2021 Reading: July update

Back in April, I published an update (Part 1, Part 2) of the books I had read in the first quarter. Compared to the 13 books I finished in the first quarter, I only got through 7 during the past three months. Once again, I managed to incorporate a reasonable mix of non-fiction and fiction, although the genres of fiction were perhaps less varied than in previous months.


I kicked off the 2nd quarter with a wonderful book that combined elements of magic realism with social drama, but thereafter returned with a vengeance to the scifi genre.

Red Island House by Andrea Lee (2021): I loved this novel for multiple reasons. As straight-up entertainment, it was a breezy read, detailing the lives of a wealthy western family that returns year after year to vacation at their palatial beach house in the fictional village of Naratrany in Madagascar. But the novel also works on many other levels. It describes the dynamic that exists between the western neo-colonials and their local employees who cook and clean and maintain the house for its few months of occupancy. The locals benefit from the employment and favourable work conditions, but equally they can’t help but be resentful of the entitled way of life exhibited by these foreigners, many of whom are on a steady downward moral spiral, tempted by the freely available delights of the island and loose interpretation of laws, especially as applied to those who are wealthy or white. Adding further complexity to the dynamic is the fact that the mistress of the house is Shay, an African-American who at the start of the novel, has just married the much older Senna, the Italian businessman who owns the house. On her arrival, Shay has to figure out exactly what position she occupies in the social hierarchy between her husband, the white manager of the estate and the African help. The book is an episodic chronicle of Shay’s relationship with the island, the house, with family, friends, employees and other locals, during her return visits every summer. Through Shay’s eyes, the reader gets a ring-side view of rich tapestry of local life – rivalries, love affairs, politics and crime.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (2017): Jeff VanderMeer came to the widespread attention of scifi fans with his well-received Southern Reach trilogy of novels, all published in 2014. The first of these, Annihilation was adapted by Alex Garland into a critically acclaimed horror/scifi film in 2018 with a high quality ensemble cast including Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson. I tried reading Annihilation soon after it was published, but somehow the writing style didn’t click for me and I had to give it up after the first chapter (I did enjoy the film adaptation, though). When I read a positive review of his latest release Hummingbird Salamander, I decided to give the author another try…this time with his 2017 novel Borne. The novel is set in an indeterminate post-apocalyptic future, on the outskirts of a city destroyed by various examples of biotechnology run amok, particularly a giant flying bear named Mord. Rachel is a young woman living with her ex-scientist boyfriend in a ruined apartment block, who survives by scavenging food and bits of biotech, which her boyfriend studies or experiments on. They are constantly under threat from bands of ravaging bio-transformed children and from Mord which patrols the skies. One day, Rachel finds a tiny sea anemone like creature which she names Borne. She brings Borne back home and cares for it. She soon discovers that it (he) is sentient, with a voracious appetite for knowledge and well…pretty much, everything. The primary focus of the novel is the evolving relationship between Rachel and Borne, which mirrors that of a parent and a precocious child. In due course, the protective roles are reversed, and it is Borne who decides to take on the tyranny of Mord, leading to the mother of all kaiju-type battles. This novel really appealed to me, as much for the worldbuilding as for the entertaining and insightful relationship between Rachel and Borne.

Phase Six by Jim Shepard (2021): Last April, journalist-turned-writer Lawrence Wright published The End of October and earned praise for how closely his portrayal of a global pandemic mirrored what was emerging around the world at that time. It was the first pandemic novel to be released in the Covid era, and a year later we have another one. In fact, Jim Shepard’s novel incorporates Covid-19 into the storyline, taking place “five years after Covid”. A mystery outbreak wipes out a small mining community in Greenland and then spreads globally. A couple of CDC doctors are the heroines of this particular tale as they work against time to understand the cause of the pandemic and find a cure. The only hope is a 11-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of the original outbreak. The story is well-written and fast-paced, but predictable – a cure is eventually found (involving medical science that I didn’t have the energy to understand), but not before many of the characters in the novel succumb to the illness. No doubt there will be more such pandemic thrillers published and in due course once Covid becomes a distant and safe memory, some of these will be adapted into movies or TV shows.

