Hopefully you enjoyed the last five boxsets I recommended (if you didn’t see them, find the post here). But as this lockdown continues and we burn through shows like never before, I thought I’d suggest a few more to add to your list.
Continuing our love for some historical drama, The Knick only ran for two seasons (but came to a natural conclusion, don’t worry). Set in the first decade of the 20th century, it follows the work and lives of the staff of the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York. It’s a great period setting for a drama about medicine as so much was being tried, tested and discovered at that point (the infancy of plastic surgery, blood types, and C-sections are explored among others). Led by Clive Owen as Dr Thackery, the tension ramps up with each episode, mixing medical drama with a look at the political issues of the times (eugenics, poverty and race being some of the main themes). Directed by Steven Soderbergh, every scene is rich with detail and it’s compelling right to the end.
If you haven’t seen Mrs Maisel… well, it probably means you don’t pay money to a giant multi-national company that doesn’t pay its taxes. But if you do find yourself on its streaming service and haven’t seen this show then you are missing out. To give it a brief synopsis doesn’t do it justice. But to give it a go, it’s set in NYC in the 1960s and follows Midge Maisel, a poster-woman for ‘perfect wifedom’ and motherhood, whose ‘idyllic’ life comes crashing around her ears when her husband leaves her and she finds herself getting involved in stand-up comedy.
If the whipsmart humour hadn’t got to me, the sharp, brilliantly lovable characters would have and if neither of those had succeeded in grabbing me, then there was the classic underdog story. And if… know what, it’s just a great show and it deserves its trunk load of awards.
It was quite something when a show that I almost turned my nose up at (why does a good film need to be stretched into a whole series?) became one of my favourite things on television. Noah Hawley (who also wrote X-Men TV series Legion) went from strength to strength in this anthology series. Each set in a different decade, every season came with a superb cast, brilliant stories and twists while keeping to that ‘completely bonkers but it actually happened’ feel of the film. Suffice to say, this wasn’t a rehash of the film’s material but instead built upon it. Widening its scope and populating its past and its future until the film was just one story among many that happened around the town of Fargo. There’s too much to like about Fargo, so I’ll just say, maybe start with Season Two (you don’t need to have seen Season One at all to enjoy it) and go from there. You won’t be sorry. Oh, and Season Four is out soon!
On the surface, Tin Star doesn’t seem like anything new. Its a policeman, played by Tim Roth, who takes over as Sherrif in a sleepy little town in Canada, having dragged his family with him from the UK. But dark things from his past soon catch up with him. Written like that it doesn’t seem like much. But sometimes, when you have the right cast and the right writers, magic happens. And that’s the case with Tin Star. Every character,every character, is gorgeously written and so complex, so real, that every scene brings up something new and unexpected. Tin Star takes absolute pleasure in subverting your expectations, veering off the well-beaten paths and gives you something infinitely more compelling. From the start it puts its main cast through the wringer and you can’t look away wondering how they can possibly keep on going. I heartily recommend giving it a go.
Masters of Sex
One of the unsung heroes of television, this popped up on Channel 4 for two seasons then disappeared (despite it having a full run of four seasons in the US). After it became clear that C4 wasn’t going to finish it, we had to acquire the rest by… other means. Following on the coattails of Mad Men, it’s set in the 1950s, and follows Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (household favourite Lizzy Caplan, see more from her in my previous TV blog), two real-life researchers who decided to study sex and blow the lid off the myths and cultural hang-ups that surrounded it. Both Sheen and Caplan act their socks off, the chemistry between them a lynch-pin of the series, while they work (or don’t) against the adversity that their studies attract from their more conservative colleagues. Special mention has to go out to screenwriter Amy Lippman, who, when given the show’s bottle episodes, consistently delivered incredible deep dives into the characters and their motivations with cracking dialogue fit for their own West End stage plays – especially the one set around an orgy. Now that got your attention, didn’t it?
So I hope these help bring you a bit of enjoyment as we continue through this whole, weird time. It’s tough to stay sane in conditions like these and art really does make things a bit better.
In the meantime, hope you enjoy these shows and that you might consider my book, The End of the Line.
