The Dam Busters: The classic WW2 film that inspired the Death Star attack in Star Wars

Late British film director Michael Anderson (1920-2018) is not a household name among film-going audiences, but some of the films he directed certainly are. His 1956 release, Around the World in 80 Days won the Oscar for Best Picture. Earlier the same year, he had directed the first on-screen adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. His 1960 film, All the Fine Young Cannibals was the first on-screen pairing of real-life Hollywood star couple Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood (the film’s title was also the inspiration for the British rock band Fine Young Cannibals). In 1976, he directed the influential sci-fi box office hit Logan’s Run, which led to a TV spin-off and even a short-lived Marvel comic series.  

But before all that, in 1955, Anderson directed The Dam Busters, the extraordinary true story of Operation Chastise, the daring 1943 RAF attack on three German dams feeding the Ruhr valley military factories, using the innovative “bouncing bomb”. I became aware of this film a few months ago, when a friend informed me that the concept of releasing a bomb at a specific point while flying at a specific speed, as depicted in The Dam Busters, formed the basis of the Death Star attack in Star Wars: A New Hope. Additionally, the cinematographer for Star Wars, Gilbert Taylor, was responsible for the special effects photography in The Dam Busters.

This filmmaking footnote was the primary motivation for me to watch this movie, but after finishing it yesterday, I felt that it should be celebrated in its own right as one of the great war movies (it does feature in BFI’s list of the 100 greatest British films of the 20th century). What really appealed to me was its verisimilitude and lack of bombast, something that’s very rare in war/action films. There isn’t a single raised voice throughout the two-hour runtime, nor any jingoistic behaviour on display (and thank goodness, it was made in the days of slow-motion shots of pilots walking towards their machines). This typically British understated tone probably explains why it didn’t do well at the US box office, whereas it was the top performing film in the UK in 1955.

There are two protagonists in this story, scientist Barnes Wallis, who invented the bouncing bomb and Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson, whose specially formed 617 “Dambusters” Squadron destroyed the dams. Barnes Wallis was played by veteran British stage actor Sir Michael Redgrave, the progenitor of the famed Redgrave acting dynasty, which includes his daughters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and his granddaughters Joely Richardson and the late Natasha Richardson (who was married to Liam Neeson). Wing Cmdr. Gibson was played by Irish actor Richard Todd who projects tremendous gravitas and authority while playing a thoughtful, soft-spoken character.

Richard Todd as Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson and Sir Michael Redgrave as inventor Barnes Wallis in The Dam Busters (1955), directed by Michael Anderson

I truly enjoyed the film’s focus on the research and testing of the bouncing bomb, as well as the assembly and training of Squadron 617. Barnes Wallis had to overcome various technical and engineering challenges through patient trial-and-error experimentation, starting with the creation of simple scale models in his backyard, and thereafter using larger models and dummy bombs before the “Upkeep” bouncing bomb was finally greenlit for production. Meanwhile, Wing Cmdr. Gibson’s team had to practice low-level night-flying and find a way to release the bomb at an altitude of just 60 feet and at a specific distance from the dam wall while flying at a specific speed, all while under ground fire. In fact, these aspects of the story form the bulk of the film’s runtime, with the actual bombing run taking up only about 15 minutes towards the end.

What broke my heart was the depiction of the bomber crews’ return to the airbase after the mission. There are no high-fives, no backslapping; the airmen exit their planes, take note of the flak damage on their machines and walk back to the building. Some of them go straight to their rooms and flop into bed exhausted, while others file into the canteen for coffee and an early breakfast…only the crews who go on a mission get bacon and egg on a given day; it’s bread, butter and jam for everyone else. Poignantly, we see the empty chairs and place settings for the crew members of the 8 Lancaster bombers that didn’t make it back. Barnes Wallis is distraught at the loss of life and tells Gibson that he would never have developed this idea, had he realized what the human cost would be. But Gibson assures him that the men would have gone on the mission even if they had known that they wouldn’t make it back. The film ends with Gibson walking towards his office, with the task of writing letters to the families of those 50 men. A sad footnote is that the real Guy Gibson died in action a year and a half later, at the age of 26. He was the most highly decorated British serviceman at the time, having been awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), and having completed 170 missions.

Some years ago, legendary NZ filmmaker and war aficionado Peter Jackson, purchased the rights to remake the film. There hasn’t been much news on this project since his last update two years ago, so it’s unknown if this will still go ahead, given current restrictions on filming with large numbers of cast and crew. If it does, I certainly hope that Jackson will preserve the measured pace and understated tone of the original, while applying all the latest filmmaking and visual effects techniques that he has become so famous for. Meanwhile, I wholeheartedly recommend watching the original, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.

2021 Reading: April update, Part 2

Following on from the first part of my update on books read so far in 2021, let’s move on to the heavy stuff. I am grateful to the blog Reading Under the Olive Tree for the first 2 books in the next group, which I loosely describe as dramas or “people stories”:

  • Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (2020): When a novel is picked up for a movie adaptation, produced by and starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, you know it’s a big deal. This book certainly lived up to the hype and I raced through it in just a couple of days. Set in the indeterminate near future in which several species having become extinct, the novel’s protagonist Franny Stone, a young researcher with a troubled past, is determined to track what may be the last group of Arctic terns on their annual migration flight from the North Pole to the South. Having placed tracking devices on three of the birds, she convinces the captain of a small fishing trawler to allow her on board as a passenger, so that she can follow the birds down the length of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the captain initially agrees to her proposal only because of her reasoning that the terns will lead the trawler to schools of fish, he and his crew are eventually won over by her determination and passion. The epic and tumultuous ocean voyage mirrors Franny Stone’s own emotional journey, one in which she ultimately has to come to a reckoning with the demons of her past.
  • A Door Between Us by Ehsaneh Sadr (2020): This is a highly enjoyable, fast-paced novel that starts off as a family drama but quickly weaves in the Green Movement protests of 2009 into the narrative and becomes an engrossing thriller.
  • Savushun, a.k.a. A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar (1969): I enjoyed A Door Between Us so much, that I quickly started looking for other Iranian novels to read. All the reading lists thrown up by my internet searches included Savushun, one of the most acclaimed modern Persian works, and that’s saying a lot for a culture that has long been famed for the richness and depth of its literature. The book is additionally notable because it is the first ever Persian novel to be written by a woman; Simin Daneshvar was also an accomplished academic – she was chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Tehran during the 70s. Savushun is an engrossing story of a landowning family in Fars Province during the early years of World War II. Seen through the eyes of Zari, a loving mother and wife, the novel charts the fortunes of her family members, while providing commentary about the socio-political dynamics of the region during this tumultuous period. I found Zari to be such a relatable character – she is constantly stressed about the well-being of her family, frequently self-critical of her own ability to protect them from various real and imagined threats, particularly the political and social machinations of relatives, acquaintances and friends. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough, and combined with my reading of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy last year, has created in me a deep appreciation of Middle Eastern/Islamic literature.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979): A January 2021 article in the New York Times, titled The Essential Octavia Butler, kindled my interest in reading a novel by this award-winning author, who I have known of for years, but somehow never got around to reading. I picked the first book recommended by the article and what a good decision that turned out to be. This novel is nearly as searing in its description of slavery as Solomon Northup’s real-life chronicle. Ms. Butler does an outstanding job of exploring the mindset of an African-American woman from the modern day who is mysteriously transported back in time to the Antebellum South, instantaneously losing her liberty and treated as property because of her color.
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018): This novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, but it came onto my radar only because of the well-received 2020 TV adaptation by BBC/Hulu. Ms. Rooney’s prose is very easy to read, but the relationships and situations she writes about are frequently painful to process. How sad that falling in love and maintaining a relationship in modern times has to be so entangled with emotional cruelty to your loved one and yourself…there is so much posturing (should I blame social media?) and perhaps, fear of being manipulated or taken advantage of, that people just don’t have the confidence to reveal their true selves including their fears and weaknesses to others. It’s an amazing book, but so heart-wrenching in its own quiet way, that it has put me off wanting to watch the acclaimed TV series.

It shouldn’t be surprising that after reading all the books listed above, I was very much in the mood for some pure entertainment. And I found it in this crime novel:

  • Death Around the Bend by T.E. Kinsey (2017): A couple of years ago, I read the first of T.E. Kinsey’s Edwardian-era Lady Hardcastle Mysteries, titled A Quiet Life in the Country, which was published in 2014. The lead characters – Lady Emily Hardcastle and her plucky servant/companion Florence Armstrong – are extremely likeable protagonists, with a relationship based on the trust and mutual affection borne out of their past adventures together. The plot was easy to follow and the entire experience enjoyable enough that I found myself with the next book in the series last year when on a break from “heavy” reading. This third entry is equally breezy; set in 1909, Lady Hardcastle is invited to an old friend’s country estate for the weekend and soon enough there’s a car crash and a death, which initially appears accidental but quickly emerges to be the result of sabotage. Like an Agatha Christie “locked room” mystery, the culprit can only be someone from within the group on the estate. Naturally, Lady Hardcastle and Flo are more effective than the local police in solving the murder. Besides the usual wit and light banter that characterize this series, we also get to know a bit more of the backstory and family of Lady Hardcastle. With five more books written so far, I know I can rely on this series as a guilty pleasure whenever I don’t want to tax my brain too much!

