As an actuary, I was taught to make risk-based calculations into the future using a three-stage approach: assiduously gather all data; carefully analyze all aspects; and reach conclusions. “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” came to me with great promise because, like many non-scientists, I need to “judge” the massively complex science of global warming because … well, because the fate of my grandchildren depends upon it. My political actions should be based on science and analysis, and certainly not “panicky.” I’m using to reading polemics on the broad subject of climate change, and I enjoy polar views expressed with zest, but what bothered me immediately with “False Alarm” was that it purports to not be a polemic but to tell us what the science reveals, yet its methodology is clearly shallow and unscientific. What made my reading task even harder was that Lomborg, a political scientist (is it possible that his specialty has blinded him to proper analysis?), writes cleanly and cogently; I could easily have been swept up. But as I walked carefully through the text, it quickly became clear to me that my first precept – to assiduously gather data – was not being met, as the author nitpicks data points out of context, snipes away at the edges of climate science (one of his favored techniques, no doubt familiar from politics, is to use one scientist’s discomfort with another’s conclusions to invalidate the established scientific view; it staggered me to see him using quotes from IPCC reports to discredit “extreme alarmism” while never referring to IPCC’s increasingly alarmed prognostications for the future of Earth and humanity under global warming; again and again, he did not absorb the IPCC data but cherry-picked random bits that appealed to his political message), decries alarmism, generalizes about humanity’s historical ability to mitigate, and then concludes some vague, slow-paced action in the future will make things all right. Let me make myself clear: I wanted to find gems of hope in this book but inordinate time spent reading his elegant prose in depth failed to find anything but a travesty of process. No doubt well meaning, Lomborg has ignored most of four decades of scientific research, has teased out some interesting analysis that fails to elucidate what the science says, and has recommended no future action beyond reassuring mitigation platitudes. If only, I sighed to myself, he had called the book “Don’t Listen to Science: Trust in Optimism” … then I might have enjoyed the read and recommended it. But for a book that claims to explain the science (and economics, don’t get me started on his work there), “False Alarm” is genuinely dangerous and I recommend you avoid it. Overall, I rate it 1/10 (avoiding 0/10 due to stylistic elegance).
I’ve been a Laura Lippman fan since her engaging Tess Monaghan series. “Lady in the Lake,” her latest standalone mystery extends her writing chops with some unusual elements. The tale of a young Jewish Baltimore woman in the mid 60s, who shrugs off husband and children to pursue a newspaper reporting career, revolves around missing women, the latest found in a drained water fountain. As usual, Lippman plunges us into a rich, complex world of many characters (aka suspects), and her prose is lively and sure-footed, but although I enjoyed a speedy read, two aspects left me wishing for the certainty of those Tess Monaghan days. “Lady in the Lake” employs the somewhat daring strategy of bringing in pithy personal tales of bystander characters, presumably to enrich the novel’s themes; to me, they just slowed down the plot. And the book’s specific mystery resolution was not only always a plot possibility, it provided little closure. Another well executed tale but lacking snap.
What immediately registers with “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” the fifth outing of art-pop singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is the wide, sumptuous sonic palette achieved by producer Blake Mills and a troupe of superstar session musos. Every song, be it dark or light, begs to played loud. Hadreas’s floating tremulous falsetto, which can thicken into semi-menace, is a superb instrument, and on this album it fits in perfectly. Stylistically we get chugging electronica, sweeping strings, chamber pop, cabaret largesse, bouncy pop. Sharp, deep lyrics combine with the musical grandiosity to hark back to the old-fashioned, souped-up drama of the 1960s, a la Richard Harris or Tom Jones, yet “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” also unfurls as subtle and modern. Highlights of the thirteen-song bounty include the opulent, shimmering pop vocals and rich music of “On the Floor”; the eked-out falsetto and Air sound of “Jason”; and Hadreas’s lowered baritone voice urgent amidst the pounding rhythm and string punctuations on “Your Body Changes Everything.” A highlight of this year’s listening.
Mix up rom-com and modern tragedy as related with the intelligence and wit of Noah Baumbach and you get “Marriage Story,” which is an absorbing take on divorce’s many complications. Adam Driver (he’s everywhere at the moment) does a star turn as an earnest, smart but perhaps overly earnest theatrical producer. The movie opens with the cracking up of his marriage to a similarly earnest and modern and easy-going actress, played with immersive fervor by Scarlet Johansson. Crack, that’s the sound apparent when the actress moves from New York to Los Angeles and, almost unwittingly, hires a shit-hot divorce lawyer (Laura Dern is pitch perfect), setting in place a deteriorating spiral of negotiations and discussions and arguments (one of which is the turbulent heart of the entire film). Baumbach has penned a super tight script and he retains a firm directorial grip. “Marriage Story” is occasionally funny, always smart, increasingly troubling, and, in the end (as it must be) gently redemptive. This is not a classic but comes recommended as a great example of 2020s theatrical-drama style film.
Jeff VanderMeer is one of the most daring, eloquent science fiction authors we have. His Southern Reach trilogy (the first book of which, “Annihilation“, was turned into a wonderful movie) set a new standard for weird yet stunningly relevant writing. 2017’s “Borne” was a stunning, innovative triumph about biotech apocalypse. I’ve adored all of these and therefore hung out for “Dead Astronauts,” a novel in the broad Borne world but even more out-there in conception. So it is with regret that I report that my read of “Dead Astronauts” was an extended, puzzled letdown. Intricately pivoting around a time-and-space epic involving three rebels battling the world-butchering Company and its maniacal scientist, Charlie X, an initial wild ride had me poised on the edge, but then the remainder of the novel turned into a blancmange of uber-wild authorial experimentations. Tenuous plot links do attempt to tie it all together but in the end, I lurched past the climax baffled, half admiring, and fully irritated. Experimental and often beautiful, “Dead Astronauts” might captivate you but left me behind.
