Author of the landmark history of Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy, Sophie Cunningham is a must read and “City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest” could well be my standout book of 2019. A mix of investigative travel reporting, naturalist discoursing, and personal memoir essays, it explores nature within the human-dominated Earth using a lens of writing about ten trees in various cities around the world. Cunningham rejoices in (or sometimes bewails the fate of ) Mountain Ash, Coolibah, and Moreton Bay fig in Australia; olive groves in Puglia; and Giant Sequoia, Yellowwood, and coast live oak in America. Evocative author sketches accompany poignant descriptions and historical musings within these tree-related essays. And interposed are personal essays on the swirling politics and life in her life, including the deaths of her two fathers. She is a lovely writer, economical yet lyrical, never a wasted word. Unlike many such books, the underlying mood is gentle and contemplative, laced with an undercurrent of rage: “But not just weeping. We should also be fighting for their [in this case elephants] survival.” This is a book to savor and then to lament with and finally to use as stimulus for action, action to leave a legacy for future generations.
A prolific author of thrillers, poetry, writer how-tos, William Bernhardt has returned to legal thrillers, and as my first foray into this sub-genre, my reaction was one of “read it in two sittings” delight. “The Last Chance Lawyer” has a nifty conceit at its core: after bouncy, smart trial lawyer Daniel Pike loses his job, he gets picked up by a small outfit, run by a mysterious Mr. K, a team that tackles pro bono cases for those left well behind by the law. In this first outing (thankfully there will be more), Pike and allies defend a female Florida gang member against an open-and-shut murder charge, the backdrop being that they need to save her in order to save a young girl from ill-fated deportation. I enjoyed the intricate legal system details (after all, that’s one of the joys of this sub-genre, the world you’re dropped into), the byzantine plot (more twists than Perry Mason), and Bernhard’s breezy style.
As an ex-actuary, I’m partial to the idea, ridiculous though it must be, that you can somehow create a formula for living life, a calculus if you like. So I’ve read a number of those How-To books that attempt to ascribe probabilities and rationality towards life’s decisions. “The Algebra of Happiness: The Pursuit of Success, Love and What It All Means,” by an ex-entrepreneur and hedge fund principal, now professor at a business school, Scott Galloway, called out to me. And at the front of the book is a fancy page of graphical equations of the type “smiley face = …” I began impressed but quickly floundered, for Galloway hasn’t come up with anything new, rather, this book is his “tips for life” for business students, couched in investment-speak. For example, “invest in experiences over things” becomes “car < lion.” There’s plenty of meat (or sensible advice) here, and if you’re youngish and aligned with well-paying professions and partial to robust jargon, “The Algebra of Happiness” might well spark something deep. As for me, I got little out of it, though some of his pithy homilies, such as “serendipity is a function of courage,” made me chuckle with recognition. In other words, come to this book if you need it, otherwise don’t expect profundity.
In the second mystery/thriller by British author Heidi James, “So the Doves,” a hotshot journalist returns to his Kent hometown to confront anew the disappearance of his enigmatic teenage female friend twenty years earlier, only to see his life unravel. This is a classic mystery story and the author rattles the pace along for the first three quarters of the book, with some lovely time period descriptions and a sense of capturing the teenage years. But over-lengthy dialogue muddies the otherwise fine prose, and I felt the denouement was quite ho-hum. All in all, an enjoyable read but lacking some flair.
“How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” is a call to action from American artist and writer Jenny Odell. Dealing with the ubiquitous right-now phenomenon of social media and big-data advertising, aka Facebook and Google (but many others as well), Odell exhorts us to move beyond “turning off” or quitting, to finding new ways (which are just old ways rebadged) to be present in the world while attempting, best as one can, to bend social media and the rest to our ends. Odell doesn’t come at this most fascinating and vital issue with the eyes of an academic but as an artist and activist, and the book isn’t easy going for a generalist and novelist like me. As she herself admits, her eagle eye skates all over the place, referencing all manner of art and politics, and her arguments can be dense to the point of loss of meaning, again when looked at from the perspective of an ordinary person like me. But in my reading, I forgave her all of that, because she offered exactly what I sought: intellectually fresh and lateral ways to view the issues. And she delivered in spades. I have tons of quotes from her pages to help me tease out my own views on this strange world I now inhabit. If, in the end, Odell’s climax cum conclusions offered me little, the journey was more than worth it. Highly recommended for its careening intellect and visions.
