This year’s books

For the last couple of years I’ve been struggling to get through many books as I used to. Partly down to watching more TV (damn you, torrents), partly due to work and study. When I was travelling I did a fair bit of reading, mainly on buses and flights – but still nowhere near as much as I did when I was at school.

I would reckon when I was in my late teens I was managing something like 80+ books a year, and that’s a conservative estimate. What with a paper round and public transport to and from school, I had a fair bit of time to walk/sit with a book in my hand. There was no internet either, so less time sat on blogs/facebook/games than I do now as well.

I discovered a very useful site during the year called GoodReads. Primarily I used it as a way of ensuring I didn’t re-purchase a book I already had sat on a shelf somewhere, but spotted that they do an annual “challenge”. You set yourself a target number of books to get through by year end and log them as you progress.

I initially set myself a target of 20, and am glad to say that I managed to finish number 29 last night. Now I think you can see them by following this link to my 2011 challenge on Goodreads, but I’m not certain. So just in case, here they are:

Title Author Mark
The Sacred Vault (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase, #6) Andy McDermott 4
Empire Of Gold (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase, #7) Andy McDermott 4
42 – Douglas Adams’ Amazingly Accurate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything Peter Gill 3
On the Edge Charlie Carroll 4
Scorpia Rising (Alex Rider #9) Anthony Horowitz 5
Rough Justice (Dan Shepherd, #7) Stephen Leather 5
Kevin Smith’s Green Hornet Volume 1 HC Kevin Smith 3
Odd Hours (Odd Thomas Novel, Book 4) Dean Koontz 2
The Lost Symbol Dan Brown 3
Road Trip to Hell: Tabloid Tales of Saddam, Iraq and a Bloody War: Tabloid Tales of Saddam, Iraq and a Crazy War Chris Hughes 5
Lifeguard James Patterson 4
Dave Gorman Vs the Rest of the World: Limited Edition with Bowling Voucher Dave Gorman 3
The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1) John Buchan 3
Self-Defense (Alex Delaware, #9) Jonathan Kellerman 2
Playing with Fire (Skulduggery Pleasant, #2) Derek Landy 4
Risk Dick Francis 3
Dead Men’s Dust (Joe Hunter, #1) Matt Hilton 3
The Faceless Ones (Skulduggery Pleasant, #3). Derek Landy 5
Dark Days (Skulduggery Pleasant, #4) Derek Landy 5
Mortal Coil (Skulduggery Pleasant, #5) Derek Landy 5
The Templar Salvation Raymond Khoury 4
Twice Shy Dick Francis 3
Undead Kirsty McKay 4
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge 2
The Greek Who Stole Christmas (Diamond Brothers, #7) Anthony Horowitz 3
To the Hilt Dick Francis 5
Silverfin: A James Bond Adventure (Young Bond) Charlie Higson 4
Horowitz Horror: v. 1: Nine Nasty Stories to Chill You to the Bone Anthony Horowitz 3
The Enemy (The Enemy #1) Charlie Higson 3
The marks are out of 5 so not a bad year. Yes, there’s a lot of “teen” and “young adult” stuff on there, but that’s because it’s a world better than the equivalent when I was that age. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that much as I’m not a fan of horse racing, Dick Francis was a brilliant author of thrillers. I’m glad he left such a sizeable legacy as far as number of published titles goes.
So with 29 read in 2011, I’m going to aim for 35 in 2012. I currently have three on the go – one paperback, one on my phone and a Kindle one… although I don’t have a Kindle. I’m waiting until I get my tablet in January (with luck) to start reading that.
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Puss In Boots

By إبن البيطار (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsIt’s been an age since we took the kids to the cinema, and this being the holiday season we really didn’t have an excuse what with all the films being aimed at sprogs that come out. The other advantage is that movies aimed at children almost always have a 2D version as well as the irritatingly over-screened 3D performances.

Puss In Boots

“Fear me, if you dare!”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: The back story and “legend” of the popular character originally appearing in the Shrek films

See it if you like: the Shrek films, for starters, and high quality children’s films overall

Puss In Boots seems to have taken months to get to the UK. The adverts have been on display since summer, or so it seems, and the US release was back in October. The kids have been at us to see it since then so it was a no-brainer to take them once it finally arrived.

Antonio Banderas‘ lead character is joined by Zach Galifianakis as Humpty “Alexander” Dumpty and Salma Hayek as Kitty Softpaws. Jumping straight into the action, the plot drifts into back-story on two occasions so that we can learn more about the central characters. Despite starting as a throw-away character, Puss has rightly graduated into a central personality and his history is a good one.

In fact, the story for the overall film is pretty impressive. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that it may be a little too hard to follow for the younger members to follow. There are also some moderately lengthy conversational sections which can mean those who need a bit more action in their film-viewing could drift a little. Having said that, Little Mister was pretty much glued to the screen for the whole thing which makes a change from him attempting to sit in every single seat in the theatre.

