Musings on 2011

I used to try to remind myself (and inflict on you) what I particularly loved and loathed each year amongst the various books and films I consumed. Since joining the circus, I've failed to do this thanks to big work-related requirements in the first week of the year. However, it seems to be a week into 2012 and I'm procrastinating about going for a run, so this seems like a good time to revive that old meme.

We managed to get to the movies a lot more often this year, with several binges between long gaps of workiness. The habit of only going to things we really want to see on a big screen mean the hit rate of enjoyment was high (needless to say, no Transformers 3 for us). Honourable mentions go to Source CodeHannaTinker Tailor Soldier SpyThe Ides of March, and Contagion, all of which were thoroughly polished and much enjoyed.

I'm unashamed to admit I fell asleep during The King's Speech (and did so again when trying to rewatch it on DVD). Yes, it's got a good script, good performances, lovely production values, etc – but really, we've all seen the stirring account of individuals overcoming personal challenges to rise to the important occasion enough times for one more example to be fine Sunday afternoon watching, but really probably not worth the amount of column inches dedicated to it this year. I don't begrudge Mr Firth his awards, he did a great job, but I would still prefer to re-watch The Queen. Similarly, Harry Potter and the Grand Finale had no emotional punch for me, so was mostly an exercise in tying up loose ends that appealed to my completist tendencies but little else.

2011 was definitely the year that persuaded me there's absolutely no point in 3D whatsoever. With each subsequent release that claimed to be the film that explained why this was the future, I got more headachy, frustrated and downright angry. Having rewatched Harry Potter and the Grand Finale, it was much better in 2D. I could see what was happening for a start, and wasn't distracted by stupid gimmicks; my heartstrings remained unstirred, but I enjoyed the film more. Avatar remains the only film to even vaguely justify 3D; all Hugo did was prove that 3D is great for architectural flythroughs (I know this; we make them at work) – not that it supports or enhances storytelling in any way. As for POTC4, I suspect that's just as bad in 2D, but the 3D definitely contributed to the poor experience.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader was sadly underwhelming for what was my favourite Narnia book as a child; I very much doubt we'll see any more installments in the cinematic attempt to put the series on screen. However, Pirates sadly goes down as the worst film I saw this year. I may re-watch it in 2D to see if this is fair, but I suspect it is. Much as I love the first film and can cheerfully absorb the sequel, the franchise has outgrown itself. The joys offered by other genre / adventure films come partly from tightly-managed storytelling and careful choice of set piece effects; Pirates has none of the intelligence or discipline and all of the budget to take over-the-top beyond silly fun into pointless irritation. While not in the pits of Transformers, it has sailed over the horizons of any desire to see more. 

My stand-out highlights of the year shamelessly pandered to my inner fangirl in some way: Attack the Block merrily embraced its B-movie influences with rough gusto; Senna is a fantastic bit of storytelling that fed my F1 fandom; Super8 channelled pure nostalgia in a perfectly-pitched homage to Spielberg scifi; Sherlock Holmes provided pure joy and Holmes/Watson titillation. Of these, Super8 is easily my favourite and will get endless re-watching; my inner 8 year old demands it, although I suspect all 4 will be regulars in our household. Who can resist a bit of man-on-man action (whether Senna/Prost in cars, or Holmes/Watson on a train)?

So on to books…

For the past 2 years I've failed to keep a particularly good track of what I've been reading, and I've done very little reviewing along the way – the cost of approaching my job as a full-contact sport. That makes a retrospective a bit trickier, so I'm just going to assume that if I couldn't remember reading the book it can't have been worth passing comment on. It was a busy, demanding year, so a lot of my reading was re-reading of old favourites to get me through my commute rather than anything that required real attention. Sad to say, it was this comfort food that also made for my most enjoyable reads of the year – honourable mention here to Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (the joyous abandon of the opening chapters make me endlessly happy) and to Richard Morgan's dark, cynical, vicious output – Takeshi Kovacs shouldn't be a comfort. However, since I should really focus on new reads, here we go.

Between Christmas gifts and a 10p per book sale at my library, I picked up some lovely non-fiction this year, although read relatively few of them so far (all gifts from the lovely . Francis Pryor's Britain BC is a good and easily-read survey of prehistoric Britain, even if he does overstep the bounds of scientific accuracy to try and prove his central thesis (which ultimately irritated me slightly). I ended up unable to finish Letters between Six Sisters and will have to continue dipping in and out of it occasionally: there is a real discomfort and creeping horror in reading the exchanges between the Mitfords, fuelled by privilege, thoughtlessness and the apparent ignorance of the implications of what was going on around those of the family who lived or travelled in Nazi Germany. By contrast, Peter Hill's autobiographical Stargazing is an innocent joy, an account of his summer as a lighthouse keeper, providing holiday cover for lighthouse keepers around Scotland.

2011 was a year for big franchise releases, with George R. R. Martin's long-awaited A Dance with Dragons, Richard Morgan's much-anticipated The Cold Commands, and Iain M. Banks' latest Culture novel Surface Detail all hitting my reading list.

I think I can now honestly admit that Richard Morgan has soured my enjoyment of Banks. The Culture novels no longer feel hard-hitting, nor their characters as complex or conflicted as they did. I enjoyed Surface Detail a lot more than his last outing (Matter), but far less than my re-reads of the Takeshi Kovacs novels. That said, I have finally learned to enjoy Excession, so Banks retains a spot on my bookshelf and I am going to reacquire a copy of my somehow-mislaid Use of Weapons in 2012.

I was again underwhelmed by the latest C. J. Sansom (Heartstone). Much as I enjoyed the early Shardlake mysteries, this one peters into overlong melodrama after a promising start. I was bored by the end of it, and purely irritated by the conversion of the dual storylines to guarantee the first of about 3 climaxes aboard the sinking of the Mary Rose (that's historical, so it can't count as a spoiler. She sinks, okay?). Learn from The Lord of the Rings – nobody needs multiple endings. One is quite enough; an epilogue is permissible, but staggering on after the big climax does nobody any favours.

Worst of the year, however, has to go to the ill-conceived Blindsight by Peter Watts. This isn't a new release, but something I found having (mostly) enjoyed his Rifters trilogy. Apart from the amusing concept of Jurassic Park-style engineered vampires (presented as a prehistoric predator) who require anti-Euclideans to let them cope in the modern world full of right angles (think about it… yes, yes, they're allergic to crosses), there's very little to be said for this mess of psychological scifi. 

This is closely followed by Mankell's The Man from Beijing, recommended on the basis of my enjoying Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Unlike Larsson, Mankell chooses to ignore his characters altogether in favour of focusing on a far-fetched plot, and suffers because of it. The protagonist never feels like a person (let alone a sympathetic one), and the other characters have no dimensions whatsoever. Another reminder that I don't read crime, I just enjoy Arkady Renko and Simon Serrailler novels – both of which are far more interested in their characters than their plots. That said, the most recent Renko, also out this year wasn't a stunner. Three Station was okay, fine even (to quote the Good Doctor), but mostly forgettable and a disappointment after the highs of Wolves Eat Dogs and Stalin's Ghost.

Props go to Susan Hill for The Small Hand (not as disturbing as The Woman in Black but it handily sustains tension until the slightly offbeat ending) and Ben Aaronovitch's shameless romp Rivers of London. The ideas of the Met having a small and ignored division dedicated to investigating magical crime, and of the capital's waterways being anthropomorphised as a family of feisty women works well (and is far more entertaining than the core plot), but on the whole the adventure is light-hearted and amusing.

However, best of the year – inevitably – to Richard Morgan. After a slow start, The Cold Commands builds to a gripping climax and begins to neatly unravel some of our expectations – while setting the stage for an outrageous third (final?) installment in which our anti-heroes will get into some serious trouble (because an intermittent war with a bunch of pissed-off inter-dimensional elves isn't a big enough problem to have). A strong sequel that does far more for its saga than A Dance with Dragons, which – for my money – suffered rather than benefited from yet more points of view, more diffraction of storyline, and far too little Arya Stark (ahem; I may be biased – my interest in her adventures at this point far outweighs any care for what is going on in shattered Westeros). 

On to 2012, which I have started with Takeshi Kovacs and Simon Serrailler, and in which I have joined a book club. This will contribute a book a month to my reading, and I'll try to review each one here so I can remember what I thought of it when we meet at the end of each month!