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (2015): British author Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council) published during 2000-04 are among the most imaginative works of speculative fiction I have ever read. His 2011 whodunnit novel Kraken presented the concept of katachronophlogiston, a fire that burns through time (from which I created the name of this blog). Suffice to say, Mr. Miéville’s stories have had a huge impact on me. In spite of that, I have found some of his other novels to be somewhat abstruse, and so I knew when I picked up this short story collection that it could be a hit-or-miss experience. Indeed, it was mostly “miss”, and of the 28 stories, there were just a handful that appealed to me. But those few “hits” really pack a punch, all recounting strange events that occur in the midst of everyday life — oil rigs that walk onto land, corpses whose feet always point towards the observer, a plague which causes moats to appear around people, icebergs floating through the sky above London, a ‘mystery patient’ who starts presenting symptoms of non-existent diseases, a picture frame that corrupts anything placed within it, a woman terrorized by the spirit of Poena cullei (a bizarre medieval punishment…look it up!) and so on. It took me several weeks to work my way through the collection, and as mentioned, for every worthwhile story, I had to suffer through two or three that were just too weird to even understand.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (2021): After the relative disappointment of his sophomore effort Artemis (at least for me), Andy Weir comes storming back with his latest novel, which like his breakout hit The Martian, is another science textbook masquerading as fiction…a feat he pulls off with elegance and wit. Having said that, I must admit there were a few occasions when I wished the story would just state that the protagonist had taken a certain action, without walking the reader through the entire logic or scientific basis of how he had decided to do so. But one soon gets used to this recurring cadence of theory followed by application. The primary narrative takes place with just two characters and in spite of the ubiquitous science, Mr. Weir imbues these characters with plenty of personality, leading the reader to invest heavily in their fates. The end especially, is superbly crafted and left me with a lump in the throat. Highly recommended if you enjoyed The Martian.


The two non-fiction books I picked made for heavy reading, and I had to work my way through them in fits and starts:

Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner (2020): This meticulously researched chronicle of the Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-32 makes for difficult reading. It’s not easy to come to terms with the shocking conditions that slaves were subjected to for decades and the moral turpitude prevalent among the British landowners on the island. The descriptions of the brutal manner in which slaves were punished for even minor infractions (or the mere suspicion of one) over the years, let alone the casual and summary executions conducted after the revolt was put down, make for difficult reading. Besides that, the book is also difficult to get through because Mr. Zoellner regularly incorporates quotations from news reports and other memoirs into his accounts, thereby sacrificing the flow of his own prose. Nevertheless, I would say that this is an essential book for all of us to read, to remind ourselves of humanity’s collective capacity for cruelty and the ability of societies to justify this behaviour in the name of commerce or the preservation of a “way of life”.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes (2020): In addition to the wealth of information that this book provides about Neanderthal life, what I found equally extraordinary was the insight into modern methods of paleolithic study. The patience and exactitude with which researchers comb through Neanderthal sites for the tiniest of artifacts to piece together lifestyles hundreds of centuries ago, is difficult to comprehend. In chapter after chapter, Dr. Sykes reveals to us the different aspects of life of this branch of humanity that lived as hunter-gatherers across most of Europe. She paints a vivid picture of their social units, tool making and hunting methods as well as their attitudes towards concepts such as art and death, which were relatively abstract to the evolving human intellect. I was particularly fascinated by the various systems that emerged among Neanderthal communities to knap stones into tools of varying sizes and functions (and discovered a thriving sub-culture of modern knapping specialists – just google “Neanderthal flint knapping”) and the sheer size of the big game they hunted, using spears to take down deer, elk, horses, wooly rhinos and mammoths. There’s a huge amount of scientific information to get through, so it’s certainly not a book one can read in one or two sittings. The wealth of information presented here paints a picture of a relatively sophisticated branch of humanity, very different to earlier depictions of Neanderthals as dim-witted cavemen.

That brings me to the end of my Q2 update. At the moment, I am reading Mark Harris’ biography of celebrated Hollywood filmmaker Mike Nichols and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer. I attempted to read Arkady Martine’s Hugo Award winning political scifi novel A Memory Called Empire, but after getting a quarter of the way through the book, I just decided it wasn’t worth the effort and it went the same way as C.J. Cherryh’s similarly themed Foreigner that I had failed to get through a few months earlier. Also on my reading list are Niall Williams’ This Is Happiness and Samira Sedira’s People Like Them, as well as Matt Bell’s just released climate-fiction novel Appleseed.

The many faces of the extraordinary, versatile Mads Mikkelsen

The Eon Productions reboot of the Bond franchise in 2006 with Casino Royale was a tremendous hit with audiences and critics alike. The characters were all memorable, not just Daniel Craig’s rugged version of the superspy, but also Jeffrey Wright’s empathetic CIA operative Felix Leiter, Eva Green’s intelligent and enigmatic femme fatale Vesper Lynd, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, the unforgettable villain who uses a platinum-plated inhaler and weeps blood out of a damaged left eye.

