In the News
- The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on 19th May was, if anything, even more of a pleasure to watch than that of William and Kate in 2011. With such features as a very eloquent sermon by American reverend Michael Curry, and a choir singing ‘Stand By Me’, there was a bit more of a light-hearted feel to it. And as my dad said, the British do pomp and ceremony like nobody else.
- In terms of sports, the Winter Olympics was good fun, with Great Britain winning five medals (though sadly none in the curling). But the obvious highlight was the FIFA World Cup in Russia, in which the England football team reached the semi-finals for only the third time ever, won a penalty shootout for the first time at a World Cup, and saw Harry Kane win the Golden Boot for the most goals scored. After the debacle of Euro 2016, the team exceeded practically everyone’s expectations, and made the country love them again. And England haven’t stopped there: they will be playing in the Nations League semi-finals next year.
- Watching to see if the InSight lander would safely touch down on Mars on 26th November made for a tense few minutes and a happy conclusion, but easily the space-related highlight of the year was the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on 6th February. I was so excited watching that, I couldn’t sit still. Just remember: at this very moment, there is a car, with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, orbiting the Sun.
Favourite Books (Fiction)
One thing I’m especially proud of this year is reading or listening to 69 books, well above my target of 45. With the number of books I still want to read, I need to keep this pace up.
10. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (print)
The fourth instalment of the Cormoran Strike series has what is certainly the most complex mystery of the series so far, with so many tangled threads that you can’t imagine how they can possibly all link together, yet Galbraith (or rather, JK Rowling) skilfully brings it all to a satisfactory and unpredictable conclusion. The characters are again handled well, as fleshed out and fascinatingly scarred as ever. If only Rowling could have done such a good job with writing The Crimes of Grindelwald.
09. Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton (print)
This is exactly my kind of book: historically-based (though taking some artistic licence, as the afterword admits) and with a good helping of action. It manages to be both a picture of 19th century palaeontology, based around the fascinating rivalry between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh (great material for a novel), and a satisfying Wild West adventure into the bargain. A straightforward, easy read.
08. The Beach by Alex Garland (print)
A deep, atmospheric, very readable story, with a compelling narrator and an exploration of just what people are looking for when they go travelling.
07. The Terror by Dan Simmons (audio)
I would recommend this to just about any fan of historical fiction; it brings the setting and the characters to life vividly, as well as having plenty of interesting details. The story also blends what is known historically about Franklin’s lost expedition with a supernatural/horror element, having the crew being hunted by an unknown monster, without seeming too awkward. It’s very grim and atmospheric; you can feel the suffering that the characters go through.
06. The Dark Tower Part III (The Waste Lands) and Part IV (Wizard and Glass) by Stephen King (print)
With the first two books essentially setting the pieces on the board, I liked how there was proper forward movement on the journey in Part III, plus the world-building; Roland’s universe keeps getting more fascinating and mysterious with the details that are revealed. Part IV mostly consists of a flashback to events that took place shortly after Roland became a gunslinger: this story proceeded slowly sometimes, and I wasn’t sure why this was the story that had to be told as opposed to anything else that happened to Roland before the beginning of Book 1, but it was worth it in the end: the ending was one of the most powerful and painful things I’ve read in a while. I intend to get through the last three instalments in 2019.
05. Christine by Stephen King (audio)
This is probably as good a story about a haunted car as it’s possible to write. The segments where the car – the titular Christine – plays the part of the horror-movie monster, coming to life and attacking people, are indeed a bit wacky at first. More compelling is the rest of the story, where we see the gradual effect that the car has on its new owner Arnie, and how events gradually escalate out-of-control, as well as some general observations about teenagers making the transition to adulthood along the way. This was a story that I thought worked especially well in audio format – for example, the slow change in Arnie’s voice as he falls more under the influence of the car.
04. Raptor Red by Robert Bakker (print)
This book, written from a dinosaur’s point of view (specifically a Utahraptor), was a really wonderful read. Bakker puts a lot of detail into the dinosaurs’ behaviour, the biological justification behind it, and the world around them. For most of it, there isn’t a plot as such – it’s just raptors living their lives – but that hardly matters when the content is so interesting. For the same reason, any artistic licence can be forgiven, like perhaps anthropomorphising the animals a little too much (which succeeds in getting the reader more invested). Plus, given that the book was published in 1995, it’s a little out of date now; for one thing, the raptors should have feathers! A must-read for dinosaur fans.
03. Middlemarch by George Eliot (audio)
This book reads like a 19th century soap opera with such a vast web of flawed but still sympathetic characters, and I became more and more engaged and eager to see what would happen next as it went on.
02. The Humans by Matt Haig (audio)
This story, told from the perspective of an alien masquerading as a human, is a brilliant portrait – both funny and sobering – of the good and bad in humanity. You really feel like this is how an advanced alien race would perceive us; specifically, how ridiculous and illogical most of our culture is. I also liked how the main character learned and developed over the course of the story, and his relationships with the humans around him. I feel pleased that I happened to listen to this audiobook within a few months of reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; both books, in different ways, give much food for thought on the human condition.
01. Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry (audio)
These two books contain many detailed and wonderful retellings of stories from Greek mythology, some of which I had heard before and some I hadn’t. They even include such information as how the Greek influence has bled into later art and language (e.g. uranium being named after Ouranos, who was imprisoned underground). The narration by the ever-reliable Stephen Fry makes the stories even better. Mythos covers the origins of the mythical Greek world and the beings within it, as well as an assortment of more miscellaneous tales; Heroes, meanwhile, covers the adventures of important individuals like Perseus, Heracles and Theseus. It is strongly implied in Heroes that a third instalment, covering the Trojan War and the Odyssey, is coming – I look forward to it.
