Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 - A Round-Up and A List

Well, I think we can all agree on one thing - 2013 was definitely a year. The jury is still out on whether it was a good one, a bad one, or a mix of the two.

As for my year, it's most definitely been a mix. I started the year recovering from a bit of a breakdown before going back to work, where things went from bad to worse when Midge left me for other pastures. I started this blog, went to visit some wolves, and finally did a festival with Rerab. I read 84 books, met Neil Gaiman, and lost my shit when he 'liked' my review of his book, The Ocean At The End of The Lane.

I lost a grandmother, a great-auntie, a few heroes, and my beloved cat, Eric. I saw just how strong and inspiring my family can be when faced with awfulness, as well as finding out that other members don't really do that unconditional love thing.

My gorgeous niece went to big school, and my scrumptious nephew developed an obsession with Ghostbusters (an obsession I wholeheartedly endorse), while I developed two brand new obsessions of my own in Thomas Cromwell and Mads Mikkelsen. 

I'm ending the year harbouring a cold (those flu jabs I get each year are staggeringly effective) but surrounded by fantastic presents and looking forward to an imminent visit from one of my favourite people who I don't see enough of.

But most importantly, I'm also ending it with a list (beware spoilers!):

Best Film

NikNak would like Gravity to get the nod here but, as I haven't yet watched it due to being wigged out by the very idea of drifting in space, my vote goes to Alpha Papa - Alan Partridge's glorious turn on the big screen that actually managed to make me forget to hate being in Vue for an evening.

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Most Disappointing Film

Giant robots fighting huge gaijin should have been fantastic, especially as Idris Elba was also in it, but sadly Pacific Rim turned out to be 132 minutes of who cares?

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TV Show of the Year

Easily won by Yonderland, the new fantasy series from those behind Horrible Histories, which has given me my new favourite minions, ever.

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Most Shocking TV Death(s)

Well, a shock to anyone who hadn't read the books, at least, what was most shocking to me was that I'd somehow managed to keep my mouth shut about The Red Wedding for the last few seasons of A Game Of Thrones. But even knowing what was to come, I still got goosebumps when the Lannisters sent their regards...

Most Gorgeous TV Show

No contest here, it has to be Hannibal. And not just because of Mads...Whether it's the splendid suits, those incredible cooking scenes, the creepy crime scenes, or inside Will Graham's head, every inch of the screen is utterly beautiful.

Best Use of Office Equipment

Hannibal's twin Rolodexes easily win this one - one for the people...

...and the other for the recipes.

Scariest TV Chef

Managing to edge out Hannibal, Masterchef's Monica Galetti is seriously scary. She's also seriously awesome and I suspect, in NikNak's case at least, a little bit sexy-scary.

Newest Member of the Mothering Club

Mainlining all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad this year soon saw Jesse Pinkman join the Mothering Club, comprising folk who all want looking after (by me), such as The Wire's Bubbles, Friday Night Lights' Landry, Oz's Alvarez and Stand By Me's Chris.

Most Hated TV Character

Also given to me by my viewing of Breaking Bad was my all-consuming, impassioned hatred of 2013's leading TV character, Walter White. It started somewhere around Season 2 and continued unabated throughout the rest of the series, punctuated by frequent expletive-laden rants at my TV. I spent most of my time hoping Skylar would wait until Walt went to sleep and then stab him in the fucking neck.

Weird Crush of the Year

Quite what is it about this murderer with half a face that gives me the warm and fuzzies is still unclear, but Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow easily wins this category.

Best Use of Music

American Horror Story: Asylum nearly won this for the awful French nun song that was played constantly in the Common Room. In the end it was pipped to the post by itself, when the incomparable Jessica Lange (previously the vicious nun in charge of the place) suffers a break and hallucinates this brilliant musical number (with apologies for shoddy quality):

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Biggest Waste of Clancy Brown

Sleepy Hollow got me all excited when it started this year when Clancy Brown's name appeared in the credits. Sadly, my excitement was to be short-lived, as he lost his head before the first ad break.

