2014: My Year in Review

So, the end of another year. While I’m not a huge fan of celebrating New Year’s Eve – people do tend to go over the top in making rash life-changing promises, while others get quite maudlin – I do find it useful to look back over the year and reflect on what I’ve really enjoyed about it.

The rest? It gets filed under “useful life experiences” and I do my best to move on. A fresh start and all that.

For me, 2014 was a superb year. It wasn’t a daily walk in the park, but I had some superb experiences, made some tough decisions and survived some challenging situations – knowing more about myself and others.

I left my job, set up a new business and (so far) made a go of it. I finally got over my knee surgery and completed another half-marathon. And just days ago, I secured a place in the 2015 London Marathon!

Just like I did last year, in no particular order, these are my standout “2014 things” that I’d like to share. And in doing so, I know I’m missing out lots of equally important things, probably offending many in the process!

Book of the Year

3985This is a tough one for me. So I’ll begin this by immediately breaking my own rules and highlight two books I’ve enjoyed more than any others this year. The first is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It covers two of my favourite themes: creativity and the comics industry.

Set just as comics were taking off prior to World War II, it tells the stories of two cousins who write and draw their own characters and make it big as creators. It covers their experiences in life, love, dealing with loss and living through the war. You don’t have to love comics to enjoy this book, but I’ll admit the references to real world artists and writers were fun.

Chabon created some amazing characters in this book. It was so absorbing, I was genuinely sad to finish the book as I just wanted to see how their stories panned out.

The second book I’ll highlight is The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a really absorbing story of how an astronaut survives a disaster during a manned landing on Mars and has to attempt survival until he can be rescued. There is a lot of physics, maths and chemistry in the first couple of chapters. I’ll admit I found it a little challenging at first, but it’s worth getting through these and into the narrative.

It’s being made into a film, so if it sounds interesting, I’d recommend reading the book first. They’ll inevitably have to cut lots of the content to make it palatable to a general audience.

Movie of the Year

4001862-5196891396-guard

A few months ago, if you’d have asked me to choose my favourite film of 2014, I would have screamed “Captain America: Winter Soldier” from the rooftops. I loved every minute of it. And I’ve watched it three times this year.

I know people who don’t even enjoy comics or know who Captain America is who enjoyed this. Think of it as the Bourne Ultimatum with super-powers. And Nazis.

However…the Marvel went and released what seems to be their sleeper hit for 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy. Wow. Just wow. It had everything: spectacular special effects, space battles, improbable action scenes and really likeable characters. Not to mention some very laugh-out-loud moments.

The film’s writers had their work cut out for them – the origins of the Guardians of the Galaxy are complex and, to be honest, a bit impenetrable to the non-reader. But I think they did an excellent job of bringing the characters together into a pretty cohesive story, setting them up perfectly for the planned sequel.

Superheroes aside, I really, really enjoyed Interstellar – well worth the numb backside after sitting in the cinema for well over three hours.

Comic of the Year

This really has been the year of the super-complex crossover in comics-land. I’m pretty much a Marvel-only reader, but have dipped my toe into the Image universe when something has been overwhelmingly recommended.

But for all the cosmic battles, identity-switching and grand reveals, my favourite comic of the year has once again been Marvel’s Hawkeye.  To be fair, I’ve been flagging this as a must read almost from the beginning of the series.

The creative team have focused on a non-super-powered individual whose personal life is a bit of a shambles. He hasn’t got the money and charm of Tony Stark, the healing abilities of Wolverine or the clear unambiguous morales of Captain America.

Hawkeye

But Clint Barton – the Hawkeye of the title – is all the more interesting for it.

Living in a pretty shambolic apartment, his life centres on pizza, an adopted mutt of a dog, helping out his neighbours and battling Eastern European organised crime. All with a bow and arrow. While getting the living crap beaten out of him on a regular basis.

I think, in light of all the epic and cosmic stories Marvel is telling right now, his humanity and (relative) realism made him a more interesting character. That and the stellar art and dialogue provided by the very excellent David Aja and Matt Fraction.

