My year in lists 2023

The annual accounts of what I've read, watched and played in 2023, in rough order of preference. Links below go to Goodreads and Letterboxd, which I update meticulously and obsessively throughout the year.


At the beginning of the year I joked that in 2023 I'll be reading Russian literature, science fiction and erotica. I've stuck to that in a roundabout way, managing to get Brothers Karamazov under my belt, sampling some more Samuel R. Delany, William Gibson and John Crowley, and getting through a heap of D.H. Lawrence (although my favourite naughty novel was actually James Salter's crisp A Sport and a Pastime). I got so bored of A Theory of Justice over the summer that I fell back in love with comics, starting with some hefty Vertigo rereads and discovering some great new creators, notably Zoe Thorogood, Maria Llovet and Andrew MacLean. My biggest discovery was actually an old creator: Sergio Toppi, who made comics from the early 70s until his death in 2012, and inspired all the dudes like Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz who revolutionised anglophone comics art in the 80s and 90s.

Tim Bale - The Conservative Party After Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation [link]
Frank Kermode - Lawrence [link]
Peter Pomerantsev - Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia [link]
John Rawls - A Theory of Justice [link]
Mark Fisher - Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? [link]
Rachel Cusk - Coventry: Essays [link]

James Salter - A Sport and a Pastime [link]
Samuel R. Delany - Dhalgren [link]
Fyodor Dostoevsky - The Brothers Karamazov [link]
D.H. Lawrence - The Rainbow [link]
D.H. Lawrence - Women in Love [link]
D.H. Lawrence - Lady Chatterley's Lover [link]
D.H. Lawrence - Selected Poems [link]
D.H. Lawrence - Selected Short Stories [link]
John Crowley - Engine Summer [link]
Sally Rooney - Normal People [link]
Shusako Endo - Foreign Studies [link]
Anne Carson - Glass and God [link]
Kai Ashante Wilson - A Taste of Honey [link]
William Gibson - Burning Chrome [link]
Michael Perkins - Evil Companions [link]
William Shakespeare - The Two Gentlemen of Verona [link]
Christopher Marlowe - Doctor Faustus [link]
Tom Stoppard - Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead [link]

Zoe Thorogood - It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth [link]
Alejandro Jodorowsky / Milo Manara - The Borgias [link]
Sergio Toppi - Collected Toppi vols. 1, 5 & 7 [link] [link] [link]
Mike Carey / various artists - Lucifer vols. 1-8 [link] [link] [link] [link] [link] [link]
Jamie Delano / various artists - Hellblazer [link] [link] [link] [link] [link]
Kieron Gillen / Stephanie Hans - Die [link] [link] [link] [link]
Andrew MacLean - Head Lopper vols. 1 & 3 [link]
Andrew MacLean - ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times [link]
Maria Llovet - LOUD [link]
Maria Llovet - Eros/Psyche [link]
Maria Llovet - Heartbeat [link]
Dave McKean - Raptor: A Sokol Graphic Novel
Wendi Pini / Richard Pini - The Complete ElfQuest vol. 1 [link]
Go Nagai - Devilman: The Classic Collection vol. 1 [link]
Atsushi Kaneko - Bambi and her Pink Gun vol. 1 [link]
Masaki Segawa - Basilisk vols. 1 & 2 [link] [link]
Tatsuki Fujimoto - Chainsaw Man vols. 1 & 2 [link] [link]
Tite Kubo - Bleach vols. 1 & 2 [link] [link]
Benoît Peeters / François Schuiten - The Obscure Cities vols 1 & 2 [link] [link]
Warren Ellis / Jason Howard - Cemetary Beach [link]
Ram V / Filipe Andrade - The Many Deaths of Laila Star [link]
Tillie Walden - On A Sunbeam [link]
Christophe Arleston / Didier Tarquin - Magohamoth's Ivory [link]
Juan Díaz Canales / Juanjo Guarnido - Blacksad [link]
Rokurou Ogaki - Crazy Food Truck vols. 1 & 2
Eldo Yoshimizu - Ryuko vol. 1
Hiro Mashima - Fairy Tail vol. 1


My daughter is now old enough to go to the cinema, which has meant the only new things I've seen this year have been kids films. They are overpolished and manipulative and for some reason I weep at them regardless. I watched After Hours at the Prince Charles and The Wicker Man at the Southbank and both were great. With Licorice Pizza I've concluded rather boringly that PT Anderson is probably my favourite director currently making movies.

Cal Brunker - PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie [link]
Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthorn - Wish [link]

Paul Thomas Anderson - Licorice Pizza [link]
Shunya Itō - Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion [link]
Bong Joon-ho - Parasite [link]
Martin Scorsese - After Hours [link]
Robin Hardy - The Wicker Man [link]
Barry Jenkins - Moonlight [link]
François Truffaut - A Gorgeous Girl Like Me [link]
Jean Rollin - The Nude Vampire [link]
John Milius - Conan the Barbarian [link]
Alan J. Pakula - All The President's Men [link]
Alfred Hitchcock- Rear Window [link]
Tim Burton - Batman [link]


This year I've mostly beeing playing Baldur's Gate 2 in fits and starts on the 20-minute train journey to and from work – I know the game so well and the fights are so short that it's actually quite snackable for a giant and ancient CRPG. I'm on Throne of Bhaal now which isn't very good but I've never played it before and want to see how the story ends. I probably won't play the Larian game for another 10 years, but think it's awesome that so many people are into it. At home I've been poking at Hollow Knight, which has its frustrations but is ultimately a rewarding and beautiful platformer.

