Happy New Year – 2018!

Happy New Year, everybody! Once again, it’s time to make a list of goals for the coming year. Here are some of mine:

  • I’m going to finish my current writing project.
  • I want to write more about the scientific subjects I’m interested in, so I’m currently planning to re-design the blog (maybe create a new one) for better division between all the things I like to write about.
  • I intend to go on another big wildlife-related expedition this year, like my previous trips to Guatemala and the Philippines.
  • I’m raising my annual reading target from 40 books to 45.
  • Winter weather and lack of daylight has prevented me from doing as much running as I would have liked after the triathlon, so I want to build myself up again. The current target I’m looking at is a half-marathon in the autumn. We shall see.
  • Last year, I was more casual with my list of old films I want to see, so I’m going to commit to reducing that again by watching at least one per fortnight.

Do you have any special resolutions for 2018? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Looking Back at 2017

2017 started off with some big changes for me personally, besides turning 30. I moved into a new house; I got a new, more satisfying job; and I started driving again after six years of relying on public transport. Overall, I find I’m a lot happier than I was last year. I also crossed a couple of items off my bucket list, by visiting Rome for the first time, and by seeing my favourite singer, Celine Dion, live in concert.

With regards to my sixteen New Year’s resolutions, I fully completed eight and partially completed two. Here are some of the things I’ve done connected with those goals:

  • I signed up for a triathlon – giving me a reason to start running and thus get more exercise overall – and completed it. My high-school self, who hated P.E., would never have believed it.
  • I’ve developed my cooking skills, and am eating more vegetarian meals each week. Plus I achieved my goal of hosting Christmas dinner for my family!
  • I completed the 50 Things To Draw sketch book:

IMG_0619 IMG_0523

  • I’ve started making my own YouTube videos. That’s certainly been fun, especially the videos on my top 10 favourite films which I had originally intended as articles for the blog. I’m currently trying to decide what to make videos on next.
  • I made some progress on a non-fiction writing project, which I aim to complete before this coming year is out.
  • I recorded another audiobook, though it hasn’t been published yet.
  • I finally worked up the nerve to try a buzzcut – and I love it!

Plus I’ve still been keeping up this blog, which has been going for nearly four years now: I especially enjoyed doing my series of Titanic Month reviews back in April. I’m thinking of making some changes for 2018, specifically dividing the factual content I sometimes write about from everything else.

Books

I completed a total of 49 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Here are my favourites, though there’s been so many great ones that it was hard to pick:

10. Asperger’s on the Inside by Michelle Vines

I read a few different books on Asperger Syndrome and autism this year. Michelle Vines’s book is notable for both its engaging and humorous style, and for its breadth of content: it tells her life story, but this is interspersed with chapters on how AS affects specific things in everyday life, such as her sense of humour.

09. Bring Back the King by Helen Pilcher

This is a fascinating book on whether it is possible to revive extinct animals, from dinosaurs to passenger pigeons; it goes into the scientific techniques involved and the inevitable obstacles (both practical and ethical), not pulling any punches when it comes to the human impact on the natural world but still managing to make you giggle a lot of the time.

08. Ulysses by James Joyce

I can’t pretend to have fully grasped this famously incomprehensible classic, but I very much enjoyed what I did understand, as well as the variety of styles that Joyce employs and the different subjects that the book ruminates upon. Certainly a reading experience like no other.

07. Under the Dome by Stephen King

I loved this situational story – what if a small town were sealed in an inpenetrable dome – for its massive cast of different characters, the intriguing and less expected directions taken by the plot, and the themes regarding human nature and significance which are explored.

06. Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas

This is the book that Donald Trump really needs to read. It goes into detail of how each degree of increase in the global temperature will affect the environment, and how much trouble we and the rest of the world will be in as a result. A worrying but necessary read.

05. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

A wonderfully charming book, with some very funny moments. The main character is a young girl who is neither infuriatingly bratty nor nauseatingly sweet; she is entirely human, extremely likeable, and successfully matures as the story progresses while still remaining the same in many ways.

