“Recursion” adds a thriller’s pace and many wormholes worth of complexity to all those time travel novels you’ve enjoyed since the Heinlein and Asimov era. A policeman investigates something dubbed the False Memory Syndrome while we watch a neuroscientist, funded by a tycoon, build a technology to store the depths of memories. By the time they meet, the plot spirals into mind-bending time trips that had me gasping with admiration. Crouch is a dab stylist and the hijinks are laced with recurring and building love stories that achieve genuine traction. A winner in both conception and execution.
Iconoclast Malcolm Gladwell is one of those writers I’ll always read or listen to (his podcasts are exceptional) because his oblique nerdy insights into the ordinary could come from no one else. “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” addresses what happens when we talk to or examine strangers, defined as those we don’t know inside out. Gladwell’s curiosity has him exploring spies who fool everybody, innocents accused of crimes because of their demeanour, con artists even smart people trust, confrontations that spiral out of control, and so on and so on. Drawing on a recent more academic book by an expert on the subject of drawing others, he comes up with underlying reasons why our confidence in our ability to “read” others is misplaced. Reading Gladwell means going on a journey of wonderment, and for the first three quarters of “Talking to Strangers,” I was fully absorbed, but the final quarter petered out for one simple reason: his conclusions intrigue but don’t thunder. A quick brain-tease of a book that remains modest in intent, something we see rarely these days.
A most unusual and compelling thriller, “Launch Code” centers on one of those nuclear submarine “near miss” situations that fill us with dread – a 1983 order to release missiles at the Soviet Union, beginning the nuclear winter. The calamity is averted but a crew member is dead and 36 years later, ex-submarine Lieutenant Bill Guth and his family, gathered in England, are embroiled in a related murder. Ridpath is a wonderful plotter and fine stylist and the story rockets towards its multiple-twist ending. All the characters come alive and the rural countryside setting leaps off the pages. I remember Michael Ridpath fondly from his considerably older financial mysteries; he has lost none of his timeliness and flair.
Tech superstar Vivian Liao catapults into an impossibly huge fraught space-opera stage where she and a motley bunch of people, creatures and things battle an omnipresent Empress. If my plot description sounds wild, well, “Empress of Forever” is a sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza and most authors would flounder under the weight of its inventiveness. But Max Gladstone is a passionate, adept author (I came to him via his co-authored novel of lyrical time travel, “This Is How You Lose the Time War“), and here his language blooms. The plot whistles in the dark, the space-time set pieces glow, and all round, this is one superior bout of entertainment and imagination. Most recommended and we should look forward to a genre classic from Gladstone’s incandescent pen.
Is “normal” writing, the language in books, articles, and newspapers, being swept aside by the hordes on the Internet, be it on email, on Twitter, or on social media? Should we care? Gretchen McCullough is the expert of cloud English, a linguist fascinated by and smart about the dizzying changes occurring where least we expect it. “Because Internet: Understanding how Language Is Changing” is McCullough’s odyssey, thesis, and paean to the new. Whether she is exploring emoji or dissecting social patterns in Twitter usage or how slang morphs within different Internet communities, she is erudite, entertaining, and generous. In the end, she emerges as a champion of the new. A rambunctious yet robust tour of a fascinating new land.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up in astonished wonder in the closing moments of the first episode of the sophomore season of “Succession.” That’s something that rarely happens to this jaded viewer but the sheer brutal savagery, the corporate savagery, displayed in the swift closing scene … well, that takes the breath away. I guess what helped propel a regular scene into this territory was also the recognition that this is the truth, a truth I gained from three decades in the corporate sector. At the start of this season, Logan Roy, head of the Murdoch-class empire, is under corporate siege, and Brian Cox revs up this role to its loathsome peak. His children – shell-shocked Kendall (perfectly played by Jeremy Strong), rapier-shit-smart Shiv (oh, just watch Sarah Snook!), and super-sneery Roman (Kieran Culkin in fine form) – revolve in endless games of intrigue under Logan’s ambit. This first episode’s set scenes – a trip back from a health spa, a palatial country house – glitter. Not a moment is wasted, nothing good will eventuate, but somehow the scriptwriters wring some humanity out of each character’s vileness. Superb.
Clear-eyed Detective Chief Constable Brendan Moran, homicide head in the Thames Valley between the Cotswolds and the Chiltern Hills, is back for a fifth outing in “Gone Too Soon.” The Irish investigator tackles the baffling murder-disguised-as-suicide of an up-and-coming female pop star. Very much in the hallowed tradition of the British procedural, this fast-paced mystery ducks and weaves through the complications of the dead singer’s life. Moran is of course the hero, and a stalwart. engaging one, but his team, including bouncy George and traumatised Tess, share the limelight. Executed well, atmospheric, with an ending hard to pick . . . a gentle winner.
Kathy, once wild, is about to marry an older Englishman in “Crudo.” Trump and Brexit whirl around her. The novel careens from the excesses of the rich to the existential despairs of the rich, across location after location, in a dizzying sequence that fleshes out what is a slight plot. But the plot isn’t the point, rather it’s the sharp inner commentary taken from the headlines and also from the works of punk author Kathy Acker. I haven’t read Olivia Laing’s nonfiction but intend to, for this is intellectually sharp writing (not as funny as I imagined, but then, I’m not easily tickled) that intrigues long after Kathy’s journey ceases.
In “Where the Forest Meets the Stars,” ornithologist Joanna, researching birds in Illinois forest, stumbles upon Ursa, a mysterious child who claims to be from the stars. From this enigmatic start, the author skilfully throws in Gabe, a reticent young man selling eggs by the roadside, and the plot expands in waves of confusion and increasing tumult. To my genre-sensitive eye, the plotting at the start raised too many questions, and I resisted falling under the author’s gentle spells until nearly halfway through. But surrender I did, and the final third, with plot shocks and deepening character revelations, builds to a crescendo that then turns slightly schmaltzy in the best possible way. An intriguing, enjoyable debut.
Norfolk, that beautiful coastline rimming an enchanted if sluggish county. Jason Dalgliesh, author of the Dark Yorkshire mystery series I enjoy so much, has now kicked off a less edgy series turning around the police detective prowess of perceptive, steady DI Tom Jansson. It’s a welcome addition to the canon. In “One Lost Soul,” Jansson and his young homicide team, helped by his female boss (an undercurrent of attraction provides welcome frisson), investigate the brutal strangulation of a teenage girl on a lonely North Sea clifftop. In the vein of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland masterpieces, the pacing is sure and measured, the characterisation builds, and the subtleties of the suspects’ interlocking lives unfold with pleasurable reading. A solid, entertaining kickoff of what promises to be a classic series.