Question I was asked most this year, to which the answer was always no

Are you watching Homeland?

Well, those were my screen highlights from 2013. What were yours?

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

1.5 stars

A disappointing and messy ending to what had been, up until this point, a decent little sci-fi series, in this instalment we find out what's outside the gates of the city as well as finding out that it wasn't worth finding out, some peripheral characters meet their ends and I struggle to care, Tris is a hypocrite who's not only never, ever wrong but a bit of a dick about it too, and Tobias gets to narrate his own chapters while I wish he wouldn't, as he's quickly revealed to be squirmy with fear and self-doubt, and I soon learn to hate his parts.

Starting in the aftermath of the Prior video, Tris and co have been arrested by Evelyn and the Factionless who've not only taken over the city and abolished the faction system, but banned anyone else from leaving too. Tobias is working for his ma, while slinking not at all stealthily about behind her back to secure Tris's release. Which is achieved through Tris doing what she's best at, and lying her head off.

Quickly joining the Allegiant, a secret club who want to stick to the city's apparent founding purpose and send a Divergent army out into the world, Tris and her friends (plus a few others) are soon hurtling towards the gate and the outside world. Which is where we start to learn that the whole series up until this point has been bollocks, that everything we think we know about Tris's world is a lie and, unfortunately, that the truth is a little nonsensical and not very interesting. There's no need for a Divergent army outside after all, and we're certainly not going to be seeing any apocalyptic battles any time soon. Instead we'll be stuck in a compound not far into a society that's still divided (over genetic purity, this time) where we'll be learning some dodgy stuff about genetics, meeting lots of new characters that I don't care about, finding out that Tris's mum had a boring love triangle, discovering that there's a Bureau for Genetic Welfare and that they're idiots, and deciding that it's totally cool to do something you think is evil if you're the one doing it.

**********SPOILERS BELOW**********

Turns out that the city is an experiment. The Government, having started screwing with people's genes in an effort to promote more desirable traits, screwed up and damaged them instead. This resulted in the Purity Wars, which in turn resulted in half the country dead. So the Bureau did a few 'corrections' and popped people into secure areas, cutting them off from the outside world in the hope that in several generations' time the bad genes wouldn't have just been passed down but would have healed themselves instead. They would know it was successful when a number of Divergent emerged, at which point they'd be scooped out to share their good genes with the outside world.

With Tris's city on the verge of blowing the experiment and Evelyn threatening to unleash a death serum on the population, the Bureau now want to re-set the city's memories and brainwash them back to square one. Angry that the Bureau would stoop so low as to steal people's memories, Tris proposes to stop them...by re-setting the Bureau's memories instead. Trouble is, the resetting serum is in a room where the air is full of death serum, and so whoever takes on the task will be undertaking a suicide mission...

Whilst I hadn't expected the series to be able to live up to my expectations after the opener, having suffered a bit of a lull in Insurgent, I still hadn't expected to see such a big drop in quality. Tobias's chapters didn't add anything for me other than irritation, and at times sounded virtually indistinguishable from Tris. After two books getting us here, Roth had awful lot of information to cram in about how the world actually did work and didn't handle it particularly well, having our new characters take giant information dumps all over the pages. With everything from entering the outside world on making me want to yell at the book, I found that while I liked that Roth went where she did with the ending, and while in keeping with Tris's character, it was robbed of any punch by my having long stopped caring what happened to these stupid people and their stupid societies.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

3 stars

Picking up exactly where we left off, Tris and Four have managed to stop the Erudite-controlled simulation that had turned the Dauntless into a mind-controlled army. Trouble is, quite a lot of the newly awakened Dauntless have decided to stick with Erudite anyway to continue their assault and so Tris, Four and their small band of survivors have nowhere left to turn but to the remaining factions, Amity and Candor. Asking a bunch of peace-loving stoners and people who can't lie to harbour fugitive goes about as well as you'd expect, however.

