What’s With All The Hate For ‘Ready Player One’?

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, was published in 2011, but I only listened to the audiobook early last year, by which time the upcoming movie adaptation was well into development. I went into it cold, not knowing anything about it beyond the book description. I found it to be one of the most enjoyable books I read/listened to that year, and at the time, it seemed like other people online had generally enjoyed it too.

But now this appears to have changed, with the movie so close to its release date. Suddenly about 90% of people commenting on Ready Player One on social media seem to hate it, and criticise everything about it – this applies to both the book and what promotional material exists for the movie. This apparently abrupt turnaround in consensus felt surprising, and also dispiriting given that my own feelings about Ready Player One haven’t changed. It’s never nice reading about people criticising something you personally love. Indeed, for many years, I was reluctant to admit that Titanic is my favourite movie because of how public (or at least online) opinion suddenly turned against it.

I’ve been looking around, trying to find out just why Ready Player One is attracting hate. Some people feel it’s sexist, often posting out-of-context quotes on social media to prove the point. A common target is the way that Wade, the first-person protagonist, desperately tries to re-establish contact with the girl he likes after she rejects him, sending her lots of messages, and even standing outside her virtual reality home with a boombox playing love songs for two hours. Is that a healthy thing to do? Of course not. But let it be noted that Wade is a teenage boy who has grown up in a depressing dystopia and spends almost all of his waking hours playing in virtual reality; that’s probably going to have an impact on his social skills and his political correctness relative to present-day mature readers. Nor is the book necessarily saying that Wade is right to act the way he does. First-person narration is always going to create some bias in how the main character is portrayed, but even Wade sometimes highlights issues with himself and his life, even criticising himself for spending so much time in the OASIS:

“Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself. Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.”

Other people say that Ready Player One‘s popularity is based on indulgent nostalgia, pandering to nerds, and little else. There’s no arguing that the book is crammed with references to Eighties pop culture, and some seem to describe it as nothing more than a laundry list of said references. Personally, I feel there is more to the novel than that. When I listened to the audiobook, I did think that the use of pop culture references was cool, even though many of them weren’t personally familiar to me; I’ve certainly never played the arcade games Joust or Tempest. But the main thing I got out of it really was the plot – the quest for the Easter Egg. The whole thing was an engaging adventure, and it had things to say about the real world too. The crumbling world that Wade lives in, laid low by climate change and an energy crisis, is much more plausible than many other dystopias in fiction. And the use of the OASIS to get away from real-world problems does feel like the next step in how many people use the Internet today. I do feel that there is more to Ready Player One than nostalgia – and even the nostalgia factor is not a bad thing.

Sure, the novel isn’t perfect; the writing is a bit clunky sometimes. And readers have every right to not like it if that’s how they feel; its approach isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It did appeal to me, though, and I just don’t think it really deserves all the derision it’s been getting.

Meanwhile, I’m very excited for the movie, and I’ll definitely be reviewing it here once it comes out!

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged | 1 Comment

Film review: The Shape of Water

Shape of Water

Having seen Darkest Hour last month, today I went to see another film that’s getting a lot of attention this Awards Season: The Shape of Water. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, it’s already won a great many accolades – including Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Soundtrack – and it’s nominated for thirteen Academy Awards. I’ve certainly enjoyed the previous films directed by del Toro that I’ve seen: Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and the two Hellboy movies. So, how was this one?

Our protagonist, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), is a mute woman working as a cleaner in a high-security research facility in 1962. One day, operative Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a new asset to be studied: a water-dwelling humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones). Curious about the creature, Eliza finds that it is intelligent, and gradually forms a strong bond with him. Eventually, she determines to help him escape from the laboratory and Strickland’s cruel treatment – while at the same time, Soviet spies also have eyes on what’s going on.

Although I deliberately avoided reading many reviews, it was hard to go into this movie without certain expectations. Given that Guillermo del Toro was directing, I expected something bizarre, fantastical and perhaps unnerving – and it is certainly that. While there may be just the one peculiar creature this time round, in contrast to Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, watching a woman fall in love with an amphibian is quite weird enough. Yet it’s an understandable relationship that you learn to sympathise with: the creature’s design and actions strike a good balance between being too human and too alien, and a human protagonist who is used to communicating without speech is a reasonable candidate to bond with him. However, given the sheer number of award nominations this film has received, I was also hoping for some special quality – and besides the whole woman-amphibian relationship, plus a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, there wasn’t that much which made it exceptional. I couldn’t find anything especially profound, and there’s only one or two moments which could be described as “artsy”. Ultimately, it felt like no more or less than a ‘what if’ scenario, which Stephen King uses to come up with his stories: what if a mute woman formed a relationship with a non-human creature in a lab?