Bioware / Beamdog - Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn [link]
Valve - Half-Life 2 [link]
Team Cherry - Hollow Knight
Sierra - Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers


Favourite music of 2023

11 Singles and EPs

11. Nia Archives - Sunrise Bang Ur Head Against Tha Wall EP

More of the same and still very good. Also partial to the 'Bad Gyal' single from later this year.

10. Su Yu - I Want An Earth EP

Four nice new-agey ambient pieces, dependably gives you a sense of waking up in a ryokan in the middle of nowhere.

9. Blawan - Dismantled Into Juice EP

Mainly for the bloopy sad android centrepiece 'You Can Build Me'.

8. Carré - Tilted / Fainting

Classic dubstep business. 'Fainting' a little speedier but still has a swing to it.

7. Portway - Dropshipping / Lithium Souls

Grime inflected techno – for those nostalgic for the stuff on Night Slugs Volume One.

6. Mattr - A-Break / Corps

Sort of a more polished IDMesque version of what Skee Mask puts out. Quite lovely.

5. NOT_MDK - Hi-Tech Soul EP

Shout to Joe Muggs for the recommend – he described it as Omni Trio meets El-B which for me is like two batsignals in the sky. What's good about this how it threads the connections between 2-step garage and drum 'n' bass, in hindsight such an obvious thing to do.

4. Sully & Tim Reaper - 'Windswept (Sully Fader Mix)'

Shout to Shawn Reynaldo for the recommend. Bananas drum 'n' bass – like a hundred frictionless bouncy balls let loose in a sealed room (with you in it). Sully is the genre's most innovative producer at the moment – the 'Extant' single from this month is another barnstormer.

3. Raphael Roginski - 'Electron'

Shout to Philip Sherbourne for this one – there's an album but only this single is available on streaming. It's... folk maybe? World music? Intricately hand-picked guitar that sounds like it has emerged from the deep mists of time.

2. snow ellet - 'Whiskey and Soda Pop' / 'Elevator' / 'Playing Dead'

Shout to Michael Brooks for this one. Power pop with a slight punk pop feel – snow ellet's voice has a tinge of Tom Delonge whine if your ears are tuned to that sort of thing. The songwriting here feels like a level up from what has come before, and might have something to do with Sarah Tudzin being behind the boards. Excited for what's next.

1. Kwengface, Joy Orbison & Overmono - 'Freedom 2'

Favourite song of the year. Joy Orbison and Overmono don't actually do that much to the original, which has a 2-step flavour but goes in an 8-bar grime direction to create emphasis. The remixers just reverse that decision and keep the energy up throughout. I have found drill too scary to really engage with, and Kwengface doesn't really deviate from the genre's themes (pull quote: "this gang gang shit's exciting / I love drug money, big guns and violence"). He just has so much charisma that you can breeze through the content of what he's actually saying. Yet another reminder that 2-step garage can go alongside the steam engine and parliamentary democracy as one of the greatest things the UK has ever invented.

19 Albums

19. PinkPantheress - Heaven Knows

This branches out a little bit from the material that put PinkPantheress on the map, and confirms that she is just an excellent songwriter in whatever mode she is operating in. Slightly confused about how massive the Ice Spice collab is, but it's a good song and in keeping with the feel of the rest of the record.

18. Imaginary Softwoods - The Notional Pastures Of Imaginary Softwoods

Consistently excellent ambient project from one of the Emeralds guys.

17. Cousin - HomeSoon

Another Philip Sherbourne recommend. This is very pleasant to have in the background but is actually teeming with detail, inspired by the idea of walking in a forest and communing with all the plants and creatures in it. Only 5 tracks but it's 30 mins long so goes in the albums list.

16. Victoria Monét - JAGUAR II

Ariana Grande songwriter striking out on her own. At its best when it sounds the least like contemporary R&B. 'On My Mama' is fine, but the luxurious Stevie Wonderesque ballad 'How Does It Make You Feel' is reeeaal gooood. The cut with Earth, Wind and Fire is also a standout. Relatedly – Ariana Grande has never been better than when channelling Mariah and Whitney on her debut album.

15. Otik - Cosmosis

Rooted in drum 'n' bass sonics but ranging across dubstep, ambient and techno, with every element polished to a glistening sheen. I've excised the spoken word bits, the rest is lush.

14. Heinali - Kyiv Eternal

A tribute to a city and a people under threat. This project uses field recordings of Kyiv and wraps them up in classical compositions with the aim of preserving in memory what is unique and special about a place. Powerful, beautiful and suffused with the hope that pulls you through the darkest moments.

13. gum.mp3 & Dazegxd - Girls Love Jungle

Jungle with all the ruff stuff rubbed out. I'm sure girls love the ruff stuff too, but all I can say is I'm down for the very syrupy pretty breakbeats you get on here.

12. feeble little horse - Girl With Fish

Super-hyped band puts out two perfect records and then breaks up is a career arc I have a lot of respect for. This strikes the right balance between being weird and being catchy. The sound of indie rock in 2023.

11. Hot Mulligan - Why Would I Watch

The sound of pop punk in 2023. Shout to Ian Cohen for the recommend. A level-up from the band's previous material, perhaps because all the tropes of the genre are thrown in the blender and exciting new song shapes are created. The vocalists' approach to scream-singing almost every line can be a deal-breaker for some. I think it captures the letting-it-all-out attitude the band has. Everything goes into the songs, no matter how embarrasing and self-compromising. These dudes rock, but I do also hope they are ok.