04. The Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star) by Pierce Brown

Set in the far future when humanity has colonised the Solar System, this series tells the story of one young man’s quest to bring down his unjust society. While there are some familiar tropes, there are unexpected twists as well, plus great characters and action. The whole thing is so compelling that having finished Red Rising, I was desperate to start the next installment as soon as I could. Plus it has a fully satisfying conclusion which mostly lives up to everything that’s been built up, unlike some other more disappointing trilogies I’ve read. It feels inevitable that this will be made into a film franchise someday.

03. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I loved reading this deserved classic for the characters’ fascinating journeys, Tolstoy’s skill for depicting the complex human psyche, and the detailed historical backdrop.

02. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A lot of this book is just pure fun, with its compelling quest inside a video game world and constant pop culture references. At the same time, however, it raises interesting questions about the nature and value of reality, and depicts a future dystopia which is all too easy to apply to our own world. Here’s hoping the film adaptation which comes out next year lives up to it.

01. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman

This is an utterly fantastic book, going into detail about the history of the study of autism and Asperger’s on a range of levels: how it was originally diagnosed and perceived, how societal attitudes have gradually changed, and how autistic people have impacted the world in such areas as computing and fandoms. With numerous case studies to describe, the book paints a detailed picture of autism and the diversity of the autistic spectrum, in highly readable prose. Plus it achieves perhaps the best thing that a non-fiction book can, and left me wanting to do more research into the topics covered on my own.

Television

There were a few disappointments on TV this year: Series 10 of Doctor Who fell short of typical standards, and Series 4 of Sherlock was a ridiculous mess. (So yeah, not the best year for Steven Moffat.) But there was plenty of shows that I personally enjoyed as well:

  • Series 2 of The Crown (Netflix) and Series 2 of Victoria (ITV) were both just as engaging as their first seasons.
  • Series 4 of Agents of SHIELD (E4) started out so-so, making me wonder if it would be best not to have a fifth series. I soon changed my mind, however, when the second half of the season took the story in some brilliant directions, involving an evil android and a virtual alternate world where HYDRA was in charge.
  • Yes, Series 7 of Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic) was heavily flawed, with impossibly fast movements between locations, protagonists surviving situations which would have annihilated them in previous seasons, and some character deteriorations (I was especially disappointed with how Littlefinger ended up, considering how savvy he used to be). But it was still entertaining, and it was great to see how the overall story moved forward, with so many important characters finally getting to meet face-to-face.
  • Three new Marvel series aired on Netflix: Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher. By far the best was The Punisher, with brutal action, an excellent story, and an amazing performance by Jon Bernthal as the title character.
  • Series 10 of Robot Wars (BBC) had a new format which meant each individual robot was guaranteed at least two battles, plus some almighty shocks – who’d have thought Nuts 2 could beat Carbide fair and square?
  • Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes (BBC) was a reality show, featuring former astronaut Chris Hadfield, in which twelve contestants took part in various astronaut training tasks, from underwater exercises to docking simulations, in the hopes of winning a reference for the next European Space Agency astronaut recruitment. Apparently reality TV can be smart and inspiring! (Though I do still have a soft spot for I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.)
  • Blue Planet 2 (BBC) proved that no matter how much of the natural world has already been covered by documentaries, there’s always something new to explore – with modern camera work and other technologies making the content extra spectacular, and each episode taking time to highlight important environmental issues as well.

Films

I didn’t see quite as many really great films at the cinema as I did last year – though based on other bloggers who have considered 2017 a great year for films overall, there’s some I need to catch up on. Here is my top five (while honorary mentions go to Beauty and the Beast, Logan, The Lego Batman Movie, and War for the Planet of the Apes).

05. Paddington 2

If you enjoyed the first Paddington movie, you’re in safe hands with the sequel. It takes the general positive themes and characters that made the first movie work, while making sure to introduce fresh elements rather than just rehashing what’s already been done. Hugh Grant is especially good as the villain, giving an idea of what he might have been like if he’d gotten to play Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

04. Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan does it again with this war film, bringing the Dunkirk evacuation to life with an intense atmosphere and an uncoventional structure.

03. Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman fully deserves its popular status as the only good DC Extended Universe film – though it’s not merely good, but great.

