Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s bestselling novel, left me cold, but sixteen years later, the much slimmer “Piranesi” is an accomplished, moody take on a science-fiction trope of the hidden other world. In the grand universe of the House, with its countless massive halls amidst clouds, its flooding waves, its innumerable ornate statues, a meticulous madman named Piranesi lives, roams, and scientifically records in notebooks. The only other occupant is the Other, a friend … or is he? When an intruder arrives, Piranesi’s world comes under threat. Clarke has constructed a complex puzzle requiring the reader to solve the mystery of where, who, and why, and she does with extraordinary finesse. Written in a gothic style, the novel wrapped me in the grip of a memorable hero and an almighty, intricate brain twister. And an enduring character is the House itself, evoked in atmospheric prose. The ending is wonderful and wonderfully revealed. I’m reminded of some classic I might have read half a century ago, perhaps a half-remembered Wilkie Collins novel. Unusual, eerie, and compelling, Piranesi is a fine, intelligent read that sticks in the memory.
A classic “writer novelizing a dangerous true tale” story, “A Lonely Man” follows Robert, a young writer in Berlin. Gestating not too much in the way of words, while with a wonderful wife and two daughters, he stumbles onto Patrick, a driven, perhaps shifty ghost writer who fears Putin’s reach because of starting a book by one of those Russian oligarchs who could only have been born from as cataclysmic an event as the end of the Cold War. Is Patrick for real or just paranoid? Why does Robert latch onto Patrick’s images and scenes so frantically? It can’t turn out well. A Lonely Man begins as a cross between a modest expatriate tale and a thriller by Robert Harris (remember his The Ghost?) but darkens and deepens, the prose precise and immersive, into an existential drama that enthralls. Domesticity nestles with opulence, violence with tawdriness. Lit thriller par excellence.
A caper series based around the conceit of imitating the famous French escapologist/burglar Arsène Lupin, “Lupin” is imperfect but shines brightly where it most counts. Assane Diop, a Senagelese in Paris, is out to unravel and avenge the prison death of his father when he was a boy, and to do that, he needs to invade the world of a sleazy, powerful businessman (played wonderfully by Hervé Pierre). The first episode (of five) involves a jewel heist in the Louvre, very much in the Mission Impossible style (but, it has to be said, less hi-tech), and each episode involves deception, misdirection and trickery a la the legendary Lupin. The series is plotted tightly and directed in workmanlike fashion, but the series stands or falls with Omar Sy’s larger-than-life portrayal of both Assane, the wronged boy grown up, and Assan the incarnation of Lupin. And here I found myself wavering. Omar Sy’s huge frame and handsome smile often seemed to render him as shallow, yet at crucial times, usually in the midst of mayhem and action, his acting revved up a notch. The caper machinery of Lupin could have come across as cliched, instead it is fresh and enjoyable, and towards the end, what lifts this season above the ruck is the nuanced performance of Ludovine Sagnier as Claire, Assane’s on-again-off-again partner. The interplay between Assane and Claire elevates the inevitable cliffhanger finale into something rather special. Lupin ends up more affecting than its parts.
Global climate change models are finally, after decades of devoted, amazing work, comprehensive enough to answer local questions about extreme weather events, be they hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, wildfires, and the like. Over the last few years, an underfunded, ragtag bunch of heroic climate science nerds has pioneered a new field: weather attribution. If there is enough historical data, we can at last rigorously unpack the probability of particular climate change era events. For example, when Hurricane Harvey freakishly flooded Houston in 2017, killing a hundred people, Friederike Otto and her compatriots dotted around the globe were able to announce, almost real-time, that climate change had made the flooding three times more likely than normal. The author cleverly hinges her narrative around a day-by-day diary of her analytical and expository Harvey activities. “Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change” is written in crystal clear, fervent prose, and not a word is wasted when outlining the reverberating impacts of attribution science. This outstanding book will be a mandatory textbook for years but it deserves a far wider general readership.
An oddball documentary by documentary maker Kirsten Johnson, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” chronicles the final days of her avuncular father. Dick, seemingly graced with a never-ending childlike smile, is already suffering from dementia (which, poignantly, his wife expired from) when the movie kicks off, and over the course of the film he relocates from Seattle to New York. Perhaps as an act of grace toward his beloved daughter, Dick acquiesces to participating in an outlandish set of mortal what-if scenes: what if he tripped down stairs, what if an air conditioner fell from on high onto him, etc., etc. Is this series of scripted, performed scenes meant to prepare the father for death? Or the daughter? Kirsten Johnson reveals little, even as she escalates the imaginary events into post-death scenes in heaven. All of this makes for a vaudevillian smorgasbord interspersed with footage of the father declining, and the juxtaposition can seem a little unfocused. But the inevitable climax is truly moving, and as centered in reality as the rest of the movie is in flights of fancy. Overall, Dick Johnson Is Dead is not for everyone, but for the questing, cerebral moviegoer, it might prove to be a viewing highlight.
