My reading in the second half of 2022 seems to have toggled from widescreen high dramas to small-canvas intimate tales. “Small Joys of Real Life” is my second in-the-moment, first-person account of a pregnancy in inner-city Melbourne. When talented but dissatisfied actor Eva finds herself pregnant after a whirlwind dalliance with charismatic Pat, whose death plunges Eva into an existential crisis. A feature of the novel is the marvelous tapestry of Eva’s deeply embedded friendships with chaotic Sarah and dependable Annie.
Small Joys of Real Life operates on a tiny canvas of experiences and decisions over the course of Eva’s pregnancy, full of low-key drama and real-life urgency. As with another recent immersive novel, the lack of gasp-worthy plot cliffs meant that Eva’s story fascinated me but failed to connect deeply. Nonetheless, the author is an assured, in-control stylist who offered me new, valuable insights. Recommended.
1968 England and in “The Fragile Cage,” Detective Constable Cameron Kyle takes a bullet and changes from cautious to headachy, reckless, perhaps even psychotic. Now ex-DC Kyle, he tumbles into an adventure involving an escaped killer, his ex-girlfriend, her new boyfriend, and a female detective. Kyle is a most welcome crime fiction protagonist, direct, honest, and bold, and the author’s style (different to the one he employs in his main DCI Moran series) reflects the hero, a pell-mell flurry of unpredictable action laced with acerbic humor. The Fragile Cage is paced to perfection and makes for a sunny (it that’s the right word for a noirish book) one-sitting read.
“The Gray Man” is Netflix’s expensive tilt at a Bond-Bourne-like franchise, all action and style. Ryan Gosling plays Six, a shadowy super-spy/killer/warrior originally rescued from jail, and the film quickly establishes the underlying premise: when a mission goes wrong, Six gets hold of data that the head American spy must retrieve, and soon enough, Lloyd Hansen, a psychopathic mercenary, is on Six’s trail. The first third holds promise, with wild chase/battle scenes. Gosling is a favorite actor of mine, and here he plays a deadpan, quick-witted super operative with flair, at least during the film’s setup. But despite ongoing action scenes that out-Bond Bond, and some cool repartee, by the second half, the rot sets in. Chris Evans is miscast as the villain and hams him up with ludicrous flippancy, while Gosling’s nonchalance quickly turns sour. The finale of The Gray Man is a disaster plot-wise, a clumsy vehicle to segue into a sequel. Look, there is noise, there is action, and some classiness, but a botched second half with little storytelling smarts means this franchise should be no franchise at all.
The ongoing quality of the seven ten-episode Bosch streaming shows has always amazed me. Now a follow-up series, “Bosch: Legacy,” which echoes author Michael Connelly’s books in recounting the adventures of private investigator Harry Bosch after he leaves LA Homicide, has commenced. Has it maintained that quality? Well, the key ingredients—overseer Eric Ellis Overmyer and actor Titus Welliver in the core role—remain, and Season 1 once more makes use of a Connelly novel, but during my watching, I sensed a drop-off of filmic intensity. There is nothing wrong per se with the plotline, revolving around Bosch assisting defense attorney Honey Chandler pursue a tycoon, hunting the long lost relatives of a billionaire, and advising his daughter Maddie as she begins a career as a squad cop. And the production values remain: steely realism, fine camerawork, unhurried plot unfurling, solid ensemble support cast acting, and punchy dialogue. No, what I think has thinned out the urgency is an element of vigilantism that has emerged. Suddenly Bosch’s obsession with justice feels a tad less fascinating. So, dear viewer, by all means enjoy the noirish pleasures of Bosch: Legacy but please, relish the earlier shows first.
Some writers you come to well after they set off on their journeys and such is the case with Claire Keegan. Thrilled by the perfection of The Quiet Girl movie (see my review), I nabbed “Small Things Like These” and found concise, precise bliss. In a small Irish town in the mid-80s, Bill is going about his busy trade as a timber and coal merchant when he encounters a moral wrong which, as Christmas approaches, sends his memories spiraling back into his childhood. Over just 120 pages, the author documents Bill’s ordinary days among his world and his family of three girls, while revealing a heart yearning for goodness. Every page brings to life the world, the man, the ethical starkness, and the seemingly gentle pace actually burns with urgency. The climax is as unforgettable as it is prosaic and inconclusive. One of the outstanding novels of my 2022 reading, Small Things Like These comes with a sticker: unreservedly recommended.
