A Few More of My Favourite Things

“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.”

David Mitchell

It’s New Year. Again. (How can it be New Year already?) Which means that it’s time for a round-up post, this year for the first time featuring The English Student’s Reading Stats. Because I have become obsessed with spreadsheets.

Anyway, first things first.

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2014

(As always, these are all things reviewed in 2014, not necessarily published or released in 2014.)

  • TV: Sherlock: His Last Vow. The only piece of television this year to have turned me into a reviewerly ball of incoherency. Gods I love Sherlock.
  • Film: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. A teensy-weensy bit of a cheat, since this film isn’t new to me; but, come on. It’s Tolkien filmed just the way it should be. And it is perfect.
  • Book: House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I read this all the way back in January, and though I have read excellent books since then, none of them has quite measured up to the daring horror of House of Leaves, its deeply intellectual creepiness and its compulsive dark.
  • Misc: Good Omens. The radio adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s darkly funny apocalypse novel was delightful and respectful and All Good Things.

The English Student’s Reading Stats

(Hooray! Spreadsheets!)

  • In 2014 I read 71 books – 11 more than last year.
  • The longest was Fanny Burney’s Camilla, at 956 pages; the shortest was Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown, at just 23. Overall, I’ve read 28,105 pages.
  • My average rating this year for books was 3.5/5 – either it’s been a particularly good year or I am generous with star ratings. I don’t know because I didn’t have a spreadsheet last year.
  • The oldest book I’ve read – that is, the one that was first published longest ago – was Malory’s Complete Works, from 1485. The average age of the books I’ve read this year is surprisingly old – 70 years.
  • Genre: I’ve read 28 fantasy novels (39%) and 11 science fiction (15%). The rest of it falls into poetry, drama, non-fiction and a number of blurred categories like “contemporary” and “literary”.
  • I’ve read 4 middle-grade books this year (5%), 22 YA (31%), and 44 adult (62%).
  • I bought about half of the books I read this year.
  • The most common reason for my reading a book was for university.
  • 18 of the books I read this year were re-reads – that’s just under 25%, which is ridiculous. I reviewed 58 books – 82% – on this blog. (This is depressingly low, numerically and percentagely. I Must Try Harder next year.)
  • Just 22 (31%) of the books I read this year were by women – although six of them appeared in my top ten favourite books of 2014. This proves, obviously, that women are better at writing books.

So, goals for next year: re-read less; read more books by women; review more books; and, obviously, read more books. And if I can do all that, then pigs will fly.

Happy 2015, Constant Reader!

Good Omens: Eps 4-6

“There never was an apple that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into from eating it.”

Good Omens

To recap: the first half of the BBC4 radio adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s apocalypse comedy Good Omens was solidly good, if not soaringly excellent. The second half improves markedly on those solid foundations, which is perhaps unsurprising, since it’s roughly the same point in the book at which Armageddon steps up a gear. While Newton Pulsifer of the Witchfinder Army heads to Lower Tadfield to investigate its strange weather patterns (they have normal weather for the time of year there – which is the kind of slanty genius that makes this book so brilliant), Aziraphale and Crowley have Discussions with their respective angelic and demonic line managers, and Adam the Antichrist starts making Weird Stuff happen in his neighbourhood.

Oh, and in a related subplot, the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse are a-riding in…

Firstly: CROWLEY. Crowley is just perfect. I mean, he was perfect in the first half, but he’s even more perfect (perfecter?) here. I don’t believe there is anything else to be said about him.

The other voices are also good. Charlotte Richie (of Siblings and Fresh Meat) is an interesting choice for Anathema, but, bar a few disorienting BBC3 flashbacks, it works, surprisingly enough. There’s a matter-of-fact capability to her voice that’s well-suited to the practical witch, though, incidentally, I was disturbed by the producers’ choice to make Anathema a nuclear power sceptic. Book-Anathema isn’t stupid or superstitious, and nuclear scepticism is both of these things. The Four Horsemen, too, are well-cast, which is something of a relief, because it’s so easy for an adaptor unsympathetic to the fairytale rhythms of Pratchett’s work to ruin his more allegorical characters.

It’s where the book runs into its most action-heavy sequences towards the end, though, that the adaptation collapses a little. A non-fan audience might be forgiven for thinking these the weakest sections of the story; a little anti-climactic, perhaps, which is almost inevitable given the medium. Spectacle is important for the coming of Metatron and Beelzebub, and for the stand-off between the Them and the Horsepersons, and it’s the one thing radio can’t deliver.