02. Thor: Ragnarok

Narrowly beating Wonder Woman as my favourite superhero film of 2017, Thor: Ragnarok has great performances and a surprisingly comedic atmosphere that somehow works very well.

01. Your Name

Technical issues at my cinema screening aside, this was a beautiful film, both aesthetically and in terms of its heart-wrenching, perfectly crafted story.

After another rough year for the world at large, I hope that you all have a safe and happy 2018.

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War and Peace: Yes, It’s Long, But It’s Worth It

War and Peace

Whenever somebody makes a joke or statement regarding a really, really long book, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is the typical reference point. It’s certainly so long as to be intimidating, containing 587,287 words. In contrast, the longest Harry Potter book – Order of the Phoenix – is less than half that length at 257,045 words. And before taking on War and Peace, the longest single novel I had personally read was The Count of Monte Cristo at 395,560 words. War and Peace had been sitting on my Kindle for a while when I finally decided to actually read it. As with Ulysses, I was inspired by a YouTube video on the subject by Ted-ED; and not having the pressure of meeting my annual Goodreads target of 40 books – having already done so – I thought I might just be able to finish it before the year was out.

I followed Andy Miller’s advice in The Year of Reading Dangerously and tried to read a certain number of pages every day, which soon became a steady routine. As Miller had said in his book, the prose of War and Peace is not difficult to get through – indeed, it was positively refreshing considering the last classic I tried was Ulysses! I had also already watched the excellent BBC miniseries, starring Lily James and James Norton, which aired last year. The series, I can now appreciate, is very faithful to the book; so much so that I felt a little bit like I had inadvertently cheated by experiencing it first. That a six-episode miniseries could do justice to such a massive book may seem surprising, but it included all the important plot points; in the book, there’s a lot of interesting but non-essential detail that the series could afford to abridge or leave out altogether.

Anyway, after three weeks, I’ve finished it! And it was definitely worth the time.

Tolstoy said about War and Peace: “It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.” I suppose what is meant by this is that while War and Peace is a novel in that it tells the stories of a collection of fictional characters, that is far from all there is to it. The big historical backdrop of the book is Russia’s conflict with France, led by Napoleon Bonaparte: this begins in 1805, which sees the Russian army being soundly beaten by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, while most of the entire second half of the book is devoted to the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

Particularly in this second half, Tolstoy frequently leaves his characters behind altogether and writes essays on the underlying causes of the real conflict, as well as musing on how historians tend to view these events. This isn’t the sort of thing you expect from a work of fiction, but as I enjoy history so much, I liked it. And Tolstoy raises many interesting points: there’s a lot of emphasis on the philosophy that the central commanding figures like Napoleon didn’t really play much of a part in dictating events, compared to the wills of the individuals who followed and fought for them. Tolstoy also utilises historical characters when he’s telling the story; I often had to rely on the footnotes in my edition to point these out to me. With history and fiction so tightly integrated in the book, even the essays fit quite comfortably into the whole.

With regards to the fictional characters, War and Peace has a very large ensemble cast. The miniseries created the impression that there are three main characters – Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. In the book, these three together probably get the biggest share of the spotlight, and the most complex character arcs, as they all try to figure out how they are supposed to live their lives. But many of the other characters also get several chapters from their perspectives, allowing us to get inside their heads. As I’d already experienced from reading Anna Karenina, creating believable characters and depicting complex human thought is perhaps the biggest strength of Tolstoy’s work. In fact, I’d recommend that budding writers read this to get a good idea of how to create and depict good characters, by observing details like these which help you picture and understand them:

“Here the conversation seemed interesting and he stood waiting for an opportunity to express his own views, as young people are fond of doing.”

“Anatole was not quick-witted, nor ready or eloquent in conversation, but he had the faculty, so invaluable in society, of composure and imperturbable self-possession.”

“With those about him, from his daughter to his serfs, the prince was sharp and invariably exacting, so that without being a hardhearted man he inspired such fear and respect as few hardhearted men would have aroused.”

War and Peace is definitely a great book, certainly one of those that everyone should at least attempt – after all, you don’t have to read it all at once!

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Doctor Who – 2017 Christmas Special: “Twice Upon A Time”

I hope you had a happy Christmas, wherever you are!