10. Wednesday - Rat Saw God

I have a hard time with the two biggest songs on here. 'Chosen To Deserve' is quite repetative and gets a bit dull for me. And while I'm sure the nine-minute 'Bull Believer' goes off live, I don't really have the patience for it on record. Take those two cuts out and you get a lot of quieter, meandering, alt-country type rock propping up the rip-roaring 'Bath County' which is the actual standout on the album. 

9. Andrea - Due In Color

So the standout song on this album is called 'Remote Working' and it basically sums up the point of this album. It's like a better sequenced and higher quality 'deep focus' playlist for when you're wfh and powering through the to-do list. A more propulsive Four Tet, if you will. All of this is damning with faint praise, so apologies to Andrea, but that's what I use this record for and it does a great job at it.

8. Tinashe - BB/ANG3L

Is seven tracks even an album? I think the format suits Tinashe, whose previous projects have a tendency to sprawl with the highlights getting a bit lost in the process. Lead single 'Talk To Me Nice' is unusual and good. The other heaters on here are towards the end. 'Gravity' is basically Tinashe on a Burial beat and sounds incredible. 'Tightrope' has her jump on a drum 'n' bass track, beating PinkPantheress at her own game. One of my favourite things she's put out.

7. Liquid Mike - s/t

Short and sharp, in-and-out power pop that does the business. Good hooks, noisy guitars, all the songs under two and a half minutes. Summer bbq music. Shout out Eli Enis for this one.

6. Aus - Everis

Shout out to Loraine James for this one. Her Whenever The Weather project last year was a favourite, and she put Aus on a playlist of inspirations. I have an irrational bias for ambient music made by Japanese people, perhaps because I automatically expect it to sound like Hiroshi Yoshimura, which is obviously stupid. Aus isn't that – there's some jazz and classical elements to his music. It's understated, but has a sense of craftsmanship that is very impressive.

5. Pony - Velveteen

If you miss what Charly Bliss where doing on their debut album, this will more than tide you over. No bad songs on this record, and quite a few solid bangers. This is unkind, but Pony basically aims for the same thing beabadoobee is aiming for, and they actually hit the mark.

4. yeule - softscars

Quite a lot was made of the pop punk influences on this record. They are most evident in the opening track, but that is actually the weakest song for me. For the most part this is just beautiful, melancholic, expertly put together dream pop, and quite a breezy listen.

3. Hotline TNT - Cartwheel

Supremely listenable shoegaze album with HUGE! RIFFS! Always feels good when you put it on. Some tracks remeniscent of chillwave – this can serve a similar vibe-setting purpose in all honesty. 

2. Jim Wallis feat. Henry Senior Jr - In Huge Gesturing Loops

What if pedal steel but ambiet is an excellent question answered by this Jim Wallis record. Shout out Neil Kulkarni for this one. Ambient music by its nature belongs in the background and it's often hard to differentiate one ambient thing from another. This felt more impactful simply because as soon as you put it on, it immediately sets the mood to meditative and you can feel the weight of the day lifting. Music is magical like that.

1. Magazine Beach - Constant Springtime

Ian Cohen saying "I need that emo shit in my life" on an IndieCast discussing Mitski has stayed with me all year. Never related harder to a clip of audio. Basically and at this point – me too, man. Magazine Beach were this year's Pool Kids for me, although they're not yet at the level of buzz where they're taking pictures with Paramore. Struggle to find much online about these guys beyond what they themselves put out (their Instagram caption game is very good I must say), so it was really good to see them included in Cohen's 2023 emo round-up, which suggests they've found an audience. Shout out to Brooklyn Vegan for putting them on another list of emo bands to check out in 2023 earlier this year, which got them on my radar. 

This album was released in the spring and it's a grower. On the first spin it just sounds like well made variations of emo that you've probably heard before. Maybe that's enough for me, and this band serves it in just the kind of flavour I like – gang vocals, unconventional song structures, hyper-specific lyrical concerns. That and I do find the youthful ambition of their stated goal to rethink the album format charming and admirable. Why not reuse the same hook in two consecutive songs? Why not end on a nine-minute epic which is just a bunch of different songs squashed together, as if Magazine Beach can just keep firing out new tunes forever. The seasonal imagery may be an obvious structuring device, but there's a power to it. A lot of the songs are about death and dead ends – but spring follows winter. The lyrics are full of dread but the melodies are full of hope. We're never waking up again sounds ominous, but the vocal is triumphant, and creates its own sense of community. I hope this band finds theirs.


The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

History has shown Dostoevsky’s conviction that atheism destroys morality is unfounded. A modern reader might find the author’s piety difficult to take – but the flip side of that is Dostoevsky’s masterful ability to document all the self-destructive impulses people give into. Basically all the characters in Brothers Karamazov operate either on the edge of hysteria or actually in the throes of a nervous breakdown. The hero Alyosha must cling to the dictates of faith in order to avoid being swallowed up by the emotional chaos around him. This book plumbs the depths of depravity and perversity, which is what makes it so delightful. Wrapped around that is Dostoevsky’s grief at the death of his son, which results in quite moving scenes exploring the responsibilities of fatherhood. Karamazov senior is incorrigible, but in sticking together the book offers some hope for his sons.

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The Collected Toppi Vol. 1: The Enchanted World

The Collected Toppi Vol. 1: The Enchanted WorldThe Collected Toppi Vol. 1: The Enchanted World by Sergio Toppi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Magnificent. Toppi is obviously a skilled illustrator, but what makes him a comics maestro is the thoughtfulness of his layouts, where the positioning of elements on the page highlight facets of the story. This collection focuses on humans caught up (and often engulfed and annihilated) by the awesome and uncanny power of the natural world. Toppi’s landscapes here dwarf the characters. They are forced into corners as the massive earth and sky crowd around them. The tales themselves are slight, and often have a wry humour to them. But the compositions are never less than stunning.

