In any case, between Connor’s retellings, sweariness and feminist viewpoint, this book obviously isn’t for everyone – people of certain religious and/or political persuasions (and associated opinions about feminism and LGBT issues) probably wouldn’t make it past the first 20 pages. Personally, my two main problems with this book are (1) Connor tends to overdo it with the snarky humor and pop culture references for my taste, and (2) occasionally she pushes her luck by trying to shoehorn otherwise valid points where they don’t necessarily belong (the chapter on Asherah being a case in point). Both of these issues make it all too easy for even well-intentioned readers to misunderstand the overall point she’s trying to make. Starting an argument is great, but it’s pointless if people think you're making a completely different point from the one you're actually making. (Then again, it could just as easily be my problem, not hers, so, you know.)

That said, where the book really succeeds for me is bringing these women to life and humanizing their experience, which is (for me) an important tool for really understanding the deeper point of these stories (through which we understand God) and how they relate to us today. That in itself makes it worth reading – but as I say, it’s best to approach this with an open (and critical) mind, and a willingness to have your preconceptions challenged.

Rocannon's WorldRocannon's World by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve become a fan of Ursula K Le Guin over the past few years, so I was keen to start on Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, which collects her first three SF novels of the Hainish cycle. This is the first – and it's also her debut novel. The premise: Rocannon is an ethnologist for the League of All Worlds surveying the various indigenous races of the planet Fomalhaut II. His team is killed and his ship destroyed when rebels who oppose the League set up a base on the unsurveyed south side of the planet. As the rebels now possess the only ansible (interstellar radio) on Fomalhaut II, Rocannon must find them so he can access the radio, warn the League and call for a rescue ship.

It sounds like a classic SF yarn, except that it reads more like a fantasy novel, due to the fact that the Angyar – the human-like aliens who aid Rocannon in his quest – are a primitive feudal society, with princes, castles, swordplay, giant flying cats (see book cover) and whatnot. There’s also a legend about a princess seeking a lost family jewel that kicks off the book. Most of the story covers Rocannon’s journey and the aliens he encounters along the way (many of them dangerous). It’s pretty good, but it does suffer in comparison to Le Guin’s later work in that it's a pretty basic adventure story. That said, it’s not dull, and even this early in her career Le Guin could deliver reasonably believable characters, particularly Rocannon. Also, credit for blurring the lines between the SF and fantasy genres instead of sticking to the rules.

Occupy MeOccupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read Tricia Sullivan twice before and was really knocked out, so I has keen to try this, even though the jacket blurb sounded a bit derivative – operative with no memory of her past chases a killer who occupies other people’s bodies. I should have known better – what Sullivan delivers here is an “angel” named Pearl with hyperdimensional wings working undercover (as a flight attendant) for a secret organization trying to make the world better through small acts of kindness. Then she meets Dr Sorle, the man responsible for hijacking her into our world, and all hell breaks loose. As does a pterosaur in a briefcase.

The resulting story is imaginative, surreal and just plain weird, with the narrative shifting to first, second and third person as required, whipping back and forth through time and hyperdimensional realities as Pearl tries to find out what happened to her and who/what she really is, and what Dr Sorle is up to – or at least the being occupying his body. Sullivan has an accessible, snappy, humorous writing style to keep things as grounded as they can be in a story this weird, but her ideas and concepts are so out there that it does take effort to keep up with her, and a few bits do seem underexplained. Also, I confess the parts with Alison the bad-ass Scottish veterinarian required somewhat more suspension of disbelief than the hyperdimensional physics – and yet Alison is such a likeable character that I didn’t mind giving her the required leeway. Occupy Me certainly isn’t for everyone, but personally I enjoyed this.

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real LifeThe Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had several motivations for reading this: (1) my bride is also reading it for an assignment, so she’s the one who hipped me to it, (2) I’ve always been curious about the Jesuits, and (3) I just happen to follow the author on Twitter. In any case, this book is basically a summation of the practical spirituality taught by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society Of Jesus (a.k.a. the Jesuit order), and how you can apply it to your own life. It’s also written for a mainstream audience, not just Jesuits, Catholics or Protestant Christians – in fact, according to Father Martin, you don’t have to be a Christian or even religious to understand and apply Ignatian spiritualty, and he intended to write it so that even non-believers could get something out of it.

That said, this isn’t a secular book by any stretch, so while it’s not preachy, non-believers will have to reconcile themselves with lots of talk about God and Jesus – if that’s a roadblock for you, then you're not going to get much out of this, although if nothing else you’ll learn a lot about St Ignatius and the Jesuits (and you’ll learn some good Jesuit jokes). I'd recommend it for that alone, but personally I got much more out of it in terms of spiritual guidance and development, so I’ll recommend it for that, too.

Maigret and the Headless Corpse: Inspector Maigret #47Maigret and the Headless Corpse: Inspector Maigret #47 by Georges Simenon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In which Inspector Maigret investigates the discovery of a man’s dismembered corpse in a canal. All pieces are recovered except the head, which makes identification tough. And the only lead (and a weak one at that) seems to be Madame Calas, an alcoholic who runs a nearby bistro whose husband is away on business. As is true of most of the Maigret novels I’ve read so far – but particularly the later ones in the series – the emphasis isn’t on the crime so much as various characters Maigret encounters, their psychological makeup and the situations they find themselves in. For Maigret, the real mystery isn’t whodunit but why – or rather, what makes the suspects tick, particularly Madame Calas, whose mannerisms don’t fit in the context of the case at all if she were the culprit, and yet Maigret can’t help thinking she’s involved somehow. As always, Simenon provides an entertaining read if you like yr detective stories laconic and ponderous as well as/rather than hard-boiled action-packed melodrama.

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Don't lose yr head,

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Well this is embarrassing. Evidently I was so busy last month I totally forgot to post this entry, even though I'd already had it written and ready. 

Oh well, it's not like yr paying a subscription to this thing.

And so.

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the tag line suggests, this is a collection of Neil Gaiman’s non-fiction works, including essays, newspaper articles, speeches, book introductions and interviews (as in him interviewing people, not the other way round). As you’d expect, the topics are generally about books, comics, writing, art, libraries, horror, faerie stories, mythology and music, although there are a few other odds and ends to be found. Also as you’d expect, it’s written with the same contagious enthusiasm and dry humor as his fiction, though it’s not all fun and games (for example, his article about a Syrian refugee camp is as harrowing as it is moving).

