Clear-eyed Detective Chief Constable Brendan Moran, homicide head in the Thames Valley between the Cotswolds and the Chiltern Hills, is back for a fifth outing in “Gone Too Soon.” The Irish investigator tackles the baffling murder-disguised-as-suicide of an up-and-coming female pop star. Very much in the hallowed tradition of the British procedural, this fast-paced mystery ducks and weaves through the complications of the dead singer’s life. Moran is of course the hero, and a stalwart. engaging one, but his team, including bouncy George and traumatised Tess, share the limelight. Executed well, atmospheric, with an ending hard to pick . . . a gentle winner.
Kathy, once wild, is about to marry an older Englishman in “Crudo.” Trump and Brexit whirl around her. The novel careens from the excesses of the rich to the existential despairs of the rich, across location after location, in a dizzying sequence that fleshes out what is a slight plot. But the plot isn’t the point, rather it’s the sharp inner commentary taken from the headlines and also from the works of punk author Kathy Acker. I haven’t read Olivia Laing’s nonfiction but intend to, for this is intellectually sharp writing (not as funny as I imagined, but then, I’m not easily tickled) that intrigues long after Kathy’s journey ceases.
In “Where the Forest Meets the Stars,” ornithologist Joanna, researching birds in Illinois forest, stumbles upon Ursa, a mysterious child who claims to be from the stars. From this enigmatic start, the author skilfully throws in Gabe, a reticent young man selling eggs by the roadside, and the plot expands in waves of confusion and increasing tumult. To my genre-sensitive eye, the plotting at the start raised too many questions, and I resisted falling under the author’s gentle spells until nearly halfway through. But surrender I did, and the final third, with plot shocks and deepening character revelations, builds to a crescendo that then turns slightly schmaltzy in the best possible way. An intriguing, enjoyable debut.
Norfolk, that beautiful coastline rimming an enchanted if sluggish county. Jason Dalgliesh, author of the Dark Yorkshire mystery series I enjoy so much, has now kicked off a less edgy series turning around the police detective prowess of perceptive, steady DI Tom Jansson. It’s a welcome addition to the canon. In “One Lost Soul,” Jansson and his young homicide team, helped by his female boss (an undercurrent of attraction provides welcome frisson), investigate the brutal strangulation of a teenage girl on a lonely North Sea clifftop. In the vein of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland masterpieces, the pacing is sure and measured, the characterisation builds, and the subtleties of the suspects’ interlocking lives unfold with pleasurable reading. A solid, entertaining kickoff of what promises to be a classic series.
The war against cancer: of course we know about it, of course we care about it, of course we cheer this week’s victories … except maybe the war is false. Oncologist Azra Raza, specialist in myeloid leukemia, has spent a lifetime on the frontlines of the war against cancer, and “The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last” is both her professional life story but also a very human plea against oncology’s ruling worldview. This is an extraordinary work, somehow combining real tales of cancer battlers, her own memoir that revolves around the death from cancer of her husband, Harvey Preisler, himself an oncologist, and also a powerful plea to rethink the decades-long, no-holds-barred war. She is convinced the world should switch “from chasing after the last cell to identifying the footprints of the first.”
I first came upon an oncologist’s disquiet in the closing pages of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial “The Emperor of All Maladies.” Perhaps, Mukherjee whispered, the war is being lost. Since then, I’ve observed friends enveloped by institutional cancer “battle” cycles – the ops, the chemotherapy, the radiotherapy, and (the latest) the immunotherapy. My unease festered. Now Azra Raza confirms my intellectual and emotional unrest. Lab-tested cancer drugs, she writes, fail with humans 95% of the time and the successful 5% see their lives only extended by a few months at most. In spite of progress with some cancers, in broad terms, overall “war against cancer” statistics flatline over the last three decades. “No one is winning the war on cancer. It is mostly hype, the same rhetoric from the same self-important voices for half a century.” Oncologists’ “inevitable slash-poison-burn cycles” hold out hope but mostly don’t deliver, in fact Raza cites a number of highly personal case studies that question whether the collateral suffering was at all effective or humane.