That brings me to the end of my Q1 2021 reading update. As I mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, I followed up this blazing start to the year with a frustrating month and a half during which I started and abandoned a few books. One of them was C.J. Cherryh’s 1994 novel Foreigner, the first book in her highly popular series of 21 books, of which the last two were published last year. I’m sorry to say that I had to abandon it about a fifth of the way in, just unable to deal with the neurotic lead character, whose thoughts and paranoia and doubts filled up a significant proportion of the prose. After the amazing experience of reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I tried to get started on her Lilith’s Brood collection by downloading a sample of the first book, Dawn; this too could not hold my attention. I then thought that I surely couldn’t go wrong with John Birmingham, having immensely enjoyed his Axis of Time series (my 2012 review of the trilogy continues to get views to this day), so I started off on Without Warning, the first book in his Disappearance trilogy; I soldiered my way to the one-third point and then just had to admit that I couldn’t get past the cardboard cutout characters and the boring action scenes. I’ve finally settled on 3-4 really good books, so it looks like I will actually have something to write about in three months when I post my Q2 reading update!

2021 Reading: April update, Part 1

I’ve made a good start to 2021, finishing 13 books in two months (…and then I went through the past 7 weeks without completing another one!). The first dozen represent a healthy mix of genres – 4 sci-fi (including a trilogy), 3 non-fiction (including a famous biography), 1 crime novel (part of a series that’s become a guilty pleasure) and 5 dramas. In the first part of this update, I’ll cover off the sci-fi and non-fiction books.

Historically, the sci-fi genre has been dominated by male authors, with R.M. Meluch perhaps the only female sci-fi writer whose work I have read and enjoyed previously. However, in the past few years, there have been many more works published by female sci-fi authors and I’ve read books of Becky Chambers, Jennifer Wells, Cherie Priest, Emma Newman, Sue Burke and Kameron Hurley. I can now add Nancy Kress and Mary Robinette Kowal to that ever-growing list:-

  • The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal (2018): In my year-end book update, I mentioned reading the first novel in the Lady Astronaut series, titled The Calculating Stars, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best sci-fi novel. The sequel, The Fated Sky, starts off in 1961, with Dr. Elma York now a seasoned astronaut, regularly ferrying cargo and passengers to the Lunar base. Meanwhile, there are new challenges to the rapidly accelerating global space program managed by The International Aerospace Coalition; racial politics raises its ugly head (specifically South Africa’s objection to an Asian leading the first mission to Mars) and there are attacks on IAC assets by an extremist organization which believes that governments should be focused on improving conditions on Earth rather than reaching for the stars. Not surprisingly, Dr. York as the popular public face of the space program is in the spotlight, having to chose between her conscience and the realities of work politics…and she doesn’t always make the right decisions. Nevertheless, she now finds herself commanding the inaugural mission to Mars, on board one of three ships that set off in October 1962 on a 320-day voyage to the red planet. The second half of the book deals with the events of this journey, ranging from the mundane (a blocked toilet) to the life threatening (a crew-wide infection resulting from contaminated food). The end of the book sets up the exploration and colonization of Mars. With the novelty of the alternate history of space travel having worn off in this second book, I found it less enjoyable and Dr. York’s character flaws a tad irritating. That probably explains why I haven’t rushed out to read the third book in the series, The Relentless Moon, which was published last year. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it soon.
  • Tomorrow’s Kin (2017), If Tomorrow Comes (2018) and Terran Tomorrow (2018) by Nancy Kress: Collectively referred to as the Yesterday’s Kin trilogy and based off veteran author Kress’ Nebula-award-winning 2014 novella, the first book kicks off as a first-contact novel with a twist – the ‘aliens’ are biologically human (mostly), whose ancestors were taken from Earth centuries ago and settled on another planet. They have now arrived on Earth seeking help from our scientists to avert a catastrophe on their home planet. The three novels chronicle the experiences of biologist Dr. Marianne Jenner over a period of decades, with the plot including family politics, xenophobia, terrorism, interstellar travel, a pandemic, a megalomaniac billionaire and socio-cultural conflict! Collectively, the three books present an epic multi-generational story that I devoured in just 6 days. Highly recommended and currently available on Amazon at an amazing bundled offer of $2.54 for Kindle.

The 3 non-fiction books covered very different topics:

  • First Women by Kate Andersen Brower (2017): The author is a journalist who has created a niche for herself as an expert on the private lives of White House denizens. I had read Ms. Brower’s first publication, The Residence (2015) and found it reasonably interesting, feeding my curiosity about the goings-on in that famous building. This second book, as the title indicates, describes the personalities and experiences of Presidential spouses, starting with Jackie Kennedy through to Michelle Obama. While the book does cover interesting historical ground and provides insightful glimpses into the stressful lives of First Ladies living in the public eye, its narrative structure was not particularly intuitive for me and I struggled to read more than half a chapter at one sitting.
  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853): It was not an easy decision to start reading this book, considering I had already watched the award-winning 2013 film and knew that the subject matter would not be pleasant. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did, because it’s important to keep reminding oneself of this scourge of humanity, one that almost every culture in the world has practiced or condoned at some point of time or the other. One can only marvel at the bravery and fortitude of Mr. Northup in surviving his ordeal and shudder at the thought of the millions of other slaves who weren’t fortunate enough to be liberated.
  • Dirt: Adventures with the Family, in the Kitchens of Lyon, Looking for the Origins of French Cooking by Bill Buford (2020): It took a couple of chapters for me to settle into the author’s somewhat disorganized (to my mind) approach to life, specifically his initial attempts to set up a high-end cooking assignment for himself in France. But what a fascinating journey Bill Buford takes us on in his five years in Lyon…observing, learning and experiencing its gastronomical sub-culture at close quarters. No doubt, Mr. Buford’s time as an editor at The New Yorker and his close association with the leading French chefs of New York opened the doors for him to connect with famed Lyonnaise restaurateurs like Paul Bocuse, Mathieu Viannay and Jean-Paul Lacombe. But ultimately, it is his talent and dedication (and the commitment and support of his wife Jessica Green) that led him to securing kitchen stints at some of the most famous restaurants (and a bakery) in the city. I already had some insight into the brutal and uncompromising world of American kitchens from my reading of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but French restaurants appear to be much harsher. Frankly, it’s impossible to condone the snobbishness, xenophobia, racism and bullying in the kitchens of high-end restaurants, and to justify these in the name of gastronomic excellence. This book has been an eye-opener, and while the descriptions of the food preparation are mouth-watering, it has robbed me of any desire to actually dine at these types of Michelin-star restaurants.

In part 2 of my April reading update, I’ll cover off the 5 really intense social dramas and 1 enjoyable crime novel.

Best recurring shows of 2020

Following on from my post last month covering my favourite new shows of 2020, here are the recurring shows that continued to impress with their later seasons in 2020.

Kim’s Convenience, Season 4 (13 episodes, Netflix): I almost never watch comedy shows although I grew up loving classic UK sitcoms like Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Mind Your Language. By some unexplainable impulse early last year, I clicked on Netflix’s recommendation to watch Kim’s Convenience and was hooked. I started with Season 1 and raced my way through 52 episodes to the end of 2020’s Season 4 in the space of a few weeks. It was the perfect stress reliever in the early days of the pandemic lockdown. Based on creator Ins Choi’s 2011 play of the same name, the show is set in Toronto and features a middle-aged Korean immigrant couple who run the eponymous convenience store and manage a sometimes-thorny, but always well-intentioned relationship with their estranged son and college-going daughter. The show insightfully and compassionately addresses themes of love, familial duty and integrity through the relational dynamics of the family members and their friends. All six regular cast members representing the Kim family – “Appa” (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), “Umma” (Jean Yoon), Janet (Andrea Bang) and Jung (Simu Liu), as well as Jung’s best friend “Kimchee” (Andrew Phung) and his boss, Shannon (Nicole Power) are at the top of their game and hilarious in their own way. Fans of The Mandalorian would have rubbed their eyes in disbelief to see Paul Sun-Hyung Lee pop up in a couple of episodes in Season 2. And Simu Liu will next be seen in the lead role of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings. Season 5 of Kim’s Convenience (which will be its last) has just aired in Canada and I’m looking forward to it arriving on Netflix for international viewers.

