“Russian Doll” is, based on the first episode, a hoot of a remake of “Groundhog Day.” Its frontline star, Natasha Lyonne (who apparently co-created the series), is not an actor I know, much to my detriment, for she’s an instantly charismatic mid-thirties New York City hardcase intellectual cynic. The plot conceit is, of course, that soon after the episode kicks off at her birthday party, she gets cleaned up by a yellow cab while seeking her cat… and wham, she’s back at the party, again and again and again. Nothing is all that clear in the first episode but it’s clear that we’re in for a zingy, clever-clever plot of recurring but morphing life episodes, like the unpacking of a Russian doll. The sets are super evocative, every character so far is subtly brilliant, and the music rules. I can’t recommend it too highly and can only hope the plot chicanery can sustain my interest over the remaining episodes.
Every few years, I read a futurist’s breathless prognostications for our genetically enhanced future, a world of diseases cured, humans enhanced, and humanity reconfigured. “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” by Jamie Metzl, and yes, he is a futurist, is the most sprightly, clear predictive extravaganza of them all. Metzl startled me early by pointing out that IVF involves giving parents the choice between the eggs at their disposal, in effect selecting amongst alternative genes, and he quickly points out that this will inevitably lead to expanding the number of eggs and expanding parents’ God-like capabilities. From there, he explores the entire gamut of accelerating technologies that will be available to “hack” or engineer humans’ genetic make-up. Metzl does a great job in organizing the book intelligently and his writing style is cogent and stylish. I noted that on any genetic issue, he cycles through pointing out the risks (personal and societal) and encouraging oversight, before edging us towards believing that we won’t be able to resist the amazing new machinery. By the end, I had enough material to plot a dozen sci-fi books, I felt excited, I had experienced dread, and my mind buzzed. What more could I ask of such a book?
The final half of “Berlin Station Season 3” is a careening, uber-tense rollercoaster, as the American spies battle to keep Estonia from falling into the arms of a Russian overlord. Plot twists occur almost every five minutes and one of them in particular had me leaping from my chair. If I could have, I would have binge-watched it in one four-hour sitting, but the Australian release of episodes was drawn out. I’ve said as much as I need to in previous reviews of Season 3 about the brilliant acting and precision cinematography; suffice it to say that the quality never slackens off, which is remarkable after three full seasons. Episode 9 was as exciting as any action movie I’ve watched in recent years. If Episode 10, which needed to wrap up all the intricate strands convincingly, ends up being, like Episode 1, a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle, I’m sure no Berlin Station or Olen Steinhauer fan will complain. Bring on Season 4… please!
I enjoyed this solid debut of a mooted police procedural series featuring DCI Ronnie Carlson. “Tangent” finds Carlson and his crew hunting a particularly vicious serial killer who seems to be a blast from the past. Carlson, grieving a family loss, is an appealing, “everyperson” protagonist, and his crew of police are all drawn convincingly. Although the villain seemed to me to be less “alive,” and although the stylistics and plotting bounced up and down a bit in quality, overall I raced through the novel with quiet pleasure.
Even though I find some of her books distinctly uncomfortable reading, A.L. Kennedy is one of my favorite stylists. What exactly is her style is hard to describe, for it’s not flashy. Her style is more in the pacing and rhythm than in flowery prose, though her descriptions are wonderful. “The Little Snake” is an oddment within her portfolio, a novella-length fable about a fabulistic snake, Lanmo, who visits humans about to die, and his unexpected friendship with little girl Mary. Told in gentle, evocative prose (“The red jewels blinked like clever, tiny eyes. This was because they were clever, tiny eyes.”), Kennedy’s meditation on death and life and everything in between glides through Mary’s life and Lanmo’s journeys. This is infinitely seductive writing in the service of a handful of basic messages, and I found it powerful indeed. Highly recommended, especially if you can read it to a young child after you’ve wept with it yourself.
Much-hyped books rarely fall flat on their faces but the eagerly awaited “Bridge of Clay,” the follow-up to Marcus Zusak’s debut best seller, does just that. It’s a hefty tome classified on the Penguin website as “young adult” yet glossily marketed to the adult mass popular/literary market, with an accompanying narrative of heroic authorly struggle over a decade-plus. I came to it with excitement but quickly settled into the worst kind of reading experience, that of trudging drudgery. An ultra-thin and mawkish plot underpins the novel, that of five brothers rearing themselves after their mother’s death and father’s abandonment, with brother number four, the titled Clay, being the one to build the titled bridge (real and metaphorical) that unites them and their parents’ pasts. That plot should have sustained a novel a third the size. The jumping across timelines jars. Of all the characters, only Clay achieves any presence on the many pages, and I found the other four brothers drawn so cartoonishly that my eyes blurred at their dialogue. Zusak’s writing style is consciously weird and jagged and flowery, with only an occasional glimmer of grace. All in all, “Bridge of Clay” amounts to a lumbering shapeless blergh.
Book-length sports writing is heroic and tough. A tennis player myself, it saddens me that I had not read an engaging tennis tome for many years. Thankfully the situation is now rectified, for poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips has penned a humdinger: “The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.” Phillips spent 2017 immersed in the annual tennis circuit, a sequence of major tournaments bookmarked during each of the seasons by the Grand Slams, commencing with the Australian Open around Australia Day in January, then proceeding with the French Open from the end of May, then resplendent at Wimbledon in July, before exploding with the U.S. Open concluding in early September. Phillips’s electrifying plotting device is that at the start of 2017, Federer and Nadal seem to be has-beens, while Djokovich and Murray reign supreme – will the year pan out that way? Interspersed global rankings narrate the bones of the story, but the drama lies in the author’s bold and stylish take on each tournament. I was swept up by his alternately lyrical or noirish descriptions of key matches. Beyond the top four players, another two dozen or so are beautifully showcased. I don’t know how but Phillips has turned a year of commercial tennis into a grand pageant of grand clashes between the grandest of athletes. Even if you don’t watch tennis, come read “The Circuit“: it’s a tour de force.
Mahershali Ali is brilliant as an African-American jazz musician touring racist southern USA in the early 60s, and Vigo Mortensen is even more brilliant as Tony Lip, his hired Italian-American driver, in the feel-good “Green Book.” The movie quickly transcends the regrettable mantle of “based on a true story” and rattles along at just the perfect pace. The issues of racism are smoothly and sensitively tackled, all the acting is flawless, and the film’s only downside is a huge crest of sentimentality over the final quarter hour. A sweet example of a mismatched duo film that exudes intelligence.
Musicals and I don’t mix but for some reason I was attracted to seeing “Mary Poppins Returns” as a window into my childhood memories of the original. I’m pleased to report that Disney and director Marshall have not messed with the vibe of the original, indeed they have faithfully echoed it amidst a narrative shift to the modern day. The conceit is that the original Mary Poppins kids are now adults, the grown-up boy now having three precocious kids. Their mother has died, the dad is in trouble, and Colin Firth plays a malevolent banker. Zing! Down floats the “almost perfect” nanny, played to perfection by Emily Blunt. Moments of sentimentality abound but it all depends on your attachment to the original; we went with older friends who despised this treacly singalong but I channeled my inner boy and enjoyed it from start to finish. A triumph of restrained Disney magic.
An earnest thriller in the vein of Grisham, “The Runaway” kicks off at pace and accelerates without any slack. A simple enough tale – a boy in a family under witness protection runs away and a host of corrupt company heads and killers chase him – is made human by a surprisingly large roster of in-their-heads characters, good and bad, old and young. Thompson writes smoothly and without literary flourish but with an ease that facilitates a fast, enjoyable read.