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That was the year that was

I said last year that 2009 was a year to remember for reasons both good and bad, but 2010 proved to be both a little better and in one respect the worst year ever. My father died of cancer in September after two months of illness. I miss him. My writing achievements mean little in the face of that. Especially since my father supported and enjoyed my writing – and yet never saw my story from Catastrophia praised in a national newspaper.

For the record, six of my stories saw print in 2010 – one each in Jupiter, Catastrophia, New Horizons, Alt Hist, and two in M-Brane SF. I also had my first poem published, also in Jupiter (it was actually a quartet of poems).

Books
During 2010 (to date), I read 170 books, 42% of which were science fiction, 18% were literary fiction, and 6% I read to review on my Space Books blog. I reviewed seven books for Interzone, one for Vector, and six for SFF Chronicles. I managed to curtail my book purchases this year, but I then decided to browse local charity shops on a regular basis… As a result, I spent less on books in 2010, but seem to have bought almost as many as I have in previous years. Oh well.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), I picked as one of my top five books of the first half 2010, and wrote then that I expected it to make it onto my end of the year top five. And so it has. It is a cleverly-plotted historical detective novel, an astonishing piece of literary impersonation, and it is, as you’d expect from Crowley, beautifully written. Admittedly, I’m no expert on Byron – his poetry or his life – but Crowley certainly convinced me. After the disappointment that was The Translator, this is Crowley on top form.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1974). While I’ve read several of Compton’s novels over the years, 2010 was the year I came to really appreciate his fiction and added him to my list of “collectible” authors. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is often considered the best of his novels, and it’s certainly true that it’s very, very good. It’s perhaps a little dated these days but, for me, that was part of its charm – I love its 1970s aesthetic. It’s a book that’s wonderfully sardonic, with a pair of expertly-drawn characters, and prose that’s a joy to read. I wrote about it here. I even wrote about the film adaptation of it, by Bertrand Tavernier, here.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father was a big fan of DH Lawrence and often tried to persuade me to read his books. But it was only this year that I picked one up… and was immediately captivated. I’ve since bought an omnibus of two novels and three novellas, a short story collection and a poetry collection (from charity shops, of course). I plan to read more. There’s little I need to say about Lady Chatterley’s Lover as most people know of the book – although, to be fair, what they think they know of it may not be what the book is actually about. The dialogue has not aged well, but some of the descriptive prose is lovely writing, and the character studies of Constance and Mellors are superbly done. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, incidentally, was another book from my top five for the first half of the year.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz (1961). This year, 2010, was the fiftieth anniversary of the only manned descent to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. And Seven Miles Down is the only book written specifically about that descent. It makes it into my top five because it’s a fascinating subject, and because I think Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh’s achievement should be honoured. I wrote about it here.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006). This is the third book from my halfway through the year list to make it into this final top five. Which, on reflection, doesn’t say much for my choices in reading matter during the latter half of 2010. To be fair, I did read a lot of good books, but none struck me as good enough to make this list. Troy, a collection of genre and non-genre stories based on characters from the Trojan Wars, kept its place because the collection’s theme is cleverly-handled, and the stories are varied and beautifully written. I’d like to read more by Brown.

Honourable mentions: the Bold as Love Cycle, Gwyneth Jones (the first quintet of my summer reading project; see here; more to follow soon); the Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp (the second quintet of my summer reading project; write-up to follow soon-ish); The City & The City, China Miéville (multi-award winner with fascinating premise; my review here); The White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper (thoughtful 1970s sf); The Desert King, David Howarth (a biography of ibn Saud; sort of like Dune without the worms…); One Giant Leap, Piers Bizony (the best of the books celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11; my review here); Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (loved the first half, but not so keen on the second); Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (a new Culture novel; enough said).

Films
Each month, I receive six rental DVDs from LoveFilm and two or three to review for VideoVista, so I’ve not bought as many as I have done in past years. I still managed to watch 210 films or seasons of television series, however, some of which were re-watches. Among the TV series I watched were Fringe, Mad Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Flash Gordon.

