So, we decided that in the spirit of Christmas we'd rally the staff around and force them (cruelly, some might say) to pick just three things they read/watched/did something with in 2014. Some people cheated. We're not judging (much).
Trees: Their Natural History by Peter A Thomas (CUP)
Trees are so much more complex and interesting as living organisms than one might imagine: this book shows how they have lived for far longer than any other living thing (5000 years +).
The International Film Business by Angus Finney (Routledge)
The complex world of film finance made clear with great examples. Would it encourage anyone to be a producer? I am not sure, but if you are producing it is a must-read.
Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story by John Yorke (Penguin)
Storytelling is mysterious and theories abound as to how best to do it. Alongside The Uses of Enchantment (Bettleheim) and The Art of Creative Storyteling (Egri) this is the latest classic.
The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux (Astor & Blue)
Many of my passions – art, history, Florence, the Renaissance – brought together in a masterful reconstruction of the life of Donatello, sculptor of the David & Goliath. A homosexual genius, living in dangerous times as the Medici and Albizi families fight to control the city state. I didn’t want it to end, and am desperate for others to read it so I can talk about it with them.
Game of Thrones tv series 1-3 (HBO)
I am on record as not enjoying or understanding fantasy. Yet when someone on Twitter mentioned that Game of Thrones was basically the Wars of the Roses, being a passionate and lifelong Ricardian, I had to watch it. I practically inhaled series 1-3. So very watchable, but I couldn’t tell you now what happened, and I didn’t understand most of the plotlines at the time. Lovely to look at, though terrible that Sean Bean was killed off . ..
Lucy Parham’s Chopin: Nocturne – The Romantic Life of Chopin
A recommendation from our musical Conrad Williams. Two cds of Lucy’s exquisite playing, with Harriet Walter and Samuel West reading his letters. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
Isobel’s Top ‘Keepers’ of 2014
[Three, only three, Ed.? Really? Oh, okay, here goes…
My first non-agency Book of the Year, literally, was John Worthen’s absorbing biography of D.H. Lawrence (Penguin). The paperback was a gift to me from artist Douglas Robertson, when we launched into our poetry-art collaboration based around Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers. I finished it on New Year’s Day in Sicily – not in Taormina where Lawrence lived, but in Ragusa, which still felt appropriately close to the tracks of this fierce, complex poet-novelist who wrote and travelled so much. I knew of course that he died tragically young at forty-four and as I read I could see how few pages of the book were left (pages, real pages, not just 70% complete etc…!), so I was surprised to be so overwhelmingly moved when the moment of his death came. Worthen brought the contradictions, the rage, the passion and the ambition so vividly to life, and though Lawrence was by no means always a likeable man, I wept bitterly at the book’s close.
I loved the verve and originality of Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry (Oberon), a book on the reading and writing of poetry like no other I have read. I know I will keep returning to it with relish.
Michael Donaghy was a brilliant poet and performer and an inspiring teacher whose evening class gave me my first sense of a poetry ‘home’ in London. He died ten years ago this September and his absence is still keenly felt by so many. His Collected Poems (Picador), with its Introduction by Sean O’Brien will introduce many new readers to his fine poems – I have been reading them with a bittersweet mixture of admiration, sadness, re-discovery and consolation.
And right now I am delighting in the much-anticipated Bedouin of the London Evening (Bloodaxe) by the late, enigmatic Rosemary Tonks and Clive James’s lively Poetry Notebook (Picador) … [What? That’s it, Ed? Too much already? And I was just getting started…. What about the films, the plays, the music, the novels… ? Ah. Another time.]
But [as Ed. looks the other way, absorbed in guessing who his Secret Santa is from] I have to put in a swift late mention of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant, darkly Gothic novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I know I’m a latecomer to her genius and can’t wait to read more (and know I will re-read this too – what a great character Merricat is, one of my line-up of deliciously unreliable narrators).
[Okay, off to Christmas lunch now!]
Sian Jenkins (cheating with 6)
BARRACUDA by Christos Tsiolkas
A young man struggles to deal with success and failure . A tough coming of age story, set against the backdrop of the elite world of professional swimming and everyday life in the suburbs of Melbourne.
BARK by Lorrie Moore
Pithy, agonisingly funny stories. A lot of people die in Lorrie Moore’s stories, often slowly and unpleasantly, but you can’t stop laughing through them. Every sentence is a beautifully crafted gem.
NORA WEBSTER by Colm Toibin
More tragedy and grief. Toibin re-visits the familiar setting of his earlier novels on the South East coast of Ireland and builds another finely detailed layer onto this world.
