9/10, that’s how I rated the first mesmerising episode of “Maniac.” Did the rest of the first half of the season live up to that inspirational start? In essence, yes! Episode 2 is Annie’s partial backstory, while we see some of Owen’s fraught past in Episode 3. Episode 4, their first shared adventure while within the pharmaceutical testing, bewilders a bit, then Episode 5, set in a 1940s séance, takes off. I was hooked. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill fill their screens with riveting acting, the cinematography and music are superb, and the supporting characters keep expanding. Best of all, the sumptuous baffling plot continues to play out under perfect control, mystifying even more as it reveals. Bring on the season’s second half.
Scrublands by Chris Hammer [8/10]
Riversend, a Murray-Darling basis town scorched by drought: the revered local priest shoots five parishioners in broad daylight before being shot himself. A year later journalist Martin Scarsden arrives to resurrect his career with a “post-trauma” story and plunges into a classic whodunnit of wicked complexity. Author Chris Hammer has us walking in Scarsden’s shoes from the first page and unleashes the clever plot with assuredness. The rural cast of characters in “Scrublands” is evocative, the writing smooth and assured, the politics of a country town in decline well drawn. I was reminded of Peter Temple’s jigsaw-puzzle mysteries, a supreme compliment. Beyond the masterful genre mechanics and storytelling, Hammer (author of an award-winning travelogue through the drought-stricken areas) features the unforgiving landscape as a major character. Riversend is introduced thus: “the midday heat, ferocious and furnace-dry”; a river replaced by “a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust”; the heat “tugs at him, seeking his moisture.” For once let me recommend a rural murdery mystery ahead of city-based crime fiction: this is a resounding triumph.
Family of Aliens by Teleman [8/10]
Is Teleman England’s best kept cult secret? Surely! Once dedicated to creating the perfect pop (indie-style) confections, they’re now a robust four-piece with imaginative, solid musicianship around keyboards and guitars, all circling around frontman Tom Saunders’ field-fresh vocals. After some more experimental outings, “Family of Aliens” sees them leaping back into bouncy, almost-dance-style, sparkling songs built around intelligent, evocative lyrics (“Dreams are going to drown you someday, you don’t even know how deep you’ve gone”). Standout tracks include plaintive “Sea of Wine,” the ear worm opening track, and the sweeping “Song for a Seagull.” Not a dud track on this career best: buy and tap your foot and marvel!
Bosch Season 4 Episodes 2-5 [9/10]
I’m reviewing TV series in three tranches, namely whether to watch the first episode, then the first half of the season, then the final half. I think this mirrors how we approach a series. I rated Bosch Season 4‘s first episode as masterful but somehow lacking drama, and when I watched the next four episodes, this impression at first gained ground. Put simply, the many characters walked through their roles in a most complex intertwined plot, with much happening beyond the “Angel’s Flight” murder of an anti-cop defendant. There was nothing at all to complain about: the series’ maestros keep a logical grip on the plot, Titus Welliver inhabits the Bosch role (if also a little cockily over the first few episodes) and the supporting cast remains strong, the locales are very “Michael Connelly’s LA,” and the sense of intrigue remains high. Yet, yet, yet, I could not help feeling the “loose cannon” terrifying pulse of Connelly (and the first three TV seasons) was missing). Fortunately, in Episode 4, the season roars into life and we see that the first three episodes were all setup. No plot spoilers but a careening plot twist sends the entire story into dramatic freefall. Suddenly Welliver taps the deepest darkest heart of Harry Bosch and the other actors amp up, with Madison Lintz, playing Bosch’s daughter, simply brilliant. My heart was in my mouth over both Episode 4 and 5 and man, I simply cannot wait to see the final half. What a triumph the Bosch series is!
Normal People by Sally Rooney [8/10]
Normal People threatened to rush past me, a book about young people in and out of love, a species of novel I rarely read, but rave opinions turned me round and I’m so glad they did. Set in Galway and Dublin, zigzagging between the lives of desperately “not normal” Marianne and Connell, the working class boy made good, as they weave in and out of each other’s ranges, this sophomore novel by Sally Rooney is a stunner. I dare any reader not to be captivated by the immersive spell cast through dense dialogue, often mordant and savage, and inner yearnings. Not a word is wasted. With the plot leapfrogging a few months every chapter, my heart was gripped while I tried to anticipate twists that invariably surprised. The ending is sublime. Normal People restores my faith in relationship novels.
