Whatcha been readin’?

Since the pandemic started I’ve been leaning harder into setting wind-down time in the evening aside specifically for reading, and as a result have made my way through around twenty-seven books in the last eighteenish months. A couple of these were re-reads, but of the new ones I’ve compiled a couple of highlights below:

THE NAME OF THE WIND / THE WISE MAN’S FEAR — Patrick Rothfuss

Wonderfully written “traditional” fantasy with one of the best modern voices in the style, imbued full of wonder, intelligence and a deep love of the genre by its author. The only problem being that the third book is close to a decade past due with no release date in sight so while I highly recommend the first two books they come with the caveat that you’ll be joining the ranks of disappointed fans stuck waiting for a conclusion.

CIBOLA BURN (THE EXPANSE) — James S.A. Corey

The best modern sci-fi series, hands down. I read this, the fourth book, as a refresher for season five of the show last December. Book five will be the same for season six at the end of this year and then I’ll be able to read the last three without fear of spoilers. It’s less complicated than it sounds. I rave about this series a lot, it’s got everything.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE — Kurt Vonnegut

One of my all-time favourite books got a graphic novel adaptation that both serves its source beautifully while also bringing its own flavour and style. Probably better appreciated if you’ve read the original novel, but nonetheless a worthwhile pickup.

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM — Cixin Liu

Heady, cerebral sci-fi that’s both wildly imaginative and coldly mathematical. Considered one of the greatest novels of the modern era and for good reason — a slowly unfolding scope puts its vision on timescales akin to masterwork Foundation while making the human elements much more compelling. Currently reading the sequel, The Dark Forest.

RAYBEARER — Jordan Ifueko

African magical realism via YA, with political intrigue thrown in for good measure. The world is incredibly distinct and well realised, and this is just the first in a series well worth following.

THE DISPOSSESSED — Ursula K LeGuin

An anarchist physicist is brought to a Capitalist society so that he can realise his great unifying theory, but quickly becomes disillusioned with the falsity and exploitive nature of their culture. Hard biting political commentary draped in planetary science-fiction and social satire. It’s dense, but it’s faaaaaaar ahead of its time.

DAWN — Octavia E Butler

After the world ends, aliens abduct a small handful of surviving humans to help them rebreed and repopulate, but this also means intermingling their DNA with their new benefactors. Very strange, and also the first in a trilogy. I plan to come back to see where it goes, this first one was great.

DOCTOR SLEEP — Stephen King

How do you follow up something as iconic as The Shining? With pretty much exactly this book. Explores other creatures from King’s multiverse, while tying it back to the Overlook and the Shine in new and satisfying ways. Adult Danny might not have the same problems as his father but hooboy does he have troubles of his own.

HOUSE OF X / POWERS OF X — Hickman, Larraz, Silva, Gracia

Fantastic recalibration of the X-Men universe by way of a looping time cycle, a living island and multiple possible realities (most of which end in some variation of terrible apocalypse). Makes mutantkind feel fresh and new again, full of big ideas, which is an impressive feat. The main problem is that it immediately sprawls out into half a dozen plotlines so I have no idea how to follow up from this collection, but as a standalone “reboot” of the X-Men this was great.

THE IMMORTAL HULK — Ewing, Bennett, Garbett, Hotz

Similarly, this run takes the concept of the Hulk and turns it into a Cronenbergian body horror nightmare. See, Bruce Banner can die, but the Hulk is immortal and no matter what you do to the man the monster will always come back. It was a brilliant move to take this character and make him terrifying, and the series looks like it’s only getting darker.

JURASSIC PARK / THE LOST WORLD— Michael Crichton

Pulp fiction at its best. I first read these twenty-five years ago and somehow still remembered every detail like I’d read them just last week. Quite a tonal departure from the first film and far more critical of the Capitalist aspects of genetic patenting. The second book and film are almost completely unrelated aside from a few character appearances. Still, easy to understand why they were so popular, I blew through the two of them inside a week.

BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR (2021)

Part Cronenberg body horror, part Lynchian psychological trip, part weirder-bits-of-TrueBlood.

Incredibly well shot and put together with a great specificity of vision that conjures a distinct and uniquely nightmarish take on 90s L.A. drenched in neon and black magic.

Some truly disgusting visuals anchored by a fantastic cast of strange, funny and rich characters.

Not for those with weak stomachs, but horror fans should definitely find a lot to love here.

Wonderfully weird, highly recommended.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

An abandoned motel straddling the California/Nevada state lines plays host to six strangers with dark pasts.