In taking a distinctively imaginative approach to the climate crisis, “Carbon: The Unauthorised Biography,” an Australian-Canadian collaborative documentary, flirts with danger. Over its hour and a half, the film portrays the element carbon as a living entity, firstly as the backbone of the universe, and then, of course, as unwilling villain in its role in carbon dioxide, the principal factor in slowly warming our planet. A wonderful cast of highly expert talking heads from a range of disciplines (not just climate science), including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joelle Gergis, Katharine Hayhoe, and Will Steffen (I’ve just listed the ones I know, some of the others are equally as scintillating), exuberantly narrate carbon’s “story” from the start of the universe until now. Carbon is personified as a “she,” and her story is interspersed with fervent imaginings of her voiceover, narrated by Sarah Snook. Daniella Ortega, the writer, also does a stellar job in the director’s chair, keeping the pace up and the plotline cogent. I can recommend Carbon: The Unauthorised Biography as a visually satisfying educational documentary. The risk, as I see it, is that viewers might find the very personification of carbon an irritant. Similarly, pairing the perils of climbing carbon dioxide as harbinger of doom with carbon’s bountiful ubiquity could detract from the former vital message. Well worth watching.
“Maison de Retraite” is that rare French comedy, a fizzer. Firstly it is a predictable tale: a young man fulfilling a community service requirement by working at a retirement village, switching from disdain to enjoyment, and battling on the side of an eclectic stable of residents. Absolutely no zing in the tired storyline. Kev Adams does a serviceable job in the starring role but seems miscast, and the ensemble roster of French actors playing the cliched residential group (including a dial-it-in role from Gerard Depardieu) is unable to transcend the woeful dialogue to provide any connection to the viewer. The banality of the villains, the car chase, and the ultimate plot “twists” is hard to credit. One to be avoided.
Irish author Claire Keegan is famed for her short stories, one of which, Foster, now lives on in filmic form. “The Quiet Girl” is the adaptation by Irish director/writer Colm Bairéad, and he has achieved a restrained miracle, the simplest of tales possessing enormous emotional depth. Living in a rural area of 1980s Ireland, in which Irish is still spoken, ten-year-old Cáit, a girl of few words and muted watchfulness, is sent away by her brutish father and overwhelmed mother. She lobs in with her aunt and uncle, who slowly unfurl the type of love the girl has never known, until secrets intrude. Catherine Clinch is superb in this role and none of the actors is less than excellent. Artfully shot but with no sense of artifice, the film never hurries, but nonetheless a sense of menace hangs over all the characters, yet the film’s eventual message, as it were, is simple and heartbreaking. A quiet gem, The Quiet Girl is one of 2022’s standout movies.
A crackling coming-of-age tale from the heart of multicultural Australia, “One Hundred Days” injects the reader into the tumultuous world of sixteen-year-old Karuna, pregnant and un-partnered, and her generational battle of love and control. Karuna’s mother, a volatile Filipina bride-migrant, passionately still very much imbued with her home culture, takes charge and tries to lock Karuna up in their tiny housing-commission flat, lock her up for her pregnancy term and beyond, for the traditional “hundred days.” Karuna is an engaging, aware, full-hearted innocent, and the hundred days in question tests her and her familial bonds.
The author is an immersive stylist adept at placing a reader (in feverish first person argot) at the juncture between two cultures. The inner city of Melbourne in the 1980s teems with life. A fascinating, enjoyable read, One Hundred Days failed to grip me with character-based plotting high points but provided a healthy, welcome view of a world very different to mine, and for that I am grateful.
Quite why “Raising Raffi: A Book about Fatherhood (For People Who Would Never Read Such a Book)” is subtitled in that way is unclear, but this unusual, clear-eyed five-years-of a-life memoir is a treat. Keith Gessen, a Russian-born emigre with two highly regarded novels under his belt, opens his heart about the perils, pitfalls, and joys of raising Raphael in thronging New York. Framed as nine essays, approximately tracking years zero to five, concerning different aspects of childhood and fatherhood, the author combines a sense of wonder with honest bewilderment. It certainly helps that he is a lucid, gently rhythmic stylist, for one soon feels like a confidant. Scenes can be funny or disturbing, advice is offered but rarely without caveats, practicality spars with morality, and Raffi the boy, together with his mother, emerge from the book as glorious creations. I find it hard to explain the appeal of this quirky, non-How-To memoir, but somehow, Raising Raffi is a pleasure to bask in.