If there’s a weakness to this collection, it’s that it gets a bit repetitive at times, as some pieces are variations on a particular theme (Gaiman’s childhood obsession with libraries, how great Will Eisner was, etc). And it’s fair to say that what readers get out of this might depend on how much they share Gaiman’s love for the topics, genres and creators he writes about. In any case, this collection demonstrates that Gaiman is an engaging storyteller whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction. The title track alone (about his experience of attending the Oscars when the film Coraline was nominated for Best Animated Film) is worth the price of admission, but then so is the Lou Reed interview, and … well, there’s a lot to love here, really.

Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic African country being torn apart by ethnic cleansing as the light-skinned Nuru enslave, oppress, abuse and murder the dark-skinned Okeke. The story follows Onyesonwu, an Ewu (mixed-race) girl whose Okeke mother was raped by a Nuru sorcerer. Onye – who is an outcast because of her Ewu heritage – soon discovers she has magical abilities as well, and seeks to develop her powers and become a sorcerer, not least because someone is trying to kill her.

By luck rather than design, I read the prequel (The Book of Phoenix) to this book first, so I came into it with a little bit of background, although the two stories do stand alone, as the events described take place decades or perhaps centuries apart. That said, one similarity is that both books feature an impulsive and perpetually angry protagonist driven by sheer rage at the injustices around them. Onye is a hard character for me to like – she’s short-tempered, impatient and generally angry most of the time. On the other hand, she has plenty to be angry about – Nnedi Okorafor uses the future setting and magic/fantasy tropes to address historical and contemporary horrors and injustices in various African cultures (genocide, slavery, ethnic cleansing, weaponized rape, mob violence, sexism, even female circumcision). She doesn’t pull any punches, which makes this a harrowing and emotionally exhausting experience – but an undeniably powerful one.

And it works thanks to Okorafor creating believable characters and a believable world that isn’t beholden to genre rules. While the narrative follows a familiar template, it’s the imaginative details that make it seem fresh, as well as Okorafor’s fearlessness in not shying away from the dark places it logically has to go. It’s not the kind of book I’d want to read again – but then I arguably won't need to, since much of the book is probably going to stick with me for a long time.

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Desert blues,

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Which is not all that fast, but it’s been kind of a hectic month, see?

FiddleheadFiddlehead by Cherie Priest

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the fifth and final volume in the Clockwork Century cycle, Priest’s alt-history steampunk Civil War saga (with zombies!), and it basically serves both as a standalone story and a vehicle to tie up all the loose ends from the previous books. Here, former CSA spy turned Pinkerton agent Maria Boyd is assigned to help former POTUS Abe Lincoln protect Gideon Bardsley, who has invented a computer that has calculated that the Civil War (which has been going on for over 17 years) ends well for neither side due to an ever greater threat – and someone is trying to kill him to keep this information secret. Meanwhile, arms heiress Katherine Haymes is trying to convince President Ulysses S Grant that she has developed a superweapon that can end the war once and for all – or will it?

I should mention I haven't read the whole series – I loved the first one, Boneshaker, but I felt let down by the follow-up Dreadnought, so I wasn’t in a hurry to read the rest. Fiddlehead is somewhat better, but Priest has a tendency to gum up dialog and action sequences with exposition and/or internal ponderings, and the dialog itself can get too clever (particularly a cat-and-mouse scene between Grant and Haymes as he tries to figure out what her game is). And as antagonists go, Haymes is just too one-dimensional for my taste. The actual storyline is entertaining adventure stuff, but the pacing is really uneven. For fans of the series it’s a decent ending, but for me, I don’t think I’ll try reading the episodes I’ve missed.

Journey Into FearJourney Into Fear by Eric Ambler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read Eric Ambler twice before, and was entertained both times. This one follows the same basic template – average middle-class mild-mannered Englishman suddenly finds himself up to his neck in spy-thriller shenanigans and completely out of his depth as he struggles to comprehend his situation and what to do about it. In this case, armaments manufacturing engineer Mr Graham – in Istanbul circa 1940 to help consult the Turkish military on naval guns – is shocked to discover someone is trying to kill him. The Turkish secret police – who need him alive to compete his work – try to get him back to England safely via a steamer ship, but Graham soon discovers that he is anything but safe as some of his fellow passengers may not be who they seem to be.

It’s classic Ambler – Graham swerves between incredulous indignation at the very idea that anyone would want to kill him (where his biggest fear is looking foolish for believing such nonsense) to paranoia (as he tries to figure out who he can trust) and desperation (as his well thought out, logical plans keep falling apart because he really has no idea what he’s doing). In other words, he’s no James Bond or John McClane – he’s a normal person placed in a terrifying position. The twists aren’t necessarily surprising, but they’re entertaining as hell. Of the Ambler novels I’ve read so far, this is the best of the bunch.

Faerie ApocalypseFaerie Apocalypse by Jason Franks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll be honest – I’ve never been a fan of the faerie genre as a whole, although there are a few exceptions (Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint come to mind). And I might not have tried this, except that (1) Franks’ first novel Bloody Waters was so good, and (2) this ain’t yr average fairy story. In fact, as the title implies, the whole point of the book is to set up the usual tropes of faerie fiction – the quests, the royalty, the magi, the tricksters, the endless walking, and mortal humans finding themselves in this magical alt-reality – and take an Uzi to them. Literally, in at least one case. It’s not a parody so much as an excuse to break every genre rule there is just to see what happens.

The story follows four different mortals (most of them unnamed) who enter the Lands Of The Realm for various reasons, and wreak havoc upon it, intentionally or otherwise. I won’t say any more because part of the appeal here is seeing where Franks goes with this – and it’s not where you might think. The chief criticism I have is the lack of a sympathetic main character – not a hero, which would defeat the purpose of the story, but someone who could at least offset the senselessly destructive nature of everyone else. The faerie playwright Nentril Revallo is the most likeable character here for my money, and while he plays a key role in the story, he’s still a minor character. Overall it’s rather bleak and nihilistic for my taste … and yet it has to be for the story to work, and I do appreciate what Franks is ultimately shooting for here. So if yr interested in seeing someone take a chainsaw to the whole faerie-fiction paradigm, this may be just the thing.