Yesterday was definitely one of the best Christmases I can remember. Having moved into a new house this year, I thought it would be nice to have my immediate family over and cook Christmas dinner myself for the first time. To my surprise, the dinner turned out to be a great success. Everything about the day just came together harmoniously – even the dogs behaved themselves – and I was sorry to see it end.

And of course, yesterday featured Peter Capaldi’s final adventure as the Doctor, and his regeneration – the Doctor’s first since I started reviewing the show on this blog – into his new female incarnation. I’ve already made it clear that I was disappointed with the most recent series, and less than happy with the decision to change the Doctor’s gender; so before watching this Christmas special, I was torn between excitement and a feeling of “Let’s just get this over with.” So, how was it?

  • I enjoyed David Bradley’s performance as William Hartnell in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time, so I was very pleased to see him sort-of reprising the role by playing the First Doctor here. His performance is basically perfect; he captures Hartnell’s gestures and manner of speaking extremely well.
  • The First Doctor’s reactions to all the superficial changes from his time – the TARDIS layout, the guitar, the sonic sunglasses – were certainly very funny, but it was also good for the episode to acknowledge the changes to how the character of the Doctor is treated. After playing a man who simply roams across the Universe, having little adventures, without even being able to control where the TARDIS lands, William Hartnell probably would be rather surprised at the kind of figure the Doctor has become.
  • I had been irritated to see Bill return, not just because she wasn’t a great companion, but because she got such a satisfying conclusion to her character arc last series. But as it was, she wasn’t too annoying, and the revelation that it wasn’t the “original” Bill did resolve my latter concern.
  • I was a little disappointed that Mark Gatiss wasn’t given much opportunity to show off his skills with his role as the Captain, though he certainly did very well with what he had. I certainly liked the reveal that his last name is Lethbridge-Stewart.
  • Rusty! Of all the characters who might have returned, who was expecting him?
  • It took a little time to figure out just what this story was trying to do. Ultimately, this send-off for the Twelfth Doctor is a low-key story of soul-searching – rather than a big save-the-world adventure that we’ve seen before previous regenerations – and I was able to appreciate that. With that in mind, the inclusion of the First Doctor felt effective and served the story well, even if his regeneration was being retconned a little bit; I liked his monologue to Bill about his desire to learn why good prevails even though it is “not a practical survival strategy”.
  • The inclusion of the Christmas Truce in World War 1 – the “human miracle” as the Doctor calls it – was also very appropriate and well-presented. As for whether the “Doctor of War” is a hero or a destroyer – which the modern series has based a lot of conflict around – ultimately, why can’t he be both?
  • Well, we couldn’t send the Twelfth Doctor off without a callback to Clara, could we?
  • On the other hand, Nardole can **** off.
  • And what better way for Peter Capaldi to make his exit than by playing to his greatest strength as the Doctor: monologuing! He’s had a decent run, despite a little bit of lost potential. However, in years to come, I’m not sure I’ll find his tenure as enduring in my memory as those of David Tennant and Matt Smith.
  • There we have it: Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. She’s on screen on less than a minute and only gets to say two words; you can’t make any serious judgements from that. I just had to listen to my gut, and to my surprise, it seemed reasonably comfortable and accepting of the situation now that it’s actually happened. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

A perfectly adequate final story for the Twelfth Doctor and Steven Moffat, with good performances all round. It’s definitely put me in a better mood for anticipating Series 11 – bring it on! Rating: 3.5/5.

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Film review – Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Last Jedi

(No spoilers)

First, I should get my biggest disappointment out of the way: that the film does not in fact open with Luke Skywalker singing “You’re Welcome” to Rey.

Talking seriously, this was another film I was more curious than seriously excited about. I’ve always considered myself a casual Star Wars fan: I like it, but I don’t love it. I’d gotten pretty hyped up for The Force Awakens two years ago – a new Star Wars film for a new generation – but the buildup for The Last Jedi didn’t inspire the same feelings in me; perhaps the novelty had worn off. And then came the reviews when the film was released: critics seemed very impressed, but general audiences were divided, with many diehard fans (including a guy in my office) declaring outright hatred for it. So what did I think, now I’ve seen it? Honestly, I was one of the disappointed ones.

