mjhearle

Month: January, 2013

My Favourite Books of 2012

Authors should read books as well as write them. That seems like a no brainer, but when you’re in the middle of a first draft sometimes picking up a book to read isn’t that appealing. Maybe it’s the fear of having one’s voice polluted. Maybe it’s just laziness. Whatever the case, I generally feel like I don’t read as much as I should. I tried to rectify this in 2012 by forcing myself to read – if only for ten minutes – every night before going to bed. As a result I made it through thirty books this year which is approximately twenty five books more than I read the year before. That’s a win.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favourites though please pay no attention to the order. The books are relatively disparate in terms of style and genre so putting them against each other just seemed redundant.

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King (5)

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King (5) (Photo credit: Travelin’ Librarian)

The Wind Through The Keyhole by Stephen King

There seems to be a commonly held perception in the blogger community that Stephen King isn’t as vital a writer as he once was. Bullshit. I’d point to 2011’s Full Dark, No Stars and his most current release The Wind Through The Keyhole as  some of the best stuff he’s ever written. The latter in particular is a wonderfully creepy fable full of the kind of suspenseful horror sequences and vivid characterisations that King excels at. You don’t have to be a Dark Tower fan to appreciate the book, but it helps as there are numerous references, both direct and oblique, to King’s magnum opus.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

After learning this is one of Neil Gaiman’s favourites I had to pick up a copy. It’s not that I’m a slavering Neil Gaiman fanboy it’s just…well…er – no,  I am a slavering Neil Gaiman fanboy. That said, this book is a blast. While the heft of it is slightly formidable, the sly wit of Clarke’s prose makes diving into the story a breezy pleasure. Separate from the compelling central drama between Strange and Norrell, history buffs will appreciate the way Clarke artfully weaves her mythology of the Raven King and Faerie into significant English historical events such as the Battle of Hastings. I am not a history buff though feel like I know a lot more about 19th century England after finishing this book than I did before. The BBC have just announced they’ll be turning Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell into a TV series so I suggest you jump on the bandwagon now before it inevitably becomes a pop culture phenomenon ala Game of Thrones.

Cover of

Cover of The Corrections

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve read quite a few online interviews with this Franzen fellow and the impression I’ve formed is of a hyper-intelligent, deeply sensitive, and distinctly misanthropic character. Keep in mind this is only my impression, and the real Franzen might be the sort of guy you’d happily share a few beers with at the local pub. Doubtful, though.

This is why I’m constantly surprised at how much heart is evident in his novels. Both Freedom and The Corrections are filled to the brim with neurotic, selfish and objectively unpleasant characters, yet Franzen writes them with such affection it’s hard not to love them. He’s also surprisingly hilarious for such a serious author, displaying a propensity for scatological humour that make his frequent digressions into wanky intellectualism a whole lot easier to swallow.  The Corrections doesn’t end on quite the same beautifully bittersweet note that Freedom managed, but by the turn of the final page I felt like I’d read some worthy and great and human which is more than I can say for most books.

Cover of "The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Ma...

Cover via Amazon

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Reading Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) was one of the most thrilling and intellectually satisfying literary experience I had this year. Not only a compelling adventure rendered in sparkling prose, this series is also about ideas. Big ideas. Audacious ideas. Wonderfully challenging ideas. One of Pullman’s motivations for writing His Dark Materials was for the books to serve as a refutation of the Christian propaganda in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. And so His Dark Materials is about a man who sets out to kill God.

Yes, God. Harry Potter, this aint!

While taking down Christianity may be his central agenda, Pullman doesn’t stop at this, also layering in complex references to metaphysics, theology, gender politics, string theory, and philosophy but never at the expense of the narrative. This isn’t a book weighed down by its ideas but one that uses them to scale heights rarely reached by fantasy fiction. It’s exciting heady stuff and should serve as a benchmark for any writer working in the genre. By that, I don’t mean every fantasy writer should seek to destroy organised religion, only that every writer should strive for the same level of intellectual and creative curiosity in their work. 

This is the sort of book that makes me wish I had children so I could give it to them  to read. There would undoubtedly be questions afterwards. Questions I might not have the answers for but the sort of questions that lead to healthy conversation. Which is precisely what I think Pullman intends. He’s not trying to convert the reader into an atheist – despite what I may have suggested, I don’t think these books are anti-spiritualism or even anti-God (only this book’s God) – instead, I think His Dark Materials is more interested in starting a dialogue about free will and the dangers of blind faith.  

