“The Final Case” is a huge departure for esteemed novelist David Guterson, marketed as a literary courtroom thriller. Plotwise, that may well be accurate, but this novel is something else entirely, a discursive, emotional journey through evil and the love of a son for his father. When a writer adrift assists his ancient lawyer father defend two conservative religious fanatics, accused of killing an Ethiopian adoptee, at first the reader sashays along with Oregon intellectual minutiae and rituals, but soon the novel heats up into a coruscating depiction of humanity’s barbarity towards itself, all the while tenderly exploring the father-son dynamics. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel quite like this (and I’ve read more courtroom dramas and father-son dramas than I care to remember) and it took me a while to orient my thinking, but once I was in the grip of Guterson’s spell, well, I was utterly transfixed. The writing is almost leisurely, fully happy to dwell on testimony, a setting, the Seattle ambience, our hero’s inner life, yet the urgency of the story makes for a rapid, memorable read that has stuck in my craw ever since. The Final Case is unique, essential reading.
True crime dramatisations are generally tedious, but “Des,” directed and part written by Lewis Arnold, is a welcome exception. The three-part series jumps straight in, plunging a London homicide detective (played flawlessly by Daniel Mays) into a serial killing crime scene. A seemingly mild-mannered man has complained about blocked drains, which quickly are found to be jammed with body parts. The man, Dennis Nilsen, AKA Des, quickly confesses, although he never finally reveals if he murdered (and bizarrely treated and regaled post-death) just a dozen men or more. Given that we know the killer within minutes, what is remarkable about Des is the ratcheting tension, aided by a mood of grim horror, but mainly driven by the detectives obsession with finding all the victims’ bodies. And what allows Des to shine is the superlative, controlled, freaky-deaky performance of David Tennant as the serial killer. This is not refreshing viewing but Tennant’s performance lingers after the final frame.
“What Strange Paradise” is a lyrically written tale of a nine-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shore of a Western European island (Greece? Sweden?), the only survivor of a typically hapless refugee boat, and his fraught rescue, from the clutches of vicious local police, by an outsider teenage girl. The author provides a nuanced, panoramic, and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of the travails of modern-day refugees. The cat-and-mouse struggle to escape to freedom from the island made for tense reading, and although I found a backtracking narrative of the boy’s flight and voyage less compelling, this strand boosted what I had thought was a fairly good understanding of refugee chaos. The author is a superb stylist. The son of war refugees, I was ripe for What Strange Paradise and recommend it highly.
Set in cold northern Canada, ”A Town Called Solace” intertwines the tales of Clara, a seven-year-old bereft at the disappearance of her teenage sister; newly divorced and jobless Liam, new to the town of Solace after being unexpectedly bequeathed the house next door to Clara; and Elizabeth, winding down her life in a nursing home. The novel is a gentle but forensic domestic drama, told without great urgency but in a quiet style that reveals. I found the story of Elizabeth a tad prosaic until a wonderful reveal towards the end, but Liam and Clara are unveiled with authority, and there are many enjoyable moments of subtle comedy. In the end, I felt A Town Called Solace illuminated grief and restoration. Well worth reading.
Alice Bell, a British writer and climate activist, has honored many of our ignored heroes in “Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis.” From the early foundations of the industrial world, through the early scientific pioneers pointing out the hothouse implications of fossil fuel burning, through the halcyon decades of the fossil fuel industry during the last century, through the dedicated scientists alertly spying the early signs, through the brave scientists fronting vested interests in the 90s and into the 00s and 10s, emerging finally into today’s fraught crisis, the author is relentless, compendious, summative, and readable. Cutting through jargon, talking directly to the reader, Alice Bell has summed up what I thought could not be corralled. Our Biggest Experiment is a fine book and well worth reading.
One of the two creators of “Clickbait” is Christian White, and therein lies a clue, for White is a devilishly clever crime fiction author. Nothing is as it seems in Clickbait, an eight-part series which has the first seven episodes told (mostly) from the viewpoint of seven among the swirling cast of characters, with the final instalment titled “The Answer” and delivering an almighty twist. The basic storyline is … well, it is almost clickbait: an ideal family man is kidnapped and snapped for online social media with a sign saying he’s an abuser and will be killed after five million hits. Nothing in the trailer or the story summary suggests a compelling thriller but from the opening scene, Clickbait is tense, intelligent, and involving. The acting is adequate, with four actors making the series pop: Zoe Kazan is utterly believable as the family man’s sister; Phoenix Rael compels as the dogged policeman; and the two sons are brilliantly portrayed by Camaron Engels and (especially) Jaylin Fletcher. All up, Clickbait provided eight nights of gripping entertainment, and is recommended.
Frank Kennedy’s spiraling space operas set in the world of the implacable Collectorate have blossomed in the way that the best baggy science-fiction series do. A fresh series, Beyond the Impossible, is his most ambitious yet, and now we are blessed with the third instalment, “The Midnight Shower.” I greatly enjoyed the earlier two in the series (reviews here and here). The Midnight Shower is a consolidation phase, stitching together two mysterious strands that hovered at the edge of the earlier volumes. On the roiling world of Hokkaido, Ya-Li Taron, a young nobleman who emerged from an obscure role as reluctant husband of heroine Kara Syung, is revealed as a brilliant manipulator and possessing strange attributes, while super-assassin Ryllen Jee, who reappeared mysteriously in the previous book, is undergoing an horrific purgatory. The author seems to be able to vary the timbre of his books at will, and whereas the earlier instalments invoked mystery, planetary crisis, or space travel drama, The Midnight Shower is intricate space opera politics. Another smooth read, one that prepares us for grander adventures.
