That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry [8/10]

Kevin Barry That Old Country Music review

I cannot summon up another writer whose prose makes me swoon as much as Kevin Barry’s does. A masterful mix of Irish scutty and lyricism, any Barry page just feels so damned pleasurable to absorb! Especially powerful is his knack of capturing places and moods. His dialogue is an object lesson for lesser writers. Therefore, even though I am not a short story fan, I devoured the eleven tales in “That Old Country Music” and can vouch for every one of them. Most notable are “The Coast of Leitrim,” a love story that can break a heart; the glorious drunken mayhem of “Toronto and the State of Grace”; and the slapstick of “Who’s-Dead McCarthy.” Read all eleven, dear reader, That Old Country Music is a joy.

Evermore by Taylor Swift [7/10]

Taylor Swift Evermore review

Such a welcome surprise! Five months after Folklore beguiled me, now we have “Evermore,” a luscious reprise of her new softly melodic, world-weary folk rock. Evermore follows Folklore in its style, all lulling piano, percolating keyboards, trembling guitar figures, allied to her emotive soft-whispery voice and intelligent storytelling lyrics. The sure touch of Aaron Dressner at the production desk matches Swift’s songs like lock and key. Highlights among the generous fifteen tracks include the gorgeous “‘Tis the Damn Season,” on which Swift croons “it always leads to you in my hometown”; the stunning recollections of an abandoned relationship in “Coney Island” contrasts Swift’s honeyed vocals with Matt Berninger’s gravely baritone; and another super sonic collaboration with Bon Iver on the title track.

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter [8/10]

Jess Walter The Cold Millions review

A captivating, swaggering literary novel about the American battle for unionism and workers’ rights in the cruel hard times of the early Twentieth Century, “The Cold Millions” showcases Jess Walter at his scintillating peak. Channeling E. L. Doctorow, he focuses on Spokane in the northwest, on two brothers at the rough edge of capitalism, one passionate about the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World), the other one younger and protective of his sibling. Careening events put them in the path of a fascinating, sinister tycoon and police thugs and assassins, and ally them with a female socialist firebrand. Jess Walter, like Doctorow, seamlessly plonks the small pawns of the world amongst real-life, outsized makers of history, and he seems capable of writing from the point of view of all the protagonists and antagonists. Roughhouse America springs to life in his scenes and the plot propels and surprises. All in all, The Cold Millions is a triumph and a hell of a fine read.

The Survivors by Jane Harper [7/10]

Jane Harper The Survivors review

A mystery writer with fine motor control of a book’s pace, Jane Harper’s previous best sellers were evocatively imbued with their landscapes, whether the harsh Australian bush, a lush Australian rainforest, or a cattle farm. “The Survivors” takes place in a small Tasmanian coastal town and once again, the author nails the locale: the beach, rocks, and fishing boats. When Kieran, who had fled for the big smoke after tragedy had struck, returns to his home town, and a body turns up on a beach, the past and present collide as he digs into both. The character roster, immediately recognizable from such a town, is skillfully realized, the plot turns are gratifyingly opaque, and the background of disaster and guilt is almost palpable. As with Harper’s first three novels, I read The Survivors in one sitting, and if I questioned whether the climax sold the earlier engrossing pages short, I can still heartily recommend it.

Gone by Michael Blencowe [7/10]

Michael Blencowe Gone review

Extinction of species is taking place at a rate one or two magnitudes greater than evolution’s outcome, with humans the immediate and background cause. As a child, naturalist Michael Blencowe was fascinated, as only children can be, with tales and pictures of near-mythic animals, birds, and butterflies that have disappeared from our plant. “Gone: A Search for What Remains of the World’s Extinct Creatures” is his passionate, engaged tale of finding what traces are left of eleven vanished species. A most determined historian of doom, Blencowe travels from the Bering Sea to the Galapagos isles, from Finland to San Francisco. The onsite trips are evocative, but even more so are his reverent forays into museums with their fossils, skeletons, and preserves carcasses. He pursues the leftover remnants of the last Great Auks on a forsaken Devon island and in a Danish museum. New Zealand’s sad history of its isolated, vulnerable birds killed and eaten is told thrice by the author, with the Moa’s demise striking me as most tragic. The Dodo, he writes, “has achieved a dubious immortality: the smiling face of extinctions.” The tone throughout is a convivial mix of pithy recounting of histories and flights of easygoing lyricism. Towards the end, he expertly weaves in wider questions enmeshed with global warming. For anyone brewing over our fate and Earth’s fate, Gone is a welcome, enjoyable feast.