As we’re coming to terms with the new world order (at least for now), I thought I would use my enormous capacity for devouring TV boxsets for good! Find below some of the boxsets I would recommend indulging in over the next few weeks. I’ve tried to go a bit different from other lists (you’re not going to find The Wire or Sopranos or West Wing here) instead I’ve looked at some of the recent hits that you may have missed. Almost all of them are based on books too! So I’ve included links to the books with each entry.
Only just finished on Sky Atlantic, for a while this was the highlight of our TV week. Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, the story begins when Terry Maitland (played by Jason Bateman) is arrested for the murder of a young boy. One witness saw him pick the boy up in his van, while another saw him covered in blood. But Terry has proof that he was out of town at the time of the crime. It’s based on a Stephen King novel, so of course the explanation is supernatural but it’s a real pleasure to watch it all play out. The cast were brilliant (especially Cynthia Erivo, who is always someone different in everything she’s in) and even the bit characters got their moments. It was written by Richard Price, who has long been a terrific writer (The Wire and The Night Of are just the tip of the iceberg for the shows, films and novels he’s written. And the direction was out of this world with strange camera angles often giving the impression of the characters being watched from afar. Overall, it was just a fantastic production, a slow burn that steadily built the tension and pulled the characters and viewers alike into the hunt for the truth. Creepy, unsettling, brilliant.
The Outsider is based on, you guessed it, The Outsider by Stephen King. You can buy it here.
If you love historical drama then this is the show for you. In its third season now, it’s one of Europe’s highest budget productions, re-creating 1920s Berlin in startling detail. It would spoil things to delve too deeply into the plot but it follows Detective Gereon Rath and temp-worker Lotte Ritter as they become embroiled in the power play between the various factions fighting to shape Berlin’s future. Featuring Nazis, Bolsheviks, communists, loyalists, criminals and the government, every character has their own politics and an agenda. You have to keep your wits about you to keep up with dealings and double-dealings of the various players. Impeccably researched, and utterly thrilling, I can’t recommend this series enough.
Some shows take a while to find their feet and The Magicians is certainly one of them. But what starts as a pretty basic ‘what if Hogwarts but it was a US college?’ idea flourishes in Season Two into something altogether more compelling. The writers pull a blinder by putting the characters in some incredible predicaments, perfectly pitched to test them and to change them in ways you wouldn’t predict. The outcome being that by the end you can’t help but love them, flaws and all. The show should also get a bit of kudos for its inclusivity on gender, sexuality and race. It’s a show that wears its heart on its sleeve and balances the humour with the drama and has an added bit of meta thrown in. It’s a favourite in our house.
An unexpected delight. We picked this up after having seen so many people talking about it on Twitter and we’re so glad that we did. What starts as a typical ‘fish out of water’ comedy as the wealthy, powerful Rose family find themselves down and out in the titular town, develops into something so much more. It isn’t the laughs (though there are plenty of those) but the nuance that carries this series. Character progression is slow but pronounced and believable as the Rosees adjust to their new situation. And there’s a romance in it that’s so adorable I’ve cried over it at least twice. If you’ve watched it already, you know exactly the pair I mean.
This isn’t based on a book, as far as I know, but if it was, it would be awesome.
Nothing had prepared us for this unexpected gem. We’re big Stephen King fans in our house and many a weekend has been polished off with a bottle of wine and a King film. When we put on Castle Rock, one cold December morning, we hadn’t expected to watch the whole first season in two days. But that’s just what we did. Set in Stephen King’s popular setting of Castle Rock, it brings in characters and locations from a number of King’s books and bounces them off one another in weird and wonderful ways. Even to tell you how the first season starts feels like a spoiler, but we found it compelling and we’re always glad to see André Holland in a lead role. An anthology series, season two can be watched without having seen season one (but it adds more fun in later episodes), and is uplifted by Lizzy Caplin (another household favourite) playing a young Annie Wilkes (Misery). If you’re a fan of Stephen King, this is well worth a watch, especially for all the King Easter eggs.
So there you have. I may follow up with a further five if there’s interest (and this whole thing keeps on going. In the meantime, hope you enjoy these shows and that you might consider my book, The End of the Line. Maybe if you buy enough copies, that might become a TV show one day. Who knows?!