2021 was a tale of two halves. While I had many enjoyable experiences with movies or TV series in the second half of the year, eight of the Top 10 were viewed in the first half. The Top 10 comprised two thrillers, one police procedural, one science fiction movie, two documentaries (very dissimilar), and four general dramas. One documentary (The Dissident) received a perfect score of 10/10. . (Links below are to my reviews.)
The Dissident—flawless, thrilling storytelling by Bryan Fogel, and this in aid of the true story of the Russian blogger chopped up in a Turkish embassy!
Succession Season 3—much anticipated and justifiably so, the third outing for the Murdoch-like billionaire patriarch and his four reprehensible but oh-so-human children is spellbinding. I know some folks can’t get past the awfulness of every damned character but that’s what gives this show its Macbeth-like stature.
The Queen’s Gambit—cool and cerebral, a fine, visually arresting 7-parter about a female American chess champion.
Your Honor—Bryan Cranston in top form, playing a judge covering up for his son, in a series fraught with tension and imbued with moral dilemmas.
Mrs. America—a triumphant acting role by Cate Blanchett, but this dense 9-episode series about seventies’ feminism never misses a beat.
Bosch Season 7—firmly rooted in the police procedural genre, this longstanding series never falters in terms of quality and watchability. If it has now settled into the realm of the comfort watch, the grave, deep performance of Titus Welliver as Detective Harry Bosch ensures it shines.
The Midnight Sky—George Clooney’s masterpiece, an elegiac dystopian sci-fi that entrances.
Staged Season 2—Even more post-ironic and maniacal than the first season, this made-during-lockdown season of eight episodes, about the making of lockdown series, is hilarious.
City on a Hill Season 2—brilliant eight-parter, savage and heartfelt equally, about crime and race in Boston in the nineties
Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World—artfully and respectfully composed, an inspiring look at one year in the life of an inspiring person.
Jonathan Franzen is one of my heroes. The Corrections was magnificent, Freedom excited, and Purity intrigued. Franzen’s birdwatching-oriented nature and climate change essays have changed my life. Now we have ”Crossroads,” a first blockbuster in a projected trilogy, set in the dissatisfied lives on one family, the Hildebrandts of New Prospect, Illinois in the early 70s, smack at the crossroads of traditional America and the flower power and protest era. And more: patriarch Russ Hildebrandt is a pastor of the First Reformed church and at the heart of the novel is the church’s youth group called Crossroads. One way or another, the entire Hildebrandt family explores morality and unease within Crossroads. Russ is a moralist with philandering in mind; wife Marion is an angelic “pastor’s wife” with dark secrets; eldest son Clem questions it all; daughter Becky is popular but unsure of her role in the world; and whizkid Perry is spinning out of control. The 600 pages of Crossroads unspools with Franzen’s typical mastery of scenic description and internal monologue and situational evocation, and the novel’s central preoccupation with morality should inspire a riveting plot, but, at least for this reader, the reading experience was interesting without becoming arresting. Of all the characters, only the two young males clawed a way into my heart, and the nimble prose never approaches the modernistic lyricism that the author displayed in The Corrections. In humble summation, then, Crossroads shows Franzen in fine mastery of the novel, but without invigorating purpose.
What a spectacular year of reading! I rated 66 books as 8/10 (a real standard of excellence) or higher. Two books impressed me beyond belief, with perfect 10/10 scores. The Top 10, comprising those two and eight 9/10 triumphs, amount to an eclectic banquet. Last year half of the Top 10 were nonfiction books, this year there are only two (which doesn’t mean I didn’t read many outstanding nonfiction books). Of the eight novels, four are literary fiction or general fiction, and four are genre novels (two science fiction, one spy thriller, one mystery). (The links below take you to my review.)
Bewilderment (10/10) by genius novelist Richard Powers—a haunting tale of a father and his troubled son,
Michael Lewis’s The Premonition (10/10)—a riveting, illuminating tale of a group of analytical American officials and analysts who understand Covid-19 as soon as it hits their shores.
Garry Disher’s The Way It Is Now—the crown of top Australian crime fiction author rests on Disher’s head and this deeply satisfying standalone mystery, featuring a young cop on the Mornington Peninsula pursuing his mother’s disappearance long ago, follows hot on the heels of the propulsive and haunting Consolation.
Mick Herron’s Slough House—buckle up for a brilliant ride with the seventh in the Jackson Lamb spy thriller series.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins—a moving epic about a mother and her son fleeing Mexico to Los Estados Unidos.
Amor Towles’s The Lincoln Highway—as stunning as A Gentleman in Moscow (one of my favorite novels of the last half decade), a grand tale of two brothers’ quest to drive on the Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco in 1954.
Joanna Glen’s All My Mothers—a brilliantly written saga of a woman finding her place. Reader, I wept.
Peter Stott’s Hot Air—the most revealing and compelling insider story of climate science heroics that I have read.
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer—a glorious, deep thriller set in a near future of species’ extinction.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future—hard science fiction addressing near-term climate change. Stellar story-making to boot. You won’t forget the first chapter.