Other honourable mentions go to “Sex Criminals” (which, despite the title, is really hilarious), the new reboot of “Fantastic Four” and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ever-excellent “Captain Marvel”. The latter is being made into a film, so get on board now so you understand it all when it hits the cinema.

Trip of the Year

No surprises here: it’s our trip to Japan in September. It. Was. Epic. Every day spent in Japan was a delight, regardless of the city we were in. I learned a ton, ate more than two tons and took in more visual beauty than I’m used to.

2014-09-03 13.51.50

Highlights on the trip were seeing the monkeys, visiting an onsen spa and eating the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.

Two weeks spent across Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo was simply not enough. I’ll definitely be back. I loved the fact that almost everything is different to London: the food, the language, the nightlife, the etiquette.

If I could bring anything back from Japan and implant it here in London it would be the Japanese ability to board planes quickly and quietly and the whole concept of the onsen.

Really. I’ll pay serious money to access hot springs and a clean sauna experience. If it can be combined with Japanese manners, then all the better. Although, I’d prefer not to be stared at quite so much. I’m going to put it down to the hairy chest and not think about it too much…

Moving on!

App of the Year

Across all of my very many gadgets, one app has stood out both in terms of how much I’ve used it and how much I’ve enjoyed it. It’s not overly complex, but does what it does very well. It’s Pocket Casts from Shift Jelly.

Simply put, it’s the podcast player that Apple’s own podcasts app should be. It has a wonderful interface, syncs across devices automatically and now, you can access your podcasts via any web browser. It’s worth every penny of the £2.49 app fee, I guarantee it.

Other excellent apps I’ve relied on this year have been ToDoist and Evernote. Both will help you get more done and relieve that nagging doubt that you may have forgotten something. Evernote is basically my external brain and the place anything I may need to use and/or remember in the future is stored. Well worth paying for a premium account for both of them, but they both have a very powerful free version you can use to get a taster.

Gadget of the Year

tumblr_inline_nccewcURay1qa1qd9Again, this probably won’t surprise anyone who has already read about my Apple-related excitement while in Japan, but my gadget of the year is the iPhone 6 Plus. It’s the iPhone I’ve always wanted: massive capacity, massive screen, but light and slim.

It’s definitely not for everyone, I agree. I’ve had friends and family (and strangers on the tube) stare at the size of it in incredulity due to its size. It’s most definitely a phablet, not a mini mobile phone.

But the screen size makes it possible to read longer selections of text comfortably and even watch video (video podcasts, as opposed to feature-length movies…I’m not a masochist!).

There have been moments when I’d briefly wished I’d bought the iPhone 6, rather than its larger brother. Especially when wearing skinny jeans.

It’s not a phone you can easily pocket. But it’s so much more than a phone, and I carry a bag anyway, so it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Second favourite would probably be my 27″ iMac, all because of its beautiful, magnificent screen. It makes working from my home office an absolute joy.

So what about 2015?

I’m looking forward to plenty more travel. I have personal trips to Paris and Reykjavik already in the calendar. I’m hoping to make it back to Miami at some point. And there are business trips to both Singapore and Malaysia confirmed.

I’m hoping Apple don’t launch any more sexy gadgets that I’ll “need” as soon as they’re released. But I am looking forward to seeing what they do with photo management next year, in terms of a replacement for iPhoto.

I have a list of films I’m excited to see, including the new Avengers movie and the Star Wars sequel. I’m going to hope Avengers: Age of Ultron is as good as the first one and that Star Wars helps me forget the car crash that was the prequels. Yes. All of them.

I have one hell of a reading list to work through. “Work” makes it sound hard, and it isn’t. I love reading and I love my Kindle. It helps me read multiple books concurrently, without having to cart them around with me in a bag. You can really get lost in a book when reading a Kindle. And the new Kindle Voyage is a delight.

