It’s taken a while to get to this. A while hoping that I would be able to get my thoughts in order to offer a structured incisive analysis but hey, who am I kidding? The events of last week just adds on to some of these similarly disquieting events over the past few months and all I have to offer are pop culture references and some bad jokes. If the post sounds even more incoherent and rambling than usual, we blame it all on Thanos

 

The detached sense is really from being an outsider. Not my country, not my problem right? But then, is that really true. The look on Obama’s face as he addressed the country the next day was the one that will truly stand out. A decent man looking at a shattered legacy. A man looking at his country that had let him down. Obama’s term has been marked by his powerlessness at times with opposition for the sake of opposition and he now foresees the corpse of his vision and achievement trampled under the gilded feet of a country and society that instead of looking to the future wants to relive the past

 

obama-trump

When it truly begins to sink in…..

 

But I really think the greater sense of sadness is how the vision of a world that is interconnected, global, open, tolerant and all the good things that we read about in books just seems to belong right there. Between Brexit and this election, one thing that clearly comes out is we are increasingly set for a world that is going to be inward looking to a greater extent. Isolationalism is pretty much going to be the core message and with elections due next year in Germany and France where the inward looking parties now emboldened by the success of bluster, rhetoric, half-truths and outright lies, can afford to dream of similar such results.

 

Of course, what everyone really failed to consider is the feelings of those people who voted for Brexit and Trump. These are people who have seen their way of life not improving much or even being bypassed by the nature of things around them and even worse, finding themselves being ridiculed and ignored. Their cause being driven by anger, their votes being their weapons, their voice has been found and it’s proven to be deafening

 

The importance of tech and growing automation is going to make this scenario repeat globally. Low skill jobs are vanishing, there is no stopping progress. To correct what I said, the value of low skill jobs is going down. There will always be someone to do it at a lower cost than what the job is actually worth but to that person, even that lower cost represents something more valuable when they have very little until technology reduces that cost even further. What however is undeniable is, people have to evolve and get more skilled. How does that work unless you get trained or study further. But college education is expensive, the debts are crippling and it’s hard. Why would anyone want to do that? Wouldn’t one rather have the government place a premium on ensuring that it’s citizens are well educated and subsidize education? But no, that requires for a courage to change the status quo, seeks consensus, build bridges and a lot of political will. Hence, the easier route is taken, pander to the lower common denominator since it’s easy and a decision that can be passed on the next generation

 

But as Dr. Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park – “the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way”. I would like to think that he meant that from a societal evolution as well. We will face bumps on the way, we may even appear to go backward but hopefully we will progress.

 

ian-malcolm

 

With regards to Trump, I would like to present one of my favorite comic book panels of all time where a comic book was used to make an in-joke on George W Bush

 

wolverine-spidey

The most politically meta comic panel of all time

Wow, that’s quite a delayed post innit. Almost half of 2016 gone and this post comes up now. Well, between travel, a couple of personal changes and time to settle in, and of course, the reading for 2016 and also laziness (never forget that), the last few months have pretty much been a blur, leaving hardly any time to write.

 

There is this phrase being used called Peak TV. Basically there is so much television to watch across so many channels (the medium), that its insanely impossible to catch up with all the great television being produced. In a way that is true for genre fiction as well. There are just so many, so many books out there, no matter how much you read, you can barely put a dent in your TBR (To-Be-Read) Mountain. My personal tally was 90 books for 2015, no mean tally (in all modesty :P) and yet, there are books left by the roadside that possibly I will get to someday. On a side note, my TBR shelf has gotten so unmanageable, that I have had to create a subfolder called Priority Backlist to prioritize within TBR itself. The other side effect of having so many releases to catch up per week has forced me to be organized for the first time in my life. I started creating yearly lists to read and also to capture what has been read (My 2016 TBR Shelf, 2016 Read Shelf). As I have mentioned in my posts in previous years (here and here), my reading habits have become extremely contemporary, with almost 90% of what I read being something that is released in the current year. Only in cases where a later book in a series I do want to catch up comes out, do I go back in time to read.

 

Physical books seem to be making a comeback according to quite a few reports. If that happens, that’s quite the reversal when the death of physical books was shouted from everywhere once ebooks starts gaining prominence and relevance. It may be a temporary fightback since the future is pretty much going to be digital. From my side, I barely read 3 physical books. Else, it has all been ebooks. As I never get tired of saying, the sheer convenience of able to read a book anywhere using a device that is with you the most (the phone) and the ability to seamlessly sync across devices, makes ebooks a winner.

 

2015 saw an amazing number of fantastic releases on paper and to a great extent, they lived up to it. What I have below is my curated, supremely subjective, extremely unscientific list of the best 2015 had to offer. While I do have the books in no particular order below, some books in this list will remain very close to my heart and for various reasons that I will detail below.

 

1. Red Rising/ Golden Son – Pierce Brown : Read this: If you love fast-paced operatic tales of revenge , class struggle and brutal twists

Golden Son

Easily, the best read of the year. My review description for the book read as follows, “If Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game and the Hunger Games had a ménage a trios (with a helping hand from The Count of Monte Cristo) and produced an offspring, that would be this book” and I see no reason to change the description. Both books are brutal. Fundamentally trying to engineer a revolution, the class struggle led by the hidden agent, the chief protagonist Darrow, is a brutal read. Pierce Brown crafts an absolutely fascinating world and an eternal timeless struggle. With an absolutely unputdownable pace, compelling storytelling and bloody brutal violent twists, The Red Rising series is well on its way to be rated as an absolutely brilliant modern great

 

 

2. The Liar’s Key (The Red Queen’s War #2) – Mark Lawrence – Read this: If you love complex characters who you love to hate but can’t. Also, for black humor-based one-liners

Liar's Key

 

Mark Lawrence has yet to write a bad book and it’s amazing how he manages to craft a compelling lead out of the dregs that humanity has to offer and humanizes then. Jorg was an easy character to hate and yet root for. But Jalan (the lead character here) is different. He is a coward, a womanizer, selfish, capricious, a lush and yet Lawrence adds layer on layer to him, making what on paper seems an uni-dimensional character, greater. That is not to say Jalan becomes a hero, fair from it but there is something underneath that is shaped by circumstances past and present. Humor is never far away but the undertone is always gallow.

 

 

3. Fool’s Quest (The Fitz and The Fool #2) – Robin Hobb – Read this: If you love reading highly emotional, beautiful writing and deeply flawed, human and complex characters

 

Fools Quest

This book is truly wonderfully special as it has THAT Fitz moment we have waited, 8 books and (since I read the Farseer trilogy in 2005) 10 years for. But with that moment comes the dread, as you know any moment of high for Fitz pretty much leads to a debilitating low and that’s pretty much what happens. Robin Hobb remains one of those authors who will use 10 words when 1 would suffice and that hardly matters. You could have her write down a shopping list and I would read it. Exquisitely beautiful.

 

 

4. Escape from Baghdad – Saad Hossain – Read this: If you love Catch-22 and Three Kings, and want a slightly more accessible, relatable book detailing a war from our times

 

Escape from Baghdad

The best stand-alone book of the year, Escape from Baghdad is a fantastic book that almost brings to the life the absurdity, the hidden political allegory and anger of the movie, 3 Kings and Brian K Vaughan’s The Pride of Baghdad. You don’t need to be a genre fiction fan to pick this up. The book combines black gallows humor with a dose of slapstick and buffoonery associated with the inept, bumbling characters and war profiteering and chicanery in the simmering cauldron of Baghdad. The city’s history and mythology serves as a fantastic supporting character in this fabulous madcap tale

 

 

5. Nice Dragons Finish Last/ One Good Dragon Deserves Another (Heartstrikers series) – Rachel Aaron – Read this: If you love dragons, fast paced stories and underdogs. Also, if you love dysfunctional families

 

Rachel Aaron crafts a fantastic and fascinating world where dragons exist and can take human form. In this world, she introduces Julius Heartstriker, the youngest of the clan, a lazy, cowardly dragon locked in human form by the Heartstriker matriarch as a punishment for being totally useless. What follows is a breathtaking journey of politics and betrayal amidst intricate world building. With a no-hold-barred plotting, selfish and mad matriarchs, madder seers, there is hardly a dull moment in this action packed, humorous tale

 

 

6. The Providence of Fire (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #2) – Brian Staveley – Read this: If you love dysfunctional families and old-fashioned epic fantasy

 

Providence of Fire

Who doesn’t love dysfunctional siblings trying to kill, for a throne, manipulated by outside interests? Staveley’s debut novel was pretty much old wine in a new bottle. What Staveley does right is to address the justified criticism of the 1st book where the female lead got the short shrift. Here, Adare gets an equal role to her brothers as she learns what it means to be a politician and a ruler. The overarching stakes are revealed even as the invisible puppet masters reveal themselves slowly.  Staveley has got an easy pace and style of writing. This is truly epic fantasy done right and in the new age style

 

 

7. The Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher – Read this: If you love air battles, new magic systems, non-stop action and cats!!!

 

Aeronauts Windlass

Butcher writes for the fans in all of us and he doesn’t disappoint with his new series. Set in a steampunk setting in a world built on spires, the non-stop thrill a minute entertainer hits the ground running (bad pun given we have air ships here). He introduces a motley bunch, juggles the POVs well and even has time to indulge in cat dramatics. As always, packed with humor and thrills, this looks like another winner and a series to stay

 

 

8. The Autumn Republic (Powder Mage #3) – Brian McClellan – Read this: If you love Brandon Sanderson style of storytelling and bitter-sweet endings

 

Autumn Republic

An epic conclusion to the Powder Mage trilogy, the final book does not disappoint. The pace is as frenetic as ever but not at the expense of character development. The body count is high, the action is exhilarating and exhausting and the end is typically epic and satisfying. Gut wrenching and moving, even if you see the end coming from when the 1st book started. A tale that encompasses gods, mortals and privileged, the battle scenes are top notch and the politicking is clever.

