Favourite Books (Fiction)
05. The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (audio)
I finished Parts V, VI and VII of the Dark Tower series this year, and Part V was the best of those, with a narrative that turns out to be more complex than it first appears, and which stays interesting throughout despite a lot of the content being world-building. Parts VI and VII are also good, but not quite as satisfying.
04. Vardaesia by Lynette Noni (print)
The last instalment of Lynette Noni’s Medoran Chronicles is the best of the series. Emotions run high as the familiar characters are put through a variety of challenges and share some poignant moments. And when we get to the final confrontation at the end, things are truly intense; I was hooked. The whole series, while not without its flaws, is a charming, exciting fantasy adventure and I look forward to any more stories from this universe; I certainly liked the short story that was released for free for Christmas.
03. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (print)
There were two things I loved about this book. First, the style and how deeply it throws itself into creating an imaginative sensory experience as you read: with scent being such a central theme of the story, the author makes sure you can imagine every foul odour of 18th century France, while also exploring the idea of scent influencing people even on a subconscious level. Second, there’s the main character, Grenouille, who is evil but truly fascinating: I loved delving into his sociopathic thoughts and how his unique way of experiencing the world – through his unusually sharp nose – influenced his beliefs and motivations.
02. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (audio)
This historical novel set in 12th century England is very long, but worth it. I enjoyed the variety of characters and how we follow their lives for so many years, I was invested in the struggles that they go through, and I liked the history behind it all and how it affected them. The story is very well paced; every scene has a purpose, and while a few time jumps feel like they’re leaving useful information out, most of them keep the flow going optimally.
01. The Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer (ten in print, two in audio)
Yes, I’m cheating to put a whole twelve-book series in the number one spot – a series which by itself makes up 17% of all the books I read this year – but the Bloody Jack Adventures really do feel like one big story separated into twelve chapters, so it doesn’t feel right to separate them out (though the third instalment, Under the Jolly Roger, is my personal favourite). I really loved these books, for the adventure, the humour, the history, and of course their irrepressible heroine, Jacky Faber herself.
Favourite Books (Non-Fiction)
10. Hitchcock by Francois Truffault (print)
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, somebody replied that it contained everything you need to know about filmmaking. I’m not sure about “everything”, but it certainly teaches a great deal. In this transcript of a 1962 interview, Alfred Hitchcock discusses all of his films up to that point (so almost all of the ones worth talking about) and the different aspects of his approach to filmmaking: the aim of stimulating emotion in the audience, his preference for strong situations over strong characters, how he creates suspense as opposed to surprise – how he made the stories, the actors and the technical details work. After reading this book, you’ll find yourself watching films in a different way, examining each shot and wondering what the director was aiming for.
09. The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay (print)
If you’ve ever looked at the technology around you, from your car to your computer to your mains electricity, and wanted to know exactly how it all works, this is the book for you. It covers just about every commonly used gadget you can think of, breaking it down to the physical principles that make it operate, in a way that’s easy to comprehend; the author frequently uses little humorous stories involving woolly mammoths to demonstrate the principles of what he’s talking about. This is still a really informative book which has helped me to look at the world with a bit more understanding, and appreciation for the very smart people that invented all these gadgets in the first place.
08. Tamed by Alice Roberts (print)
A very interesting book that covers both the origins and evolution of our most important domesticated animals and plants, and other relevant topics such as genetic modification linked throughout. Highly recommended for people interested in both science and history.
07. Into that Silent Sea by Francis French (audio)
Even as a space buff, I learned a lot of new info from this book: it covers early manned space flights, both American and Soviet, from Vostok 1 to Voskhod 2, going into detail about both the missions and the people who flew them. There are all sorts of interesting background stories, such as a chapter dedicated to the Mercury 13, female pilots who underwent astronaut physical training for scientific purposes and subsequently made a case for actually flying into space.
06. The Book of Snakes by Mark O’Shea (print)
Snakes being my favourite animals, this is the sort of book I’ve always wanted. Mark O’Shea provides informative profiles of 600 species of snake (almost one in six of all currently known species), each with high-quality photographs, and spanning the breadth of the snake family tree. Most of the really familiar and important species are covered, and if a particular well-known species doesn’t get a profile to itself, it is usually mentioned in the ‘Related Species’ section for a snake of the same genus. There are also plenty of snakes for whom little is known, providing more diversity for the book and emphasising how much we still have to learn about these fascinating reptiles.
05. The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (print)
A wonderful companion to the television series, which teaches the reader (or viewer) to look at the Solar System in a new way. It emphasises how dynamic the system really is, explaining the histories of the planets and how we deduce them (though I would have liked a little more info on how the sensors of spacecraft collect the relevant data, eg spectrometers). I particularly liked Brian Cox’s writing in the chapter on Mars, where he talks about the aims of science and just why we should head out into the Solar System rather than being totally focussed on Earth.
04. Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins (audio)
A brilliant book for those who are interested in personal development. Goggins encourages you to confront hard truths and surpass what you think are your limits; his stories about his physical accomplishments are sure to get you fired up if you’re into physical improvement yourself.
03. Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (print)
For someone like me who enjoys the statistical side of football, this book is a great read. It delves deep into what the data really tells us about different aspects of football, the actual reasons for the patterns that we see, and whether traditional theories about the game really hold weight. Once you’ve read it, you’ll feel that you know a great deal more about football: what really makes a team most likely to win matches, how the game has been affected by television and the global market, the true benefits (and costs) of hosting a major tournament, and yes, why England haven’t won the World Cup since 1966. The only dissatisfaction is that this edition was published just before the 2018 World Cup, and I would be interested to see how the results from that tournament (particularly England’s) factor into the authors’ conclusions. Most likely there will be another new edition in a few years.
02. The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holliday (print)
This is a really useful book. Its examples will help you look for opportunities to apply principles of Stoic philosophy throughout your life and thoughts – it takes practice, but you will be better and happier for it.
01. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte (print)
This book takes a different approach from most books on dinosaurs; it tells a consistent chronological story of their evolution, from the Triassic to the Cretaceous, explaining how they evolved and dispersed the way they did, influenced by the world around them and each other. The author also includes stories about his own fossil-hunting experiences and the fellow palaeontologists he has met, which makes the book even more engaging. I learned a great deal from this book; it’s essential reading for those interested in dinosaurs and palaeontology.
Favourite Films Seen at the Cinema
(Honourable mentions: Alita: Battle Angel, Armstrong, Downton Abbey)
05. Frozen II
More story- than character-driven compared to the original, this was a very enjoyable sequel, which uses the established characters well in a new adventure, and has more great songs to boot.
04. Captain Marvel
I liked this film for taking the familiar elements we expect from a Marvel Studios film and putting them in near-perfect balance, as well as the performances by Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson.
03. Ad Astra
This film is not only visually stunning, but provides much food for thought on the emotional and philosophical element of space travel, and priorities in life that shouldn’t be neglected.
02. Apollo 11
A practically perfect documentary film for the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing: detailed, well edited, able to engage the audience without a narrator, and featuring brilliantly restored original footage of the mission.
01. Avengers: Endgame
An unpredictable and twisting story, great character development, and a superb climax – the conclusion of the Infinity Saga met expectations and then some. Definitely one of the best superhero films of all time.
Favourite Films Seen Outside the Cinema That I Hadn’t Seen Before
10. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
09. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
08. Won’t You Be My Neighbour (2018)
07. Arrival (2016)
06. Let the Right One In (2008)
05. The Secret of Kells (2009)
04. Contact (1997)
03. Furious 7 (2015)
02. Whiplash (2014)
01. Gallipoli (1981)
Favourite TV Programmes
- I enjoyed the latest seasons of Agents of SHIELD, Killing Eve and Victoria; and the final season of Game of Thrones was still watchable in spite of its many problems.
- David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet and Brian Cox’s The Planets were my favourite documentaries this year.
- I really liked the reality series Race Around The World, in which the contestants (working in pairs) had to race each other from London to Singapore without getting on a plane; they also couldn’t carry mobile devices, and were only allowed a set amount of cash, plus any money they could earn along the way.
- The BBC have had multiple adaptations of literature in recent months, and while The War of the Worlds and A Christmas Carol weren’t very good (and I’m not sure about the upcoming Dracula either), they mostly got it right with His Dark Materials, based on the fantasy novels by Philip Pullman. It’s largely faithful to the first book in the series, and features excellent performances by the lead actors, plus a very impressive armoured bear.
- The TV series everyone was talking about this year was Chernobyl, and with good reason: it has great acting and atmosphere, and makes the audience fully appreciate the horror and seriousness of the disaster – a disaster which, you can’t forget, actually happened and is still having lasting effects.
I’m still listening to most of the podcasts I listed last year – Casefile, The Trail Went Cold, Herpetological Highlights – but here are some more that I just got into this year:
- 13 Minutes to the Moon, another production for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, breaks the moon landing down into the essential components that made it happen: from the lunar module itself, to the onboard computer, to the lessons learned from previous missions.
- I’ve tried a few different podcasts on disasters, but my favourite is Great Disasters: it features a single narrator (which I like best for this sort of thing) and describes events in an informative and respectful manner.
- I Know Dino is essential for fans of palaeontology; each week, the hosts summarise dinosaur-related news, describe a Dinosaur of the Day, and interview palaeontologists and other figures associated with dinosaurs.
- Personal Development Essentials provides a lot of useful thoughts on how to improve yourself, as well as interviews with people who can advise based on their own experiences.
- The Space Above Us describes in detail every manned American spaceflight – it is ongoing and currently up to STS-27, the second Space Shuttle mission after the Challenger disaster.
What are your favourite books, films, TV shows and podcasts from 2019? Let me know in the comments!