An entrancing story idea seemingly derived from Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys“undergirds The Hummingbird Project,” a brilliant 21st century movie from Kim Nguyen. Glib, driven Vincent (perfectly cast for Jesse Eisenberg, who delivers a stunning performance) ropes in his uber-geeky wizard cousin Anton (guess what, Alexander Skarsgard is even more outstanding in this role, capturing the tics and sheer intellect and humor of a near genius) to build a 1,000 mile fiber-optic cable, through houses, fields, mountains, from a Kansas stock exchange hub to a New Jersey one, shaving a millisecond (the time it takes a hummingbird to bat its wings, right?) off transaction times and offering millions in profits to investors. Nguyen doesn’t waste time with preambles or introspection, instead it’s pell-mell action as the drills begin drilling, as opponents rain hell on the two cousins, as mountains break drill bits. This is a very intense, almost high-brow film, even amongst the particularities of tunnels and deals and back-stabs, and if you’re not intoxicated by the very concept of high-speed, high-frequency trading, you might be bemused by the flights into humor, pathos, and moralising. I was entranced and would gladly watch it again.
Fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction, a growing sub-genre, should lap up The Long Night series by Kevin Partner and Mike Kraus, at least based on my reading of the first three books of six, leading up to “States of War” (the earlier two instalments are “The Long Night” and “Scattered“). Each instalment is short and Mike Kraus is prolific in this field, two characteristics that gave me pause when I began reading, but I can report that there’s nothing cookie cutter about this effort. The premise – near-universal healthware implants lead to ninety percent of the world dying – is a ripper, and the three protagonists (a man and his faraway wife and a town cop) are believable. The sinuous plot involves the shadowy Lee Corporation and a missing hi-tech cylinder. The writing is fluid, intelligent, and immersive. I read the three initial books in a haze of pleasure.
The third in the Hitchhiker cozy mystery series, in which our writer hero Oliver’s mind is inhabited by a ghost needing earthly resolution, “Murder in Doubt” was a welcome relief from some of my recent dark-tinged reading. This time the mental invader is a nine-year old girl with a penchant for lying. Wonderfully plotted, with twists and turns galore, and populated with colorful characters, the book is a quick fizz of a read, perfect for its purpose. Rodney Strong writes with humor and deftness, much being made of the dialogue with the hitchhiker in his head juxtaposed with real-world conversations.
A propulsive thriller that reminded me of Robert Ludlum’s pell-mell books from years back, “The Controller” commences at full speed and never winds down. Disgraced ex-FBI agent Sam Lynch, obsessing over his son’s disappearance six years prior, is called back into the fold by Special Agent Sandra Rose after a gruesome home invasion. Lynch is on the trail of a disputed evil underground group called The Railroad, headed by someone who may or may not be called The Controller, and this novel is Lynch’s obsession writ large. Matt Brolly is a deft, sure-handed writer, especially with action scenes, and the plot spits out surprises every few chapters. If I tired slightly of the almost lurid revelations, for much of my two-night read I turned the pages fast, and I’m certain fans of Reacher or even Dan Brown would relish this supernova first volume of the expected Lynch/Rose series.
Superhero movies are not for everyone, but if you love them or are an occasional partaker, let me, from the outset, reassure you. “Avengers: Endgame” is not bad. It’s a satisfactory treat. Someone told me recently that there have been 22 films in the Marvel franchise, a factoid I haven’t bothered checking, and I estimate I’ve seen about half of them, so I’m not a rabid fan (and Endgame is tastiest for such fans) and I was adequately scooped up and carried through three hours. Recent Marvel movies such as “Thor: Ragnarok” were appalling, inlaid with idiotic script slabs or dialogue, but the Russos oversee a solid, sometimes ingenious, plotline, and the characters are expertly drawn by a super-stellar cast. In saying that, only Robert Downey Jr. triumphs in his role of Iron Man (one of my favorite superheroes in my comic books days of half a decade ago); Jeremy Brenner also shines as Hawkeye; the rest intelligently at least rarely put a foot wrong. The grand narrative pictures our world halved in population by super-super-villain Thanos and the mighty Avengers needing to take huge risks to redress this situation. The action scenes are mega and kinetic and impressive. All up, a fine paean to the Marvel world, except for two notable flaws. Firstly, Alan Silvestri’s swelling orchestral music reminded me why I left the middle of last century behind. And Chris Evans redefines wooden with his Captain America performance. Take the kids, okay? Don’t expect revelation, but.