 

 

9. The Prophecy Con/ The Paladin Caper (Rogues of the Republic series) – Patrick Weekes – Read this: If you love Ocean’s 11, Lies of Locke Lamora, large and non-homogenous cast, witty asides and sarcastic retorts

 

Clever, wonderful, cute and entertaining, this is one of those books that you pick up and read when you are alone. Because if you read it in a public space, you cannot stop laughing out loud and thereby earning quite a few concerned glances directed towards you. The cast is really juggled immensely well and everyone gets a chance to shine. The pacing is breathtaking (literally as well) and the series ends quite neatly as well

 

 

10. Knight’s Shadow (Greatcoats #2) – Sebastian de Castell – Read this: If you love 3 Musketeers, swashbuckling swordplay, first person narrative and humor

 

Knights Shadow

Knight’s Shadow forced me to think up a new genre – the grindark. There is just enough humor packed in the narrative to hide the darkness that permeates through the book. Continuing in vein of book 1, our intrepid band of Greatcoats try to fulfill their dead king’s wishes even as the country rebel against them and pretty much tries to go up in flames. The action sequences are details and fantastic. The swordplay sequences are quite intimate and in your face and fast. The character dynamics are supremely awesome and each character has such a unique voice. The betrayals are hard and deadly and make this an entirely compelling read

 

 

Almost in top 10 (in no particular order)

 

  1. Gemini Cell – Myke Cole :Read this: if you like military fantasy, unique magic systems and conspiracies

Gemini Cell

 

  1. The Rebirths of Tao (Tao #3) – Wesley Chu:Read this: if you are a desk-bound internet warrior who dreams of saving the world and if you like voices in your head

Rebirths of Tao

 

  1. Generation V/ Iron Night/ Tainted Blood/ Dark Ascension (Generation V) – ML Brennan:Read this: if you like non-Twilighty Vampires, The Godfather and dysfunctional families

 

  1. Dark Run – Mike Brooks :Read this: if you like Firefly, space operas and awesome fun team dynamics

Dark Run

 

  1. Wake of Vultures (The Shadow #1) – Lila Bowen:Read this: if you like the wild, wild and weird westerns and kick-ass non-conformist female leads

Wake of Vultures

My Goodreads shelf for 2015

 

TL:DR – Gorgeous production values, superb set pieces, throbbing thumping background score and isolated moments of goosebumpy brilliance cannot make up for a muddled script that ultimately makes up for a inconsistent and frustrating movie. Oh and Batfleck is actually pretty decent in the role

 

BvS Dawn of Justice

 

Full Review

 

“It begins as a whisper… a promise… the lightest of breezes dances above the death cries of 300 men. That breeze became a wind. A wind of freedom… a wind of justice… a wind of vengeance”… This is how the sequel to 300 begins and words that particularly pertinent to BvS. 300 was the movie that made Zack Snyder his name so as to speak and quite literally landed him the keys to the DC Kingdom

 

The whisper, the promise was the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the set of interconnected yet standalone movies that would prove to be a perpetual money spinner. The wind being the others, Sony attempted to do a Spiderman Connected Universe, Fox wanted to do one with the X-men and Fantastic Four, both Sony and Fox with their Marvel properties and then not to be left behind, Warner Brothers with their whole library of DC characters

 

Man of Steel (MoS) was the Superman re-launch vehicle and it was never considered to be set up the DC Universe but things did fall propitiously into place. MoS was in tone a different beast from the MCU. Grim, somber, you could call it realistic and the ensuring carnage when Superman and Zod, 2 beings possessing superhuman strength reducing downtown Metropolis to rubble earned a lot of critical disdain but definitely helped set up BvS (Yes, I am aware of the irony of talking about realistic given the context of super humans dueling in midair and leveling cities)

 

BvS starts off with the obligatory death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and then moves to the climax of the Superman vs Zod slugfest with Bruce Wayne catching the fag end of it as the 2 duelling superhuman reduce a Wayne office building to rubble fueling Bruce Wayne’s (and hence, Batman’s) hate for Superman. Superman does not approve of the increasingly violent Batman who brands and marks criminals and Lex Luthor plays the neurotic puppeteer orchestrating the gladiatorial death match advertised in the title.

 

I admit I did love MoS. Snyder has a reputation of being a style over substance director and MoS was a nice break from that reputation. The movie did go over what it meant to be Superman in this age of cynicism and selfishness and until the obligatory requirements of action set pieces befitting a summer superhero blockbuster movie intervened, an examination into the choices a conflicted super-being had

 

BvS falls into the same category. It is grim and dark. But where it really suffers from is a lack of identity. The movie has to serve as a sequel to MoS, introduce Batman to this universe and act as a set up for the Justice League movie. Even with these spinning parts, the movie tries to touch on Superman’s identity in a world that maybe does not need him, the broader political ramifications of the actions Superman takes, who is he answerable to, why is Batman so bitter, what is Wonder Woman searching for, who are the other meta humans, coupled with (k)nightmare/ dream sequences that our heroes faces. A whole lot of balls up in the air and predictably the movie crumbling under the weight of all the moving parts, fails

 

But what a failure. What a glorious failure. This is a failure that reeks of ambition. A simple competent script that really doesn’t do much plot wise, moves it along using Maguffins, snappy repartees, a bit of nostalgia and longing (ala Avenger/ The Force Awakens) would have definitely worked better but would not have distinguished it from the increasingly saturated and almost uniformly sanitized superhero releases in the market

 

Coming to the performances itself, Ben Affleck is a surprise. The outcry when he was announced to be Batman was shrilly negative to put it mildly and his turn as the brooding, dark, gritty, grizzled and violent Batman is great. He also gets a great combat sequence that beats any from previous Batman movies. Cavill as Superman continues his good work and his confusion and internal conflict on the role Superman has in society is well etched. However, he does kind of get second billing, not just in title or credits but also in terms of his impact in the movie (except for the climax). For someone who barely has 16 lines in the movie, Gal Gadot steals the show whenever she appears on screen. While the trailers definitely spoiled the moment of the movie before hand, it still is a massive moment when Wonder Woman enters the fray accompanied by a frantic tribal background score.

 

Trinity.png

 

On the flip side, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor just did not work out. While I understand the direction DC wants to take, there are certain canonical things you don’t mess around with. You don’t make Lex Luthor a combination of Lex, Joker and the Riddler. With this usual tics and nervous energy hammed upto 11, this was a rather painful Lex Luthor. Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons and Holly Hunter get to play significant cameos in the movie with Irons proving to be a total delight as Alfred

 

The titular Batman vs Superman fight is bloody awesome and worth the hype. It would have definitely helped if the Doomsday reveal hadn’t happened in the trailer but that conflict is also quite awesome and things really perk up once Wonder Woman gets into the action. The Justice League set up/ introduction takes a leaf from the Marvel movie and definitely as clumsily shoehorned into the plot

 

Critics have shredded the movie and I don’t blame them, but it definitely is not as bad as it is made out to be. Yes, there is a sense of disappointment and frustration given the hype, the expectation and the almost unbelievable sense of buildup for the last 30 odd months (ever since the announcement at San Diego Comic Con) but given this is the dawn of Justice League, one cant help but still be excited and hopefully, now that this bogeyman is off the back. Bring on the Suicide Squad, up next!!!

 

PS: Lex’s warning/ premonition on the big bad coming and the (k)nightmare with the Omega symbol and parademon could pretty much only mean Darkseid na.. Dang, that is awesome…

 

PPS: Flash coming back in time to warn Batman again is as much a DC lore as it can get

 

PPPS: Cool callout to the Wonder Woman movie. Given Gadot’s limited screen time and yet great impact, we are properly primed for that movie. Oh and Chris Pine🙂

 

PPPPS (last one I promise): First thing I did coming home was to grab Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to go through the epic Batman vs Superman fight and Batman’s majestically epic takedown dialog to Superman

 

 

With 2015 coming to an end and 2016 starting off without a break, it’s time to take a look back. As inevitable as someone cracking the “See you next year” line on New Year’s Eve, what this pretty much entails is building a list, a list of anything that one can kind of think of and do justice to the whole bunch of movies put out this year. To a great extent, a list of the top movies is pretty much an exercise in subjectivity, bias and as far moved away from a scientific approach as possible which is pretty much how this particular list below has also been generated apart from incorporating a few basic parameters like fun had, re-watchability, quality etc

 

This blog has never been shy about its love for the spectacle, joy and entertainment that a blockbuster movie brings to the screen (well, hence the title for this post) and paying tribute to the best blockbuster movies of the year is usually more about wondering which movie to leave out. The expectations for 2015 blockbuster movie were quite high given how quite wonderful 2014 had turned out to be and the slate of movies 2015 had in schedule – sequels to prior awesome movies, reboots of previously successful and beloved (in some cases) franchises, original property from acclaimed directors amongst them. In a way, those expectations were met and exceeded. Box office numbers from these movies were the highest ever and new opening week records were set and reset through the course of the year. But that isn’t really the true judge of the quality of a movie and the list below indicates pretty much that.