Also seeking shelter for a spell with the factionless, it's not surprising to find that the people most oppressed by the faction system have had it up to here with it, and would quite like to bring about a change in regime. Which they plan on doing by destroying the information that sparked Erudite's war against Abnegation - information that confirms there's a whole world outside their gates, one in which the Divergent will play a big role.

Suffering slightly from second album syndrome as it tries to tell us the middle of a story, I also found Tris a little more annoying this time around. A lying liar who wants to die, she's apparently no longer able to so much as touch a gun due to her guilt over events in the last book, but isn't about to let that stop her from trying to win the Martyr of the Year award by continually throwing herself into dangerous situations. She's just doing it without any weapons now.

Still, with the big 'reveal' (which wasn't much of a shocker, to be honest) I'm still into this enough to jump straight in to the next book.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

4 stars

I've seen people on Goodreads squeeing over this series for a while now but, having been taught a harsh lesson by George RR Martin, I'm now refusing to read a word of a series until they're already published. Now that the last part of this series, Allegiant, has made its entry into the world (and with a movie adaptation about to be unleashed upon us) it's safe to start.

We find ourselves a world where all of the old identifiers - religion, race, culture, money, whether you're the type of person who ties your jumper around your waist or your shoulders - are no longer important and people's lives are determined by which of five 'factions' they belong to: Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Amity, or Dauntless. Abnegation are selfless, the Erudite value intelligence over all else, Candor about all about honesty, Amity about peace and the Dauntless are brave...

...well, at least that's what they're supposed to be (although they're mostly just pointlessly reckless, but more on that later).

Reaching 16 means it's time to choose - right after a personality test (I love those! And I initially think this would rock and that I would totally be in Erudite, with a smidge of Abnegation as I have a habit of acting the martyr, although whenever I've had a drink I'd belong to Candor, before realising that I'm actually a bit of everything depending on what day it is, what the weather is like, whether I'm at work or not, etc, etc). Joining Beatrice Prior as she chooses which faction to belong to, we find out that (as noted above) there are many people who find it difficult to think within such narrow perimeters, and that there's a word for these people - Divergent. And that having aptitude for Dauntless, Erudite, and Abnegation, Beatrice is Divergent too, a secret she must keep at all costs for fear of becoming factionless, or even killed. 

Choosing to join Dauntless, we're then thrown into initiation alongside the newly renamed Tris and things get a bit Ender's Game. As Tris is in Dauntless, initiation means she has to do things like no longer enter buildings via doors but by jumping off their roofs instead, hurling herself on and off the moving trains that are her main means of transport, beating her fellow initiates unconscious, and getting tattoos, piercings and wearing black clothes (as that's what the truly dauntless do. Which must mean that the wispy teenagers draping themselves over the sundial and hanging around Blue Banana are all actually triple-hard bastards). Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering how they go about their lives, there aren't many adults within Dauntless and so we shouldn't be too shocked when it turns out that the kids in charge have somewhat twisted its original ideals in favour of being pointlessly vicious and quick to punch people instead. Being cold, occasionally cruel and nearly always surly, Tris fits right in.

The biggest part of Dauntless initiation involves facing your fears in simulations (it's via these simulations that Tris's instructor and love interest got his silly nickname, Four. He only has four fears, you see, something which is apparently awe-inspiring although I think it just means he's spectacularly unimaginative). Unfortunately for everyone, those simulations and their methods of transmission were all designed by the Erudite, and are about to come in very handy during their attempt to seize power.

With an interesting world set up and a great pace this was an excellent start to the series that kept me turning pages long into the night. I'm interested to see where the attack will lead us and how it will affect the factions, as well as seeing if we'll find how those fences the Dauntless are supposed to guard are important. However, I really couldn't give two hoots about Tris and Four's relationship (even though he's actually quite a refreshing love interest who doesn't stalk his intended, nor treat her like she's weak and stupid, or throw a strop if she has an independent thought, and doesn't get violently possessive around other men) and wish that just once we could have a YA heroine whose relationship status doesn't become a large part of the story.