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DhalgrenDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was good of William Gibson to warn the reader that the riddles in the book are not meant to be solved. A traditional novel sets up a mystery that would keep the reader guessing until it is wrapped up satisfactorily at the end, but Delany frustrates such expectations. Knowing that that’s the point removes the need to keep trying to figure out what it all means. It’s ok to let that go – there is no final answer.

Every interpretation you can lay on the book is destabilised. What looked like rape maybe wasn’t. What looked like a fatal accident may have been murder. The protagonist’s different experience of time casts doubt on his reliability as a point of view character and author. We can’t be sure if the poems he’s written have been plagiarised or not. Instead of solutions we have shifting perspectives.

The novel foregrounds its artificially. It’s an artefact that appears within itself, while also looping endlessly. A reader could be forgiven for finding such postmodern gimmicks tiresome. What saves the book is Delany’s honest account of the anxieties and compulsions of literary creation. The Kid worries over the poems he writes – deleting, rearranging, rewording – in a way that makes you understand why Delany’s prose is so immaculate. Every sentence is approached with care – surprising and virtuoso descriptions and turns of phrase abound. It is a delight to read.

The Kid’s uncertainty about whether he can be understood, and whether his sense of reality is shared with others, is placed in the context of a wider breakdown of human and natural laws. Bellona is a post-apocalyptic setting which showcases the freedoms and dangers of anarchism. Communities do emerge from the wreckage, although Delany finds the commune’s improvement projects embarrassing, preferring to dwell on how a gang of libertine ‘Scorpions’ enforce a kind of order through random acts of violence. A bourgeois family’s attempts to keep up appearances is ridiculed – Delany pointedly demonstrates that the trappings of civilisation they cling to cannot keep them safe. That cynicism may reflect the upheavals of the early 1970s, but Delany’s trust in the anarchic and sexually-liberated forces embodied by the Scorpions feels naïve nonetheless.

The best compliment you can pay Dhalgren is that it makes you want to read more Delany. He’s a Joycean writer to the extent that he cares about the poetic potential of prose fiction. And his open-minded, self-questioning sensibility in dealing with uncomfortable topics of sex, race, madness and power is particularly valuable in these censorious times. A great talent, and this long book is a good introduction to his strengths.

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Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn

I've replayed this game probably more than any other. Part of that is familiarity – I grew up with Baldur's Gate and know its story and systems back to front, so there are absolutely no barriers to entry when picking it up again. That, however, is not the biggest draw. It's not really build variety either. While there are plenty of classes and kits to choose from for your main character, ultimately you will still end up with a party comprising some combination of fighers, mages, healers and ulitily. What makes the game special is the personalities that come alongside those mechanical considerations. This is where Bioware really mastered how to make the player care about RPG companions.

Baldur's Gate is in some ways like an extremely complicated version of Pokemon.  You pick your six little guys and go at it. There's a big cast to choose from and you won't be able to take them all. Your party needs to be well-rounded, able to tackle the various obstacles and encounters you have to face. There is fun to be had levelling up your toons and aquiring the gear that will make them into god-like beings that can take on other god-like beings.

But it's the personalities that matter. Character and mechanics interact in ways that present the player with interesting choices. Not everyone gets along – characters with a good alignment will have trouble tolerating characters who are evil, to the point where one may leave or start a fight with another. Keldorn is an experienced paladin who can wield the most powerful sword in the game, but will not abide being in a party with Viconia, an evil drow cleric with a valuable amount of magic resistance. You can't have both in the party for very long. Generally the good companions tend to be dual or multi-classed – they trade in raw power for versatility. The evil companions are more focused on realising the full potential of their specific class, and so tend to be more simple to use out of the box. Either way, there are at least two playthroughs of the game you can do with a completely different set of tools to address its challenges.

It helps that the characters you get are fun to hang out with. This is an old game – its innovations have become part of the modern CRPG landscape, but features like party conflicts, romances and player strongholds may feel embryonic to a modern player. The companions in the first Baldur's Gate are extremly lightly sketched – being little more than a portrait, a collection of barks and a paragraph of backstory. The game was designed to transpose the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop experience into a single-player computer game, and that's about as much information a tabletop group would need before they meet in a bar and go hunt for gold and experience in a dungeon.

After the release of Baldur's Gate, the developer discovered that players were actually quite attached to the companions they had created. forgoing ones that became available later because of the investment put into those that were available earlier. When making the sequel, they made sure that companions rewarded that investment and had more stuff to say and do throughout the game. Companions talk a lot more in Shadows of Amn, not just with you but between each other. One of the joys of replaying the game is seeing the interactions that crop up between party members, some of which can be quite unexpected. Two companions can start a relationship when in your party. Korgan, in many ways a deplorable bloodthirsty dwarf, nonetheless expresses admiration for the upstanding Keldorn and his skill in battle.

They are also very funny. In this playthrough I took the gnome Jan with me for the first time, who is a kind of jester figure – constantly telling meandering stories that inevitably circle back to his obsession with turnips. But there is more going on under the surface. A bit like the fool in a Shakespeare play, Jan is subtle when deploying his japes. His tall tales can be a way of puncturing the pretences of other characters while maintaining plausible deniability (just about) . If you have the knights Keldorn and Anomen in the party, Jan will be quite merciless in skewering each of them in turn – those exchanges are some of the funniest bits of writing I have seen in an RPG.

