The Skeleton Lake by Andrew Lowe [8/10]

Andrew Lowe The Skeleton Lake review

Pandemic-hammered 2021 has to be a golden age for classical UK police procedural mysteries. I enjoy regular reads of a number of authors and series, but Andrew Lowe’s series, featuring DI Jake Sawyer, is the peak. Sawyer can sound unreal in the description: tall, martial arts, articulate, attuned to horrible murderers, beset by psychological problems from his past. But the quality of Lowe’s style, with its light touch, razor-sharp dialogue, intelligence, and sprightly motion, renders Jake Sawyer as entirely credible and, indeed, heroic. All this as background for “The Skeleton Lake,” the sixth in the series, in which Sawyer, on the run since being framed in the previous instalment, and pursued by corrupt officials and police, attempts reinstatement while pursuing a baffling, macabre series of killings of older folks. The plot twists sinuously, the Peaks District locales come to life, and the large roster of characters, good and evil (you might be best to begin at Number One, Creepy Crawly), captivate. The Skeleton Lake is compulsive reading for us legions of crime fiction fans.

The Simmering Seas by Frank Kennedy [7/10]

Frank Kennedy The Simmering Seas review

Frank Kennedy pens some of the most kinetic yet cerebral space opera sci-fi around. “The Simmering Seas” launches a new Beyond The Impossible series and, if anything, the plot in this novel is even more complex and frenetic than that of the brilliant The Impossible Future quartet. The seemingly impotent Collectorate from that quartet is now vanquished and on one of its former colonies, the ringed planet Hokkaido, strange events are afoot. Something is poisoning the land. The novel’s most captivating lead character, Kara Syung, daughter in a ruling dynastic family, ventures out to discover the truth of the weirdness all around her. The other core characters, including an ex-Collectorate adventurer, and a charismatic gangster apparently immortal, tend to get buried under the unfurling and increasingly bold plot revelations, but the author maintains careful control, as ever. Kennedy is a stylish, ebullient writer and his ability to envisage both grand intergalactic dimensions and nitty-gritty local settings is wonderful. If you crave space opera, grab The Simmering Seas, or, better still, begin at the begin with The Last Everything and lap up this and the next five bold dramas.

A Dark Sin by J M Dalgliesh [7/10]

J M Dalgliesh A Cold Sin review

I find myself reading an instalment of the Hidden Norfolk police procedural series, starring DI Tom Janssen, every few months, and let me tell you, it is a distinct pleasure. Janssen, unlike many fictional detectives, is a straight-up mensch, a balanced soul somehow driven to employ his intelligence and energy to track down murderers. His eclectic crew of detectives are a readerly pleasure to follow. “A Dark Sin” is Janssen’s eighth outing and it is a solid hitter, rocketing along at pace and tantalising the reader with clues until the surprise reveal. When a journalist is found dead in a remote spot, underneath a noose, on the day of a teenager’s suicide years ago, Janssen swiftly diagnoses murder and begins an arduous trawl through the local community and into the shrouded past. Given the rapidly growing length of this series, I recommend beginning at One Lost Soul, Book One, and catching up fast, so that you too can bask in the ongoing adventures of DI Tom Janssen.

Felonious Monk by William Kotzwinkle [5/10]

William Kotzwinkle Felonius Monk review

Anyone who has even vaguely followed the four-decade career of William Kotzwinkle (and I’m only a dipper, having read half a dozen novels) appreciates how eclectic his output has been. Uniting all the strands has been a hard-boiled, razor-humor style. “Felonious Monk” is yet another Kotzwinkle innovation, a noir thriller about a monk! When Brother Tommy, at peace in a monastery that blunts his short-fuse temper, is bequeathed assets by a mob-friendly crooked priest, his life is upended, aswirl in a world of vying crooks, cult fanatics, and voluptuous women. As physically strong as he is blunt of temperament, Tommy navigates the open world once more while trying find moral equilibrium on his own terms. The author’s prose is bullet-blunt and his sense of pithy dialogue is undiminished. I must admit I grew weary of a roiling plot with little point beyond putting Tommy through his paces, and Brother Tommy himself remained an enigma to me. That said, Felonious Monk burns with a weird intensity and is a cracking read.

Death and Croissants by Ian Moore [5/10]

Ian Moore Death and Croissants review

A rollicking romp set in the sumptuous Loire Valley, “Death and Croissants” combines amateur detectives with sharp humor, delivering a pleasing cosy mystery read. Richard, a shy Brit running a small bed and breakfast amongst the rural French, is catapulted into an adventure with sophisticated Valerie when a guest vanishes, leaving behind only a bloody handprint. The pleasure of this novel lies less in the mild murder puzzle or the hectic uncovering of clues, than in the amusing repartee between Richard and Valerie, and the French ambience. For cosy mystery lovers recently titillated by The Thursday Murder Club (which I enjoyed), Death and Croissants is a pleasurable debut.

