Favourites of 2018: rs21 reviewers recommend…

Our reviewers recommend music, films, books, exhibitions and TV that they discovered in 2018, including Doctor Who, the latest detective novel from C. J. Sansom, and the Picasso exhibition at the Tate Modern.

Hazel Croft recommends C. J. Sansom, Tombland (Macmillan, 2018)

I have long been a fan of C. J. Sansom’s detective novels, featuring his main protagonist Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer who delves into the skulduggery and political manoeuvrings of 16th century England.  If Shardlake’s pursuit of justice sometimes seems anachronistic, this is more than made up for by Sansom’s historically astute portrait of the period, far removed from the costume drama fare offered by popular TV accounts of the Tudors.

Tombland, the latest in the Shardlake series, takes this realistic portrayal of the 16th century a step further.  Although ostensibly based around a murder case involving a distant relative of Anne Boleyn, the heart of the book revolves around a wonderful retelling of the Ketts’ uprising, one the biggest peasant rebellions in a year of revolt in 1549.

Sansom does somewhat lose the plot of the murder story, as he delves into an account of the actions and motivations of the rebels. This did not spoil my enjoyment of the book one iota, as the story he tells is as compelling as any murder plot. He creates a vivid picture of everyday life in the camp the rebels set up outside of Norwich, and of the political disputes among the rebels as they prepare to take Norwich from the ‘Gentlemen’ – the ruling class, the landlords and their soldiers. I started this book knowing very little about the rebellions of 1549, and ended up feeling I’d learned far more than any standard history book could have told me – although Sansom’s historical essay at the end of the book is helpful in putting the events of the novel into context. It’s over 800 pages long, but I was engrossed from start to finish.

Mitch Mitchell admired the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern (8 March – 9 September 2018).

Pablo Picasso The Dream (Le Rêve) 1932, Private Collection

Looking back over the year, my favourite exhibition has to be Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame Tragedy at the Tate Modern. The sheer amount of work he turned out in that year is startling. Some of it was very political, as he was beginning to pick up the warning signals of the rise of fascism and the Nazis across Europe. Other works in the exhibition were breathtakingly beautiful, especially some of his sculptures.

By 1932, Picasso had become famous and his works were selling for very large sums of money. However, his personal life had become very difficult. He was moving further away from his first wife, Olga Khokhlova and taking increasing solace in the much younger Marie-Therese Walter who became his inspiration for much of his work that year. I found the beauty of his art and the new way he represented things stunning. This is not to whitewash his obvious misogyny, the way he treated women was appalling, but the exhibition highlights his complex character and his troubled life.

This year I also also discovered the novels of Barbara Kingsolver. Big thanks to Ruth Lorimer for the recommendation!

Colin Barker recommends two new books by Mike Gonzalez: Ebb of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America (Pluto, 2018), and In the Red Corner. The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Haymarket, 2019).

I read two new books by Mike Gonzalez this year. One is recently published; the second will appear early in 2019. The Ebb of the Pink Tide tells the story of what at one time looked like the most promising developments in left politics: the rise of ‘Chavismo’ in Venezuela, and the mass struggles that, in 2005, brought Evo Morales to the first indigenous Presidency in Bolivia. Similar hopes were raised in Ecuador, and in Brazil where the Workers’ Party won a series of elections. In a brilliant analysis, Mike describes, and explains, how the hopes invested in these developments have turned sour, and worse.


In a wonderful second volume, In the Red Corner, Mike explores the Marxism of Jose Carlos Mariategui, a brilliant and innovative Peruvian Marxist thinker of the 1920s. Mariategui, along with Antonio Gramsci (with aspects of whose thought his own has a significant kinship), must be counted as one of the most brilliant developers of revolutionary Marxism of the interwar years. Both books are marvellous additions to our collective libraries.

Kate Bradley recommends the film Nine to Five (USA, 1980)

Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin
My recommendation this New Year is Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five – not the song, much-loved though it is, but the 1980 film. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it until 2018. Full of feminist one-liners, socialist plots to seize the means of production, and ridiculous escapades involving rat poison, cowgirl outfits and marijuana, this one passes the Bechdel test ten times over with dialogue to spare. Dolly Parton is a very good comic actress, bringing her hit to life alongside a classic cast of women, including Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Definitely a film someone should have told me (and you) about sooner.
Andrew Stone celebrates the new Doctor Who series on BBC One.

After 55 years of Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker became its first female lead in 2018. It was, as the promotional material recognised, “about time”. The #notmydoctor knee-jerkers, led by the Daily Mail, bemoaned the “PC casting” of not only Whittaker, but also companions who were black (with dyspraxia), Asian and… a cancer survivor.

Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who with (left-right) Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh and Sharon D Clarke

New showrunner Chris Chibnall laudably doubled down by employing a more diverse range of writers and directors, and telling stories that did not shy from political satire and commentary. This included some sound gender politics in the 17th century ‘Witchfinders’, a moving love story set against the Partition of India, a Trumpesque Presidential contender fighting giant spiders and an Amazon parody with killer bubble wrap.

