“Hear No Evil” is the fifth in the Hidden Norfolk mystery series, and it’s the best one yet, a cracker. When a respected local man dies in a ghastly public scene, redoubtable Detective-Inspector Tom Janssen has to peel off layers and layers of deception amongst a tightly knit cadre of ex-military men. Janssen is one of the new breed of heroes of procedurals, upstanding and devoid of tics and vices, but from the very first book in the series, he has been quietly impressive of mind and intuition. Hear No Evil showcases Janssen at his best: relentless, rapier sharp, and resourceful. Add in his fellow police detectives, an appealing mix of individuals, and J M Dalgliesh serves up a classic crime fiction treat. The pacing is superb, the Norfolk settings wonderfully drawn, and the prose is tidy and sharp. A highly recommended stamp for this one and may the next follow swiftly.
A defining pleasure of the past four decades has been Arkady Renko, who, ever since Martin Cruz Smith swept the world with ”Gorky Park“ in 1981, has beguiled us as a Moscow investigator. Renko is ethical, cynical, and brilliant, a perfect vehicle for exploring first the Soviet Union and now Russia. I have such vivid memories of each Renko novel that I was surprised to discover that “The Siberian Dilemma” is only his eighth outing. This time, in the corrupt world of Putin and the oligarchs, Renko heads out east into the Siberian tundra and snow, to attempt to rescue the new love of his life, journalist Tatiana. Martin Cruz Smith is an exquisite stylist, using a pared down palette of evocative dialogue, spot-on descriptions, and Renko’s febrile thoughts. The action escalates towards an amazing series of scenes in far eastern Russian taiga and beyond, and then the reader is treated to Renko’s Poirot-esque unravelling of the strands of mystery. It’s an intoxicating brew, marred only by brevity that I’m sure wasn’t present in the first few Renko instalments, and is best devoured in a single setting.
“The Last Bloody Straw” is the fifth procedural starring Detective Chief Inspector Jack Logan, a quintessential bluff thinker and finder. I gather the series is all set in the highlands of Scotland or other remote places; this one certainly is, the murder taking place on Canna, a bleak island of a few dozen people off the west coast. When a despised local drunken woman is brutally murdered, Logan finds himself virtually marooned on the island, with everyone a suspect, accompanied only by his classic foil, plodding DC Neish. Tightly plotted, evoking that part of the world well, and leavened throughout by savage hilarity, “The Last Bloody Straw” is a fine example of modern detective fiction.
As an ex-actuary, whenever I read outside my admittedly narrow area of expertise—mortality, finance, demographics, insurance, financial and material risk management—I assess whether an author/writer has done what I would do: make sure all the data is included, from all sources; sift and analyze; use logic and risk perception to come to conclusions; and write up in a comprehensive, coherent manner. Michael Shellenberger, head of his own institute, Environmental Progress (which seems, to this untutored eye, firmly fixed on the second aspect at the expense of the first, with a basic expansionist philosophy that I find often in discussions but which is usually intellectually optimistic at the expense of realism), has written a book, “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All,” that I eagerly anticipated. I’m one of the many philosophically and fiscally conservative folks who have turned to Extinction Rebellion because modern politics cannot shift us from fossil fuels fast enough to prevent global heating of worrisome proportions (put simply, at +1C, can we keep under +2C or, at worst, +3C or even +4C, any of which mean what exactly?). In Extinction Rebellion we’re all about the science—centered on the labor of the heroes of the IPCC, but if necessary looking beyond the over-careful IPCC to evaluate true risk)—and we focus on the risks humanity faces and how alarmed we need to be.
So I’m ripe for discussions on alarmism: should we be alarmed about the increasing likelihood of +2C and should we relax about +4C? Well, Apocalypse Never is well written, in a breezy PR style, but flies all over the place in terms of satisfying my essential questions. Instead, it’s a keenly felt plea for “environmental humanism … over apocalyptic environmentalism” that often degenerates into attacks on all and every aspect of modern emissions mitigation. As clear as Shellenberger’s love for wildlife (in an idealized, “let’s visit” way) is, as clear as his passion for electrification and modernization is (and this is one matter I agree with him on), more clear is his hatred of all and sundry amongst climate activists, Democrats, and (sadly) XR. Apocalypse Never is chock full of impressive-sounding references, but they’re cherry picked in a way that suits an election pamphlet instead of a book that claims to honor IPCC science (which he either mostly ignores or attacks). Shellenberger never addresses the body of IPCC reports in their totality, instead chipping at the edges of those aspects of climactic change that remain so complex that only now, after three decades of IPCC work and after +1C, can the fingerprint of carbon-induced heating be discerned. His treatment of tipping points and storms and sea-level rise are slippery tosh, and on the subject of wildfires, especially here in my country of Australia, this book is risible. Shellenberger’s approach to the future is to not worry but to trust in industrial development, and part of this is the championing of nuclear energy. I had looked forward to his analysis of nuclear energy’s role in the armory of zero-carbon deployments, which I’m keenly interested in, but even here he disappoints, offering standard pro-nuclear propaganda while Rottweiler-ing at renewables.
