Sunday, 21 December 2014


Today is the Winter Solstice, so it is quite fitting that it is time for the annual book review as there’s no better way to spend the longest night of the year than curled up with a stack of wonderful books!

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
To start off the list, I’ll begin with the oldest book that I read this year. Penned sometime in the first decade of the 1600s, this marvellous play still resonates today. Themes of war, familial obligations, breaking (or keeping with) tradition are ever-present in society, and are emphasized as conflicts across the globe cause strife for civilians and the loyalty of participants is tested as beliefs trump national obligations. Coriolanus was one of the last tragedies that Shakespeare wrote before his death, and it is clear that he has come quite far as a writer. Simplistic themes of star-crossed lovers have been replaced by greater societal motifs that revolve around a citizens duty to the populace - a topic that may have been on Shakespeare’s mind since his popularity as the leading playwright of the era demanded fresh performances for royal audiences and the people alike. What struck me most about this play are Shakespeare’s explorations of the various relationships that Caius Martius Coriolanus has with the people around him; he is a loyal son who follows the path that his mother made for him, but he is also driven by the ambitions of his pseudo-father Menenius, yet is also influenced by the domestic obligations to his wife and child. His relationship with Tullus Aufidius is the most fraught throughout the play, and is one that reveals much about the nature of competition and friendship between men. 

Trolls by Brian & Wendy Froud
Part whimsical picture book, part pseudo-scientific textbook, the Froud’s collaborative exploration of the Trolls of the wildwood was a quick pick for this year’s top 5 books. I’ve been a fan of the Froud’s artwork for years (getting my first taste in the macabrĂ© Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book), but Brian Froud hasn’t produced a book this comprehensive in many years. The wait was worth it though, as each page is packed edge to edge with Wendy’s sculptures and Brian’s illustrations, which are carefully balanced with whimsical (but still readable) typefaces to create a wonderful designed book. The layout was often reminiscent of the classic scientific series for children Eyewitness (which explored various topics such as Ancient Egypt or gemstones), which some readers might think detracts from the fragments of “collected troll stories” but which I found absolutely charming and offset the truly fictional portions. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I’ve read a lot of books on World War II, both fiction and non-fiction (and sometimes in-between the two), but nothing is quite like this stunning novel about a young German girl who is orphaned and adopted at the beginning of the war. Unlike most young protagonists in WWII novels, Liesel is not Jewish. She isn’t really much of anything in fact, yet this is what makes her story so intriguing and so unique. Liesel sees her adoptive parents struggle to make ends meet (life isn’t easy for a painter - especially one who has Jewish sympathies), sees them risk everything to hide a young Jewish man as a favour to her stepfather’s deceased friend, and sees their eventual deaths as their city is bombed. What struck me most about this novel is that Liesel is an observer of everything horrific that is going on around her - not always realizing the severity of the situations - but is still able to learn and grow into someone who takes risks for the things that she loves (books - she is definitely my kind of girl) and retains the ability to live a relatively happy life by finding the joy in small things. 

The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J. Tawary & Andrew Robinson
To me, the Beatles are synonymous with art from their creative album artwork to their carefully styled fashion choices, so I was very pleased with the presentation of this graphic novel. It tells the story of Brian Epstein (the manager of the Beatles), but the artist clearly drew on the artistic motifs of the Beatles themselves to depict his fascinating story. Presented in a larger format than in standard for a graphic novel, and published as a book rather than serialized and then collected, this piece of art breaks a lot of boundaries for the graphic novel industry. Relying on the most unified sense of story and art that I have seen in years, this book elevated the story of Epstein - which is actually quite tragic - to a place that is much more accesible. Themes of inspiration, music, adventure, youth, and love abound in an emotional play that is extremely successful. I hope that this collaborative team continues working on Beatles stories and artwork, since they are the perfect fit!