(from left to right) Simu Liu, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrea Bang are the Kim family in Kim’s Convenience

The Boys, Season 2 (8 episodes, Amazon Prime): Based on Garth Ennis’ irreverent and violent graphic novel series, this small-screen adaptation by Eric Kripke stays true to its source material and provides a hard-hitting deconstruction of the superhero genre and a scathing commentary on corporate greed. The show portrays a world filled with superheroes, most of whom are employed by the corrupt Vought International conglomerate, which manages (i.e., controls) their public profiles, private lives, assignments and team affiliations, while exploiting their monetary potential through celebrity endorsements, reality shows and movies…imagine an extreme version of Hollywood studios in the 40’s and 50’s. Most of the superheroes are hooked onto the power and influence, willingly cynical and corruptible. A small group of vigilantes, armed only with determination, cunning and a sense of righteousness, take it upon themselves to bring down Vought, specifically targeting their A-list superhero group The Seven, led by the psychopathic Homelander (played by Anthony Starr). The vigilantes themselves carry deep emotional scars resulting from the collateral damage of past actions by Vought and the superheroes. The show grabs the viewer by throat and never lets go, every episode a roller coaster of graphic violence, elements of the blackest comedy, unsettling scenes and shocking plot twists…this is not a show for the squeamish. Season 2 raises the stakes for the vigilantes, particularly team leader Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and team noob Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan), while The Seven’s newest team-member Stormfront (Aya Cash) turns out to be just as much an evil sociopath as Homelander. The season ends with another cliffhanger, revealing a new threat to The Boys. Filming for the third season is scheduled to end in September 2021, so I’m hopeful we will see it on screen by the end of the year.

The Chef Show, Season 2, volume 1 (5 episodes, Netflix): This cooking show is a must-watch for fans of Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef, in which he played a washed-up chef who re-discovers his love for cooking and reconnects with his young son while on a road trip in a refurbished food truck. Favreau’s co-producer and food consultant on that film was Roy Choi, a Korean-American who created Kogi, the highly celebrated fleet of Korean-Mexican gourmet food trucks that operates in Los Angeles. Favreau and Choi teamed up to produce and host this good-natured and highly watchable cooking show that premiered on Netflix in June 2019. Season 1 was split into 3 volumes totaling 20 episodes, and ended in February 2020. Season 2 aired its first volume of 5 episodes in September 2020. Season 1 episodes notably featured Gwyneth Paltrow, Seth Rogen, the cast of The Avengers, director Robert Rodriguez, restaurateur David Chang (who hosts Ugly Delicious on Netflix) and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. In Season 2, the focus shifts to pure-play chefs such as Christina Tosi, Jessica Largey, Chad Robertson & Chris Bianco and Nina Subhas. What’s really enjoyable besides watching the food being cooked and eaten with great relish, is the close camaraderie between Choi and Favreau – master and padawan – with Favreau showing an immense natural ability, especially with food preparation. Also, look out for the eye-popping stop-motion animation used for the show’s intro and to illustrate the ingredients of each dish.

The Mandalorian, Season 2 (8 episodes, Netflix): Speaking of Jon Favreau brings me to The Mandalorian, which headlined the launch of the Disney+ streaming service at the end of 2019. It quickly became popular for the achingly cute little creature nicknamed “The Child” or “Baby Yoda” (his true name was revealed this season). Season 2 continued the adventures of Din Djarin, the permanently masked Mandalorian (played by Narcos and Game of Thrones alum Pedro Pascal) as he seeks to return Baby Yoda to the Jedi community that he was stolen from. Besides the cuteness of Baby Yoda, I love this show because it harks back to the classic TV shows of the 60’s in which the heroes are good and villains are bad, with no irritating types thrown in. Din Djarin is driven by a pure instinct to protect The Child and is assisted by various people with similar good intentions. Guest stars in Season 2 include Timothy Olyphant, Rosario Dawson, Michael Biehn and Katee Sackhoff. The show uses a cutting edge technology called Unreal Engine to create virtual backgrounds on high-res LED screens that are indistinguishable from the real thing, eliminating costly outdoor location shoots. After the disappointments of recent Star Wars feature films, this show is a welcome return to form for the franchise, with hard-core fans getting their kicks every now and then through the appearance of well-known characters from the Star Wars canon.

Westworld, Season 3 (8 episodes, HBO): I missed the boat on this high profile show when it kicked off in 2016, but started watching it last year soon after the third season aired. Produced by Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) and Lisa Joy, it’s an extraordinary achievement with a vast and ambitious narrative scope, employing a talented, high profile cast and cutting edge visual effects. While it’s based loosely on the 1973 scifi thriller written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton, this version has been updated for the AI age and at its heart, questions what it truly means to be a human; some of the androids in the story exhibit greater humanity than the real people who run the theme park. The show really challenged me to keep track of the narrative twists and turns, the time jumps and eventually, even who was human and who was android. I’m thankful that I watched all the episodes in quick succession, otherwise on a regular release timeline, I would have struggled to keep up. Season 3 jumps the shark a bit, and I confess, I lost momentum after the first 2-3 episodes, but I intend to go back and finish it, given it’s highly likely there will be a Season 4 (although that’s not official yet and may take a couple of years to complete).

Yellowstone, Season 3 (10 episodes, Paramount): I wrote about this show when it first came out in 2018 and the stakes just keep getting higher for John Dutton (Kevin Costner) and his family in seasons 2 and 3. Although Kevin Costner is the headline actor on the show, the majority of the screen time is taken up by the next generation of Duttons, the fiercely protective, but emotionally volatile daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), idealistic younger son Kayce (Luke Grimes) and his native American wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille), politically ambitious but spineless older son Jamie (Wes Bentley). Other standout characters include loyal ranch foreman Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser, in the role of a lifetime) and Chief Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), the politically astute leader of the native Americans living on the adjacent reservation. When a family owns the largest contiguous ranch in the US, you know that the plot is always going to be about people wanting to take the land away from them. After facing off challenges from real estate moguls, property developers and white supremacist groups, Season 3 finds the Dutton family up against a ruthless equity firm that wants to buy up a big chunk of the ranch for an airport; it ends with an explosive finale and a cliffhanger to set up Season 4. Meanwhile, I’m excited about the prequel series named Y: 1883 that creator-writer Taylor Sheridan is developing, which will be on the newly launched Paramount+ streaming network some time in 2021.

Call My Agent!, Season 4 (6 episodes, Netflix): This wonderful show can be considered the French equivalent to HBO’s Entourage. It chronicles life at a fictitious talent agency, Agence Samuel Kerr (ASK), in Paris which manages a number of top French movie stars. The storylines focus on the four talent agents, their assistants and the agency’s CEO. A key feature is the appearance in every episode of a well known French star playing herself or himself. The storylines provide plenty of opportunities for high drama, and the talented ensemble cast are equally adept at subtle expressions and over-the-top histrionics. The show is created by Fanny Herrero, with celebrated director Cédric Klapisch playing a key role as co-producer. It’s great fun to see stars playing themselves, sometimes in pretty ridiculous storylines which poke fun at their own quirks and foibles…among my favourites were Cécile de France and Audrey Fleurot in season 1, Fabrice Luchini, Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche in season 2, Jean Dujardin and Monica Bellucci in season 3 and Sigourney Weaver in season 4.

The only recurring show on my wishlist that I haven’t been able to watch yet is the second season of His Dark Materials on HBO; I look forward to catching up with that soon. That about covers it for 2020 in terms of my favourite mini-series, newly launched shows and this latest post on recurring shows. The new year has kicked off on a promising note with second seasons of Snowpiercer (Netflix) and For All Mankind (AppleTV+) respectively. I’m also looking forward to watching the new show Lupin on Netflix.

Best new shows of 2020

Following on from my post last week covering my favourite one-off shows of 2020, here’s a look at new shows launched in 2020 that have either been renewed, or left the door open for a second season.