Robyn Davidson’s classic true story is gorgeously transferred to the screen. A somewhat grumpy woman crosses the central Australian desert. With camels. And a dog. Slow but stunning.
A warm, funny, sad nostalgia trip for the Thatcher generation. And there’s a heroine called Sian in it.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
A contemporary vampire story for grownups.
Her by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicholson):
Emma is a new mother, feeling isolated and adrift without her career, and when Nina - sophisticated, confident and commanding - enters her life, she latches onto her much-needed support. But though it is easy to see why Emma needs Nina, it is much harder to understand Nina's motives - which may be more sinister than they first appeared.
The Secret Place by Tara French (Hodder & Stoughton):
One year after a boy is murdered on the grounds of a Dublin Girls' Boarding School, a photo of him is posted on an anonymous school messageboard with the caption "I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM". A chilling read for anyone who, like me, has been to an all-girls' school - French has the atmosphere down to a tee.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Little, Brown):
The second of JK Rowling's crime novels written under an alias; when an author goes missing having completed a novel featuring poisonous pen portraits of nearly everyone he knows, private detective Cormoran Strike realises that there are plenty of people who wanted the man dead. But in the literary world of high-flying editors and bitter writing rivals, who is really capable of murder?
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber & Faber):
If I had to describe a perfect book for me, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS would tick pretty much all my boxes: messed up family; two sisters and a mother; a deeply sad and moving, yet blackly, wryly funny narrative; evocative landscape setting; and engaging, flawed central characters. I had to deliberately finish the book at home, alone, so I could weep profusely without startling train passengers around me. Miriam Toews is a warm, sensitive and beautiful writer, and I'm going to gobble up everything she's ever written or will write.
The Pocket Bakery by Rose Prince (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)
This is an elegantly published little book, and although it's rare to find a baking book that offers something different, these recipes are both charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly contemporary. I can recommend the Ale and Cheddar Scones, and am next going to try Pistachio and Lime cakes... Yum.
Jane, The Fox, And Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (Walker):
I heard of this book via the excellent children's books radio show Down the Rabbit Hole, and was enchanted by the stunning, delicate illustration. Jane, the Fox and Me is the classic tale of a little girl who doesn't quite fit in anywhere and loses herself in reading Jane Eyre (some might say I saw something of my own childhood angst in here!), and who tentatively finds new friends. It's the loveliest gift, and mixes old and new dilemmas in utterly beguiling style.
The Last of Us – Naughty Dog
Where to start. One of the best works of fiction I’ve ever encountered, not just this year. Emotionally intelligent, horrifying: I was bereft when the credits rolled.
Galveston - Nick Pizzolato
I read this before I’d managed to see TRUE DETECTIVE (which was outstanding: cheesy last line included). Powerful, emotional, human. A fever dream of low-rent, unbearable beauty.
Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer
One of those movies that I just popped on, and was instantly mesmerised by. A haunting, compelling, brave movie. One that sticks in your mind long after you’re done.
NIGHTCRAWLER (wr./dir. Dan Gilroy. Bold Films)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a driven but morally corrupt man seeking work. Through sheer determination and guile, he sets himself up as a freelance news cameraman, racing to the scene of bloody accidents to try and get the first and goriest footage to sell to the newscasters. Helped by a senior news executive (Rene Russo), demand for his work grows, and starts to enter into increasingly questionable tactics to ensure that his footage is the best. A tensely fascinating, chilling and yet darkly comic look at the underbelly of Los Angeles’ news industry through the eyes of a sociopath, this movie plays with all the textbook expectations of movie structure and characterisation to keep you guessing to the end.
FRANK (wr. Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan, dir. Leonard Abrahamson. Runaway Fridge Productions / Element Pictures / Film4 / Indieproduction)
A film inspired by, rather than based on, the life of cult music act Frank Sidebottom. As a northerner, Sidebottom is pretty much worshipped as a god by my people, so I was keen to see this anyway, but the film itself surpassed my expectations. Michael Fassbender shimmers as the ethereal, fragile Frank, his performance evincing bittersweet laughs and heartbreaking sorrow in equal measure. Aspiring small-town musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) joins Frank’s band and gradually begins to try and mould the act to gain the commercial stardom he longs for, but must painfully learn to accept that he isn’t acting in Frank’s best interests. A deeply touching film with an utterly brilliant soundtrack. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very good in this one. My list is quite Gyllenhaal-heavy this year, well done Gyllenhaals!