Favourite Books (Non-Fiction)
(Honourable mentions: Cuckoos: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies; Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths by Darren Naish)
05. DisneyWar by James B Stewart (audio)
A really detailed and candid look at the astonishingly brutal boardroom politics of Michael Eisner’s tenure at Disney – highly recommended if you enjoy behind-the-scenes stories for how movies and television programmes end up getting made.
04. Cosmos by Carl Sagan (audio)
While the primary focus of this popular science book is astronomy, it covers a wide range of interesting points and questions, from the value of our ability to store knowledge outside our own brains, to just how likely it is that there is life beyond this star system.
03. Choose Yourself by James Altucher (print)
The overall message of this book is about finding success as an entrepreneur – in whatever form that might take – outside of the standard cubicle-based corporation jobs. But the advice given (and accompanying examples) can be applied in all sorts of ways and fields, and I think just about anyone who reads this book will find something that they can get hold of to improve their wellbeing and figure out what they can contribute to the world. This is also helped by Altucher’s engaging, conversational writing style. While I didn’t agree with everything he said (though some points I appreciated more after thinking about), this is definitely one of the better self-help books I’ve read.
02. The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke (print)
This is a really wonderful popular science book which explores both historic and more recent misconceptions about a range of intriguing and mysterious animals, from eels to frogs to pandas. I learned a great deal of new information from it, and it frequently made me chuckle too. I certainly wouldn’t mind a sequel which covers even more misunderstood species!
01. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (print)
This book has so many excellent explanations of just how humans have turned out the way they are today, and raises lots of interesting ideas that are ultimately basic logic you just never think about – like the fact that companies only exist because we say they do, and the use and exchange of money is based on trust. Plus I now understand capitalism much better than I ever did before.
05. Incredibles 2
A worthy sequel to one of Pixar’s best films.
04. Ralph Breaks The Internet
Containing as much fun and heart as Disney can deliver, this one gets the edge over Incredibles 2 by actually improving upon the first film (and not having a predictable twist villain).
03. Ready Player One
This film is enjoyable indulgence, and while it does deviate from the book in many ways, that generally serves to make the story work better in this particular medium.
02. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
By far the best Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 2, with a wonderful visual style, and a host of characters with emotional journeys that it’s easy to get invested in.
01. First Man
What could have been a generic, straightforward Neil Armstrong biopic instead has a great deal of effort put into it, and a style all of its own. It’s an intense experience that places you right in the pilot’s seat, and it left me feeling that if I were a filmmaker, I’d like to make something along those lines.
Favourite Films Watched Outside The Cinema (That I Hadn’t Seen Before)
10. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
09. Capricorn One (1978)
08. The Disaster Artist (2017)
07. The Invisible Man (1933)
06. The Lodger (1927)
05. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
04. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
03. The Prestige (2006)
02. The Blues Brothers (1980)
01. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Favourite Television Programmes
While I’m still not a big television watcher, there were some things I especially enjoyed.
- As well as Season 11 of Doctor Who (which I’ll talk about in more detail after New Year’s Day), there was Season 5 of Agents of SHIELD – while I thought Season 4 got off to a slow start then became really good, this one was great all the way through. It was a tense and often traumatic season, with the characters first going forward in time to a future where Earth has been destroyed, then returning to the present and trying to prevent that future from happening, without knowing exactly how it happened in the first place.
- BBC gave us another great wildlife documentary narrated by David Attenborough, Dynasties, presenting the struggles of various animals – chimpanzee, emperor penguin, lion, painted wolf and tiger – on a personal level as they try to preserve their bloodline, whether by clinging to their territory and status or just ensuring the next generation reaches adulthood. My mum and I have also been watching a lot of Snakes in the City, a National Geographic documentary covering the work of Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett, snake-catchers in Durban, South Africa.
- American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace wasn’t praised by everybody, but I liked it a lot. It isn’t so much Gianni Versace’s story as that of his killer, Andrew Cunanan (played superbly by Darren Criss), portrayed as a charismatic but fascinatingly disagreeable human being who lies compulsively and believes he is entitled to the best of everything. After opening with Versace’s murder, the series runs chronologically backwards until the final episode, covering Cunanan’s life bit by bit, which I felt served to make it more interesting as a more complete picture of him is built up.
- Killing Eve is a drama series about a Russian assassin named Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), the MI5 officer tasked with tracking her down. While it’s certainly thrilling and darkly humorous, the complex relationship between the two main characters is what really makes this show, as Eve becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to understand and capture Villanelle, who in turn wants to make friends with Eve in her own twisted way. I’m eagerly awaiting the second series.
Finally, I thought I should mention some of my favourite podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly; I somehow neglected to do this last year even though that was when I got properly into listening to podcasts.
- Herpetological Highlights covers recent scientific studies of reptiles and amphibians in a fun and casual way, with each fortnightly episode focussing on a particular topic.
- The Secret History of Hollywood covers stories about the olden days of Hollywood, from Universal Studios’s horror movies, to the career of Alfred Hitchcock, to the history of Warner Bros. Full of interesting anecdotes, it’s wonderfully produced and narrated by Adam Roche. Most of the series are currently available as audio shows on Audible.
- The Trail Went Cold is a true crime podcast, where the producer Robin Warder first presents details of unsolved crimes and disappearances, then presents his own theories and logical deductions as to what may have happened.
- Casefile is another well-produced true crime podcast, going into detail on crimes both solved and unsolved.
- I’ve recently started getting into 1800 Seconds on Autism, where autistic hosts Jamie Knight and Robyn Steward discuss different aspects of this subject.
Are there any books, films, TV series, podcasts or news items you’ve particularly enjoyed this year? Let me know in the comments!