Harlan Coben has always been a paragon of thriller writers to me, the one author seemingly able to conjure jackknife plots out of any human situation, always written with flair, always graced with deft characterization. But in “Win,” Coben has taken a storytelling risk that backfires. The Myron Bolitar series, eleven books strong, has buddied up the hero with an antihero facilitator, Windsor Horne Lockwood III, a super-rich, martial-arts-endowed, nerves-of-steel, amoral machine who helps out. This time Windsor, known as Win, is the protagonist in a mystery that springs open upon the discovery of a dead man in a room next to a suitcase stolen two decades earlier from the Lockwood family mansion. The book’s plot gyrations, revolving around a tragic radical leftists group and Win’s sister’s past, is suitably intriguing and unpredictable, but for this reader, Windsor’s cold unlikability and apparent indestructibility conspired to reduce a fast read to a “meh” experience. Win feels skillful but pointless.
A Korean family of four, having escaped poverty in their own country, buys hardscrabble farmland in Arkansas in the 1980s. The father is driven and willful, the mother seethes with regret and worry, the older girl is all lightness, and the young son has a heart condition. When his grandmother joins them, and water problems strike the farm, conflicts bloom even as disaster beckons. “Minari” is an exquisitely unfurled and filmed immigration tale, one that reminded me of the endless struggles of my refugee parents in a new land, and I sat transfixed. Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack is elegiac and dramatic in turns, somehow lifting the ordinary into poetry. Alan S. Kim steals the show as the son but it’s the wonderful, shaded performance of Steven Yeun as the classic striving father that knits Minari together. A most worthy cinematic experience.
Do I patronize the viewing market when I offer the view that “Mrs. America” must be one of the more unappealing streaming series to emerge over the last year? Whenever I mention to friends that they simply must delve into this complex nine-episode history of America’s attempt to enact the Equal Rights Amendment over the 1970s, I see their eyes glaze over. When I began my journey through Mrs. America, I had zero knowledge about the battle between the feminist titans that emerged in the hippy 60s, headlined by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and relentless conservative Phyllis Schlafly (unheard of). After the first two episodes, I almost dropped out, chiefly because the subject matter seemed too arcane. But the series quickly gains momentum and becomes a riveting window into the times of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The ERA, seeking to right myriad wrongs, needs 38 state ratifications to be tabled, and in the heady early seventies, that seems a gimme, but Schlafly, complicit with or manipulated by male politicians, proves too durable, and today it remains a paper monument. Each of the nine episodes ends up being a monument to a major or minor character, and the series is blessed with stunning performances: let me single out Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Rose Byrne as Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman as Friedan, and Melanie Lynskey as conservative field worker Rosemary. Not knowing the history, that is, the climax of this stellar series, I was gripped as I approached the finale of Mrs. America. Highly recommended.
George Clooney can do no wrong, whether he sparkles in big budget movies or smoulders in arthouse flicks. “The Midnight Sky” is an exceptional science fiction film directed by him, in which he stars with intensity and conviction. Based on a slim, feted novel by Lily Brooke-Dalton, it is firmly in the dystopia genre, and powerfully so. When a human Armageddon engulfs the globe, a lonely space pioneer in the arctic realizes he needs to head further north for one last frantic attempt to stop a returning space expedition from landing. Burdened by a left-behind young girl, he strives through riveting, beautifully composed snow wilderness scenes, even as equally majestic space scenes track the returning astronauts. Besides Clooney’s career-crowning performance in the lead role, Felicity Jones stuns as a space journeyer, as does Caoilinn Springall as the girl. Some of the swelling strings of the soundtrack intruded (I’m old-fashioned: I hate orchestral film music) but melancholy piano songs compensated. The plot, presumably the book author’s plot, is sneaky, in the best possible way, and the elegaic ending has stayed with me ever since my viewing. In the end. The Midnight Sky is about the human spirit driven by love, and unlike most films that subside into sentimentality, it emerges triumphant. A 2021 highlight.
When 40-year-old man-child Lucky gets a call from his mother in Perth to say she’s dying, he plonks his childhood upright piano in a trailer and heads off from Sydney. Runaway teenager Meg crashes into him in the desert. Thus commences “Upright,” a flowing, unpredictable, wonderful road trip across Australia, peopled with grey nomads, amphetamine-crazed truckies, and gangster women, a journey that slowly reveals the secrets of these two flawed, credible individuals. Tim Minchin is brilliant as Lucky, as is Milly Alcock playing Meg. The backdrops are filmed wonderfully. The plot twists and buckles, nothing is predictable yet all slots into the grand plan, and emotions are wrenched and pure, The eight episodes sit perfectly as mini stories, and the whole is transcendent. Wonderful.