There are buckets of jokes, some of which will go right over the little ones’ heads – particularly the catnip line. The action sequences are superb and the quality of the animation seems to be improving with each of DreamWorks‘ releases. Humpty, in particular, looks like a human face projected onto an egg so smooth and detailed are the facial movements.

With plenty of giggles, and a story that actually tells you more about the characters as well as moving at a decent pace this is well worth a watch for fans of animated features. The cute factor is enough to keep most children interested as well.

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

By إبن البيطار (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsWow. Just one film for a change. With luck we’ll catch a couple more with the kids at the weekend. Gillian can’t stand Tom Cruise (something to do with him being a) a jumped-up little shit and b) a scientologist, apparently) so I went by myself for this one.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

“I have arrived at the party!”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Someone is trying to blow up the world, Tom Cruise and a couple of friends have to stop them

See it if you like: The last three films

This is the first time Brad Bird has directed a live action film – his previous record includes the excellent The Incredibles and Ratatouille. It seems like quite a departure, but one that works. Ghost Protocol isn’t the “biggest” of the MI films to date as far as the scale of the action sequences goes, but it’s probably got the best – and most Bond-esque – plot.

Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg reprise their roles from the previous film with Ving Rhames popping up for about three minutes (for which he reportedly earned twice what he did for his supporting part in M:I3). It’s a quote from Pegg’s character Benji that I’ve used above. Truly, Pegg has arrived at the party with this film. From obscure Channel 4 comedy to fully fledged supporting role in one of the most profitable current franchises alongside one of the world’s most bankable stars. Well done, sir.

There’s a nice dollop of humour in the film, most of which revolves around Benji, while the action is – as ever – focussed around Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Jeremy Renner joins the cast as Brandt, a senior analyst and apparently a character who could be fleshed out should Cruise ever decide to leave the franchise. Token kick-ass female falls to Patton’s Jane.

As I said, the plot’s rather Bond-like with it’s twisted, psychotic villain and threat of global thermonuclear devastation. A terrorist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) has developed the somewhat bonkers theory that the earth undergoes some sort of “cleansing” every few hundred thousand years. Meteors, ice ages and so forth have helped this go ahead in the past. This time, though, we’re in need of a kick-start. So he’s after some nuclear launch codes to trigger global devastation and a fresh start.

Bonkers.

After things go wrong for our small band of troops at the start of the story, they are officially disavowed by their government and forced to operate completely along – under the Ghost Protocol of the title. This leads to a new set of challenges as they only have access to the kit they can scavenge – there is no longer an IMF for them to be a part of.

The set pieces are good and the characters varied enough yet well gelled. If two characters are a little similar, it’s Hunt and Brandt for the reasons mentioned above. The bad guys are suitably cold, there are plenty of close-up combat scenes and the glamour is in full evidence with huge buildings, flash concept cars and the like being fully utilised.

Sure, you have to suspend your belief a bit (not least of all as to how them manage to make Cruise appear of regular height during the entire film), but it’s well worth it. Unlike Fast Five which just made itself bigger and more silly to up the ante for it’s latest instalment, M:I-GP has gone more for plot. The explosions are more “ouch, that must have hurt” than “wow, what else is there left in the world to blow up?” making for a more enjoyable film overall.

The best thing about it is that it’s not just more of the same. A good balance, a good cast and a good film as a result.

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows / 50/50

After far too many weeks with no cinema visits, I escaped from the house to catch three films back to back. And then had to settle for two as the first performance of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was sold out, which screwed up my entire schedule. Pah. My only real complaint with the Cineworld Unlimited card is that you can’t pre-book seats with it online or by phone. This is particularly annoying when you’re going with friends who don’t have a card as they can pre-book, and you then end up in the situation where youre group arrives at the cinema to find they have tickets and you can’t get in.

Anway. Films.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

“Be careful what you fish for.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Moriarty takes a far more visible centre-stage in this sequel to the effects-heavy first film as he threatens to destroy Europe

See it if you like: the last film

I quite enjoyed the first of Guy Ritchie‘s Holmes films, though I’m still not a fan of the World’s Greatest Detective as an action hero. Sure, know that Holmes was a great pugilist but it’s not something that shows up in the original stories too often. On the other hand, big explosions and fights sell more tickets than brain-teasing detective work.

Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law once again take up the mantle of the Victorian answer to the Dynamic Duo, this time with Jared Harris‘ Moriarty providing a more obvious villainous role. Also centre stage is Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s more annoying brother Mycroft.

The direction is very much Guy Ritchie with several set pieces cut into very short, close-up (sometimes internal) shots of mechanics with exaggerated sound effects. He’s been doing this since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and it’s still quite cool although getting a little long in the tooth. Especially impressive is the forest scene with the cast running from a variety of gunfire. This scene features in the trailer, but the full version is an incredible piece of footage.