Writer and creator Joe Barton has written a seamless, thrilling, affecting drama that spans eight episodes and two countries and a seemingly huge cast of characters. “Giri/Haji” might seem like a B-grade toiler from its trailer, but it leaps, in my opinion, into classic screen thriller territory. Half, or perhaps even more, of the dialogue takes place in subtitled Japanese, which makes for a pungently immersive cultural experience as well. At heart, the story is the familiar script of good brother chasing bad brother, but around that central arc, which never feels in the slightest inevitable in terms of twists, coil skeins of richly character-driven subplots that all hook back into the mother lode. In raw terms, the plot is this: Kenzo, a driven Tokyo police detective (played with breathtaking authenticity by Takehiro Hera) is dispatched covertly to London to track down his gangster brother Yuto (just as brilliant a depiction by Yôsuke Kubozuka). Yuto was thought to be dead; now he may have killed a Yakuza in London and plunged the Tokyo underworld into carnage. In London, the cast expands to include an idiosyncratic policewoman, a drug addict, a tattooed Brit gang lord, Kenzo’s daughter … all of them leisurely drawn out with fleshed-out lives, even while the drama surges and wanes. The cinematography and music are superlative. Even each episode’s recap of past episodes, a gruff Japanese-inflected potpourri of reflections accompanied by hand-sketched stills, is a captivating element of a captivating cinematic treat. One of this year’s highlights.
Who can forget Michael Connelly’s 1996 thriller, “The Poet,” an epic, complex battle between crime reporter Jack McEvoy and a fiendish killer? In 2009 Connelly reprised McEvoy in “The Scarecrow” – that thriller was excellent without being memorable. Now “Fair Warning” sees McEvoy working for an internet corporate wrongdoing site and being suddenly thrust into a series of murders pitting himself, once more, against a remorseless, implacable killer. Look, let me tell you that Connelly is one of my favorite authors, incredibly skilled and entertaining, but as a writer, he mainly excels with his Harry Bosch character. Compared to Bosch, “Fair Warning” feels (dare I say it?) formulaic. The plot (deviant use of DNA data) fascinates, Connelly is always an entertaining, capable stylist, and the pacing is meticulous, but nonetheless, this reader enjoyed, but was not riveted by, the reading experience. For Connelly completists but not a pertinent entry point for new readers to his extensive oeuvre.
“The Book of Koli,” the first in a trilogy by M. R. Carey, struck me at the outset of reading as very much in the tradition of Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” or one of Gene Wolfe’s classics, or even, strangely enough “Flowers for Algernon” (Daniel Keyes), a tradition in which an untutored, seemingly simple soul amidst strange technologies or powers, is pushed forward into history. Youngster Koli, coming of age in the shut-off village of Mythen Rood, in a post-apocalyptic world barely recognisable as ours, is drawn to rebelling against the harsh village life kept viable by a few pieces of leftover tech. The author gently builds the picture of this rough life and a deadly, preying Earth, and then delicately ratchets up the narrative tension with superbly placed shocks and mini climaxes. Koli is an especially immersive hero, so earnest and questing and, it becomes clearer, intelligent, and by the second half of the book, I firmly lived through Koli’s eyes. His increasingly fraught adventures held me riveted. M. R. Carey is a superb plotter and the calibrated, controlled surge of twists and turns round off “The Book of Koli” at a perfect juncture for number two in the series, due in September. One of my top three novels of 2020 so far and hinting at a classic.
Like his stunning “The North Water,” Ian McGuire’s “The Abstainer” pits good against evil, but this time the devil, ex-Civil-War hard man, Stephen Doyle, come to nineteenth-century England to wreak death on behalf of Irish terrorists, rides in nuanced with war’s burdens. And this time the steady hero, policeman James O’Connor, sags under the burden of family loss and alcoholism. When O’Connor’s valiant tracking efforts are subverted, his world unravels. The author writes dense, propulsive prose that evokes the dark, dank times and captures the intrinsic savagery of the battle between the Irish and the English. As in “The North Shore,” the result is a tale of unfettered brutality and inexorable tragedy. However, “The Abstainer” lurches rather than glides through the story, and the duel between troubled cop and troubled killer somehow fails to achieve gravity. Even the Cormac-McCarthy-homage of a finale, impressive as it is, cannot lift this dark tale above the tale itself. A fine read but not a patch on its predecessor.
John Wayne rides again, except this time it’s Detective Jay Swan astride his police 4WD scything through vast panoramas of central Australian red dust. Aaron Pederson was born for this role and in Ivan Sen’s brutal original movie of the same name, he was spell-binding. The first six-episode season of the “Mystery Road” series paired Pederson with Judy Davis and was less vigilante and more nuanced than the film, and it was a highlight of my 2018 viewing. Now we have six more episodes in Season 2 of “Mystery Road” and I can report that some blissful elements of the Jay Swan narrative remain to entrance us. Swan still swaggers with implacable Australian bush bravado, the cinematography (plenty of gorgeous coastal shots this time) remain a treat, and the essential “Shane vanquishes the bad guys” storyline recurs. Season 2 is worth watching for Swan and the scenery alone, and Swan’s new partner, Fran (skillfully played by Jada Alberts) is a welcome addition. But there is also much to decry. The plot kicks off well with a headless corpse but soon degenerates into tension-less quasi silliness, the dialogue often jars, and the assorted indigenous subplots are clumsy and drift all over the place. There are several moments in the final two episodes during which I audibly groaned, and while I’ll be back for “Mystery Road” Season 3 (it’s Detective Jay Swan, right?), let’s hope they pick up their game.