Sally Hawkins, whom I previously knew best for playing Mrs Brown in the Paddington films, definitely gives this challenging role her all. Unable to use her voice, she puts everything into her expressions, combined with use of sign language which gives her “dialogue” more emotional impact than if she were saying it out loud. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer are also very good as Eliza’s friends Giles and Zelda, but I would have liked a more fleshed-out villain like Michael Shannon’s Strickland: he’s just the standard callous, aggressive government arsehole in a black suit, and even more despicable than General Zod, expressing a desire to rape Eliza at one point.

There’s a lot of good in The Shape of Water, and nothing I’d really call bad. It’s a thoroughly decent watch. Still, I was hoping for something more than that. Rating: 3.5/5.

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Film review: Black Panther

Black Panther

With a new year comes a big new helping of superhero movies, and today I went to begin the glut of 2018 with Marvel Studios’ Black Panther. The build-up to this movie is a great example of set-up in a franchise done right, something that the DC Extended Universe and Universal’s Dark Universe tried to rush and ultimately made a mess of. T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, first appeared onscreen in Captain America: Civil War, where he had enough of a role to establish who he was, but not enough to awkwardly draw focus away from the main plot of that film. Andy Serkis’s villainous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, and Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett Ross, who had minor roles in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Civil War respectively, also reappear in this movie with considerably more to do.

Following the death of his father in Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home of Wakanda to be crowned king. This African country maintains an illusion of impoverishment to the world at large, but in fact possesses great wealth and ridiculously advanced technology, thanks to its supply of the precious metal vibranium (the material that Captain America’s shield is made out of). As king, T’Challa is also his country’s chief protector in the guise of the Black Panther, granted enhanced strength and agility through a special herb. It isn’t long before he heads back out into the world to capture Ulysses Klaue, who has previously stolen some of Wakanda’s vibranium – but also involved is a young man named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan), who has a special interest in Wakanda and a bone to pick with T’Challa.

Definitely the best thing about this film is the effort put into its production design. Much of the Wakandan culture portrayed – from the characters’ appearances to their tribal structure – is inspired by the traditional cultures of African countries, and feels genuine. But at the same time, this is interwoven with the country possessing advanced weapons, aircraft, and other things that even Tony Stark would be impressed by. It could have been a mess, and yet it combines smoothly into a great setting which serves as a really interesting expansion of the MCU. I was also happy with the size and variety of the female cast, with T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his chief bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) all playing significant and enjoyable roles in the story. With its primarily black cast, and T’Challa’s uncertainties about how much Wakanda should integrate with the rest of the world, the film also doesn’t shy away from addressing the historic oppression of black people, which ends up driving a significant chunk of the conflict, but without being forced and heavy-handed.

The story has its strengths and weaknesses. It certainly has multiple compelling layers, with T’Challa having to decide what kind of king he is going to be as well as having to contend with direct threats. In the first act, it’s unclear where the plot is heading: some of it even feels like a James Bond film, with Shuri giving T’Challa a Q-like rundown of the gadgets available to him, before he heads off to South Korea and goes incognito in a casino. This leads to easily the best action scene in the movie: a car chase through the streets of Busan, backed up by a great beat on the soundtrack. Later in the film, however, when the story is heading in a clearer direction, several of the plot points it lays down are a bit too predictable: it’s still a good plot, but this keeps it from being a great one. MCU films are known for having weak villains more often than not, and while Jordan’s Killmonger has a complex backstory and understandable motivations which serve him well as a character, he’s still not especially memorable as villains go. Serkis’s Klaue is good fun with his simpler, more blatant and enthusiastic villainy, however.

Entertaining, diverse and with an impressive production, Black Panther is a strong start to 2018’s run of superhero movies. Rating: 4/5.

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In London Again: The Natural History Museum (and King’s Cross)

Blog 1

Blog 6

London is one of my favourite places in the world, and one of my favourite places in London is the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I hadn’t been to London since my Keeper for a Day experience at London Zoo in 2015, during which time I hadn’t been in the NHM. My main purpose for going back this year was to see the exhibition Venom: Killer and Cure, which is on until 13th May 2018, and which researcher Dr Ronald Jenner had given a lecture about at a conference I attended last November. While I was there, I also thought I might as well see another exhibition – Whales: Beneath the Surface – which finishes at the end of this month.