This was my first sighting of Mads Mikkelsen, and during the ensuing 15 years, he has emerged as one of my favourite international actors. His high cheekbones, square jawline, distinctive overbite and downturned mouth combine to form a striking visage, which would make it challenging for an actor to disappear into a character. But that’s exactly what he has done, covering the spectrum from heroes to villains, from hyper-confident to vulnerable protagonists, with equal verisimilitude (although one must say, they all seem to embody Mikkelsen’s innate stoicism). Having initially built his career in the Danish independent film scene, he branched out into mainstream American, French and German studio productions, while regularly returning to strong roles in Denmark. The range of genres he has appeared in include crime thrillers, black comedies, family dramas, historical dramas (several), revenge thrillers, a western, a Marvel superhero film, a Star Wars film, a Bond film, a Rihanna music video (Bitch Better Have My Money), besides lending his voice to an animation film, appearing via motion capture in a video game (Death Stranding) and headlining the popular the horror-thriller TV series Hannibal.

Mikkelsen’s body of work has been widely recognized and celebrated. Nominated 12 times as Best Actor and winning thrice at the Danish Academy (Robert) Awards, most recently this year for Another Round. Winner for Best Actor at Cannes in 2012 for The Hunt. Nominated for Best Actor at the Cesar Awards for 2013’s Michael Kohlhaas. Nominated for his first BAFTA award for Another Round.

Having recently watched his debut film Pusher (1996) and his latest two films, Another Round and Riders of Justice, I felt this was a good time to pay tribute to this amazing actor and list out my favourite performances of his 25 year career.

Pusher (1996): This landmark cult film was Mikkelsen’s feature film acting debut and also the first directorial effort of acclaimed filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Mikkelsen plays a supporting role as Tonny, a partner and confidante to drug dealer Frank. With a shaven head bearing the tattoo RESPECT and his hyperactive behaviour, Mikkelsen made an immediate impression, in spite of his limited screen time. The film itself is engrossing, revolving around the increasingly desperate efforts of Frank to stay one step ahead of a fellow gangster looking to recover the money he is owed (not that dissimilar thematically to Uncut Gems). Over the years, the film proved to be such a cultural milestone that Mikkelsen teamed up with the director eight years later to play the lead role in Pusher II.

Mikkelsen as Tonny, alongside lead actor Kim Bodnia in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996)

Open Hearts (2002): This is the first of Mikkelsen’s two collaborations with Danish director Susanne Bier, who herself has gone on to a successful international career with hits like the Netflix thriller Bird Box and acclaimed mini-series The Night Manager and The Undoing. Open Hearts is a Dogme 95 film, filmed according to the “Vow of Chastity” manifesto co-signed by Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier in March 1995, requiring Dogme films to be shot on location using handheld cameras without the use of artificial lighting, props or added music. The Dogme 95 movement lasted only 10 years, producing 30+ films, but it was hugely influential and served as a launchpad for many respected Danish directors. Open Hearts tells an uncomfortably realistic story of the impact a car accident has on the lives of two families (although the ending does feel like a copout). This is perhaps the most down-to-earth on-screen role that Mikkelsen has played, all the more accentuated by the stripped-down filmmaking.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Film, Nominee Best Director

After the Wedding (2006): Mikkelsen’s second film with Susanne Bier is a complex family drama, involving secrets and lies, confessions and reconciliations. Mikkelsen plays the manager of a cash-strapped orphanage in India, who is travels back to Denmark to receive a substantial donation from a mysterious benefactor. On arrival, he discovers that there is an ulterior motive to the donation, as events from his own past catch up with him. It remains one of Bier’s most beloved films till date. Co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen has since gone on to become one of Denmark’s most popular actresses, gaining international fame as Prime Minister Nyborg in the TV series Borgen.

  • Oscars: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Film and Best Screenplay
Mikkelsen as orphanage manager Jacob Pedersen with co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen in Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding (2006)

Casino Royale (2006): This film was Mikkelsen’s international breakout role just as much as it was Daniel Craig’s. The casino scene involving Le Chiffre and Bond is riveting even though I don’t have a clue regarding the rules of the game. I loved the little details, like Mikkelsen shuffling a pair of chips in his right hand while concentrating on the game. Later in the film, the two meet again, this time far removed from the trappings of civilized behaviour, in a primal and brutal torture scene…perhaps the first time that Bond has been so vulnerable on-screen. One of the all-time great Bond films.

