What better way to farewell 2020 than a spoofy news recap? “Death to 2020” is a seventy-minute, month-by-month recap of actual footage, including talking-heads commentary from experts … except that the voice-overs and interview snippets are played by actors, hamming up like crazy. The star turn is from Hugh Grant, playing a crusty British historian who gets reality confused with Game of Thrones; every one of his appearances raises a chuckle. Samuel L. Jackson also commands attention as an aggressive newsman. Samson Kayo works well as a virus expert. Other mock contributors, even when acted well, are less successful, either unfunny or too relentless or plain silly, but all of them rustle up at least one or two amusing segments. The pace is relentless, and a recap of the year can remind us of forgotten events, but overall, Death to 2020 is an hour of entertainment that winds up as an opportunity missed.
Picture a future Earth in which technology has nearly disappeared, on which plants and animals have mutated into terrifying forms, and upon which human tribes struggle in fraught adversarial pockets. M. R. Carey’s brilliantly conceived world unfolds in the trials of young Koli, an untutored but smart and resourceful young man with unquenchable spirit. The second book of the Rampart trilogy, “The Trials of Koli“,” is as spellbinding and emotionally rich as the first book (review), and is thoroughly recommended. Heading towards a mythical London with two very different humans and a mutating artificial intelligence, Koli battles humans and animals and, eventually, horrific plants. Carey artfully employs a slightly illiterate voice to capture the unforgettable voice of Koli. Unfolding as both an epic and a technical riddle, this trilogy is destined to be a classic sci-fi series, and The Trials of Koli is a surefire resident of my “best of 2021” list.
My love-hate relationship with superhero movies, as unfurled in the third decade of the 21st Century, continues. “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is apparently the second offering of a specific spin-off from Batman/Joker, the conceit being that Joker’s girlfriend, the sassy, garish, “with attitude” Harley Quinn parts from the villain and finds her way in the world, be it as goodie or baddie. In this movie, Harley finds herself arrayed with (and often against) three other amped-up female protagonists, one a cop, the others ultra-athlete goodie/baddies, in a race to save a feisty teenager (played with amazing panache and irony by Ella Jay Basco) being pursued by the film’s arch-villain, hammed up by Ewan McGregor. The storyline isn’t bad for a superhero movie but the film’s two key hooks are gorgeously choreographed action scenes and the take-no-prisoners, expletive-mouthed performance of brilliant Margot Robbie in the title role. Much of the movie sings a fevered song that is just how a superhero movie should unfold. But is it just me to tire so quickly of biffy, smashing fight scenes that, in spite of the balletic precision, quickly descend into tedium? Am I overstating my persistent flashes of impatience that bordered on tedium? Luckily, Harley Quinn’s exuberant set pieces cured most ills as the film plummeted towards a reasonably plotted ending. Overall, Birds of Prey is an odd mix of filmic brilliance and superhero blandishments, and is a fine entertainment that fails to move beyond entertainment.
“House of Correction” is my first Nicci French psychological thriller and after I’d gobbled it down, my first thought was, why had I foregone the previous 23? The husband-and-wife team write smooth, dialogue-rich, never-waste-a-word prose that is like melted butter to an avid reader, and House of Correction is wonderfully conceived and plotted. Tabitha, a semi-depressed misfit with oodles of vim, finds herself in prison, accused of murdering a man in her house, in what looks like an open-and-shut case. Tabitha can barely recall the day in question, possesses no niceties, and has few obvious endearments other than what emerges as an obsessive mind and great determination. The authors have gleefully set up the book as a combination of a locked-room mystery (my favorite sub-genre of crime fiction) and a courtroom drama, the latter enlivened by Tabitha’s conducting her own borderline inept defense. It’s all a swirling, complex plot, the type that’s a treat for a crime fan, and I was captivated. Strongly recommended for anyone who recalls classic mysteries but likes them plonked into a modern setting.
British novelist Chris Whitaker’s third thriller/mystery, “We Begin at the End,” is an evocative melange of noir, small-town cop mystery, and generational saga. Chief “Walk” Walker is the cop of New Haven, a prototypical small town in California. Three decades earlier, his best friend was jailed for killing a girl and now is being released, embroiling Walk in mystery and trauma. Plunged into tragedy and protecting family, Duchess, the daughter of the dead girl’s sister, is the author’s other protagonist, a feisty, conflicted one. Whitaker’s style is pared down yet lyrical, with a palpable air of loss and yearning. The Californian setting and also a second-half Montana locale are conveyed pithily and solidly. A Dickensian roster of characters all occupy their own space. We Begin at the End offers multiple mysteries, and the plot twists are complex and never-ending in the way that good mysteries achieve, but I do have the feeling that some readers will feel the story mechanics thrive too much on surprise. All in all, this is a graceful, propulsive read.