Blog 2

It was an uneventful train journey to London and to the NHM itself; there were several Tottenham Hotspur fans onboard as the North London Derby against Arsenal would be on that day. (Tottenham won 1-0.) The first thing I did once I got into the museum was to admire Hope, the blue whale skeleton which was erected in the Hintze Hall last year. I hardly felt any nostalgic wistfulness at the loss of Dippy the Diplodocus – who is currently going on tour around the UK – as I was too impressed by the whale. The skeleton was a 25-metre-long female who washed up on a beach in Ireland in 1891. It was chosen for its current position to symbolise the majesty, mystery and fragility of the natural world: the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived, much remains to be learned about its behaviour, and it is currently classed as Endangered. It certainly looked majestic, especially the massive head.

Blog 4

Blog 5

The exhibition Venom: Killer and Cure was set in a confined, low-light environment which made it appropriately eerie. On display were a great variety of preserved specimens, including snakes, spiders, insects, jellyfish, a vampire bat, and even a whole Komodo dragon, the largest living venomous creature. The exhibition was divided into three sections, with the first covering the mechanisms by which different animals administer venom; this included species less familiar to the general public, like the bloodworm, and ones which people are less likely to view as venomous, like the mosquito. The middle section covered the effects of venom, including animated sequences depicting different venoms in action, and audio clips from people who had been bitten by snakes or attacked by bees. The exhibition rounded off by examining humans’ relationships with venomous creatures, in particular the production of antivenom. It was all fascinating and well-designed, and I would highly recommend it.

Blog 7

Blog 8

I then headed for the part that had always been my favourite as a child: the dinosaurs! Sadly, it didn’t quite bring back the same level of wonder that I remembered. First off, the walkway which previously allowed a good look at the skeletons suspended from the ceiling was not in use; you could only walk among the informative displays at ground level, with most of the skeletons above your head, which didn’t seem ideal. A member of staff explained to me that access to the walkway had been closed off during the work of removing the Diplodocus and installing the blue whale in the nearby Hintze Hall; the current layout had apparently received positive feedback from visitors for being more open. Second, the information on the displays appeared much the same as in my childhood, despite how far palaeontology has marched on since then. A pair of once-scaly Deinonychus animatronics had been given feathers, but old images of naked raptors were still present elsewhere. I suppose it would be pretty costly and time-consuming to update the whole thing, and by the time they were finished, new discoveries would have rendered the displays out of date all over again!Blog 9

Blog 10

After that, I went through the Whales: Beneath the Surface exhibition, which was another very good one. Starting with the remains of prehistoric whales and their ancestors – including a ghoulish-looking Dorudon – most of the exhibition was contained in one room containing many different specimens, both complete skeletons and isolated bones, accompanied by informative displays. Of particular interest was the skeleton of the Thames whale, a northern bottlenose which swam into the River Thames in 2006 and drew much attention, but sadly died despite all efforts to assist it. Some specimens were bizarre, like the twisted jaw of a sperm whale, which the animal was apparently able to survive perfectly well with. Some emphasised the scale of these animals: what looked from a distance like a huge clam shell, well over a metre across, was actually a blue whale shoulder blade. Several of the displays emphasised the similarities and differences between whale anatomy and our own. While the whole exhibition wasn’t quite as big as I expected, I still learned a lot from it.

Blog 11

Blog 12

The rest of the museum was still a pleasure, particularly the marine reptile skeletons, and the mammal hall with its blue whale model. I was in the museum for nearly four hours, but by the time I left, I still had a few hours before my train. So I went for a general wander, which I always enjoy doing in London. I walked along the Thames Embankment to Westminster Bridge – the Houses of Parliament and the tower of Big Ben are currently covered in scaffolding and not looking their best. Then I passed the entrance of Westminster Abbey, noting a nearby plaque commemorating the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I walked through St James’s Park, down the Mall up to Buckingham Palace, before finally heading to the nearest Tube station. Back at Euston, with more than an hour left to kill, it suddenly occurred to me that I was not far away from King’s Cross Station, and there was something else I had never actually seen before…

