Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A year in books

​I should be getting used to it by now, I guess. Back on January 1, set my annual target of reading 52 books in the year. Failed miserably. Again. I'll have one finished by the time the witching hour arrives tomorrow night, which will eek the total up to 31 for 2015. Which is frustratingly slack-arse, and one less than last year. I blame the top-quality TV that's around these days. And work. And the kids, of course. In an alternative reality, I'm paid to read books. Anyway, here's a list of the titles that I did manage to pluck from the to-be-read bookcase beside my bed - in chronological order:

A Clash of Kings (Game of Thrones #2) - George RR Martin
The​ Cut - George Pelecanos
The Double - George Pelecanos
The Bat - Jo Nesbo
Dark Matter - Michelle Paver
Broken Dreams - Nick Quantrill
A Song of Shadows - John Connolly
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
A Web of Air - Philip Reeve
Dark Streets - Andrew Ravenscroft
Scrivener's Moon - Philip Reeve
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - Stephen King
The Executioners - John D MacDonald
Morality Play - Barry Unsworth
The Martian - Andy Weir
Outer Dark - Cormac McCarthy
Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
Iron House - John Hart
Finders Keepers - Stephen King
The Zoo - Jamie Mollart
The Ice Dragon - George RR Martin
English Passengers - Matthew Kneale
Make Me - Lee Child
Stardust - Neil Gaiman
My Swordhand is Singing - Marcus Sedgwick
Railhead - Philip Reeve
Night Music - John Connolly
A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness
Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King
How to Steal a Dragon's Sword - Cressida Cowell
Bazaar of Bad Dreams - Stephen King

Not a bad list, and pretty varied too - fantasy, ghosts, crime, sci-fi, historical, and a few short story collections (unusual for me). There are always repeat authors on each year's list. I used to blast through series without pausing for other authors, but have cured myself of that, although not entirely, as the double entry for Pelecanos proves - The Cut and The Double are the first two books featuring his latest MC, Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran turned private eye.

Overall, it's been a fine reading year - there's not one title on there that I didn't enjoy, and of course there are standouts, including both Pelecanos titles, in particular the latter.

I finally read English Passengers when we secured Matthew Kneale to appear at Manx Litfest 2015 - and it was an absolute delight. Not an easy read; it's not the kind of book that you can blast through 100 pages in a single session, but it's a quite beautiful piece of writing.
Full length ghost novels can be notoriously tricky to pull off, but Michelle Paver's Dark Matter is one of the finest examples of the genre I've read in a long time. The Grapes of Wrath - first time reading it (I know, shocking), and it didn't disappoint. Slow in parts, but powerful, and as with English Passengers, one that says with you long after you finish the last page.

Connolly's Charlie Parker came storming back in A Song of Shadows, set against the backdrop of Nazi war criminals living in the US; A Clash of Kings was great fun, and Martin's children's novella - The Ice Dragon - is a damn fine little thing.

Farewell, My Lovely dripped cool and style; Stardust was... well, it was Gaiman, and enough said; A Monster Calls was my first taste of Patrick Ness, and it certainly won't be the last; Philip Reeve has another hugely successful series on his hands, if Railhead is anything to go by; and Morality Play was an unexpected and rich find.

As for Stephen King, Tom Gordon was good(ish); Finders Keepers was better than the first book in the series (Mr Mercedes), but I still feel that King is finding his feet with 'crime' (if that series of books can be classed as that); Full Dark, No Stars (four novellas) was superb, and Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I'm close to finishing, is a mix of great, good and so-so, as tends to happen with short story collections.
Two debut novelists to note - Jamie Mollart's The Zoo is a dark and disturbing plunge into the world of corporate advertising, while Dark Streets by Andrew Ravenscroft (a Manxman now based in the US) is part Blade Runner/part urban London thriller. Looking forward to more from both authors.
If there was one disappointment, it was Iron House - a decent enough read, but as a second taste of Hart's work after the brilliant The Last Child, it didn't satisfy as much as I expected it to. That said, I've another of his books on the TBR shelf.