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Fractured fairy tales,

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More readin’, more book reportin’, more value!

The Double Agent (Modesty Blaise Graphic Novel Titan #19)The Double Agent by Peter O'Donnell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is Volume 19 of the Titan reprints of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip, featuring the last three story arcs drawn by Nevile Colvin in the mid-80s before he stepped down. By this time, Modesty and trusted lieutenant Willie Garvin are not accepting assignments from Sir Gerald Tarrant so much as being trouble magnets, having to deal with things like the head of French intelligence being kidnapped, a Thuggee cult revival in India, and that old standby, a doppelganger story (the title track here) in which a Commie gangster tries to frame Modesty for the assassination of Sir Gerald. As usual, it’s straight-up fast-paced spy-adventure from beginning to end, and while the core ideas aren’t all that original (it’s probably not a coincidence “Kali’s Disciples” appeared a year after Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom), it’s in how you tell them, and Peter O’Donnell generally told his stories well, and made even old ideas work in the Blaise universe. And of course he has a great set of core characters to work with. It may not be as fresh as the earlier strips, but it ain't boring.

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in HistoryA Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History by Paul Fischer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The strange but true story of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her husband, film director Shin Sang-ok, who were abducted by North Korea in 1978 under the orders of Kim Jong-Il, who at the time wasn’t yet officially in line to succeed his father Kim Il-sung as Supreme Leader, but was the head of the Propaganga & Agitation Dept – which included North Korea’s film industry. Kim was a huge film fan and – seeing cinema as the ultimate propaganda tool, as well as a way to make money – decided he needed the talents of Choi and Shin to make better quality films. So he kidnapped them. And after five years of re-education and (in Shin’s case) prison, they went on to make several films, from the award-winning Salt to the MST3K-worthy Godzilla rip-off Pulgasari.

It sounds like a comedy, but it’s actually pretty grim – North Korea is as nightmarish and extreme a dictatorship as you can imagine, and for all his quirks, Kim was a sociopathic man-child criminal. It’s a fascinating story that Paul Fischer tells well, though it takes awhile for him to get to it – the first third of the book is a primer on the lives of Choi, Shin and Kim, the history of the splitting of Korea, how the North Korean cult-of-personality regime was established, and a summary of the film industries of both countries. But all of that provides the necessary context for the feature presentation, and also plays into Fischer’s view that North Korea itself is in many ways another Kim Jong-Il production. The book also works because Fischer invested a lot of effort to making Choi and Shin come alive on the page – especially Choi, who he interviewed personally for the book, and who sadly passed away just as I was finishing the last few chapters. Recommended for film fans as well as anyone interested in North Korea.

The Giver (The Giver, #1)The Giver by Lois Lowry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Background: This has been sitting on the bride’s bookshelf for awhile now, and neither of us is sure exactly how it got there – it may be the consequence of going to lots of used-book clearance sales where they sometimes throw in some free books. Anyway, I never bothered to check it out at home, but I just happened to see a new copy in a bookstore, picked it up and saw that it was award-winning dystopian YA fiction. So, since I already had a copy for mysterious reasons, I decided to give it a try.

The premise: 11-year-old Jonas lives in a closed utopian community where there’s no war, violence, pain or sadness. When you turn 12, you’re assigned your life vocation, and that’s what you do for the rest of your life. When Jonas turns 12, he is given the most prestigious job: the Receiver of Memory, whose job is to remember the past for everyone – which also means remembering the truth about the community, which turns out to be horrible. Well … awards or no awards, I didn’t get much out of it. Lowry is a decent writer who keeps the pages turning, and I appreciate the themes she’s exploring here. The main problem is that it stretches my suspension of disbelief too far, particularly in terms of how memory transfer works, and how you would go about creating and maintaining a community like that. Also the “shocking truth” twist is not only predictable, but also one of the great clichés of dystopian fiction. Even as a “what if” thought experiment, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny if you look closely. It’s not a bad book if you can accept it at face value – and I don’t think it’s necessary for speculative fiction to overexplain how everything works – but I feel the book underexplains its own basic premise to the point of distraction. So overall it just didn’t work for me.

Profiles of the FutureProfiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In which Arthur C Clarke predicts the future 50 years ago! Or, more accurately, Clarke looks at many of the various tropes of science-fiction and assesses how many could come true or are at least scientifically possible. Because this was published in 1963 – and contains some articles that were written as far back as 1958 – reading it is as much an exercise in assessing Clarke’s accuracy as it is appreciating his vision. (In fact, Clarke himself would do this in later editions of this book – the copy I have is from 1964, so I get to apply 55+ years of hindsight to everything here.)

Obviously – and like lots of futurists – Clarke gets a lot wrong, mainly in terms of timescale, technological details, commercial feasibility and/or optimism, but he also gets a lot right, and some of his “forecasts” hinged on future breakthroughs that haven't happened yet but still could one day. Cleverly, Clarke hedges his bets straight off with a couple of chapters reminding us of how the prediction business is a tricky one, and how so many self-styled prophets and even scientists get it wrong, either by failure of nerve or imagination. If nothing else, it’s interesting (at least to me) to see what people 50 years ago thought the future would look like based on what they knew at the time.

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Here’s yr future,

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I got a lot of reading done this month – or at least more than I expected. Behold!

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of Ursula K Le Guin’s more celebrated books, and I can see why. This one takes place in a future dystopian Portland, Oregon, where George Orr is afraid to sleep because he believes his dreams change reality. He is sent to psychologist and sleep expert William Haber, who quickly finds out that Orr really can change reality with his dreams, and promptly begins to exploit this in the hopes of advancing his career and fixing the world’s problems – with Monkey’s Paw-type consequences. Le Guin’s powers as an author are on full display here, not least of them being her ability to take established SF tropes and make them seem fresh by focusing on very strong characterization and a plot that fully embraces the concept and makes it believable without trying to explain too much. Indeed, how Orr’s gift works is beside the point – for me, the novel is really about how humans are terrible at creating utopias and the hubris of assuming we can control powers we don’t understand (to include our own brains), much less use them responsibly and altruistically. I generally enjoy Le Guin’s books, but this is one of her best works (that I’ve read so far).