Blog 13

Blog 14

Contrary to what the Harry Potter books portray, there isn’t any barrier between Platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross for wizards to run through; the two platforms are actually on either side of a railway line and in a different part of the station than Platforms 0 to 8. The platform scenes in the Harry Potter films were still filmed at King’s Cross, but on Platforms 4 and 5. In the central area of the station, however, a sign for Platform 9 3/4 has been placed on a brick wall, with a trolley – complete with trunk and owl cage – disappearing halfway through it. When I went for a look, there was a huge queue of Potter fans waiting to get their pictures taken with the trolley! Beside that was a Harry Potter shop, where I could finally get my hands on something I’ve always wanted to try: Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. I’m only eating a few of the beans at a time: the first one I tried was marshmallow, and the second was soap. All of them so far have tasted authentic, for better or worse.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Falcon Heavy: About to Launch!

Tomorrow, at 1:30pm EST, we are hopefully going to see another milestone in modern spaceflight as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket makes its first launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Admittedly, there is no guarantee that the rocket will actually go tomorrow – especially considering the delays that have already occurred – but fingers crossed!

Since 2012, the private company SpaceX has been using its Falcon 9 rocket to launch unmanned supply missions to the International Space Station. They have also been working on lowering the costs of spaceflight by making their rocket partially reusable: in December 2015, the first stage of a Falcon 9 landed back at Cape Canaveral following a successful launch, and since then, first stages have been safely landed on 20 out of 23 attempts, and six have been re-used. A SpaceX capsule capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS is still in development; once operational, whenever that may be, it could become the first manned American spacecraft since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.

So what about the Falcon Heavy? In simplest terms, it’s three Falcon 9 first stages stacked side by side, with a second stage on top to place its payload in orbit. It will provide legroom for bigger spacecraft to be launched – spacecraft capable of travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.

The most powerful rocket currently in operation is the Delta IV Heavy, which can carry a maximum of 28.8 tonnes into low Earth orbit. The Falcon Heavy, powered by 27 Merlin engines in its lower stages, will have a maximum payload capacity of 63.8 tonnes into low Earth orbit! That’s more payload capacity than any rocket since the American Saturn V and the Soviet Energia, which last launched in 1973 and 1988 respectively. (The Saturn V moon rocket, in case you’re wondering, could carry 140 tonnes into low Earth orbit.) However, the maximum payload will be much lower if the first stage and two side boosters are all intended to be recovered – which is exactly what SpaceX is aiming to do on this first flight. And there will be cargo onboard: a Tesla Roadster, belonging to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, which is intended to be placed into orbit around the Sun, as far out as Mars.

It’s been a long wait for this machine – rocket science is a complicated business, after all. Initial hopes were that the first launch would be in 2013. Even when this first rocket was on the launchpad, the static fire test of its engines was delayed by several days – but it was certainly impressive when it went off, with a massive roar and a giant cloud of steam. Whether the rocket will successfully reach orbit remains to be seen – but then, other rockets have done so on the first try, and with all their experience with the Falcon 9, SpaceX know what they’re doing.

So, good luck to SpaceX, and here’s hoping for a successful launch!

Posted in News, Science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Explorer 1: 60 Years On

Explorer 1

I’ve already talked about the first two artificial satellites in history, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, both launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. But what about the Soviets’ Cold War rivals, the United States? Their first successful satellite, Explorer 1, was launched on 31st January 1958 – so today, on the 60th anniversary of its launch, here are some fun facts about it!

1. In 1955, the US Navy was given the task of launching the first US satellite with Project Vanguard. Their rivals, the US Army, boasted a team of very experienced rocket engineers, led by Dr Wernher von Braun, transported from Germany after the Second World War. But the Eisenhower administration didn’t want the first American satellite to be built by Germans – particularly as the missiles they were responsible for creating were based on the design of the V-2, which had been used to bomb Allied targets during the war. When the Soviets beat the Americans by launching Sputnik 1 in October 1957, however, there was a panicked rush to get an American equivalent off the ground, and the Army were given permission to launch their own satellite. The Navy did still get to try first, on 6th December 1957, but their rocket barely made it off the launchpad before crashing and exploding. “Kaputnik”, as one newspaper described it.

2. Constructed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Army’s satellite – Explorer 1 – would be a cylinder weighing 13.4 kilograms, considerably smaller than Sputnik 1. Unlike Sputnik, however, it carried scientific instruments, including detectors for measuring cosmic rays and micrometeorite impacts.

