Tamsyn Muir’s science-fiction debut, “Gideon the Ninth,” is rollicking space adventure such as I’ve never read before, pure Gonzo madness that mixes space and swords and magic and fantasy and queer rebellion. It was recommended to me as lockdown escapism and it is exactly that, a caroming hoot of a novel written with verve and courage. In a world of spaceships, the Emperor invites all nine houses to send their necromancers, accompanied by their warrior cavaliers, to compete for the prize of immortality. The grungiest house of them all, the Ninth, fields Harrowhawk, a Goth-like bone-wielding magician, who reluctantly conscripts young sword tyro, Gideon Nav, whose blade skills are matched only by her foul mouth. The novel commences with beguiling stage-setting, then, once on the Emperor’s ship, accelerates into intricate, bloodthirsty (but never gratuitous) battles that escalate and escalate. Read the first page and be prepared to be sucked into a consuming bookish adventure. Definitely recommended and Book 2 is due soon!
Thomas Perry pens stylishly crafted traditional thrillers, often based around very bad people. The pleasures in a Thomas Perry novel – and they are pleasures – consist of intricate, fascinating plots; characters drawn deeply enough to engage as more than plot cyphers; and subject matter drawn from the dark side of humanity. “Eddie’s Boy” (coming out in December) is the fourth instalment of a series nearly four decades old; “The Butcher’s Boy” won the Edgar Best First Mystery Award in 1983. Now Michael Schaeffer, trained long ago to be a mob hit man and astonishingly good at it, is older, settled in the English countryside. When, on the very first page of this juggernaut of action, assassins arrive to kill him, he is forced to resurrect his skills and go looking for those after him, a meticulously plotted journey to Australia and then to the heart of crooked America. I guarantee you’ll not put the book down, and if sometimes Schaeffer’s bleak world curdles inside your stomach, the cat-and-mouse hijinks soon flush the bile away. A thriller reader’s thriller and worth every engrossing minute.
Indie legend Stephen Malkmus goes folk on “Traditional Techniques” but with plenty of angles, be they blues guitar figurings or slide guitar additions, and always focused on his wry, sometimes mumbled, sometimes yelped lyrics. Always the songs sit up for a chorus that sounds sweet. Loosely constructed songs are held up with hypnotic arrangements. “Traditional Techniques” feels like an intimate club conversation with some sophistications thrown in, a conversation that beguiles and flows. I know many will find the slow pace of many songs and the slacker lyrics to add up to ho-hum, but I greatly enjoyed playing the entire album again and again. Standouts include the sweetly melodic attack on lawyers, “The greatest own in legal history”; the upbeat “Xian man” with a killer chorus, with lovely guitar that somehow echoes Led Zeppelin; and the sublime acoustic picker “Brainwashed.” Oddly memorable.
Grant Snider is one of the best comic strip illustrator/writers around. He writes for adults but also for children, and it’s with the latter that he shines. His previous book, “What Color Is Night?,” is my favorite book to read to grandchildren. The follow-up, “What Sound Is Morning?,” hits the same sweet spots: a lovely tale of morning sounds, scenes, and activities; a focus on morning sounds; intricate, evocative drawings; lyrical text that challenges children and keeps adults satisfied; and a beautiful palette of early morning reds, yellows and oranges. Somehow Snider captures fully the pregnant promise of dawn and the early morn. “What Sound Is Morning?,” like its predecessor, is destined to blossom into a classic.
According to my lights, classical music grates to the point of repugnance, so “The Undivided Five” is a distinct surprise. Poised on the edge between ambient music and a traditional classical bent, the album broods and sweeps and settles in an unhurried tempo that has made it one of my go-to deskwork supports. The band of seven words is actually a duo, Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, both of repute in the ambient and classical fields, and this is their second outing (at least in this incarnation) since their 2011 debut. Opener “Our lord Debussy,” combining to perfection muted sonorous piano chords and washing strings, is a ten-minute stately triumph that I can’t stop playing. After three slow eerie tracks, “Aqualung, motherfucker” belies its title with ebbing and flowing strings. Later, “The rhythm of a dividing pair” etches an almost invisible melody over fuzzy analogue synths. The lack of any balancing harshness or rhythmicity robs “The Undivided Five” of a standout rating, but if soft ambient music is balm to your ears, I recommend this unreservedly.