The Last Jedi begins soon after where The Force Awakens left off; the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), are forced to flee their base after being tracked down by the evil First Order, only to find themselves being chased through space by massive warships while unable to escape via lightspeed travel. With fuel and time running out, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) come up with a daring plan to hit back against their pursuers and enable the Resistance to get away. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down the last Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and tries to persuade him to train her in the ways of the Force, while also learning more about Luke’s student who turned to the Dark Side, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

The film starts off very strongly, with an action sequence as Poe Dameron leads an attack on a First Order dreadnought: it’s exciting even by the standards of our modern age which has been over-indulged with CGI, and has a few effective comedic moments too. Things carry on in a solid manner for a while, but gradually the film begins to unravel. Rather like with Thor: Ragnarok, the filmmakers seem to be trying to add as much comedy as they can – maybe, given the influence of Marvel is bleeding through via the franchises’ shared ownership by Disney – but there are more misses than hits in this regard. A lot of the humour is little more than slapstick, and the antics of BB-8 the droid gradually escalate until they become almost as ridiculous as Legolas in the Hobbit movies. Sometimes the jokes feel out of place: at one point, Rey is having a serious conversation with Kylo Ren about his history with Luke, but still feels the need to ask him to put something on as he is shirtless at the time. There’s also more emphasis than is really necessary on bizarre CGI wildlife, such as the puffin-inspired Porgs; personally, I find their black, saucer-like eyes to be more creepy than cute.

Some aspects of the story feel poorly constructed. Most notably, the plan to help the Resistance escape from the First Order involves Finn and Rose heading to a casino to find a codebreaker; this doesn’t help convey the urgency of the rebels’ situation, instead feeling more like a video game fetch quest. Later on, there are certain actions taken by the heroes which appear to render earlier ones completely pointless. You can also tell that the script is trying hard to subvert the audience’s expectations and surprise them. That in itself is a commendable thing, but such subversions should still provide a worthwhile payoff – and when it comes to developing and resolving some of the loose plot threads from The Force Awakens, the ultimate outcomes seem weak and anticlimactic.

As far as acting goes, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are the strongest players. Hamill gives us an old and grouchy Luke Skywalker, traumatised by his past failure, and still with things to learn despite having years of experience behind him. It’s pretty sad seeing Carrie Fisher onscreen given that this was her final film before her death last year, but her last outing as Leia is a good one. The other main players from The Force Awakens – Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega – are all fine; Kylo Ren continues to have an interesting character arc after the last movie, and I liked that by the end of this film, he hadn’t gone down the most obvious route. Funnily enough, one of the performances I liked most was Domnhall Gleeson as General Hux, one of those enjoyably evil characters who likes to chew on the scenery and bark out threats wherever possible.

While The Last Jedi has plenty of entertaining moments and deserves credit for trying to do things differently, it gets more things wrong than right, and I can see why many of the more devoted Star Wars fans are unhappy with it. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Ulysses. Hmmm.

Ulysses book

Is it possible to not fully understand something – while being aware that you don’t fully understand it – and still get pleasure out of it?

When picking my next audiobook to listen to, I decided I was in the mood for something classic. I also thought it would be a good idea to pick something that might not be easy to read in written form and thus I might be better off experiencing in audio. In the end, I decided to give Ulysses by James Joyce a try after watching Ted-ED’s video on why it’s worth reading. Before watching that video, I didn’t know much about Ulysses, though I had seen it on plenty of “books to read before you die” lists. Much of what I did know, I’d learned while researching the General Slocum disaster; the events of Ulysses take place on 16th June 1904, the day after this historical event, which is referred to a few times by the characters. The main thing I’d picked up was that Ulysses was really, really hard to read, which intimidated me. But I decided, why not? Let’s give it a go.

Here’s what I was thinking for the first few chapters:

Chapter 1: “This isn’t so bad. We’re following this man called Stephen Dedalus. He’s eating breakfast with his companions, and he’s tormented because his mother just died and he didn’t pray over her like she wanted. Fairly comprehensible.”