I was pleased, though, that despite the lack of a narrator the producers did find a way of including Good Omens‘ lovely epilogue: “If you want to imagine the future…” There’s something deeply, imagistically satisfying about that ending, with its Yeatsian echoes (“slouching hopefully towards Tadfield”); it’s an optimistically humanist conclusion to a story which is, ultimately, about humanity, about being able to accept humanity over divinity. It’s a sign of director Dirk Maggs’ respect for his source material, I think, allowing Good Omens to be more than a comic tale of inept angels and social awkwardness: it’s allowed, in the BBC’s hands, to be a meaningful story in its own right. That respect is accorded to too few Pratchett adaptations.

Good Omens: Eps 1-3

“Hell may have all the best composers, but heaven has all the best choreographers.”

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


Finally, the long-awaited adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good OmensĀ  has come to Radio 4. At 11pm, for reasons best known to the BBC. I can only surmise that someone is trying to hide all the blasphemy deep down in the broadcasting schedule. Or something.

There’ve been three half-hour episodes (out of six) so far, so I’m reviewing all three of them together, because, to be quite frank, I can’t remember where one ends and the next begins. For those unfamiliar with the original, it’s a humorous tale of Armageddon, in which the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale team up to prevent the Biblical end of the world.

It’s good. Actually rather good, if not measuring up to the greatness of the original. In most cases the voices are spot on: Peter Serafinowicz as demon Crowley is perfect, though Mark Heap as Aziraphale can occasionally be a little too…genial, I think is the word I want. Ideally, the angel should be sharper and more sarcastic.

I also think the programme would work better with a narrator as well as the various character voices – much of the genius of Pratchett and Gaiman’s amusing little asides is that they are, well, asides, things we all think but don’t quite know how to voice. But that’s a minor niggle, really, which probably springs from knowing the book too well. While not perfect – and, let’s face it, few adaptations are – Good Omens is at least mildly enjoyable, and thankfully not too much tampered with.

Oh, and there’s a nice little cameo by the authors in the first episode, too.

I won’t be reviewing tomorrow, for obvious reasons, so have a very happy Christmas, one and all!


“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

So I actually won this audiobook in a Booklikes giveaway, because free books. It’s not at all the kind of thing I’d usually read (horror is scary and doesn’t let you sleep at night), but free books. Always jump at the chance for free books.

As it turned out, there was a very good reason Crawl was being given away for free. It’s a “novelette” (because novellas are so last year, apparently) about a woman named Juliet who’s being driven to her mother’s house by her unfaithful husband when they’re involved in a car accident which winds up being very weird indeed.

The main problem with Crawl is that it almost feels like a story of two parts. The first 25% or so is carefully-built, if a little cliched, backstory tracing the breakdown of a marriage. But then that painstaking character development is kind of forgotten in a mire of random creepy stuff including priests dressed in red and scary rustlings in the woods. It’s almost as if Lorn started writing one of those awful “family saga” novels you see in WHSmith, then got bored and decided to do horror instead.

Even after it’s settled comfortably into horror territory the story is sketchy and underexplained. What is the creepy thing in the woods? What does the red priest want? These questions are never answered, and it feels like a lot of the story is missing. The ending, too, is inconclusive: it’s clearly meant to shock, and leave you with that creepy, cliffhanger-y feeling you get from good episodes of The Twilight Zone, but really it’s just one of those “Huh?” moments that leaves you wondering what the point of all this was.

It’s not even that scary. Admittedly, I was internet-surfing at the time, and therefore not paying the utmost attention, but I am very easily creeped out. To me, Crawl was more bizarre than scary.

Oh, and Maria Hunter’s reading was just awful: melodramatic and breathy and downright annoying. At one point, Juliet thinks that “She sounded like a horror movie cliche”, and the thing is, she’s not wrong. In that sense, Hunter was the perfect reader for this book, which, like the worst horror movies, offered horror for the sake of horror, darkness for the sake of darkness, without any actual coherent story. That’s Crawl in a nutshell: a cliche. It’s possible that horror aficionados might enjoy it more. But, for me, it was a miss.

(Free, though. So it’s not all bad.)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

Douglas Adams

I’ve been listening to Douglas Adams’ criminally underrated novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency on Youtube for the last couple of days, mainly because my recent encounter with Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith left me with a desire to become reacquainted with the irrepressible con artist Dirk Gently and I didn’t have a hard copy with me.