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road spent quite some time in development hell and production dungeon before the sheer insane driving force and stubborn vision of George Miller brought it to life and is easily the movie of the year. The title pretty much conveys the mad and furious nature of what is essentially a chase movie but a chase done with so much style, unrelenting fierceness and with surprising amount of substance in its subtext, that it was viewed multiple time on the big screen. Make no mistake, this is edge of the seat, nerve wracking, pulse throbbing action packed visceral ride backed by some absolutely crazy stunt work and vehicular homicide set to a pretty kickass music score and creative imagery. Who can forget the Doof Warrior setting the tone for the chase playing a flaming guitar in a red onesie surrounded by gigantic heavy duty speaker systems? Lest it feels that the actors in the movie are just superfluous, banish the thought. Charlize Theron gets to play an awesomely strong lead character while Tom Hardy, relegated to a support character despite being the titular lead, conveys a fair amount of desperation and horror at the situation he finds himself in and how the world turned out to be

 

Crimson Peak Cover

Speaking of horror, Crimson Peak by Guillermo Del Toro is less a horror movie as advertised and more a creepy movie but built and designed through all the love GDT can lavish on, through arresting visuals and fantastic set design. This is a slow burn movie that in the first half does spend a fair amount of time focusing on the Tom Hiddlestone , an aura of charm, mystery and tragedy around him, who is front and center until the second half where Jessica Chastain comes into prominence. Mia Wasikowska brings in the right amount of vulnerability and naivety to the role. Deeply atmospheric, this is a moody film that takes its own sweet time and pace until rushes to the climax

 

The Man from UNCLE

 

The opposite of atmospheric is the delightful romp, The Man from UNCLE – a movie that is all style but not so much substance. With the typical Guy Ritchie touches and flourishes, the movie is a fun ride with the cast playing perfectly off each other. Henry Cavill as the charismatic American agent Solo, Arnie Hammer as the dour upright Ilya and the delightful Alicia Vikander playing the supposed damsel in distress display fantastic chemistry and antagonism even as they try to work together towards common goals which each pursues their own agenda as they try to work each other out

 

Inside Out

 

Movies often deal with managing the feeling towards an external party but it takes a Pixar special to help us understand how feelings work internally and why even the so-called negative feelings are important. A strong contender for the best animated movie Oscar, Inside Out visualizes and gives shape to each feeling, and how these feelings are responsible for the development of personality in a human being. Shaping it like an adventure, this movie for kids and not for kids truly a wonderful, subtle and innovative piece of movie making

 

Furious 7

 

Subtlety is not usually a feature associated with the Fast and Furious franchise and with the untimely death of Paul Walker, there were fears indeed on how badly that would play out. However, Furious 7 assuages those fears and gives Paul Walker a truly emotional and heartfelt send-off that is just perfect and in no way feels crass. The rest of the movie is suitably loud with over the top stunts and wafer thin plot keeping in line with the rest of the series. There is a sever sense of foreboding but James Wan takes it in a different direction than expected. Kurt Russell pops in as a secret government agent but really hams it up having a lot of fun while Jason Statham plays the bad guy proving to be quite a physical match to Vin Diesel

 

Spy

 

Physicality and combat skills are what we expect from Jason Statham but displaying a vein of comedy hitherto never seen before, his extended cameo almost steals the limelight from a perfectly cast Melissa McCarthy in Spy. An action comedy thriller from Paul Feig, with a storyline that zips through the kind of global locations a James Bond movie would use, McCarthy plays the relegated desk agent who gets into the field with refreshing candor and allows her to naturally evolve from her timid self to the profane, cursing, headstrong Melissa McCarthy that we are familiar with. For all the comedy in the movie, the action is perfectly balanced and often searing humorous dialogs are deadpanned, mostly by the indestructible Jason Statham. Jude Law has a ball as well playing the suave James Bond kind of agent

 

Kingsman_The_Secret_Service_poster

 

There is a moment in the delightful movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, where the stiff upper lipped Michael Caine superciliously tries to guess what Eggsy’s dog’s name JB stands for. He goes for the usual James Bond/ Jason Bourne only to be told that it stands for Jack Bauer, slyly indicating that this ain’t that kind of movie; A movie that hides its penchant for violence and spilling blood under a stylish veneer of genteel British manners, accent and gentlemen clothing. Who would have thought Colin Firth would make such a fantastic action hero or Samuel Jackson as a limp wimpy villain except for the super talented Matthew Vaughn. The movie is ridiculously fast paced and entertaining while being playful at the same time and boldly R-rated violent, one of the best comic book movies of the year

 

The Martian

 

One of the best books of last year was written to be made into a movie and with Ridley Scott behind the megaphone and with the pitch perfect casting of Matt Damon, The Martian turned out to be a fantastic movie. The key challenge in converting the book to the movie was in condensing the numerous monologues that Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut has with himself and that has been handled adroitly through video logs. Martian is a nifty piece of film making and more than anything is a feel good movie. The pace hardly every sags and Damon acts the sh*t out of it, never despondent and displaying the right amount of cockiness, resilience and spunk to make you root for him. The supporting cast is great as well even if they do have a fairly limited role in this Man vs Space contest

 

Star Wars TFA

 

Space: The Final frontier – that’s how Star Trek begins. But this is not about Star Trek but about the other not-so-small Star movie that was released a few days back (and also a reason why this post didn’t come out immediately after the blockbuster season). In what can only be politely described as a seqoot (sequel + reboot), JJ Abrams manages the expectation of possibly the biggest and the most rabid fanbase in delivering a Star Wars movie, that is indeed a Star Wars movie. Star Wars: The Force Awakens brings in the old and the new in a tried and tested formula that repeats the beats of A New Hope but offers just that enough amount of divergence to make it stand on its own. Right from the goosebumpy John Williams score on the opening scroll to the appearance of the Millennium Falcon to the climatic set piece, the movie is a blast. What Abrams does well enough is to provide just that right amount of twist to set up exciting possibilities that will allow future sequels to run in a different direction and he is helped in this by the new cast. Daisy Ridley, an unknown face pretty much becomes the face of this new set of movies while John Boyega carries off his role with aplomb.

 

These 8 movies were the best that the blockbuster season had to offer. While this season was commercially more successful than the previous one, last year had a larger number of movies that were pretty good. 2016 is likely to be interesting with a slate of superhero properties guaranteed to make a lot of money scheduled to be released. Batman vs Superman, Civil War, Rogue One are ones that could definitely come close to breaking some of the records set this year and one really does hope that these movies turn out to be good as well

 

PS: For those wondering about the Avengers sized omission to the blockbuster list, Age of Ultron was a movie struggling under the weight of having to do too many things – serve as a worthy successor to Avengers, Set up Infinity War, Set up Civil War, Set up Thor: Ragnarok while introducing new characters we could get behind. It definitely wasn’t a surprise that the movie while remaining good in parts never came together as a cohesive whole. The moments where the team come together, share quieter moments are the best parts of the movie and in true Whedon style, the bantering, the quips and the humor are tremendously engaging.

 

PPS: Jurassic World was the other significant omission from this list. Well, the movie was oddly disjointed except for when the dinos come up on screen. Chris Pratt is quite engaging but I am not sure if the rough and tough hard guy role really suits him

 

PPPS: Other movies that were good but not great – MI5 and Ant-Man. MI5 had quite its share of thrills and the movie really gave us an awesomely fascinating female lead who could go toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise in Rebecca Ferguson. Paul Rudd is great as Ant-Man with just the right balance between humor and action but given this is an origin movie, it pretty much goes through the checklist approach. To be fair, the climatic fight is actually good and inventive and features Thomas the Tank Engine as well

A truly remarkable year, the 2014 blockbuster season turned out to be. The usual summer blockbuster season throws up at most 2 or 3 movies that truly can be considered in a best of the year list but this year proved to be a remarkable outlier necessitating a split in my usual best of the year list. A gobsmacking medley of dragons, future tech and dystopian sci-fi combined with what was a strong year for comic book movies (read Marvel) and unconventional indie directors bringing their A-game for big budget movies elevated this year and in the process, sets up quite an unfair expectation for 2015. (Age of Ultron & Star Wars, please don’t suck please don’t suck)

This is indeed an anti-establishment list. A recognition of movies that inevitably are the ones folks wish to flock to and enjoyed on the big screen. This also serves as a recognition for movies that quite do not harbor pretentions of grandeur to quite attempt to make it to an Oscar list as well. While of course this is not meant as an attempt to belittle the movies that aim for the Oscars but the fundamental underlying truth about movies are they are meant to entertain.

In no particular order,

  1. The Lego Movie – How does a movie which came out through the very concept of big culture, franchise and money (read Hasbro) turn out to be the very anti-thesis of it. Supremely witty, cool and espousing individuality, the movie is anchored by some truly cool voice acting, an engaging plot and some truly astounding cameos. Gorgeously shot, the wit and humor in the movie adds luster to what is indeed a heartwarming story. And one cannot watch the movie and not hum Everything is Awesome J. Lego Batman has to the character of the year. Lord & Miller direct what is indeed one of the most self-aware, tongue-in-cheek animated comedies of all times

the_lego_movie2014

  1. Snowpiercer – Snowpiercer is one half of the answer to the question if one can truly make smart science fiction movies. Set in a future frozen earth where the only survivors are on a train that runs around the world perpetually, this is a class warfare movie where the rich stay close to the engine and get to enjoy all the luxuries while the poor stay towards the end of the train in cramped horrendous quarters, subject to random examinations and torture whilst waiting for their next meal to be delivered to them. Led by comic book star Chris Evans (the number of non-superhero comic book moves that the guy has done is simply amazing. A true genre star) and supported by Tilda Swinton (unrecognizable), Jamie Bell and the ever awesome Ed Harris, this is a no-holds-barred movie that has deeper philosophical ruminations and fantastic action set pieces even if downright brutal and bloody. The backstories, the betrayals and the twists keep on coming in what is a hugely ambitious, not an easy to follow movie

Snowpiercer

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Turning a character who was kind of a running joke in Avengers into a more relevant rounded character is probably the greatest achievement of the movie. A tense suave political thriller that deals with the concept of security and freedom, the title is the weakest link of the movie (along with a saggy mid portion). More of a cop buddy team up of Captain America, Black Widow and the Falcon, the movie rockets in what is now a Marvel Studio template with not too many dull moments and unexpected humorous moments along with great action set pieces. The titular character of Winter Soldier is bit of a blank slate while it’s awesome to see Robert Redford display his usual brand of authority and charm and regal elegance in what is effectively a genre movie. A shout out to the terrific background score from Henry Jackman

Captain America - The Winter Soldier

  1. Godzilla: Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was a supremely under-rated movie that pretty much told a love story in midst of an alien invasion where the focus was on the story and gimmicks of the monster kept to a minimum. Thankfully the same technique is applied here where the focus on the monster, Godzilla, is kept to a minimum until the right moment wherein Gojira is shown in his full glory. Gareth Edwards tries to craft a human story amidst the carnage which works well when Bryan Cranston is on screen but less successfully with Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Ensuring that one forgets the debacle of the previous Godzilla movie, this is a movie with some cool shots. The HALO jump against the silhouette of the Godzilla is among the shots of the year and there is a great money shot of Godzilla which renders the prior shrouding seem like a minor irritant. Clearly, less is more for Gareth Edwards