Lovecraft Country (10 episodes, HBO): Is it a coincidence that the two most viscerally entertaining shows of the past two years combine horror-tinged sci-fi with searing commentaries on the history of racism? HBO’s limited series Watchmen broke new ground in visual storytelling in 2019, and a year later, the channel delivered another reality-bending gut-punch with this adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel. It’s very difficult to describe the plot in a single sentence, but suffice to say the story combines diverse genres – road trip, Lovecraftian horror (shoggoths!), time travel, Korean folk mythology, family drama – and is set during the 1950’s Jim Crow era of racial segregation. Brought to life by 36-year-old showrunner Misha Green and backed by executive producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, it’s the explosive on-screen pairing of Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors, along with the standout supporting cast of Aunjanue Ellis, Wunmi Mosaku, Michael K. Williams and Courtney B. Vance that make this show special. Misha Green’s screenplay provides every member of the cast an opportunity to show off their acting chops, resulting in a number of intense scenes. There is a fair amount of graphic violence and sexual content, and every episode brings a new shocking moment or revelation, but it does take some effort to keep track of the convoluted plot that progressively reveals the connections between the key characters. Although the final episode ends the narrative arc of the novel, Misha Green has indicated she is open to creating more stories in this universe. The 8th episode of the show, Jig-a-bobo, one of the scariest, was directed by Green and she now makes her feature film directing debut on the Tomb Raider sequel starring Alicia Vikander.

from left to right: Courtney B. Vance (as Uncle George), Jonathan Majors (as Tic) and Jurnee Smollett (as Leti) face human and supernatural monsters in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, produced by Misha Green

Raised by Wolves (10 episodes, HBO): Legendary British director Ridley Scott is the executive producer behind this sci-fi show created by Aaron Guzikowski. In the far future, Earth has been laid waste by a terrible war between the religious Mithraic order and pro-science atheists. The atheists send two androids – named Mother and Father – on a spaceship containing several embryos in stasis to a distant planet to start civilization anew. After several difficult years, one child, Campion lives a seemingly peaceful life with his android parents. Their equilibrium is shattered by the arrival of a Mithraic colony ship, bringing to them the very conflict they sought to escape from. As with all Ridley Scott productions, the visual design of the show is stark and stunning; the science is highly advanced but entirely plausible; however none of the characters are particularly appealing (human and android alike), which makes it challenging to truly “enjoy” the show. Having said that, the intriguing storyline and taut pacing led me to virtually binge-watch all 10 episodes over a couple of days. Danish actress Amanda Collin is the star of the series, displaying incredible acting range as Mother, complemented on-screen by Abubakar Salim as Father. Of particular note is the fact that these androids have milky blood, the same as the androids in Ridley Scott’s Alien series of films. My only complaint was with the horrendous mullets sported by the Mithraic…is this really the future of humanity?

Abubaker Salim and Amanda Collin are ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ on planet Kepler-22b in Raised by Wolves, created by Aaron Guzikowski, with Ridley Scott as executive producer

Snowpiercer (10 episodes, TNT/Netflix): The last remnants of humanity – rich and poor, good and bad – are cocooned into a high-tech train, 1000 cars long, that circles the globe every 133 days, speeding through an ultra-frozen wasteland, needing to keep running in order to generate power. This is the premise of Snowpiercer, the TV adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, which was previously brought to the big screen in 2013 by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho. Ruled with an iron fist by the mysterious billionaire Mr. Wilford, the train is a microcosm of the real world, with the passengers segregated by class; the rich ones who paid a fortune for the tickets live up-front in First Class, eating food freshly grown in the agricultural section, waited on by the Hospitality division, and free to go “downtrain” to the Nightcar in Third Class for entertainment and other diversions; the people with specialist skills earn their place on the train by providing the various services (doctors, teachers, engineers) and occupy the middle cars; in the Tail are those who boarded the train without tickets or skills, and are now crammed into a few cars, living in unhygienic conditions and being fed blocks of protein gel while brewing resentment and rebellion. The show is part soap opera and part social commentary, filled with fascinating characters, both noble and repulsive. The first season has head of Hospitality Melanie Cavill (played by Jennifer Connelly) locked in a battle of wits with ‘tailie’ Andre Layton (played by Daveed Diggs), as they jointly try to solve a murder.

Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly face off in Snowpiercer

I watched three other shows that debuted in 2020, but didn’t really spark for me. These included the Steve Carrell comedy Space Force and the mission to Mars drama Away, starring Hilary Swank, both on Netflix. The latter was cancelled at the end of the first season. Also debuting in 2020 on Disney+ was The Right Stuff, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the early days of the US space program, which was made into a critically acclaimed film in 1983. I can never tire of this slice of human history, but somehow the show lacked the gravitas of the source material and tended to drift into daytime soap territory. The season ended with the first set of manned US space flights and if renewed, season 2 would focus on the race to the moon.

2020 was a great year for shows in their second or later seasons, and I hope to cover my favourites in a future post.

Best mini-series of 2020

This recap of my favourite mini-series of 2020 should have come out a month ago, and with January now coming to any end, I figured I better write this before 2020 becomes a distant memory!

For the past few years, the mini-series format has yielded entertainment to rival the quality of the best feature films, in terms of production design, scripts and acting. In fact, with a narrative duration of typically 250-400 minutes, mini-series have room for superior character development and better constructed plots.

My favourites from 2018 were all BBC productions – the true-life dramedy A Very English Scandal, the urban terrorism thriller Bodyguard, the Agatha Christie adaptation Ordeal by Innocence and the John Le Carré spy novel adaptation The Little Drummer Girl.

In 2019, my top mini-series were Chernobyl and Watchmen from HBO, Years and Years which was a joint BBC-HBO production, Giri/Haji from the BBC, and not surprisingly, Netflix entering the mix with Unbelievable and The Spy.

Here are my 5 noteworthy mini-series from 2020:-

Devs (8 episodes, FX): Alex Garland has established himself as one of the most talented creators of “intelligent sci-fi/horror” over the past two decades, scripting or directing acclaimed films such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, Ex Machina and Annihilation. Last year’s sci-fi thriller on FX marks his first foray into an event series. Garland brings back actress Sonoya Mizuno (can’t forget that dance routine with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina) as a young developer working at a secretive tech company who gets sucked into a conspiracy with world-altering consequences. Comedian Nick Offerman is pitch perfect as the billionaire founder-CEO of quantum computing company Amaya, a man whose god complex is fueled by his virtually unlimited access to money and technology. His inner circle includes two other power-obsessed characters, the head of security and head of technology, played superbly by actors Zach Grenier and Allison Pill respectively. The plot becomes quite mind-bending and requires the viewer to pay careful attention (maybe even take notes!). Available on Amazon Prime.

Sonoya Mizuno plays software engineer Lily Chan, working at quantum computing company Amaya,
in Alex Garland’s Devs.

The Plot Against America (6 episodes, HBO): Based on the Philip Roth novel, this alternate history set in the early 1940s, shows what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, the real-life American aviator and national hero had become US President in 1940. Lindbergh was a Nazi symphathizer and in Mr. Roth’s novel, his isolationist, populist policies with undertones of white supremacy (sound familiar?) hold America back from joining the war against Nazi Germany. In fact, Lindbergh’s appeasement of the Nazis means that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor never happens in December 1941. Meanwhile, his new domestic policies including the creation of an Office of American Absorption plays havoc with the lives of American Jews, who increasingly feel alienated and targeted in their own country. All this unfolds through the eyes of a middle class Jewish family living in Jersey City, nearly tearing them apart. The outstanding cast includes Winona Ryder and John Turturro, as well as several other character actors from TV and the stage. This is a slow-burn narrative that uses the events taking place on the national stage as a trigger to explore family dynamics between husband and wife, parents and kids, and siblings young and old.

The Queen’s Gambit (7 episodes, Netflix): Perhaps the best event series of 2020, this show is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel and helped to revitalize global interest in chess with its dramatic portrayals of the many strategies used in the game. Centered on the character of Beth Harmon, the show charts her eventful journey from an orphanage in Kentucky in the 1950s to global fame as a female chess prodigy, culminating in the high stakes Moscow Invitational tournament against Russian world champion Vasily Borgov, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s (the period detail is exceptional). During this time, she battles her own personal demons including substance abuse and PTSD resulting from the circumstances of her mother’s death. Anya Taylor-Joy, who broke through in 2015-16 in the horror-thrillers The Witch and Split, delivers a nuanced performance as Beth Harmon, supported by an eclectic group of young actors who portray the various chess players she encounters, antagonizes and befriends over the years. Special mention also for director Marielle Heller, appearing as Beth’s personable step-mother Alma Wheatley. The show is written and directed by Scott Frank, following on from his outstanding 2017 limited series Western Godless, also produced for Netflix.

