William Boyd is one of those skilled practitioners with ardent fans who straddles popularity and acclaim. My own reading splits about halfway between bedazzlement and a sense of stasis, and his latest, “Love Is Blind,” is more of the latter. His previous outing, “Sweet Caress,” swept up the life of a female photographer, in his latest we follow Brodie Moncur, a piano tuner at the tail end of the 19th century, and his adventures of the heart and profession across England and Europe. Boyd adroitly spurs the action from chapter to chapter, our hero and his love and his enemies are vividly drawn, and the period-piece locales are excellent. But when all is said and done, it’s the story of a life well depicted but ultimately bearing a flat lack of purpose. An enjoyable read.
Knowing Matt Scudder, loner New York PI, defines one as a crime fiction fan from three decades ago, and seeing Lawrence Block release the novella “A Time to Scatter Stones” had the heart pattering. Both Scudder and his creator helped form me as reader and writer (who can forget Block’s inspired how-to books?). So it pains me to report more disappointment than reading pleasure. The story is a straightforward one, very Block-ish in its subtle unfolding – Scudder is intro’d by Elaine his wife to a prostitute who is trying to get out of the game but threatened by a creepy client – but “straightforward” can mean simplistic, and this tale unfolds as ho-hum. The climax foreshadows itself. Much of the novella is discursive, riffy conversation between the married couple or with the prostitute, and while Block is master at this stuff, the gentle pace numbs quickly. If you like New York locales, you’ll appreciate the detailed street color. All told, this is a completist’s pleasure in a minor key but would baffle any newcomer to Block’s oeuvre.
Heaven for a mystery buff is a treat like “November Road,” the fourth book from Oklahoman Lou Berney. He puts three memorable characters on the road from New Orleans to Las Vegas in the weeks after JFK’s assassination: a loyal Mafia gangster fleeing a mop-up operation; the hit man sent to track hm down (who chillingly reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh); and a housewife fleeing her husband with two young daughters. In time-honored noir fashion, we know nothing good’s going to come out of the journey unless supreme sacrifices are made. Berney slaps us fully into the three lives and knits the crackerjack plot together with a sure hand and measured pace. I felt dread on my shoulders from the very first page. The writing is first rate: never verbose but gently comprehensive, with lovely phrasing and forward momentum. One of the standouts of 2018.
A sci-fi superstar with around twenty novels over three-plus decades, Kim Stanley Robinson used to be a reliable go-to for hard science fiction with a heart. He always adds something to the canon in terms of science extrapolations but in the past he also told smart stories with believable characters. Not so with “Red Moon,” which accrues some credit for fascinating details of what a colonised Moon would actually be like, but falls down badly on plot and characterisation. “Red Moon” revolves around a young American moon neophyte who stumbles into Chinese intrigue on moon and earth, a high-ranking minister’s daughter agitating, and a famous travel reporter. Their combined story shows promise at the start but fades into tedium, and all three characters are as alive as coffins. What a disappointment.
The fiery hero of one’s youth mellows, morphing into the hooky singer-songwriter with barbed lyrics that he always was, and he spends years expanding his palette into country and chamber pop and classical and anything at all, and then, after a brush with cancer, brings out his first record in years… what do you do? You jump in for a look-see, even though you’d grown tired of his previous decade’s direction. Elvis Costello is back with “Look Now,” teaming up with the Imposters (the Attractions ex its sacked bassist) after a decade’s separation. And the result is an exemplar of baroque pop that shades into minor-key drizzle at times. Opening track “Under Lime” is the only song with a scrape in his voice, a fulsome five-minute extravaganza, but “Stripping Paper” is equally impressive as a leisurely melodic ode to a relationship soured. Costello’s lyrics are as intelligent as ever, his tales of tarnished lives remain evocative, and the Imposters form an invisible but impressive mesh. Those are the pluses but towards the end the songs slow and drift into crooner territory. Overall, it seems churlish to desire an AYM (Angry Young Man) comeback and if you’re amenable to literate pop, “Look Now” isn’t a bad place to be.
