The good, the bad, and the OMGWTFBBQsrsly

I’ve been on the bandwagon for the past 3 years, so it seems rude to fall off now: time to look back at my reading and cinematic digestion in 2008. It was a slow year all round – just over 50 books read (I usually clear 60-70), and only 15 movies. I’m not sure what this indicates: possibly that I’ve spent more time planning renovations than reading in an evening, and had more trips to the theatre instead of the movies. Happily, this seems to be exactly what I thought would happen.

I suspect the dip in movie-going also reflects a fairly poor year at the cinema; I’m not left with the feeling that there were a lot of movies I missed out on – although I’ve been more aware this year of saying “I’d like to see that… on DVD”, which is new. But seriously: at £20 a trip for 2 people vs. £3.50 to rent the DVD in 3 months time, there’s an argument for prioritising movies that will capitalise on the big screen. Character-driven integrity holds up just fine at 26″ (yes, our TV is old. Very old).

Bottom of the pile
I’m actually very happy with my bang for cinematic buck this year. This being the case, my bottom 3 are the weakest of the bunch, and I have no regrets about seeing them.

21 was entertaining, but lacked a certain gravitas or style to truly succeed. Hellboy 2 was very silly, but the pretty did not overcome the poor script. Flight of the Red Balloon has to round out the list: whimsical, slow, beautiful, the fact that all of us who went to see it fell asleep suggests that it needed an extra ingredient.

It turns out to be nowhere near as hard to pick my top 3, 2 of which bundled me from no expectations whatsoever into orgasms of glee, and 1 of which left scars. Always a good thing, right?

Wall-E was my favourite film of the year. I would have been happy with no speaking parts, and no adipose humans, but I was delighted from start to finish. It turns out that watching it without sound (on someone else’s in-seat screen on the flight to Oz) has me giggling and teary-eyed just as easily as at full volume.

In close second, Son of Rambowvcaptured the imagination, glee and horror of growing up in the 80s with exuberance and endless charm.

Last but by no means least, with The Dark Knight Nolan pulled the difficult second act out of the bag with aplomb and if it wasn’t perfect it certainly did his re-imagined franchise no harm. The Chelsea Smile scene successfully 28 Days Latered my stomach, and left me on edge every time Ledger came on-screen; the Imax scenes alone are worth the ticket price.

A word in Australia‘s defence to round things off: watching it here, it’s all very credible (by which I don’t mean in the least bit historically accurate). Silly, overblown, self-indulgent, melodramatic, and faintly ridiculous to be sure – but (dare I say it) entertaining. Someone needs to make Nicole eat cake though (or lay off the botox) – it’s good to have enough skin on your bones that you can enjoy facial expressions.

The year in books
In a strong year (for me), I managed 9 non-fiction books this year (three times last year’s count!), including 2 autobiographical pieces.

Top 3
Topping the trio is Kate Fox’s Watching the English, a dissection of English habits and class markers that is both light-hearted and terrifyingly accurate. Highlights include the author intentionally bumping into people to see if they apologise (the English will and do, you’ll find). I am now quite clear on my social status, and my level of preoccupation with it (far higher after reading this book).

For sheer entertainment, the ludicrous Devil’s Cup, chronicling one man’s attempt to track (and drink) coffee around the world has to win a place. The rather more researched Cod also makes the list, and finally explained to me why I prefer haddock.

Bottom of the barrel
The disappointing Mary Celeste and the downright dull Frozen Water Trade end up bottom of the list as suspected early on, where they are joined by The Shark Net. This disappointing recounting of youth in Western Australia managed to make even the sensational tale of a Perth serial killer drab and boring. Rave reviews call it masterful and subtle; I beg to differ.

Not so hot
The second half of the year has been far more entertaining than the first. While the first half was not bad per se, there were several novels that made so little impact that I’d forgotten I ready them, and a couple that disappointed. Chief of these was Iain M. Bank’s latest effort, Matter, as previously ranted.

I remain underwhelmed by Robin Hobbs (the Farseer Trilogy) and Anne Bishop (the Black Jewels trilogy) and found Hal Duncan’s Ink (sequel to the excellent Vellum) overly convoluted and sadly lacking in heart for a novel that appears to centre on the redemption of mankind (or unkin) through embracing love. I was bitterly disappointed by William Gibson’s latest Spook Country, which was slow-to-turgid and felt like a short story padded to buggery. This continues my trend of liking the first of his trilogies, and being progressively more disgusted with each ensuing entry thereafter (Neuromancer, Virtual Light and Pattern Recognition? Awesome. All the rest? Whatever).

In the fantasy corner, both Joe Abercrombie and Jacqueline Carey managed to wrap up their fantasy trilogies (respectively: The First Law and Kushiel’s Scion – finally available in the UK) with satisfying finales. If Joe did not deliver any blinding surprises in the end, the journey was a delight; Carey lifted her game book on book in her second series, to the point where Kushiel’s Justice is possibly the best entry since the original Kushiel’s Dart.

I also finally took tyrell‘s advice and read Patricia McKillip’s classic The Forgotten Beasts of Eld this year; I can only recommend it in turn. This lyrical fairy tale of power, responsibility and forgiveness is both enchanting and haunting, leaving you in a half-dreaming daze of light.

In other genres, Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs may be the best Arkady Renko novel to date, surpassing even the original Gorky Park. I don’t read crime, but I can’t leave Renko in his cynical, lonely path through the wasteland of modern Russia. This installment sends the investigator to the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone to establish whether a corporate kingpin’s Litvinenkesque death is suicide or murder. The surprising warmth at the heart of the chilled landscape does nothing to reduce Renko’s isolation; the slow awakening of unwanted emotion is unexpectedly affecting (and in no way cliched).

Last but not least, I discovered Richard Morgan. Gleefully vicious and utterly amoral in their ruthless practicality, his novels entertain and delight as even-handedly as they provoke. It was only in a certain sequence pertaining to Kovacs’ actions in a remote fishing village in Woken Furies that I realised how successfully Morgan had slowly cauterised my conscience page by page. His near-future dystopia, Market Forces, repeats the process by following the protagonist Chris’ evolution from sympathetic outsider to power-driven anti-hero; his journey all the more successful for being just a pinch beyond recognisable in its setting. Instant convert.

Unlike 2008, I am going to set myself a challenge for 2009: I’m not happy with just skimming across the 50-book line. A book a week is respectable, certainly, but I’ll aim for 65 – and include some professional tomes in there. It’s going to be a sticky year in my career, so actually devoting some time to personal development has to come high up my to do list.