American geologist Marcia Bjornerud is on a mission to educate us, to the extent we need it, about our planet and the swathes of its four and a half billion years of history. “Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World” is a beguiling mix of artful lecturing, personal narrative, and purposeful reflection. The “timefulness” of the book’s title is a term she conjures up to highlight the admixture of ancient and recent geological and related aspects of Earth that are, in her view, the important features we need to consider when saving ourselves from within our new geological era, the Anthropocene. Bjornerud is an elegant, personal writer and this book carries out its mandate fully and to great effect. Read it and learn, friends.
“Rewind” is an intricately plotted mystery involving spooky holiday cottages, hidden cameras, a missing social media star, and a social media journo who aims to conquer the crime beat. Dodging back and forth in time, in and out of different characters’ viewpoints (including a malevolent player), the author choreographs a Hitchcockian mystery cum thriller. The locales shine, the dialogue crackles, and I enjoyed the ride, although it must be said a shadow of manipulation hangs around the edges of the reading experience. Clever and well done.
Irish writer Kevin Barry is all about drama and poetic immersion in settings and the inner lives of characters. His “Beatlebone” was one of my favorite novels from a few years back, although it’s fair to add that a number of readers who read it on my recommendation found it baffling. “Night Boat to Tangier” might well engender the same spectrum of reactions. Two gabby Irish drug crims gather at the seedy port of Algeciras, searching for Moss Hearn’s daughter, reported to be coming in from Tangier. He and Charlie Redmond, one with a limp, the other with one eye, brood, Irish raconteurs the pair of them, while the novel dives back and back into their violent past in Ireland, Spain and Morocco. The author has an extraordinary style, unfurling savage humor and storming lyricism with poetic rhythm. A tale of ambition, lust, madness, and love, this novel is one of 2019’s standouts. Read it and weep, as I did, for these unlikeable but oh so human heroes.
You might think a book titled “Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Even Change Your Life” is too obscure, but I’m always fascinated by how many people I know have opinions on all manner of grammar. The semicolon arouses fandom or rage, it seems to me, and Cecilia Watson energetically and stylishly plunges into that maelstrom of opinions. Riding this secondary punctuation mark’s controversial history from its ancient beginnings, she offers a wonderful set of judgements on its usefulness and usage. I especially enjoyed the chapter where she riffs on the very different semicolon deployments of Raymond Chandler, Irvine Welsh, and Rebecca Solnit. In the end, this concise book is an appeal for scribes to use their imagination: “We will never find THE rules, unshiftable, unchangeable, and incorruptible.” Overall, this is a leftfield intellectual pleasure.
The first season of “Mindhunter” captured my imagination, dark though its story material is. Serial killers, the tracking down of them, that’s what the series relates, through the eyes of two FBI psych researchers (plus an engaging second string of FBI-ers). The second season’s opening episode hit hard but then the next four episodes seemed to “lose direction.” What then of the final four episodes running down the main underlying story of a brazen, clever serial killer of black children in Atlanta? Thankfully the series’ brooding investigative edge returns, all the acting remains superior (with the two main actors, Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, outstanding), and the dark cinematography is spellbinding. The climax, vindicating though it is, partially slaps down the new FBI profiling unit and the closing scenes are bleak indeed. Season 3 beckons.
The opening episode of “The Boys,” a wacko superhero series in which the “sups” are out-of-control, corporately manipulated villains, was a mixed bag for me but I was compelled to watch on. I’m delighted I did, for the remainder of the season’s first half is a sprightly confection, full of so many gasp-out-loud plot twists that I … gasped out loud. Ragtag heroes Billy Butcher and Hughie are joined by Frenchie (played with contrary delight by Tomer Capon) and Mother’s Milk (a sturdy performance from Laz Alonso). The villains continue to impress with their depravity. Splendidly scripted and directed, with bouncy dialogue that works, the series rushes at a fast clip towards a finale I cannot begin to imagine (our heroes are, after all, ranged against superheroes). Roll on, second half.
“Recursion” adds a thriller’s pace and many wormholes worth of complexity to all those time travel novels you’ve enjoyed since the Heinlein and Asimov era. A policeman investigates something dubbed the False Memory Syndrome while we watch a neuroscientist, funded by a tycoon, build a technology to store the depths of memories. By the time they meet, the plot spirals into mind-bending time trips that had me gasping with admiration. Crouch is a dab stylist and the hijinks are laced with recurring and building love stories that achieve genuine traction. A winner in both conception and execution.
Iconoclast Malcolm Gladwell is one of those writers I’ll always read or listen to (his podcasts are exceptional) because his oblique nerdy insights into the ordinary could come from no one else. “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” addresses what happens when we talk to or examine strangers, defined as those we don’t know inside out. Gladwell’s curiosity has him exploring spies who fool everybody, innocents accused of crimes because of their demeanour, con artists even smart people trust, confrontations that spiral out of control, and so on and so on. Drawing on a recent more academic book by an expert on the subject of drawing others, he comes up with underlying reasons why our confidence in our ability to “read” others is misplaced. Reading Gladwell means going on a journey of wonderment, and for the first three quarters of “Talking to Strangers,” I was fully absorbed, but the final quarter petered out for one simple reason: his conclusions intrigue but don’t thunder. A quick brain-tease of a book that remains modest in intent, something we see rarely these days.
A most unusual and compelling thriller, “Launch Code” centers on one of those nuclear submarine “near miss” situations that fill us with dread – a 1983 order to release missiles at the Soviet Union, beginning the nuclear winter. The calamity is averted but a crew member is dead and 36 years later, ex-submarine Lieutenant Bill Guth and his family, gathered in England, are embroiled in a related murder. Ridpath is a wonderful plotter and fine stylist and the story rockets towards its multiple-twist ending. All the characters come alive and the rural countryside setting leaps off the pages. I remember Michael Ridpath fondly from his considerably older financial mysteries; he has lost none of his timeliness and flair.
Tech superstar Vivian Liao catapults into an impossibly huge fraught space-opera stage where she and a motley bunch of people, creatures and things battle an omnipresent Empress. If my plot description sounds wild, well, “Empress of Forever” is a sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza and most authors would flounder under the weight of its inventiveness. But Max Gladstone is a passionate, adept author (I came to him via his co-authored novel of lyrical time travel, “This Is How You Lose the Time War“), and here his language blooms. The plot whistles in the dark, the space-time set pieces glow, and all round, this is one superior bout of entertainment and imagination. Most recommended and we should look forward to a genre classic from Gladstone’s incandescent pen.