3. The launch vehicle for Explorer 1 was the Juno I rocket, a modification of another rocket called the Jupiter-C, with an extra engine on top to boost the satellite into orbit. The US Army had been using the Jupiter-C for testing the re-entry properties of missile nose cones since September 1956; indeed, had they been given permission, they could have used one to launch a satellite well before the Soviets. In 1961, a rocket from the same family, the Mercury-Redstone, would be used to launch the first manned American spaceflights.

4. A three-day launch window was given for Explorer 1, beginning on 29th January 1958. Bad weather caused delays, and it wasn’t until 10:48pm on 31st January that the Juno I rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. To make things especially tense, the signal from the satellite only came through several minutes after the expected time: Explorer had entered a higher orbit than anticipated. Its highly elliptical orbit had a maximum altitude (apogee) of 1,580 miles, and a much lower perigee of 222 miles.

5. The overall levels of cosmic rays detected by Explorer 1 were lower than expected – one of the designers, Dr James van Allen, theorised that this was because the detector was being saturated by concentrated radiation whenever the satellite reached higher altitudes on its orbit. This would eventually lead to the confirmation that there is a belt of charged particles surrounding the Earth, held in place by the planet’s magnetic field; it would become known as the Van Allen radiation belt.

6. Explorer 1 fell silent when its batteries died on 23rd May 1958, almost four months after its launch, but it remained in orbit much longer than the first two Sputniks. It had completed over 58,000 orbits when it finally re-entered the atmosphere in March 1970 – by which time, the world had gone as far as putting men on the Moon.

Posted in History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Film review: Coco


The nineteenth feature film to be produced by Pixar Animation Studios, Coco tells the story of Miguel, a Mexican boy who dreams of becoming a musician like his hero, the late guitarist Ernesto de la Cruz. The problem with this is that Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to pursue his own musical dreams, and as a result, a deep hatred of music in general has been instilled in Miguel’s family down through the generations. On the Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday where the dead can visit the land of the living, Miguel breaks into de la Cruz’s mausoleum in order to use his guitar in a talent show – but when he strums it, he finds himself cursed and turned into a spirit. Escorted to the Land of the Dead by his deceased family members, Miguel has until sunrise to become a living person again by receiving his family’s blessing; so he sets out to get said blessing by a means that won’t involve him swearing to never play music again.

Easily the best thing about this movie is the style. The “real world” setting is as visually appealing as a dusty Mexican village can be, and the Land of the Dead is colourful and detailed, from its bridge to the real world strewn with flower petals, to its population of skeletons who are designed to be as kid-friendly as possible. The film also gets inventive with how the Day of the Dead works for the dead themselves, such as having them go through a scanner which only lets them through if a living person has put up their picture. The addition of having a dead person fade away if no memories of them survive in the living world is also a sobering touch. (One thing I did wonder: is this the only Land of the Dead? The population appears to be entirely Mexican. Where do you go if you come from a country where the Day of the Dead is not celebrated?) Unfortunately, the trouble with Coco is that the rest of the film is not nearly so original.

The overall story isn’t too bad: I was invested in so much that I was rooting for the protagonist to get what he wanted, and it did catch me off guard once or twice. But the majority of it is formulaic and filled with cliche tropes, especially the first act. The story of a rebellious protagonist striving to achieve their dream, against the opposition of their prejudiced family, isn’t exactly fresh – and in terms of character development, outside of what the “Land of the Dead” setting brings, Coco doesn’t do much that’s new with the old template. Even the scene where the angry, stubborn adult destroys the child’s prized possession in front of them, causing them to run away crying and do something naughty that sets the plot in motion, has already appeared in a previous Pixar movie.

What turned me off the most is that while the best stories of this kind give proper reasons for why the people in authority are so opposed to the protagonist’s wishes, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the idea of this family that hates all music with a burning passion – because of the actions of one man, who might well have done the same thing if motivated by a different hobby. It certainly made it difficult for me to accept Miguel ultimately learning the lesson that family comes first. I didn’t even like Miguel’s dog sidekick, who on the scale of Disney animal sidekicks, is only slightly less irritating and off-putting than the chicken in Moana.

I can understand why other people like Coco, and if you’re looking for a pleasant family outing to the cinema, give it a shot. I just didn’t consider it to be very strong as Pixar movies go. Rating: 3/5.