The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser [7/10]
The Life to Come won this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award and I can see why, for it’s a formidable literary work. This is author Michelle de Kretser’s second Miles Franklin and all six of her novels have gained critical acclaim as well as growing popularity. The Life to Come is her opus, a Tolstoyian cavalcade of five intermeshed characters: sharp-penned author George in Sydney; Sri Lankan Ash with Cassie; translator Celeste in Paris; my favorite character, endlessly ambitious wannabe writer Pippa, shallow yet somehow rapier eyed; and sluggish Sri Lankan spinster Christabel at home and then in Sydney. They know love, they experience aloneness, they interpret each other. The supporting cast of characters number in the dozens and the contemporary settings spring to life on the pages. de Kretser writes stunningly accomplished, dense yet light prose, at its best when savagely funny or acutely emotional. I’ve read most of her oeuvre and have oftentimes found the plots eventful but somehow sapped of drama, and a couple of the book’s sections threatened to sag under the weight of not much, but the final two plot arcs are highly satisfying. An antidote to my more routine reading fare, The Life to Come is a rich work of art.
Venom directed by Ruben Fleischer [6/10]
Even though I was an original Spiderman comic collector, I swore off superhero movies after Thor: Ragnarok, so unsophisticated it curdled my blood. But I’m glad I’ve returned to watch the latest entry from the Marvel world, Venom. Wonderfully directed by Fleischer and with Tom Hardy in top form as a slouchy, bumbling kind of hero who melds with a reptilian “symbiote,” the movie hews close to its superhero-creation myth, a narrative that is both cliched and epic. The rest of the cast has little room to show nuance, but the script is deliciously tight and the dialogue is two notches better than the pap of other recent superhero outings. I classified the film into two parts, a portentous, creepy setup that worked well, and a “mismatched buddy” adventure starring jokey Hardy and jokey symbiote, which I also enjoyed, though the transition between these two halves jarred for a few minutes. Quite why they needed to portray the symbiotes as so excessively loony, instead of something more scary, Alien-style, I’m not sure, but it was easy to enjoy the usual CGI battles and amazing chase scenes. Not the most imaginative of entries into the crowded superhero universe, Venom nonetheless pleases with its fast pace and uncondescending intelligence.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis [9/10]
Michael Lewis is Hercules to us geeks, someone who views the world through the lens of data and analysis, but with a storyteller’s heroic gaze. His mind seems to range across the panoply of human ambitions and his approach is forensic yet his touch is light. The Fifth Risk at first seems to be a magazine commission’s offshoot and something slight, a look at the havoc wrought by Trump’s staggering disregard of the machinery of government, but as Lewis traipses down the corridors of DOE, USDA, DoC, NOAA and so on (let me baffle you with acronyms, so you head to buy this to check out what the public service heroes of America are really doing), one’s jaw drops and then crashes to the floor. And Lewis, our shining light, is not, of course, merely cataloguing one president’s wilful ignorance and disregard, he analyzes the nature of the societal risks posed by government’s such as Trump’s. Not only is The Fifth Risk endlessly fascinating, it is, as ever, a jaunty, deceptively casual and entertaining read. If you read one “tell me what Trump is really like” book in 2018, make it this one.
We’re Not Talking by The Goon Sax [8/10]
Oh, smash your piggy bank on the floor and grab your cash for this sophomore wonder from the precocious, inwardly focused but tune-filled trio of Louis Forster (yes, son of Go-Between Robert Forster and he not only sounds like dad but writes as well as him), James Harrison (who can also pump out words and music inspired) and crisp, bouncy drummer Riley Jones (and she also writes and sings!). The debut of The Goon Sax was all about young love and ennui, and that hasn’t changed with We’re Not Talking, but now the arrangements sparkle and the variety of indie-style songs is astonishing. I’m too old for these loose-chat lyrics, I tried to tell myself, but I’ve been singing them in the shower nonstop! Check out the rollicking “Make Time 4 Love,” the thumping “She Knows” (with a swoony Alex-Harvey-ish hook), the one-minute bedroom solo of “Somewhere Between,” and the XTC-style brilliance of “Get Out.” Not a pop moment wasted, this smells like a classic.
Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell [7/10]
A cross between Carl Hiaasen’s madcap plotting and Adrian McKinty’s scurrilous Irish humor, Caimh McDonnell now closes off his wonderful hybrid mystery Dublin Trilogy with Last Orders, which kicks off with madman Bunny McGarry’s funeral and spirals into a dense, highly Irish plot. Goofy yet sympathetic characters abound, with even the walk-on roles offering pleasure (check out Agent Dove with the metal arm!). Dublin and its pubs and environs is wonderfully brought to life, the humor bubbles, and an alert intelligence underpins what can seem like an out-of-control plot. It took me half a book’s reading to sink into McDonnell’s flow but once I did, I was hooked. A highly recommended, imaginative, enjoyable read.