Jan's companion quest is quite short, but reveals a completely new facet to his character. When he discovers a former lover is in trouble, the jokes stop completely and he becomes a tragic romantic figure. There are nuances to many of the other characters you take with you. Jaheira has to deal with the death of her husband, but also the schemes and betrayals of her superiors in the organisation she works for. Her strong sense of direction is unmoored by her association with you, which is complicated further if you decide to become romantically involved. Eventually her stern demeanour breaks apart and she even starts enjoying a joke or two. Anomen is an arrogant wannabe knight who excels in giving exactly the wrong advice in every situation. Helping him pass his trial and resolve his daddy issues can make him into less of an idiot, and lead him to eventually apologise for his behaviour. Keldorn is a veteran of many struggles against evil, but you learn that in the course of performing his duties he has neglected his family. That leads to an agonising choice for the player – granting his request to retire and spend time with his loved ones, or retain his extremely valuable skills. I insisted he remained in my service, but had to live with the knowledge that I was effectively breaking up a family as a result.

Some of these characters were directly drawn from the developers' own D&D tabletop games – they were thought about and refined over time, which may have helped add unexpected dimensions to them. As players would have been familiar with the tropes of the genre, there was an attempt to subvert stereotypes. Korgan is an axe-wielding barbarian, sure, but he is also a poet with a talent for turning a phrase and engaging in ethical debates with his more upstanding fellow-travellers. Baldur's Gate sets the floor for what good writing and characterisation should be in CRPGs. Planescape: Torment, a game from the same era and made in the same engine, probably still sets the ceiling 20+ years on. The band between them is what we should expect from the genre.

Baldur's Gate has one advantage over Planescape in that its combat is a bit more sophisticated. The first Baldur's Gate game is a low-level D&D adventure – your party will be swinging and missing a lot, and you will be killed by wolves and bears while out in the wilderness if you're not careful. That in itself provides a certain amount of challenge and interest for the player (although I imagine some may also find it frustrating). Shadows of Amn carries on the story and banks the experience you would have gained in the first game – you now have a mid-level party with more spells and abilities at your disposal. The monsters you fight also have their immunities and quirks to contend with.

The Pokemon comparison kind of works here as well, in that what is a simple game of rock-paper-scissors matching a strong element against a weak one becomes a complicated game where your party has to counter the various abilities and buffs of your enemies. Mages are particularly tricky, throwing up protection spells that can make weapons useless and turn spells against you. The game rewards a thorough knowledge of the spell book (and there are a lot of spells in Baldur's Gate), as that is what will allow you to circumvent the problem magic users pose. Mage duels ultimately become a game of wits, where you rifle through your collection of spells to try and disrupt and defeat your opponent.

Combat in Baldur's Gate is often quite short. The game doesn't waste your time with mobs or enemies that have giant healthpools. The point of an encounter is not to provide some friction on the journey to fulfilling a quest, but to set up a challenge and ask you to work out how to resolve it. Some encounters feel impossible until you figure out a way around them. Beholders, a prestige enemy in D&D (and an excellent monster design), can be devastating, casting extremely disruptive spells at you very, very quickly. Mind Flayers, another famous D&D enemy, are even scarier, being very resistant to magic and able to kill you very fast if you engage them in melee. These are unfair fights if you fight them fairly. Finding ways to trivialise them is very satisfying. The game rewards an understanding of its systems, not just the determination to grind enough levels to make you strong enough to attempt its fiercest challenges.

Baldur's Gate is slightly less successful when it comes to using the environment as part of encounter design. Maps are basically flat, and the main variable is the shape they come in. There are some tricks you can pull. The ground floor of the De'Arnise Keep, an early-game dungeon, allows you to snipe the trolls in the great hall from balconies. Mind Flayers are usually found in dungeons with long corridors, allowing you to block them up with summons and keep your party safe from their brain-devouring abilities. Rogues are designed to excel at underhand tactics. Attacking from the shadows behind an enemy gives you a 'backstab' damage multiplier. They can also set traps, so you can bait enemies to follow you down to an ambush and then blow them up. Both manoevers are quite fiddly to execute, however. In practice, the simple formula of having tanks in the front and mages at the back is usually enough.

One of the cool things about Baldur's Gate is that everyone plays by the same rules. If you kill an enemy that is using a valuable item, you will be able to loot it afterwards. Mages have only so many spells – exhaust them all and they become defenceless. You can stumble across enemies willy nilly and trade barbs before the fight starts if you like, but you can also be smart and scout ahead unseen, and launch a pre-emptive strike. All these tactics become essential for veterans who know the game well and play at higher difficulties. Baldur's Gate systems are robust enough to still provide a challenge in successive playthroughs.

But as I wrote at the beginning, that isn't really why I come back to these games. My latest run was done on normal difficulty and I became obscenely powerful about half-way through. Building up my team to be absolute beasts was rewarding, but the real delight came from the fondness I built up for the companions I took with me. That's what will keep me coming back for more.


It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth

It's Lonely at the Centre of the EarthIt's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The subject matter here is so specific and personal that it almost obviates criticism. What makes the book so impressive is the sheer craft on display – Thorogood digesting almost everything comics can do and compressing it between two covers. Every single page in this book has a neat design idea or layout or storytelling detail, and I was constantly being surprised at what was being thrown at me. At one point the comic literally starts again from the beginning – the audacity on display is simply stunning. And it all works. Thorogood turns the claim that she’s the “future of comics” into a joke (and who can blame her, no one needs that on their shoulders), but I’m afraid to say the intelligence and effort on display in this book makes that bit of praise just evidently true. Read this and every other comic feels tired and lazy in comparison.