Godzilla

  1. X-Men: Days of the Future Past – Retroactive continuity changes done well is such a treat and X-Men DOFP needed one such retcon to wash away the stink of X-Men: Last Stand. Adapting the seminal Chris Claremont’s Days of Future Past, and ensuring that Logan (the face of the franchise) makes the trip back in time, this is a wonderful adaptation. With 2 timelines in play, albeit the past playing a bigger role, there is nary a dull moment and the character interactions are fantastically wonderful, be it the simmering anger between James McAvoy & Michael Fassbender or the comfortable familiarity of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart or the palpable tension between Hugh Jackman and Fassbender or any interaction of McAvoy or Fassbender with Jennifer Lawrence. In midst of all the lead character interactions, Peter Dinklage admittedly gets a raw deal. But the movie makes up with one of the coolest action sequences of the year with the Magneto jailbreak

DOFP

  1. The Raid 2 – How do you top what is the greatest action movie of this decade? By going bigger and being more ambitious. If the Raid was the Godfather of action movie, the Raid 2 is verily the Godfather 2. The action sequences are even more inventive, brutal and violent. This is no-holds barred, take no prisoner level evisceration of the highest order. There is actually an attempt to build a Godfather level storyline which merely serves as moments to catch your breath before the next breathless inventive action set piece is unleashed. Hammers, baseball, and cleaning implements are verily the new weapons of mass destruction.

Raid 2

  1. Edge of Tomorrow – Originally supremely kick-assedly titled All You Need is Kill, the movie weaves the Gorundhog day concept into a kick-ass action movie that runs through the aid of a tight screenplay, nifty editing and terrific moments of humor. Tom Cruise while looking all his age, still has the requisite charisma and everyman bumbling to make the character work while Emily Blunt has that no-nonsense look and attitude down to the T, making you wonder why she hasn’t been tapped to play any of the upcoming female superheroes. While the ending is a bit of a wimp out, that cannot be extended to the rest of the movie. One of the big disappointments remains on how it was such a box office clunker.

Edge of Tomorrow

  1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – I repeat what I have been saying for a few years now. Someone just create a new category for Motion capture and give Andy Serkis the award, although Toby Kebbell runs him pretty close. A worthy follow up to what was a surprise hit in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this takes the confrontation between what is a clearly decimated human group and apes to a new level. With fringe elements causing damage at both ends, this is a nuanced thriller.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy – Admittedly the riskiest of the Marvel gambles especially given the unfamiliarity of the characters, this turned out to be easily the movie that provided the most awesome fun of the year. James Gunn has to be given all the credit for doing what it took for movies preceding the Avengers to do, establishing the characters and team dynamics in just over 2 hours and making us care of the characters. Chris Pratt proved to be a surprisingly cool lead with genre actress Zoe Saldana further burnishing her creds in this space. Rocket Raccoon was a surprisingly tragic character for a homicidal trigger happy bounty hunter, Groot, for his 3 words, delivered so much with his voice inflection and Drax with his ability to take words literally, make for a supremely entertaining team up. With music playing such a fascinating role in the movie, its really no surprise that this movie ranks among my favorite movies of the year, with the sore point being the fairly one note underdeveloped villain (waste of a role for Lee Pace sadly). The world building is remarkable for a movie that starts fresh and in true Marvel vein, the humor element make it’s a wonderfully engaging movie

Guardians of the Galaxy

  1. John Wick – A Keanu Reeves movie that is undeniably solid fun. The last movie I saw with so much gun kata or gun-fu and body count was the Christian Bale starred Equilibrium. This is a movie that is all style and no substance but what glorious style. The movie makes maximum use of the limited expressions Keanu Reeves is capable of and doesn’t waste too much of the audience’s time in making him try to act. Though to be fair, Keanu Reeves’ façade cracks just enough to express grief before he gets on with his act of reducing the world’s population of mobsters. The charm of the movie also lies in the cameos of notable characters as well as the exclusive neutral grounds territory of a hotel where all the baddies stay.

John Wick

Movies that almost made the list – How to train your dragon 2, Big Hero 6

Welcome to the 2nd edition of the review of the best Speculative Fiction books of the year. And this turned out to be one hell of a year to be a reader. A whole bunch of awesome boundary pushing books, promising debuts, and the Grim Dark getting grimmer and darker.

In 2014, I completed 91 books mostly from the fantasy genre with a smattering of sci-fi, other fiction genres, non-fiction ending the year trawling the last 3 years of DC verse of Batman, Justice League and the Big Events. This huge jump in reading was primarily attributable to 2 interlinked reasons, the sheer increase of domestic travel and the increasing comfort of reading books on the mobile. In fact, of the 80 odd books (removing the graphic novels), I potentially would have read atleast 50% of them on the mobile phone. With phone batteries being what they are, the most useful acquisition of the year happened to the portable charger. Such a life saver it turned out to be.

Creating a best of list for the year turned out to be such a big pain. While ratings were captured diligently at Goodreads (the biggest change from last year, where I was on Shelfari), ratings sometimes are not true reflectors of what you really feel for the book and sometimes, it requires you to revisit a book again to really get a sense of what you missed in between the numerous flights and travel tensions

While the top 10 books are in no particular order, 2 books stand out among them for books of the year and make it nigh high impossible to select the first among equals. Without much ado, the top 10 below

1) The Martian by Andy Weir (Joint Best of the Year)

the-martian

Synopsis

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

******************************************************************************************

A brilliantly narrated book all the way through with such an awesome voice. In the hands of any other writer, this would have come as whiny but Andy Weir infuses Mark Watney with such a fantastic attitude and spunk, the book never ever feels wrong. A bit technical but easily followable (and even if not, just go with the flow), this is one hell of a tale. Easily among the most accessible books of the year, this is a book for all ages and one of the books that can be recommended without any fear to anyone (My personal stats on this one is 33 recommendations and barring one who has not completed the book, not a single dissenting voice). While it’s set on Mars, this is not really sci-fi. It’s just pure escapist thriller

 

 

2) Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb (Joint Best of the Year)

Fool's Assassin

Synopsis

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.

But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…

On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.

Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Suddenly Fitz’s violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe

******************************************************************************************

Why does a book where nothing really happens for 80% of the book figure as the top book of the year? For the simple reason that its written by Robin Hobb and features FitzChivalry Farseer. Actually, by this time Hobb could just have Fitz writing down a shopping list and I would buy that. Hobb’s writing is emotional. Period. There is a sense of loss, nostalgia and simple happiness permeating right through the book. That in reality is the magic and among the reasons why we read books. Absolutely lovely

 

3) Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive, Book 2)

Words of Radiance

Synopsis

Six years ago, the Assassin in White, a hireling of the inscrutable Parshendi, assassinated the Alethi king on the very night a treaty between men and Parshendi was being celebrated. So began the Vengeance Pact among the highprinces of Alethkar and the War of Reckoning against the Parshendi.

Now the Assassin is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin’s master has much deeper motives.

Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status “darkeyes.” Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.

Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.

******************************************************************************************

Putting the epic in epic fantasy, book 2 of the Stormlight Archive is a massive tome. In fact, as Sanderson calls it, the book is a trilogy in itself. Packing in tons of epic moments and action set pieces, Sanderson does a fantastic job in crafting what is likely to be his magnum opus. While Way of Kings had to spend a fair bit of time in context setting and exposition, Words of Radiance fairly breezes through even if there is the whiny angst of Kaladin to contend with before he embraces his heroic nature to save the day. Brandon Sanderson answers a whole bunch of questions this early in the series while serving up a lot more. Terrific

 

4) Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools

Synopsis

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board

******************************************************************************************

Mark Lawrence’s debut trilogy was a hit or miss. You either loved it or hated it based on how you liked Jorg Ancranth, who can be mildly described as a psychopathic hero (I Loved it). Set in the same world, Mark Lawrence debuts his next series this time featuring a coward, womanizer and a liar as the lead. Prince Jallan (Jal for short) is unlike any lead you would have encountered. Paired with a strapping northman (Viking) Snorri who is his exact opposite, this makes for one hell of a buddy pairing as the pair travel north bound to each other by a curse. This is the kind of book where the one liners just keep on coming but the general grimness never seems to ease. A worthy addition to the Broken Empire series, this seems decidedly a better book compared to Prince of Thorns. Prince of Thorns had the shock value of Jorg while this one is just so well written more than anything

 

5) Breach Zone by Myke Cole

Breach Zone

Synopsis

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began “coming up Latent,” developing terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Those who Manifest must choose: become a sheepdog who protects the flock or a wolf who devours it…

In the wake of a bloody battle at Forward Operating Base Frontier and a scandalous presidential impeachment, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson, call sign “Harlequin,” becomes a national hero and a pariah to the military that is the only family he’s ever known.

In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.

When Scylla’s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil…

******************************************************************************************

A delicious action packed romp, Myke Cole concludes the Shadow Ops trilogy in grand style. Mixing the mile a minute action with quieter moments that build up the supporting cast from previous book who take center stage here, what follows is a rival-the-Avengers-style attack on Manhattan that is in parts exhilarating and in parts terrifying. The book handles the military side of the conflict supremely well even if the political resolution seems a bit hurried. But this is a world that bears revisiting and here’s hoping for more books in the same universe from Myke Cole

 

6) City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs

Synopsis

Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power.

Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters-dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian.

As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem-and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well

******************************************************************************************

City of Stairs is Robert Bennett’s first foray into epic fantasy and what a book this turns out to be. City of Stairs turns out to be richly majestic. A book that starts out as a murder mystery morphs into a spy thriller featuring dead gods, miracles, spies among others. The central character here is the city of Bulikov which cedes its secrets very reluctantly. With an awesome female lead character and a Viking like prince as her support, the tropes are neatly turned. The book takes sometime going but once it starts, there is no way it can be kept down. Also among the few books I rated 5 stars for the year

 

7) The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead Two Serpents Rise

Synopsis

THREE PARTS DEAD (Book 1)

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.

Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.

When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs

TWO SERPENTS RISE (Book 2)

Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc — casual gambler and professional risk manager — to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.

But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father — the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists — has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.

From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire… and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry

******************************************************************************************

A bit of cheat here since this one features the 1st 2 books in the series, Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. This is one damn inventive innovative piece of work. The sheer brilliance in world building carries both the books. Three Parts Dead has quite the characters and interactions, while Two Serpents Rise suffers a bit from having not so great a chemistry between the lead pair. While we do not follow the same characters in both the books, the world shared is the same and it’s a testament to Gladstone’s skills that he has crafted (all pun intended) a very vibrant different world in each book

 

8) The Widow’s House by Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House

Synopsis

THE RISE OF THE DRAGON AND THE FALL OF KINGS

Lord Regent Geder Palliako’s war has led his nation and the priests of the spider goddess to victory after victory. No power has withstood him, except for the heart of the one woman he desires. As the violence builds and the cracks in his rule begin to show, he will risk everything to gain her love or else her destruction.

Clara Kalliam, the loyal traitor, is torn between the woman she once was and the woman she has become. With her sons on all sides of the conflict, her house cannot stand, but there is a power in choosing when and how to fall.

And in Porte Oliva, banker Cithrin bel Sarcour and Captain Marcus Wester learn the terrible truth that links this war to the fall of the dragons millennia before, and that to save the world, Cithrin must conquer it

******************************************************************************************

If there is a series that has gotten progressively awesome, The Dagger and Coin series has to be top of that list. There has been no middle book syndrome, no treading water even as characters push towards endgame. Instead, Daniel Abraham has introduced his own take on traditional fantasy, nudging the standard tropes just enough to make characters and situations extremely compelling. There is no greater example that the supposed villain of the series, Geder Pallaiko. Each character has his own view of him from a tyrannical despot to a sniveling coward to a lost and genuinely confused kid. Finance and Politics make for awesome if untrustworthy bedmates and that is played out in full in the best traditions of GRRM and Raymond Feist

 

9) The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan

The Crimson Campaign

Synopsis

‘The hounds at our heels will soon know we are lions’

Tamas’s invasion of Kez ends in disaster when a Kez counter-offensive leaves him cut off behind enemy lines with only a fraction of his army, no supplies, and no hope of reinforcements. Drastically outnumbered and pursued by the enemy’s best, he must lead his men on a reckless march through northern Kez to safety, and back over the mountains so that he can defend his country from an angry god.

In Adro, Inspector Adamat only wants to rescue his wife. To do so he must track down and confront the evil Lord Vetas. He has questions for Vetas concerning his enigmatic master, but the answers might come too quickly.

With Tamas and his powder cabal presumed dead, Taniel Two-shot finds himself alongside the god-chef Mihali as the last line of defence against Kresimir’s advancing army. Tamas’s generals bicker among themselves, the brigades lose ground every day beneath the Kez onslaught, and Kresimir wants the head of the man who shot him in the eye

******************************************************************************************

Possibly the book with the highest body count, this flintlock fantasy (gunpowder magic) from Brian McClellan packs an explosive punch. Terrific pacing and big action set pieces interspersed with quiet character moments and relationship building make this a book that avoids the middle book syndrome of treading water very efficiently. There is an almost Sanderson-esque approach to storytelling combined with a Hannibal level predilection for blood, bodies and bullets. With three central characters, this is a tale of revenge, identity and survival for one and all the characters. (plus it had an impressive cover)

 

10) The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes

The Palace Job

Synopsis

The most powerful man in the republic framed her, threw her in prison, and stole a priceless elven manuscript from her family.

With the help of a crack team that includes an illusionist, a unicorn, a death priestess, a talking warhammer, and a lad with a prophetic birthmark, Loch must find a way into the floating fortress of Heaven’s Spire–and get past the magic-hunting golems and infernal sorcerers standing between her and the vault that holds her family’s treasure.

It’d be tricky enough without the military coup and unfolding of an ancient evil prophecy–but now the determined and honourable Justicar Pyvic has been assigned to take her in.

But hey, every plan has a few hitches

******************************************************************************************

Think Ocean’s Eleven (the good parts) mixed with Locke Lamora (without the darker portions) in a fantastic world featuring among others a talking Warhammer and an Unicorn, this book is the glimmer of sunlight in the GrimDark world. Absolutely fun and wickedly funny, this is a book of witty one-liners, snappy rejoinders and tremendous camaraderie. A fast paced heist thriller, there is hardly a dull moment and to an extent, the book is positive and joyous. Easily the most entertaining book of the year and one likely to have weird stares thrown your way in a crowded airport when you suddenly guffaw out loud or are trying to unsuccessfully hold back a bout of giggles. Optimistic is the word you conjure up once you read this book. Insane giddy fun

 

 

PS: An interesting trend is the number of books that have female leads, 5 (50%). Not bad at all. Quite a change from the usual male lead dominated books.

A Tale of 3 Autobiographies

Posted: December 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

Sporting autobiographies by their very nature are meant to be an exploration of the sportspersons’ highs, their struggles and their inner thought process that leads them to overcome the challenges to success. However, more often than not, it serves as a stage for settling scores and as readers, those are often the salacious details that get “leaked” and pique our interests. And in this twitter age of instant gratification, it was indeed no surprise that autobiographies of the sportsmen who graced the biggest games caused a fairly big stir. Each of these autobiographies had things quite going for it and the personalities to make you look forward to. Roy Keane, notorious for being outspoken no matter the situation and quite irreplaceable to this day in the hearts and minds of Manchester United fans. Kevin Petersen, enfant terrible or misunderstood genius depending on which side of the cricketing divide you stood. Sachin Tendulkar for well, being Sachin Tendulkar; Cricket’s favored child. Below are my thoughts on how each of them compare and what really worked as a reader going through them

KP

Inarguably, the one guaranteed to draw the most eyeballs especially in light of the acrimonious split between ECB and KP, this one lives up to its expectation. KP does not draw his punches and boy o boy, he sure as hell has a mighty go at all the injustice he has faced, perceived or otherwise. KP is fairly consistent in his praise towards all those who make him feel special and withering in his condemnation of those who cannot understand or give him special consideration. Reading through the autobiography, a few things stick through – the love for IPL (and no matter how much he professes otherwise, the money and glamor associated with it), the hectic non-stop travel in the life of the modern day sportsman, the loneliness and alienation of being away from the family and the clear sense of how much KP is different (in both a good and a bad way) from his teammates. As a score settling book, this is phenomenal. No one is spared from the ECB hierarchies to his coaches to his captains. There are sections of the book dealing with how he prepared and this thought process when taking on some of the best bowlers in producing defining knocks. There are also portions of the books for the other extreme when KP couldn’t even buy a run. There are discussions on the mindset needed, the butterflies in the stomach, the red bull run but really what comes at the end of the book is the constant (almost pathetic) need to be special and to be admired, loved, acknowledged and respected. There is a sense of bitterness permeating the book and frankly not too much of cricket. KP seems to be convincing not just the readers but himself as well that he deserves to be among the greatest players to have played the game despite how it ended.

Rating: 7/ 10 – Pluses for honesty and openness, Minuses for being bitter and whining

Roy Keane

The one thing that you are assured when you pick up Keane’s book is that he will be brutal in his assessment about anything, himself including and he does not disappoint. This being an autobiography focusing more on the 2nd half of his career – last few years for United and his managerial career; the hits (all pun included) keep on coming. There is no cow sacred enough for Keane not to touch but at the same time, the grudging admiration that he professes for some of this opponents is quite admirable. Keane was no Mr. Nice Guy in his playing days and that is reflected here, right from his first chapter where he deals with the Alf-Inge Haland stamp. There is absolutely no sympathy for those he sees as slackers and not committed enough. Dealing with old age and injuries form a chunk of his declining abilities as a player and how he goes about dealing with it (Hint: Not so well). What is quite interesting is how the same qualities that were his strengths as a player carry over when he becomes a manager and how the effect is remarkably different. Keane is fairly self-critical but unapologetic of who he is and how he deals with things. While as a manager, there is a sense of mellowing but the Irish temper still finds its way out. There are vague glimmerings of a reconciliation attempt towards Sir Alex Ferguson but it still feels very early days. Keane has never really forgiven Sir Alex for what is an apparent betrayal. He also does not harbor the same feelings towards the class of ’92 and does not hesitate to let things go by. What really comes through the book is that of a hard, unflinching man but its tinged with regret and a sense of what-if. Its absorbing and Keane is rather accepting of blame and his own shortcomings

Rating: 9/10 – Pluses – delivers in spades what was promised, searing and brutal, Minuses – for glossing over some of his own mistakes especially his confrontation with Sir Alex

Sachin Tendulkar

I would be lying if I said this wasn’t the most anticipated autobiography of the lot. Sachin the cricketer had an entirely uneventful non-controversial cricketing career. By saying the right word or by just being silent, the man steered himself through all political minefields adriotly and as a result, no one never knew where he stood on matters. If one hoped to get a better idea through the autobiography, be prepared to be disappointed. Apart from picking on some soft obvious targets, Sachin avoids any controversy. Reading more like a match report rather than an autobiography, this is a fairly pedestrian affair with exceptions being those chapters that deal with his family where his true feelings shine through. He remains quite conspicuous in his silence on match fixing, the match fixers, the spot fixing in IPL as well as cricket administrators while he goes with abandon after softer targets. Greg Chappell gets a fearful pillocking as does Rahul Dravid for his Multan declaration. He also has quite the go at the selectors for poor team selection when he was the captain. Another thing that comes across is Sachin taking credit for ideas that worked when others were captain. May be that really was the case but the sheer occurrence of those cases make it seem like there was no one else having bright ideas in the dressing room. The expressions of gratitude to all those who helped develop him, personally, cricket wise and money wise are profuse. There are descriptions of his fight from the various career threatening injuries and the low point he finds himself at. Some of these are quite harrowing and the struggle that a cricketer goes through on a daily basis to play even when he is not 100% fight is not evident when one sees on screen. Sachin as a foodie is a running theme and food features quite prominently be it loading up on salads when he did not have the means to friendly Indian families getting food for the Indian team in overseas conditions. Just in terms of a rather simple comparison, Sachin’s transition from playing local cricket in Mumbai to playing for India almost seems like a song in a Rajnikanth movie where he goes from pauper to prince instantly. The struggle for the 100th century and the constant reminders and expectations from one and sundry indicates the immense pressure that he came under