“The First Cell” is compulsory reading from a talented writer and a first-hand participant in history. Embrace it for an emotional rollercoaster and to open your eyes. Whatever your final judgement – it’s hard to jettison the “war against cancer” hopes – at least your reading will offer more choices when the Big C hits you or your family or your friends.
Contemplative, steady books function as welcome relief from the drama and cacophony of most of our reading. “North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring” is a rhythmic, unhurried account of ornithologist Bruce Beehler’s 2015 four-month odyssey from America’s south up to the remote woods of Ontario. His mission was to shadow a 1951 birder’s trip, to view thirty-seven migrating warblers, but his deeper purposes were clearly to explore first-hand the amazements of bird migration and to document humankind’s inexorable encroachment of avian habitats. “We must remain hopeful,” he writes towards the end, “and continue to work to conserve and restore what we love.” Beehler writes fulsomely about the environment and the many birds he sights, and his passion for solo observation is infectious. This is a love story, an enfolding of nature around him, an immersion. Whilst the target audience for “North on the Wing” is birders, I commend it also to budding naturalists and explorers of the real world beyond our expanding megalopolises.
Ignore the movie trailer of “The Farewell,” for this is not a light comedy of the “Chinese immigrants return home” variety. Instead, Lulu Wang’s downbeat story is a moody look at the role of home and the love of family. Struggling American Chinese Billi (played wonderfully truly by Awkwafina), barely holding on in New York but very much a New Yorker, returns home as part of deceptive last rites for her Nai Nai (grandmother). The suburban city feel of the cinematography, all bleak apartments and footpaths and restaurants, in some unnamed city (it felt like Shenzhen to me but could equally well be outer Beijing), is superb. Culminating in a very Chinese wedding, the movie probes imminent loss with a seriousness that belies the drippings of mild comedy. If it drags a bit in spots, that’s because the plot contains no artificial drama. The final scenes of separation and dislocation round out a minor-key but worthy film
Scott Ryan is a grinning, glowering Aussie presence in “Mr Inbetween,” a low-key riff on the by-now ancient story of the professional criminal living his life in ordinary society. Ryan plays Ray Shoesmith, a thug for hire, a hitman at worst. In this first episode, an amusing first scene in a boxing school segues to domesticity – girlfriend, daughter, and so on – before drama with two low lifers hits us sharp and gritty. Nash Edgerton’s direction is sure-footed but my first encounter with this highly regarded series left me nonplussed. I’m intrigued enough to continue but I must say that the script, co-written by Ryan, skirts at the edge of nonchalance. Here’s hoping the next few episodes rev up…
Magnificence! In a bio of a government official, of all things! George Packer makes “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” sing, not only by digging deep into the talented, charismatic, driven, alienating Holbrooke’s professional and private life, but with an idiosyncratic “voice in your ear” style that constantly blew me away. Richard Holbrooke came of age in the miasma of America’s years of failure in Vietnam and soared to his highest heights amidst the Balkan atrocity years. He ached to be Secretary of State but never got there, partly due to character defects that the reader forgives because Packer persuades us they underpinned his U.S.-centered morality. The author burrows in, not hesitating, for example, to quote entire chapters from Holbrooke’s own diaries or letters. After the “golden age” of American internationalism following World War II, spearheaded by Holbrooke’s heroes such as Dean Acheson, came Holbrooke’s time of haphazard, if sometimes well-meant global tinkering, and “Our Man” is a rare window into it. In these years of Trumpian geopolitical idiocy, the book also serves as both nostalgia and corrective. You might not have heard of Richard Holbrooke but for your own sake and for the sake of history, read this scintillating biography.
Cathy Lucas heads Vanishing Twin, a cross-border, cross-genre mashup of world music, electronica, and burbling pop, held together with busy drumming. Their sophomore release, “The Age of Immunology,” offers some lovely sweet grooves, such as on the six minutes of chugging, bleeping “Backstroke.” On the scrabbling “Cryonic Suspension May Save Your Life,” her ethereal voices chips in right at the end. To my ears, the instrumental passages beguile; the vocal passages less so. Interesting.