Outside of my own “circle of influence”, I’m hoping 2015 will have a lot less terrible, terrible news. There have been days where I’ve quite frankly turned off all news sources, just to avoid hearing about any more disasters, genocide and inhumanity.

I’m hoping the countdown to the UK 2015 General Election isn’t as painful and soul-destroying as recent political campaigning has been and that we can have a sensible national debate about the country’s direction – instead of apportioning blame.

Most of all, I’m hoping 2015 will be as fun, surprising, exciting and varied as 2014.

How about you?

Kindle-tastic

After months of deliberating, I bit the bullet over the weekend and bought myself the new Kindle Voyage from Amazon. I’d been looking at it online since it was made available in the UK, even putting in my “basket” on more than one occasion. But then noticing it had basically sold out and there was a wait until mid-January.

Sad face.

I received a few Amazon vouchers as gifts over Xmas and so, in my own nerdish way, I set myself a daily reminder in ToDoist to check availability of the Kindle and lo and behold, it was there when I went to look on Sunday.

But wait. Why the need for a new Kindle? Don’t I already have a perfectly good Kindle 3G Keyboard model? Well, yes and no. It’s my favourite ever Kindle model, but is showing its age. The battery is rubbish now and every 10 or so pages, the screen goes completely black and I need to refresh and start over.

This is ever so slightly annoying.

But I can’t complain. It was a second-hand purchase from eBay and has received intensive use. Daily, pretty much. I actually downgraded from a Kindle Paperwhite, as I couldn’t get used to the touchscreen and really missed the real buttons to navigate.

In summary, I really think I got my money’s worth from that second-hand Kindle and in no way feel let down by its performance. The 3G keyboard model is a fantastic ereader.

My new Kindle Voyage arrived yesterday while I was out for a run. Since then, I’ve hd the chance to set it up (5mins out of the box) and read a few chapters of a book. A few requisite un-boxing pics below!

So far, I can say the following:

  • It’s super-light – lighter even than the Kindle Paperwhite.
  • It’s fast and responsive
  • The navigation buttons on the sides take a little getting used to
  • The screen is extremely clear and the text is like reading a paperback

My only gripe so far isn’t about the Kindle itself, but the cases that Amazon sells for it. I’m not going to throw it into a bag unprotected, but the recommended cases are both awkward and expensive. Time to look on eBay for something else.

I look forward to plenty of reading in the coming months, especially with all the travel that’s in my calendar already. If you’re a Kindle user, I can (so far) recommend the Voyage as a significant upgrade from existing models. All except the Paperwhite – unless, like me, you missed the physical buttons.

More reflections as I use it…

Some really “amazing adventures”…

3985Two nights ago, I finished what is now my favourite book of the year (so far!): Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”.

I read his “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” earlier this year and loved every page. “…Kavalier and Clay” was even better.

Set before the USA decided to join in the fun and games of the Second World War, we meet two cousins and follow their lives through to the 1950s. Brought together by blood, religion and a love of comics, they get in on the act early, writing and drawing their own superheroes.

It follows their humble beginnings in the comic book industry to fame and fortune after they hit the big time with a successful hero. The acknowledgements at the end of the book reference so many of the comic book greats, it just shows the author did his research.

The scope of the story is impressive, with regular, incredibly detailed flashbacks to pre-war Europe and various other historical asides. I found it incredibly engrossing – I suppose my love of comics helped! – but even someone who knows nothing about comics or even actively dislikes the medium could enjoy this book.

The characters are never boring. Intense, interesting, not always likeable. But I ended up caring about what happened to each of them, which I think is a mark of writer’s skill.

I was drawn in for hours at a time. It made for some tough early mornings after too little sleep, but I don’t regret a minute of it.

Kavalier and Clay was one of the books I was genuinely sorry to see finish. While simultaneously feeling a tension in also wanted to know what happened to all the characters “in the end”.

I found it moving, compelling and beautifully written. If you like creativity, respect passionate artists and enjoy reading about the creative process, this is for you. A love of ‘golden age’ super hero antics wouldn’t go amiss either.