Chapter 2: “Stephen teaches a class. A man at the school gives him a letter on foot-and-mouth disease to publish in a newspaper, and then makes some anti-Semitic comments. Well, some of this vocabulary goes over my head, but I’m following it okay. I don’t see what all the fuss is about!”

Chapter 3: “……………..Um.”

Not being able to make sense of a book, movie, etc is normally a real turn-off for me. For example, when watching the Hugh Jackman movie The Fountain – where he plays three different characters who may or may not actually be the same person – I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be happening and was more frustrated than entertained. Yet with Ulysses, as I listened to streams of dense, disorderly, disconnected prose where it was sometimes hard to discern simply where a character was and what they were doing, I felt more stimulated than bored or annoyed. Part of that, admittedly, might have been due to how good the narration by Jim Norton was.

So what’s really so good about the book? It takes place in Dublin, on an ordinary day in 1904, and follows two men – Leopold Bloom, and the aforementioned Stephen Dedalus – as they wander separately through the city. Not exactly a setup for a grand adventure, and indeed Ulysses doesn’t even have a real plot to speak of. But Joyce makes it an interesting and unique book through the things we see his characters think about, and the style (or styles) in which he presents them. Much of the prose consists of Stephen and Bloom’s thoughts, and they have all sorts of little philosophical musings, of the sort that many of us might briefly have when examining the quirks and absurdities of everyday life. There’s talk about Ireland itself, and the rules of society. Bloom goes to a funeral and thinks about death; later, he and some other characters are at a maternity ward and think about birth. Joyce certainly manages to cover an awful lot of subjects in the story of one ordinary day.

Every chapter is different, self-contained by both its content and its style. Some of these styles are wildly different from each other. In Chapter 5, which takes place at a newspaper office, the prose is interspersed with blaring newspaper headlines relating to what’s going on. Chapter 15 is mostly a fantasy sequence which is presented in the form of a play; it involves Bloom being put on trial for inappropriate behaviour towards women, then being declared an emperor, then being turned into a woman. My favourites were Chapter 12, which features descriptions of ordinary things done in an overly dramatic, awe-inspiring fashion, like in some ancient legend; and Chapter 17, which is in the form of a Q&A describing every little detail of what Bloom and Stephen are doing. (This last one was a bit easier for my scientific mind to follow.) It’s all very cleverly written, and I personally didn’t find it pretentious; it felt more like an exercise in literary experimentation.

A big part of what makes Ulysses such a difficult read is that so much of the prose is pure stream-of-consciousness. In most books, the author brings order to characters and events, and makes them straightforward for the reader. With Ulysses, there’s no filter to bring order to what the characters are thinking: their thoughts go back and forth, disconnected, changing quickly, a jumble – just like thoughts in real life. Maybe that’s one reason why Ulysses is considered a classic: in this way, it’s a more accurate reflection of reality than most stories. (To say nothing of the descriptions of the characters’ bodily functions – ahem.)

This style, combined with the vocabulary, was what made Ulysses difficult to follow for me. Sometimes, after finishing a chapter, I would look at crib notes online and be surprised at what I hadn’t comprehended as happening. But I didn’t feel like it was necessary to understand every single word. The parts that I did comprehend, I enjoyed, and it was certainly a reading experience like no other. Having listened to the whole audiobook and thus gained some familiarity with the story, I now want to go exploring in it again – this time, in written format – and find things that I missed the first time.

But that will have to wait. Fresh off experiencing Ulysses, I am now attempting to read War and Peace before 2017 is over. Fortunately, War and Peace is a refreshingly simple read compared to Ulysses. Apart from being really, really, really long….

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Victory Number 9!

Every NaNoWriMo is difficult, but this one felt especially tough. You never know how a story idea is going to turn out till you start writing it, and I just fell out of love with this particular one. Still, having put the effort into planning and researching, I determined to see it through to the end.

Which I did, last night, alongside my NaNo buddies at the local write-in! I had a Coke and a cheesecake to celebrate.

It certainly wasn’t all bad: some individual scenes and character moments were fun to write; a couple of side characters surprised me in how they ended up developing; and I learned (or re-learned) lessons like how to construct a proper mystery, how to approach a historical backdrop I’m not so familiar with, and that I need to keep the plot moving to do my best writing.