And so we reach the end of my ‘2012’ posts. I hope you enjoyed them. I had a ball writing them. Please feel free to drop by the comments section to share your thoughts or any suggestions you may have for books I’ve missed. 

M.J.

My Favourite TV Shows of 2012

I need to watch more television.

This might sound like an odd confession from someone who constantly moans about not having enough time to read books but the truth is there’s no shame in wanting to watch TV these days. Delving into a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be just as rewarding as cracking open a novel. There’s a reason wags have labelled this a golden age of television.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember the scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men that made me realise this show was something special. Don Draper, stressed and hungover, lies down on the couch in his office and glances up at a fluorescent light. A fly is trapped behind the plastic guard desperately trying to escape. There’s no music – just the low hum of the light and the frantic buzzing of the fly. In retrospect, the imagery might be a little heavy handed – yeah, Don Draper’s the fly trapped in a prison of his own making – but it’s the sort of elegantly wordless scene that rarely pops up in television. Mad Men isn’t that concerned with plot, instead it rambles down narrative avenues and cul-de-sacs, more interested in the journey than the destination.

One episode stands out in a season of brilliant episodes – I’m talking about episode four, MYSTERY DATE. Mad Men has always had an undercurrent of simmering tension, however this episode really ramps it up by including a real-life serial killer, Richard Speck, into the proceedings. Again and again, the seemingly unrelated murder case intrudes on the narrative, appearing in newspaper headlines or overheard conversations. Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic theory that suggests if a gun is introduced in Act 1 then the audience expects it to go off in Act 3. And so we viewers are kept on the edge of our seat during MYSTERY DATE, waiting to see how this serial killer stuff is going to impact story. For a show that prizes character over action it’s a surprisingly suspenseful episode, and one that culminates in a typically obtuse, though satisfying, manner.

Breaking Bad (season 1)

Breaking Bad (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mad Men had a particularly strong season, Breaking Bad has remained consistently strong throughout it’s five seasons. Still, I find myself waiting for the upcoming final season with some reservations. These stem from the fact that I don’t really like Walter White anymore. When  Breaking Bad first began, it was thrilling watching this mild-mannered high school teacher outwit violent drug dealers and gangsters but now Walter has transformed into such a cold and despicable character I find myself caring less about his plight. The show’s called Breaking Bad, so I shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events but I can’t help but think it would be better if Walter showed a glimmer of remorse from time to time. The moments of black comedy which once alleviated the oppressively dark tone also seem to be coming in shorter supply. That stated, I’m committed now and will follow Walter White’s story to the bitter end if only to see how the whole tragic mess plays out.

Perhaps because it’s filtered through the lens of the fantasy genre, I find the similarly grim Game of Thrones to be a much easier watch. GOT, survived the loss of Sean Bean’s noble Ned Stark to deliver a second season just as strong as the first. For my money, Tyrion Lanister (brilliantly performed by Peter Dinklage) stood out as the most compelling character of the season, closely followed by the plucky Arya. And that last shot with the White Walkers marching on The Wall – Wow! Talk about a rousing way to close out a season. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

From hour long dramas to half hour dramedies, I watched Lena Dunham’s GIRLS after having my curiosity piqued by no small amount of online controversy. Because Dunham is only 26, there was much written about her being given a TV show to write, direct and star in, with the general thrust of the arguments being she didn’t deserve it at such a young age. Nonsense. Dunham was given this opportunity because she’s damn talented. GIRLS is clever, hilarious and peppered with scene after scene of emotional honesty. At times cringe-inducing in its rawness, the show nevertheless consistently entertains and I can’t understand why it would provoke such scorn when bland entertainment like How I Met Your Mother is infinitely more risible.

True Blood, was okay this year. I’ll stick around for next season but it’s not appointment TV. Jason Stackhouse still cracks me up, and I do love mimicking Bill’s ‘Sookie’. The ample gore and nudity is, as always, appreciated but the showrunners better whip something special up or I can’t see it surviving much longer.