Cargo, dir. Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009). I know some people weren’t as impressed with this film as I was, but I thought it the best sf film of the year. It should have been on the Hugo Award shortlist. Okay, so it borrows heavily from other well-known sf films – or, perhaps, more charitably: it deploys tropes originally used in other well-known sf films. But it uses them cleverly, and they are all germane to the plot. The special effects and production design are also notably good. I reviewed Cargo for the Zone here, and loved it so much I went and bought a proper copy of the DVD.

Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001), was, I think, the first Iranian film I’d ever watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed its deadpan black humour. It’s similar in many respects to Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, one of my favourite films, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it. It made my halfway through the year list, and confidently remained in place for the end of year top five. In it, a young woman travels around a remote island off the coast of Iran, trying to persuade people to vote in the upcoming election. She’s accompanied by a laconic soldier who has seen it all before. It’s a very funny film.

The Bothersome Man, dir. Jens Lien (2006), is another film that made the halfway through the year list. It’s also funny. A man commits suicide and finds himself in a city in which everything is bland and comfortable and washed-out. Everybody is nice to him, but no one seems to care about anything. While there may be something utopian in this, it’s also clearly hellish. Or, at the very least, purgatorial. So he tries to escape. His first attempt, a re-enactment of his suicide, is hilarious. Eventually, he thinks he may have found a route out. But, of course, films such as this can never end happily. It’s not Hollywood, after all.

For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I watched a number of documentaries about the Apollo programme during 2010, but For All Mankind was the best by quite a margin. And Eureka! have done it proud with their DVD release. Reinert personally chose, and had restored, the NASA footage he used, and he was careful to chose footage that had not been seen before. The end result is a documentary which gives a very real feel for the programme, for its accomplishments and for those involved in it – especially the astronauts. Some of the film taken by the Apollo astronauts while in space is, more by accident than design, quite beautiful. If you watch only one documentary about those mad years during which the US put twelve men on the Moon, make it For All Mankind.

There’s Always Tomorrow, dir. Douglas Sirk (1956). I suppose it’s no surprise to find a Sirk film on this list. He is, after all, one of my favourite directors. Unfortunately, few of his films are available on DVD – and of those, Eureka! have done an excellent job on their releases of There’s Always Tomorrow and A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But the former just pips the latter. Fred MacMurray plays a toy company owner who tries to inject some excitement into his solidly middle-class life when he is visited by ex-employee Barbara Stanwyck, now independent, successful and glamorous . MacMurray’s family has become a prison, and he is desperate for release. But it is not to be. The film’s final scene, after Stanwyck has turned him down, as he leaves for work and his kids wish him well through the banisters of the staircase… That final shot of MacMurray seen through those bars is a perfect illustration of why I rate Sirk’s films so highly.

Honourable mentions: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke remains one of the most interesting directors currently making films), King Lear (with Michael Hordern in the title role; the best of the six BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays I watched during 2010), Mad Men season one (has been praised by many; while good, I often found its heavy-handed 1960s sexism and racism hard to take); Frozen Land (grim, yet gripping and blackly humorous, film from Finland).

Albums
Several of my favourite bands released albums in 2010, and some of them even toured to UK too. I also discovered several new bands. I saw 21 bands perform live, and bought 27 CDs – 4 of them as limited edition CD/T-shirt deals.

Curse of the Red River, Barren Earth (2010), is the debut album by a Finnish metal supergroup side-project, featuring members of Amorphis, Moonsorrow and Kreator. The music is heavy doom/death metal with 1970s proggy bits – sort of like Opeth, but heavier (if that’s possible), and with strange, almost hippy-ish acoustic sections (there’s a flute in there somewhere, for example). It’s also quite brilliant. This one went on the top five the first time I listened to it. It’s about time they toured the UK. (Band website).