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian MonksThe Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The “Desert Fathers” were a scattered collective of hermits, monks and ascetics living mainly in the deserts of Egypt around the start of the 3rd century. They were also pioneers of Christian asceticism and monastic life. Between reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island and seeing some quotes during Lent, I’ve been hearing a lot about them lately, so I decided to read this collection of various sayings, anecdotes and parables that have been passed down orally through the ages before someone started writing them down in the 5th Century. They’re short and punchy, but they’re not easy – anyone looking for little nuggets of self-help wisdom or snappy quotes is going to be disappointed. Most everything here is rooted in serious Christian faith, so that’s probably a baseline requirement if you’re going to get anything out of it, or even understand the point of many of these – and even then it may depend on how much Biblical or theological study you have under yr belt. The most useful part for me is the historical introduction explaining just who were the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, for there were women ascetics as well) and why they were out in the desert to begin with. So it’s educational, if nothing else.

Hello, Lemuria HelloHello, Lemuria Hello by Ron Goulart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third Goulart novel to feature Jake Conger, the semi-former agent of the Wild Talent Division who can turn invisible at will. This time, the plot is a riff on the infamous “Shaver Mystery”, a hoax published as non-fiction by Amazing Stories in the 1940s that claimed a prehistoric race of aliens called the Lemurians were living in deep subterranean caverns and wreaking havoc on the surface, kidnapping people, causing “natural” disasters, etc. Goulart takes that idea and runs with it for laughs – the Lemurians are real, and they are now attempting to take control of Earth after a crackpot conspiracy theorist named PK Stackpole wrote a book exposing their existence. Conger’s mission – find their HQ and stop them. As always, Goulart’s plot has his protagonist hop from one clue to the next, encountering oddball comedy characters on the way. But he also has a lot of satirical meat to work with here in the form of both the Shaver hoax and the kinds of crackpot conspiracies you see in Fortean Times. Some dated un-PC jokes aside, this is one of Goulart’s more fun novels that also features one of his best opening lines: “The assassin came in and ordered waffles.”

A Gun for SaleA Gun for Sale by Graham Greene

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I generally like Greene, whether he’s writing literary novels or “entertainments” like this noir thriller from 1936, in which an assassin named Raven is paid to kill a government minister that sets the wheels in motion for war across Europe. Discovering his contact Cholmondely has set him up by paying him with stolen bank notes, Raven goes on the run from the police to track down the people who double-crossed him. It’s a great set-up, and the basic story is a well-paced page turner. But it’s also one of those stories that relies a little too much on coincidence to bring the key players together – Raven, Cholmondely and Anne Crowder, the chorus girl that Raven forces into helping him who also just happens to be the fiancé of Mathers, the London detective chasing Raven. It also features Greene’s tendency to get sidetracked by the peccadillos of minor characters who seem to speak in non-sequiturs – which would be okay if they didn’t distract from the main story or feel like padding, but often they do here. Meanwhile, Raven himself is a bit overbaked as the hardened disfigured criminal who never got an even break and runs on pure hate and bitterness. For all that, the novel does display flashes of brilliance here and there. But Greene has does this kind of thing much better, in my opinion.

Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other WritingSlipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed Lauren Beukes’ novels to date, so I was keen to read this, which is her first collection of short stories, essays and non-fiction, although the fiction section accounts for about 70% of the book. The stories are strikingly diverse, although firmly within Beukes’ usual beat – extreme cybernetics, alien biohorror, ghosts, stalkers, serial killers, 419 scams, South African youth subculture, and so on. While most are top-loaded with amazing ideas – a Japanese punk Lolita vs giant monster story that doubles as a tribute to Haruki Murakami, for example – some of them are little more than ideas, with not much story to propel them, although Beukes’ crackling, energetic prose keeps it interesting, and in some cases less really is more.

However, it’s the non-fiction that really stands out for me – Beukes is a sharp journalist and social observer, and her chronicles of her journalism career and her field research for her novels really bring the people and places she encounters to life. And the open letter to her five-year-old daughter on the subject of beauty is both fierce and moving. Overall the book is a good showcase of her writing talent and imagination, but slightly disappointing in that the non-fiction section is so short.

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Leave them wanting more,

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I managed to see 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And of course, being someone who (1) generally lives outside of the 24/7 media bubble that is America and (2) avoids trailers when I can help it, I went in not really knowing much about it apart from the cast and the director – both of which were enough to convince me to see it. I really enjoyed Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and any film with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell seems like a good bet.

So naturally, it was only after I saw it that I found out some people were complaining about it – specifically, about the treatment of Sam Rockwell’s character, the dumb violent, racist cop Dixon.

The basic complaint is that he’s set up to be a stereotypical dumb violent, racist cop, and then he’s given a redemption arc that is both unconvincing (i.e. he does almost nothing to earn it) and a middle finger to the black American experience (i.e. giving white cops a shot at redemption is more important than anything white cops have ever done to black people).

So a few thoughts on that:

And I’ll cut for spoilers .... )

The downward spiral,

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And so on and so on and so on.

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates via his work at The Atlantic and the fact that he’s written some Black Panther comic arcs, so I was inspired to pick this up – a memoir in the form of an “open letter” to his teenage son, in which Coates explains his pessimistic views on the state of racism in America and the key experiences in his life that shaped that view. Coates frames the issue in terms of the assurance of physical safety that blacks in America have never really known, from slavery, segregation and lynchings to street violence and police brutality. Coates argues that this bleak reality is so at odds with “the Dream” of white suburbia – which is permanently entrenched in American culture – that it’s too late for effective change, whether via true racial integration or black nationalism.

It’s a challenging read – at least topic-wise. Coates’ writing is both lyrical and accessible, and his story is a compelling and at times moving one. Obviously what others make of this book will depend on their own sociopolitical views about racism and their willingness to at least listen carefully to differing viewpoints. I’d recommend it just to challenge yourself. It requires an open mind, but helpfully it’s no polemic – Coates makes his point clearly without resorting to clichés, slogans or demagoguery. It may just be one person’s perspective of a complex issue, but it’s a valid one.

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Stanisław Lem’s most famous novel, not least because it’s been filmed three times. I haven't seen any of the films, but the trailers for the Soderbergh version made it look like a cheesy romance, which doesn’t interest me. That said, there's often a vast difference between a movie and the source material (ask Philip K Dick), and one thing I've learned from reading Lem's other books is that he doesn’t do cheesy romance. So I finally got around to reading it, and I’m glad I did. The premise: Solaris is a planet covered in an ocean that also appears to be an organic lifeform in and of itself. Scientist Kris Kelvin goes to join his mentor Gibarian and a team of scientists stationed there, only to find Gibarian has committed suicide and the other two scientists are going mad as people from their past start materializing out of nowhere.