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Foreign Studies

Foreign Studies (Peter Owen Modern Classic)Foreign Studies by Shūsaku Endō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 'novel' actually collects together a short story, an essay and a novella on the theme of Japanese young men studying in Europe, an experience Endō himself went through in the 1950s. In the short story, the protagonist is patronised in every sense of the word by the Catholic community in France, and while some of the metaphors employed are a bit forced, Endō captures the tension between gratitude and resentment quite well. The historical essay is even more overtly critical of the Catholic church's attempts to convert the Japanese – to an extent that's surprising for a Catholic author.

The final piece strips out religion from the scenario – the protagonist is a professor of French literature sent to Paris by his university, and while he is too shy to act on the various temptations of living abroad and away from his young family, he has no hang-ups about it. Endō is skillful in foregrounding Tanaka's faults – jealousy, pride, pettiness, irritability – while still making the reader sympathise with his situation. The thrust of the story is about being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of European culture. Successful foreign students have to somehow ignore that realisation in order to survive – trying to fully immerse yourself ultimately triggers illness so severe that the scholar has to be sent home. For me, that idea wasn't as convincing as the smaller instances where Tanaka feels forced to assume a role he is uncomfortable with. His study of De Sade becomes an obsession, partly because of Tanaka's admiration for De Sade's flamboyant rejection of the social and ethical expectations of his day, and the suffering he experienced as a result. The moments of identification with this outcast figure are the most powerful in the book.

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A Gorgeous Girl Like Me

A very broad comedy from Truffaut, who clearly wanted to have some fun after the dour melodrama of Anne and Muriel. It’s a vehicle for Bernadette Lafont, who plays a bawdy provincial creating trouble wherever she goes, and using her looks to try and get out of it. Lafont gives a gutsy and energetic performance, matched by quite theatrical comic turns by the rest of the cast. It’s all very silly, but at least it avoids Truffaut’s reflex of ending on a death as a way to manufacture pathos. Here the bodies pile up, and nothing is taken very seriously.

There’s a bit of fun as well with a young cinephile whose amateur footage reveals the truth in a way that individual testimony can’t. The film has a certain Rashomon quality, whereby Camille’s narration doesn’t always tally with what we see in flashback. The film starts with a student looking for the professor’s academic paper and learning it was never published. The narrative is embedded in artefacts, most prominently the tapes the professor uses to record Camille’s story. It’s not as elegant as Citizen Kane, but Truffaut may be nodding to the idea that only something as artificial as the movies can give you the final truth of the matter.

The misunderstandings created by class is an undercurrent in the film – the sociology professor starts off befuddled by the language his subject is using. Truffaut has a snigger at well-meaning intellectuals who try to sympathise with the lot of the downtrodden to the point of excusing criminal behaviour. Camille is a remorseless psychopath, whose irresistible charms manage to get her out of the most outlandish scrapes. Her simps are marks – sometimes it’s that simple. The professor’s assistant is a snob who calls Camille a tramp. But a bit like the friend-zoned Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, she has the professor's best interests at heart, and Truffaut is enough of a romantic to end the film with her, and what might have been if Camille hadn’t bulldozed her chances.


Engine Summer

Engine SummerEngine Summer by John Crowley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of this book’s strengths was quite how effective it was at making me sleepy. The post-apocalypse it describes is serene, slow-moving and largely free from conflict. Although the protagonist goes on a quest, most of the jeopardy he encounters is elided. The central mystery that bookends the novel (who is the story being told to and why) isn’t in itself strong enough to propel the reader forwards. You have to trust the tale is worth telling. Thankfully it is.

There are some dated elements – many of the future societies being described have gendered assumptions that a modern reader will chafe at. This was written over 40 years ago and to a degree it shows. What’s lasting about it is the protagonist’s own yearning for knowledge and love. These (male-coded) desires are implied to have been taken to extremes and have ruined the world. But there are other ways of living proposed by the novel. Psychological and genetic engineering have produced a cat-like people who have abandoned expansionist drives, and the protagonist’s own illiterate culture, where deception is impossible and everyone says what they mean, seems to be a pleasant place to grow up.

The stories that structure these groups are imperfectly understood by the protagonist, and some of the novel’s most beautiful writing is found in evoking that ambiguity. The ending suggests that the protagonist has become a story that will in turn provide a template for a different way of living, and the love he experienced is seen to inspire the person hearing the tale to emulate it. Crowley’s hope might be that the tale does the same for the reader.

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A Theory of Justice

A Theory of JusticeA Theory of Justice by John Rawls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I won’t pretend to have read this cover to cover or have been able to follow every winding turn of the argumentation, not least because it doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion in the way something like Hobbes’s Leviathan does. Rawls helpfully points out the most salient bits in his introduction, and this does feel like a treasure trove that is to be dipped into repeatedly.

There is a lot going on here. The principles themselves are more radical than Rawls’s reputation as an establishment figure would suggest, and are the most valuable and influential bit to get your head around. The justification underlying them (the famous original position and veil of ignorance) is quite mad when you get into the analytical weeds, but as a thought experiment is interesting, and shares with the utilitarian dispassionate “view of the universe” an attempt to reason from a perspective beyond personal interests and biases. It is something we should all consider at least a little in our attempts to figure out these big questions of justice, fairness and what’s right. The idea of reflective equilibrium seems to me to be an invitation to engage in circular thinking, but I fully accept that I just might not understand it.