The triumph of the season, though, was ‘Rosa’, co-written by Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (author of Noughts and Crosses), where a time-travelling racist subtly tried to derail the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Here, as elsewhere, the Doctor was an impressive but not an omnipotent figure, allowing more agency for those around her. The season was beautifully shot and though it suffered from an underwhelming conclusion – there was much less of a story arc than in previous seasons – it did much to reinvent a series that was beginning to feel the weight of its past.

Colin Revolting recommends the documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (USA, 2012).

I’m ashamed to say I knew little about the ACT UP campaign of the 1980s/1990s. But this excellent documentary corrected that in 90 packed minutes. What was ACT UP? It was a militant activist campaign that grew in response to the AIDS epidemic and made major medical and societal achievements.

As one of the participants says here, “It was a combination of serious politics and joyful living. That combination is what you need. You need some life.” They wanted to “break down the cult of the expert,” in terms of medical testing and treatments but also, in practice about the way they operated politically.

The film is packed with songs, meetings, interviews and more because the activist film makers enabled by the new cheap video cameras available.

As the campaign progresses participants become more broadly political and talk of seeing the possibility of wider social change. As one activist says they wanted to “Bring people together, empower them with ideas and go out and do lots of things.”

The film is at times heartbreaking. Many of the activists in the film died within a few years. Others talk of how they are only alive today because of the work of ACT UP in securing improved health care and medication for people but also because of the impact activism and collectivity had in their lives. The film maker says he wanted a film that educates and inspires viewers to be politically active. I’d say he’s done that. See it here.

Taisie Tsikas recommends I can feel you creep into my private life by tUnE-yArDs.

Merrill Garbus’s fourth album, released January 2018, confronts the experience of overwhelming political realities. The album combines influences from 80s pop, house and techno, and Haitian and Kenyan music. Garbus’s voice fluctuates between staccato, repetitive and heavily auto-tuned, and powerfully melodic. The lyrics confront settler colonialism in Canada, juxtaposing the banal with profound pronouncements on the period.

Ecological catastrophes outside Garbus’s sphere of control, and disgust at her own complicity return as neuroses throughout the album. The main focus, though, is whiteness: fragility, complicity, entitlement, denial. In ‘Honesty’ she hollers “this river runs so deep” and demands again and again “do you really wanna know?” Other lyrics are more explicit. In ‘Colonizer’ she holds her own “white woman’s voice” to account.

The picture painted of white racism is one of a deep-rooted and pervasive psychological deviance (“all I know is white centrality”). Garbus has identified the self-serving liberal preoccupation with being a ‘good white person’ and is more critical than that – you don’t get to leave the record feeling alright with yourself. On the other hand, she doesn’t let in the crack of light that might come from going beyond introspection and taking a more political approach to racial capitalism and the messiness of the world either. That said, private life is a study in unease which, for obvious reasons, will resonate with a lot of us.

Charlie Hore recommends the novels of Mick Herron and N. K. Jemisin.

This year I’ve discovered two very different novelists. The first is Mick Herron, best known for the Jackson Lamb spy fiction series. They are a world away from Le Carré, by turn deeply cynical and bleakly funny, set among a bureaucracy driven more by petty feuds than any sense of mission. He has also written a private detective series set in Oxford, driven by the same sharp characterization and plot twists, as well as several stand-alone novels, so there’s plenty to discover. I’d recommend starting with Slow Horses (Constable, 2010), the first in the spy series.

“This is the paradox of tolerance, the treason of free speech: we hesitate to admit that some people are just fucking evil and need to be stopped.” N. K. Jemisin is the new star of American science fiction, whose Broken Earth (Orbit, 2015–2017) trilogy won three consecutive best novel awards for the first time ever. She’s also one of the tiny number of black women authors to get recognition in the genre, probably the first since Octavia Butler. Her work straddles fantasy and science fiction with a fierce imaginative power.

The quote is from a new short story collection, How long ‘til black future month? (Orbit, 2018), which is excellent, but for a proper sense of her full range and world-building skills dive into the trilogy.

Sam O’Brien recommends the documentary No Stone Unturned (USA, 2017).

Manchester and Salford NUJ recently screened the documentary No Stone Unturned. Originally released in 2017, the documentary reveals the collusion between the British state and the Ulster Volunteer Force in the brutal murder of six Catholics watching Ireland play Italy at the Heights Bar in the village of Loughinsland, Northern Ireland, on 18 June 1994. The title refers to the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s promise to Claire Rogan, widow of Adrian Rogan, that no stone would be left unturned in the investigation of the murders.