This being Lem, all of that is partly a vehicle to summarize the decades of research scientists have carried out on Solaris (and the arguments therein) with the ultimate aim of establishing “contact” with the ocean – and ultimately failing. Which is the central concept of the whole book – encountering alien life that is so alien that it exists completely outside of the human ability to even conceptualize what they’re dealing with, let alone try to talk to it. So while this is probably the most conventional book of Lem’s I’ve read in terms of narrative structure and dialogue, it’s no less imaginative in its ideas. Even the subplot of Kelvin being confronted with his own past (in the form of his dead wife Rheya) goes in an unexpected (and somewhat horrifying) direction. It’s pretty heavy, and if yr looking for space operas, alien battles or the movie version of the story, you may be disappointed. For me, while I prefer Lem’s lighter side, I enjoyed this.

In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward HopperIn Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This anthology was edited by Lawrence Block, which in itself would be reason enough for me to check it out – I’ve been a fan of his work since the 80s. Also, any anthology that includes Megan Abbott and Joe R. Lansdale is going to get my attention. But the icing on the cake is the concept: 17 short stories based on paintings by one of my favorite artists: Edward Hopper. It’s a brilliant idea for an anthology, and pretty much everyone here pulls it off admirably – even the handful of average stories are still quite good and work well with the premise.

One reason it works is the variety of approaches – some take the scene in the painting as a starting point, others use the paintings themselves as a plot device. Some stick to the time period depicted in the painting, others don’t. And while the balance of story genres tips towards crime/noir (which is to be expected, since many of the writers here specialize in those genres), there’s also dashes of magic realism, comedy and ghosts. It’s great fun to see what each writer is going to do with his/her selected painting, and it’s never quite what you expect. Put simply, I enjoyed the hell out of this.

No Man Is an IslandNo Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Thomas Merton’s famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (or indeed anything by him), but I’d read bits and pieces about his life and his writings, and I decided to give him a try. This is a collection of 16 essays united by the basic premise of the title (which is taken from a John Donne quote): Christian spiritual life is ultimately defined by our connectedness to others, which has implications for every other aspect of Christian faith, even including silence and solitude. Merton has a very intellectual/philosophical writing style, so it’s not a light read – it’s hard to follow sometimes (at least for me), but he makes a lot of really good points that stuck with me, so it’s worth the effort. He also has a wry sense of humor, which helps. The book jacket review blurbs infer that you don’t have to be Christian to get something out of this book – personally I’m not so sure about that. Merton’s views are definitely rooted in Christian theology, not all-purpose pop philosophy, so non-Christians should at least approach it with an open mind. Personally, as a Christian I got a lot out of it, so either way I'd recommend it. I’ll be looking to read some more of him at some point.

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An island never cries,

This is dF
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And so we are still all about the books in 2018. For those of you who care, I’ve decided to keep my 2018 reading target at 42 books, which is the same as last year. And as you will see, we’re off to a pretty good start.

How to Travel with a Salmon & Other EssaysHow to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays by Umberto Eco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a lot of people, my introduction to Umberto Eco was The Name of the Rose. This collection of short writings is my second time reading Eco, and it’s a remarkably different experience. Where The Name Of The Rose is a dense philosophical murder mystery, this is a collection mostly of “minimal diaries” in which Eco uses the advice-column format to satirize everything from travel, library rules and computer jargon to gadgets, Amtrak, art catalogs and the blurring of fact and fiction in media, as well as more fantastical ideas like the challenges of creating and updating a 1:1 scale map. It’s often funny and playful in a way I didn’t expect from the same guy who wrote The Name Of The Rose – with minimal editing, many of these could have passed for entries in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. The most interesting (and longest) piece in the book is a science-fiction(ish) story comprised of intergalactic communiques, declarations and documents between various human and alien military organizations dealing with various culture clashes, misunderstandings and bureaucracy. There’s no plot as such but Eco has a lot fun with the premise. A few essays either don't work or are too over my head, but overall I was delightfully surprised to discover Eco has a lighter side to his writing.

The Panchronicon PlotThe Panchronicon Plot by Ron Goulart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of Goulart’s books I read way back in the 80s. This is the second of three novels featuring Jake Conger of the Wild Talents Division – a government agency that employs people with particular superpowers (Conger’s is invisibility). Here, Conger is called out of retirement by his boss Geer to stop the President of the United States, who has apparently gone loopy and is somehow getting rid of his political enemies by sending them back in time and brainwashing them with new identities. Conger’s mission: find out how he’s doing it, stop him, and rescue the people marooned in the past. As usual, Goulart takes a great idea and applies it to his standard template: straight-man hero encounters a succession of oddball characters that advance him towards his goal. Also as usual, Goulart’s humor is the kind that few would dare to write today (such as Vice President Runningwater, who speaks Hollywood Indian when he drinks too much). The main weaknesses here are the time travel bits, which don’t make much sense if you look too closely, and the ending, which even by Goulart standards is too rushed. That said, it’s not meant to be taken seriously, and it’s mostly fun while it lasts.

So You've Been Publicly ShamedSo You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read Jon Ronson before and I generally like his work. Here, Ronson looks at the resurgence of public shaming via social media platforms (particularly Twitter), and the impact it can have on the targets of such shamings, from psychological and emotional stress to losing their jobs and, in extreme cases, suidide. As with most of Ronson’s work, the book is as much about how he went about investigating the topic as the topic itself, which may not be “proper” journalism, but I’ve always liked his approach – it’s like he’s learning all this along with you.

Consequently, the book takes a non-linear path, bouncing back and forth between contemporary examples of shaming victims, historical precedents (from Colonial-era public whippings to the Stanford Prison Experiment and Judge Ted Poe’s infamous shame-based sentences), why some people can recover from public shaming while others can’t, and the somewhat shadowy world of online reputation management.

Ultimately Ronson’s message is that we need to give serious thought to the phenomenon of public shaming on social media, its impact on victims (who are real people, not imaginary Twitter handles), and its impact on all of us – for example, does Twitter’s collective unforgiving nature force us to self-censor and be more conformist lest we find ourselves trending on Twitter (in a bad way) over some throwaway comment? Criticism and argument is one thing – ruining someone's life over a tweet is something else. In short, I can’t recommend this book enough, if only to get people thinking more seriously about this issue.

