2019, for me, is a year of extravagant entertainment, the kind of intelligent, exciting shit that takes you away from life but also deepens. So it’s been Bosch and other dark mystery/thriller series, and it’s been the sci-fi of Legion and The Umbrella Academy and so on. Do I need more of such exuberant escapism? Well, I’ve begun “The Boys,” a supremely odd superhero comic-based series that pits corrupt superiors against a ragtag bunch of citizen vigilantes. It begins with young Hughie (played wonderfully by Jack Quaid) gutted by a death caused by Vought Corporation (the one with all the vaunted superheroes) and falling in with mysterious, rough-as-guts Billy Butcher (what a surprisingly fine turn by Karl Urban!). In the meantime Annie, a wannabe Vought superhero, is anointed as Starlight and begins to understand what she’s really gotten into. Over the course of a slightly surreal, uncertainly paced first episode, we glimpse how Hughie, Billy, and Annie might range against the baddies led by super-superhero Homelander, portrayed by frosty precision by Antony Starr. The first episode is at once compelling and irritating, but by the closing, brutal scene, it’s clear the viewer is in for a ride. Will that journey satisfy? Let’s watch on, viewers…
Contracts by Matt Rogers [4/10]
Melbourne thriller writer Matt Rogers follows the tradition of Matthew Reilly with combat-centered action tales, and “Contracts” is a solid, if unassuming story set on the standard route to Everest. The second of a new series combining previously separate heroes, Jason King and Matt Slater (one is bigger, one is faster), the story revolves around the kidnapping of an American teenage girl, daughter of a senior secret service official. Battle after battle ensues, with the perils of high altitude sickness a further obstacle. Rogers choreographs the violence well but for me, little made the two nigh-superheroes stand out above the scrum of many similar Ethan Hunts in a crowded marketplace. Entertaining, nonetheless.
Bosch Season 5 Episodes 6 to 10 [9/10]
Oh bliss is mine! The seamless closing half to the fifth season of police procedural “Bosch,” based on the peerless novels by Michael Connelly, vanishes in a blur of tension and satisfaction. It’s rare to find yourself thinking you know the characters in a television series as well as you achieve with novels, but I caught myself doing just that over the past couple of days. Whatever mental picture I’d accumulated over the decades of reading about Harry (born, of course, Hieronymous) Bosch are now fully subsumed by my images of intense, volatile, jaw-thrusting, super-smart Titus Welliver. I’d rated Episode 1 as 8/10 and the next four episodes as 9/10, so there’s no surprise with my assessment this time round, but let me tell you, such consistency is rare. The twin plot strands of “pill mill” murders and machinations of a serial killer from Bosch’s past, roll inexorably to fraught climaxes, and just as much pleasure can be found in the myriad other subplots, from daughter Maddie’s internship to Jerry’s neighborhood killing investigation to old-timer Troy’s retirement to police chief Irving’s ascent … all these and more, all splendidly portrayed, result in a wholly satisfying tapestry. And let me repeat again my accolades for the sure-handed direction, the wonderful dialogue, the Los Angeles-centric cinematography, and the edgy music. Indeed bliss is.
Deserve to Die by Miranda Rijks [5/10]
The cunning interloper … an entire thriller sub-genre has developed around the idea of someone worming their way into the lives of innocents, with deadly aims. Perhaps Killing Eve’s Villanelle is the ultimate example (except she infiltrates with ease again and again and again). “Deserve to Die” is an entertaining entrant into this field, with gorgeous Tamara entering the world of designer Dom and his author wife Stacey and their two children. Miranda Rijks writes with great confidence, her dialogue especially admirable, and the mechanics of Tamara’s misdeeds are plotted with finesse. The characters are credible if a trifle shallow, so that “Deserve to Die” makes for a fine one-sitting read that underplays the implicit tension. A satisfying meal without being a wonderful night out.
