Rummaging through various fantasy tropes, the eight-episode “Carnival Row” evokes a Victorian-era world in which humans coexist with fairies and other non-humans. Set in The Burgue, a claustrophobic, evocatively portrayed city at war, a relentless police detective (played grimly and effectively by Orlando Bloom) investigates a series of hideous murders whilst trying to resurrect a fraught affair with a feisty fairy. Subplots involving the parliament of the city (Jared Harris is magnificent as chancellor) and an aggressive non-human arrival (very much addressing xenophobia and refugees) flesh out the plot. Some episodes ramp up the murder mystery angle, others flex the subplots. Although the climax offers no twist to the alert viewer, the final episode satisfies, and I recommend “Carnival Row” for those keen for rousing dramas in skewed worlds.
“The Night Fire” continues the seamless LA crime busting odyssey of Harry Bosch. Now retired and limping, in this outing he lines up, in satisfying constellations, with renegade lawyer Mickey Haller and firebrand night-shift cop Renee Ballard. Three murders – a cold case prompted by an ex-mentor’s murder book passed to Bosch at a funeral, the slaying of a judge, and a homeless man’s fiery tent death – come to vigorous life under Connelly’s brisk, elegant pen. All three characters pulse with life but it’s Bosch who fascinates most, even after all these years. The interweaving plots contain more twists than most crime writers unveil in a decade, and all the outcomes sing of naturalness. If “The Night Fire” reeks a little of comfort rather than explosiveness, this reader, for one, could not care less.
Joe Pernice is an energetic wonder, a cult singer-songwriter with melodic chops galore and Elvis-Costello-style cutthroat lyrics. After a number of different forays, he’s back with the eighth offering of Pernice Brothers, featuring his brother and regulars. Nine years after “Goodbye, Killer,” the new one, “Spread the Feeling,” bangs out eleven pithy pop songs. Play it as background to work or let it rip in the car, every track immediately makes sense and can be hummed. Every track is old-fashioned pop magic but check out super-catchy “The Devil and the Jinn,” with backing vocals from Neko Case; the crunchy guitars and wordplay of “Mint Condition”; and bittersweet “Wither on the Vine.”
Australia’s recycling ecosystem has been rocked by China’s withdrawal from mass gleaning. I was disturbed and did some digging, but it’s a tough subject to penetrate. By sheer coincidence, American academic environmentalist Kate O’Neill has just put out a definitive examination of the topic in “Waste.” Covering the mechanics, economics, and politics of a baffling global subject of huge importance, O’Neill somehow manages to juggle myriad perspectives and yet produce a readable and rather concise book. Reading it, I realized my thinking had been shallow. Waste can be a bad or a good, an environmental blight or a vital resource. Anyone with the slightest interest in this accelerating issue would be well served by a keen read of “Waste.”
Who is this Rian Johnson? I’d heard of his “Looper” from 2012 but I’m no Star Wars fan, so his 2017 “The Last Jedi” passed me by. Based on “Knives Out,” his extravagantly Cluedo-meets-Poirot genre outing, I should have kept an eye out, for this is a treat for the senses and the mind alike. The setup is pure Agatha Christie – an aging writer (Christopher Plummer is, as always, spot on) who dies on his birthday, surrounded by a family of rogues, and along comes the cerebral, gimlet-eyed detective to help the police solve what is essentially a locked-room mystery. The locale, a gothic treat of an old mansion, is almost a character in its own right. Plenty of splendid performances here from the likes of Toni Collette, though to be fair, the script is so razor-sharp, the actors can ham things up without concern. And Daniel Craig as the cigar-toting private eye with the languid Southern accent to end them all? Believe it or not, he also rises to the occasion. Lush, kinetic, and brain-tickling, “Knives Out” grabs you from frame one and never lets go.
Roger Daltrey sounds half a century younger than his seventy-five years on the amazing comeback “Who” album, full of vinegar and still soaring. Pete Townshend’s songs, mostly about old rockers shouting and pondering but with 2019 checkpoints, are sprightly and varied, another surprise (most old songwriters have lost their mojos). His guitar sounds as sharp as ever. The anthemic, churning “All This Music Must Fade” is a hoot, “Beads on One String” does hippy lyrics proud, and “Street Song” rages about the Grenfell building disaster. A couple of lame tracks cannot dampen the renaissance.
Six months ago, I rated the very first episode of Season 2 of “Legion” at 8/10. I had adored Season 1 and much of what I adored – the mind-bending plot, the sharp scenes, the wonderful acting – seemed in place for a triumphant reprise. The six-month gap indicates what happened – the next three episodes revealed themselves as mystifying to the point of pointless absurdity. I’m a fan of complex plots but the emerging narrative for Season 2 reeks of plot opportunism and “good ideas.” I tried to persevere but the magic was gone. So I’m calling it quits on this series. Given that Season 3 is now on the shelves, this is severely disappointing, but I have to call it as I find it. If you’re an abiding fan, by all means lap up the many new episodes over two seasons, but if you’re just beginning Season 2 … well … don’t.
James Sallis has been my reading companion for years, from his Lew Griffin noir series, through the stunning “Drive” and “Driven” pair, to his increasingly oblique recent lit-noir offerings. He writes with a wonderful literary yet spare style. “Sarah Jane,” his latest, promises plenty with its tale of a female sheriff with a baroque past investigating her ex-boss’s disappearance, but alas, the reputational allure is misplaced. Sallis’s last half dozen books have increasingly had skating, baffling plots (baffling, even, I have to say, to someone who loves to be mentally tested). “Sarah Jane” is a plot mess and although I revelled in the poetic language, the storyline flopped again and again and again. For completists only.
What a beguiling concept! In “A Word for Every Day of the Year,” Steven Poole brings us 365 words that are “old and half-forgotten, or thoroughly forgotten.” He takes care, he announces at the start, to avoid two categories of words that crop up in similar books or websites, namely “nonce-words” used only once in history, and “dictionary orphans” that have a technical history “without ever being used in anger.” As soon as I opened the book, gratitude flooded me, for I’m forever bemoaning my lack of lexical self-education. Dear reader, in contravention of my contract with you, I have not read the entire book, because in 2020 I plan to work through “A Word for Every Day of the Year,” day by diligent day, and I don’t want to spoil the pleasure and impact. (If interested, check out the Day Zero post.) Instead, I have browsed the first seven entries, from “dringle” to “ultracrepidarian.” This dip of toes into the water is sufficient, I reckon, to report that Poole is a smart, engaging writer with a keen vocabulary curator’s eye. If the book’s very concept interests you, buy it and, I’m sure, enjoy.
Streaming masterpieces dominated a bountiful year. Dark-hued series can be seen aplenty in the list below but I also swooned over a doco, a comedy and some fine dramas. The first two received 10/10 ratings, the rest were 9/10. You won’t be disappointed by any of them.
If you need more delectable fare, check out these reviews of honorable mentions: high-finance drama “The Hummingbird Project“; Season 3 of the atmospheric police procedural “Cardinal“; another, especially imaginative police drama, “Criminal“; brilliant documentary “Diego Maradona“; quirky Icelandic climate change drama “Woman at War“; and “2040,” a rare upbeat climate change documentary.