Still, the niggles are all fairly small in the grand scheme of things, and they're certainly not enough to keep me from diving straight in to the next book.

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Running Man, by Richard Bachman

(so, Stephen King then, really) - 4 stars
read in Oct 2011

Stephen King usually speaks to a small, scared and helpless part of me that hopes everything is going to be alright. It seems that as Bachman he whispers to a smaller cynical, angry, and violent part that knows nothing will.

I assumed that I was more than familiar with this story thanks to having seen the Ahhnuld movie a thousand times or more. Turned out that, apart from the main character's name and the Games concept, I knew an entirely different beast altogether. 

Ben Richards isn't the muscle-bound 'Butcher of Bakersfield', framed for a crime he didn't commit. He's a normal, desperate man, unemployed and watching his 18 month old daughter die of pneumonia while his wife attempts to earn money for medicine on her back, whose only way left of providing for his family lies in becoming a contestant for one of the Network's many shows for people desperate enough. These range from Treadmills to Bucks, where the ill can earn cash by running until they conk out...

...all the way up the The Running Man, where potential troublemakers are weeded out by being hunted down and killed, with the amount of time they stay alive discerning how much cash their dependents can look forward to. Thanks to his intelligence and contempt for the unfair society around him, Richards is picked for the latter and here the Hunters out to get Richards aren't the gaudy Buzzsaws and Dynamos of the film but could instead be any one of the people around him, while the ones who aren't are still potentially well-rewarded informers.

What's really scary is how plausible the world created is, being not so far from our own, depending on your viewpoint. As the rich are rewarded with tax breaks, the bankers who nearly ruined us get yet more bonuses and our utility companies tell us they have to put up prices to cover their costs while at the same time posting record profits, our MP's talk about the poor of this country who survive on benefits as though they're morally bankrupt, grasping and lazy scum who ought not even have that small financial safety net and huge chunks of the country believe the party line regardless of the evidence in front of them. Entertainment-wise we already get such gems of television as To Catch A Predator, where paedophiles are lured into televised confrontations, Cheaters where we get to see the direct emotional fallout of your partner betraying you, and I have personally tuned in weekly and watch Ronnie physically and emotionally abuse everyone around him on Jersey Shore, half-horrified and half hoping someone will appear and pummel him into the pavement (so I'm really in no position to judge, but that never usually stops me). 

The world within The Running Man has, just like Ronnie, simply had a steroid injection and become meaner and King (Bachman) plucks my strings as masterfully as usual, until I was almost egging Richards on to his violent conclusion.

Great stuff - and I should probably leave it there before someone calls MTV and puts me on some sort of watch-list.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Tis the season for shit music...

Tis the season…for not being able to escape Christmas music. Blasting out of every shop, radio, and now even in my office, there is no escape. I’m feeling a little bah-humbug today (what do you want? It’s Monday) so why not take a look at my most hated Christmas songs? I’d suggest a shot every time you heard one of these in the run up to the big day, but you’d probably end up in intensive care:

Santa Baby

Let’s get something straight. Christmas is not sexy. Christmas is about eating and drinking so much that you put on at least a stone, wearing awful but cosy jumpers and flinging tiny houses at one another when the latest round of Monopoly goes sour. So whichever Breathy Bint decides to get sex-kittened up and purr Santa Baby at us goes immediately on my shitlist.

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Mary’s Boy Child

I mostly hate this song due to a painful childhood memory – being forced to sing it, with my primary school classmates, at a bunch of confused looking elderly folk from the Home close to our school. Now whenever I hear it I just think of all the lonely oldies who have no family to visit them. Depressing much?

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Walking in the Air

Everyone’s supposed to love this, probably as it comes from The Snowman. I don’t (and I don’t love The Snowman that much either).  Instead, I’d like to find the choirboy that squawked this and punch him in the Adam’s Apple. Try singing now, ya spod!