From a Certain Point of View (Star Wars)From a Certain Point of View by Ben Acker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the many ways that Disney/Lucasfilm marked the 40th Anniversary of the original Star Wars film was this anthology of 40 short stories (or really, 38 stories, one cartoon and a Shakespearian poem) that retell key scenes from the film from the point of view of minor characters. It’s a great idea, and it mostly works, although a quite a few stories take place “off camera”, so to speak, which is how characters like Yoda, Lando Calrissian and Qui-Gon Jinn end up making appearances. Also, while the stories are arranged in chronological order according to the film, it’s not quite the same thing as telling the actual story arc of Episode IV – if you’ve never seen the film before, I doubt you would get the whole story from this, so a good familiarity with the source material is a prerequisite.

For the fans, it does place the story in a much wider scope in terms of both fringe characters and references to past episodes (with a heavy emphasis on Rogue One, naturally). With 43 writers, it’s a wildly diverse collection in style and tone – and ironically, while the majority of writers are vets of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, it’s mainly the writers visiting the universe for the first time that contribute the more imaginative tales, such as Nnedi Okorafor’s story of the trash compactor monster, Ken Liu’s take on Imperial Bureaucracy paperwork, Matt Fraction/Kelly Sue DeConnick’s cantina caper, Adam Christopher’s story about the people on the other end of Han Solo’s “boring conversation” in the prison block, and Mallory Ortberg's official complaint filed by Admiral Totti over being Force-choked by Darth Vader, among others. But that’s not to put down the other contributions – even the average ones are still pretty good.

Overall I really enjoyed reading this – it’s a fun alternate take on the most influential film/story of my childhood. One minor complaint is that it probably provides a little too many POVs on the cantina scene. On the other hand, it’s interesting that despite multiple POVs, there seems to be a consensus on what actually happened between Han Solo and Greedo. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

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Hokey religions and ancient weapons,

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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

And I should mention right off the bat that I managed to see exactly twelve (12) new films this year, and two of them don’t count because they were released in 2016, so this is less of a Top 10 and more of a Literally Every New Film I Saw in 2017 + Two From 2016.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2017 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2016 for yr country, but 2017 for Hong Kong. See?


1. Silence
Martin Scorsese’s epic film about two 17th century Jesuit priests in the who travel to very non-Christian-friendly Japan to find their missing mentor. Some may find it slow, but I found it very engrossing as the priests are increasingly forced to question their faith as they encounter the suffering of persecuted Christians and are persecuted themselves. The film asks hard questions about the balance between true faith and moral pragmatism and provides no easy answers – which is wise, because no film is going to settle centuries-old theological quagmires in a few hours. It’s thought-provoking and exhausting and totally worth it.

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
You can read my longer review here, but long-story short: This is the best Disney-era Star Wars movie to date (and the other two are really good, mind), and possibly the third-best Star Wars film ever made. It’s got all the action and humor you want in a Star Wars film, plus extra points for having the guts to mess with the formula enough to (hopefully) take the series in new directions without being held back by the baggage of the earlier films.

3. Arrival
Based on a Ted Chiang short story, this film starts in familiar territory – mysterious aliens arrive in ships that hover over the earth – and then eschews blockbuster action for a thoughtful story in which linguist Louise Banks is brought in by the US military to try and communicate with the aliens. The sequences of decoding alien language are fascinating, and the movie explores a couple of distinct themes: the risks of miscommunication and the consequences of knowing the future, and the impact this may or may not have on our decisions. My kind of sci-fi.

4. Blade Runner 2049
I don’t know that we needed a sequel to Blade Runner 35 years after the original came out, but if we had to have one, this is pretty much what you’d want – a very good-looking film that takes the same world and creates a story that doesn’t ape the first film and doesn’t depend on you having seen the first one to be understood. Here, replicants are integrated into society as a servant class – one replicant, K, works as a blade runner and by chance discovers the 30-year-old remains of a replicant that appears to have given birth, which has serious implications all round. Like the first film, BR2049 explores themes of identity, memory and sentience, but in a more expanded form – and thankfully it doesn’t take the most predictable path storywise.

5. Hidden Figures
The (mostly) true story of Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – three black women who played key roles in the early days of the NASA space program. As with most Hollywood biopics, the movie simplifies a complex story and setting with fictional composite characters, and isn't above swapping historical accuracy for drama – but it does a good job of getting the basic story across in terms of what Goble, Jackson and Vaughan accomplished and the racial challenges they faced in doing so. Also, I likes me a good NASA drama – and the three main actresses (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) are very, very good. It feels a bit TV-movie-of-the-week, but it tells a good story that (hopefully) will encourage people to look up the real history of Goble, Jackson and Vaughan.

6. Hell or High Water
Crime thriller which the Howard Brothers rob branches of the same bank that is threatening to foreclose on their family ranch, while a Texas Ranger close to retirement tries to figure out who they are and where they’ll hit next. The characters are rather cliché (one brother is the handsome reluctant bank robber, the other is the unpredictable loose cannon, and the Texas Ranger is the Crusty Cynical But Smart Lawman), but it’s reasonably well written for this kind of genre, and good performances all around, particularly Jeff Bridges as the Ranger.

7. War for the Planet Of The Apes
The third installment of the reboot series, in which Caesar is forced to hunt down a renegade US Army Colonel whose men attacked Caesar’s home and killed some of his family. The film introduces some more tropes that will eventually lead to the ‘Planet Of The Apes’ scenario of the original film, but also focuses on Caesar’s struggle to not let the war turn him into Koba, the human-hating ape that rebelled against Caesar in the previous film. I thought the Colonel character was a little too influenced by Colonel Kurtz, but Woody Harrelson is generally good to watch. Overall, it’s pretty good, and marks a rare example of a trilogy where the third film is better than the first (though I think the second one is arguably the best of the three, but it’s an admittedly close call).