In fact, the opposite was the case. Evidence was destroyed, there was a delay in arresting key suspects, suspects were warned that they would be arrested, and when they were arrested, they were released without charge. The film uncovers these failings in detail and brings to light damning evidence that the police knew in advance of the plans for the massacre but did not prevent it.

No Stone Unturned is a documentary about the Loughinsland massacre.

Two of the journalists behind the film, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, were arrested at their homes by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (successor to the RUC) in August 2018. They were charged with stealing documents from the Police Ombudsman’s office. Barry spoke at the screening about the effects that the arrests had had on him, Trevor and their families. These ridiculous charges could affect any journalist sent anonymous and credible information.

The families of the murdered men Adrian Rogan, Malcolm Jenkinson, Barney Green, Daniel McCreanor, Patrick O’Hare and Eamon Byrne continue to campaign for justice. The film is available on youtube.

Stacey Williams recommends Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Pan Macmillan, 2015).

This year I discovered Lucia Berlin. I started reading the first story in a bookshop, wanting to know what this 1970s mum look-a-like on the cover had to offer to cleaning women. Even in the first pages of the collection, the story ‘Angel’s Laundromat’ I was struck by the honesty in her telling of real life.

Berlin’s stories loosely follow the biography of her own childhood, growing up across North and South America, as her family moved between mining towns. She weaves herself through stories of gritty living described with stark intensity: the Mexican villages, Emergency Rooms, deserts, abortion clinics, drug dens. The characters she depicts battle with addiction, abuse, poverty, parenting, but work to find love, hope, a future in their relationships within and between the collection’s stories without glossing over the pain that makes us who we are.

This most successful of her collections was published posthumously (she died in 2004). In her colourful life and winding career her writing was always present but acknowledged by different audiences, from teaching creative writing in a prison to working as Associate Professor at the University of Colorado.

I experienced a kind of emotional withdrawal finishing the first collection. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long to start reading again: a second complication of stories Evening in Paradise was published in November 2018, along with a memoir, Welcome Home. The short stories are great reading for a commute and the title of her most famous collection provokes curious looks from fellow commuters.

Charlie Burton recommends Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (Oneworld, 2018)

The Syrian Revolution is approaching its eighth year. Since March 2011, when the first protests began in the southern city of Daraa that subsequently bloomed into a nation-wide revolt against the Assad regime, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced. Journalist Rania Abouzeid’s book No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria documents the lives of individual Syrians from the beginning of the democratic uprising, following its evolution into armed conflict, foreign intervention and sectarianisation.

No Turning Back re-establishes the truth of the Syrian conflict and its original democratic and peaceful character. Inspired by the Arab Spring, thousands of Syrians took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. The overwhelmingly violent response from the government, including murder, mass arrests and torture, led to a new demand: the downfall of the regime. The book follows a young poet who became leader of a Free Syrian Army brigade; a jihadist of Jabhat al-Nusra, radicalised in his youth by the brutality of the Mukhabarat; a 9-year-old girl living under regime shelling, trying to make sense of the world and what was happening around her.

As Abouzeid says, the lives of those caught up in the Syrian conflict are forever changed. Today, the Assad regime is close to gaining full control of the country; only Idlib and parts of Kurdish northern Syria remain outside its reach. Though militarily controlled by the jihadist group Tahrir al-Sham, Idlib endures as a pocket for the democratic civil opposition, who oppose both fundamentalists and the regime. No Turning Back is a vital resource for those trying to make sense of the Syrian revolution, told from the point of view of those it most affected.

Colin Wilson recommends Octavia E. Butler’s, Lilith’s Brood (GCP, 2000).

Octavia Butler’s SF trilogy is set in a world all but destroyed, centuries ago, by war. The profoundly alien Oankali have rescued (or captured?) humans from a wide variety of ethnic groups. The Oankali are of three sexes, and begin to repopulate the earth with human-Oankali hybrids. This involves them in emotional and sexual relationships with humans, and also makes use of their talent for genetic engineering, which they do inside their bodies without any equipment.

The Oankali generally treat humans well, but they have their own agendas, make mistakes and are sometimes not completely honest. Some humans work alongside them, but others are horrified by the creation of hybrids – they feel that earth belongs to humans and is being stolen by alien invaders.

In the first novel, Dawn (originally published 1987), we explore this world through the eyes of Lilith, the first human to collaborate with the Oankali and bear a hybrid child, regarded by many humans as a traitor. The second novel, Adulthood Rites (1988), focuses on Akin, a hybrid but human-looking child captured by infertile rebels. The third, Imago (1989) deals with Jodahs, a hybrid adolescent becoming an Oankali neuter adult and seeking mates and a purpose in life.

We’re dealing here with a multicultural cast of humans, and the tense relationship between humans and Oankali echoes contemporary racial conflicts. Relationships between humans and the three-gendered Oankali raise many issues about gender and sexuality. But these aren’t political treatises – they are gripping and well-written novels, full of complex characters, both human and alien. A mind-expanding treat.


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