Plotwise, the story is far deeper than the first film. As a result it can be a little slow in places. I also found the humour a little darker and less frequent than I recall from the first. This does make it a little more satisfying for an older audience, but probably less suitable for the younger fans who just want to see the action sequences.

It looks gorgeous and the acting it top notch. Downey Jr seems to have found a niche playing aloof characters with a sense of self-superiority. Between Holmes and Tony Stark he has the market cornered.

For a chill out bit of popcorn cinema, watch the original. For an impressive bit of cinema which engages the brain a little more, go for this one.

50/50

“If you were a casino game, you would have the best odds.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Man with gutter-brained best friend discovers he has a tumour.

See it if you like: Well-scripted, very well acted social dramas which toy with your emotions

First up, I’m not a huge Seth Rogen fan. The man has one joke which he’s reeled out in every single film he’s ever been in. Basically, he talks about sex in  rather teenager-ish fashion and smokes pot. Not something to slate him for as such, but it gets boring watching someone play the same damn character in every film he’s in.

However, it was he who encouraged his friend Will Reiser to write a screenplay based on his real-life experiences. That, in turn, led to this film. And for that reason alone I will forgive Seth Rogen anything. Obviously, there’s no telling – short of interviewing the guys or perhaps waiting for the commentary on a DVD release – how many of the actual events in the film are exact representations of Reiser’s battle with cancer. I would suspect that the majority are perfectly possible if not likely, and that’s the strength of the movie. Nothing in it stretches the boundaries of belief.

Rogen plays Rogen, as I said. If you like him in other movies, you won’t have any issues with his part in this one. Centrepiece and absolute star of the show, though, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays Adam. He doesn’t make the part look difficult, and he doesn’t milk the “I’ve got cancer, see me suffer” thing. In fact for the vast majority of the film Adam handles things incredibly well, which makes the down points all the more poignant.

The supporting cast are all top notch as well. Some only appear briefly, others worm their way into the storyline. Anjelica Huston plays Adam’s mother and this ranks as one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from her. Strict, motherly, unshakable, domineering and loving. Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall join Adam in chemo. Two older guys surprised at the youth of their co-sufferer, yet embracing him into their exclusive little group.

It takes maybe 10 minutes for the film to get going and to realise it’s not simply another Rogen gross-out “comedy”. Perhaps it says a lot that I was nodding off a little during Holmes, an action film, and yet this film had my eyes glued open for pretty much its entire run.

Not one for kids, or those who cry at Lassie films. For everyone else – you simply have to see this film.

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Napalm Death – Ivory Blacks

Napalm Death
Image by Iain Purdie via Flickr

[For the full set of pictures from the gig on Flickr, please follow this link]

Finally, the last concert of a five-gig-week. Again, Gillian couldn’t manage partly due to the whole pregnancy thing and again we couldn’t dispose of a spare ticket. Seriously, people – this was Napalm frickin’ Death! Given the length of the Brummie quartet’s set, this made it one of the most expensive gigs (per minute) that I think I’ve ever been to. Eek.

The last time I saw Napalm Death was in London at the Camden Underworld with Amy while she was at Veterinary College nearby. That night ended with me stage-diving for the first time in years (most venues won’t allow it any more – bloody ambulance-chasing lawyers and health & safety), helping a guy with a concussion focus before the ambulance arrived and Amy getting a bar job. Not a bad evening, all in all.

This time round, I missed the two support acts and got there in good time for Napalm Death to hit the (small) stage. Ivory Blacks is one of the smallest venues in Glasgow with a capacity of, I believe, 283. It was well on the way to that by my estimation. I collected the obligatory pint, wandered comfortably to the barrier at the front of the stage and awaited the noise.

It’s hard to believe they’ve been going since 1981. And also that they feature precisely none of the founding members. What is always guaranteed is a good show.

Napalm Death
Image by Iain Purdie via Flickr

Barney is a great guy and – like Ginger on Thursday night – more than happy to have some banter with the crowd. He’s also a bit of a politico. Imagine Mark Thomas only with metal to back him up. The tracks they ran through covered the entire history of the band, though perhaps didn’t hit every single album. I confess to not being a huge expert on them.

I did recognise a handful of songs, though, including one of the best cover versions you’ll hear live – the ever-present “Nazi Punks Fuck Off“, originally by the Dead Kennedys. If you can’t follow the chorus to that beauty, then you’re as well giving up now and buying the latest Justin Bieber album. Then killing yourself.

Another two covers of bands I’d never heard of rounded out the disappointingly short hour-long set. For the duration of the aural battering, the crowd was free to surf and stagedive, “security” for this handled by one poor bugger in a white shirt who didn’t complain once – not even when he took an accidental foot to the face. In other words, an excellent venue. The sound was great and it’s a venue that really suits a band like Napalm Death.

Still, £16+ per ticket is quite a sum for a small gig that only lasts an hour.

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