2017 Round-Ups

This year, I made an effort to read more books, after last year’s dismal showing. And I did. But not that many more. Though, for some reason, I also watched far fewer movies than I used to (and missed a couple I’d been intending to watch in cinemas). My video gaming was also curtailed by a long game-less drought that lasted from September of 2017 to this month.

Oh, and the advent of Netflix meant I started watching a lot of TV.

Here are the numbers:

Fiction books read: 31

TV shows watched: 13

Non-fiction books read: 9

Films watched: 11

Video games played: 5

That amounts to 1 book every 9 days, 1 film every 33 days, 1 TV show every 28 days, and 1 video game every 73 days.

Some Highlights

Fiction

Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe (4.5/5 stars): This is not Singaporean fiction. It’s fiction written by a Singaporean writer. There’s a subtle but definite difference. While not perfect, it’s daring, vital and raw, and represents a giant step in the right direction for the local scene.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (4.5/5 stars): An autobiographical account of a childhood and early adulthood spent in an increasingly repressive Iran, Persepolis is precocious, brilliantly funny, yet sobering. A brilliant humanisation of a country and its peoples through the author’s acerbic lens.

Naoko by Keigo Higashino (5/5 stars): A strange and riveting tale of a man whose wife wakes up in their daughter’s body after a bus accident. But Naoko really shines as an intimate portrait of Japanese family life, with a spellbinding, utterly heart-piercing ending that lingers with you for days.

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (4.5/5 stars): Of the three books in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Dark Forest is the best by a country mile, an Asimovian tome brimming with mind-expanding ideas and sf concepts, and chronicling the grand march of time on a civilisational, even cosmic, scale.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (4.5/5 stars): Also probably the best single book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season is an elegantly told narrative triptych that introduces an utterly spellbinding fantasy world while dealing with themes of abuse, exploitation and societal imbalances of power.

Non-Fiction

The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford (4.5/5 stars): A persuasive treatise on why we should care about automation and think boldly about alternative economic and social systems to cope with the oncoming technological onslaught. Apropos reading for the current crop of thinkers and leaders, although the path dependencies of late stage capitalism will probably make these messages unheeded until it’s too late.

Cooked by Michael Pollan (5/5 stars): One of the most inspiring books I read in the year, Cooked describes the myriad forms and processes of cooking through the lens of the four classical elements, and is a clarion call for us to embrace this most human of activities as a means of making our lives fuller, richer, and more fulfilled.

Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford (4.5/5 stars): A light-hearted romp through the many ways and forms of people striving to extend their lives and health. Gifford’s wry and accessible style guides us through science and pseudoscience and in the end tells us that while genes play a large part in determining our lifespans, we can do much to ensure that we maximise the health potential of our own lives.

 

Film

La La Land (4.5/5 stars): Shamelessly self-involved Oscar-bait, but no less of a joy (and heartache) to watch. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can do no wrong in this snazzy Hollywood romance, and the musical numbers are pure gold.

Blade Runner 2049 (5/5 stars): Magisterial, emotive, philosophical, and outright brilliant, Blade Runner 2049 is a more than worthy sequel to the original, and an utter masterpiece in its own right. Also, over the past two years, 4 of the 8 films highlighted on this blog have had one thing in common – Ryan Gosling. The man excels at comedy and drama both.

Thor Ragnarok (4/5 stars): The funniest Marvel movie ever made (except maybe the original Iron Man), and one that utterly transforms the somewhat underperforming Thor franchise into one of the best in the MCU. While straining at the edge of in-universe coherence at some points, the comedic dividends more than make up for that. Makes me excited for Infinity War too. One of the few MCU movies that doesn’t give me that familiar feeling of having seen that many times before.

 

Video Games

Obduction (4.5/5 stars): A rarity of a puzzler that combines Myst-like environmental puzzling with one of the most intriguing and inspired narratives I’ve encountered in games of this type. Obduction will enthrall you with its layers of overlapping mysteries as they slowly unfurl to reveal the truth of things. Above all, the game demands that you pay attention, and not just coast along being prodded by overly-intrusive UI stimuli.

2064: Read Only Memories (4/5 stars): Old-school cyberpunk fare with a progressive, LGBT-friendly flavour. It’s a mishmash of hardboiled detective story with anime sensibilities in a neo-futuristic San Francisco with all the familiar sf tropes that come with the territory. While a little unsubtle in its themes, ROM excels in its storytelling and worldbuilding.

Dishonored 2 (4/5 stars): While the plot is nothing to write home about, Dishonored 2 is a masterclass in making urban exploration fun, and a well-tuned power fantasy that allows you to deploy any number of tricks to fell your enemies. Its lurid, decayed steampunk atmosphere is also unique in gaming.

 

 

 

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2016 Round-Ups

2016 was a sad year for my consumptive ambitions. Various factors (including a far shorter commute for six months of the year) caused me to read far less than I did in 2015 – although, to be fair, that round-up had a bit of 2014 in it too.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I found that I’d only read 4 non-fiction books in the entire year – an egregious lapse in personal improvement.