The Undoing (6 episodes, HBO): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant are absolutely irresistible in the murder-mystery/legal drama The Undoing, written by David E. Kelley and directed by award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier. Kidman and Grant play the Frasers, a professionally successful, high profile New York couple – she’s a psychologist, he’s an oncologist. Their seemingly perfect lives are upended by the brutal murder of a beautiful young artist, whose son attends the same exclusive school as their young son. The subsequent police investigation reveals an unsettling connection between the Frasers and the murdered woman. Did either of them play a role in the murder and what is it that the couple aren’t telling each other? The show is perfect for binge-watching, as every episode ends on a cliffhanger; it goes slightly off the rails and over-the-top in the final act, but is nevertheless very entertaining.

from left to right, the cast of The Undoing: Hugh Grant as Dr. Jonathan Fraser, Noma Dumezweni as their lawyer, Nicole Kidman as Dr. Grace Fraser, Noah Jupe as their son Henry and Donald Sutherland as Nicole’s father Franklin

Mrs. America (9 episodes, FX): This mini-series provides an unprecedented insider look at the turbulent years of the mid-70s, when the feminist movement became a significant player in American politics, as it battled with male politicians and an unheralded but determined cohort of conservative WASP housewives, over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Each episode focuses on the big names of that time, including Democrat congresswomen Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisolm (the first black candidate to stand for nomination for US President), feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Brenda Feigen, Republican activist Jill Ruckelshaus and of course the star of the show, Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), the wealthy Missouri housewife, whose intelligence, determination and organization skills led to the founding of the “Stop ERA” campaign. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the duo behind Captain Marvel), this is such a relevant story for our times, showing that the more things change, the more they remain the same in terms of women’s and minorities rights. Particularly insightful is Blanchett’s portrayal of Mrs. Schlafly, the anti-feminist who is intelligent enough to recognize the holes in her own logic and the hypocrisy of her stance, but is nevertheless trapped in a narrative of her own making and must see it through at all costs…tragic in so many ways. The show is already picking up a host of acting nominations, and I especially hope it will win the Best Ensemble Performance at the SAG Awards. And how about that choice of Walter Murphy’s disco hit A Fifth of Beethoven for the title sequence!

from left to right, the supporting cast of Mrs. America: Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus, Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Ari Graynor as Brenda Feigen, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Sarah Paulson as fictional composite character Alice Macray and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan

There are two other mini-series on my watch list that I haven’t yet made time for; the coming-of-age drama We Are Who We Are from Luca Guadagnino (the director of Call Me By Your Name) and the British-American psychological thriller The Third Day.

In a future post, I hope to also write about three new recurring shows that kicked off in 2020 – Lovecraft Country, Raised by Wolves and Snowpiercer.

Best Reading of 2020

I have read 28 books in 2020, a mix of non-fiction, graphic novels, science fiction, crime and social drama. Five of these were published this year, while most were published within the past few years and a few are classics several decades old that I’ve only got around to reading now.

The five books from 2020 were all quite good and worth mentioning:

  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi: This is the third and highly satisfying conclusion to the action-packed “The Interdependency” space opera trilogy which I’ve briefly referred to in a post a year ago. In the far future, the human race has built a galaxy-spanning empire called The Interdependency, with faster-than-light travel made possible through a mysterious network of wormholes called The Flow. The various human colonies are sustained by intergalactic trade which is controlled by a number of Houses (not dissimilar to those in Frank Herbert’s Dune series), all under the rule of a benevolent Emperor. When the Flow pathways start collapsing one by one for reasons unknown, it sets off a series of political machinations, as one of the Houses (House Nohamapetan) tries to overthrow the Emperor and monopolize whatever resources it can. Through the first two books, I became highly invested in the lead characters – the recently crowned Emperox Grayland II, Lord Marce Claremont, the son of the scientist who predicted the collapse of the Flow, and Lady Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed but brilliant member of House Lagos, which is loyal to the throne. Together, these three must foil House Nohamapetan and save the empire!
  • The End of October by Lawrence Wright: Widely reviewed when it came out in April, due to the uncanny similarities with the ongoing global Covid pandemic, Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright’s fast-paced global thriller contains many plot points that will seem all too familiar to us today, although Wright started work on the novel well before the pandemic hit. The factual, journalistic writing style is very accessible, and will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed books by Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Netflix or a major studio picked up the rights to the book, although I suspect no one will be in the mood to see something so close to reality for some time yet.
  • Afterland by Lauren Beukes: This is South African writer Lauren Beukes’ fifth novel, and continues her run of speculative fiction, which has previously covered the sub-genres of time-travel, cyberpunk and contemporary magic. Afterland depicts a world three years into a pandemic which has wiped out virtually all men (a very similar premise to the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man). The few remaining human males are kept in government facilities as a precious resource, for experimentation and of course, procreation. The novel focuses on a 12-year-old boy Miles and the desperate efforts of his mother Cole to keep him out of the hands of the US government and gain safe passage to the mother’s native South Africa. The story is primarily written as a road trip/thriller, but Ms. Beukes uses the narrative to shine a light on gender dynamics, specifically the psyche of this preteen boy forced to disguise and behave as a girl, having to get away with the subterfuge while constantly surrounded by women.
  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: This is Ms. Cook’s debut novel (she had previously published a collection of short stories) and was long-listed for the Booker Prize this year. In the near future, nearly all available land has been urbanized and people live in polluted cities. One small community is given permission by the government to participate in an experimental project, living a nomadic life in the last available stretch of wilderness, with strict rules in place to minimize the impact of human habitation on the pristine land. The story chronicles the evolving social dynamics within this community, as experienced by one of the families, comprising a woman Bea, her partner Glen (one of the originators of the project) and her young daughter Agnes. It is a depressingly realistic depiction of how social niceties progressively disintegrate when people are faced with the harsh realities of survival and scarcity. If ever we needed encouragement to preserve our current way of living through sustainable practices, this story should do the trick!
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: I am a big fan of Ms. Clarke’s debut novel from 2004, the dark and extraordinarily inventive, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This year she released her second novel, Piranesi, another work of astonishing creativity and world-building. The novel is named for its title character, and is presented as a series of Piranesi’s diary entries over a period of years, while living in a place called The House. There is only one other person in the House, who Piranesi refers to as the Other. Like peeling the layers off an onion, the narrative slowly reveals who Piranesi is, and how he came to be in the House. I couldn’t say more without giving away it’s extraordinary plot. Unlike Ms. Clarke’s first novel which was a brick at 782 pages, this is a brisk read of only 272 pages. I cannot recommend this novel enough, especially for fans of fantasy/speculative fiction.
Piranesi (2020), a novel by Susanna Clarke

Among the other books I read, the four non-fiction books were all outstanding:

  • The Body by Bill Bryson (2019): I have long been a fan of Bill Bryson’s travelogues and memoirs since I first read A Walk In The Woods in 1998, but hadn’t read anything of his since 2007. The Body is a remarkable guided tour of the human body that is equally informative and entertaining.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015): Originally published in German, this is an insightful book based on Mr. Wohlleben’s observations of trees and forest ecologies, accumulated during his career as a forest ranger/manager. This is a fascinating read for any lover of nature who wants to know more about the synergy that exists among different types of trees and between trees and other living beings in the forest. There’s a strong link between this book and a novel I read this year, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize winning The Overstory (which is an amazing work of fiction, but I haven’t included in this list of my favourite books of the year as it was just a little too abstruse for me).
  • The Seine: The River That Made Paris by Elaine Sciolino (2019): Journalist and author, Elaine Sciolino’s loving ode to the river Seine is a true delight, deftly weaving together information about the history, geography, food and commerce of Paris and other parts of France through which the Seine flows. This fascinating book describes how the Seine has played a role in the evolution of the French people and during the same time, how the people living on its banks have literally changed the course and nature of the river.
  • Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum (2006): In Ms. Sciolino’s book about the Seine, she makes a reference to Parisian chocolatiers and in that context, to Mort Rosenblum’s book on chocolate. Naturally, that became the very next book I read! Although less structured and more subjective than the book on the Seine, it was no less informative and entertaining. Rosenblum takes us back to the history of chocolate as a highly valued ceremonial drink among the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica, to its “discovery” by Europeans in the 16th century and subsequent transformation over the next three centuries to the globally popular confectionery product it is today. He also throws light on the sad plight of many cacao growers in Latin America and West Africa, who earn a pittance in comparison with the prices commanded by the finished product around the world.