Flame & Citron (2008): This historical drama presents a fictionalized version of the efforts of two Danish resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Denmark in World War II. The pair, played by Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen, went by the Danish code names Flammen and Citronen respectively. The film attracted a lot of attention due to the subject matter and questions of historical accuracy, but the quality of the acting, the screenplay, the outstanding production values and the noir-like visual style was never in question. As can be expected in stories of this sort, the characters meet a tragic though heroic end.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Supporting Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Film and Best Screenplay

Valhalla Rising (2009): Mikkelsen and Nicolas Winding Refn’s fourth collaboration is an adventure film set in 1096 AD. Mikkelsen plays a Norse warrior named One-Eye who escapes imprisonment and embarks on a Crusade to the Holy Lands, but instead lands up in a mysterious country. It’s not a conventional action movie, instead employing a stream-of-consciousness narrative giving it the feel of an experimental film, and therefore not a commercial success. It nevertheless fed the art-house reputations of both actor and filmmaker, and is considered an important entry in their resumes.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Screenplay
Mikkelsen as Norse warrior One-Eye in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009)

A Royal Affair (2012): Based on true events, Mikkelsen plays German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who served at the court of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark and had an ill-fated affair with Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander). For a period of time, his relationship with the Queen and his influence over the king gave him unprecedented power. He was appointed Royal Advisor and enacted a number of progressive reforms including the abolition of torture and censorship. But eventually, other power brokers in the court uncovered the royal affair and conspired to have Struensee beheaded. This lavishly produced period film, fired by the on-screen chemistry between Mikkelsen and Vikander, was a hit with critics and served as a launchpad for Alicia Vikander’s international film career.

  • Oscars: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Berlin Film Festival: Nominee Golden Bear
  • César Awards: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Director, Nominee Best Film and Best Screenplay
Alicia Vikander (as Queen Caroline) and Mikkelsen as Royal physician Struensee in Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (2012)

The Hunt (2012): Thomas Vinterberg directs this searing story of Lucas, a divorced school teacher wrongly accused of child molestation, and the resultant havoc this plays on the lives of all concerned. The situation is made even worse by the fact that the child is the daughter of his best friend. Overnight, Lucas loses his job and becomes a pariah in the small community, as he struggles to prove his innocence. Will anyone believe him or stand by him? What would each of us do in a similar situation? This thought-provoking film provides no easy answers. Needless to say, Mikkelsen’s performance as he experiences hurt, confusion, frustration and eventually rage, is outstanding and won him international acclaim.

  • Oscars: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Cannes: Winner Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Palm d’Or
  • Danish Academy Awards: Winner Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Director and Best Screenplay
Mikkelsen as the falsely accused kindergarten teacher Lucas in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (2012)

Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013): Think of this film as the German version of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or Liam Neeson’s Rob Roy. Based on true events from the 16th century, Mikkelsen plays Kohlhaas, a well-off horse dealer whose horses are seized by a local baron, while he’s on his way to market. Not a man to suffer an injustice, Kohlhaas petitions the authorities for compensation and the safe return of his horses. But this only enrages the baron even more and leads to tragic events. Kohlhaas decides to take the law into his own hands and rounds up his loyal followers to launch an attack on the baron and his men, leading to more death and the eventual intervention of authorities. Kohlhaas eventually gets his compensation, but at great personal cost. Although the subject matter is gripping and the locales and cinematography are impressive, film itself is less than the sum of its parts, mainly due to some poor editing in the middle section and wooden acting by some of the supporting cast (including the great Bruno Ganz). Mikkelsen, as always, is outstanding and he looks great to boot (his hair should be officially accorded the status of a special effect!).

  • Cannes: Nominee Palm d’Or
  • César Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen
Mikkelsen plays the title role in Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013), directed by Arnaud des Pallieres

The Salvation (2014): This Danish-produced western is among Mikkelsen’s most conventional films, following the story of revenge that we’ve seen in many Westerns over the years (like Kirk Douglas’ Last Train from Gun Hill). Mikkelsen plays a former Danish soldier who emigrated to the US Midwest in the 1860s, and some years later has a fateful encounter with the brother of a local land baron (played with typical menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). This is a handsomely mounted production, with top-notch cinematography and locales (South Africa filling in for the US). Director Kristian Levring was one of the early signatories to the Dogme 95 school of stripped-down indie filmmaking, and it’s remarkable how expertly he has directed this full-fledged studio-quality film. Mikkelsen’s steely-eyed performance elevates this formulaic film aided by an ensemble cast, including Eva Green and Jonathan Pryce, who are at the top of their game. I found it a very entertaining film, although it sadly had very little marketing support and bombed at the box office.