I’ve read more space opera in 2020 than in any year since my Asimov teen years. “A Memory Called Empire,” this year’s Hugo Prize winner, is another splendid example of that sub-genre. It stars a wonderful character, diplomat Mahit Dzmare, plucky, individualistic, and quick on her toes, who is sent from her outpost colony to act as ambassador in the center of the rapacious, refined empire of Teixcalaan. What happened to her predecessor? Negotiating the complex shoals of politics, while keeping hold of a technological secret, Mahit enlists allies and advances towards understanding, and perhaps resolution. The author’s writing is assured and evocative, the plot rattles along, and the overall space empire ambience, established with the help of extracts from documents and messages, is stunning. Highly recommended.
That Robert Connolly chose to tackle a bog standard genre mystery novel indicates how emblematic he considers Jane Harper’s bestselling debut to be. “The Dry” faithfully tracks Harper’s intricate plot and also aspires to mirror that novel’s star feature, its evocation of a drought-desiccated Australian outback town. On both counts Connolly’s sure hands are evident. The serpentine plot is unfolded with precision, a feat made more difficult by copious flashbacks. And the cinematography evokes the look and sound of a Mallee town beset by nearly a year without rain. Eric Bana is well cast, and acts strongly, playing Aaron Falk, a Melbourne policeman who returns to his birth town for the funeral of his best friend from school days, who has seemingly killed his wife and daughter, before killing himself. Aaron had fled after a teenage female friend was found killed; now the past and present collide as he seeks to exonerate his mate. I recall the novel had a swift, twisting plot, and the movie’s faithful rendering of that ratchets up the tension until a final, unexpected ending. So … The Dry is a bog standard genre mystery movie that matches and perhaps slightly betters its novelistic birth. Recommended as a fine two hours of moviegoing.
As a chump, non-athletic exerciser, who has nonetheless jogged for a half century, I am in the market for books on the subject. I can safely say that “Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health” is the freshest and most useful book I’ve ever come across on this vexatious issue. The book’s distinguishing trait is that its author, Daniel Lieberman, is an evolutionary biologist. His analysis of any fitness/health issue considers not only the usual experimental and medical data but also how our evolutionary forebears behaved (which can be gleaned, partly, from the small remaining populations of true hunter-gatherers). Using this professional lens, the author scythes down myth after myth. We’re told to relax and exercise less as we age; nonsense, indeed the reverse is crystal clear. One topic close to my heart (and my dodgy left knee) is exercise’s possibly deleterious effect on people; the situation is complex but with the exception of extreme levels of activity, we can safely obsess. You can lose weight by walking, it just takes longer than dieting; moreover exercising is a marvelous complement to dieting. Cavemen are not our role model. “Just do it” won’t cut it; motivation to exercise is complex and varied. And so on and so on. He is especially harsh, and rightfully so, on fads and commercialized catechisms. The book is superbly organized and referenced, yet Lieberman’s style is elegant and laced with graceful humor. I’m not sure Exercised will make much sense to someone first broaching regular physical activity, but as long as you get out reasonably regularly and have thought a bit about it, this is an entertaining marvel of a book.
Andrew Lowe’s compelling English mystery series, featuring Detective Inspector Jake Sawyer, has been one of the features of my reading over the past two years (reviews of The Dying Light and of Pray for Rain). In “Chase the Devil,” his fifth outing, Sawyer finds himself suspended from his beloved police force, battling with wrenching psychological ghosts, and dealing with decisions of the past. When a woman asks him to investigate an old case of her son’s disappearance, Sawyer employs his uncommon skills to help, only to find that the past and present come to a head. The author is a punchy stylist adept at maintaining pace, his dialogue snaps and delights, and the cast of regular characters from the series is vibrant. Rest assured, any book in this series is destined to be a one-night read. A wonderful mystery and a wonderful novel.
“A Burning,” the debut novel of New York resident Megha Majumdar, is an atmospheric, of-the-moment look at the perils of living as a Muslim in Kolkata’s hellish slums. When young Jivan posts online about a terrorist attack she observed after the event, she finds herself in prison. And the two individuals who can save her, a wannabe acting star and a dissatisfied teach, have their own life trajectories that evolve tragically for Jivan. Majumdar’s created world fizzes with vibrancy and there is much to like about the tale, but for me, A Burning lacked narrative cogency. The plot is utterly without surprise or relief, and the three character voices, each in that present tense form that seems prevalent at the moment, are clumsy and inauthentic. To be blunt, I enjoyed aspects of the read, chiefly the Kolkata ambience, but failed to fall under the book’s spell.