What's in the pipeline for 2016? There are several Cormac McCarthy titles I've not read, and I really want to dig deeper into Margaret Atwood's back catalogue. I've got a real taste for King now - have had for several years, after largely ignoring his books as a teenager, when most of my peers were devouring them. I've caught up a bit in recent years, but thankfully there is still a long list left to read.

There will likely be more Gaiman, and I want to get back into James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series, which I stopped reading a few years back (as part of that cure), but he's too damn good to ignore any longer. Deon Meyer too - only read one book by him, and mighty fine it was too.

And there are several authors I want to try for the first time - including Joe R Lansdale, Bernard Minier and Noah Hawley, who also happens to be the brains behind the Fargo TV series that I'm trying to convince everyone to watch.

So here we go again then - target 52 books. Check back here in 12 months.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Patience, young grasshopper

We are in a golden age of television. Not everything is a home run, but there are so many damn fine programmes on our TV sets these days. Last night I brewed up and settled down for 70-odd minutes of pure brilliance - episode two of the second series of Fargo.

The first series had to live up to the Coen Brothers' dazzling 1996 movie, and did just that. Series two has to live up to series one, and is doing just that. Surpassing, possibly. The acting is top notch throughout. The direction assured, the writing confident. I said to a friend after watching last week's series opener that it was such a bloody pleasure to know you are in the hands of a cast and crew so confident in what they are doing.

The story will be told over ten or so hours, same as series one. And that, as with so much TV these days, is the beauty of it. I've never had much patience. (My mother would replace 'much' with 'any'). But as I get older, I am learning more, and in particular the satisfaction of enjoying a story well told, at a measured pace.

The last film I saw at the cinema was The Martian. Perfectly reasonable entertainment, nicely put together, if not as gripping as I’d hoped it would be, having read the book. The movie ran for two hours and twenty minutes – in that time, Matt Damon had (SPOILER ALERT) been stranded on Mars, recovered, grown a shit-load of potatoes (and an unfortunate beard), worked out how to get in touch with NASA, who sorted out not one, but two rescue plans, while our hero was hauling ass across the surface of the red planet, at the same time as the crew who had believed him dead made an audacious attempt to save him before his potatoes ran out. All in just over two hours.

I'm struggling to think of the last movie that really blew me away. And I know why that is - movies seem so rushed now, compared with the rich storytelling and character development on show in TV, where plots are allowed to breathe, unfurling at just the right pace (maybe not in every instance, but you get my drift).

I’m bored of hearing those movie-goers who don’t have the attention span to sit through a film that dares to run past the two-hour mark. If a movie hits three hours they are ready to rain fire and brimstone down on the cinema world. I just don’t get it. Is our attention span as a species so shot that we need everything in small fixes?

I was looking on Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks back, at what movies were coming up. One was the latest Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, Bridge of Spies. It had the running time down as 95 minutes. There are a few movies of that length which do tick all the boxes for me – The Usual Suspects was around 90, and that’s a lean mean machine. But by and large, if a movie by Spielberg and Hanks comes in at 95 minutes, the alarm bells start ringing. It's so bad, I thought, they've had to hack it to pieces.

When I checked back a few days later, I realised they’d made a mistake and changed the running time to 155 minutes. Now we’re talking. Sure, there are some lengthy movies that would have worked better with a little nip tuck here and there. But to my mind they are the exception, not the rule.

It's one of the reasons why movie adaptations of beloved novels don't tend to fare well when compared; they can work, of course - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Jaws, LA Confidential, The Silence of the Lambs, to name a few. But again, exceptions rather than rules.

A book unfolds at its own pace, but all that story has to be crammed into a couple of hours on the big screen. Unless, of course, a book is adapted for TV. Where, in the hands of astute showrunners, directors and writers, it can receive the treatment it deserves. And that's what we're seeing these days. My Sky planner can't cope, that's for sure.