And that brings me finally to the notable books of fiction I read this year, but not published in 2020:

  • The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (1956/57): Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and this multi-generational story of an upper middle class Cairene family during the period between the two World Wars is perhaps his best-known work. The first book in particular, Palace Walk, is virtually unputdownable, so fascinating is the story of respected merchant Al-Sayyid Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad and his family who live in central Cairo. Al-Sayyid Ahmad lives two lives; a pious but tyrannical patriarch at home, a beloved companion and voracious lover when out in the evenings with his clique of friends and courtesans. So imposing is Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s character in Palace Walk that the lives of his sons and grandsons pale in comparison in the subsequent books. In particular, I found the long conversational passages involving religion and politics among the youngsters of the al-Jawad family to be quite tedious. Nevertheless, taken together, the books are full of melodrama, humour, irony, pathos and tragedy, providing an unvarnished insight into the cultural, political and religious topography of Cairene society in the early 20th century. An interesting bit of trivia – the books were translated into English only in 1990, and the editor assigned by the publisher Doubleday for the translation was none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013): I’ve written a full review of this book soon after I read it in April this year. There’s no doubt this will remain one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.
  • In The Market for Murder by T.E.Kinsey (2016): This is the second of the Lady Hardcastle Mysteries that I’m reading and I’m certain it won’t be the last. British author Tim Kinsey has so far written seven of these ‘light-hearted’ murder mysteries featuring Lady Emily Hardcastle and her intrepid maid/assistant Florence Armstrong, set in the early 1900’s. Having served the British government in some secretive capacity abroad, Lady Hardcastle rents a cottage in the country and settles down for a quiet life. But her natural intelligence and sense of adventure draw her into helping the local police when a serious crime is committed. I love these “countryside” crime stories, like James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries and Louise Penny’s series of 16 novels involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Enjoying these stories does require some suspension of disbelief as it’s quite difficult to imagine such a high murder rate in these small villages!
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (2018): This novel is the second work of fiction I’ve encountered in the past year which presents an alternate history of the US space program in which women play a much more significant role – the other is the web series For All Mankind on Apple TV+. The premise of Ms. Kowal’s novel is much more extreme – in 1952, a meteorite smashes into the coast off Washington DC resulting in calamitous loss of life, but also triggering an extinction event predicted to take place over the next 50 years, due to the greenhouse effect caused by the vaporization of millions of tons of water. This threat results in a global effort to accelerate the colonization of outer space. After initial resistance, women are grudgingly accepted into the astronaut corps and the novel chronicles the experiences of mathematician and pilot Dr. Elma York as she becomes a “Lady Astronaut”. Dr. York is a very human protagonist, determined, capable and intelligent, but not heroic in the conventional sense. Eventually, circumstances and her own sense of obligation to humanity, cause her to take on increasingly significant roles in the International Aerospace Coalition. Ms. Kowal has written one short story and three novels in the Lady Astronaut series and I’ve already started on the sequel, The Fated Sky.

That concludes a rundown of the best books I’ve read in the past year; there’s something for every interest – space opera, murder mystery, dystopian, alternative history, fantasy, family drama and non-fiction.

Favourite female singers of the decade

I grew up to the music of the 1980’s, and like the millions of kids of my generation, I fell in love with the escapist pop music of that era. Madonna, Whitney Houston and Kate Bush were my favourite female solo artists of that time, who consistently pushed out hit after hit into the pop charts. But there were so many others with hit songs that continue to be signposts of that time, such as Tina Turner, Bonnie Tyler, Laura Branigan, Sheena Easton, Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox. As I moved away from pop in subsequent years and as popular music moved towards R&B and rap, I realize that very little of the music I was listening to was from female artists, with the exception of a few hits from Janet Jackson and Salt-N-Pepa in the 90’s and Nelly Furtado’s first few albums in the early 2000’s. In the past 15 years, popular music has been dominated by amazingly talented female artistes like Beyoncé, Alicia Keyes, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, and I have listened to and enjoyed many of their hit songs (impossible not to), but it’s rarely music that I actively choose or add into my playlists.

Having said that, in the past few years I’ve realized that there are a handful of female artists, particularly in the soul and jazz genres, whose music I keep coming back to often enough that they can be classified as my favourites of the past decade:

Amerie: Born to a Korean mother and African-American father, Amerie has built a career as a singer, actress and model. Two singles from her debut 2002 album All I Have first caught my attention, the lead track Why Don’t We Fall in Love and the follow up Talkin’ To Me. I really liked the groove-infused, easy-listening soul sound of these two songs, although the rest of the album is fairly generic R&B. In spite of the average reviews the album received, the working relationship between the singer and producer Rich Harrison was cemented. Soon after, Amerie released a cover of Diana Ross‘ 1980 hit I’m Coming Out (co-written by the legendary Nile Rodgers) for the Maid in Manhattan movie soundtrack. Amerie and Rich Harrison next collaborated on the album Touch, released in 2005, which had some great up-tempo percussion-driven tracks. The best example is 1 Thing, which samples the drums from the 1970 recording of Oh! Calcutta by The Meters. Other notable songs are the propulsive Talkin’ About and the title track, Touch, with a looping tabla backtrack. Her next album Because I Love It, continued in the same vein with Gotta Work carrying a catchy sample of the classic 60’s soul track, Hold On, I’m Comin‘ by Sam & Dave. The other catchy songs in this album are Hate2Loveu, Take Control (co-written by CeeLo Green and sampling a Hall & Oates song) and the synth-driven Crush. Since 2010, her recording output has slowed down, with some one-off singles and EPs, none of which have really caught my attention.

Sia: The Australian singer-songwriter has emerged as one of my favourite artists of the past 5 years. I first took notice of her music when Never Give Up played while the credits rolled on the award-winning 2016 film Lion. I then realized that the hit 2014 song Chandelier which I liked a lot, was also by her. So I checked out the album it came from, 1000 Forms of Fear, and discovered a couple of great tracks – Big Girls Cry and Elastic Heart. The album I like the most is This is Acting (2016), which includes the dance hit Cheap Thrills, as well as the searing love song One Million Bullets, the playful House of Fire and Footprints. One of my favourite Sia tracks of all time is Sunshine from her 2017 album Everyday is Christmas. While Sia’s music is up-tempo and is popular on the dance floor, the lyrics are frequently dark and full of meaning. In 2019, she teamed up with producer Diplo and rapper Labrinth, to release the album Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD. There are lots of amazing songs on this album – Angel in Your Eyes, Genius (featuring Lil Wayne), Audio, Thunderclouds (amazing music video) and No New Friends (check out the live performance on The Ellen Show). As I listen to these songs, I realize that what I enjoy the most is Sia’s raw and emotional vocalization which reminds me quite a lot of Cyndi Lauper.

Janelle Monáe: I first came across Janelle Monáe at the end of 2016 on account of her double whammy appearances in the critically acclaimed films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. It was only when she released her third album Dirty Computer in 2018 that I started listening to her songs. I was deeply moved by the poignant lyrics on the title track (“I’m not that special, I’m broke inside“) and inspired by her resilience and fighting spirit on the track I Like That (“I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong, I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs, And I like that…“). Other notable songs are Don’t Judge Me and Make Me Feel. As many critics have pointed out, this album is as much a powerful socio-political statement as it is a work of art. In a relatively short period of time, Monáe has become a voice for diversity, both of colour and sexuality. No wonder then, that she was chosen to open the 2020 Oscar awards as a self-aware nod to the criticism the Academy has faced for its lack of diversity. Unlike many black filmmakers and rappers whose creative work focuses on the misfortunes suffered by people of colour, Monáe stands out because her musical output over the past decade has been built around Afrofuturism, the movement that explores the confluence of African culture and state-of-the-art technology. Afrofuturism as a concept has been around since the mid-90’s but it was only with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018 that it received global exposure. Monáe’s first two albums The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013) were both based on her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android inspired by the female robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 experessionist classic Metropolis. In Dirty Computer, Monáe has shed the Cindi Mayweather persona and revealed her true self (she also came out in real life at the time of the album’s release), creating a more introspective and vulnerable body of work. Of the two earlier albums, I prefer The ArchAndroid, which has such a varied sound – the two singles Tightrope (featuring Big Boi) and Cold War are both reminiscent of the Outkast’s 2003 hit Hey Ya; at the other end of the spectrum, the opening verse of Oh, Maker sounds like it could have been sung by Doris Day or Julie Andrews; Wondaland is pure synth-pop, with operatic backing vocals; Make the Bus is a duet with one of my favourite artists, Of Montreal, and very much reflects their musical style; BaBobByeYa has a distinctive bossa nova sound. From the second album, The Electric Lady, the only tracks I’ve really liked so far are the disco-like We Were Rock and Roll and the jazzy duet Dorothy Dandridge Eyes, sung with Esperanza Spalding.

Dirty Computer, 2018 album by Janelle Monáe

Esperanza Spalding: And speaking of the celebrated jazz singer-songwriter, I had heard of her (first jazz artist to win the Grammy for Best New Artist, invited twice by President Obama to perform at the White House), but listened to her music only this year, when Earth to Heaven played on the radio and I used Soundhound to find out who it was. This led me to the album it came from, the 2016 release Emily’s D+Evolution and what a revelation it turned out be! I don’t think I’ve been so entranced by the distinctiveness of an album’s sound since Kate Bush’s 1978 debut The Kick Inside, which in fact Emily’s D+Evolution does strongly remind me of. This is Spalding’s fifth studio release and she decided to explore a different musical style, creating an alter ego, Emily (her middle name) to release her from her past musical baggage. The album has been a major success, receiving widespread critical acclaim, and rightly so. There are many standout tracks; besides Earth to Heaven, I would recommend listening to Good Lava, Unconditional Love, Judas and the surreal Ebony and Ivy, which sounds like it should play on an episode of The Twilight Zone. I’ve recently started listening to her preceding album, Radio Music Society and am enjoying the music just as much, particularly tracks like Radio Song, the beautiful Cinnamon Tree (“We meet just once in a while but the spice in your smile is magic to me“), Black Gold (shades of Beyoncé) and the Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal, City of Roses.