Fall: or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson [5/10]
The wondrous, hard-sci-fi worlds of Neal Stephenson crown him as the king of futurism. No one can match his entertaining, minutely imagined unravelling of fascinating futures. In “Fall: or, Dodge in Hell,” Dodge Forthrast, the super-smart, super-rich games developer at the heart of near-future techno-thriller “Reamde,” dies and is accorded a second existence in virtual reality. Stephenson, of course, delves into the very notions of cryonics and virtual reality with depth that is in itself fascinating, and he is a brilliant plotter who also gets under the skin of his numerous characters. This is a typical hefty book (nearly 900 pages) that mostly intrigues and entrances. If you love to witness a fantasy world – in this case the virtuality reality Bitworld in which Dodge emerges – unfurl in kaleidoscopic cacophony, this book will delight. And Stephenson loves to puzzle out the thematic possibilities of his futures. But for all the pleasures of “Fall: or, Dodge in Hell,” two aspects detract. Once upon a time, back with “Snowcrash,” Stephenson wrote with exuberant style. No longer: his late-career discursive style, while never shallow, is now almost pedestrian. And Bitworld, I’m sorry to say, quickly becomes numbingly tedious. No one is like Neal Stephenson and for that reason alone, I commend this book to readers, but there’s a world of pity in me that he doesn’t curb his excesses and focus more on the on-page experience.
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke [6/10]
An idiosyncratic, involving mystery, “Heaven, My Home” is the second outing for African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. Battling his own recent murky past, he sets out to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a white boy, son of a jailed Aryan Brotherhood thug. Locke’s tricky plot often seems a sidelight to Darren’s quest, the fraught racial politics everywhere, and wonderful descriptions of Marion County, but I raced through the book, quite caught up in it. Authorial pacing ebbs and flows, and the writing style feels unusual. All in all, a sense of dislocation accompanied my reading but I can recommend the book to lovers of procedural mysteries.
Weather by Tycho [5/10]
Scott Hansen, aka Tycho, has produced some pitch-perfect ambient albums but “Weather” is not one of them. Epoch, his previous release, featured guitars to great effect, but on Weather he embraces short electro-pop songs and introduces vocals, the breathy lounge voice of Hannah Cottrell, both of which swing him away from effective ambience towards, frankly, boredom. “Into the Woods” is enjoyable jaunty brain fluff that fades away in lovely fashion, and the title track is an instrumental with his old emotional mix of hue and rhythm, but the other six tracks disappoint.
Indistractable by Nir Eyal [6/10]
2019 has been a year of benefitting from a number of sage books on focusing and dealing with modern information overload. “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” is a welcome addition to this congo line. Employing a smooth, helpful prose style and a comprehensive, logical structure, Nir Eyland addresses first the roots of distractibility, highlighting the new triggers of social media and email, before sensibly recommending internal analysis, trigger research, and time blocking as the fundamental steps in taking time back from our distractions. He then offers plenty of useful ways of “hacking back” time, including two that intrigued me: finding online work stint buddies and setting out challenging self-pacts. If you’ve known for ages that something is wrong with how you spend your time, this is the book for you.
Mindhunter Season 2 Episodes 2 to 5 [7/10]
The first episode of the return of “Mindhunter” was brooding and brilliant, a perfect scene setter. And the ensuing four episodes have maintained what makes this series so brilliant: the meshing of the ordinary lives of trail-breaking forensic psychologists and the macabre world of their purview, the serial killer; splendid acting across the board; excellent cinematography (with a muted color palette that matches the terrain wonderfully) and sets from the early 80s; great subtlety (we see little direct violence, this gruesome world is shown via interviews); and a nuanced examination of what I’m interested in, namely the nature of evil. The pace over Episodes 2 to 5 slows and we’re privy into more of the internal lives of the core characters. In particular Anna Torv is spellbinding as she eases more onto center stage in the role of Dr. Wendy Carr. The cameo performances as iconic serial killers continue to mesmerise; Damon Herriman’s riveting performance as Charles Manson justifies the entire season. The narrative slows over these episodes and by Episode 5 of Season 2, I wondered if the overall story was losing direction, hence the lower 7/10 rating, but I remain confident that the closing half of the season will restore the dramatic arc.
Bosch Season 5 Episodes 2 to 5 [9/10]
Can they make a superb series, five seasons in, even better? I rated the first episode of the fifth season of “Bosch” as 8 out of 10, high praise indeed, but the next four episodes have flowed slickly and thrillingly and emotionally, without a moment’s hesitation, so I’m upping my assessment. Harry Bosch and the extended LA police team around him keep up the slow, patient work into opioid pill farming, while a blight from Harry’s past looms as a threat. The mood of gritty realism retains a focus on modern morality. I’m on edge going into the finale half!