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Which is to say, those I read in 2008, not those published in 2008.

10. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

“Good night, Dr. Buchbinder. Put in a good word for me with Messiah.”
“Oh,” he says, “there’s no need of that.”
“No need or no point?”
Abruptly, the merry eyes turn as steely as the disc of a dentist’s mirror. They assay Landsman’s condition with the insight of twenty-five years spent searching tirelessly for points of weakness and rot. Just for a moment Landsman doubts the man’s insanity.
“That’s up to you,” Buchbinder says. “Isn’t it?”

Heavy, convoluted and difficult to penetrate – even for Chabon – this book is worth the effort. It’s a dark and depressing investigation into an alternate universe where the Jewish homeland is on a barren Alaskan island, told from the perspective of a weary Yiddish homicide detective as he tries to solve a murder in the two months before the island reverts to U.S. territory. A major theme (aside from the ever-present Judaism) is the feeling of helplessness, of being manipulated by higher powers into an unshakeable destiny. Typical Jewish Chabon, that wacky fellow.

9. Slaughterhouse Five

Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and as to why the victim should laugh.

Told with a simplistic, unemotional weariness, this book is a voyage through time and space, from the snowy battlefields of World War II to the distant alien planet of Tralfamadore. I’ve never been able to connect with Vonnegut’s writing the way other people seem to; it feels like everyone notices some deeper meaning to this book that I simply don’t. Nonetheless, it’s very readable, very compelling and very good.

8. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks and scrub oak cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
“You’re fired,” I told the driver. “Take me back to the pits.”

Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney spend an insane, drug-fuelled week in Vegas, living dangerously and recklessly with that complete disregard for consequences that only fictional characters can achieve. This book is a lot more interesting than that makes it sound; it manages to stay fresh and funny throughout. Paranoid, depraved, surreal, colourful, and deliciously different, Fear And Loathing rightfully earned its place as a classic American novel.

7. Snow Crash

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Walking a fine line between being utterly serious and nonsensically cartoonish, Snow Crash is best read as a simple adventure novel. Set in a balkanised future America where the corporations have carved the land up into self-sufficient, hyper-capitalist enclaves, the novel follows Hiro Protagonist (pizza delivery driver, world’s greatest sword fighter and hacker extraordinaire) and Y.T. (teenage skateboard courier) as they attempt to unravel a conspiracy involving a complex concept of universal language, rooted in the mythology of the Tower of Babel. I lost interest in that little subplot before long, but the major storyline ranks among the very best adventure tales, as Hiro travels from dystopic Los Angeles to an offshore raft city to the entirely virtual world of the online Metaverse in his quest to save the world.

6. The Road

On the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadows on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

Though they may be nameless, the man and the boy at the centre of this novel are some of the most profoundly human characters I have ever read about. Trekking through a post-apocalyptic, ash-choked America, hiding from violent gangs of rapists and murderers, expecting to die any day, the relationship between the two is the single flame of hope that exists in their bleak, grey world. A simple story of love and protection, set in a world that is frighteningly believable.

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.

Written from the point of view of Cristopher Boone, an autistic teenager, who lays his world out to the reader in the matter-of-fact language that is the only method he knows. Yet the novel is regularly peppered by emotional dialogue that juxtaposes the main narrative, revealing the emotional problems Cristopher’s very existence causes for those around him. A tale of human suffering and compassion, which is ultimately quite touching.

4. Neuromancer

The phone nearest him rang. Automatically, he picked it up.
“Yeah?”
Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like the wind.
“Hello, Case.”
A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.
“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”
It was a chip voice.
“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”
He hung up.
On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.

(incidentally, here’s my other choice for a Neuromancer extract)

“That’s real good, motherfucker,” Case said, and shot him in the mouth with the .357.

A watershed moment in science fiction, Neuromancer created an entirely new vision of the future: dark, grim, and pessimistic, overturning the traditional view that the rise of technology would somehow make the human race better. Instead, Gibson casts the reader into lurid neon cityscapes of crime, body modification and drug addiction, where humans of the 22nd century are facing essentially the same problems as today. It’s one of the few novels that can truly be called revolutionary.

Even below this postmodern literary value, the commentary on society and all that academic jazz, Neuromancer is simply an excellent story. It has a very cool anithero, the grungy, unshaven, methamphetamine-addicted hacker Case, who is recruited by an upscale genetleman named Armitage, who is assembling a team to work on the ultimate heist: the theft of the world’s most powerful AI from its orbital mainframe. Case is plucked from the Japanese underworld and travels to Istanbul, Paris, New York and eventually to the orbital cities of the rich and powerful, all the while trying to figure out who Armitage’s mysterious employer is and why they want to free the AI. Thriller, adventure, noirish crime caper… Neuromancer exists in many capacities, and is fully-realised in every one of them. An all-round brilliant book, which is only a hair’s breadth below Life of Pi because there were certain parts of it I didn’t quite understand, which will hopefully be solved with a few re-reads.