Five stars for sure.

New Kindle Voyage announced

Very interested to read about Amazon’s new Kindle models, especially the Kindle Voyage.

I actually previously ‘downgraded’ from a Kindle Paperwhite as I missed the physical buttons and couldn’t get used to tapping the screen to turn pages.

I bought an older model Kindle 3G Keyboard on eBay and haven’t looked back!

But this new backlit version with buttons to the side of the screen could definitely tempt me back. I’ll have to see it in the flesh – it won’t be bought sight unseen – and have a play with it.

Hopefully the UK launch won’t be too far behind the US one and it will be available in time for Xmas and associated festivities.

Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

I finished this book last night, while struggling with an incredibly uncomfortable hotel bed. I can say without reservation that “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” was a joy to read from start to finish. From the opening page to its final sentence, it kept me hooked – which is no mean feat. 

Continue reading “Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”

Kindle love

 

6a0a99d2be35232fe0f03634011e4406Ah, Kindle love…I’m so glad I went back to a Kindle keyboard model. I’ve been tearing through books since I got it. It’s just so light and perfectly proportioned in the hand. I didn’t take to the on-screen tapping required when using the Kindle Paperwhite and much prefer physical buttons. It sounds silly, but the Kindle keyboard model is easy to read with either hand.

Picture me, if you will…

Lying nonchalantly on my chaise longue, one hand tucked behind my head. It’s how I like to read. And every so often, when the blood has stopped flowing to the hand behind my head, turning it numb and slightly alien, I swap hands and pass the Kindle over.

Turning the page by clicking one of the perfectly-placed buttons either side of the screen is a lot easier than tapping at the screen.

What’cha reading?

I’m reading several books right now, as I usually do. Call it a form of adult book-related ADHD. Made all the easier by the Kindle. No need to carry just one book around, when you have an entire library with you in a device lighter than the lightest of paperbacks.

One of these is a pre-read for a course I’m attending in a few weeks. It’s a big old psychology textbook and I need to write a review of it once I’m finished. I can very easily read with the Kindle in one hand and a pen in the other, taking notes as I go along. It’s actually easier this way than reading the paper book (I have both). Despite the impending deadline, the Handbook of Coaching Psychology is still an enjoyable read.

So I recently finished Perfiditas by Alison Morton (great fun!) and, while I could have launched straight into the third part of this Nova Roma trilogy, I had a hankering for something a little different. I checked my very long list of book recommendations and opted for The Martian  by Andy Weir.

(I think I was influenced by having just recently watched Europa Report, which is most excellent intelligent sci-fi.)

So far, I’m enjoying The Martian, despite its focus on the technicalities of chemistry and physics. I’m only 10% through it, so there’s plenty of time for it to develop.

And then?

What else is on the list? I really need to finish Thinking Fast & Slow  I read it when it first came out but decided to re-read, this time more slowly! If I’m honest, I really skim-read it the first time. It’s not exactly a light read, but an incredibly interesting take on cognitive psychology.

Then I’ll probably return to Nova Roma and read Successio, the final (I think?) part of the series. I’ve already bought it – it’s downloaded on my Kindle, just waiting for me. And partly-inspired by this modern-day take on the Roman Empire, I’ve bought Mary Beard’s Pompeii.

It’s been years since my visit to Pompeii and I feel a little guilty for spending most of it wondering how soon I could escape the unrelenting heat and head into the shade (it was about 38C at the time).

“The fear”

All this is, however, accompanied by a fear eating away at me. The fear that something will happen to my precious Kindle keyboard and it will be impossible to replace. I really, really don’t want to go back to a Paperwhite.

Maybe I’ll look for a spare before they get too scarce and keep it as a back-up.

Or maybe I’ll have to ‘upgrade’ to the other model.