Next year will be my tenth NaNoWriMo, so I want to do something special for it. Maybe all my characters could meet each other in a multi-universe Avengers-style crossover. At the moment, I’m feeling inspired by listening to the audiobook of Ulysses by James Joyce (I’m not even halfway through and already looking forward to writing the review of this one). There’s so many different ideas, topics and styles to be found in this novel, and I might like to try something like that, throwing lots of different things at the wall in a single piece of work and seeing what sticks.

Well done to everybody else who completed this year’s NaNoWriMo, and to everybody who at least gave it a go!

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Film review: Justice League

Justice_League_film_poster

Five years after The Avengers came out in cinemas, it is now time for DC’s team of ultimate heroes to get their own live-action movie. But I was excited for The Avengers. I was not excited for Justice League; I was more…curious. This film was preceded by four others making up the DC Extended Universe: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman. Of those, only Wonder Woman received generally positive reviews; the others had a mixed to outright negative reception. Despite agreeing with popular opinion in this regard, and hearing bad things about Justice League, I still wanted to see it in cinemas: it was another big superhero team-up and I wanted to judge for myself.

So what’s the verdict? Well, to be fair, there are definite signs of DC trying to learn from past mistakes. But it seems they’d already gone too far down a particular path to make the drastic changes which could have made this a good movie.

Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck) is concerned about indications of an impending alien threat; so, in true Batman style, he prepares in advance by assembling a team of heroes. As well as his existing acquaintance Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), he goes after Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and the Flash (Ezra Miller). While some of these candidates are initially reluctant, their hand is forced by the arrival of Steppenwolf, the Ender of Worlds (Ciaran Hinds), who is seeking three “motherboxes” hidden on Earth which will allow him to – surprise surprise – end the world.

While the story does skip around a bit chaotically in the first act, it does at least feel fairly cohesive after that. There are, however, some pretty big holes in the script. A flashback explains about how the armies of Earth took possession with Steppenwolf’s motherboxes – which, if brought together, would perform the single function of destroying the planet – and then hid them far away from each other: my own thought was “Or maybe you could, I don’t know, DESTROY THEM?!” (Maybe it’s explained in a deleted scene, of which there are apparently many.) There’s a gaping continuity error when Cyborg says he was created after the death of Superman, when in Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman found a video of his creation from before that event. And the end of the second act features a moment of painful carelessness from the heroes that had me mentally face-palming.

Some of the characters really aren’t that bad. I was comfortable with Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and I really enjoyed Ezra Miller’s performance as the Flash: the character’s youthful fanboy-style enthusiasm brings much of the comic relief and is a breath of fresh air. After Superman is resurrected (come on, am I really spoiling anything?), I even got a smile or two from watching him: he’s certainly more “truth, justice and the American way” than in his last two appearances. But Cyborg and Aquaman were more problematic. Since their only previous appearances in the DCEU were cameoes, I didn’t know them, nor did I feel like I really got to know them as the film progressed; subsequently, I didn’t especially care about them. Meanwhile, any scenes involving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) or “Save Martha” Kent (Diane Lane) just made me think of Batman v Superman and left a bad taste in my mouth, like not wanting to eat Chinese food because you were sick after eating it one time.

A Justice League film should really have significance, but instead, the film we got feels terribly generic and not special at all. The villain – whom I had never heard of before – has no real character and just wants to destroy the world. The plot about stopping the villain from collecting all the hidden items he needs to complete his plan is certainly nothing new. And when watching the action scenes, I felt bored more often than not. The film has a running time of 120 minutes, relatively short for a superhero film these days – and I was grateful for that as it meant I could go home sooner.

So no, sadly, Justice League is not a good movie. A good movie makes you care about what’s happening and who it’s happening to – and watching this, I hardly cared at all. Rating: 2/5.

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Book review: Artemis

From Andy Weir, the author of The Martian (my favourite book of 2015), comes a new science-fiction novel, Artemis. As with The Martian, I listened to the audiobook edition, which is narrated by Rosario Dawson. The performance on its own is okay: Dawson’s voice fits the protagonist very well, and she makes a good effort with the many different accents she needs to put on, but she sometimes struggles to maintain distinctive character voices, so that occasionally I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be speaking if the prose itself didn’t specify.