Mikkelsen as soldier-turned-settler Jon Jensen in The Salvation (2014), directed by Kristian Levring

Doctor Strange (2016): When Marvel announced the Doctor Strange movie, I had actually entertained a fantasy that Mads Mikkelsen would be cast in the lead role, knowing that this was an impossibility. Imagine my pleasant surprise when he was cast instead as the primary antagonist, the rogue wizard Kaecilius. He brought a significant degree of menace and invincibility to the character, making him a fitting adversary for Doctor Strange.

Mikkelsen as rogue wizard Kaecilius in Doctor Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson

Arctic (2018): One of the best survival films of recent years, and shot on location in truly brutal conditions, this Icelandic drama features Mikkelsen as a man whose plane has crashed at a remote spot in the Arctic circle, and must rely on his skills, wits and mental resilience to survive. Virtually dialogue-free, Mikkelsen conveys the stoic desperation of his character, as he fights off polar bears, the weather and bad luck in a desperate attempt to get rescued. An exceptional debut effort by Brazilian musician Joe Penna.

  • Cannes: Nominee Camera d’Or (award for first-time directors)
Mikkelsen as Overgård, in Joe Penna’s survival thriller Arctic (2018)

Another Round (2020): This thought-provoking and bittersweet drama made a big impact at award shows around the world. Mikkelsen plays Martin, a one-time jazz ballet dancer and currently a high school history teacher in Copenhagen, struggling in his marriage and suffering from lack of motivation at work. Likewise, his three long-term teaching colleagues are looking for something to bring the spark back into their lives. One of them mentions a theory of real-life psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who has posited that maintaining a constant Blood Alcohol Content of 0.05 leads to improved creativity and reduced stress. The four men decide to test this hypothesis, initially leading to promising results, before matters start to unravel leading to unfortunate situations and a tragedy. The film is notable for its closing scene in which Martin rolls back the years and launches into an impromptu freeform dance during the high school graduation celebration (leveraging Mikkelsen’s real-life training at the Gothenburg Ballet Academy and the Martha Graham Dance company followed by a career in his 20s as a professional dancer).

  • Oscars: Winner Best International Film, Nominee Best Director
  • César Awards: Winner Best Foreign Film
  • Danish Academy Awards: Winner Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Film, Director and Screenplay
Mikkelsen’s high school teacher Martin rediscovers his mojo in Another Round (2020), directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Riders of Justice (2020): Two months after the release of Another Round, Mikkelsen was back in theatres again in this revenge-thriller featuring elements of black comedy. Mikkelsen plays Markus, a peacekeeping soldier posted in Afghanistan, who returns to Denmark when his wife is killed in a subway accident. When he is presented with evidence by a group of statisticians that the accident was actually a planned murder to eliminate a witness in a case against a motorbike gang named Riders of Justice, he decides to take the law into his own hands. The statisticians use their hacking skills to uncover the movements of the gang leaders, so that Markus can plan an attack to take them out. What follows is a series of comedic situations revolving around the stark personality differences between the nerdy statisticians and the violence-oriented Markus. This improbable storyline is pulled off convincingly by the director and the ensemble cast, leading to a violent climax and a satisfying ending. Intelligent escapism at its best! Director Anders Thomas Jensen previously wrote the screenplay for notable Mikkelsen films like Open Hearts, After the Wedding and The Salvation.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Film, Director and Screenplay
Mikkelsen as Markus with his three partners-in-revenge in Riders of Justice (2020), directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

There are several Mikkelsen films I have yet to watch; the Vincent Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018), in which he has a supporting role as a priest, the award-winning Danish black comedy Men & Chicken (2015), the French period film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009), the Danish breakup drama Prague (2006) and two of his crime films with Nicolas Winding Refn, Pusher II (2004) and Bleeder (1999).

Meanwhile, this versatile and adventurous actor continues to be in demand with Hollywood studios. He will take over the role of Grindelwald from Johnny Depp in the third Fantastic Beasts film and he will appear in the fifth and final Indiana Jones film with Harrison Ford.

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 before 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.