BENEE: This artist jumped out at me from nowhere in the past few weeks, when I heard Supalonely on the radio and was hooked. The 19-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand has been steadily gaining momentum over the past year through two EPs that she released in 2019. The single Supalonely (featuring Gus Dapperton) from the 2nd EP Stella & Steve, gave her international exposure via TikTok. It’s a great song, but my favourites are all from the 1st EP Fire on Marzz, with four of its six songs currently on heavy rotation on my Spotify playlist – Soaked, the super-groovy Glitter, Afterlife and Evil Spider. BENEE has an incredibly soulful voice for someone so young, and the production on the EPs is outstanding, with it’s bass-driven groove and bright guitar sounds, a credit to producers Josh Fountain and Djeisan Suskov (both musicians themselves from the NZ indie music scene). Meanwhile, she also appeared on the latest album from Japanese-Australian musician Joji, with the outstanding, hypnotic and dark duet Afterthought. With all this, I was really looking forward to BENEE’s debut full album Hey U X, which came out on 13th November; on my first run-through, I haven’t come across any songs which have hooked me the first time, so I’ll have to give this another go.

Steve & Stella, 2019 EP by BENEE

As I’m writing this, I’ve been listening to Dua Lipa‘s Grammy-nominated album Future Nostalgia, but it’s too early to tell if she will go on to become a long-term favourite or not. And Swedish soul singer Snoh Aalegra‘s 2019 album Ugh, Those Feels Again has a few songs that I really like, but I just haven’t listened to enough of her music yet to be able to classify her as a favourite artist.

Old favourites release new music in 2020 – Part 2

Following on from Part 1, here’s the second set of new 2020 releases from singers/bands whose songs or albums I’ve previously enjoyed.

My Morning JacketThe Waterfall II (10th Jul): Two of my favourite albums from Part 1 were from one-man-band projects Tame Impala and Of Montreal. My Morning Jacket is another one of those, built around the musical vision of Jim James. This latest release, their eighth, was created from outtakes of their 2015 effort The Waterfall. It contains a number of chilled out, easy listening tracks; very different from the high-energy, strikingly distinctive compositions that I fell in love with on their breakout albums, Z (2005) and Evil Urges (2008). In fact, I was a bit underwhelmed the first time around but after listen to the album a second time, I got into its groove; tracks like Spinning My Wheels, Feel You, Run It and The First Time are perfect for a lazy Sunday morning, with the steel guitar on Feel You absolutely magical, like driving down an empty country road with the wind in your hair. Wasted is the only song on the album that picks up the tempo, with the second half of the 6-minute song featuring some of the heavier guitar grooves that has characterized their earlier work. Overall, this is a lighter entry in their oeuvre, but enjoyable in its own way.

Kansas The Absence of Presence (17th Jul): Although Kansas were considered to be one of the standard bearers of the 70’s prog rock movement, surprisingly all I know about their music is their 1976 mega-hit Carry On Wayward Son. But I figured I’d give their 16th studio album a shot. Founding member and vocalist Steve Walsh retired a few years ago, but two other founding members, guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart (both 70 years old) are still around. The album opens with the epic 8-minute title track, which contains some fantastic musical interludes, anchored by new keyboardist Tom Breslin; very reminiscent of the classic 70’s prog rock sound. And so it continued through the album – Throwing Mountains, Jets Overhead, Animals on the Roof, Never, all mixing a contemporary commercial rock sensibility with some delicious guitar licks and keyboard passages that are a throwback to a bygone rock era. This is definitely an album I’m coming back to, and will most likely lead me to explore more of the band’s back catalogue.

Alanis MorisetteSuch Pretty Forks in the Road (31st Jul): It was only when I watched an interview on CNN a few months ago, that I realized it was the 25th anniversary of Alanis Morisette’s breakout (third) album, Jagged Little Pill. Naturally, much has changed in her life and her music since then and it would be unfair to expect the same angst of that earlier time. In fact, I loved the introspection and inner beauty  that shone through in her 2008 release Flavors of Entanglement. This latest release signals the continued mellowing of Alanis; it breaks no new ground musically and in fact some of the songs are rather awkwardly arranged. Other than the opening track Smiling and the upbeat Sandbox Love, there were no other tracks in this 46-minute collection that held my attention.

Deep PurpleWhoosh! (7th Aug): What a surprise it was to learn that the ageing rockers are still going strong. Their 21st studio album in 52 years was surprisingly good…yes just take a few moments to absorb those numbers. Two songs, We’re All the Same in the Dark and The Long Way Round really dial back the years to the Mark II line-up of the 80’s (Perfect Strangers and The House of Blue Light), the phase that is my personal favourite. Veteran keyboardist Don Airey previously worked with Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne before taking over from founding member Jon Lord in 2002, and is in full flow on Nothing at All. The Power of the Moon showcases some of the eastern rhythms that the band has been so successful at incorporating into their past hits. Man Alive has some intriguing lyrics and is another fantastic song from the album. Of course, ever since Ritchie Blackmore left the group, once can’t expect those catchy guitar riffs that were such an enjoyable feature of their greatest songs, but Ian Gillan’s distinctive vocals continue to provide the anchor of nostalgia and reassurance to their music. Likewise, veteran band members Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums) are still at the top of their game even though they are in their 70’s. Some reviewers gently poked fun at the band for producing an “over the top” album; on the contrary, I think we should be grateful that the band has the hunger, energy and creativity to continue delivering music of this calibre so late in their career. I’ve listened to the album several times now and like a good whisky, it seems to reveal new and surprising notes each time!

The Allman Betts BandBless Your Heart (28th Aug): This is the only band in the list that I’m listening to for the first time. But as it was formed by the sons of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley, three of the founding members of The Allman Brothers Band, I figured it qualified as a previously known artist! And indeed, when that slide guitar kicks in on the opening track Pale Horse Rider, it was a comforting feeling that took me back to my favourite Allman Bros. tracks. But thereafter, the album was a bit of a disappointment. There is a 12-minute long instrumental, Savannah’s Dream which opens with promise and but ultimately feels a bit safe and doesn’t deliver the pyrotechnics that one would expect on a track of this length. And I think that’s a good description for the entire album. In spite of its length (71 minutes), it feels familiar and repetitive, without producing any of the pleasant surprises that one looks for in a memorable album. Magnolia Road is a welcome exception with a great section involving the slide and keyboards, and an overall sound that reminded me of The Allman Brothers’ Florida counterparts Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Sufjan StevensThe Ascension (25th Sep): Ever since Stevens’ seminal Illinois concept album, I have been desperate to fall in love with his subsequent efforts. With the exception of Visions of Gideon, the song that he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name, my wait continues. I think I’m unable to change my expectations and keep looking for the same virtuosity and creativity that shone through on Illinois. In spite of high scores from critics (80 on Metacritic) nothing on this release jumps out as exceptional. It’s the sort of album I could play in the background while reading a book, knowing the music will not distract me, because I’m not really listening to it.

Blitzen TrapperHoly Smokes Future Jokes (25th Sep): The Portland, Oregon indie folk-rock band’s 10th album is a short one by today’s standards, running to just 37 minutes. The title track from their critically acclaimed 2007 album Wild Mountain Nation was on heavy rotation on my iPod once upon a time and I had listened off-and-on to their follow up album Furr from 2008. This new album contains more of their mellow easy-listening folk-rock sound (sometimes also categorized as alternative country). It’s not an album you listen to for catchy guitar hooks or virtuoso instrumental work. Instead a well-integrated package of vocals and soft guitar sounds. The best examples are Bardo’s Light, Don’t Let Me Run and the contemplative Sons and Unwed Mothers. The title track is the sort of free-flowing, easy-listening song you’d play on a long road trip, very reminiscent of Tom Petty. A couple of songs incorporate the saxophone (played by Ben Latimer), which is not an instrument one expects to hear on a folk-rock album, but it works really well.

Bon Jovi2020 (2nd Oct): I haven’t listened to a Bon Jovi album in full since 1992’s Keep The Faith, and the last hit single I can recall is It’s My Life from the 2000 album Crush, so I was curious to see how their sound has changed on their 15th studio album. Jon Bon Jovi sings at a lower register now, lead guitarist Richie Sambora left three albums ago and gone are the rock anthems. Instead, there are a number of quieter, more contemplative songs and these are the ones that worked for me – American Reckoning, Story of Love, Let It Rain and Unbroken.