I do know a little bit about David Hume and Adam Smith’s ideas, and have to say Rawls’s depiction of them as utilitarians is deeply strange. But he’s a philosopher, not a historian. The way prior thinkers are twisted to prefigure his theory is amusing, but ultimately endearing. At one point he says that the original position is such a basic concept that loads of other people would have thought it up before, which is laughable . In this dense book you find your entertainment where you can.

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The Complete ElfQuest, Volume One (The Complete ElfQuest, #1)The Complete ElfQuest, Volume One by Wendy Pini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gorgeous line-art and inventive layouts make this fantasy epic a joy to read. The elves are designed to look strange and alien but alluring, and the different groups (wood elves, sun elves, snow elves) are well delineated. This also has some excellent villains – mysterious and ultimately tragic figures. The creators are clever about revealing their malevolent intentions to the reader, but not the heroes, which ups the tension of their intrigues. This is prestige comics, all the more impressive for being completely independent of the big publishers.

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Devilman: The Classic Collection Vol. 1Devilman: The Classic Collection Vol. 1 by Go Nagai
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very influential manga from the early 1970s. It takes a typical superhero set-up – a school kid possessed by a powerful demon who uses its power to fight a medley of other demons – and adds all the trappings of exploitation horror, including gallons of blood and plenty of nudity. The fight scenes are gruesome and inventive, including a memorable moment where Devilman employs his eyebrows to take down a foe. And the monster design is delightfully depraved.

But the book also has long exposition sections that fail to build up a believable world, and the plotting constantly strains credulity. There’s an incredible transition where a safe house inexplicably leads to an underground nightclub, which is so bizarre it’s almost impressive Go Nagai tries to pull it off. The back half of this volume also includes some weaker time-travel stories, which may have been written later and incongruously inserted in the middle of the story. Basically this is all over the place – an excuse for Go Nagai to indulge his whims and prodigious artistic talents. I liked it, but it’s a real mess.

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Half-Life 2

Who needs choice, anyway? One of the core values of great games is supposed to be providing the player with a range of tools and options to choose from in accomplishing a goal. And yet Half-Life 2 is quite prescriptive. You are on rails throughout – there is only one way through a level. And there is very overt signposting about what you need to do to overcome the obstacles in the way. Here's an infinite stash of rockets because you're going to be using rockets now. The crates have a bunch of grenades in them? It's grenade time.

The game is so expertly tuned to provide the player precisely what they need at precisely the right time that it always feels quite artificial. Immersion is elusive when the guiding hand of the developer is everpresent. The overarching narrative nods to this, in that Gordon Freedman is a pawn used by the G-Man to intervene in a mysterious inter-dimensional "Great Game", where you're supposed to tip the scales in the struggle between the rapacious alien Combine and the human resistance. Valve's Portal games make the metaphor more explicit – the player is literally in a designed maze where their lack of agency is very evident, and the goal is to realise the disturbing nature of this situation and escape. It's a more satisfying commentary on the constrained freedom games have to provide a player.

All that aside, it's very easy to get swept up in Half-Life 2's narrative. The original Half-Life was set in a claustrophobic underground base where the goal was survival and the lesson was not to trust the authorities to save your ass when disaster strikes. The soldiers aren't there to rescue you, but to kill you. Half-Life 2 transposes that sense of oppression onto an entire city. You are in a police-state ruled by Breen, a human puppet of an alien empire, and you quickly join forces with the clandestine resistance. Breen is a very satisfying villain. His propaganda broadcasts have a dark humour to them, but you discover that he has in part bought into the Combine's project, seduced by their offer of wonderous scientific discoveries. The fact that the resistance are the ones who have cracked the secret of local teleportation and the gravity gun shows up Breen's arrogance and his uselessness. He is a weasel, and an effective goad for the player to carry on fighting.

This is a very fun game. Half-Life 2 is a fairground ride where you do one exciting thing after another. Even if there is only one solution, executing it is still very satisfying. The choices you make are smaller and more immediate – which weapon do you prefer to use, will you run in or crouch around, how much do you want to mess around with the gravity gun and the environment around you. The challenges are well paced, with calmer exploration sections giving you a breather from the fights. The majority of the game is not particularly hard, although I did struggle a bit with the rocket fight against the striders towards the end. The finale is very confident – you breach the citadel and lose all your weapons bar the gravity gun, which becomes a one-click kill machine. The thrills and spills are put behind you as you traverse (and get carted around) an entirely new non-human environment. It's an inversion of Half-Life's difficult Xen section – and a great capstone to a great game.


Capitalist Realism

It’s an audacious rhetorical move to blame the failure to conceive of a realistic alternative to capitalism on capitalism itself, although in fairness Mark Fisher doesn’t absolve the anti-capitalist movement of blame either. Fisher’s aim here is to give an account of how the spectrum of political possibility shrunk in the 80s and 90s to exclude alternatives to capitalism, and also identify areas where the workings of capitalism become absurd and unrealistic, as a way to wedge open new possibilities. The second effort is less successful than the first, mainly because there is already a well-established understanding of what “market failure” is and the need for regulation and state provision to correct it, which Fisher doesn’t engage with at all. The problem may be that in adopting Deleuze and Guattari’s expansive definition of capitalism as this all-encompassing and mutable system, the problem becomes so ill-defined as to be impossible to convincingly argue against. Capitalism becomes the evil animating all other evils, and if you don’t already subscribe to this demonology, this book will not persuade you.

Which is a shame, because the two issues Fisher investigates are important. His account of mental health, and particularly the role of social media in making it worse, is prescient. And the distortions created by targets in public services is now well accepted. But politics can confront these problems without demanding the end of capitalism (or to put it in Fisher’s terms, capitalism can metabolise these critiques and neuter them).