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A Spaceman Came Travelling

I hate Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red. I hate his eyebrows. And I hate that it apparently went ‘lalalala’ in this bloody awful Christmas song.

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Do You Hear What I Hear

Is it a cloying and sickly song that pretends Kings hearing news from shepherd boys about newborn babies want to spread peace and goodwill instead of murdering all the first-born babies in the land? Then yes, you hear what I hear.

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Last Xmas

There’s always one, isn’t there? You’re all full of the Christmas spirit (or lager) but every time you head to the bar for a re-fill you get clobbered by a depressed and bitter bloke who spends the evening whining about the dumping he’s just received. Wham’s inexplicably popular Last Xmas encapsulates said whininess and, just like our depressed bar-hugger, is just as  impossible to avoid.

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Silent Night

I’m not a fan of hymns. Especially po-faced ones that carollers murder every time they try to reach the high notes.

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When A Child Is Born

“All across the land dawns a brand new morn’, this comes to pass when a child is born.”
This person has clearly never given birth. Judging from the stories of my mom-friends, when a child is born you’re too busy trying not to shit yourself and screaming for more gas and air to notice any dawns.

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Mistletoe & Wine

The nan’s favourite, and my most-hated, nothing is guaranteed to get me in a temper quicker than a quick burst of Cliff.

Here’s some rollerskates Cliff, now piss off , and take your bloody mistletoe with you.

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Indulge your inner Scrooge, and let me know what else you think should have made the list...

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Monsters Live In Ordinary People, by Heidi Strengell

3.5 stars

For as long as I can remember I've been one of Stephen King's Constant Readers. A habit started early - my mum was once called to my primary school (pre-11's, for the non-Brits among us) during Reading Week to be asked if she knew I was reading Pet Semetary (she did) - it's a habit that's stuck with me into adulthood.

I was bought this book a couple of years ago (thanks, Is!) and, as is my wont, I've been dangling it in front of myself like a carrot, having wanted to read everything of his that I could before getting stuck in (and therefore avoiding spoilers). Goodreads now tells me that, having read 33 of his books (really? Bloody hell) Stephen King is my most-read author. However, at the pace I've been getting through them it would still be a number of years before I get to read this if I stick to my own rules and so I've decided to stuff them, and dive in now.

A rather academic and scholarly look at the huge body of King's work (particularly, but not limited to The Stand, The Shining, Salem's Lot, It and The Dark Tower series), his influences, style, themes and characters, and particularly focusing on the blend of genres that mark his work, this one's probably not for the layman but the serious fan, with the emphasis on serious.

Interesting and at times insightful, even when I didn't agree with it, the most interesting bits for me were usually when quoting King himself, and the biggest things I've taken away from this are that I probably shouldn't read any criticism by some fellow named Bloom (who provides the most scathing critiques on King and then goes on to call Anne Rice sadistic and tedious - them's fighting words!) and that I now really, really want to read Danse Macabre.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

5 stars

Gully Foyle is my name
Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination

Slightly hungover after attending back to back Christmas parties (I know, I know, it’s still early yet) I was stumbling around the flat looking for something to distract me while I waited for NikNak to return from a weekend away. Six hours later, after becoming so engrossed that I’d barely managed to grunt on NikNak’s return, my tiny little mind had been blown.

Gully Foyle is nobody special. He’s almost spectacularly unspecial, in fact, a slightly thuggish less than average Joe. Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class, his attributes are listed in his official records:

Education: None
Skills: None
Merits: None
Recommendations: None

He’s also been adrift in space for one hundred and seventy days, running out of air and rations, when salvation arrives in the form of a spaceship, Vorga. But the Vorga abandons Gully to his fate, and:

“So, in five seconds, he was born, he lived and he died. After thirty years of existence and six months of torture, Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man, was no more. The key turned in the lock of his soul and the door was opened. What emerged expunged the Common Man forever.”
And we’re off, dragged in Gully's wake as he blazes a searing trail of vengeance, hunting down those who left him to die. Fizzing with ideas and hurtling along at a breakneck pace that had my heart beating wildly, I’m incapable of saying much more about this one (that always happens with the ones I adore), other than that this a truly stunning and vital slice of sci-fi, and one you must read. Now. Go on...

