Quiet War by Frank Kennedy [8/10]

Frank Kennedy Quiet War review

Master of the space opera, Frank Kennedy has now turned his narrative focus to the murder mystery genre, albeit set on a space station in his capacious Collectorate universe. In Quiet War, Deputy Trevor Stallion, aboard the massive Amity station that houses the heart of the People’s Collectorate, battles his personal struggles and his own relentless, detail-driven personality as he deals with something rare: the death by apparent drug overdose of a brilliant young scientific student. Against official whitewashing efforts, Stallion races to uncover the truth, something far more sinister and with ramifications throughout the Collectorate. Our detective hero is a classic detective, sharp-witted, obstinate, and conflicted. The author is, as ever, a fine stylist, with a firm grip on a baffling, intriguing plot. Quiet War, the first episode of a trilogy, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent read.

Perfect Days by Wim Wenders [9/10]

Perfect Days review

For me, Wim Wenders movies capture the senses and the mind but rarely cohere into anything distinctly memorable. Perfect Days takes the final step to solidity by reducing the focus to the quotidian and ordinary. With poised cinematography and a steady, reverent pace, Wenders portrays the unburnished daily existence of Hiroyama, a Tokyo toilet cleaner, a man whose simple, spartan life revolves around work, food, reading novels, listening to cassettes of 60s/70s rock music, and taking analogue photographs of a particular tree under which he lunches every day. By seeing multiple days of Hiroyama’s seemingly boring life, we gradually realize he apprehends great beauty in the ordinary, in repetition, in simplicity. Events arise that threaten to rock him out of his unyielding routines and a strange tension captured this viewer, the tension of wishing the man more out of life, at the same time hoping nothing eventuates. The small cast of supporting actors is superb and Kōji Yakusho gives a transcending performance as Hiroyama. Perfect Days is a minor key masterpiece from Wenders, not to be missed.

The Gentlemen by Guy Ritchie [6/10]

The Gentlemen review

At his best, writer/director Guy Ritchie produces intelligent, sparkling, complex thrillers, but latest his best has not been on display. Now he has created an eight-episode streaming series, The Gentlemen, that reprises the basic storyline behind one his best movies of the same name. Ex-soldier Eddie inherits the blue-blood estate of his father, only to find himself burdened by the rampant debts of his feckless brother Freddy and, more significantly, a weed farm on his property that attracts attention from all manner of gangsters. The series is deftly, if outrageously, plotted, each episode features at least one Ritchie-esque scene of spectacular blood splatter, and the cinematography is suitably opulent. In the end, The Gentlemen amounts to ready gangsta entertainment held up by a fine supporting cast, but it fails to set the world alight primarily because the competent lead acting by Theo James fails to set the screen alight.

The Power Foods Diet by Neal Barnard [7/10]

Neal Barnard The Power Foods Diet review

I am tiring of reviewing diet/health books but the flood of quality advice continues unabated. Dr. Neal Barnard is a physician with a prodigious output of books recommending my dietary regime of choice, the Whole Foods Plant Based (WFPB) way of eating. He heads an influential, patient-centric nonprofit. His latest is The Power Foods Diet: The Breakthrough Plan That Traps, Tames, and Burns Calories for Easy and Permanent Weight Loss. I see this book as a gentle, persuasive polemic in favor of WFPB, focusing on three properties of WFPB’s preferred foods (vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, whole grains): they reduce appetite (a natural equivalent of the latest pharma fad, Ozempic), trap and flush calories, and boost metabolism. As a result, Dr. Barnard and many others have had tremendous success at putting overweigh patients onto a path to a lesser girth and enhanced health. Using simple, chatty language, the author walks through the same WFPB terrain as a number of recent authors have done, but with a directness and clarity that astonished me. My understanding of several key dietary issues shot up after my read. After the education and advice, Barnard does what all diet books must do, namely presenting a huge array of simple recipes (plus general practical eating and cooking advice) intended to launch a WFPB beginner on a fresh path. The Power Foods Diet is intoxicating and, for those new to the concepts in play, potentially lifesaving.

Wicked Little Letters [5/10]

Wicked Little Letters review

Please, please save me from any further “based on a true story” films. I have said this before and it remains true: for some reason, the girdle of factuality almost always saps the plotline, script, and dialogue of artistry. So too with Wicked Little Letters, a currently popular, very British, “juicy” (as in the centrality of cussing) comedy. In a classic English town, Littlehampton, poison pen letters full of profane, sexual stupidity arrive in the letterboxes of the prim, proper residents, who, naturally, are shocked. Edith, a repressed spinster under the thumb of a truly bigoted father, is the first to receive the missives, and based on her say-so, the buffoonish police arrest neighbour Rose, a spirited, take-no-prisoners Irish blow-in. From this early plot premise, we follow the only “good cop,” and indeed the first ever female policeman, Gladys, as she hesitantly seeks justice.

Let me give credit to the elements of Wicked Little Letters that work: the village atmosphere is rendered atmospherically. You will hear fulsome praise of Olivia Colman’s expressive portrayal of Edith, of Jessie Buckley’s characteristically true rendering of Rose, Anjana Wasan’s “look at my expressive eyes” turn as Gladys, and also Timothy Spall’s grotesque depiction of the cartoonish father, and yes, all show considerable artistry. But the script they work with turns most scenes into “staged” moments that never convince. The deferred “plot twist” is telegraphed way too early. Worst of all, the copious profanity should send us into fits of laughter but instead sounds like kids playing at swearing. By the time we arrive at the ham-fisted “climax,” boredom has long set in.