The last Thor movie broke me. No more superhero movie debacles for me, I swore. Well, something about “Daredevil,” in its third incarnation, intrigued me and I’ve begun to check it out. I never used to read the Daredevil comics, nor did I watch the first two seasons, so I wondered if I’d be baffled. Not at all. The first episode establishes in leisurely fashion the renewed premise of a blind man with other superhero senses, battling evil in New York (where else?). Only this time he emerges with nearly all his senses crushed out of him, recuperating in a catholic orphanage. The mood and coloring are somber and the cinematography lovely in that comic-strip fashion that works best. Nonetheless, I have to say the plot is glacial. Normally, if I encounter a first episode that is all setup, with only a bare hint of ratcheting tension pushing into Episode 2, I’d fault the screenwriting and halt my viewing. In fact, I almost got to that point, and I haven’t rated this first episode highly, but something about the foundational elements in the very final five minutes have piqued my filmic antennae. I shall forge on.
“Trainspotting” was Irvine Welsh’s peak moment, a quarter century ago, and what a moment it was: scabrous, funny, and Scottish as could be. Since then Welsh has reprised his four mismatched characters three more times, and now we have a fifth outing, “Dead Men’s Trousers.” It’s 2015 and Mark Renton is a manager of DJs, still travelling and using and swearing. Enter Franco Begbie, apparently reformed from his amok ways and a successful artist. Enter Sick Boy, still a no-good pimp. Enter Spud, reduced to beggardom. Each of them has his day in the sun, in a plot that careens without much purpose but with enough spark were it not for one sorry outcome: while I laughed all the way through “Trainspotting,” this novel is just not funny. Oh, a couple of chuckles emerged but most of the wild scenes were, simply, silly wild scenes. Welsh writes with huge flair, using his trademark Scottish vernacular (some readers will baulk at this, it takes some getting used to), but I turned the final page with a sigh. Vim and vigor but a rickety plot and mere chuckles.
“Gerausche,” the six-minute opening track of “Iran Iraq Ikea,” sophomore release of Les Big Byrd, a foursome of grizzled Swedish band veterans, kicks off with a spacey groove that took me back to my Can fandom days, and the uncanny groovy-but-weird feel only grows with the dreamy lyrics and the piano figure clomped over the top. It’s a sensational beginning that is sustained through the driving, bleepy “I Tried so Hard” and the third track, “A Little More Numb,” more Slowdive than Krautrock. The rest of the nine-track album segues into more traditional synth-rock, but even this poppy fare slithers into your mind. Only the Swedish-language final track is naff. Check this one out – different and charmingly psychedelic.
In “The Luck Theory,” a fast-moving modern thriller, a troubled Special Forces veteran races to discover the killer of his estranged brother, a super-geek with a sensational new theory, a theory perhaps linked to his winning lottery ticket. A serpentine plot rockets onward, the bit-part characters are well drawn, and our hero’s inner troubles are well portrayed. The denouement works well. What holds this book back is the almost clumsy first-person, present-tense style. Heaven knows this chosen point of view is a tough one to render well, and Hamre doesn’t get there. I found the style grew more on me toward the end but that nagging sense of something not quite right did blunt my enjoyment. Nonetheless, a satisfying, complex read.
I came to “Colette” with only sketchy knowledge of the real-life subject, next to no interest in the types of books she wrote over the first half of the last century, and a general abhorrence of biopics. And I remained skeptical over the first half despite its fast-moving, intelligent script and a terrific performance by Dominic West as Willy, Colette’s husband and bestselling author. Occasionally the plot came across as close to lurid. But then in the second half, Keira Knightley, starring as Colette, revved up from being rather perfunctory to increasingly interesting and impassioned. Once Missy (played superbly by Denise Gough) hits the stage, the movie’s various themes grow deeper and more relevant, and slow build-up for the climactic husband-wife scene is masterly. Intelligent, provoking film-making with a real-life protagonist, for once, larger than life.