The central heating is blasting, the good telly is lining up (His Dark Materials! The Crown!) and the mince pies have been on display at Waitrose for a month now, it’s starting to feel a wee bit festive. Being a complete freak, I’m already well into prepping my Christmas present list this year and thought I’d spread some of the present buying joy. So this is for you, whether you want a little gift for yourself or the fellow book lover in your life, I thought I’d share twelve of the top books I’ve read this year that would excellent pressies or holiday reads. There’s a little bit of everything here, fiction and non-fiction, crime thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Something for everyone!
Priest of Bones by Peter McLean
I saw Peter read from this at a Super Relaxed Fantasy Club event this Spring (if you haven’t been to one, it’s a must) and I was already at the back of the room buying a copy before he’d even finished. Think fantasy by way of Peaky Blinders. The start of a series, this book follows Tomas Piety and his motley crew of soldiers who have just returned to their home city after a long and grueling war. Tomas and his brother used to run a gang before the war but now that they’ve returned it’s to find the old gang in tatters and all of their territory gone. Good thing they know how to fight and take it back.
There’s magic here, there’s crime, there are hints at a bigger picture as the more successful the gang get the more attention from the upper echelons they receive. All the characters were brilliantly drawn and there’s so much difference between them that you have no problem telling them apart. So for something a bit different than your usual Epic Quest fair, I’d definitely recommend this.
After hearing two authors waxing lyrical about this (Adrian Selby and Ed McDonald if I remember correctly), I had to get it to see what the fuss was about. Boy, I was not disappointed. Gareth has done a lot of writing before for various RPGs (his Cthulhu City supplement for Trail of Cthulhu is mental) this is his first novel. From the moment he introduced the Tallowmen (guards made from wax with living flame melting them from within), I knew I was in for a treat. There’s a lot of plot in this book which I’m not going to spoil on you, but the sheer imagination of the world Gareth had drawn up was breath-taking. Comparisons to China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series are well earned. The characters were fun, the story whisked me along and it’s a world I can’t wait to revisit. Which is good because his new book comes out in the Spring.
The final in Jen’s Winnowing Flame Trilogy, which started with The Ninth Gate, this was everything you wanted it to be after the roller coaster of the past two books. I had already fallen in love with the characters, yelled at Jen for some of her decisions (she’d best be ready for all my fanfic) and couldn’t see a way things could possibly turn out ok for everyone. Now at the conclusion, Jen pulled a blinder by delivering an ending that was every bit as epic, poignant and fantastic as the trilogy deserved. She won more awards this year for this series and so she jolly well should have.
Let’s take a break from fantasy a moment. This debut novel was a small nugget of polished gold. Set in the present day from the point of view of a Filipino-American teenage, it follows Jay as he travels to the Philippines on the news of his cousin’s death. The book talks about the current war on drugs the President is waging in the country and the estimates 12,000 people that have died in it so far since 2016. Patron Saints is a heartfelt book about being caught between two cultures, having a foot in both yet belonging to neither, its about family, the difference between generations and sheds light on something few people in the West are aware of. It doesn’t raise solutions or even try to, this is about family, trying to live in the world and work things out.
Author Mim Skinner writes eloquently about her time volunteering in a women’s prison. Separated into neat little chapters (including handy break downs of prison slang), every story served up something different, the impenetrable sometimes Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Mim’s forays into talking to the residents about feminism, drugs, conflicts, resolutions and everyday kindnesses. This book was something raw and real, with no villains or heroes, just a lot of people doing their best with what little they had. This was a book that I’m going to be thinking about for years to come and I think you might feel the same if you give it a try.
I realised recently that I’ve read all Laura’s books for Bloomsbury in a single year, starting in October 2018 when I read her excellent The Silent Companions on my stag do, up to reading Bone China this summer. Suffice to say that if you haven’t tried any of her books, you’re in for a treat. If a tincture of gothic spookiness is just your cup of laudanum during the long winter nights, if you’re a fan of Sarah Waters or Daphne Du Maurier then these are the books for you. Bone China starts with Hester Why, a brilliant character with fondness for laudanum on her way to isolated Morvoren House in deepest, darkest Cornwall. It then time skips between her and a woman who lived there 40 years previously and picks excellently at the seam between science and superstition. Very much worth your time and perfect for spooky ghost story season.