Australia’s Sleep Revolution with Michael Mosley [8/10]

Australia's Sleep Revolution review

The title of this three-part documentary, Australia’s Sleep Revolution with Michael Mosley, is unlike to draw in anyone not currently thinking about sleep and its ramifications, but it’s a hidden treasure, one that anyone cursed with insomnia must watch. Mosley, as ever, expertly spins out the storyline of thirty insomniacs (himself included, of course) being tackled by a large multi-disciplinary team of experts at Flinders University, the result being a modestly entertaining watch. But the meat of series is twofold: the unfolding of a method of “retraining” the body and mind to a productive framework whereby roughly 85% of your “bed time” is actual “sleep time” (an added factor not of interest to me is the latest techniques to battle sleep apnoea); and the variety and dramas of the participants, many of whom are engaging characters. I learnt something valuable and am sure any insomniac viewer would do likewise, and for further elucidation, one can, of course, turn to the accompanying Mosley book.

Table for Two by Amor Towles [7/10]

Amor Towles Table for Two review

Following two stunning, warm-hearted novels, A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway, we Towles fans must now be kept patient by Table for Two, comprising six short stories (some presumably written years ago) set in New York and a novella “Eve in Hollywood.” The shorts are a mix of whimsical light pieces and city/domestic dramas. My favorite is “Hasta Luego,” in which a smooth New York consultant bumps into a bluff Californian salesman, resulting in late night drinking and the desperate efforts of one to save the other. I also enjoyed “The Didomenico Fragment,” a wry and spry story of generational inheritance and fine art. “The Bootlegger” starts as one tale—a husband on the trail of a bootlegger at a Carnegie Hall concert—and ends with the wife’s musical revelation. Read about a migrant from the Soviet Union in “The Line” and about antique book forgery in “The Ballad of Timothy Touchett.” But undoubtedly it’s the longish novella, “Eve in Hollywood,” starring sassy, scarred-yet-beautiful Eve from Towles’s earlier novel, Rules of Civility. Here Eve befriends movie star Olivia de Havilland, then deep into production of Gone With the Wind, and when a classic blackmail attempt hits Eve’s friend, she and a small cast of confederates move, in Chandleresque fashion, to sort out the mess. Towles uses a complex noir plot and his lithe, lively prose to craft a lovely mini classic. Overall, I’m unsure if I can recommend Table for Two to Amor Towles neophytes but if you have sunk into his two biggies, it will pleasurably remind you of novelistic pleasures still to come.

The Invisible Fight by Rainer Sarnet [5/10]

The Invisible Fight review

Born of Estonian parents, I was immediately drawn to Rainer Sarnet’s ultra-quirky The Invisible Fight, an energized, silly story of a young martial arts fan (played with huge, attractive brio by moustachioed Ursel Tilk) who journeys to a monastery of adepts. Everyone is hooked on heavy metal music and roaring, lovely music informs most scenes, especially the copious kung-fu fights. Our hero embarks on a path to mastery of his chosen calling and all manner of extravagant battles, choreographed with a love of classic movies, take place, a love interest enters, and much is in place for a thoroughly frisky cinematic experience. Add an element of satire (it is set in the early 1970s, when Estonia was a crushed satellite of the Soviet Union) and there is much to admire. Yet the plotline is a meaningless mess, with no calibration of intensity and no sense of control, and the ending is a bust. I was intended to laugh, I guess, but never did, so watch The Invisible Fight if the allure of a meld of heavy metal, kung-fu, and religion calls to you, but otherwise, it is regrettably difficult to recommend.

Fleet Lane by Richard Smyth [9/10]

Richard Smyth Fleet Lane review

Anything British nature writer/novelist/essayist/cruciverbalist (crossword puzzler constructor) Richard Smyth writes, I read. Fearless, compendious, moral, and prolific he certainly is, but his superpower is a brilliant, sophisticated writing style. Every Richard Smyth page sings. His latest novella/short novel, Fleet Lane, plonks the reader into the Georgian London scene of 1760s medicine. At a fascinating time when medicine was just emerging from semi-witchcraft, upper-class “surgeons” have successfully banned lower-class “barbers” who operate on the sick without supervision. Henry Mendel, a half-Jewish, often drunk barber-surgeon, now rendered illegal, continues to operate with impunity and success, attracting the enmity of Johann Paternoster, powerful head of the official surgeons, who unleashes thugs as deterrence. A rollicking, profane collection of characters revolving around Mendel and Paternoster—Mendel’s brother the poet, a publisher with a “bleeding” beauty of a daughter, and many others—enlivens the central conflict, with an overarching character being richly described London, a London of reek, sewage, and sex. The author’s playful yet dense prose, somehow evoking the times, is a pleasure to experience and never interrupts the surefooted plot. Fleet Lane is a fascinating and delightful read.

Briefly Very Beautiful by Roz Dineen [6/10]

Roz Dineen Briefly Very Beautiful review

Dystopic fiction is running rampant and logically so. A debut novel, Briefly Very Beautiful is a claustrophobic, intense tale of a young mother with three young children, two of them brought to her by a husband now working as a medic in an overseas war. The world is steadily and catastrophically breaking down, from infrastructure to the American political order, and the air is becoming dire. The author writes heartfelt, close-up prose in support of this narrative of a human world gone mad and awry, told from a dense domestic viewpoint. When her city threatens to become unlivable, the woman sets off with her charges to search for sanctuary with her family-in-law, first in a gated estate, then over a border to a secluded property. Halfway through the engrossing story, the focus shifts to a story of familial dysfunction, hidden evils, and domestic betrayal, and I must confess I found the intricacies of treacherous human groupings and the hero’s responses, to be less fascinating than the background breakdown. Overall, this is an engaging, worthwhile read.