Archive for the ‘Best of 2015’ Category

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

 

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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