One for the (slightly older) kids. This is the tale of a drought-ravaged people beset by a mysterious creature called Badeko. Coming out at the switching hour (gloaming), it steals people away to eat their dreams. Those left behind suffer the Sorrow Sickness, their memories of the missing loved one fading away, leaving only the grief behind so that they end up in mourning for someone they can’t remember. When Amaya’s little brother is taken, she heads off into the forest to get him back, racing to find him before she forgets him completely. This had such a great hook and it really delivered offering a nice blend of folk tale and creepy with amazing atmosphere. Hell, forget the kids, read this one yourself too.
This book came out of NOWHERE for me. I hadn’t heard of it but suddenly there it was on my kindle and the blurb told me it was a story I was exactly in the mood for and before I knew it, I was two chapters in. The 1920s Mexico setting, the folklore, the characters, the story, I loved it. There was a Gaimen-esque quality to it. It was a little American Gods (gods and other creatures hidden in plain sight among humans) with a bit of Stardust (a character on a folklorish quest, abiding by the rules of folklore) thrown in. It built wonderfully and I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages, determined to know how it ended. Can’t wait to see what the author does next.
I’ve been looking forward to this book for a loooooong time. I’m a huge fan of Joe’s books and when I heard he was writing a new trilogy set in the First Law world I was THERE for it. Boy, did he not disappoint. To see the world having moved on into an industrial revolution was a fantastic change of scene. The new characters were absorbing and, knowing Joe, you can’t help but keep reading to find out how he’s going to abuse them next. Joe’s always written brilliantly morally compromised characters and he does it in spades here. It feels very much like the first of a trilogy, but after the way this book ended you better believe I’m desperate for The Trouble with Peace. I also got the exclusive Waterstones edition which came with an additional short story. Though not essential reading it was very well told, cementing Joe’s status as one of the best writers in fantasy, right now.
I picked this up because it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Then I read it and discovered exactly why it did. I found this an astounding bit of science-fiction, doing all those things that the best science-fiction is known for. Spanning millennia, the story switches deftly between a race of spiders who have had jumper-cables attached to their evolutionary progress and a ship filled with the last humans in the galaxy hopping in and out of cryo-sleep. The story is brilliant as it slowly leads these two species into conflict for the only habitable planet but the concept allows Adrian to juggle so many themes (religion, gender, communications, science, the list goes on) and he does so brilliantly. The more you read the more you discover how fantastic the title is, matching so many facets of the story. This is a big mind expanding book and deserves to be a future classic of science fiction.
Not so much a whodunnit, as a who-sieged-it. Sam Hawke delivered a stunning debut novel with a concept I’ve never seen before. Set in a city-state from the twin POVs of the chief poison-taster for the ruler and his sister (who is much more than we are first led to believe), the book starts with a poisoning of a high-ranking official and before you know it the city is under siege from an unknown army. Incredible! As the walls are scaled and battles fought, Jovan and Kalina have to race against time to discover not only who the poisoner is but also the identity of this mysterious army. Who are they? And why are they attacking? As the title suggests, there’s a great deal of treachery, skulduggery and plots to be contended with but Sam also touches on some brilliant themes surrounding politics and the city / countryside divide that exists in nations across the globe.
Time for a bit of True Crime. Taking place in Hollywood in the 1920s, this follows the real-life story of the murder of a then-famous film producer. William is an excellent story teller, he takes the facts (everything sourced from interviews, news pieces, statements and diaries) and writes it so that it reads like a brilliant novel. We follow a wealth of characters / suspects and, as we sift through the evidence, we get a perfect snapshot of Hollywood at the time. This book is full of drugs, cons, blackmail, cover-ups, psychics, movie stars and so many moments that made my jaw drop, unable to believe that any of this could have actually happened. If there are more books out there like these, I will DEVOUR them.
So there we have it. I hope there’s at least one book that you fancy. And maybe if you wanted an extra book for yourself, a loved one or a rival, you might also consider my supernatural thriller,The End of the Line, which is out now in ebook and audio.