It’s such a weird story that it’s hard to summarise in a way that doesn’t sound completely awful, but I’ll try. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an establishment which works on the principle of the fundamental interconnectivity of all things, is usually frequented by old ladies who have lost their cats and couples going through messy divorces. Dirk is not entirely happy about this state of affairs, but at least it gives him an excuse to eat pizza and be facetious on the phone all day. One day, however, a computing mogul is murdered horribly, an old friend of Dirk’s is seen climbing into a third-floor apartment, and an eccentric old Cambridge professor pulls off a magic trick which is, from the point of view of the Magic Circle, completely impossible. And solving this mystery will take us back to the beginning of life itself.

(All things considered, I think that’s a pretty good description.)

So listening to Adams (literally – Douglas Adams himself was reading) is quite a different experience to simply reading his words on the page. For a start, you don’t have to concentrate so hard during the boring bits (and there are some boring bits here, it’s true); for another thing, all the jokes are just so much funnier. I’m not sure why, but I do know that I frequently laughed out loud to myself, incidentally causing those around me to doubt my sanity even more than they did already.

Another thing which surprised me: Dirk himself doesn’t actually appear in the story until a good half-way through, which is, in my opinion, a major failing, because Dirk is, after all, the star of this story (nobody reads it for Richard Macduff, who’s described as a praying mantis who doesn’t pray). There will never be enough Dirk Gently in the world.

This is an ambitious story, actually, one that’s much more science-fictiony than it looks initially, and one which is full of Adams’ quite humanistic views on life and art and maths. Admittedly, it’s a little didactic: there’s a whole magazine article about maths and music which feels a little gratuitous and makes me think that Richard is basically a stand-in for Adams himself. But, as with Leave It To Psmith, the occasional plot inconsistencies and mistakes pale in comparison with the sheer gleeful humour of the book.

Plus, Dirk Gently.

The Cat in the Hat and Other Stories

“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”

Dr. Seuss

Well, I did warn you. As Serena said last night on Holby City (why, oh why, do I know these things?), I am scraping the bottom of a very deep barrel.

It’s not the story. Everyone loves The Cat in the Hat, it is simply a fact of the world. (I hear they have even managed to make a film out of it, though how this has been achieved I can’t imagine, since the book is all of ten pages long. Perhaps they got Peter Jackson to adapt it.) A cat wearing a hat rocks up at a random house and does silly things to entertain the bored children living there. No-one knows why. It is just what happens.

Well, Adrian Edmonson’s reading of The Cat in the Hat (this is, of course, an audiobook) is quite good: it really encapsulates that childhood nostalgia, the sheer fun of the nonsense-poem. It’s the “Other Stories” part that annoys me, really. Fox in Socks is literally just a list of random words, and Green Eggs and Ham is little better, although it does have a nice message about trying things before you say you hate them. There’s also The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, which is not as good as the original (possibly because I can’t see the illustrations). I don’t know, perhaps if I was five years old I’d enjoy this more. As it is, it’s really only the nostalgia of The Cat in the Hat that appeals to me here.

Doctor Who: The Feast of the Drowned

“Don’t trust the voices in your head.”

Stephen Cole

Today we’re going for another audible trip in the TARDIS (although, to tell the truth, there’s very little of the TARDIS in The Feast of the Drowned) as the Doctor and Rose return to London and find something fishy (pun fully intended) going on in the Thames. The ghosts of those who apparently drowned on the HMS Ascendant are appearing to their loved ones, imploring them to rescue them “before the Feast”. Of course, the Doctor being the Doctor, he soon gets involved – but is he going out of his depth? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

It’s clear even from the recording that Stephen Cole really gets the Doctor, and why his myth works so well. His descriptions of the Doctor’s facial expressions, and his desperate glory in seemingly hopeless situations, are spot-on, as are those funny little off-hand remarks that David Tennant (who, incidentally, reads this particular audiobook) does so well. The story is interesting and makes a fair amount of logical sense, and for some inexplicable reason persistently reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife (I think this is probably because of the Doctor’s random wanderings around a science building). Tennant’s reading is excellent – he’s especially good at differentiating the characters’ voices – although his impression of an Asian woman always makes me laugh. But, generally, The Feast of the Drowned is a good way to tide over the Doctor Who-free months (here’s hoping the 50th anniversary episode lives up to its promise!).

James and the Giant Peach

“”My dear young fellow,” the Old-Green-Grasshopper said gently, “there are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.””