In everything else, it seems like I kept up the watching and playing to 2015 rates. So much for reading as the mainstay of consumptive self-betterment.

Here are the numbers:

Fiction books read: 26

TV shows watched: 2

Non-fiction books read: 4

Films watched: 25

Video games played: 13

That amounts to 1 book every 12 days, 1 film every 15 days, and 1 video game every 28 days.

Some Highlights

Books

There is no separate fiction and non-fiction section because I didn’t read any sufficiently impactful non-fiction in 2016. Sad but true.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (5/5 stars): For years I ignored the advice of my peers and forwent this impeccable collection of short stories; each a curiously complex array of ideas and characters, unspooling plotwise like a toymaker’s wondrous creation. Well, mass media attention has helped rectify that.

What Ho! by P.G. Wodehouse (5/5 stars): After all that, it’s really about the classics. Wodehouse may write about farcical, trivial shindigs, but he is a consummate master at writing about farcical, trivial shindigs. And his prose is the standard against which the entire canon of British humour should be measured.

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross (4.5/5 stars): The most original of Stross’ Laundry Files novels; this novel opens up a new way for the franchise and introduces a whole host of new characters that break the threatening monotony of Bob-this Bob-that. Although more of that is still welcome.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (4.5/5 stars): A more grounded Murakami, but Murakami nonetheless. His stories are dreams – colourless yet vivid, and flit about just barely beyond the sphere of waking logic – and fade from your mind once over. Yet the memory of what it felt like persists beyond the pages of the book.

Film

The Big Short (4.5/5 stars): An angrily hilarious send-up of an industry that brought the world to its knees – aimed at both the bombastic douche-yuppies and the stolid, relatable short-selling quants, both of whom come out of the affair smelling of something distinctly less nice than roses. Ryan Gosling gets a gold star with his scene-stealing turn as the stir-crazy Jared Vennett, a walking personification of keyed-up Wall Street executive.

Spotlight (4.5/5 stars): Pretty much the opposite of The Big ShortSpotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team and how they uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of horrific cases of child abuse promulgated by their priests. Sober, sensitive cinema of the highest caliber.

The Nice Guys (4.5/5 stars): The most criminally underrated action-comedy film of the year. The Nice Guys is a buddy comedy that combines a whip-smart script with high-octane action in a period package that made me laugh so hard I cried. I still think back fondly on the ankle holster joke, a sterling example of a Chekhov’s Gun set-up for comedic effect.

Your Name (4.5/5 stars): Shinkai in top form. Riddled with plot holes and anime-style narrative curlicues as it is, it still manages to establish itself as one of the most moving, exuberant, and affecting romances in anime history. Also, it’s gorgeous in that celestial, watercolored Shinkai way.

Rogue One (4.5/5 stars): When I’d thought there’d never be another good Star Wars movie, this one comes along and does everything right. While it may be a bit overstuffed with characters and a bit short on their development, it hearkens back to the Star Wars we all know and love – and adds new dimensions to them. Also, the sight of Imperial Star Destroyers facing off with bulbous Mon Calamari star cruisers is pure high-octane nostalgia.

Video Games

Her Story (4/5 stars): A short but taut and innovative game that requires listening and piecing together the pieces of a narrative puzzle in order to “win”. While not fun in the traditional ludic sense, it is still a wonderful case in point of the sheer potential of the medium to create compelling, narratively-driven experiences.

The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna (4/5 stars): Just as great and thought-provoking as the original game, Road to Gehenna brings back the complex but satisfying puzzles, and also brings back the philosophy-laden environmental storytelling that made the original game so much more than just a puzzler.

The Witness (4.5/5 stars): The consummate puzzle game, elegant in how it teaches the player to play it, enigmatic in its entire premise. What does the island mean? What is the player doing there? And why are all the puzzles about connecting dots? The questions matter less than the experience of playing it amidst the verdant, color-splashed environs, almost like a meditative space for the questing mind.

Homeworld Remastered Collection (4/5 stars): Stately and elegiac in its storytelling, this space opera remains a classic of the genre due to the herculean efforts of Gearbox Software in remastering the two games. Dated as its AI and core mechanics might feel at times, commanding huge space fleets and employing RPS tactics to crush your enemies amidst the sweeping epic of a generations-long cosmic saga is the stuff of dreams for space opera fans.

2015 Round-Ups

So here I am. I’ve written a year’s worth of words about every single book, film and video game I’ve read, watched or played over the past year (well, since November 2014).

I started this blog to record my impressions on this trifecta of entertainment options in an attempt to become more mindful of the things I consumed for entertainment. And this quantified consumption, so to speak, has helped me to understand and relate to those products better, by forcing me to articulate in words the things I thought or felt about them.

The process can make me feel like I’m being squeezed through a strainer at times, but it feels rewarding to look back and know that you have, through studious effort, maintained a robust chronicle of your thoughts and impressions. And every time someone tells me that they read a book or watched a film because I wrote about it on my blog, I feel a sense of gratification and achievement that I’ve helped someone discover something new to read, watch or play.

2015: A Retrospective

I’m indulging in a little accounting of my consumptive habits in the past year, just so that I can gain some additional self-awareness.