Going old school

People who know me associate me with gadgets and the frequent updating thereof. This usually takes the form of moving to new and more advanced versions of each piece of tech as they are released, so I can take advantage of each new aspect of functionality. Tech launches somehow (sadly) make me feel like I can’t live without each new gizmo and small iteration of tech that it brings.

Except now.

I’ve owned Kindles for a few years now and have moved from one model to the next as the technology improved. My latest model was the Kindle Paperwhite, which included a backlight and a touchscreen instead of buttons. After a couple of week’s use, I’m afraid it began to gather dust.

Which is strange, as I love to read. Something was getting in between me and the page. Of course, as soon as I got the Paperwhite, I sold my old Kindle 3G (the one with the keyboard) on eBay.  And that, it seems, was my mistake.

I missed it. I missed how light it was, how I could move through pages using the perfectly-placed buttons on either side of the screen, how it felt in my hands and how clear the text appeared.

It took me a while to realise it, but I missed my Kindle 3G.

So I bought one. I tracked one down on eBay that wasn’t listed at a ridonculous price and snagged it last Sunday. It arrived yesterday morning and within minutes, all my Kindle purchases were downloaded and I was up and running.

I then spent a happy few hours tearing through a novel (the very fun and enjoyable Perfiditas by Alison Morton).

This is possibly my first experience of “downgrading” tech to use something I preferred. Have I hit that age? That age where tech developments confuse and annoy me? I don’t think so…yet.

For me, the Kindle 3G is their perfect model and the one I want to keep using. I’m even considering keeping a spare for when this one (inevitably) dies.

I like it that much.

So the Paperwhite will shortly be listed on eBay and I’m sure someone else will enjoy its backlit screen and smaller form factor. For me, I’ll stick with its more plastic and old school cousin – and get much more reading done in the process.

I think we all know that both the Apple WWDC announcements and whatever comes from Google later this month will encourage me to update other gadgets and tech. The Kindle is probably a blip on my technology acquisition trail.

Probably.

My 2014 Reading List

I love to read. The advent of the Kindle has been a god-send for me, as it allows me to read any number of books while on the go. I’m slightly unusual (slightly?) in that I like to have a few books on the go at any one time.

For the last few years, I’ve started each January with a list of books I’d like to read. I’ve noted over time that I spot an interesting book, or a friend or colleague recommends one, yet I somehow lost the details.

So I’ve been using Evernote (and now Postach.io) to keep a list of what I’d like to read – acknowledging that it’s not an instruction manual or challenge, but more of an aide memoire when I’m choosing something new to buy from the Kindle store.

As things stand, 2014’s list looks like this. I reserve the right to drop books after starting them (life’s too short to finish a book you’re not enjoying) and add to the list as additional interesting reads crop up.

I’ve divided them up thematically – some for work, some for leisure – and added links to each on Amazon. (Other book retailer are available…)

Psychology & Coaching

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Link)

The Self Illusion (Link)

Snakes in Suits (Link)

A Whole New Mind (Link)

Drive (Link)

Creating Flow with OmniFocus (Link)

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Link)

Challenging Coaching (Link)

Leisure

The Great Wheel (Link)

Perfiditas (Link)

Them (Link)

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Link)

The Death Instinct (Link)

Maddadam (Link)

The Circle (Link)

I’ll revisit this list as the year progresses, updating with reviews as appropriate.

Premature excitement?

So my heart was all aflutter at the thought of getting my grubby little mitts on on Kindle Matchbook.

Yet this morning, Amazon emailed me to let me know about the new Kindle Paperwhite (really not sure it’s worth my while upgrading) but there was a noticeable lack of mentions of Kindle Matchbook or indeed the integration with Goodreads.

I’m wondering if my hypothetical delay between release of these services in the US and then the rest of the world might be longer than anticipated. Are UK publishers making life difficult for Amazon? Surely £2 for an ebook version of an already purchased hardback is better than £0?

Are publishers being greedy? Is Amazon playing hardball a la Apple?

I hope these imagined shenanigans don’t significantly delay the launch of Matchbook outside of the UK.

Are you listening, Amazon?