Rating: 5/10 – Overall disappointing and not really an autobiography but more of a match report. Not so well written by Boria Majumdar, hopefully this book was not so well written so that another biography can be published later with probably a truer account (earning a few crores more in a few years’ time)

What’s with Christopher Nolan and his love/ penchant for quoting from classics. If it was Charles Dickens “A Tale of 2 Cities” that served as inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises, this above mentioned quote seems to be the inspiration for the latest Nolan pic, Interstellar. Not much is known about Interstellar. Shrouded in secrecy until the 2nd trailer that came out recently, especially in this age of the leaking of pics of initial scenes to build out the hype (yes, I am looking at Zack Snyder), the details that we know about the movie pretty much talk about the how earth cannot survive and a teary Mathew McConaughey heading out on his way for interstellar travel. With a November time slot for release, Nolan is playing well outside the typical summer blockbuster release window paving the way for hope that this might turn out to be a more balanced, human drama with a good story rather than a smorgasbord of special effects and cringe inducing dialogs.And not to be forget suitably operatic score by Hans Zimmer as usual

 

One business that seems to be gently heading into the night is specialty book stores. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been getting SMSs on massive discounts at Landmark. This seemed to be in line with the rumors that Landmark was shutting down. And lo, when I visited Landmark at Citi Center over the weekend, it was a grim sight. In the words of Matt Farrell in Die Hard 4 – “That’s why they call it a fire sale, because everything must go”. Everything was gone or going. Insane discounts – 80% off on most of the books. Vast empty shelves lining up the walls with a few books on the central displays being aggressively hunted by the few people who wanted to make the most of it (including yours truly), it reminded me of a corpse being pecked away by a group of vultures.

 

Everything Must Go!!!!! photo 2

This being the 2nd such fire sale of a large book store chain that I have witnessed (the first being Borders in NYC, a huge store in downtown where literally everything had to go, even book shelves at $50 and books at 50 cents) begets the thought on why are things in such a state. It is easy and convenient to blame a variety of factors. Disruptive innovation in the medium of sales through the likes of Amazon, Flipkart et al. Disruptive innovation in technology through the proliferation of ebooks, the convenience of which makes life infinitely easier. A general decline in reading habits and time (sheesh, I sound like an oldie but sadly, its true) is definitely another key factor. Also, the fact that it’s easier to watch a movie based on a book rather than read the book itself. An avid reader as myself, I have also been guilty of the first two. Its been ages since I went into a bookstore and from a purely convenience reason, of the 30 odd books I have read this year, just 2 have been hard copies. (To be entirely honest, I do end up buying hard copies of books that I really loved in the year as e-books, mostly the first book in a series)

That being all said and done, isn’t the purpose of a business in staying relevant in current times, linked to adjusting itself to market dynamics? With nimbleness being the order of the day for e-retailers, to mangle and mash what Louis Gerstner said, can the modern day elephants of book shops really dance? Staying true to my profession, the answer of course is, it depends and for more details, I would need a charge code🙂. Maybe the day of the large specialty book store is really done and the way forward is to

1) Potentially co-exist with other retailers (like what Crosswords has done).

2) Embrace concept of online book stores and formats and price accordingly given that a few controllable cost elements can be levered. After all, customer needs and whom they buy for are more often than not tied to prices

3) Aggressively open up smaller stores in airports and railway stations, after all those are the places for impulse purchases especially when you dont want to make conversation😛

If nothing, book publishers and authors should be all the more concerned on how fast things are going down and the current situation involving Amazon and Hachette. Without taking sides in that battle, at the end of the day, it is a situation of one powerful entity trying to impose what it feels best for the customers (apparently) on an erstwhile powerful entity who is defending its position as being the best for authors (again, apparently). While there is truth on both sides, ultimately this protracted battle’s victims are reading customers and authors. A sad state of affairs indeed.

 

On a happier note, my scavenging efforts yielded 3 books

photo

 

1) Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons – A sequel to what is the best Science Fiction book I have read

2) Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson, Malazan Book 9 – Now that after 4 tries and 2 years, I have gotten done with Malazan Book 1, I feel myself strangely ambitious in completing what is at times the most frustrating, challenging and complex read I have ever had

3) The City’s Son by Tom Pollock – London. Underworld. Urban Fantasy. All checked

For books costing Rs. 1200, I got all of these for a cool 120 bucks. 90% off. Insane

And lo, just like that 2013 ended in a frenzied explosion of dragons and drugs. A year that increasingly got bloated under the sheer weight of the summer blockbuster frenzy, almost inducing viewer fatigue. A year that pretty much solidified that sequels and superheroes are likely to dominate box offices for quite some years ahead, especially given the not-so-great performances of original content (of course, it didn’t help that some of the original fare were just execrably bad, Cough *After Earth* Cough). This was also the year that proved that destruction of the Earth remains a fairly viable movie proposition (and not in real life of course). 3D still remains a money grab proposition with most movies hardly making use of 3D to supplement the story experience and instead using it more as a gimmick (Gravity and Pacific Rim being obvious exceptions). Finally, this was also the year that truly cemented the Marvel juggernaut. A juggernaut that increasingly is forcing other studios to jumpstart their own shared universes so as to not get left behind (DC’s painfully rushed attempt at the long planned Justice League movie and Sony’s own attempt towards a Spiderman shared universe)

With over half the year spent in the US, especially during the summer time, my movie viewing experience was fairly peaceful. Barring for a few movie, one rarely has to book tickets in advance and could just walk in to watch a movie even if it’s a new release. Picking out a list of top movies from all the movies watched is quite an exercise especially when one has to compare across genres. There are some obvious parameters like story, plotting, acting etc but then there is the one other important aspect which is typically given a short shrift when it comes to ranking top movies by critics (snobs!), which is the fun and sheer entertainment aspect of the movie. While movies do have a responsibility to serve as a window to our past, present and future and also educate if possible, the primary purpose of movies still remains that the audience have a good time. And that is something that usually gets lost when any top movie ranking list is prepared. In the same approach as last year, below are the top movies of 2013 (in no particular order)

1.  American Hustle: Bringing together the acclaimed cast comprising of actors from his previous award winning movies (Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), David O Russell crafts a fine movie that avoids the pitfalls of Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook and works brilliantly. The movie is predominantly about the characters and each one trying to hustle the other (except for poor Jeremy Renner). Strong performances from the cast truly drive this movie; Bale as the hustler with the heart of gold, Amy Adams as a hustler who would do anything to survive, Bradley Cooper as the relentless, ruthless FBI agent, Jeremy Renner as the mayor who does not mind breaking/ bending the laws if it helps his constituents and Jennifer Lawrence as the true wild card, scaring everyone. This period film with all its wigs, costumers and music is quite humorous (if darkly) and frankly, very entertaining (even if you see the ending coming)

American Hustle

2. Gravity: As folks would know, I am not a fan of 3D. It’s just a money grab proposition and nothing else. However, 3D if done properly, is quite an awesome experience and the first 15 mins of Gravity remains one of the best movie moments of the year. Watching Sandra Bullock spiraling in space, your heart beat escalates and you (almost) forget that this is a movie. Gravity is a sheer triumph of what technology can achieve in film making and as well as, how the real deal lies not in blowing up stuff but in how you blow up the stuff. A survival tale, Alfonso Cuaron’s  real triumph is making you feel claustrophobic in a movie set in space

Gravity

3. Rush: A big screen retelling of the epic 1976 formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt & Niki Lauda, Rush is a heart-pounding, adrenaline-driven comparison of the rivals who were complete contrasts to one another. The trailers focus a lot on Chris Hemsworth, playing up his good looks and the daredevil attitude but the movie does a far better job of focusing equally on both the characters. Daniel Bruhl portrayed as the rat-faced Lauda does get his fair share of screen time and quips. The movie does a fine job of not being judgemental or portraying either of the characters as hero or villain and therein lies its greatest achievements.

Rush

4. Prisoners: You know what they say that there are no new stories, just new ways of telling stories. Denis Villeneuve, takes a Taken-like situation (Angry dad, hunting for his kidnapped daughter, takes the law in his own hands going after the kidnappers) and creates a movie that is deeply uncomfortable. While you cheer for Liam Neeson as he trashes Paris, in Prisoners, you bear an uncomfortable disturbed silence as you watch Hugh Jackman torture Paul Dano to find out where his daughter is. A sense of dread pervades the movie even as you start feeling conflicted towards the happening on the screen. Hugh Jackman is quite brilliant (seeming angrier than any of his Wolverine movies) and Jack Gyllenhall presents an intriguing detective names Loki with his tattoos and nervous tics that increase as the movie goes on. A complex, complicated movie that forces you to ask uncomfortable questions

Prisoners

5. Pacific Rim: This is a movie for your inner 12 year old. Granted that the movie suffers from a complete lack of surprise in the story (or as remarked, a story itself), some annoying characters, general clunky, cringe-worthy dialog (“Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse”), all of which do not make a difference as you watch giant robots (called Jaegers) slugging it out with ginormous lizard like creatures (called Kaiju). Fantastically shot, Guillermo Del Toro brings about all the love and affection that he has for the old robot-monster fighting movies. Each set piece is bigger than the previous one and there is a particular jaw-dropping moment when one of the Kaiju unveils an enormous pair of wings and drags a Jaeger upwards into the sky. A rousing, pulsating score from Ramin Djawedi and a fun cameo from Ron Perlman helps distract attention from the absolutely wooden performance of Charlie Hunnam. It also must be said that Idris Elba carries the movie with gravitas (and the name Stacker Pentecost is among the coolest names that I have come across)