8. Alien: Covenant
Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Prometheus, in which a ship on its way to colonize a planet is damaged en route, and while the crew assesses the situation, they pick up a radio signal from a different planet. Unwisely, they go check it out, and that’s where we eventually find out what happened to the survivors of the previous film. Sound familiar? One reviewer described this film as an Alien Greatest Hits comp, and I can’t add much to that – it’s another compendium of body horror, suspicious androids, humans making bad decisions, etc, and it really doesn't add much new to the series. And yet Scott still manages to make it riveting viewing. It’s alright as Alien films go, but it’s getting hard to see the point of doing these if they’re not going to take it in a new direction as Prometheus seemed to promise.

9. Wonder Woman
Diana, Warrior Princess! Wonder Woman finally gets her own movie, in which her life on the hidden Amazon island of Themiscyra is disrupted when pilot Steve Trevor accidentally brings WW1 to the island. Believing WW1 to be the work of Ares, the god who is prophesied to return from exile and get humans to destroy each other, Diana sets off with Trevor to find Ares and stop him. Overall I think they did the character justice, and Gal Gadot is great, but I think they spent way too long on the exposition/origin part, and as superhero stories go, it doesn’t offer any real surprises. That said, it’s still well above average for the genre.

10. Going In Style
A remake of the 1979 film in which three senior citizens decide to stage a bank robbery after the company they work for is bought out and liquidates their pensions as part of the merger. The film gets by mainly on the strength of its cast – Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, who are funny and likeable. Apart from that, the film suffers in comparison to the original film, which was darker but had a lot to say about growing old in America. On the other hand, if you prefer a version of that story that’s a light-hearted caper film with happy endings for everyone, maybe you’ll like this one better.


The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years
I missed this when it came out in theatres, but in 2017 I watched it on a long-haul flight – three times. I’ve always known the Beatles cut their teeth doing lots of live gigs before they started recording, and I’ve seen a few clips like the Ed Sullivan appearances and the screaming teenage girls, etc, but this documentary really showcases just how great and exciting a live band they were, and tells the story well about their various live tours, and why they eventually stopped doing concerts altogether.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Another 2016 documentary, this one by Werner Herzog, which takes a look at the coming “connected world”, in which everything will be connected to the internet and our lives will increasingly revolve around digital services – likely to the point of dependency in some form or other. This being Herzog, it’s not a chronicle of how these technologies evolved and how they work, but rather a meditation on the potential impact they have for humanity – both the positive and the negative. Herzog treats the subject like a museum tour, marveling at the possibilities of such technologies yet wondering about the dark side of ti all – from online gaming addiction, doxxing, and social media abuse (such as one family whose daughter died in a car crash, only for the gruesome crash photos to go viral, after which trolls emailed them to the family for kicks) to the notion that as the internet becomes the critical infrastructure on which society is based, it will take one inevitable solar flare of sufficient size to send us back to the 21st century equivalent of the Stone Age. It’s by no means comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a unique approach to a topic I happen to cover as part of my day job.


Nocturnal Animals
A lot of people raved about how good this was, but I tried watching it on a long-haul flight and I got through about 15 minutes worth before I got bored and turned it off.


The Girl With All The Gifts
A zombie movie with a difference – well, potentially. I read the novel by MR (Mike) Carey and loved it – and Carey wrote the novel in parallel with the screenplay version, so my assumption is the film sticks close to the basic post-apocalyptic story of a young girl being studied by military scientists because – unlike other people who have been turned into zombies – she can still think and learn. Somehow I missed it. Oh well, I'll see it one day.

The balcony is closed,

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And here we are again.

Only this time, this may be the most pointless Top 10 I’ve done, since I only bought 12 new releases this year (with another four gifted to me by friends), although the ten finalists are all worthy of being in a Best Of list.

Upon reflection, I suppose that’s as much the result of me being more judicious about my music purchases as it is not hearing enough good music worth buying. I do find myself thinking, “This sounds alright, but am I still going to be listening to this a year from now?”

Maybe that’s an unfair metric. Or maybe I’ve just listened to so much music over the years that I really need something to make a big enough impression on me to consider it worth spending money on. I’ve also found that despite digital downloads being cheaper, I’m more cautious about buying them because – unlike physical CDs – I can't return them, regift them or sell them second-hand. Once I’ve clicked the button, it's a lifetime commitment. 

Well, anyway. I’m happy with the ten selections here, so close enough, eh Jim?

DISCLAIMER: Based on music I actually bought between December 2016 and November 2017, and therefore a useless metric for everyone else.


1. Sparks, Hippopotamus (BMG/The End Records)
This is Sparks’ 23rd studio album, and their first since 2009 (not counting their 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, FFS). It’s arguably the album I was most looking forward to in advance of its release, and it was everything I hoped it would be – well-crafted and slightly eclectic pop rock with satirical lyrics. Who else would come up with pop songs about IKEA fetishes, an impatient God, French film directors, a reality show starring the Macbeths, a hippo in a pool, the wonders of the missionary position, and a town where everyone is inexplicably giddy? Wonderful.

2. Big Walnuts Yonder, Big Walnuts Yonder (Sargent House)
From an album I was expecting to an album that came out of nowhere – I only found out about it via a Cargo Collective ad. It’s a supergroup project of sorts featuring Mike Watt, Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos), Nels Cline (Wilco) and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof). According to legend, they formed the band in 2008 but it took until 2014 for them to actually get in the same room together, and then they recorded the whole album in 72 hours. The result is a collection of decent songs with some truly whacked-out guitar parts and arrangements that have kept me increasingly fascinated with this for the last six months.

3. DiCaprio, I Went To The Mall Yesterday And I Got Sick (Bandcamp)
This is a band based in Atlanta hipped to me by The Holloways, and on first pass it reminded me of a number of underground 80s bands – bass-driven, atonal guitars, sprechgesang vocals veering between sarcasm and boredom, it’s all here. The closest analogy I can think of is Flipper minus the booze and distortion pedals, which is probably wrong. No matter – my first reaction was “What the hell?”, but on repeated listens I really started to dig it.

4. The Como Mamas, Move Upstairs (Daptone)
The Como Mamas are a gospel trio from (yes) Como, Mississippi that have been around for decades but hadn’t recorded anything until Daptone Records (who else?) signed them. This is their second LP, and it’s an inspiring slice of old-time funk/soul gospel that sounds like it was recorded in the late 60s. (In fact, I first heard the track “Out Of The Wilderness” on a comp of mostly older gospel songs, and I assumed it was from that era – I was surprised to find it was recorded in 2017.) If there’s a downside, it's that structurally many of the songs follow a similar template. But I still enjoyed this a lot.

