Famed novelist Annie Proulx passionately explores her latest pet subject in ”Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis.” A rambling plotline explores each of the fen, the bog, and the swamp, that is, moving towards a wetlands environment where trees can grow. This is a complex, nomenclature-driven area of conservation and the author does her best to navigate it, telling tales of different wetlands globally, the people involved in destruction or resurrection. Her passion shines through. I was especially taken with her musings about mangrove swamps, the only type of wetland I really have any familiarity with. She describes these as “a bristling wall that stabilizes land’s edge and protects shorelines from hurricanes and erosion … breeding grounds and protective nurseries for thousands of species…” Like most onlookers or scientists working on wetlands, Proulx offers no solutions, only a howl of anger. Fen, Bog and Swamp is well worth the read.
The ninth of nine complex, swashbuckling, hard-sci-fi space opera books in the Beyond the Impossible series, at last we can wrap up all the skeins of universe-straddling plotlines. “The Final Verdict” is a fitting finale, commencing just as the heroes in one universe stand ready to repel the Swarm from another universe. And naturally enough, it’s at this point that the most intriguing plot thread from the previous few books, that of Royal the newly created god, comes to life with a thump that reshapes all battles. Familiar characters strive against impossible odds, old characters complete life’s cycles, and universes are reshaped. As ever, author Frank Kennedy is superb in the many action scenes, his dialogue crackles, and the pace never lets up. A triumph of storytelling in a vast setting, The Impossible Verdict is a roaring climax that must be read in a single sitting.
As an ex-actuary, reading a crime series starring an ex-actuary is deliciously entertaining, and Antti Tuomainen’s hero is swollen with actuarial tropes. Henri is serious, droll, and extremely smart, and in the second book so far, “The Moose Paradox,” Henri faces escalating problems, seemingly too extreme to solve, when his no-good brother returns from the dead. But seemingly impossible does not mean impossible, and Henri is good at figuring out solutions… Peopled with outlandish characters and enriched by chuckles. The Moose Paradox easily whiles away an evening.
Does “The Peripheral,” a high-profile eight-episode new show that attempts to corrall the classic William Gibson novel of the same name, deliver the goods? Many sci-fi fans doubted it would but I, like all the others I’ve read, concur that this is a wonderful adaptation. Scott B. Smith, the showrunner and chief writer, has not hesitated to mess with Gibson’s sprawling yet thrilling plot, and his scriptwriting chops are manifestly evident. It is hard to summarize The Peripheral, but essentially it is the tale of Flynne Fisher, a videogame jock (played with brilliance by Chloë Grace Moretz in a notably twangy accent) discovers that the sim she is in is no sim at all but the future and that she is a key pawn in an epochal battle. As always, Gibson’s science fiction feels almost factual and the storyline buzzes. The cinematography is lush, the action scenes are spectacular, the music works, and the direction is a tight at a whipsaw. I had forgotten how incandescent Gibson’s plots are, with plot twists that startle but seem perfect, and this series perfectly paces plot turns and more leisurely character development. The ending of The Peripheral hints at a sequel, which would presumably follow Gibson’s second novel in a projected trilogy, called Agency. I certainly hope so.
Ah, Kitty Flanagan! The first six-episode season of “Fisk” was brilliant (my review), a feast of droll comedy and resonant characterisation, and the follow-up six-episode season is even funnier. Very much an Australian-inflected, Melbourne-soaked show, Season 2 takes up the tale of a well-meaning but blunt lawyer (played in sublime fashion by Flanagan) in a husband-wife-lawyer-due practice in the tram-dinging heartland of the inner city. The inventive storytelling of the first season continues apace, with each episode offering delighted laughter, intellectual pleasure at plot twists, and (surprisingly) poignancy in the final episode. Somehow Flanagan manages to humanise all the diverse characters she skewers. Roll on Fisk Season 3, please!
Marina Benjamin is that rarest of chroniclers: unflinching, reflective, eloquent, oddly unsystematic but all the better for it. “A Little Give: The Unsung, Unseen, Undone Work of Women” follows her brilliant Insomnia, a book that entranced me but also proved to be solidly useful. In this outing, she muses about aspects of life sometimes tagged as “women’s work,” although nearly every essay resonated with my experiences. The many paradoxes of housecleaning, its horridness ranged against its virtuous necessity overlaid by our inherited strictures, are tackled from a number of angles, all worth reflecting upon. Her repeated reflection about caring for the sick or elderly reminded me of my years helping look after a disabled brother, and she nails the impossibility of succeeding in the eyes of either the carer or the cared-for. I am a “non-dog person” who was a besotted dog owner for a decade and a half; the author’s joys from her dog reminded me to open up my heart again. Benjamin’s essayistic insights blend seamlessly with stories from her life and drawing from the works of others. Always she is fluent yet direct. The reading is a boon and I have turned around to commence a second pass.