Blue Öyster CultThe Symbol Remains (9th Oct): This is the veteran band’s 15th studio album, appearing nearly 50 years after their self-titled debut release. Their previous album, released 19 years ago, was received poorly and appeared to be the death knell for the band, so it’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise to see new material from them, especially with some of the tracks sounding as good as the material from their peak years in the 70’s, including Buck Dharma’s distinctive vocal style. I would characterize this as generic hard rock, the sort of music you would really enjoying while sitting in a bar with a drink. The are quite a few good tracks on this hour-long album, including Box in My Head, Edge of the World, Florida Man and Secret Road (with some great guitar solos).

From this set of nine albums, my favourites are the ones by My Morning Jacket, Kansas and Deep Purple. The ones from Ozzy Osbourne, Blitzen Trapper, Bon Jovi and Blue Öyster Cult carry a couple of strong tracks each and are good enough for a casual listen from time to time. This has been a great experience and I’m now looking forward to the November and December releases.

Old favourites release new music in 2020 – Part 1

This post is the outcome of a personal project that started in late August. I was reading the review for Deep Purple’s new album on Pitchfork; as I scrolled through the sites’s easy-to-navigate Reviews page, I was surprised to see new 2020 albums from other familiar names…some that I’ve been a big fan of for years, and some that I’ve listened to only because of a catchy track heard on the radio. And what a luxury to have every one of them immediately available on Spotify, in comparison with the desperate efforts of years past to access new music. So I resolved to listen to each of these new albums in full and that’s been such a joyful experience for the past two months! Here is Part 1 of my reviews of those new 2020 albums in chronological order of release.

Of MontrealUR FUN (17th Jan): Of Montreal is the first of several bands in this list that revolve around one individual’s creative vision and musical mastery. Kevin Barnes, the enfant terrible of angsty indie-pop has found happiness since I last listened to his music on 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. Barnes attributes all that joie de vivre to his relationship with singer Christina Schneider (who now goes by the name Locate S,1). This 40-minute ode to love is packed with several enjoyable tracks including Polyaneurism (playful vocal theatrics overlay a standard dance beat), Get God’s Attention (catchy chorus), Gypsy That Remains (with a melodious riff reminiscent of ABBA), You’ve Had Me Everywhere and Carmillas of Love. My favourite track by this band has been An Eluardian Instance from Skeletal Lamping, but there are so many tracks on this new album that are just as good.

Stone Temple PilotsPerdida (7th Feb): Much has changed for STP since their breakout at the peak of the grunge movement in the early 90s. Two lead singers have died under tragic circumstances (founder Scott Weiland and Limp Bizkit’s Chester Bennington) and musical tastes have changed immeasurably. But the other three founding members – the DeLeo brothers (Dean on guitars and Robert on bass) and drummer Eric Kretz – persevered and hired songwriter/vocalist Jeff Gutt for a return to the recording studio with a self-titled album in 2018. Now they are back with a new release, styled like an MTV Unplugged recording. With my reference point being 1994’s Purple, I felt like I was listening to a completely different band. Once I got past that, I really enjoyed the album, which has standout tracks like Three Wishes, the amazing Perdida, the wistful I Didn’t Know The Time and She’s My Queen with a Jethro Tull-style flute interlude. With all the songs predominantly acoustic, there’s a yearning, introspective, occasionally melancholic feel to the album, that’s not out of place at all for a Sunday evening! The spare arrangements reveal melodic underlying song structures and I can well imagine some of these tracks being rearranged for a full-on rock version in the future.

Tame ImpalaThe Slow Rush (14th Feb): Here’s yet another one-man-band, the brainchild of Kevin Parker from Perth, Australia. I had listened to 2012’s Lonerism, enjoying it for a period of time, but eventually drifted away from their music. And so, I was pleasantly surprised when I started off on this album, their 4th studio release. Overall, there’s a shift in style from psychedelic rock to electronica. A mix of musical influences shows through…the opening track One More Year sounds like the best of Pet Shop Boys; Instant Destiny sounds like it might have been song by Mayer Hawthorne; It Might Be Time has elements of Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers; the first half of Posthumous Forgiveness is psychedelic enough to sound like it could belong to The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute album. Overall, my favourite song is Is it True, which is so catchy I just can’t stop listening to it. (25th Nov update: The album has received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album).

Huey Lewis and the NewsWeather (14th Feb): The band last recorded new material 19 years ago. They started work on a 10th album in 2017, but had to abandon the effort after recording just 7 tracks because Lewis was diagnosed with hearing loss. Eventually, the band decided to release what they had, resulting in this 26 minute album. I have always loved the band’s 50’s rock sound (they were a perfect choice to appear in Back To The Future) and listening to this new release was indeed like going back in a time machine. However, the reality is that most of the songs just aren’t very catchy. The one happy exception is Remind Me Why I Love You Again, which definitely brings back the magic of their old hits.

Ozzy OsbourneOrdinary Man (21st Feb): It’s amazing to see a rocker who started his career in the 60’s continue to churn out material half a century later. Mr. Osbourne has played it safe with his 12th album, it follows his tried and trusted sound from the past 40 years as a solo artist; in particular he’s mastered the art of composing rock ballads (like So Tired from 1983 and Mama, I’m Coming Home from 1991) and anthemic slow rock songs. There are a bunch of songs from the new album which fall into this category – All My Life, Goodbye and Ordinary Man. What is commendable are the collaborations on the album – the title track has guest vocals (and piano) from Elton John, with Slash on guitar; on It’s a Raid and Take What You Want, Ozzy shares singing duties with Post Malone, one of the more innovative artists in contemporary music; rapper Travis Scott also guests on Take What You Want; pop singer Charlie Puth plays keyboards on Straight to Hell; Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine plays guitar on Scary Little Green Men; Chad Smith, the drummer from Red Hot Chilli Peppers handles the percussion on all the tracks. Overall, not as great as his first few solo albums from the early 80’s , but not bad either.

Pearl JamGigaton (27th Mar): This is Pearl Jam’s 11th studio album and my benchmark remains their debut release from 1991, Ten. The album is a mixed bag. There are songs like Never Destination which sound a lot like Pearl Jam songs from the 90’s, which I never really cared for. There is some interesting experimentation on Dance of The Clairvoyants, with electronic beats and vocals that sound like Talking Heads! But the best songs for me are when the band dials down the noise and Eddie Vedder’s vocals take centre stage; songs like Alright, Seven O’Clock, Buckle Up and Comes Then Goes and Retrograde. Overall, it’s definitely worth a listen, although I’m not fawning over it like most critics are.

Bob DylanRough and Rowdy Ways (19th Jun): Perhaps the most iconic folk rock singer of all time, Bob Dylan’s 39th album (his first came out in 1962) can be described as introspective, which is not unexpected for a man approaching 80. The highlight of the album is Murder Most Foul, a reference to the JFK assassination, which manages to incorporate dozens of references to American pop culture from the years following the assassination into a 17-minute-long hypnotic, melancholic version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. Another standout track is the bluesy Goodbye Jimmy Reed, an homage to the blues icon who influenced everyone from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley to The Rolling Stones. Overall, the experience was less like listening to a rock album and more like an hour’s worth of recitations with a poet; he is still an extraordinary wordsmith.

Khruangbin Mordechai (26th Jun): This band is my most recent discovery, having come across their music for the first time only a year ago. I loved their unique blend of Lo-fi dubstep, eastern rhythms and bassist Laura Lee’s ethereal vocals (although most tracks are predominantly instrumental). Their debut release was in 2015 and Mordechai is their third album. It’s their most consistent effort, and I enjoyed it from start to end. The opening track First Class brings back a flood of good memories from the previous albums, while the next song Time (You and I) introduces some funk and 70’s groove, followed by full-on eastern rhythms in Connaissais de Face. Father Bird Mother Bird, Pelota and So We Won’t Forget are the three signature tracks of the album…they are so good, I sometimes feel like I only want to listen to these songs for the rest of my life. Khruangbin (meaning airplane in Thai) is one of the most unique-sounding bands to have emerged in the past few years and I can’t recommend them highly enough for anyone who has enjoyed world music.

HAIM Women in Music III (26th Jun): HAIM’s debut in 2013 was a high profile affair, with critics and listeners alike wowed by their throwback musical style, invoking memories of Fleetwood Mac. Now the three sisters Estee, Danielle and Alana have their third album out, in which they have solidified their sound while continuing to channel some much-loved musical styles. For example, I’ve Been Down definitely made me think of Sheryl Crow and Man From the Magazine could easily have been sung by Joni Mitchell. Overall, the album is really good and pulled me back for several rounds of repeat listening. In addition to the above tracks, Los Angeles and Gasoline had me hooked the first time around. I’m pretty sure this is a band I’ll be listening to for years to come.

Of these nine albums, there are five (from Of Montreal, Stone Temple Pilots, Tame Impala, Khruangbin and HAIM) that I really enjoyed and am already returning to regularly to re-listen to. Tune in for another nine albums in Part 2.