The Pearl Thief by Fiona McIntosh [4/10]

Fiona McIntosh The Pearl Thief review

It’s 1963 at the Louvre and a mysteriously lovely jewelry expert is asked to appraise some ornate piece that sparks her teaming up with a Mossad agent to track down a heinous Nazi in hiding, with a crusty lawyer thrown into the plot. Such an immensely appealing setup but “The Pearl Thief” disappointed. Undoubtedly this reflects a genre bias, and if you’re a fan of Fiona McIntosh’s many novels, read no further. During my reading, I admired many of the set scenes, amidst glorious (or hideous) surrounds, I almost warmed to the characters, and I exhibited interest in this quintessential quest for two-decades-delayed justice, yet the florid mawkishness of the otherwise solid writing, plus enormous slabs of expository dialogue, curdled my enjoyment.

The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson [7/10]

Bee Wilson The Way We Eat Now review

I bet you’re like me, a ball of confusion about what to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between. Or maybe you’ve seized on what you think is the right way to eat but have doubts. Or you lament the modern world of food and diets. Well, food writer Bee Wilson has written a brilliant overview of that world. “The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change” surveys the globe’s food and eating practices and cultures, ranging over every question you’ve ever asked.

The author describes “the rise of meat and oil and the fall of bread.” The story of food is one of triumph, with once-common starvation still omnipresent but far less prevalent, but also one of impending doom, with obesity and food-caused illnesses hounding the modern world. We eat far too much, and far too much sugar, saturated fat, and salt. A hundred species of banana exist but the deliberately bred tasteless Cavendish banana is now nearly half of all those grown. In a startlingly short period of time, all our past habits and cultures of eating have been replaced by supermarket crap, takeaways but also deliveries, and diet fads and fancies. I was fascinated to read that “snacking now accounts for half of all eating occasions in the United States. “Why is it called a protein bar,” Wilson writes, ” and not a sugar bar?” She laments that “we need new ways of thinking about food to help us to adjust to the abundance that now surrounds us and to start to build a better way of eating.” An epilogue provides personal tips for just such better ways. If the task seems Sisyphean, she remains hopeful: “Here is the consolation of eating in these strange times: the best of it is better than anything that came before and the worst of it won’t stay the same for ever.” Cogently structured and elegantly written, “The Way We Eat Now” is essential reading for anyone interested in this vital topics.

The Killer Collective by Barry Eisler [6/10]

Barry Eisler The Killer Collective review

The John Rain thriller series, starring a hit man with independent notions, is notable for kinetic actions scenes and quality writing. I read maybe the first half dozen of the series, then dropped out; it’s hard to sustain a reader’s interest in a hit man, methinks. But something drew me back to the tenth, just released, “The Killer Collective.” And I’m glad I did for it reminds me of those very same qualities. This thriller is bursting at the seams with action and intrigue and should only take a reader an evening to power through. It has to be said that Eisler’s plot premise – John Rain is offered, and declines to accept, a hit contract on Livia Lone (Eisler has written three thrillers starring her), a sex crimes detective dangerously close to catching high-powered individuals – seems to be for fans only. For not only do Rain and Lone team up here, they also rope in five other hero-warriors, all of whom have appeared in earlier series books (and one of whom, Ben Leven, has two of his own books), so that by the end of the book, the plot seesaws between too many characters to really care about. A slick, intelligent read, if a little tired.

The Typist from Nina Grosse [6/10]

The Typist review

Freya is a long-time police typist in Berlin, a mousy type played brilliantly by Iris Berben, and her inner life teems with the atrocities she hears. And her daughter vanished. Out of this dark material, “The Typist” weaves a pitch black mystery drama that builds slowly and then accelerates over five episodes. There is much to like here: spot-on acting performances (especially Peter Kurth as the head of the homicide unit), a dark palette of seedy city and country scenes, a fascinating peer into police team work, and a cohesive plot. Fans of grim European police dramas will fit right in. I found myself admiring the execution but recoiling from a sense of voyeurism feeding off the unremitting grimness.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone [7/10]

Amal El-Mohtar Max Gladstone This Is How You Lose the Time War review

A tour de force of lyrical, extravagant prose, the slim novel “This is How You Lose the Time War” packs in more phantasmagoric action and time-travel magic than most hard sci-fi books of three times the length. Red, a time manipulating agent of a mechanistic future, and Blue, a similar agent for an organic future, tussle across time lines in a dizzyingly sketched multiverse, before commencing to exchange covert letters of challenge and then admiration and then more. The two authors, both feted under their single names, concede no ground to the reader, throwing us into a barely comprehensible brew of worlds and times and technologies. Not a sparkling word or phrase is wasted. I’m still reeling days after gasping through the time-twisting complexity of a double climax that had my jaw dropping. I’m reminded of the times of Samuel Delaney, the sheer joy in the weirdest of worlds drawn in poetry. Amongst the best science fiction I’ve read this year.