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor

At the outset of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy Taylor paves the way for what could have been just a love story; with the final novel she proves that the story of a reborn chimera girl, Karou, is so much more. Once realizing who and what she is (clearly not human) Karou must face the choice to rejoin her warring chimera brethren and their savage leader or to reject them in favour of her angel lover and the wrongs committed in the past. Her choice is unexpected, even for readers, and the strategic gamble that she enacts is one which finally brings an end to the war between the races. Much more occurs in this novel than can easily be summed up, to the point of Taylor setting up an entirely new series and mythos (please, please, please make it happen!), but she still makes time to reunite Karou and her angel in the final pages, which is sure to please longtime readers of the series. Sometimes we all need to have our cake and eat it too!

*images courtesy of Goodreads

Sunday, 14 December 2014


Is it just me, or are movies getting worse? I swear, last year it was difficult to choose 5 movies that I actually seriously enjoyed, but this year was even more difficult. There were so many highly anticipated films this year that I watched and tolerated, but were nothing even close to spectacular enough to make the short-list, much less the final list. The world screamed with applause for the Lego Movie (that song makes me want to kill someone), Tumblr was inundated with Guardians of the Galaxy posts (besides baby Groot dancing I was not overly impressed), and a plethora of sequels filled the majority of other timeslots (some were enjoyable, but nothing to be super excited about). Thankfully there were a few films that made the grade, some of which came as a surprise to even me!

I went into this movie expecting the worst - I’ve been over Angelina Jolie for ages, the Sleeping Beauty story has never been one of my favourites, and Disney live action is almost never carried off successfully. But as soon as they hit the scene where Maleficent’s wings are taken by her so-called-friend Stefan I was hooked. This feisty fey-woman is not one to be trifled with, and you better believe that some stolen wings aren’t enough to cripple a woman who is part dragon. Clearly I have a fondness for dragons and a good revenge story where the lady gets her revenge, but besides that the story had a lot of other good moments as well. The look on Maleficent’s face when Aurora decides that she is her fairy godmother is priceless, the crow-man was an interesting character foil, and to top it all off the CGI was pretty damned good. Now if only the upcoming remake of Cinderella didn’t look like such drivel…

Tom Hiddleston. Tilda Swinton. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as vampires. Need I say more? Everyone knows that I love a good vampire film, but so often they are a disappointment. I blame Twilight for that. But Only Lovers Left Alive goes back to the classic roots of the genre and explores how people who live forever deal with an ever-changing and ever-degrading world. Driven by Tilda’s and Tom’s representation of a vampire couple who live for their books and their music (respectively) and of course each other we are given a sharp, witty, and macabre social commentary on what happens when humans pollute the world, all wrapped up in an artfully filmed format. 

Considering that I despise every single other film that Wes Anderson has directed/written I was in absolute shock over how much I liked this one! Apparently I’m not the only anti-Wes-Anderson person to be won over by this film, so maybe it’s not so crazy. The cast is still pretty vast, and the plot is still on the ridiculous side, but the setting was beautiful and there were so many amusingly sarcastic moments that it would have been difficult not to get caught up in the film. Maybe it’s because Anderson was working from someone else’s story (it’s based on the writings of Stefan Zweig) that made all the difference, but what I found the most different was getting outside of the character claustrophobia that seems to be present in the rest of his films and what makes them so shallow. Or maybe his hipster-esque pseudo-literary style of storytelling (yeah, I went there, deal with it) can’t be applied to a European setting and is therefore replaced with something that’s actually meaningful. 

A last minute addition to the list comes in the form of the bio-pic about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Like biographical books, bio-pics are totally not my thing, but for some reason YSL is the exception on both fronts, since the Alice Rawsthorn biography made my book top 5 list previously. This film felt very much like Rawsthorn’s book, as it is a pretty open depiction of YSL’s exciting and troubled life and focuses a lot on the relationships he had with the people who were his friends. In particular, the film focused on Pierre BergĂ©, who’s narration and moments outside of YSL-mania really hit an emotional nerve. The film comes off feeling like a lingering post-death love letter to the recently departed Yves, which is surprising as it is not billed as such. It’s just the story of one man’s life, his fame, and his hardships, which each viewer will likely interpret differently. 