Overall, my high hopes for Apocalypse Never to engage me with a fact-based, policy-specific prescription for humanity in these darkening days were roundly dashed. I’ll continue to follow Shellenberger and Environmental Progress, because they do have something to offer on the vital debates we’re engaged in, but this book is mean-spirited sophistry that is dangerous. To be avoided.
Brendan Benson weaves rocky/poppy songs that reek of casualness but are in fact closely wrought. Early brilliance faded somewhat, and recent years have seen him starring in a different role, alongside Jack White in The Raconteurs. Now, after an absence of seven years, “Dear Life” is a return to his pithy solo best, full of sharp wordplay and seemingly simple songs. A mix of his classic guitar-centred indie songs, and more chunky offerings propped up by Raconteurs-style boom, Benson’s traditional cynicism is often swept aside by the joys of fatherhood, as on the jangly “Good To Be Alive” and the horn-dappled, harmony-sizzling “Baby’s Eyes.” “Dear Life” is a troubadour-style story of dejected souls. Overall the album is a welcome confection in lockdown times, sweet song-making imaginatively dressed.
The highlight of anything by Shaun Micallef is the man himself, a wry, witty man of unassuming foundational wisdom. “On the Sauce” is a modest three-episode documentary that is likely to possess a short life on free-to-air television, but it deserves a richer fate. Told in a jaunty, pleasant manner by the comedian/host, On the Sauce is teetotaller Micallef’s examination of Australia’s love of alcohol. The three episodes broadly cover the upsides of beer and wine, namely the social lubrication; then the medical and psychological damage caused; and finally the hope of a generational shift towards sobriety. Micallef travels far and wide on his quest, and wherever he goes, befriends and charms, and he also employs some nifty devices, such as couch sessions with a shrink. Never strident enough to guarantee a viewer response, but more subtly effective for its restraint, On the Sauce is a valuable tilt at the devil itself. Recommended.
“First Cow,” set in primitive mud and darkness on the Oregon Trail in cowboy times, is a carefully crafted, realistic anti-western. The film follows two struggling men who become friends, one an almost hapless baker, the other a Chinese dreamer of big ideas and fortunes. Together they stumble upon a means of amassing a modest local windfall, but, of course, fate brews a tougher fate for them. Lead actors John Magaro and Orion Lee sink into their characters’ shoes, the studied, hyper-realistic cinematography is a treat, and the movie is rife with pleasurable viewing snippets. All that said, First Cow clearly paints its storyline on a limited canvas, and the ending is deliberately inconclusive in a way that frustrates, so the overall viewing experience is worthwhile but muted.
“Bird Therapy” springs from a three-year blog by Norfolk birder Joe Harkness, and it reads exactly like a sequence of impassioned posts. Harkness’s life was probably saved by birding, as this wonderful hobby lifted him out of depression, and, as an avid (if far more amateurish than the author) birder myself, I found many of the intricate spotting and viewing tales to be wonderful. Having said that, it is tough to imbue regular posts with any form of dramatic narrative arc and the overall effect was beguiling but not compelling. If you’re into birds, or would like to be, “Bird Therapy” is a stylishly written advertisement for the avocation, but as either a memoir or mental illness touchstone, it fails to scale the heights.
I was born in 1955 and my Estonian mother, a post-war “boat person,” had the fondest memories of the 1956 Olympic Games in our city of Melbourne. My parents admired Vladimir Kuts (giving me the impression he was Estonian, but no, he was Ukrainian!) who took two athletic Golds. The Games are a narrative centrepiece of the splendid “1956: The Year Australia Welcomed The World” by journalist Nick Richardson. Another fulcrum of Richardson’s tale of the year Australia turned its gaze outwards, prime minister Robert Menzies, was adored by my parents. So I thoroughly enjoyed this multifaceted history, which weaves together the Games triumph with Menzies’ clumsy global politicking, a cultural awakening with Barry Humphries and others, the British atomic tests, and much more. Richardson is a smooth stylist in full charge of his material, which he navigates through the use of various characters, most major, some minor. Compared to the late 1960s, this period, both for Australia and for me, recalls slow shifts rather than revolutions, but 1956 manages to deepen and enrich our understanding of a decade that still lingers in Australia’s psyche. Recommended.
“Chasing Coral” is a stunning visual documentary of the imminent extirpation of Earth’s coral reefs due to global warming. Documentary maker Jeff Orlowski sets out to portray, using some of the most brilliant visual cinematography I have ever seen, the efforts of some undersea photographers to observe in real time the savage 2016 bleaching. The first half of the film revolves around Richard Vevers, advertising exec turned underwater chronicler and the second half turns on another team that includes an engaging young enthusiast Zack Rago. Real-time drama hits the photographers when in situ cameras can’t deliver, and tension escalates as a team moves here and there on the Australian coastline, searching for “as it happens right now” coral bleaching. Emotional yet informative interviews with leading coral experts, including legendary Charlie Veron (whom I’d happened to had the honor to see and hear in a Melbourne conference a few weeks earlier), round out a rousing tale expertly conjured together. Watch, viewers, and prepare to be amazed and then gut-punched … “Chasing Coral” is a film to change the world.