Roald Dahl

In a shocking turn of events, I have been listening to more audiobooks, and I happened to come across a dramatised recording of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.

Now, I remember having the video of James and the Giant Peach when I was small, and I could never watch it because it scared me half to death. There was something about the combination of evil aunts, giant bugs (what is it with talking spiders and children’s books?) and random cloud-people flinging hailstones that, unsurprisingly, terrified me.

In case you hadn’t guessed from the title, James and the Giant Peach is about orphaned James Trotter who goes for a ride in a giant peach with some giant bugs.

Because that sounds like the kind of story an impressionable five-year-old would want to hear.

My conclusion is that this is a very weird book. “But it’s Roald Dahl,” people say, “of course it’s going to be weird.” To which I say, no, this is weird even for Roald Dahl. My argument, admittedly, rests mainly on the giant bugs. Which, by the way, apparently like a bit of a sing-song every now and again, not very tunefully according to this, ahem, interesting recording. Oh, and Dahl seems altogether too gleeful about the destruction of evil aunts Spiker and Sponge. Yes, I know they’re evil, but being squashed by a peach seems a bit too gruesome even for them. (And thank you for the sound effects, by the way, Mr Record Producer.)

I just read that last sentence back and have come to the inevitable conclusion. Roald Dahl was clearly high when he wrote this. But then, so was Coleridge. So that’s all right then.

Doctor Who: The Stone Rose

“Time is, to put it in its most impressive and some might say poncy-sounding form, my domain. I can see things that once happened, even if they haven’t happened any more.”

Jacqueline Rayner

It’s TARDIS…Wednesday? Because that’s a thing?

Well, here we are, anyway, with another audiobook, a Doctor Who one this time. The Stone Rose, featuring (and read by) David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, is set in Ancient Rome – always fun – where something odd is going on. A boy goes missing, a sculptor appears to have the ability to create statues overnight, and there’s a girl who claims to be able to tell the future…very accurately, as it happens.

I was thinking while I listened to this (always a dangerous occupation) that the Doctor Who novels are quite different to the stories that appear onscreen. Oh, the Doctor gets himself into the usual scrapes, and he’s just as funny on audio as he is on television (although this may be partly aided by the fact that it’s the actual Doctor reading), but, I think, the writers of the novels have a lot more scope, both in terms of length and in what is feasible budget-wise. Basically, writers can do anything: lions and tigers and bears in the Colosseum? Sure. Scaly creatures with duck beaks? Why not? Gods drinking blood? But of course. Whereas in any one forty-five minute episode you can probably only have one out of three, if any. The Stone Rose seems therefore a lot more busy than any of the onscreen adventures: there’s a chance for development, for tension-building, for the solving of mysteries. It’s a nice experience, I think, a different kind of Who.

Of course, all of this might be so much rubbish, but this is what happens when I listen to audiobooks. The Stone Rose is worth listening to just for the theme tune at the beginning. (I miss Ten’s theme tune. Eleven’s is just boring.)

Charlotte’s Web

“People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.”

E.B. White

Yes, all right, this was another of those freebie audiobooks you get in the Sunday newspapers sometimes. But it is quite soothing having someone wittering away in the background when you’re doing the housework.

Charlotte’s Web, when you actually listen to the wittering, turns out to be a well-loved children’s story about a pig called Wilbur who makes friends with a spider. Said spider (the Charlotte of the title) makes a cunning plan to save Wilbur from the pot, and everyone learns some valuable lessons along the way.

The story is charming enough. Well, come on, it’s a tale about talking animals, there’s very little that can go wrong. (Unless you really hate spiders, of course.) But E.B. White’s reading (it’s read by the author) is not exactly brilliant. As a general rule, authors don’t usually do well reading their own work. Look at T.S. Eliot, or Tennyson. They sound dry as dust. White’s reading is perhaps not as mind-numbingly dull as the poets’, but it’s exactly what you might expect from someone reading a children’s story: uninflected and slightly unconvincing. Verbs like “screamed” and “yelled” begin to lose their force when the speech they’re supposed to be describing sounds merely mildly annoyed.

On that note, I wasn’t convinced by the general reaction of the humans to Charlotte’s plan. The word “miracle” is flung around a lot, and not one person, apparently, thought it might be a trick. I mean, yes, people are gullible, but not that gullible, in my experience.

But that’s not really the point of the story, so I won’t go on about it. Charlotte’s Web is a pretty story, and a simple one, perfect, really, for soothing background wittering.