Instinctively reaching towards our modern scribes, I’ve been obsessively reading lockdown and post-lockdown writings. Consummate curator and editor Sophie Cunningham has produced one of the very best of these of-the-moment records, “Fire Flood Plague: Australian Writers Respond to 2020.” Hefty, with a couple of dozen contributions from Aussie writers famous and less well known, Fire Flood Plague ranges all over the terrain, and none of the entries is less than absorbing. Stellar, thought-provoking essays abound. “Where is it from, I wonder, the ash falling on Marrickville?” Kirsten Tranter writes in a piercing essay “Black flowers: Mourning in ashes,” referencing, among other things, the Sex Pistols and one of my favorite TV series, Edge of Darkness. “After the fires,” muses Delia Falconer in “Living in the time of Coronavirus,” her immersive, global and local panorama of lockdown life, “I was bracing for another disaster, although I can’t help feeling that this one is only the grace note…” I’ve read plenty of Joëlle Gergis; never has she sounded as bleak as in “The great unravelling”: “Something inside me feels like it has snapped, as if some essential thread of hope has failed.” I was fascinated by Tom Griffith’s “Drawing breath,” in which he tosses up between describing our era as the Anthropocene or the Pyrocene. “But wouldn’t it be something to behave courageously? To see the threat and step forward to meet it?” wonders Jane Rawson in “Don’t blink,” capturing my own thoughts precisely. Fire Flood Plague is a must-read destined to launch a hundred skeins of inquiry and action.
Exercise-hungry non-athletes like me, clumsy and inept, love to read advice books based on “real” athletes. We are besieged by recommendations, corrective counsel, and products based on measuring and coaching elites. Thus I was drawn to “Good to Go: How to Eat, Sleep and Rest Like a Champion,” a sprightly, insight-packed investigation by journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden. Eleven fascinating chapters tackle everything from ice baths to sports drinks, energy bars, massage, pre- and post-even nutrition, meditation, metrics, and rest. If Aschwanden has one gift to a reader, it is this: “research” on athletes and fitness and performance is typically of poor scientific potency. Experiments are too small, poorly structured, and unable to screen out coexisting factors. Like dietetics, sports/activity science is barely scientific. Weaving her way through the fields of information and hype, Aschwanden gradually gleans what might actually help you and me make sense of our sporting and recovery efforts. Good to Go is an entertaining, useful book.
A recounting of a bizarre event that occurred as recently as 2018, exactly as the title says, “The Salisbury Poisonings” is as fresh as headlines. Indeed, usage of news footage unfurling the Russian nerve agent poisoning of two Soviet ex-spies in a peaceful British town is one of the devices employed dramatically by the directors and scriptwriters. Real-event dramas can readily leach narrative tension or flow, simply because the facts must be observed, but this four-part series manages to forestall that pitfall by focusing heavily on two core participants in the thick of things. Rafe Spall is flawless as a hapless police officer early on the scene, and, even more vital to the story, Ann-Marie Duff captures the horrid pressures on the key public safety official. Perhaps the echoing shape of Covid-19 invigorates the early episodes – I mean, this incredibly deadly toxin is creepily like the pandemic – but I found myself horrified at an event I’d barely followed at the time. The later episodes lose potency as a result, but the storyline artfully segues into a study of post-traumatic stress. The Salisbury Poisonings could have been a lame retelling using cutout performances overlaid by a dreary voice, instead it is a skillfully made, absorbing drama well worth your time.
Eluvium, aka Matthew Cooper is my favorite musician in the broad field of ambient music, a territory I’ve largely left alone since a deep fascination through the 1960s to 1980s. “Virga I” is the first in a new series and this time the versatile Cooper has fashioned a wonderful album of three pieces in the style of real, genuine ambient music as I experienced it first with the music of Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and then Klaus Schulze. Long looping songs, apparently generated by sounds and tunes under the presence of algorithms, whoosh and flow and ebb in a hugely satisfying aural panorama suited to both late night immersive listening and alluring lockdown work background. The first twenty-minute piece seems to herald arrival, the second shorter one is more “here,” and the third piece ebbs off into the distant, but really, all three are part of a vast, emotional whole that had me gasping with admiration. Virga I is not for everyone, for it really is suffusing and anti-rock, but for anyone ever attracted to Brian Eno and his notions of ambience, it is a 2021 highlight.
If you’re like me and enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, and then watched the movie starring Matt Damon, you know what to expect in Weir’s latest novel, “Project Hail Mary.” Perhaps like me, when you first encounter the namesake spaceship hurtling millions of kilometers from earth and wake up in the head of its sole survivor, uber geek Ryland Grace, you’ll picture a groggy Matt Damon, waking up to solve the puzzle of his whereabouts and his stupendous mission, rolling up his sleeves to calculate and make and shift and actuate, disarmingly using brainpower to stay alive, resurrect his mission, and yes, save humanity. Andy Weir is an elegant, natural stylist, perfectly evoking Ryland’s jokey, gritty personality. The plot careens towards ever more jaw-dropping space events, taking a twist midstream into territory scarcely believable but executed with such panache that I, the reader, flowed with it. I’m guessing if excessive sci-fi science is a turnoff, you’ll reject this book, but if you love any form of mental tussling, grab it and strap in for a jolly freewheeling ride. You might even, like me, read it in two enjoyable sittings. Project Hail Mary takes too many outrageous plot risks, and is too tailor-made for another super-hero-like Matt-Damon-starring movie, to be genuinely stirring, but science-driven entertainment of this quality is indeed rare.