3. Life of Pi

“Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”

Martel takes an apparently impossible situation and weaves it together with such deft writing ability that it becomes entirely plausible. A sixteen-year old Indian boy, travelling by ship to Canada with his zookeeper family and a number of animals they intend to sell in the New World following the closure of their zoo, finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a number of exotic creatures following the ship’s demise. The animals make quick work of each other and soon only he and a Bengal tiger remain, left to drift on the blue Pacific for 227 days.

Martel is one of those writers with a gift for creating beautifully evocative visual descriptions, and Pi’s life on the waves – the smell of salt, the fishing line burning his hands, the shape and contours of the tiger’s body – are all beautifully, realistically rendered in words. A wonderful book.

2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU

The fog-shrouded streets of Prague. A golem dressed in man’s clothing. A steamer under the Golden Gate Bridge. The New Jersey ferry docks on a sunny morning. Salvador Dali in a diving bell. Bones on the Atlantic seabed. Brooklyn steam-grates. An airship terminal on the highest floor of the Empire State Building. The abandoned grounds of the World’s Fair. A pyramid of skulls in a deserted military base. A Senate hearing. The loser at Lupe Velez. The stout cord of the ampersand. The crowning literary masterpiece of this decade.

1. Watchmen

“It’s September, 1961. John Kennedy is shaking my hand, asking what it’s like to be a superhero. I tell him he should know and he nods, laughing. Two years later, in Dallas, his head snaps forward and then back…”

It’s impossible to articulate how brilliant this book is. It is the Moby Dick of the graphic novel medium. It can be read as a comic book, a character drama, a moral fable, a cautionary tale, a mystery novel… and it succeeds as all of them. It has so much weight to it, so much heaviness. Moore and Gibbons waste not a single panel or sentence; everything has a purpose. It is a perfect book.

It’s also being adapted into a film by Zack Snyder (of 300 infamy) so make sure you READ IT before it gets retroactively ruined by another superhero movie that has a bunch of sexy actors in sexy clothing running at bad guys and having the scene cut to slow motion as they begin to strike them, then having it cut back to regular motion as the blow lands fuck you snyder you are going to fucking ruin this.

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It’s that time of again – the limbo period between Christmas and New Year’s, where the year is pretty much over but not quite and everyone stands around looking at their watches and coughing loudly to try and hint it out of the room. Eventually it trudges through the doorway with one last forlorn look over the shoulder, and disappears into the mist outside.

Let’s recap what I thought of movies, books and music in 2007. Note that this only includes what I actually saw/heard/read. I’m sure there were far better movies than Transformers, but I didn’t see them, so yeah.

FILMS

10. Superbad
Not nearly as funny as everyone thought (minus the anomaly of Anchorman, most comedy films of this decade are terrible), but still worth watching.

9. Transformers
I was never a fan of the franchise as a kid, so I went into this without the astronomical expectations everyone else seemed to have, and I was pleasantly surprised. Shia LeBeouf is a great leadman with an excellent sense of humour, and the CGI and cinematography was top notch. Even an arrogant left-winger like me had an enormous boner for American military might during most of the battle scenes, although it did get a little too much towards the end (no way we can beat the Decepticons without THE AIR FORCE!)

8. Sunshine
Once you get over the oddly anachronistic basis for the plot (throwing a bomb into the sun in order to “reboot” it, on par with The Core for bad science and not something I expect from British cinema) this is an eerie and haunting psychological thriller, despite losing its way towards the end. It also had the most chilling line of any movie I saw this year, which I now present completely out of context:
Capa: “Trey is dead. There are only four crew members.”
Icarus: “Negative. Five crew members.”
Capa: “Icarus… who is the fifth crew member?”
Icarus: “Unknown.”
Capa: “Where is the fifth crew member?”
Icarus: “In the observation room.”

7. Hot Fuzz
I was going to just upload my .gif of Simon Pegg kicking an old woman in the face, but it’s too big for imageshack, so I’ll leave it at this: pretty good, better than Shaun of the Dead, still suffers from “not funny enough” like most other comedies of this decade.

6. 28 Weeks Later.
The “Aliens” to 28 Days Later’s “Alien”, i.e. it is an awesome action movie sequel to an awesome horror movie. It did lose something in the transition from low-budget to high-budget, but outside of the dubious helicopter-slicing-up-bodies scene, it managed to avoid most of the Hollywood cliches. And the conclusion is excellent. Once you realise the full implications of the final scene (using the concepts established in the first movie), you realise just how superbly chilling it is.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Yes, I know that both Pirates sequels became bloated, swollen monstrosities with no coherent plot whatsoever, but they’re still great fun. After about the fifteenth or sixteenth doublecross, I stopped trying to keep track of the story entirely and just focused on enjoying the glorious Caribbean visuals.

4. Apocalypto
Mel Gibson may be a crazy anti-Semitic son of a bitch, but he sure does make exciting movies. The sudden, unexpected arrival of the Conquistadores at the end capped it off perfectly.

3. The Simpsons Movie.
Oh, if only this had been made ten years ago.

I rewatched it on DVD in November and realised that for the previous four months I’d been judging it as the movie I wanted it to be, not the movie it is. Which is to say, a movie that’s not all that funny. There are maybe ten or twelve really hilarious moments. Any given episode from the mid 90s contains more comedy. But on its own merits, it’s still a great movie, and the plot was truly epic.

