The Dry by Robert Connolly [7/10]

The Dry review

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.

Exercised by Daniel Lieberman [8/10]

Daniel Lieberman Exercised review

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.

Chase the Devil by Andrew Lowe [8/10]

Andrew Lowe Chase the Devil review

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 by Megha Majumdar [4/10]

Megha Majumdar A Burning review

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.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson [9/10]

Kim Stanley Robinson The Ministry for the Future review

One of the most renegade novels I’ve read over the last couple of years, and one of the most stellar, “The Ministry for the Future” offers a weighty, panoramic, yet entertaining climate change tale of the near future. Kim Stanley Robinson is rightly lauded as a hard science fiction author and here he extrapolates one possible future for our planet in the Anthropocene Era. Robinson takes a polymath approach to his futurism, covering all aspects of the climate emergency – heat, wildfires, flooding, storms, food shortages, mass migrations – plus economic theory, climate justice, bitcoins, global geopolitics, and much more. His writing is playful, almost disconcertingly so at the outset, often diverging into idiosyncratic scenes from the viewpoint of an unusual object, once even a photon. Inevitably, facts need to be dumped again and again, as the world progresses through the decades of the 2100s, and as a reader, you’ll either be engrossed by the data or intrigued by Robinson’s take on it. Geoengineering is brilliantly tackled in a very hard sci-fi manner, but evocatively. All of this sounds ponderous but the novel bounces along primarily in the viewpoint of Mary Murphy, head of a new UN body called the Ministry for the Future, charged with evangelizing for future and present citizens within the unfolding climate catastrophe. She is a wonderful feisty, smart, Irish character, just the vehicle for the overall arc of the narrative, but the author also offers brilliant minor scenes from the perspective of refugees, peasants, scientists, and other participants. If you’re not yet convinced that The Ministry of the Future is both a major hard science fiction odyssey (I was reminded of John Brunner’s classic Stand on Zanzibar) and a storytelling feat par excellence, just sample the opening bravura scene set in drought stricken India.

The Caretaker by Half Waif [6/10]

Half Waif Caretaker review

Singer/songwriter Sandi Rose Plunkett, known as Half Waif, delivers a sumptuous, loping synth-pop sophomore album with “The Caretaker.” Her songs sashay atop lovely keys and bass and gentle drums, with her ethereal voice drifting or swooping in and out. The impressionistic songs always contain a kernel of lovely melody and her lyrics seem to address solitude, longing, and a search for meaning. I liked the moody vocal overlay on “Halogen 2”; the plaintive, slow start to “Blinking Light,” bursting into its soaring chorus; and the gorgeous chant of “be the one you wanna be” on “My Best Self.” Some of the tracks of The Caretaker suit the lockdown breaks between Zooms, others could be listened to in the car with windows down. Light-footed yet deep, it’s a welcome 2020 musical contribution.

Monsters of Man by Mark Toia [8/10]

Monsters of Man review

Monsters of Man,” a low-budget, self-financed movie about robots amok, should show signs of shabbiness and cliche, but it does not, not at all. Mark Toia has penned a speedball, intelligent script and his direction, informed no doubt by a career in screen commercials, is stellar. The robots are seamlessly believable. The plotline sounds familiar in the telling – a new line of combat robots is released for testing into a supposedly deserted Asian jungle, only to find half a dozen young doctors, villagers, and an ex-Navy Seal. A bloodthirsty hunt and battle ensues. Yet the screenplay displays very little banality and the action sequences are positively thrilling. The large cast of hapless quarry, warriors, and evildoers is uniformly serviceable, no more or less than what is needed, but the true stars are the robots, including one that seeks to evolve and question existentially. Monsters of Man comes highly recommended as a smart, visually impressive thriller that reminded me of the classic days of the Alastair Maclean novels turned to film.

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor by Colin Tucker [7/10]

Colin Tucker How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor review

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor” sounds so specialized that I imagine most nonfiction readers will shy away from it. They would be missing out, for yes, nuclear expert Colin Tucker’s primer on control management of a modern nuclear power plant is technical, but it’s technical in a way that shines. Succinctly and clearly, the author walks the reader through the basics of how reactors work and how a reactor operator, sitting in her control room, can start up a reactor, smoothly keep it going, and take corrective action if something goes wrong. In the telling, the reader obtains a potted introduction to nuclear fission, reactor theory, reactor safety, and the varieties of reactors around the world. I must confess some of the intricacies of control overwhelmed me but I was able to retain a clear overview of the basics. Believe it or not, How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor is a fun read (defining fun as knowledge enhancing in a pleasant vein) and is worth checking out.