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Book review: Middlemarch (plus The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists)


After listening to the audiobook of Ulysses, and reading War and Peace in print, the last two audiobooks I listened to have also been “classics” that frequently appear on “books to read before you die” lists: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, and Middlemarch by George Eliot (who was actually a woman named Mary Anne Evans). Both of these, like War and Peace, were highlighted and recommended in Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously.

When it came to The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, I wasn’t that impressed. It’s basically a very long tract on the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, using an assortment of poverty-stricken workmen as the framing device. It certainly does a very good job of getting its arguments across, but it’s far less effective as a novel. It repeats its messages over and over, and like The Grapes of Wrath, the idea that it’s building towards something is an illusion, as it ultimately goes nowhere satisfying. I found myself turning up the speed on the audiobook as fast as I could without it becoming unintelligible, wanting to finish it as quickly as possible. As it turned out, I could have just given up halfway through and I wouldn’t have missed much.

Middlemarch, however, was a different kettle of fish.

First published in 1871, and set in the 1830s, Middlemarch is the name of a fictional Midlands town where the novel takes place. It opens by introducing a young lady named Dorothea Brooke and – quite naturally for literature of this era – detailing the complications of her prospective love life, with two suitors being interested in her. Not knowing much about the story besides the audiobook’s description, I was a little surprised when before long, it moves away from Dorothea to various other figures in Middlemarch, all of them connected to some degree and all of them with their own difficulties. The style of having this big, interconnected web of characters living in one place, with subplots fuelled by everyday drama and romance, really made Middlemarch feel like a soap opera.

The audiobook, at 35 hours and 40 minutes, is the longest I’ve ever listened to, just beating Under the Dome. (I’m not counting the 71-hour Sherlock Holmes collection as I’ve not listened to all of that, and what I have listened to was in bits.) The narration, by British actress Juliet Stevenson – who I’ve also heard narrate Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South – is especially wonderful. Stevenson is one of those narrators whose character voices are so good – from young women to wheezy old men – that you’re never thinking about the gender of the narrator themselves. Her storytelling talent definitely played a part in making the story seem to go by very quickly; but of course, the quality of the story itself also played a role.

Middlemarch is certainly a much more dynamic work than The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, where nothing of importance ever seemed to happen most of the time. I mostly listen to audiobooks driving to and from work, and with every car journey that was accompanied by Middlemarch, it seemed like something of significance happened: a character’s circumstances changing, or them gaining new information, or something else that would keep the drama going. And said drama gets more and more engaging the more you stick with it. The characters are all deeply flawed and not always likeable – Dorothea becomes one half of an infuriating will-they-won’t-they relationship, fuelled by both sides’ inability to communicate their feelings and knowledge properly with each other – but certainly very interesting, and pleasant enough that you want things to work out for them. Andy Miller had said that the prose could be hard to get through (which was why I chose to listen to it as an audiobook), and it did feel pretty thick at first – but once you get used to it, it really isn’t an obstacle. (Certainly easier going than Ulysses.) By the final third, I was constantly eager to find out what would happen next.

If you like North and South, anything by Jane Austen, or even Downton Abbey, you’d probably enjoy Middlemarch. It’s almost certainly going to be on my Top 10 books for the year.

Anyway, it’s time for a break for classics. I’m reading some non-fiction in print at the moment – and thanks to taking advantage of deals on Audible, I’ve ended up with a backlog of audiobooks to get through!

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Film review: Darkest Hour


Today was my first trip to the cinema in 2018, a year that has some very promising films coming up. And it certainly got off to a strong start with the excellent Darkest Hour, a film which is attracting many accolades and nominations as we enter Awards Season, most notably for Gary Oldman’s lead performance as British Prime Minster Winston Churchill.

The film takes place over a few dramatic weeks in May 1940: with the Second World War underway, and Nazi Germany about to invade western Europe, Parliament has lost faith in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and pressures him to resign. Despite some misgivings, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) selects Churchill as Chamberlain’s successor. In the days that follow, the Nazis make their move, the French appear powerless to stop them, and the British forces on the continent are cornered – and it’s Churchill who has to decide what to do about it. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, many people around him – most notably Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane, whom Game of Thrones fans will recognise as Stannis Baratheon) – argue against his uncompromising stance, and would rather try to make peace with Hitler than risk annihilation.

