Felicity Everett is an acute chronicler of modern British life with a savage wit and relentless, foreboding plots. “The Move” places London sculptor Karen in the author’s crosshairs. Seemingly successful with a handsome, capable husband and precocious young adult son, Karen moves to an instantly recognisable postcard village, into a sublime cottage amongst the rolling hills. But Karen is fleeing her past and from the first page, a dark patina covers the wonderfully evoked countryside and Karen’s sharp, self-aware but trembly mind. Is husband Nick the loving paragon he appears to be? Is the eclectic assemblage of welcoming villagers benign or threatening? A drama rather than a thriller, “The Move” maintains a cracking pace as sharp prose unwinds past and present into possibilities for the future. Recommended for those seeking present-day tension and insights.
“One Lost Soul” introduced DI Tom Janssen, a dogged police detective on the pretty, sea-smashed Norfolk Coast. I was looking forward to Janssen’s return and burned through “Bury Your Past” over two evenings. When a vicious storm brings up from the dunes a young woman’s murdered body, Janssen, together with his attractive boss and his callow underling, dig into a history of corporate medical experimentation and dark local secrets. J M Dalgliesh sets a fast, precise pace, the investigation is intriguing, and the evocative setting adds a further dimension. The de rigueur twist works a treat. A traditional police procedural of satisfying heft.
After five beguiling mysteries featuring redoubtable, stolid police detective Brendan Moran, “The Enemy Inside” is an interlude, a terse, thrilling novella that allows author Scott Hunter to explore both Moran’s past in the Irish Troubles and his moral capacity. The story rattles into action with a suicidal ex-soldier intruding into Moran’s life, bringing accusations of tragic past misconduct to bear with escalating violence. Seamlessly blending the past and present, Hunter sets up a tableau of detective digging and home invasion, but then ups the ante with two astonishing climaxes and a final fraught decision. This is no-holds-barred plotting that stuns. Moran is a bear of a justice-seeker well suited to our heaving 2020s and this series is destined for greatness.
“Call My Agent,” the tale of a Parisian movie star agency beset by daily dramas, the foibles of its clients, and internal struggles, floats and jiggles with huge energy. What sets it above similar small dramas is that the represented movie stars are in fact the big names of French film. Over the six episodes of Season 3, Jean Dujardin, Monica Bellucci, and Isabelle Huppert are superb, sending themselves up but also being themselves. The four partners are delightful, and the office staff are superbly acted by perfectly cast actors; Laure Calamy as dotty Noemie is a highlight. In this season, machinations between the partners and staff escalate into a treacherous climax that pans out with intelligent precision. Funny, wistful, sometimes sad, and always stylish, Call My Agent is a tonic at the end of a brutal day.
“Brittany Runs a Marathon,” as a film title, says it all. Brittany, ably and pungently played by Jillian Bell, is spurred by self-repugnance at her weight to commence jogging from scratch, and eventually to tackle the New York Marathon. It’s a light-hearted comedy/drama that shines in its dialogue and the running scenes, but sometimes falters at transition points. As a slow jogger myself, I experienced many “ah-hah” moments but the laughs are wry rather than heartfelt, and the ending fails to milk the film’s complex set of themes. An enjoyable evening’s entertainment with no memorable hook.
“The Things They Carried,” a searing novel about grunts in Vietnam, is American author Tim O’Brien’s legacy and crutch. His latest, “Dad’s Maybe Book,” seems far different: a scrapbook of writings to his two sons from early on, arising from the yearning of an old father to leave a legacy. Jottings and serious essays and emotional letters, it’s a pleasingly complex and diverse package. The tone is that from one adult to another, and O’Brien is a humble, if pernickety writer. He writes about special books, about the war he was in, about his parents, about being an amateur magician, about the sons being addressed. In the end, he’s writing words of love and that emotion suffuses the pages. Some of the pages can sound like peripheral asides, and the overall arc carries little heft beyond the letters themselves, but I enjoyed a wise writer’s company. And I was amazed to discover the persistent shadow of the Vietnam War through “Dad’s Maybe Book.” Tim O’Brien leaves a war novel as his chief legacy and now passes it on to his offspring.
Scott Z. Burns is not well known but his reputation is growing, and “The Report” adds solidly, though not spectacularly, to his portfolio. The movie recounts, with apparent great felicity, the decade-long attempt by a Washington analyst to bring to light the blight on humanity of the CIA’s post-9/11 use of extreme interrogation, including waterboarding, at remote locations. No one who keeps track of things will be surprised, but it’s the work of literature and, these days, film, to etch such damned historical events on our consciousness. By and large, “The Report” carries out its reporting function well. Adam Driver always impresses and his stoic, impassive portrayal is convincing. The tone of the film is darkness and obfuscation and cinematographer Elgil Bryld captures the dingy tenor well. As with most “true stories,” narrative urgency is lacking and the final impact on the viewer is disgust at what happened but little emotional resonance. Interesting but punches light.
Robot/AI science fiction is a favorite sub-genre of mine and I spent an enjoyable evening whizzing through “Intelligent Consent,” an engaging tale about a robot that springs into consciousness with a mind copied from that of a researcher, and their interactions as Rob the robot struggles to stay one step ahead of an unscrupulous corporation. The premised scanning and copying of a mind is lightly but convincingly related and the seesawing plot swept me along. Characterisation is not a strong suit of plot-driven novels like this (think “The Martian,” with which “Intelligent Consent” shares a little), so that empathy with either human or machine is not strong until towards the end, when a stunning climactic twist portends not only a sequel but the prospect of deepening relationships. Deeper themes relating to the nature of artificial intelligence also begin to emerge towards the end. The milieu of research laboratories is interestingly portrayed. If a sequel does drop, I’ll snap it up.
Naomi Klein writes like an avenging angel, with incandescent courage yet in clear prose, so her “On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal” is a welcome combo polemic and analysis on that most important topic, how the United States should (no, must) brings its emission fast towards zero. A collection of essays and talks and think pieces from as long ago as 2010, with the Green New Deal material expanded, the book could have been a disjointed mess. Instead, it’s a revisited refrain of her core ideas about the need for radical change. As with most fiery outpourings, there’s quite some stuff for me to disagree with (I’m a believer in capitalism with a human face, for example), but Klein’s excoriation of the evildoers of the world (yes, you fossil fuel apparatchiks, I’m looking at you) was a balm to this troubled soul. With this year’s American election looming, “On Fire” is recommended as briefing and call to action both.
The first season of “Abstract: The Art of Design” reinvented the “here’s how a creative person creates” doco, with nifty visuals, rapid cuts, the interposing of technical and personal, and a sophisticated viewpoint. Not all the eight episodes engaged me but that was simply because I found a few of the domains of the particular artists/designers/creators to hold less interest. Season 2 ups the ante and is a mind-engaging delight from start to end. If anything, the high-end quality and dramatization, by a consistent, intelligent team of directors, excels beyond Season 1’s on-screen impact. We pursue the output and inner creative processes of eight fascinating creators: an architect, a bio-architect (yes, there is something called that), a costume designer (how did they manage to intrigue me with that?), a toy designer, a Web interface designer, and a typeface designer (could there be anything more nerdy?). If you have a creative bone in your body, “Abstract” is essential, thoroughly modern viewing.