Pacific Rim

6. 12 Years a Slave: While Django Unchained was a typical Tarantino twist on slavery, 12 Years a Slave paints a harrowing picture of slavery. Brutal and unflinching, made all the more remarkable as this is based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave is an uncompromising take and told poignantly in just over 2 hours. A remarkable performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor and supported brilliantly by Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve McQueen should be among the frontrunners this award season for this terrific movie

12 years a slave

7. All is Lost: If one strips Gravity of all its special effects, dialogs and the back-story, the movie you would get is All is Lost. Featuring a one man cast of Robert Redford who is adrift in the Indian Ocean as his boat develops a leak following a collision with a shipping container; it’s a story of survival. We do not know the name of Redford’s character nor his backstory. All that we want is for him to survive as he faces the elements. Redford’s character does all to survive braving all the hardships that comes his way but things turn bleak fairly quickly. JC Chandor is fast becoming a hot shot director with his 2nd impressive movie after Margin Call. Robert Redford’s gives quite a performance with barely a few sentences of dialogs and in fact, one of the most powerful moments in the movie is when he yells an heartfelt invective as all things go bad

All is Lost

8. Iron Man 3: In an age where superhero movies are becoming angst-filled and going dark, Marvel Studios are bucking the trend and making movies that are fun (even if they have darker aspects to it). How does one make a super hero follow up to Avengers? Simply, by not making a super hero movie. Iron Man 3 is more of an action thriller movie rather than just a superhero movie of saving the world when all is at stake. An exploration of what Tony Stark is without the suit, Iron Man 3 addresses some of the major pain points of the prior 2 Iron Man movies, (notably a coherent 3rd act). RDJ remains as snarky as ever and owns the role (even if it’s not sure if he will return for an Iron Man 4). While there has been a fair amount of online outrage of the identity of the Mandarin, it was definitely one of those plot twists that stayed away from the constantly buzzing internet spoiler boards. As always, Iron Man’s suits are simply awesome and it’s definitely cool to see how the suits have constantly evolved from the 1st movie. A fun summer movie without a lot of superhero angst.

Iron Man 3

9. The World’s End: The concluding part of the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Blood and Icecream Trilogy, The World’s end is a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Subverting cinematic tropes like the previous 2 movies, The World’s End is about a bunch of friends reuniting to complete a 12 pub crawl that they did not complete when they were kids. And as things go, there is an entire world of weirdness in store for them as they discover an alien invasion paving the way for laughs and action through the course of the movie. Simon Pegg indeed has one of characters of the year with the refuse-to-grow Gary King who wants to relive his best days while the others are quite reluctant as they had grown up and moved on. Gary King is one of the saddest characters to be encountered this year despite all the outside bluster. And yes, the Cornetto wrapper makes its customary appearance as does falling over the fence.

The Worlds End

10. This is the End: Another apocalyptic comedy, another ensemble cast feature and another awesome movie. This one stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride among a host of other Hollywood celebrities, all playing grossly exaggerated caricatures of themselves facing an apocalypse that devastates LA and forces them to band together to survive. And boy o boy, this is the last group anyone would want to be part of, when one has to survive. A bunch of spoilt prima donnas, each person’s worst character comes out rather easily as they try to survive and the group isn’t afraid to take digs at each other during the course of the movie. Irreverent, wildly and wickedly humorous, it thoroughly deserves its R rating. Watch out for all the celebrity cameos including one at the very end that was completely left field. (Watching the movie, one does have a question if Danny McBride is really that obnoxious in real life or just that all his characters are be it Thadeous in Your Highness or Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down)

This is the End

Movies that almost made it

1. Now You See Me: You know there are some movies that if you leave your brain behind and just go with the flow, you will have a great time. Now you see me fits that category perfectly. A fun caper thriller, the movie has an electric pace and as an audience, you go with that flow and it’s only when you step out and try to think about it, you realize that it quite did not make as much sense as it did. But for those 2 hours, you are thoroughly entertained and involved due to the pace of the movie as there is literally no breathing time during the movie

2. Wolf of Wall Street: A movie based on the life of Jordan Belfort, the titular Wolf of Wall Street and brought to life on screen by DiCaprio and helmed by Scorcese, this is a movie that celebrates the giddy excesses and highs of Jordan Belfort and his cronies making money in not so legal ways. A non-stop high ride, this is a movie that pushes the envelope constantly and what makes the entire drama unbelievable is the fact that it’s exactly what Belfort and his cronies did in real life as well. A fantastic performance from DiCaprio (he really wants that Oscar doesn’t he) and supported by Jonah Hill, the movie unfortunately suffers from a long running time. It also features one of the scenes of the year when a drugged DiCaprio tries to drive back home

3. The Place Beyond the Pines: A compelling ambitious movie that explores the whole idea of “Sins of the Father”. A movie with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper should frankly be a must see movie. Prepare to dampen your excitement as the pair shares just a single scene in the movie. A rather unevenly paced, the movie falters in the 3rd act when the other characters in the movie are forced to carry the burden. Deeply moody and filled with conflicted characters, The Place Beyond the Pines is not a light watch

4. Pain & Gain: Yes. That’s right. A Michael Bay movie almost making it. Pain & Gain is as atypical a Michael Bay movie as Anonymous was for Roland Emmerich and that is quite an achievement for both of them. Based on a true story, it’s the story of a bunch of bodybuilders who decide to get rich fast by kidnapping, torturing and extorting money from rich people. It’s darkly humorous, peppered with scenes of violence and extreme stupidity. While Mark Wahlberg does a good job, the real surprise of the movie is Dwayne Johnson. One never thought he could carry off a role like this so well.

Like last year, this year also had its fair share of clunkers. Poor scripts, badly acted, abysmal plotting, and a host of other factors (including the lack of a brain while devising the movie) feature in the list below

1. After Earth – or the movie that Will Smith did for which he rejected Django Unchained

2. Machete Kills – or the movie that only stayed true to half of it’s prequel’s “So bad that its good”

3. Bullet to the Head – or the movie where both Stallone & Jason Momoa deserve that Bullet

4. Parker – or the movie where Statham’s formula finally fails

5. Red 2 – or the movie where aged stars just turn up to pick up their paychecks

2013 Movies missed out which could have figured in the list – Inside Llewyn Davis, Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, Don Jon, The Spectacular Now, Kings of Summer, Out of Furnace

Next Post: The 2013 Beanbag Critic Award

What a great year to be a reader of speculative fiction. Some long awaited books finally out, a few series getting over (and potentially be part of future best series), emergence of flintlock fantasy as a new sub-genre, promising debuts and a renewed focus on military fantasy (both medieval and modern).

Personally, this year marked a significant change in my reading habits. I started reading a fair amount of current year releases than previous years, motivated partly by the need to keep track of what’s happening in the space and driven partly by the completion of some of the older series. While the number of books I bought has remained more or less the same, I have almost stopped buying physical books (running out of shelf space is quite a reason) (Non-fiction and Indian authors being the only books I end up buying, purely owing to the well, the non-torrentability of the Indian authors and outrageous prices for the ebooks). The amount of books consumed as well went up this year primarily due to technology convergence and syncing. From starting a book on the tablet to continuing to read it on the laptop to finishing it on the phone, this helped me reduce the multiple book syndrome and concentrated attention to 2 and at max, 3 books at a time. Urban Fantasy, which I discovered last year courtesy Jim Butcher, formed a decent chunk of my reading. Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (Dresden-lite, if you will) and Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka proving to be discoveries of the year. This is likely to continue with books from Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell being part of my immediate TBR (To Be Read) list. I closed the year with a good heaping of military fantasy, polishing off The Shadow Campaign by Django Wexler and The Red Knight by Miles Cameron in quick succession and would definitely like to retain the taste for military fantasy in 2014.

With the amount and the sheer variety of the books, ranking does become inherently challenging. While I diligently capture book ratings on Shelfari (I somehow love the site more than Goodreads) (I love viewing my shelf of Shelfari), the book ratings often are a function of more than just how the book shaped out to be. Apart from being a function of the characterization, world building, pacing of the book, and the language, the rating also is affected by extraneous factors like, the timeframe book was read (during stressful / non-stressful periods, during travel or quick peeks) and how it was read (both the medium as well as how interrupted the reading cycle was). Given the profession and the pressure, it definitely is not realistic to expect an uninterrupted peaceful reading atmosphere every time and that one must grab every possible opportunity to read (sometimes even at the cost of re-reading pages to get back into the flow of the book)

Having caveated (I am a consultant after all), below are the list of some of my favorite books of 2013 (in no particular order, except for the 1st, which is my book of the year)

1)      The Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire Series, Book 3):

Emperor of Thorns

Synopsis:

Mark Lawrence brings to a thrilling close his epic trilogy of a boy who would be king, a king who would desire an empire—and an empire on the edge of destruction…

King Jorg Ancrath is twenty now—and king of seven nations. 

His goal—revenge against his father—has not yet been realized, and the demons that haunt him have only grown stronger. Yet no matter how tortured his path, he intends to take the next step in his upward climb.

For there is only one power worth wielding…absolute power.

Jorg would be emperor. It is a position not to be gained by the sword but rather by vote. And never in living memory has anyone secured a majority of the vote, leaving the Broken Empire long without a leader. Jorg has plans to change that—one way or the other. He’s uncovered even more of the lost technology of the land, and he won’t hesitate to use it.

But he soon finds an adversary standing in his way, a necromancer unlike any he has ever faced—a figure hated and feared even more than himself: the Dead King.

The boy who would rule all may have finally met his match…

*************************************

A compelling tour-de-force. Mark Lawrence brings to conclusion his epic series in style. This remains one of those series that turns the fantasy trope on its head. Despite featuring a protagonist who knows of no other way to survive than be evil, you want Jorg Ancranth to win, to succeed and to rail against those who say no to him. It indeed has been a fascinating journey. Lawrence crafts the book with dark black humor and in this age of ever expanding series size, he brings the book to a conclusion, which is the conclusion we need and not necessarily the conclusion we deserve. Easily among the best books of the year.