HONEYMOON (wr. Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak, dir. Leigh Janiak. Fewlas Entertainment)
Rose Leslie, otherwise known as ‘that awesome one from Game of Thones and Utopia’, convincingly plays Bea, the female half of a young American couple on honeymoon in a remote cabin. Harry Treadaway plays her new husband – you may wonder if no American actors were free that year, but both actors’ performances soon let you forget preconceptions of their Britishness, and get on with enjoying the movie. The film opens with a rather lovely recounting of how the couple met, featuring a shared bout of food poisoning resulting in the kind of bond that comes from having nothing left to hide! The closeness and affection between them is palpable, and so when Bea goes missing briefly one night and begins to act strangely when she returns, their blissful newly-minted union quickly turns sour… and bloody. A retelling of rather a classic body-horror form, this film is elevated by the intimate direction, subtly manipulative cinematography and stellar performances.
The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (Penguin):
16 year old Linus is kidnapped, and kept in a bunker with 5 others. Trying to escape, and to cope with the situation, he is forced to confront his life so far, and cope with the situation. Powerful, haunting and devastating, this deserved The Carnegie Medal it won.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Hot Key):
Cadence spends every summer on a private island, her family so rich that money never even enters the equation. Forming a cadre with two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and outsider Gat something terrible happens on her 15th year. As she pieces it together, the rest of her life comes apart.
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder):
Incarcerated in Auschwitz, Shomer lies dreaming of a world in which National Socialism lost the 1934 election, where Hitler fled to London to become, moustacheless, a PI. Forced to work for the Jews he despises, ‘Wolf’, as he is known here, comes to embody the Jewish historical powerlessness in this metafictional interweaving of real and alternate histories.
Pomona by Alistair McDowall (the Orange Tree Theatre)
A sinister, surreal urban thriller, Ali McDowall’s blackly comic play lingered in my mind weeks after first viewing. So I went back and saw it again. Pomona revolves around a young woman Ollie who is searching for her lost sister in a nightmarish version of Manchester. It’s a brilliant example of the type of tension only live performance can create. Special mention also for Ned Bennett’s bravura direction.
Toast of London (Series 2) by Matt Berry and Arthur Matthews (Channel 4)
The second series of Toast was sillier, weirder and, if possible, funnier than the first. The opening episode centred around the Celebrities and Prostitutes Blow Football Tournament, which kind of says it all really. I’m pretty certain Matt Berry is the funniest actor on British television.
The Circle by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, paperback)
The Circle is a prescient and alarming satire about the rise to global domination of Silicon Valley tech giants; it speculates (sometimes terrifyingly) about how far their powers may extend. Dave Eggers is a beautifully subtle writer, and here he uses cool, detached prose to expose the strange dichotomy engendered by our increasing reliance on technology: a desire to connect uncomfortably combined with the feeling of overwhelmed isolation.
I’m not one to make lists for my favourite things in a year. I enjoy the things I watch and read in the moment, not in the context of an, in the end, arbitrary amount of time. Instead, I’d like to share the first works of fiction that come to mind when I think of my favourites at this moment.
The most prominent position on this list absolutely has to belong to Wildbow’s Worm, a web serial novel about superheroes. This one’s quite different. First and foremost, it follows human nature to a far darker place than one would expect, and the author doesn’t hesitate to show the horrific consequences the introduction of superpowers in society would have. Of course, besides that, there’s plenty to enjoy that is traditionally associated with this genre, and the innovative superpowers make the fight scenes an absolute delight to read. Likely to stay at the top of my list for a long time.
Travelling to an entirely different part of the world, Japan, another work of fiction I’ve been following recently is the anime Psycho Pass. Anime, as a medium, is somewhat stigmatised as being ‘for children’, as well, but that ignores the much more mature series that occupy it. Psycho Pass is one of these. It’s set in a future Japan where everything is monitored by a computer system, judging people by their ‘crime coefficient’, as in, their mental stability. If their crime coefficient goes too high, a person becomes a target for the police, even if they have not actually committed a crime. This is the basis for society in Psycho Pass, and the series explores what the effect of such a society would be for the people in it. Certainly not for the faint of heart.
I’d like to end this list with Legend of Korra, another series ostensibly ‘for children’. It’s the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender (which you might remember from the movie, in which case, purge all those memories this instant). The original series already tackled very serious subjects, and was notable for not treating its early teenage target audience like idiots and the sequel continues this trend. The villains in each of the four seasons all embody the extremes of a different ideology, and, for a kids show, it doesn’t pull any punches (season 1 ends with a murder suicide, just so you know what you’re in for). This one’s by far the least dark of my recommendations, however, which says a lot about the previous two.
AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini – beautiful, and utterly heartbreaking.
THE FALL (TV series) – Brilliant. Gillian Anderson is just so compelling.
TED Talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ by novelist Chimamanda Adichie: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story - A must watch.