It is very telling to me that at the end of the book, Fisher argues for the resuscitation of the concept of the “general will” – as if the conflicts in society can all be resolved if such a thing can be found. In fact, Rousseau, who first suggested the idea, thought it could only be realised in very small republics where everyone knew each other personally, and large states would have to settle for Hobbesian oppression to crush the clashing interests of individuals. In the very last pages Fisher proposes that the question of collective management is to be resolved “practically and experimentally”, when arguably the failure of collective management in the 20th century is the single greatest cause for alternatives to capitalism to appear so unrealistic in the 21st. With that short aside, Fisher skips over the main issue, which is that anti-capitalists have failed to come up with practical way to collectively manage our resources that can convince a large enough majority to try the experiment again.


A Sport and A Pastime

A Sport And A PastimeA Sport And A Pastime by James Salter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Salter’s terse, precise, photographic style is the standout feature of this slim novel, and it’s used to narrate the increasingly fevered imaginings of a love-affair that is mostly a piece of erotic fantasy. Dean is a college dropout and a wastrel, stringing along a working class girl in France and burning through his father’s money. It’s obviously reprehensible, but Salter’s unnamed narrator is nonetheless bewitched and obsessed with the intensity of Dean’s devotion to the pleasures of the moment at the expense of taking any responsibility. But life can’t just be a sport and a pastime – Dean’s fate suggests a final judgement on the risks of living fast, while his hoodwinked lover, eager for marriage and a family, ends up with the happy ending.

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Lady Chatterley's Lover

Lady Chatterley's LoverLady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some crude language aside this isn’t qualitatively different from Lawrence’s other English novels, except that his ideas are more baldly stated. Mellors and Connie are more depressed by the collieries and the mechanisation of modern life, and more cynical about the pursuit of money and success. The ending is also less ambivalent – Lawrence providing his couple with the promise of a romantic and sexual union that will sustain them in the “tragic age” they live in.

The book is most successful in depicting the pressures placed on the couple by class and the need to conform – extricating themselves from their loveless marriages is legally onerous and socially ruinous. The novel’s climax is their decision to go through with it regardless, which is what makes it a winning and resonant love story.

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Normal People

Normal PeopleNormal People by Sally Rooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sally Rooney’s writing is almost preternaturally easy to read and digest, and I finished this in three days. It starts off as a YA Romeo & Juliet story, but things get more complicated and quite a bit darker when the star-crossed lovers go to university and contrive in various ways to not end up together. Some of this feels like the author pushing her characters around to maintain tension in the story, a way of establishing beyond doubt that these two people belong together by showing how unhappy they are apart. But that drama keeps you reading, so the artifice is forgivable. Rooney’s debut focused on four characters rather than two, and had more surprising and affecting revelations in store for them. This book is more controlled, but also more conventional. Through their love the two misfits feel able to relax into themselves and stop worrying about being weird. That’s sweet. Conversations With Friends had some harder truths in store for the reader, which makes it a finer achievement.

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Women In Love

Women in LoveWomen in Love by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although a sequel to The Rainbow, this is a very different beast and can largely be read on its own (there are occasional references to previous events in Ursula’s life only to underline how far she has moved beyond them). Ursula shares the stage with her sister and the two men that love them, and each other. The central tension the book explores and ends on is whether marriage is partnership enough, or if other company is required for a fulfilled life. Happily Lawrence’s increasingly chauvinistic attitude is still reigned in here, and his avatar character’s lecturing is ridiculed and mocked, not least by the woman who loves him. It is that ambiguity and multipolarity that makes this a great novel. I think The Rainbow is greater still, laying out its thesis a bit more convincingly, but both books are triumphs and well worth reading.

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The Rainbow

The RainbowThe Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lawrence’s investigation of how ‘the relations between women and men’ had become ‘the problem of today’ required him to go backwards over 60 years and summon up all his powers as a poet to describe a state of nature where the sexes existed in harmony. It’s a powerful evocation, even if it isn’t very convincing. What’s striking about the Tom Brangwen love story is how little communication there is between the couple. Whereas Ursula three generations later feels entitled to question her lover’s politics and life choices. Ursula escapes the wild but mute passion that her grandparents shared (symbolised I think by the horses that block her way in the final chapter). She is stubborn and articulate and seeks wider horizons, for which the rainbow is an ill-fitting metaphor. Lawrence’s achievement is in successfully realising these very different modes of romance and family life, even if he doesn’t quite explain them. But he is a poet, not a sociologist – and the language the story is told in (with all its old-fashioned euphemisms in the love scenes) is wonderful.

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Coventry: Essays

Coventry: EssaysCoventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This essay collection kicks off in the worst possible way – with a long complaint about driving which feels like the most boring dinner party conversation ever. The other personal pieces – on parenting, homemaking, marriage – I found more engaging, perhaps because I don’t drive but do have kids, although even then there is little that is novel or striking in them. The real value in the book is in the back half, where Cusk shares her perspectives on authors that have informed her writing. There are a few bizarre claims (“nothing is lost or destroyed or interrogated by comedy” apparently), but generally the values and perspectives Cusk holds dear are well argued for. One of the best essays is a spirited defence of creative writing lessons, which gives an empathetic portrait of what people get out of them. The other is on the knotty paradoxical problems of ‘women’s writing’ and whether greater equality has led to writing about domestic concerns being perceived as less prestigious. Cusk’s own (deserved) success and acclaim somewhat disproves that argument.

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