Pleasantly jangly, with lilting rhythms enfolding Martin Courtney’s wispy vocals, Real Estate is bedroom music rather than car music, so it easily slots into repeat during lockdown. The last couple of albums from the New Jersey band flirted with mundanity, but “The Main Thing,” while no revolution, sits up in terms of production and swing. The title track thumps out more than usual, “Also A But” offers strong lyrics about climate change, and “Friday” is instantly recognisable Real Estate. An oddly deep album that does not pretend to be anything it is not.
In “Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet,” the mammoth subject of the future of food and eating for eight billion humans amidst global warming is tackled by three Canadian academics in disciplines ranging from food, history, and ecology. Many books are tumbling out about this impossible-to-fully-cover subject, but the authors achieve focus and a cogent narrative by framing the wider subject around eight foods, namely algae, caribou, kale, millet, tuna, crickets, milk, and rice. For example, “Crickets” is a wonderfully informative and entertaining chapter tackling new foods and technologies aimed at shifting populations from meat/fish eating to more climate-sustainable diets, including Impossible Burgers and, yes, crunchy crickets. The chapter “Rice” considers the Nirvana of a tech fix in the form of C4 rice or nitrogen-fixing corn. In the end, “Uncertain Harvest” offers few answers because there are no magic bullets. Any globally relevant “solution” involves changing human behaviors on diet and social justice. But we need to be clear-headed, and this book offers wide-ranging and clear-headed sagacity, and is a strangely entertaining read to boot.
“Juice: How Electricity Explains the World,” directed by Tyson Culver and co-written by him and Robert Bryce, is a scintillating and captivating tale about a seemingly dreary topic: electricity. Narrated by author Bryce, who travels to Colorado, Iceland, India, New York, Lebanon, and Puerto Rico, with assured enthusiasm, the film’s thesis is simple: electricity is the key to prosperity, present and future. Each of the locations hammers home an aspect of this thesis, and they’re a stunning sequence of case studies, from impoverished peoples, to a hurricane-induced blackout, to bitcoin merchants, to ganja growers. All the various talking heads are wonderfully captured. The script is a zinger and Culver’s direction is modern-day magic, ratcheting up the pace, pleasing the eye and ear, and providing a rock-firm narrative grip. “Juice” derives from Bryce’s just-released book, “A Question of Power,” but it is significantly leaner and all the better for it. Some of the film’s policy-tilted views, such as espousing nuclear energy, can be argued with, but more so with the book; “Juice” offers its prescriptive advice as a minor subplot. And the film’s core thrust is indubitably true. The future of the globally warming world lies in electrifying almost everything and moving to carbon-free electricity sources, and “Juice” offers an invaluable message to us all. But don’t go see this movie for its gospel, go catch it, wherever you can and as soon as you can, as an exemplar of story and film-making.
A gently evolving tale with underlying gravity, “A Terrible Country” follows a young American who returns to Moscow to care for his dementing grandmother, at the tail end of the 2010s. It’s a classic tale of innocence awakening, as Keith Gessen’s lovingly detailed pen describes modern Russia contrasted with the grandmother’s memories of the Stalinist/Brezhnevian Soviet era. Our hero is so earnestly lovable and innocent, yet Putin’s Russia is so seductive and dangerous! The plot involves no earth-shattering events, rather our Andrei gradually becomes enmeshed in his new world, to the point where he imagines it’s his new home and that he is Russian, only to find he is, after all, the naïve foreigner. Knowing a little about that neck of the woods, I loved the nitty-gritty, well described details, and Gessen’s dialogue is constantly amusing. For the life of me, I can’t quite place “A Terrible Country” against some of my favorite novels over the seventies, but suffice it to say this feels old-fashioned and intelligently so. If you have any interest in Russia, grab this and soak it in.
One of the recurring morsels of advice artfully provided by Sallie Tisdale, author and palliative nurse and Zen Buddhist, in her remarkable “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying,” is that when it comes to your death, “all the planning and support and advance directives in the world won’t give you control.” Time and time again she stresses that in this final journey, every individual makes herself anew. And yet, paradoxically, in this book she guides us through falling ill, falling mortally ill, dying, and, for survivors, grieving. Sometimes advice to a carer, sometimes wisdom for those about to die, a mix of tales and instructions and analyses, “Advice for Future Corpses” manages (at least for me it did) pierce the veil of blindness and disregard around death. She writes: “At the moment of death, a thousand tiny things happen. A fading, a flattening out.” And then, tenderly, she describes the body after death. Wonderful writing throughout. I appreciate this isn’t for anyone, but if being honest and being prepared are something you ascribe to, Sallie Tisdale is your beacon.