Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, so I guess I must be 46 today, and what a strange and messed up year 2020 has been. I’ve been able to stick to my plans for The Age of Madness but other than that all bets have been off, and with new strains of Covid appearing and tougher lockdowns coming in across the UK it looks like a bumpy ride for the foreseeable future as well…
A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – Publishing has, without a doubt, fared an awful lot better than some industries, but it’s still been a weird, worrying, and hugely disrupted year. Big front list fiction titles have generally kept on trucking, for non-fiction and less established authors it’s been tough. Bookshops were largely shut down in spring with the result that some big books were held back leading to an unprecedented splurge of releases in August and September. Traditional book events were all off, of course, so we had online events instead, with mixed results. Still, The Trouble With Peace came out in September and sold about as well as A Little Hatred, exactly a year before, in spite of all the difficulties, which was a solid result, I think, just clipping a highly competitive UK bestseller list at number 10 and doing particularly well in Audio, which is becoming a more and more important share of the market.
A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – I believe, with a wry laugh, that the plan at one stage had been to dust off book 3 of the trilogy last year, slap my palms together at a job well done, then fire immediately into my next project so that it was well underway by now. Needless to say, things haven’t quite worked out that way. Projects tend to expand to fill the time available, and I’ve been continuing to pick away at The Wisdom of Crowds for most of this year. It’s now out for its copy edit, so pretty much finished, and I’ve started a bit of exploratory writing on the next thing, and I’m remembering how difficult it can sometimes be to get into something completely new, especially in the current climate with all its frustrations and distractions. Hopefully in the new year I can settle down to it and make some progress but it’s a totally new setting, new concept, new set of characters, so it’s gonna take a while to get comfortable with it, and no doubt there’ll be several months of wailing and gnashing of teeth and wanting to trash the whole concept. We shall see.
TV AND FILM – I’m not sure I’ve watched a new film all year – clearly there wasn’t much released and the cinema was mostly out, but when it comes to watching films at home I find I can never quite face the two hours it takes. A lot of my ongoing favourite TV shows didn’t deliver new seasons this year, but there was no shortage of stuff to watch, that’s for sure, and probably forgetting half of what I took in:
The 4th season of The Crown I found better than the 3rd but still a bit ponderous. The Undoing was a tantalising setup but sort of wandered off into no man’s land in its last episode. Season 2 of The Boys was still highly enjoyable – it maybe lost a little of its impact and focus compared to the first season but it’s worth it just for Anthony Starr’s brilliant turn as Homelander. Warrior is a great show, I think – never losing sight of its mission to serve up crunching bare-knuckle action but finding time to explore plenty of interesting characters and situations along the way. I’m thoroughly enjoying watching The Mandalorian with my son – after really not liking the last couple of films it’s nice to be rediscovering an excitement for Star Wars. Star Trek’s new offerings, sadly, I’ve been less excited by – as a huge fan of Next Generation I really wanted to love Picard but . . . I did not. Discovery’s more of a frustrating mixed bag – they can do good episodes but they never seem to be able to put two of ’em together. Bosch is an unpretentious show that I always seem to really enjoy. I watched three seasons of The Sinner – the first was great, the second was good, the third was a bit weird. Watchmen was brilliant I thought – a rare example of a high concept adaptation of a beloved property really delivering right up to the end. Then The Queen’s Gambit was a rare example of something being as great as everyone said – just an original concept very well realised and acted. I managed to finish the year on a high with Tim Minchin’s Upright – a thoroughly enjoyable little bittersweet gem.
GAMES – When lockdown began I got on a bit of a strategy kick, the pick of which was probably Frostpunk – a really cool and ruthless take on the city-building genre which pits you against an icy environment and an ever plummeting temperature. Those sorts of games are usually sedate but on the harder difficulty settings this one is truly gruelling. Cyberpunk 2077 has obviously caused some controversy, to say the least – I hadn’t really been much following the hype for it so I didn’t necessarily find myself hugely disappointed. I played on PS4 and didn’t find it as buggy or crashy as some had reported (though it certainly is buggy and crashy). At times it looks incredible, even on PS4, and the character designs and animations in particular are superb – never have people seemed so believable in an open world game of this kind, for me. It does feel unfinished though – lots of clunky menus and shonky gameplay features, and perhaps most seriously, though the neon concrete world is amazing in its scope and detail, there’s a bit of a lack of background content to really draw you into that world and make you feel like you live there. So I left Cyberpunk unfinished, thinking I might enjoy it more when I’ve got a PS5 and there’s a proper patched, improved and updated version available. I’m half way through Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and actually enjoying it a lot, though that AC schtick is maybe getting a wee bit tired 615 games in. So that leaves my game of the year split two ways:
The Last of Us 2 was brilliant in many, many respects, virtuoso stuff at times, though I felt it didn’t have quite the beautiful character-driven simplicity of the first game (the remaster of which I played again right after finishing the sequel), and at times could come across a tad manipulative. Ghost of Tsushima was the unexpected gem for this year, which applied an Assassin’s Creed-like open world approach to feudal Japan but with beautiful looks, some slick gameplay and bags of style and polish.
THE YEAR AHEAD – Last year I predicted a lot of travel for this year. Shows what I knew. Next year it all depends on how vaccination goes, I guess. I would have been guest of honour at Boskone in February – that’s cancelled in person, of course, but they’re still going ahead with online panels and events. I’d very much like to be in Aviles in Spain for the 10th anniversary of the Celsius festival in July, where I’ve been a frequent guest in the past. Then the final part of The Age of Madness trilogy, The Wisdom of Crowds, is going to be out in September, and I’d love to be able to tour again at that stage and visit some bookshops in the UK. But time will tell, I guess. Other than that, it’s battening the hatches and getting stuck into the writing of what comes next.
Happy New Year, you beautiful bastards, and let’s just hope this one is better than the last…