Also, to all those people bitching that it was “basically just an extended episode”: Yeah, it was. Was exactly were you expecting?

2. Pan’s Labyrinth
Much like Donnie Darko, my love for this film relies heavily on its terrifying imagery. I’m aware that there are far greater things about this masterpiece of fantasy and reality, but personally, the Pale Man’s brief appearance was the highlight of the film.

1. No Country For Old Men
This is the last movie I saw in 2007 (on the 28th of December, to be precise), and it juuuust edged into first place ahead of Pan’s Labyrinth, the first movie I saw in 2007, creating a satisfying circular motion. Better men than me have extolled its brilliance, from Tommy Lee Jones’ casual opening narration set over a backdrop of cloud-scudded Texan landscapes, to the unusually quiet ending that resulted in everyone in my cinema exiting with their conversations in hushed tones. So I won’t try. Suffice to say that it contains the most suspenseful scenes you will ever see on the screen.

MUSIC

Fuck objectivity.

10. Nude, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
9. House of Cards, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
8. Videotape, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
7. 15 Steps, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
6. Bodysnatchers, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
5. Faust Arp, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
4. Jigsaw Falling Into Place, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
3. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
2. All I Need, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).
1. Reckoner, by Radiohead (In Rainbows).

Honourable mention: Gotye’s album Like Drawing Blood, which came out in 2006 but which I only recently heard. Download a song called “Night Drive”, it’s totally awesome.

BOOKS

10. Bloom, by Wil McCarthy
Science fiction, set in a world where Earth (and the rest of the inner solar system) has been overrun by grey goo and humanity clings to life in the asteroid belt and Jupiter’s moons. A little too realistic and depressing for my liking.

9. Skybreaker, by Kenneth Oppel
An enjoyable but unremarkable young adult swashbuckling airship lark.

8. Between Planets, by Robert Heinlein
My first Heinlein novel, which I enjoyed immensely. I know it’s always been my dream to be a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant on Venus.

7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
She wrapped it up pretty well I guess. Snape being a triple agent was fairly obvious from the Half-Blood Prince, though. And, like every other reader on the planet, I loathed the utterly corny postscript which begged me to invest emotionally in Harry’s cardboard cut-out children (no go).

6. The Ophiuchi Hotline, by John Varley
Another Earthless science fiction jaunt. This time, the human race has been evicted from Earth by a species of almost godlike aliens, who do so for the benefit of the three “intelligent” species on Earth: orcas, dolphins and humpback whales.

5. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars were a little overwhelming for me at times, since I like my science fiction soft, but you have to admire the unimaginably epic scale of them, and Robinson does occassionally manage some beautiful prose.

Michel’s ashes, up in a balloon over the Hellas Sea. They saved a pinch for return to Provence.

After a thousand words and two hundred years, a character’s death can be truly moving.

4. The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Objectively, this is probably better than any book on the list, but I didn’t find it to be particularly noteworthy. I had no idea that Vonnegut’s style was so casually satirical – akin to Pratchett, in fact – and spent most of the book regaining my bearings. At least I got that out of the way; now I can read Slaughterhouse Five knowing what to expect.

3. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer
A very original concept for a book, in which the entirety of humanity, from the earliest cavemen to the point where humanity went extinct (2008, apparently, so get ready) is resurrected along the banks of one enormous river valley. Mountains on either side are impenetrable, and the river goes as deep as anyone has ever been able to swim. People who die are resurrected again somewhere else along the river. The book follows Richard Francis Burton in his travels as he attempts to discover who or what is behind the ressurection. Farmer’s writing style is as vanilla-bland as every other sci-fi writer from the mid-20th century, but the concept is intriguing and I’m excited to read the next book.

2. The Golden Globe, by John Varley
Set loosely in the same “world” as the Ophiuchi Hotline, but Varley’s prose has improved immensely over the decades (this is from ’98; the OH was written in the 70’s.) While the OH had the same dull, dry delivery that all old science fiction seems to share, the Golden Globe is a lively first-person adventure narrated by Sparky Valentine, an optimistic, wisecracking actor-slash-conman making his way from Pluto to Luna to take part in an upcoming production of King Lear. Along the way, Valentine is hunted by an unstoppable agent of a violent crime sydnicate that he crossed, culminating in a superbly executed confrontation in a hotel orbiting Uranus. Highly recommended.

1. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
A re-read, but I first read the series in the ninth grade, and I don’t think I quite appreciated the religious issues discussed the first time around. They’re still a completely awesome fantasy adventure, but they’re also probably the most important agnostic works of our era. Yes, even better than the rantings of Richard Dawkins, who acts as though he personally invented atheism and continues to give the rest of us a reputation for arrogance. Anyway, I’ll probably go catch the Golden Compass soon to see how much of a clusterfuck they made of it.

________________________________________

So overall, there were some damn good movies, Radiohead released a new album and I didn’t read nearly enough books. Perhaps next year I’ll take up the 50 Book Challenge. Scratch that; starting Tuesday, I’m definitely taking up the 50 Book Challenge.

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