For various and sundry reasons, I wasn’t able to read or watch as many books and films as I would have liked in 2015, although I do think I might’ve played too many video games. But here are some of the numbers:

Fiction books read: 40

TV shows watched: 3

Non-fiction books read: 13

Films watched: 26

Video games played: 14

That’s 53 books, 26 films, 14 video games and 3 TV shows. Which is about one book every 8 days, one film every two weeks, and one video game a month, if we count from when I started 14 months ago.

I can do better. I need to diversify my reading, of course; more authors, more genres, more non-fiction. I’ve also been meaning to watch more classic films, rather than just recent releases in the cinema. I am quite well-covered for high quality narrative video games, however – it is in that single category that I feel like I’ve truly been able to appreciate the best the medium has to offer. As for TV shows – they’re incidental and I don’t make a habit out of watching them, although I have to say, I used to.

I’ve also been meaning to collate some more meaningful summary statistics in an excel sheet, but that’ll be a task for another day. I’ll update this space when I get around to it.

Top Picks

Here’s some top picks from the past 14 months, in no particular order:

Fiction

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (4.5/5 stars): I came late to this classic that expounds on themes of nostalgia, loss and mortality, amidst the disquieting setting of an alternate history dystopia where clones are reared as potential organ donors. Spare, naturalistic and melancholy.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (4.5/5 stars): An unsettling, acerbically-written psychological thriller that cleverly plays games with our expectations, and contains one of the best twists in the genre. A book about the artifice and artificiality of human relationships.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (4.5/5 stars) A fantasy novel set in an alternate but parallel fantasy version of China. Epic but intimate, beautifully written, and lush with allusions to history and myth, this is a book that reminds me just how much Chinese history has to offer to the realm of storytelling.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (4.5/5 stars) A graphic novel of uncommon range and boundless creativity, it tells a cleverly intertwined parallel narrative – one of Singapore, and one of an aspiring comic book writer named Charlie Chan. Wistful and slightly sly in its subversiveness, this is a must-read for any Singaporean interested in viewing our history through a unique, non-academic lens.

Non-Fiction

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (5/5 stars): A polemic, irreverent and ultimately thought-provoking work that tries to provide a unified framework for thinking about risk management. Enthralled me on an intellectual level even (because) I had so many points of agreement and disagreement with Taleb’s arguments.

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett (5/5 stars): One of the most lucid and entertaining philosophy books I’ve ever read. A bit misleadingly titled because it serves as a vehicle for Dennett’s ideas more than anything else, but excellent reading nevertheless, and a great introduction to theory of mind, phenomenology, cognitive science and complexity, among others.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (5/5 stars): An excellent and engaging book about how the mind works, by one of the most estimable and revered scholars in that field of research. Kahneman’s affability engages the reader and guides them through the theory and the evidence, and draws surprising conclusions and insights from his theoretical models. Full of wisdom and self-help potential.

Film

 

Inside Out (5/5 stars): The best film Pixar has ever made. This film has everything that makes Pixar great: creative premise, wonderful characters, moments of genuine joy and pathos, great music, and a profound wisdom about the workings of the human heart. A must-watch.

Mad Max: Fury Road (4.5/5 stars): Violently kinetic, brimming with atmosphere, and surprisingly progressive despite its simple plot and relatively flat characters. I was surprised at how good this film turned out, despite its present status as a rich source of quotable one-liners.

Birdman (4.5/5 stars): Unabashedly artsy and inward-looking, this film is nevertheless a joy to watch. Technically, it’s a marvel: an entire film shot and edited to seem like it’s one long, continuous take. It’s one of those films that gets people talking, speculating and arguing; an experience that lingers with you long after you’ve left  the theater.

Song of the Sea (4.5/5 stars): Simply one of the most beautiful 2D animated films I’ve ever seen. While made for kids, it has definite appeal for adults as well, in the lush art, the wonderful music, and the pure simplicity of the story as it wends its way through the heart of Gaelic mythology.

Video Games

 

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (5/5 stars): The open-world game to end all open-world games (until Cyberpunk 2077, maybe). The Witcher 3 is gigantic, gorgeous and varied. While the gameplay can get one-note after some time, the narrative more than makes up for it. It’s variegated, fresh, full of fully-formed and sympathetic characters and moral quandaries. The narrative elevates the game into a masterpiece.

Life is Strange (4.5/5 stars): A meditative, emotionally impactful game about growing up, set amidst a lush soundtrack and appealing, sun-dappled visuals. The game is simply a narrative experience unlike any other, managing to get you to care about the lives of its characters like few can.

Undertale (4.5/5 stars): For all its brevity, Undertale packs a complex and affecting storyline that has a powerfully disconcerting message about player morality. No other game except Life is Strange has gotten me to care so deeply for its wacky but compelling characters.

The Talos Principle (4.5/5 stars): A wonderful puzzle game in more ways than one. Beyond the (excellent) puzzles, the game offers an additional layer of narrative puzzles that dares the player to explore, question, and doubt the reality set before them, and reflect on the the themes of existence and faith.