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa

2 stars

Continuing my splash in the shallow end and still away with the faeries, this time we're in the company of Meghan Chase, a forgettable heroine in a book that is packed with action but that, despite a few notable bright spots, mostly made me feel a bit...

When we first catch up with Meghan she's eagerly awaiting her sixteenth birthday and the getting of her driver's permit. Instead, her little brother gets swapped for a Changeling, sending her on a quest to retrieve him from the Nevernever while confronting a few truths about her parentage on the way. Oh, and falling in love with a fae/fey/whatever prince of the Unseelie Court too.

Despite Meghan's quest, the inclusion of more fey than you could shake a stick it and a couple of nice touches (I loved the bogey's that haunt closets and Grimalkin, a talking cat, was always going to appeal to me) the real focus of the book is on the budding romance between Meghan and her prince, Ash.

Sadly, it's not this Ash:

Instead, Ash the faery prince fails entirely to live up to the awesomeness of his namesake, preferring to be barely discernible amongst the never-ending parade of this genre's love interests who all seem to be the same character, whether they be fey, vampire, werewolf, warlock or whatever. A romance is only ever going to be as strong as the chemistry between our lead and their love interest, and to be honest I didn't find much between Meghan and Ash, and had been far happier when the book was trying for creepy rather than gushy.

That said, the intended audience of teenaged girls (rather than grown women who really ought to know better) may well feel differently.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Halfway there...

It's Wednesday! We're halfway there. I'm almost doing a victory dance.....almost.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr

2.5 stars

Wicked Lovely is neither wicked, nor lovely. It is, however, exactly the sort of simple and undemanding refuge from real life that I need at the moment.

Although usually invisible to mortals, Aislinn has always seen faeries and so has lived her entire life following a few simple rules. The first rule of Faery Club? You do not talk about Faery Club. Sorry, that's not it at all. The rules are these: Don't stare at the faeries, don't talk to the faeries, and don't attract their attention.

But despite a life-time of practicing the first two rules, the faeries are suddenly paying attention anyway. The Summer King has been bound by the Winter Queen, and will only be freed on finding his Summer Queen. Keenan (the Summer King) thinks Ash is special - and not just because she seems to be suffering from some weird disease that means she's unable to sit or stand without leaning against Seth, the mortal boy with whom she's in love (and who's too good to be true - protective without being overbearing, strong yet sensitive, more in tune with her needs than she is and devoted to serving them, and who lives in a converted train car like most teenagers of no apparent means and no visible family do. At least, I think he's a teenager, although thinking about it now he doesn't go to school with Ash and so could just as easily be in his early twenties, in which case what the hell is he doing hanging around with high school girls? The creep).

Unluckily for Ash, once she's been chosen she can't be unchosen. Instead she's left with a choice. Become one of Keenan's Summer Girls, the vapid nymphomaniac fey that warm the beds of Keenan and his Court, or risk lifting the Winter Queen's staff to see if she's really the Summer Queen as Keenan believes (or, as has happened with all of Keenan's past loves, be condemned to carry the Winter Queen's cold instead). Not much of a choice when you'd rather hang out with your human boyfriend instead, eh? But luckily for Ash, it turns out that she's the kind of heroine who can have her cake and eat it too.

Reading this on any other week could have seen me far more bugged by the book's flaws, but for now I'm too busy licking my own wounds and instead found it pleasantly distracting, without ever becoming so engrossing that I'd be tempted to retreat into the book entirely, or posing any real danger of stressing me out (cough, cough, Harry Dresden) or making me emotional (I'm looking at you, Robin Hobb).

That said, I'm also not particularly bothered about continuing with the series.