5. Primus, The Desaturating Seven (Prawn Song/ATO)
The previous Primus album was a cover of the Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory soundtrack. Their latest is a concept album based on a children’s book about seven rainbow-eating goblins. And it sounds pretty much the way you’d expect a Primus album to sound regardless of song topic. Which is terrible if you always hated Primus, but great if yr a fan – provided yr a fan that doesn’t wish they would just keep doing Tommy The Cat and Winona’s Big Brown Beaver over and over again. I’m in the latter category, and I liked this just fine.

6. The Fall, New Facts Emerge (Cherry Red)
As reliable as the sun rising in the morning, Mark E Smith is back with album no. 32, which features most of the same line-up he’s employed since 2006 – a record by Fall standards. The exception is keyboardist Eleni Poulou, who quit last year. The remaining band have never sounded tighter – almost every song here is a solid foundation for Smith to carry on snarling and grousing about whatever’s bothering him this year. On the downside, Poulou’s absence is noticeable in the sense that keyboards have almost always been part of the Fall sound – so it feels like there’s something lacking here. Even so, this is their best since Your Future Our Clutter.

7. Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)
This is Mavis Staples’ third solo outing with producer Jeff Tweedy. I missed the first two, but I’m glad I didn't miss this one. As the title suggests, Staples has something to say about the problems of ongoing racism in America, but refuses to give in to hate – ultimately her answer is love. Not every song here is sociopolitical, and the ones that are go for blunt truths without resorting to rants or diatribes. A couple of tracks feel a bit weak songwriting wise, but Staples has a great voice to make up for it.

8. The Moonlandingz, Interplanetary Class Classics (Transgressive Records)
This is a project from members of two British groups (Fat White Family and Eccentronic Research Council) that started as a fictional band created for ERC’s spoken-word project about the band’s lead singer, Johnny Rocket. At some point they decided to do a whole album as that band, with Sean Lennon producing at least some of it. The result is seedy, psychedelic electro-glam with surprisingly catchy tunes and an ending track that puts guest vocalist Yoko Ono’s unique singing style to very effective use.

9. Oumou Sangare, Mogoya (No Format)
I’d never heard of Oumou Sangare before, but she’s been around since the late 80s and is a very big deal in her home country of Mali, having defined the “Wassoulou” music genre. That said, she doesn’t get into a recording studio often – this is only her fifth LP and her first in eight years. And this time out she’s elected to expand her sound musically with the help of producers from France and Europe. Which may be why the musical arrangements really stand out for me – Sangare’s voice is great but it’s the multi-layered backing vocals and musical tracks that flesh out the album into something special.

10. Bootsy Collins, World Wide Funk (Mascot Records)
Bootsy is back, although he’s never really been away, having kept busy in various music projects since Parliament-Funkadelic came to an end. This is his first solo album in six years, and you couldn't really ask for a better start than the title track, complete with opening narration by Iggy Pop, that reminds everyone why Collins is one of the best bass guitarists in the business. It’s jam-packed with guest stars, from Snoop Dogg and Chuck D to Buckethead (as well as P-Funk vets Dennis Chambers and Eric Gales). It’s a bit of a mixed bag – the lyrics are mainly more party-party-carpe-diem than P-Funk comic-book madness, though this ain’t P-Funk, so fair enough. Still, there are also a handful of ballads and standard R&B that seem too generic and bog down the proceedings. But the classic-funk tracks are well worth the price of admission. The tribute to Bernie Worrell is a nice touch too.


Public Service Broadcasting, Every Valley (Test Card Recordings/Play It Again Sam)
PSB’s gimmick is creating electronic pop-rock music for imaginary documentaries using soundbites from actual documentaries. I was really knocked out by their previous album, The Race For Space, which covered the race to the moon in the 1960s. This time, they’ve done an album about the rise and fall of the Welsh coal industry – which is obscure enough to be interesting, but somehow this just didn’t push all the buttons that the previous album did. It’s not just the topic – musically there are some really great moments, but other times it’s pretty straightforward Brit-pop.

Tamikrest, Kidal (Glitterbeat)
Fourth album from the desert-blues band from Mali that isn’t Tinariwen. Which I don’t mean in a bad way – Tamikrest and Tinariwen are both good bands, and both have distinctive sounds, but listening to this isn’t much of a different experience from listening to all their other albums. It’s good, mind you, but it just didn’t really stand out for me.


The Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Apple Records)
Perhaps not their best album but arguably their most influential, Sgt Pepper gets a new stereo mix from Giles Martin for its 50th anniversary (along with tons of outtakes), plus 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane', which weren’t on the original LP but were created in the sessions that led up to Sgt Pepper. I spent a lot of time listening to this side by side with the original mix, which has always kind of bugged me. The Beatles actually recorded it in mono, which meant the stereo mixes resulted in things like Ringo’s drum kit getting shoved into one speaker – which was noticeable to me because I used to listen to this album on a stereo with one speaker broken, so I could only listen to literally half the album (the left half of the right half). For my money, the new mix sounds fantastic – it’s stills stereo, but it sounds a lot fuller and the drums are more centered and muscular. And you can hear everything so much more clearly, particularly the harmonizing vocals. As the saying goes, it may not have been broke, but they certainly fixed it.


Various Artists, True Faith (Mojo)
This is one of those comp CDs Mojo magazine puts together every month. For this one, the theme is rock/country/blues gospel, assembled to complement that month’s cover story of Bob Dylan’s gospel years, and an excuse to create a comp that includes a previously unreleased rehearsal version of Dylan’s “Slow Train”. But there’s a lot of great classic tracks here – Sister Rosetta Tharpe & Marie Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Staples Singers, Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, Charlie Rich, Dorothy Love Coates and more. Special shoutout to the Como Mamas track, which hipped me to their new album which made my Top 10.


U2, Songs Of Experience (Island)
The new U2 album dropped on December 1, which is right after my self-imposed cutoff date. And I’ve found that with latter-day U2 releases, I need to give myself time to digest it fully before passing judgment – if the first listen doesn't totally blow me away, I might warm to it after a couple more times. The iTunes preview suggests there’s some good stuff here, but I want to give it a fair hearing before I pass judgement on it. So you may be seeing it on next year’s list.

Tomorrow: the films!

This is dF


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