How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff [7/10]

James Wolff How to Betray Your Country review

How to Betray Your Country” is a stylish, immersive twist to the usual spy thriller set in strange lands, for James Wolff, in his sophomore release, chronicles the tumultuous inner world of a career spy gloriously, heroically unravelling. When grief-wracked August Drummond, recently sacked, spies something going on during a flight to Istanbul, he pursues the lead and plunges back into his secret world, this time from the outside. The plot careens like a sports car through the geopolitics of terrorism in Turkey, landing him in the clutches of a Machiavellian manipulator and his ex-sp-shop-rival. The author is a flamboyant, keen stylist, the exotic settings are superbly depicted, and the pace is hectic, but the core triumph of How to Betray Your Country is its examination of a soul in crisis. For those of us steeped in spook fiction, this is an exciting departure.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne [7/10]

John Boyne The Echo Chamber review

Brilliant Irish novelist John Boyne has now tilted towards satire, with “The Echo Chamber” chronicling tumultuous days in the lives of a silver-spooned British family, the Cleverleys: broadcasting icon George; bestselling novelist Beverley; and their three messed-up children. All five are thriving, according to their individual desires, in the social media world. As the novel’s title makes clear, Boyne’s target is the capricious, savage world of Twitter and Facebook. When George haphazardly tweets about a transitioning secretary, the worlds of all the five Cleverleys tumble willy-nilly into the darkest crevasses of online justice and injustice. Boyne is supreme at dialogue and the entire book glitters with clever conversation upon witty exchange, and his plotting of the absurd trajectory of his subjects is masterful. Most importantly, from my point of view, the author feels for his characters even as he skewers them, and his calibrated tone of realism merged with outrage is wonderful to read. The Echo Chamber is neither high tragedy nor visceral commentary, but is all the more sparkling for being a humane, funny, intelligent window onto our connected world. All of John Boyne’s novels come highly recommended and this is a fine example.

David Byrne’s American Utopia by Spike Lee [8/10]

David Byrne's American Utopia review

I first saw Talking Heads live soon after they had released their debut Talking Heads: 77, maybe in 1978. After the band, I failed to follow David Byrne’s solo forays into all manner of music but I admired his ironic, askew thinking, and kept touch with his writings. I guess I was skeptical when Spike Lee’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia” hit the cinemas, for it would be a live concert rendered flat in the filming, surely? Not so at all. This movie is a triumph. Since the 1980s, Byrne has been an imaginative choreographer of his concerts and here he assembles an astonishingly diverse and talented group of musicians and singers, maxing out in particular on drums and percussion. On a simple stage set, the dozen performers (including Byrne in resplendent, apt voice) play out elaborate dance scripts as they showcase a wonderful range of Byrne’s simple-yet-intricate tales of modern life. Most rock film directors add little, but Lee employs a rich array of cameras that constantly shift in attention, from birds-eye panoramas to bustling barefoot dance scenes to performer close-ups. He manages to keep Byrne always at the center of his narratives whilst fitting in the panoply of the others in full flight. The overall arc of Byrne’s songs, interspersed with intelligent patter, is that of alienation and coming together. Some rousing political songs stirred my heart. Post-concert footage rounds out the experience beautifully. If you hanker to see a stellar concert, wonderfully rendered, without stepping into a concert hall, David Byrne’s American Utopia is the movie for you.

Ammonite by Francis Lee [4/10]

Ammonite review

What renders a book or film compelling depends, obviously, on the reader or viewer. Far more than with the written word, for me a movie, even it is avant garde or speculative, needs to come with a strong narrative backbone. Bear that in mind as I describe “Ammonite,” the new outing for well-regarded filmmaker Francis Lee, as compelling enough scene by scene, but ultimately dreary. Based on the life of Mary Anning, a brilliant but downtrodden fossil hunter in Lyme Regis in the 1840s, Ammonite explores the impact of the arrival of a male fossil expert’s wife to undergo emotional convalescence with Anning, a stay that escalates into lust and love. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan turn in fine performances in the two leading roles, but there are only so many smoldering exchanges and looks one can take while longing for something to happen beyond what is obvious will happen. The bleak, beautiful shoreline is evocatively filmed, the period costumery meticulous, the supporting actors excellent. The trouble is, in my opinion, the script. Given that the core relationship is an act of imagination, one could imagine many ways the plotline could develop, but very little is pursued in Ammonite. My attention was snared throughout, simply because of the sumptuous scenes, but neither character develops much and little drama is evinced. All up, an opportunity missed.

All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton [5/10]

Trent Dalton All Our Shimmering Skies review

Trent Dalton’s debut, Boy Swallows Universe, was a bravura coming-of-age delight. “All Our Shimmering Skies” arcs up the core features of the debut – the focus on a troubled youth, the elements of magical realism, the fizzing style – but overreaches. The story of Molly, graveyard orphan girl, and her quest across the fantastical terrain of the Northern Territory at the time of the WWII Darwin bombings, is impressive at the page level, but I found its unrelenting appeal to talking skies, talking spirits, and Grand Guignol plot escalations leached away any character identification. Whereas in Boy Swallows Universe, Eli, the starring boy, seemed heroic, this time Molly is rendered as a declaiming cardboard heroine. The core villain is straight out of gothic Victorian novels. Only one character retains any life beyond the page: Japanese kamikaze pilot Yukio. Dalton conveys Darwin with great gusto, yet the drama-imbued Australian bush somehow comes across as a movie set. All in all, there is much to admire in the literary gymnastics in All Our Shimmering Skies, and it delivers a quick read in spite of its length, but we will need to await Trent Dalton’s third novel to see him at his most potent.