The End by Karl Ove Knausgaard [9/10]

Karl Ove Knausgaard The End review

Over the course of his six-book My Struggle series (published in the original Norwegian in the early 2010s and eked out in English-translated form over a number of years), Karl Ove Knausgaard has varied his novelistic focus and his narrative structuring. Based on his own life, that is, “true” to an extent only he can answer, it applies a Proustian attention to the mundane and the interior that can be a trial to read but immensely rewards persistence. The final volume, “The End,” came out in August of last year and its 1,100-plus pages have proven to be formidable, but as I neared the end of the 3,600-page series, I was surprised to find myself lingering, soaking up the final elements of the seemingly undramatic story. I was gripped. In “The End,” Knausgaard intersperses minutely observed family activities (including a harrowing time with his burdened wife), drawn-out philosophical essays (including one on Hitler, of all topics), and his emerging stardom with the publication of the first few volumes. Stylistically seemingly simplistic, in fact the writing is dense with meaning and import, and the subtle structuring over different time periods, including always circling back to the topic of the first volume of the series concerning his father’s death, soaks into the reader’s psyche. Several times I put the book aside to sigh in glory or to weep. One of the most brilliant books of the past few years.

Daredevil Season 3 Episodes 7-13 (“run” by Erik Oleson) [5/10]

Daredevil Season 3 review

Can a superhero tale survive thirteen hours of telling? It’s taken me ages to work my way through the thirteen episodes of “Daredevil Season 3“, and my very language gives me away: no, this series did not compel me onwards, although it does contain some fine moments. Some time ago, I took a look at the first half of the season, judging the opening episode as slow but appreciating the core strengths of the show over the next five episodes. While those plusses – terrific fight scenes, good performances in support roles, atmospheric filming – mostly stayed strong over the final seven episodes, some essential elements left the show. Charlie Cox never convinced me as Daredevil Matt and much-vaunted Vincent D’Onofrio hammed the role of villain Fisk. Perhaps if they’d wound up the plot a bit, collapsing thirteen episodes into six, say, the season could have retained vigor, but not even the rousing climactic episode enlivened the eventual torpor. And the religious overlay sank the boat, in my opinion. All up, nice try but a barely passable almost-flop.

The White Crow directed by Ralph Fiennes [5/10]

The White Crow review

Rudolph Nureyev’s legend is of the boorish creative of sublime gifts. “The White Crow,” directed by Fiennes and co-scripted by David O’Hare, does a modest biopic on that part of his life up to his 1961 defection from the Soviet Union to the West. Lit throughout by an arty sensibility, the film dovetails the amazing defection with flashbacks to Nureyev’s tutelage six years earlier with an aging ballet director (played convincingly but gracelessly by Fiennes himself), and to greyish, moving, poverty-stricken childhood sequences. Debut actor Olev Ivenko portrays Nureyev with wonderful, freewheeling dancing and a character portrayal that almost captures what I imagine the star’s admixture of arrogance and inspiration to be. My contempt for ballet did not help me with enjoyment, but the flaccid script in the middle third also does the narrative a disservice. The final tension-filled airport defection scene almost rescues what is an interesting but not riveting film that should have aspired higher.

Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle [7/10]

Yesterday review

Sit back in your seat and sink into the brilliantly conceived and executed first half hour of “Yesterday” and you’ll see the combined power of co-writer Richard Curtis and gun director Danny Boyle. Not a nanosecond wasted, not a dialogue word that isn’t razor sharp, not a plot point off theme. You’ll have heard of the film’s conceptual conceit – and I marvel that no-one has come up with it before – that the world flips and only one guy, make-work musician Jack Malik (played wonderfully by Himesh Patel), remembers that the Beatles ever existed. This notion allows “Yesterday” to indulge in a celebration of the Beatles’ musical magic and it does that tremendously well. The need to thump down to a happy ending weighs the last quarter of the movie with a shade too much sentimentality for me, but this is a wonderful cinematic outing for young and old alike.