Are you baffled by or fascinated by or despairing of the human capacity for hatred and violence? Ever since reading about the Holocaust as a young boy, I have been. So “Why We Hate,” written by the prolific and redoubtable Alex Gibney and directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard, attracted me. The six-part documentary surely chimes with our times. I became thoroughly engrossed. The first five episodes delve into hatred, covering evolutionary clues, tribalism, incitement playbooks, the role of ideology, and hatred’s ultimate conclusion of genocide. Artfully directed as a blend of footage and brilliant talking heads, each episode offers insights. Particularly impressive was International criminal lawyer Patricia Viseur Sellers talking about meting justice against perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The final episode of Why We Hate enlists a neuroscientist to offer hope derived from the plasticity of the human brain. Perhaps that dose of positivity struck me as a mere glimmer, leaving me as unclear as ever about why, indeed, we hate and what we can do, but overall this is another vital Gibney moral record.
“When Stars Grow Dark” is the seventh outing for Detective Chief Inspector Brendan Moran, an authoritative homicide investigator with an eclectic Thames Valley team. This time a car crash reveals an aged man clearly dead before the accident, which soon segues into a baffling serial killer mystery. At the same time, an ongoing spy-linked thread, tying Moran back to his Garda days in Ireland spirals out of control and drags him to Rotterdam. A sparkling series this is indeed, and I judge this book to be the highlight. Cunningly plotted, superbly paced, imbued with locales bucolic and otherwise, When Stars Grow Dark is notably graced with an involving ensemble of police characters that, for me at least, evoked the mastery of Garry Disher with his brilliant Peninsula Crimes series. I can feel certain this sparkling mystery will rank among my crime fiction exemplars of 2021.
A much lauded Russian author, Sergei Lebedev was unknown to me until recently, but if his fifth novel, “Untraceable,” is any guide, he will only grow in stature. Dubbed a political thriller, Untraceable is a riveting examination of state and private morality, anchored in hot-off-the-press news. An ex-Soviet super-chemist in charge of developing ultra toxic bioweapons at an institution called The Island, Professor Kailitin flees the collapsed empire and disappears under a new identity. Now, when another defector is mysteriously killed by a toxin that seems to leave no trace, Kailitin is called to help. But that arouses interest from Putin’s Russia, and two seasoned operatives depart to bring Kailitin down, using his own supreme nerve agent. No blockbuster, Untraceable is artfully structured as a thriller of predators chasing prey, but the author is far more interested in all his characters’ past and present emotional and ethical landscapes. Engrossingly atmospheric, the alternating chapters of Untraceable reminded me of James Sallis’s pithy, noir novels, creating in the reader not only visceral excitement but also lingering disquiet about our inner lives. Superb.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a passionate, semi-autobiographical examination of creative calling in the life of New York playwright Radha Blank, hailed at age thirty but almost a has-been at age forty. Reshaping herself, almost on a whim, as rapper RhadaMUSPrime, she embarks on a journey of artistic choice between twisting a play to fit a white audience or embracing scorching rapping from scratch. Radha Blank’s self-deprecating script fizzes with life and oscillates between intelligent dialogue, fiery performances, and funny situations. Directed by Blank, the film seems assured and mature, and while her own central performance occasionally (in my view) seems forced, some brilliant performances around her (just soak up Peter Kim and Oswin Benjamin) more than compensate. No rap fan, I nonetheless swooned at the rap scenes. A fresh take on a theme close to my heart, The Forty-Year-Old Version captivated me.
Arkady Martine’s opening space opera novel set in the Teixcalaanli Empire, A Memory Called Empire, won the Hugo Award, and my review judged it to be a worthy crown holder. That novel saw an outpost’s diplomat trainee thrust into high society and deal with a fused memory and treachery. Now Martine returns with “A Desolation Called Peace,” and this time our hero must negotiate with unreadable aliens poaching Empire ships on Empire’s fringe. The author is a superb world builder and the new setting comes vividly, and strangely, to life. As in the opening book, different characters lead the cleverlplot towards an accelerating finale. If I found the storyline of A Desolation Called Peace slightly less riveting than the first plot, I nonetheless read it in a white heat and thoroughly enjoyed it. A captivating two-volume space opera that feels as modern as it seems a nod to the classics.