Nonproliferation/proliferation of nuclear weaponry is unsurprisingly destined for a restricted audience, but it is a vital topic, and books continue to pour out covering different aspects of it. I doubt if anyone has done as much research—tertiary, secondary, and primary (including staggering amounts of archival digging)— than historian Jonathan Hunt. “The Nuclear Club: How America and the World Policed the Atom from Hiroshima to Vietnam” tackles the tale of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which got up globally in 1968, but so much more is covered than the mere ins and outs of a treaty. The author is especially compendious and strong on the swirling, changing international geopolitics within the United Nations during a time of both Cold War escalation and decolonialization. Reading the book is both enjoyably smooth and dauntingly dense; I confess it took me a while (perhaps as all good books should). Hunt’s overall thesis is, according to my reading, that beyond the idealism of preventing proliferation, and beyond fear of untrammeled Armageddon risks, what brought the Treaty into being was the shared need of the United States and the Soviet Union to solidify the “nuclear club” of the title, a world in which a few preeminent countries can have nukes and have imprimatur to prevent others from doing so. Overall, The Nuclear Club is exciting, valuable reading.
If you know a Star Wars fan, you know what fandom is like. Me, I watched and enjoyed the original 1977 blockbuster but fast lost interest in what I felt to be an increasingly fluffy franchise. The rest of the Star Wars phenomenon passed me by, until I chanced upon the first season of The Mandelorian last year. It felt like a moody wastern action movie; I enjoyed it. Now, prompted by accolades from friends, I’ve binged the dozen episodes of what is clearly Season 1 of “Andor.” And I can report that it is quality sci-fi, serious and moody, with a fine story arc, excellent acting, and superlative world building. In some form of long-before prequel to Star Wars, amidst the birth of the Rebel Alliance challenging the despotic Empire, we follow Cassian Andor, a tough, unsuccessful grifter in a faraway planet, who attracts the brutality of the Empire and the curiosity of Luthen Rael, master rebel plotter. Cassian’s fraught adventures over the many hours of this season slowly but surely seek to bring him from self-centered impulses towards revolution. Diego Luna is the key. As Cassian, he is sharp-eyed and driven, with a talent for daredevilry, an understated performance that suits perfectly the gritty plotline. And Stellan Skarsgård soars as Luthen. The action sequences are superb, the supporting actors are excellent, and direction is tight without being rushed. My only qualms were with some of the sets (they looked fake) and the insipid music so characteristic of this franchise. Overall, Andor is one of 2022’s most rewarding science fiction outings.
Based on an extraordinary segment of NASA’s history that somehow passed by me this century, one that begs for a deft, challenging treatment, “Good Night Oppy” covers all the bases but is let down by its underpinnings (for a documentary, call it the script, if you like) and its style (call it the direction). In 2003, NASA launched two separate rockets holding “rover” explorers, autonomous geological exploration vehicles, and landed them both on Mars. Ninety days was their expected lifespan, but one of them, Opportunity (the Oppy of the title) kept going for nearly fifteen years. It’s a gasp-worthy tale, with the added overtone that the entire NASA crew back on Earth grows to personify the two robots, and this filmic treatment is engaging and fascinating. But it could have been much better. American saccharine sentimentality rears its ugly head, as personified by that horrid string soundtrack music that is barely tolerable; half of the talking heads are tremendous, some are not; and the overt backdrop of lauding NASA, without remission, clouds what could have been a fine ending. Call Good Night Oppy a misspent opportunity.
A jaunty tale with oodles of atmosphere, “Nimblefoot” entertains without captivating. Robert Drewe is a distinctive stylist, infusing every page with atmosphere, but I found the storyline (based on a true story, wherein may lie the problem), about a child prodigy athlete and Melbourne Cup winner on the run from corrupt cops and private detectives, to rush onward without grabbing. Similarly, the central character, while alive enough on the page, feels underdone in some subtle way. The interesting aspects of the novel lie in its portrayal of a number of cities or towns in late nineteenth century Australia; the author brings every place to vivid life. If you are a Drewe fan (and I a few such fans) or are drawn to the historical background, Nimblefoot would make for a stylish, enjoyable read.