Coriolanus (National Theatre Live)

Technically, the Donmar Warehouse’s staging of William Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus isn’t a film, but since I saw it in theatre thanks to National Theatre Live I am counting it as such! I mean, how often do you get to see an original Shakespeare staging in London with world-class actors live? I sure can’t afford the plane fare (yet), but National Theatre Live did an amazing job filming the Donmar Warehouse’s minimalist and traditional staging of one of the lesser known Shakespeare productions, so it was totally worth the slightly exorbitant ticket price. Unlike the recent movie version of Coriolanus (2011), this adaptation kept the setting Roman which made all the difference when it came to the actors. Hiddleston is pushing the age limit of Coriolanus a bit (I picture him as being closer to early/mid 20s than early 30s to explain his political immaturity), but he pulled off the entitlement themes perfectly and was offset well by Hadley Fraser’s Tullus Aufidius. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Musical Interlude

Hey all, it’s been ages since I’ve posted, but it’s December and that means I have to get back to blogging because it is my favourite time of the year: review season!

Last year my top 5 album list was all about EDM, featuring the return of classic Daft Punk and emergence new kid on the scene Avicii, but this year my tastes surprised me. Instead of being all about albums to make you move I was into songs with a message and beautiful melodies this time around, seemingly without much choice, since each of these albums was stuck on repeat pretty much as soon as I heard them. 

When Foster the People first hit the scene with “Pumped up Kicks” I was not impressed; it wasn’t until I heard “Coming of Age” that I thought that there might be something more to this band. With the release of Supermodel I discovered a sound that reminds me of the West Coast, since their songs sound like they should be paired with a road trip and a summer sunset. Critics weren’t so impressed with the album - the pop sound was too dissonant with the social commentary themes - but that’s exactly what I love about it. Like my old favourite American Idiot by Green Day, social criticism pairs perfectly with a sing-a-long. 

For someone who’s pretty jaded about life it came as a surprise to me how much I liked the most positive song of the year - “Happy” off of Pharrell’s latest, GIRL. Maybe it was the clever lyrics again, or possibly the snappy beat, but more likely it’s because I rarely dislike anything that Pharrell creates (I’ve been a fan since his stint in N*E*R*D). It also helps that he has mad style that is glamourous & classic while being absolutely urban (dude rocks a Louis Vuitton hat in the video for "Marilyn Monroe") - much like many of the songs off this album. Classical strings open tracks like “Marilyn Monroe” before sliding into sick beats that are oh-so-dance-able. 

I blame my addition of the Black KeysTurn Blue to the list on my love of USA Network’s very-New-York tv program Suits, since I tend to steer clear of anything deemed to be under the mantle of “hipster.” But I couldn’t resist the gritty bass sound of songs like “Fever” and “It’s up to You Now” so I gave the rest of the album a listen and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Some tracks sound very classic rock n’ roll (“Gotta Get Away”), others are reflective (“In our Prime”), and they’re all perfectly nostalgic. 

The most dance-able album on the list besides Pharrell has to be the latest from the Kooks, Listen. Once again we’re hit with clever lyrics masquerading alongside intricate guitar riffs, sick beats, and dirty bass that screams London in the best way possible. It’s not often that I wait in such anticipation for an album to drop, but after hearing “Around Town” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the entire set of tracks - which proved to meet and exceed my expectations. Many of the songs have familiar sounds (not surprising considering that the Kooks blatantly reference the Beatles, funk bass lines, and the Rolling Stones), but they mash everything together in such a way that tracks like “Forgive & Forget” and “It was London” will have fans of either classic British-invasion band jamming along. 

Last, but not least, is the debut album the Balcony from Catfish and the Bottlemen. I first heard the album singles on BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe’s show, and was very impressed with how mature the band’s sound was considering how new they are. Their content is very relationship-focused in theme - with pointed lyrics that exemplify the highs (“Fuck it if they talk/fuck it if they try and get to us”) and lows (“it’s obvious you don’t try”) - so maybe the album just came along at the right point in my life to hit something emotional, but the sound is still so wonderful that I can’t imagine not loving this album. Hopefully the band keeps up the momentum, since I can really see them being something awesome.