The cast is inspired, the production design is excellent and the stagecraft is fantastic. Cinematography is creative and makes the whole production feel like an elaborate stage play. Soundtrack is stacked with 50s bops.

Pacing’s a little off and it drags some in the back half, but its style and character performances really elevate it as a solid, well executed Noir thriller.

Recommended.

NARCOS (s01-03)

A little late to the party on this one, sure, but better late than never.

The sort of prestige crime drama usually reserved for HBO, it marks a period of Netflix when they were trying especially hard to establish themselves as a viable rival. It really shows.

Usually I avoid discussing plot since I often prefer myself to be able to start watching something without knowing where it’s going, but that approach is kind if moot here since Narcos is explicitly about the burgeoning cocaine trade in Medellín, Colombia during the 1980s and 90s — most notably charting the rise and fall of legendary cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Performances are fantastic. Story is tense, engaging and frequently horrifying as the drug war escalates and corruption seeps into everything. Interests become conflicted, power shifts, lots of innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

A dark and depressing tale, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

Recommended.

BLOOD RED SKY (2021)

Terrorists hijack a plane and unwittingly set off a vampire hiding onboard.

If nothing about that premise makes you immediately say “fuck yeah” then I don’t know what more I can tell you to sell it. It’s ridiculous and it’s fun and it takes itself just seriously enough to stay firmly a horror movie with an emotional core rather than to devolve to a trashy comedy like it easily could have.

Makeup work is great, cast is solid, execution is exactly what it needs to be.

An A-grade B-movie.

Recommended.

THE STAND (2020)

Ironic that this released just as the world was dealing with a very real pandemic, so understandable that it was largely ignored or passed over given the circumstances.

Stephen King stories are best treated as limited series such as this, as it gives the characters plenty of room to exist and be human within the story.

As post-apocalyptic tales go, this is more mythical forces of good and evil acting through human conduits than say, your standard meditation on the nature of humanity in a world gone to hell.

Plus, the production quality really sells the end of the world and the casting is all excellent.

A solid and faithful adaptation of King’s epic, tweaked and modernised just enough to play to modern sensibilities.

Recommended.

BLACK WIDOW (2021)

A great standalone spy film that’s biggest flaw is that it maybe came a few years later than it deserved.

It’s refreshing to have Natasha reframed and to have her backstory finally filled in, and the supporting cast here is one of the best things about it. It’s a made family of strong and capable women, plus a strongman clown, and the dynamic is great.

The action is among the best in the MCU, though arguable the Taskmaster is a little underutilised — fundamentally a Winter Soldier redux but with a more interesting moveset gimmick. Still, there’s room to push the idea closer to the comics going forward.

Does a lot to set up characters and potential for the next generation of Avengers, but smartly keeps focused on having Black Widow be its own film.

A good time, and great to see as a blockbuster up on the big screen.

Recommended.

A QUIET PLACE: PART II (2021)

Solid follow up, keeps the tension high while adding some new variables to the mix.

Not much to say — if you enjoyed the first one you’ll find this a great extension of the story that grows the world just enough to fill in some questions lingering from the original without bloating.

Emily Blunt has less to do than trailers might suggest, but the switch to having the daughter shoulder narrative responsibilty is a good one.

Action’s fun, new wrinkles and characters work well together.

Recommended.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault.

Billed as a black comedy (and it’s certainly black), it’s the sort of film that seems to be verging spilling into pure revenge fantasy but instead reveals itself to be a story of pain inflicting pain, tangled up in rom-com tropes.

There is no moral lesson. There is no happy ending, or even necessarily a sense of justice delivered. Those getting what they deserve never feels enough even if it is occasionally satisfying. There are very few truly good people in this story.

Often hilarious, consistently uncomfortable, more often bleak. A confident and stylised take on the culture and attitudes that allow sexual assault to go unpunished and frequently unrecognised and unaccounted.

Fantastic performances and overall an excellent film, but more tragedy than comedy and certainly not for everyone.

MARE OF EASTTOWN (2021)

A-grade small-town murder-mystery with a great supporting cast, twisty plot reveals and a great lead performance from Kate Winslet.

Honestly, much more is potentially spoilery so if you got through all those hyphens without already skipping over to look up where it’s available for you to watch then maybe this isn’t your genre?

Still, if you’ve never dipped your toe into this specific kind of Broadchurch-y series then this is an excellent, accessible place to start.

Highly recommended.