2)      The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (The Lives of Tao, Book 1):

The Lives of Tao

Synopsis:

 When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

*************************************

Ever wondered if the voice that sounded in your head was never really you but an alien parasite residing in you, an alien species that has been part of this planet for billions of years, influencing human civilization, through acts big and small right through the ages. Lives of Tao is the result when the alien parasite enters the body of a stuck in a dead-end desk job, slacker who also suffers from low self-esteem and well, is supremely unfit as well. An utterly hilarious romp with enough action and training montages packed in, Lives of Tao is a fantastic read. While the sequel (The Deaths of Tao) didn’t really live up to the potential of the 1st book, it’s still worth a read. A delightful delicious romp with unique character voices and philosophical ruminations when you least expect it. A fabulous debut

3)      Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole (Shadow Ops, Book 2):

Fortress Frontier

Synopsis:

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began to develop terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Overnight the rules changed…but not for everyone.

 Colonel Alan Bookbinder is an army bureaucrat whose worst war wound is a paper-cut. But after he develops magical powers, he is torn from everything he knows and thrown onto the front-lines.

 Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.

 Now, he must find the will to lead the people of FOB Frontier out of hell, even if the one hope of salvation lies in teaming up with the man whose own magical powers put the base in such grave danger in the first place—Oscar Britton, public enemy number one…

*************************************

Contemporary military fantasy is a difficult beast to get right once, let alone twice. After a rocking debut that was Control Point, Myke Cole betters it with Fortress Frontier. A more likeable, consistent character, an expansion to the existing world, building up of secondary characters, and the nuclear weapon of great books, a well-timed betrayal sets up this fast paced, intriguing book and leaves one salivating for the 3rd book (out in another few weeks)

4)      The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wacker:

The Golem & The Jinni

Synopsis:

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

 Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

 Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free

 Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

*************************************

Another fascinating debut. This book is as far removed away from fantasy fiction as it can get and yet retains all the fantasy elements necessary to bring about magic. A magic in writing, a magic in world building and a magic in characterization. This is a story about belonging and purpose. A love story and yet not a love story. Helene Wacker is a name to watch out for

5)      The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham (The Dagger and the Coin, Book 3):

The Tyrant's Law

Synopsis:

The great war cannot be stopped.

 The tyrant Geder Palliako had led his nation to war, but every victory has called forth another conflict. Now the greater war spreads out before him, and he is bent on bringing peace. No matter how many people he has to kill to do it.

 Cithrin bel Sarcour, rogue banker of the Medean Bank, has returned to the fold. Her apprenticeship has placed her in the path of war, but the greater dangers are the ones in her past and in her soul.

 Widowed and disgraced at the heart of the Empire, Clara Kalliam has become a loyal traitor, defending her nation against itself. And in the shadows of the world, Captain Marcus Wester tracks an ancient secret that will change the war in ways not even he can forsee.

*************************************

A book that gets into this list by the sheer dint of having crafted one of the most compelling antagonists in recent times. There is this popular saying that the most dangerous villains are the ones who believe that they are doing the right things. Geder Pallaiko thinks that his actions are just since he is doing the right thing but in reality, his actions are the actions of a weak man, who does not realize that he is a puppet and when he takes unilateral action, its usually is a result of his own insecurities and fear. This unpredictability makes him extremely feared by his opponents who view him as a hard cruel man. Being the middle book in the series, it does tread water a bit which is amply made up through the rich characterization

6)      Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage Trilogy, Book 1):

Promise of Blood

Synopsis:

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

 It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…

Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

 It’s up to a few…

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

 But when gods are involved…

Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

 In a rich, distinctive world that mixes magic with technology, who could stand against mages that control gunpowder and bullets?

*************************************

Another debut author featuring in the list, Promise of Blood places itself right after a coup has taken place and is a non-stop ride after that. With an unique magic system involving gunpowder, Promise of Blood packs in political intrigue and religious struggles amidst an action packed plot. While reading the book, I was constantly making comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s works and realized that McClellan is one of Sanderson’s students. If imitation is the best form of flattery, McClellan has definitely chosen the right template and mentor and the end product could be written by Sanderson himself. No bigger praise than that

7)      Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar, Book 2):

Happy Hour in Hell

Synopsis:

I’ve been told to go to Hell more times than I can count. But this time I’m actually going.

My name’s Bobby Dollar, sometimes known as Doloriel, and of course, Hell isn’t a great place for someone like me—I’m an angel. They don’t like my kind down there, not even the slightly fallen variety. But they have my girlfriend, who happens to be a beautiful demon named Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands. Why does an angel have a demon girlfriend? Well, certainly not because it helps my career.

She’s being held hostage by one of the nastiest, most powerful demons in all of the netherworld—Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell. He already hates me, and he’d like nothing better than to get his hands on me and rip my immortal soul right out of my borrowed but oh-so-mortal body.

But wait, it gets better! Not only do I have to sneak into Hell, make my way across thousands of miles of terror and suffering to reach Pan- demonium, capital of the fiery depths, but then I have to steal Caz right out from under Eligor’s burning eyes and smuggle her out again, past demon soldiers, hellhounds, and all the murderous creatures imprisoned there for eternity. And even if I somehow manage to escape Hell, I’m also being stalked by an undead psychopath named Smyler who’s been following me for weeks. Oh, and did I mention that he can’t be killed?

 So if I somehow survive Hell, elude the Grand Duke and all his hideous minions and make it back to the real world, I’ll still be the most hunted soul in Creation. But at least I’ll have Caz. Gotta have something to look forward to, right?

 So just pour me that damn drink, will you? I’ve got somewhere to go.

                                 *************************************

Our favorite wise cracking, cynical and general wise-ass of an angel is back. Thematically though, the book sees a change moving from the urban crime investigation theme to more of an exploration of hell. Tad Williams takes the readers along with Bobby Dollar through the various levels of hell and it ain’t pretty. While the pacing of the book is on the slower side and the plot does not really progress much, this book clearly subscribes to the fact that the journey is as important as the destination and with its description of hell, you feel the torment and the tribulations that Bobby Dollar undergoes, for a forbidden love

8)      Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis (Milkweed Triptych, Book 3):

Necessary Evil

Synopsis:

 12 May 1940. Westminster, London, England:  the early days of World War II.

 Again.

 Raybould Marsh, one of “our” Britain’s best spies, has travelled to another Earth in a desperate attempt to save at least one timeline from the Cthulhu-like monsters who have been observing our species from space and have already destroyed Marsh’s timeline. In order to accomplish this, he must remove all traces of the supermen that were created by the Nazi war machine and caused the specters from outer space to notice our planet in the first place.

 His biggest challenge is the mad seer Gretel, one of the most powerful of the Nazi creations, who has sent a version of herself to this timeline to thwart Marsh.  Why would she stand in his way?  Because she has seen that in all the timelines she dies and she is determined to stop that from happening, even if it means destroying most of humanity in the process. And Marsh is the only man who can stop her

                                *************************************

Mixing magic with the real world is a recipe for extreme kitsch and laziness in plotting for most authors. Thankfully Ian Tregillis isn’t most authors. The concluding volume of the Milkweed Tiptych utilizes these elements perfectly and is a seamless continuation of the middle volume, with a significant chunk spent exploring the 1st book. With the aid of a plot device, that when used in most other books (and movies and TV series) usually gives me a headache, Tregillis uses it in a way that seems entirely plausible (in the context of the book). Oh and also a big thumbs up for introducing a character best described as a precognitive sociopath through this series

9)      Blood Song by Anthony Ryan (Raven’s Shadow, Book 1):

Blood Song

Synopsis:

 “The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.”

 Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.

 Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.

                                *************************************

If we cannot have Patrick Rothfuss, at least we have Anthony Ryan. High praise and comparison indeed. Rothfuss has demonstrated a style of writing and narration (albeit over two books) that is a pleasure and Anthony Ryan does the same in his debut book. While it’s difficult for any character to be even closely comparable to Rothfuss’ Kvothe, Ryan does a phenomenal job. The story has the easy pace, cadence and flow that you are lulled into a fascinating journey and without realizing, it’s 4AM on a working day

10)   The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett:

The Troupe

Synopsis:

 Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.

 But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change.

 Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives.

 And soon…he is as well.

                                *************************************

Heartachingly beautiful. No other ways to describe this story of longing, belonging, love and hope. It’s moody and dark but never without hope. There is truly something about books/ movies that deal with music, traveling musicians, circuses et al that if done right easily vaults up to the top of my reading list starting with McLean in Caravan to Vaccares to Rothfuss in Name of the Wind. The Troupe is no exception to that and looking forward to more books from RBJ. (This is also the only exception in this list. All the books in the list were released in 2013 except for the Troupe. The Troupe due to the simple fact I read it in 2013. My blog, my list, my rules (when convenient of course))

Honorable Mentions:

1)      The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

2)      The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

3)      Hunted by Kevin Hearne (even if the new POV introduced is kind of grating and inconsistent)

Ambivalent Reactions:

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch: This is a book that I guess everyone had massive expectations on. We all wanted to see our familiar rogues (Locke and Jean) take on the world and with the introduction of a character that the Gentlemen Bastards considered a legend in flesh, this book should have had it all. Instead Sabetha didn’t live up the hype and the romance between Locke and Sabetha lacked chemistry. However, Scott Lynch remedies the situation by introducing a completely new wrinkle to the story, almost transforming perceptions on how future books are likely to pan out and this is my cause of excitement for the rest of the series.

PS: As one can see, I have gone with Speculative Fiction over the traditional fantasy fiction. Speculative Fiction is an overall umbrella that encompasses fantasy fiction, horror, supernatural, superhero, science fiction, apocalyptic et al (in short, the genres I pretty much read)

PPS: Disappointing read of 2013 could very well be The Daylight War by Peter V Brett. As much as I liked the Painted Man, this one got steadily irritating especially wrt some characters and the cliffhanger at the end of the book did seem a cheat of a way to end the book. And sadly, despite the title, there was no war