12/12/2014

Review of 2014: books, comics, films and some other random stuff

At first I was just going to talk about books I wanted to recommend, then thought why limit myself? So I'm going to start my review of 2014 by mentioning one of the first things I acquired on arrival in Taipei, that being an Aeropress coffee maker. 

The Aeropress costs about £20 and given the choice between that and some clanking great machine that costs £400, I'll stick with the former. It's small, clever, efficient and brilliant, and ridiculously easy to use: even better, it makes the best coffee I've ever tasted. Now, whenever I drink a cup of coffee in a cafe or restaurant, it invariably tastes like hot wet ashes in comparison to what I can make in my own kitchen from a bag of good beans - and please note, you won't find any on the shelves of a supermarket. 

Back in the UK, I sourced my coffee beans from hasbean.co.uk, and I can heartily recommend them. In Taipei, I get my coffee from Oklao, which also sell a lot of locally-grown beans. My preferred beans at the moment, however, are Yemen Mocha. 

Next up are the Roost Macbook stand and the Mighty Mug, both of which I already wrote about in this post. I can no longer, however, recommend the Logitech keyboard case I bought for my iPad, because the damn thing broke less than a month after I got it: it uses what turned out to be quite fragile plastic tabs to hold the iPad in place. 

A quick google search rapidly revealed this to be a very common problem. I got a refund, and I won't be buying Logitech in future. To replace it, I've ordered an InCase Origami stand, which gets good reviews, is designed to work with a separate Mac bluetooth keyboard, which I already have, and even better lacks fragile and easily breakable tabs. 

The Roost Stand and the Mighty Mug, however, continue to be excellent choices. If you know any writers or people who spend a lot of time working on a laptop, or like me are prone to nudging things off their desk with their elbows, both would make excellent Christmas presents. 

I bought my first really good quality road bike in January, only to have it totalled six months later during a collision with another cyclist on one of Taipei's many winding riverside bike paths. Note to bike path designers: winding, curvy bike paths might look great in an artists sketch when you're trying to raise funds from local government, but they're deeply impractical if you want to avoid people crashing into each other on paths which are barely wide enough for two people to pass each other at the best of times. 

The bike, a Giant Defy Composite, is an excellent bike by any measure, and there's a very good reason why the Defy wins award after award. However, the experience entirely put me off carbon-fibre bicycle frames. They're far too inherently fragile to be practical, and even though they're almost miraculously light (and that really is no exaggeration: you could hold a carbon-fibre frame with your pinkie), the only reason to own one is if you're intending to race. Me? I'm all about the sightseeing and the taking my time. Good quality, lightweight aluminium and Chromoly frames are a far better choice. If I was looking to spend serious money on a non-carbon road-bike right now, I'd be looking to try out a Surly or a Genesis as well as Giant's own, and considerably cheaper, aluminium-frame Defy. 

Movies: for some reason, almost everyone I know back in Glasgow was under the impression I'd go volcanic with hatred for Interstellar. It's got to be said, when a movie pisses me off, I'm far from disinclined to state my reasons loudly and with a lot of swearing. 

But in fact I liked Interstellar. Here's why: for all its faults, such as they may be, the director and writer were clearly working very hard to try and get it right. And if you don't think they got it right - and certainly they didn't always - you need to remember two things: 1 - it's a drama, not a documentary. 2 - its direct and most often quoted antecedent, 2001: A Space Odyssey, ended with a giant space-baby floating above the Earth, and I don't remember anyone arguing about the physics or likelihood of super-intellgent space-babies. 

This should be a reminder to some that cinema is an art-form. If you want absolute realism, watch independently-produced low-budget cinema. All I ask of a movie is that it doesn't treat me like an idiot. 

The Matrix treated me like I was an idiot, and that made me upset. Other movies have done the same, and I got upset at them too. Interstellar, by contrast, didn't treat me like an idiot. To say that Interstellar works primarily as a kind of allegory is, to quote Our Lord Cleese, stating the bleedin' obvious. I enjoyed the experience enough that, upon discovering that the TV series Person of Interest was developed by Jonathan Nolan, Interstellar's script-writer, and that it supposedly deals at some point with questions of artificial intelligence, I started watching it. I'm about five episodes in. 

The most depressing thing I've seen all year, cinematically speaking, is a short cinema queue for Edge of Tomorrow, and a very, very long queue for Transformers 4. Edge of Tomorrow proved to be a whiplash-smart film, and that rare beast, a genuinely good science fiction action flick. Oh, that there were more movies like this. 

One of the reasons I bought an iPad this year was I'd long wanted to get back into comics. I briefly flirted with Marvel Unlimited when they did a one-month 99 cents deal, but I didn't take out a  subscription once that ran out. I bought several graphic novels via StoryBundle, nearly all of which turned out, despite plenty of praise, to be either quite average or downright awful. But I did separately pick up the first volume of Joe Hill's Locke and Key, which proved to be absolutely excellent.  I also got the first volume of Hellblazer, which I'd previously read when it first came out in the early Nineties. 

Hellblazer wasn't quite as spectacular as I remembered it being - it even felt a little overwritten in parts - but there's still a lot of smart storytelling going on in there. Unfortunately, what little I've seen of the TV series based on the comic suggests a rather more anodyne take on John Constantine's character, but perhaps I should watch a little more before entirely passing judgement. TV's JC seems to be a much nicer chap than the Constantine I remember. 

Books: I read and enjoyed Jeff Vandermeer's Area X trilogy, even if the pedant in me wasn't quite sure what it was all about at times. Even so, I enjoyed the ride a great deal. I reread William Gibson's first two novels, and they're just as brilliant as I remember - though I pity any director who might want to make films out of them, unless they're intending to give it a distinctly retro, Eighties flavour. 

I've been delving more into fantasy with a small 'f', and I can definitely recommend Jo Walton's Amongst Others - although in truth, it's more of a mainstream novel with fantasy elements. Either way, it's very good. 

John Dies at the End by David Wong was a funhouse mirror of a novel, all crazy plot twists and ideas and thoroughly enjoyable. There's a movie, which I enjoyed, but I pity anyone trying to make sense out of it who hasn't already read the novel. I also read Samuel Delany's About Writing, which is a book I expect I'll be returning to often when I'm thinking about my own writing and how to develop it further. 
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