Darkest Hour spends little time actually portraying the fighting in Europe; that’s for other films to do, like last year’s Dunkirk. It’s both a historical film and a political thriller, and it works very well in both ways. The audience is made to understand just how frightening the threat of Hitler was to Britain at this point in time, without the benefit of hindsight; those arguing for diplomacy can sound pretty reasonable even as we root for the obstinate Winston. The film has a great British flavour to it, and despite the subject matter, it isn’t overly grim; there are some funny moments, like Churchill shouting at Lord Halifax, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m in the middle of interrupting you!” There are some little flaws in the script: occasionally we get characters spouting forced exposition about Churchill’s background and personal habits; and the third act feels a little too Hollywood after what has come before, with the hero doubting himself until he gets a stirring pep talk from the right people.

Gary Oldman, probably not the first person that most of us would think of to play Churchill, deserves all the credit that he’s getting for his performance. He is certainly made to look the part, particularly when he’s got his hat on and a cigar in his mouth. He carries himself like a portly 65-year-old, stiff and often breathless. And he conveys the personality of Churchill superbly. His first scene – where he has breakfast in bed while answering phone calls and dictating to his new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) – is fairly comical, but also establishes his busy brain and his curmudgeonly side, as he ends up reducing poor Miss Layton to tears. Throughout the film, he often appears old-fashioned and overly idealistic when it comes to the war, but his stubbornness remains admirable. Oldman is given the job of carrying the film – most of the side characters, such as King George, and Winston’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), don’t have too much screen time by comparison – and he does it without stumbling.

Utilising its historical source with great effectiveness and few mistakes, Darkest Hour is a safe, solid, and inspiring film. Rating: 4.5/5.

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book review: Ask an Astronaut (plus a brief history of British astronauts)

Tim Peake

The British may have once been considered great explorers, but we haven’t had our own manned space programme yet, and it was thirty years after the first manned spaceflight before a British citizen first made it into space. Helen Sharman was a 27-year-old food technologist from Sheffield, who was selected to go into space as part of Project Juno, a privately-funded project to get a seat for a Brit on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In May 1991, Sharman lifted off and spent a week working on the Mir space station.

In the years that followed, three men born in the UK – Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick – would fly on the Space Shuttle, but they technically flew as United States citizens. Two men who held dual British citizenship also paid to visit the International Space Station as space tourists: South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in 2002, and Richard Garriott, the son of former US astronaut Owen Garriott, in 2008. Then, in 2009, the first British astronaut to be officially funded by the government was recruited by the European Space Agency: Chichester-born Army Air Corps test pilot, Major Tim Peake.

On 15th December 2015, Peake – alongside cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and US astronaut Tim Kopra, both of whom were space veterans – was launched in a Soyuz on his first mission to the ISS. While there, he would work on various experiments, run the London Marathon on a treadmill, and perform an EVA, the first astronaut to do so with the Union Jack on his spacesuit. Peake returned to Earth on 18th June 2016, after nearly 186 days in space. Since then, he has published two books. Hello, Is This Planet Earth? is a collection of the photographs he took from the ISS, while Ask an Astronaut is a collection of all the questions people have asked him about his training and his time in space.

The format lends itself very well to covering both the big picture of life as an astronaut, and the little details that people might be interested in. The questions (or rather, the answers) are divided into relevant chapters; starting with the launch, then going over the training beforehand, then life onboard the ISS, before rounding off with the return to Earth. The old favourite, “How do you go to the toilet in space?” is in there, of course – but there are also more original questions like “What is your favourite button on the ISS?” and “Does space smell?” While some of the answers are simple facts, Peake also lends his individual experience and opinions to other answers, like recalling the funniest or scariest moments during his mission – he has a clear and genial writing style, much like Chris Hadfield.

If, like me, you’ve spent more time studying the earlier days of spaceflight than what happens up there today, this book is brilliant for telling you just about everything about how the modern astronaut works. Practically everything you can think of is covered, from the day-to-day schedule on the ISS, to how astronauts post those lovely photos onto Twitter, to the intricacies of holding onto everything during a spacewalk, to just what you need to maximise your chances of becoming an astronaut in this day and age. (Being fluent in Russian doesn’t hurt.) Peake goes into detail about some subjects that get generalised in other sources, like how the results of zero-gravity experiments are applied to help people back on Earth, or the effect that long-term spaceflight has on the human body.

Overall, Ask an Astronaut is another book that I would recommend to anybody who’s interested in spaceflight, whatever their age. Meanwhile, at some point this year, I’m hoping to see the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module, which brought Tim Peake to and from space, while it goes on tour around the UK!

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment