Best of the Year 2019

Time once more for my annual round-up of my favourite books, graphic novels and films I enjoyed over the preceding year. Sometimes wonder if it is still worth posting this after the demise of the Forbidden Planet Blog, given it won’t have the same reach or impact, but I’ve been doing them for years, and I still do a lot of reviewing each year, so what the heck, I’ll continue the tradition for now.

Books

Fleet of Knives, Gareth Powell (Titan)

I had been meaning to read Gareth for a while, when one of my chums at our long-running SF book group chose Embers of War for one of our monthly reads. I loved it – great Space Opera with a nice moral dimension and characters I really loved, not least the ship herself, Trouble Dog. So I was eager for this sequel, and then even more enthused when I was put down to chair a talk with Gareth, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ken MacLeod, at the first Cymera festival of literary SF in Edinburgh in 2019.

Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Macmillan)

Children of Time was a huge, well-paced, absorbing Space Opera set across millennia of artificially-boosted evolution and terraforming gone off on a direction the colonists never planned. Adrian’s creation of a very convincing intelligent species that has evolved from humble, small spiders is a terrific slice of The Other, something to be craved in good SF. This sequel is similarly large and despite the size zooms past at a cracking pace (reminding me a little of Peter F Hamilton in that respect, the ability to write a doorstop sized book that never feels that large as you read it because it is so well paced). Set much further in the future evolution of the spider species this sees them co-operating with descendants of the human colonists who terraformed their world before returning to cryosleep and their voyages, and introduces another world and species touched by the hand of human science.

Rosewater: Insurrection and Rosewater: Redemption, Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Tade’s Roeswater made my best of the year list for 2018, and I have been waiting on the following two books. I was delighted to see that rather than straight-forward sequels each of the other two books took different angles and characters viewpoints on the events that had lead to this point, while progressing the overall story, often in ways I didn’t expect, which is no mean feat – I read a lot, watch a lot of films, so quite often I pick up on story beats and can guess where a narrative is going, so I am always happy to have a clever writer who blindsides me on story development. As with the first book I found the Nigerian setting and the richly described life in the city and the local culture a refreshing departure from much Western SF. Insurrection reviewed here, and Redemption reviewed here.

Underland, Robert Macfarlane, (Hamish Hamilton)

Macfarlane has rightly been hailed as one of our most intriguing writers on the natural world – his works are part nature writing, part travel literature, part local culture and folklore, all wrapped in a beautifully poetic writing style which immerses you into the prose. In this Wainright-winning book the theme is exploring the underworlds, each chapter a different aspect of the subterranean, from underground, hidden rivers below the Dolomites to old mines which run out from the east coast of the UK under the sea (and which are now also being used to house high-tech science experiments in the depths, far below land and sea), to a great glacier in Greenland and a man-made underground sarcophogus for nuclear waste. Absorbing, fascinating, and often reminding us that there is still magic to be seen in our world, if we remember how to look.

On the Shoulders of Giants, Umberto Eco, (Harvil)

I’ve loved Eco for many decades – I enjoyed his fiction such as Name of the Rose, and his academic work which I came across later at college. He passed away three years back, but this final, just-translated collection delivers a final set of essays, collected from a series of lectures he gave at an Italian festival each year, all on different themes, from the nature of beauty to truth. As always with Eco the sheer range of his intelligence and his curiosity about multiple subjects is clear, as his enthusiasm to discuss them in a manner anyone can understand. Most of all though, there is that playfullness there, a feeling of sheer delight at having an interesting subject to explore and discuss and share.

Islamic Empires, Justin Marozzi, (Allen Lane)

I picked up an advance proof of this on a whim, to boost my non-fiction reading diet, an area of history I didn’t know a huge amount about. Marozzi, who has been a reporter in the Middle East for many years, has chosen a city and a century for each of the 1500 years since the birth of Islam, and used them to explore a different view on the rise and spread of Islamic culture. The book takes in glories such as the golden age Baghdad, which really does come across like the wonderful fantasies set in that magical city and time, or Damascus, the “perfumed paradise”, the historical description standing in stark, horrific contrast to contemporary Syria and its endless civil war.

The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft, (Orbit)

I described the first in Bancroft’s Babel series as “an engrossing, intoxicating, delightt” (the review ended up on the back cover of the second book, which was nice to see). Former rural headmaster and stick in the mud Tom Senlin has changed a lot as he traverses the ringdoms of each level of the Tower of Babel, searching for his missing young wife. This third volume ups everything in a very satisfying way – the characters develop even more, their trials and tribulations – and their friendhsips – have changed them, the plot cooks to perfection with a real feeling of multiple, slow-burning fuses reaching their kegs of gunpowder. And over all of this Bancroft’s beautiful, lyrical, richly descriptive writing style – Josiah was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in the way he can make his words dance and sing to the reader. A fabulous, immersive and very different slice of fantasy. Reviewed here.

Graphic Novels/Comics

Ether #2, Matt Garvey and Dizevez

I loved the first issue of this Indy comic and the long wait for the second issue was well worth it, expanding not just the story and setting but also adding much more personal, emotional depth to the main character. In my review I said “Emotional depth, a story that is developing more complexity with hints of more to come, lovely attention to small details and beautiful artwork that handles the domestic, personal, intimate moments as well as it does the vigilante superhero elements, really, what more can you ask for?” and stand by that. Reviewed here.

Billionaires, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)

I have looked forward to each new Darryl Cunningham work since his quite magnificent, quietly, sensitively powerful Psychiatric Tales. Since then Darryl has gone on to establish himself as a leading creator of extremely well-researched non-fiction comics work in the UK. Here he takes three examples of the mega-rich – Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos and explores how they developed into the powerful and influential figures they are today. As he points out himself he could have chosen non-white billionaires, or female billionaires or those on a more left wing political slant, but the general consensus would still be the same: no person should have the level of power and influence these people have over so many individual citizens, politicians, even entire governments and their policies. Essential reading for our modern world, delivered in Darryl’s usual exemplary style which makes even the most complex ideas comprehensible. The full review is here.

Americana, Luke Healy

Like many Irish folk Luke has long had a mixed view of America – a fascination for it, its culture and landscapes, mixed with a less rosy view of it as a place so many family members have left for, rarely to return. He has an obsession with walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the California-Mexico border all the way up the west coast to the American-Canadian border, thousands of miles taking in everything from vast, burning deserts to snow-capped mountains (even in summer). Unlike many who write such travel works, Luke isn’t a serious outdoorsman, or even particualrly fit, and it is his physical unreadiness for this endurance hike endears the book to me in a way a book by an experienced hiker wouldn’t. The main pleasure here though is the people he meets along the way, the friendships, the way it all slowly changes his outlook on the world. Reviewed here.

The Book of Forks, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)

The final part of the trilogy which started with the brilliantly, wonderfully odd (in the best way) Motherless Oven, and Davis delivers an absolute corker, one of the most unusual and intriguing Brit comics I’ve read in ages. While the main story arc has developed through all three volumes, each has also focused one of the young trio of leading characters: Scarper Lee (the schoolboy whose Death Day was imminent in the first book), the irrepressible Vera Pike (the eponymous Can Opener’s Daughter), and here their unusual friend Castro, who is writing the Book of Forks, exploring the bizarre worlds they live in. There is a real sense of everything coming together here, in terms of character development, of the various plot arcs coming together, and also of the strange world Davis created, being more explored and explained in a very satisfying manner.Reviewed here.

Sensible Footwear: a Girl’s Guide, Kate Charlesworth (Myriad Editions)

I have been looking forward to this for a long time – I know it has been a labour of love for Kate for many years. Partly a biography of Kate growing up, tyring to work out who she is – sexuality not being something that was discussed much openly back in the day – mixed with slices of the way gay culture has been suffused throughout British life, even when people didn’t realise it (and in eras when most would have been actively hostile to gay people), often shown through some great montages depicting slices of cultural life from different decades (which invokes a lot of “oh, I remember that!” moments). Mostly though, this is just a wonderfully warm graphic memoir, beautifully drawn, emotionally rich and left me with a huge smile on my face after I’d finished reading it. I’m also delighted how well it’s sold in the graphic novel section in the Portobello Bookshop where I work some of the time. Reviewed here.

Shout outs also go to the delightful and warm Blossoms in Autumn (review), graphic biography Guantanamo Kid (reviewed here), the venerable 2000 AD (still keeping me reading after forty years), a troubling insight into the civil war in Sri Lanka with Vanni (review here) and the homage to growing up with a deep love of cinema in Reel Love (reviewed here).

Films

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Krzykowski’s film is a little gem of a movie – unusually I knew very little about it before I was sent a copy to review, which is rare in this day and age where most films are discussed online or in film mags well before release. Other than the intriguing title I knew almost nothing going in, apart from the fact it starred Sam Elliot, so it boasted one of Hollywood’s finest cinematic moustaches. I had no idea if this was a comedy, a pastiche, a B movie – that title hinted at all of those. In fact it delivered a very unusual and very satisfying film that explored the cost of going to war on those who had to serve, how it changed them. “I never wanted to kill a man, even one who had it coming,” Elliot’s character tells his brother, reflecting on his wartime service many decades gone, and how they changed his life. A beautiful and often quite emotional work. (reviewed here)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I must confess I’ve somewhat gone off Tarantino in recent years. I was there at the start, impressed as hell with the vibrant, powerful Reservoir Dogs, and the clever, switching narrative of Pulp Fiction. But his last few films, while all having elements I enjoyed, mostly left me thinking they didn’t quite work for me. Mostly down to what I thought was increasing self-indulgence on his part – the seeds were sown back in Kill Bill, which has some great scenes, but doesn’t require two films to tell that story – from there on I felt he waffled, added in long, pointless scenes just because he wanted to or because he wanted to play a certain song over it, regardless of how it harmed the narrative flow. Once Upon a Time does drift quite a bit, but in a pleasanter way, and felt far more like earlier Tarantino – it even boasts some nice touches film lovers will like, such as the style of shooting, like the handheld, over the shoulder takes in open top cars in LA, are very much in the style of that period, when new film-makers were shaking up the old studio system, shooting films their way.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

I’ve loved Davis since I was in my teens and first discovering jazz music, so I was always going to be drawn to Stanley Nelson’s new documentary. While not without its flaws in its approach, it does a solid job in taking in the long sweep of his musical career, from a precocious young talent getting a break in a big band, through the amazing 60s output and the constant need to re-invent himself as the years and styles around him changed. Mostly though it is the talking heads here with a range of people who knew Miles being interviewed, sharing their memories – friends, family, lovers, fellow musicians (including some who would go on to deserved fame of their own, such as Herbie Hancock) that really makes it interesting, nor does it shy away from his bad side (so focused on his art he neglects time with his wife, his kids, or his later substance abuse and even hitting a spouse during such a period), but the focus here is mostly on the music and how the man and his music evolved over many decades.

1945

Technically this came out late last year, but I only caught up with Ferenc Török’s astonishing film in early January when my beloved Filmhouse (long a second home for me) screened some of their best picks from 2018 that people may have missed. A Holocaust film infused with a 1960s Spaghetti Western vibe (yes, really), shot in crisp, silvery black and white, borrowing heavily from the Sergio Leone playbook, with amazing cinematography, this is one of the more unusual and quite brilliant films I have seen this year. (reviewed here)

Jojo Rabbit

I’m a huge fan of Taika Waititi – I loved the skewed humour and the deadpan playing of it in What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the way the latter used that humour to examine a serious, emotional subject), then his Big Budget Debut with Thor: Ragnarok, which managed to be a Marvel superhero flick but also still very much a Taika Waitit film as the same time. Jojo Rabbit follows a ten year old boy in the last years of the Nazi regime. Indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and his head filled with fascist hate propaganda, his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of Hitler. When he finds his beloved mother -who worries how much of her original, sweet natured boy is left under all the fascist poison he has been filled with – has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl and is involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime he is, for the first time, forced to see the world differently, with the fantasy and humour elements, while delivering fun and laughs, also serving to contrast against the real historical brutality going on around Jojo. (reviewed here)

The Accountant of Auschwitz

A rather different film about the Nazi era, this documentary follows Oskar Gröning and the changes in German law that took decades to implement, which allowed for more of those who took part in the Holocaust to be tried, finally, for crimes against humanity. Is it worth putting a ninety-something frail, old man on trail? As some make clear in this documentary, yes, because it isn’t just about this one man, it is about laying down precedent, as with the trials in the Hague for those who committed genocide in the Serbian and Bosnian wars, it is to make it clear to such people that sooner or later they will be held accountable under law for their hideous actions, that they cannot hide from what they did forever. Outside some still try to deny the Holocaust happened – some are young, skinhead neo-Nazis, but some are elderly, upright citizens who also try to deny what happened, making this all the more important. Gröning, a former SS man, makes clear his complicit guilt – he didn’t carry out the atrocities, but he watched, and he served in a capacity that helped them to operate the death camps, and he wants those modern day deniers to know that truth, that he was there, he wore that SS uniform, and he saw what they did. (reviewed here)

Apollo 11

Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first crewed lunar mission, I was eager to see this – I’ve been a space geek my entire life, my childhood room didn’t have posters of footballers, it had posters of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This narration-free documentary managed to include footage even life-long space geeks like me hadn’t seen before, and was a powerful, emotional, tense and wonderful celebration of one of the most remarkable feats in the history of human exploration, following three souls who really did go where no man has gone before.

Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this? Big blockbusters are not always the ones which make my end of the year list, but, dammit, this was the culmination of ten years of movies by Marvel, slowly, carefully building up their universe so that those not familiar with the comics would understand each character and the shared universe they inhabit, so when those linked individual films lead to this gigantic, two-parter which spanned all of those films and characters they groundwork had been laid. It’s an amazing approach to storytelling, and for fans like me it paid off – we’ve invested ten years in the film versions of these characters, so many of the scenes here packed a big, emotional wallop for us (sorry, Martin Scorcese, I love you, but regardless of what you think of these kinds of movies, they do count as films and they matter to a lot of us). I also liked the feeling of that original run of connected films coming to an end, of that generation of heroes passing the torch to newer figures. And, darn it, Steve Rogers almost made me cry…

Stan and Ollie

I grew up watching repeats of classic Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, usually with my dad. We both still enjoy watching them together, so I was always going to be drawn to this biopic about two of cinema’s funniest duos. The film cleverly avoids the usual chronological approach to their career and instead the bulk of it is set after their heyday, on a final live stage tour of Britain after the war. The two bicker and argue over past incidents, there is a feeling their star has long since declined, their fame fading, they are getting older, the world moving on without them, and yet at the same time there is also a huge reservoir of affection for these two men, and under the arguing (almost like an old married couple), the love between them is also very apparent. John C Reilly and Steve Coogan turn in amazing performances, quite obviously this is a labour of love for those actors, determined to do right by the real Laurel and Hardy. I exited the cinema smiling, and humming the Cuckoo Waltz all the way home… (reviewed here)

The Wind

I caught Emma Tammi’s The Wind late night at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right from the start it established a delightfully creepy atmosphere – you just feel that something here is wrong, the world is out of kilter, and a disturbing opening scene becomes clearer as the film progresses and we learn more of what lead up to that scene and its aftermath. Set in an almost empty, vast landscape of the Plains during the westward expansion, the wind screams constantly over this huge, empty landscape, leading many to talk of demons on the Plains, their shrieks carried in those winds. How much of what we think is happening is real and how much the product of fevered minds slowly cracking under the strain of the environment and the isolation is always open to debate, making it all the more disturbing, while the film boasts some superbly scary, creepy moments. A thoughtful, unusual and atmospheric horror. Reviewed here.

Shout outs to must also go to some of the other films I enjoyed this year but which I can’t fit into the main list. Greta, The Favourite, Ms Marvel, John Wick Chapter 3, Toy Story 4, Karina Holden’s eco-documentary Blue (reviewed here), lo-fi, small budget Indy sci-fi film Prospect (reviewed here), Tehran Taboo (reviewed here), Destroyer (reviewed here), which played with genre expectations and also introduced me to Karyn Kusama, who also wowed me with The Invitation this year, Liberté: A Call to Spy, a female-lead (and scripted and directed) Indy WWII film about the first women to be trained by the SOE and dropped into Occupied France, which I caught at the film festival (review here), and Memory: the Origins of Alien, which I also caught at this years film festival (reviewed here), and documentary Making Waves which explored the fascinating history of sound in the cinema (reviewed here)

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