Anyone reading the blurb for “Romancing the Birds and Dinosaurs: Forays in Postmodern Paleontology” might expect an engaging every-person account of a captivating subject, namely the evolutionary origin of birds, whether from dinosaurs or elsewhere. Perhaps as readers, we have been spoilt with an array of explanatory, pleasurable reads from leaders in the field, but in any case, this book is something else altogether. Although scientific consensus is that birds evolved from ground-dwelling dinosaurs, the science is not fully settled, and a dissenting voice over decades has been paleornithologist Feduccia, who sees birds as having evolved from some other reptiles and as having learnt flight from falling out of trees (rather than learning to fly from the ground, as most think now). Romancing the Birds and Dinosaurs consists of twenty-three pithy chapters tackling aspects of his dissent, some of them being general reasoning, most being disagreements over the lessons of recently discovered fossils. In other words, this book is an old argument presented once again. Each chapter is dense with complexity and I certainly was not able to follow his arguments with a neophyte’s grounding. I admired his verve and wit and was able to decipher, with the aid of some ancillary research, the bones of his arguments, but I really can recommend Romancing the Birds and Dinosaurs only to insiders from his field or a related one.
The Wife and the Widow by Christian White [8/10]
“The Wife and the Widow” is the eagerly awaited sophomore release of Christian White, after The Nowhere Child was a bestseller (I enjoyed it). This stylish mystery novel juxtaposes the lives of a widow, exploring the hidden secrets of her dead husband’s life, and a woman on a sleepy island off the Australian coast, exploring sudden secrets of her husband’s. The author is adept at building up the two characters and their stories, and the locales are well portrayed, but at the book’s heart is one of those all too rare plot twists that have you declaiming to your friends, “I’ll say no more but you must read this.” And I’ll say no more. And you must read The Wife and the Widow.
Bosch Season 7 [9/10]
Season 7 of “Bosch” shall be the last, we’re told. I have never followed a season for this many seasons and I remain amazed at how much I’ve enjoyed every season and indeed every episode. Perhaps there is an element of familiarity, for part of my pleasure derives from captivating by a large ensemble cast of sparky characters. Perhaps lockdown seeks comfort viewing. But no, Bosch remains ascendant for two reasons. Michael Connelly is a master of gripping plots and each season brilliantly unwinds the solution (to the extent there is one) of a crime or crimes; this is modern crime fiction at its best. And even more important is the character of Harry Bosch, the driven, explosive, professional murder detective, so wonderfully realized on the page and now improved (yes, I’ll assert that) by his portrayal by Titus Welliver. In Season 7, an apartment block fire kills four innocents, sending Bosch off on one of his most frustrating missions, while his daughter’s experience during a financial criminal’s trial provides a second terrifying adventure. If you’re a newcomer to Bosch, start at Season 1. If you’re a fan like me, savor this and join me in mourning the passing of a show that never dropped a beat.
Second Nature by Nathaniel Rich [6/10]
Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, a history of climate change inaction, captivated me two years ago, so I came to “Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade” ready to be enthralled again. And there is much to love in this set of essays, a number of which have already appeared. As the author puts it in a preface, the essays fall into three categories. The first three essays are exposes of corporate malfeasance; I especially enjoyed “Here Come the Warm Jets,” covering a massive ongoing methane leak. Then there are some fascinating essays about places and milieus already changing in a warmer world; “Aspen Saves the World” is brilliant, tackling a rich person’s skiing play town when the the snow is disappearing, while the town itself reimagines itself as a climate activist forerunner. And the final section concerns hubristic tales of attempts to fix old wrongs, often resulting in further debacles. Second Nature is an intriguing, educational, stylish romp through parts of our new climate emergency world.
The Hood by Lavie Tidhar [6/10]
Bewitched by the writing and imaginativeness of Lavie Tidhar’s The Escapement (check out my rave review), I readily turned to “The Hood,” the second instalment of his Anti-Matter of Britain Quartet, being English mythology reimagined through a modern, bruising lens. This time, as the title implies, Tidhar refashions the tales of Robin Hood and his band of merry men, although “refashions” understates his reworkings, This is a profane, hip, super-cool, jazzed-up retelling that does not hesitate to turn everything on its head. Fast, funny, foul, and furious, The Hood will either captivate and amaze you, or it will turn you off before the midway point. Stylistically remarkable though it was, my own read had me gasping with admiration but a tad nonplussed, but hey, I read it in one setting and will remember it until the day I die.