But what about the story itself? It takes place around the 2070s on Artemis, the first and only city on the Moon. The protagonist is Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a young woman who works as a porter, while supplementing her income through smuggling contraband. Jazz is offered an opportunity to get rich quick when a Norwegian businessman recruits her to sabotage one of the Moon’s major industries, which will allow him to buy it out. Jazz’s first attempt doesn’t go as planned, but before she can complete the assignment, it becomes clear that there’s something bigger going on, and she will need to think fast just to stay alive.

This is a very different sort of story from The Martian – centering around a heist for the first and third acts, with thriller elements in-between – but you can certainly tell it’s by the same author. The dry style of humour is very similar, as is the invention and explanations of futuristic technology which still manages to be grounded in reality. Particularly good is when Jazz gets in trouble because of some little bit of science she overlooked – like not being to make a spark with flint in a vacuum – which always feels believable. It would have been nice to learn more about how Artemis was built and what the ships going to and from the Moon are like, but ultimately that’s not relevant to the story. One wonders whether Artemis and The Martian take place in the same universe: while there are no references to the events of The Martian, neither are there any facts that would make it impossible. Artemis does feature a character named Bob Lewis, who might well be related to Mark Watney’s commander Melissa Lewis.

The setting of Artemis is very rich, and strikingly multicultural: Jazz herself is Arabic, and there are side characters from Kenya, Norway, Ukraine, Russia, Hong Kong and Brazil. Rather than just being politically correct, this again feels very believable, as a city on the Moon in the future would be sure to attract global interest. Having Kenya, of all places, be the central space-faring power behind Artemis feels like a random choice – until it is pointed out that Kenya sits on the Equator, making it an efficient site for launching rockets. The society portrayed is also neither utopian nor dystopian – indeed, it’s pretty much like the present day (unless you’re a cynic and would argue that we live in a dystopia now). Artemis’s residents have a strong sense of community and regulations are quite lax in some areas; but there is still crime, corruption and prostitution to be found.

I liked the character of Jazz, who is somebody you can root for despite being deeply flawed: as well as being a criminal, she is stubborn, can have a bad attitude, and is the first to admit that she has made some bad life decisions. I also liked how the story as a whole played out: it was engaging and mostly not too predictable. For example, at one point, it looks like a particular character is going to be exposed as the main villain – but it turns out they aren’t, despite having their own agenda. There were only a few minor flaws in the story: the technical explanations sometimes became difficult to follow, and some aspects of the ending felt a little too easy and convenient. And for all the aforementioned diversity, it felt a little stereotypical that out of Jazz’s former boyfriends, the one whom she describes as more sweet and loving than any other turned out to be gay – because apparently it would be unrealistic to expect such qualities from a heterosexual man.

If you enjoyed The Martian, then you’re in safe hands with Artemis, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets a film adaptation too. Rating: 4.5/5.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Day Sixteen

I remain on target, and have passed the halfway point with 27,142 words (and I plan on doing a little more this evening). Yet I can’t really say I’m loving this story.

Throughout the second week, I was finding it very difficult to muster enthusiasm as I sat down to fill the day’s writing quota. The fact that it’s a historical story might have contributed: I have done research, but sometimes I get bogged down by a detail that I’m not sure about. But the main reason was probably that the story wasn’t really going anywhere at that point, focussing more on exposition and the main character’s thoughts than actual action.

I like to think you learn something from every NaNoWriMo, and while it may be a lesson I’ve already covered in the past and since forgotten, I’ve learned that I’m more of a plot-driven author than a character-driven one. So I’ve made an effort to inject life into the story and plan out how the central mystery will unfold. This was fun at least: I ended up drawing a tree diagram of what the missing person has been doing, how the protagonist might uncover clues as to his activities and whereabouts, and the consequences that different stages of her investigation might bring. And then I turned these into a timeline, covering the months over which I already know the story takes place.

I’m not worried about not finishing. No matter how hard I’m finding the writing, I tell myself that I’d feel worse if I quit and broke my streak. But I do hope to have a bit more fun as I go along.

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