Dexter (season 2)

Dexter (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was writing my Favourite Movies post, I included a bit of a wildcard (John Carter) and suspect my next choice will be equally controversial but, dammit, I enjoyed the hell out of Dexter. Isaak Sirko was a great antagonist this season, rich in pathos and acted superbly by the always reliable Ray Stevens. I was disappointed he didn’t make it to the end. Deb is still an annoyingly emotional basketcase, but it was a smart move making her aware of Dexter’s true nature (still think the incest stuff is boneheaded) as this complication added some much needed drama. Dexter’s central romance with Hannah was surprisingly sensitive and compelling. I suppose, it didn’t hurt that the Aussie actress (Yvonne Strahovski) playing Hannah was absolutely gorgeous – I’m gonna have to check out Chuck. It will be interesting to see how her character impacts the next season. Hell hath no fury like a sociopathic poisoner scorned.

Community, was patchy but when it worked there were few comedies that could compete with it. Much better than The Big Bang Theory and its canned laughter ilk. In terms of reflexive, post-modern comedy Arrested Development is still the reigning champ

One of the shows I loved most this year actually finished in 2006. I discovered Deadwood on BluRay and hungrily devoured all three seasons over a couple of weeks, luxuriating in the profane/poetic dialogue and marvelling at the exquisitely grimy art direction. In a perfect world we’d get a new season of Deadwood every year. As it stands, I’m grateful to have three.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally, we come to a show which probably shouldn’t be on this list, as it is in no ways ‘good’ but I include it to be honest with myself and with you, dear reader. American Horror Story: Asylum ramped up the lunacy of the first season by introducing all manner of shenanigans. Ghosts, demons, breast-obsessed serial killers, madmen, madwomen, nymphomaniacs, horny nuns, nazi scientists, zombies, exorcists and aliens all popped up, sometimes overlapping each other in a single episode. The result was perhaps not what the creators intended. Instead of terrifying, American Horror Story is often hilarious in its desperate urge to horrify and titillate. While, this may not be the classic genre series I initially hoped, I’ll gladly accept more American Horror Stories if only to see if the creators can maintain this fever-pitch level of crazy.

That’s it for my thoughts on TV in 2012. Let me know if you agree with my selection or if there’s any great shows I missed out on.

M.J.

My Favourite Movies of 2012

2012 was maybe the best year for cinema since 1999, which saw the release of modern classics The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty and my personal favourite Being John Malkovich. Sure, there were a few stinkers like Battleship and Ghost Rider (which even crazy old Nic Cage couldn’t save), but there were so many other quality releases that it was easy to ignore them. What follows is my rambling attempt to encapsulate the best movie experiences I had during the year. You won’t find a top ten list or anything so formal, however in the interest of establishing some kind of hierarchy I give you my two favourite films of 2012: Looper and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Despite being completely different in terms of subject matter and aesthetic, both films left me with the impression that I’d witnessed something special.

Read the rest of this entry »

A new year, a new coat of paint

Welcome Shadudes and Shadettes to mjhearle.com version 2.0.

This re-design has been a long time coming. When I first set up the blog I knew nothing about HTML or CSS or any of the other hocus pocus involved in web design. I picked the most straightforward looking wordpress template and promised myself that I would make it more idiosyncratic down the line. Now, nearly two years later, I’ve fulfilled that promise.

The hardest part was trying to wrap my head around the concept of coding. I knew coding was necessary for web development but had never dabbled in it myself. Luckily, there were plenty of online resources but even then I struggled. It was like learning another language. Simple things like decreasing the space beneath the headers or moving the navigation menu around proved almost impossible and it was only after much deliberation – and no shortage of tantrums – that I eventually succeeded. The scary thing is I’m not sure exactly how I succeeded?

Sometimes it was like magic. I’d type some random gibberish into the CSS Editor and the page elements would leap to do my bidding. Other times I’d follow an online tutorial to the letter and nothing would happen. Or the reverse would happen and I’d have a panic attack. The world of web development might be slightly less of a mystery than it was before beginning this exercise, but it is still a mystery. One, I doubt I’ll have the patience to ever fully understand.

The design of the header image was a much less frustrating task. This is, after all, what I do for a living. First, I scribbled a rough thumbnail of the spooky, Tim Burton-esque type treatment I wanted. Then I brought it into Illustrator where I played around with various concepts until settling on a couple which I uploaded to Twitter. I solicited advice on which concept worked best and what I might do to improve my designs. If nothing else, this experience has taught me just how valuable social media is as a creative tool. There’s a lot of talented folks out there. In fact, it was a tweet by Lee Stephens, that ended up heavily influencing the final design.

Scroll to the top of the page and take a look. What do you think? I dig it. The colours and sketchy, handmade quality are more or less exactly what I envisioned. The rest of website might still be a work in progress but at least I’ve got a sexy header.

It’s a start.

M.J.