The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher [9/10]
Fresh from the triumph of his Hirsch trilogy set in the remote South Australian countryside, Garry Disher returns to his beloved Mornington Peninsula, a tongue of land between bay and ocean near Melbourne, in ”The Way It Is Now.” Policeman Charlie Deravin, newly parted from his wife and on enforced disciplinary leave from the sex-crimes unit, returns home to a beach shack. Like many crime fiction heroes, he is a mess, with one burden being the overhang from the never-solved disappearance of his mother two decades earlier. Surfing, just existing, this loose spirit idly digs into the past, until the day bodies turn up and the past catches up. Stylistically, The Way It Is Now feels nothing like the low-key lyricism of the South Australian series, it is much more muscular and adventurous, but a commonality is a wonderful immersion in the mystery’s locale, this time a mix of real Mornington Peninsula towns and suburbs, and some fictional ones. You can feel the sand, smell the salt. As ever, Disher’s control of the highly intriguing plot is masterful, never revealing too much, always keeping the reader on her toes. As ever, once begun, the book demands to be completed. One of the best global crime fiction novels of 2021, The Way It Is Now cements Disher’s crown as the best Australian mystery writer, bar none.
Noor by Nnedi Okorafor [6/10]
A rocket-paced tech sci-fi novel set in a near-enough-future world that could almost be familiar, “Noor” takes place in Nigeria and stars Anwuli Okwutility, a feisty woman who has augmented her body wth so much advanced technology that she relabels her initials AO as “artificial organism.” When an ordinary day spins out of control, she finds herself on the run in the deserts with another cutely named fugitive, a herdsman called DNA. AO and DNA careen through their weird world of ubiquitous surveillance and social media, huge wind turbines, a controlling mega corporation, and blazing technology. The author is richly inventive, the plot sucks the reader in, and the unusual (for sci-fi) setting is superbly drawn. Whilst this reader found the storyline baroque to the extent of reducing character immersion, another reader might sink right in. Noor is an enjoyable rollercoaster worth checking out.
Dreamers Are Waiting by Crowded House [5/10]
Rock music made by older people can be wise and moving, but mostly it is a few levels below peak. This is not a lament. I mean, what can we possibly expect of our earlier musical heroes when we ourselves are decrepit? I was never a Crowded House fanatic but Neil Finn’s songwriting genius could never be denied, so “Dreamers Are Waiting” seemed a welcome possibility. For the band’s first release in over a decade, the band composed Finn (teaming up sometimes with brother Tim for songwriting), founding bassist Nick Seymour, Finn’s sons Liam and Ellroy, and, remarkably, producer/arranger extraordinaire Mitchell Froom on keys. My expectations were high and it is fair to say they were mostly dashed. The album of a dozen songs is by no means crappy, and the songwriting is intelligent, but musically, this version of Crowded House plods. The three tracks that shine out are “The Island,” with its joyous chorus; the swaying, dreamy “Too Good For This World”; and “Bad Times Good,” with Finn in great, smooth voice over a building accompaniment. Dreamers Are Waiting will please old fans but welcome few new ones.
Double Blind by Edward St Aubyn [6/10]
“Double Blind” is my first Edward St Aubyn and I admit to intense anticipation. I quickly latched onto the author’s consummate lyrical skill, both descriptively rich and wondrously constructed. And the novel’s storyline holds great promise, bringing together an ecologist, psychologists, a rewilding environmentalist, a project planner, a maniacal venture capitalist, and a schizophrenic. Like, say, Richard Powers, St Aubyn revels in informing and exploring deep subject, and here he fossicks around in epigenetics, psychoanalysis, neurology, ecology, and oncology. The plot tumbles hither and thither, delightfully at first, and the characters are explored succinctly. If Double Blind refuses to follow traditional plot closure rules as the reader ends the end of her journey, this too seems wisely intelligent. A beguiling, off-kilter read.
The Empathy Diaries by Sherry Turkle [7/10]
Sherry Turkle has revolutionised our understanding of the role of the new IT and online communities, and, especially lately, the dangers of online interaction for psychological health. In “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir,” she offers a beautifully, though simply, described memoir of the first phase of her life, narratively constructed as the interweaving of her intellectual journey with her childhood challenges and opportunities. What attracted me to read this was the promise of “the finding of meaning through a life’s work,” the telling of an existential trajectory carved out through Paris in 1968 and the IT revolution kicked off in the 70s and 80s. And the first two thirds of this heartfelt story was spellbinding, exploring her mother’s love and secretiveness, the quest to find (and then reject) her real father, all the while navigating the shoals of coming of age in one of the most tumultuous periods of human progress. In my reading, the final third sagged a little, mainly because the actual intellectual discourse under examination meant little to me, but at the end, I felt vindicated in reading The Empathy Diaries. If you are a nerd, not a jock (both appellations semi-jokingly offered), Sherry Turkle’s fulsome and yearning memoir may well speak volumes to you.