Vine, The Man-Eating Tree (2010), is another Finnish supergroup, as it contains the drummer from Sentenced, the guitarist from Poisonblack, the bass player from Reflexion, the keyboards player from Embraze, and the vocalist from Fall of the Leafe. The latter, in fact, Tuomas Tuominen, is the reason I’d been looking forward to this debut album – Fall of the Leafe was one of my favourite bands (they disbanded a couple of years ago), and Tuominen has a very distinctive voice. Vine includes a metal cover of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, which shouldn’t work, but actually does. Amazingly well, in fact. (Band website).

We Are The Void, Dark Tranquillity (2010), is the latest album by a band that has been a favourite of mine for many years. I’d describe it as a return to form, except they’ve never been off-form. Nonetheless, I was impressed when I heard the first track they released from the album (see here), with its deliciously creepy riff, and the rest of the album is just as good. Definitely one of their best albums of recent years. (Band website).

Escaping The Abyss, Fornost Arnor (2009). I saw an ad for this in Zero Tolerance magazine, and the description intrigued me enough to buy a copy. It’s Fornost Arnor’s debut album and was released on their own label. It’s an atmospheric mixture of black and progress metal, with occasional acoustic parts. It’s exactly the sort of complex, varied and technically-proficient metal that I really like. They’re currently recording their second album. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Incidentally, this is the second year running a self-released album has made it into my top five – last year, it was DesolatioN’s Lexicon V. (Band’s MySpace page).

The Never Ending Way of Orwarrior, Orphaned Land (2010), was a long-awaited album. Orphaned Land’s last release, the excellent Mabool, appeared in 2004, and they’ve been promising this follow-up ever since. It finally arrived this year, and it was worth the wait. I saw Orphaned Land live this year for the first time too, with Amorphis and Ghost Brigade, and they were easily the best act of the night. (Band website).

Honourable mentions: Engines of Armageddon’s self-released debut album; The Light in Which We All Burn, Laethora; Persistence, Crystalic (also self-released); Encounter the Monolith, Martriden.


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Best Films of 2010 (the first half)

I watched a lot of films during the first half of this year. Sadly, many of them were not very good. Some of them, happily, were very good indeed. Below are the best five I watched. Only one is a Hollywood film, and it’s more than fifty years old.

Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001). I think this was the first Iranian film I’ve ever watched, and it reminded me a great deal of one of my favourite films – Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention from Palestine. It shares a similar black humour, although it’s a much more realistic film. Some of the set-pieces are absolute classics – especially the traffic lights one.

Atomised, dir. Oskar Roehler (2006). This is an adaptation of the novel by Michel Houellebecq. I thought the book very good, but the argument in its epilogue didn’t quite convince me. Roehler tries for the same effect with two paragraphs of text on-screen before the final credit… and they’re even less effective. Having said that, the film handles the story’s emotional arc more effectively, and the use of colour in the flashback sequences is cleverly done.

The Bothersome Man, dir. Jens Lien (2006). I still don’t know why I put this on my DVD rental list, but I’m glad I did. Its humour is even blacker than Secret Ballot‘s, and the scene where Andreas jumps in front of the underground train – the second time, not the first one – is hysterical.

For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I love documentaries on this topic – the Apollo lunar landings were an astonishing achievement, and I could sit and watch films about them all day. Reinert’s is probably the best one ever made on the subject, and incorporates some excellent NASA footage.

There’s Always Tomorrow, dir. Douglas Sirk (1956). Sirk was my one big film discovery last year – I fell in love with his movies after renting All That Heaven Allows – but despite making around forty films, most of them in Hollywood, only a dozen or so are available on DVD. There’s Always Tomorrow is one of the really good ones, and Eureka! have done this release proud. As they also have done for his A Time To Love And A Time To Die. If they then went on to do the same for the rest of his films, I would be really happy.

So, not an unsurprising set of films, given my taste in cinema. The second half of 2010 is going to have to work hard if it’s to beat the five named above. Oh, and look: no science fiction. Not, I have to admit, that I’ve ever been a huge fan of sf cinema. It’s always struck me as the written genre’s more flamboyant but less smarter sibling.

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