Melbourne band Tiny Little Houses burst onto the scene with the distinctive semi-sneering vocals of frontman Caleb Karvountsis declaiming on the Pixies-like stunning track “Garbage Bin” off the band’s debut album. It was a stunning debut. Three years on, “Misericorde” is less bile, more storytelling, but the band’s derivative-yet-distinctive lo-fi mix of fuzz and catchy melody has arced up a notch. Maybe you need to remember 90s indie to immediately fall in love with Misericorde but even if you need some time with the songs, eventually their pull will work magic. Not one of the thirteen tracks is filler, each deserving rotation. Highlights include “Richard Cory” with its stunning lyric describing how he “one calm summer night put a bullet through his head”; the album’s closer, the majestic “Holy Water”; and spiky “Car Crash.” If Tiny Little Houses keep progressing like this, the next release will be a classic.
Belfast by Kenneth Branagh [10/10]
Kenneth Branagh eschews both savagery and soppiness in “Belfast,” his highly stylized but emotionally weighty story of a Belfast family torn by pressures to leave the city as the Troubles take off in 1969. Shot in a warm black and white monochrome laced with occasional colors, and galvanized by Van Morrison songs, the film cuts to the essence of the times without ever using cliches. The acting is splendid throughout: Jamie Doran as the slightly roguish yet heroic father; Catriona Bailfe as the passionate mother; Judi Dench as the wrinkled grandmother; Ciaran Hinds as wise Pops; and, most important of all, Jude Hill as nine-year-old Buddy, around whom the movie swirls. The family’s house is a core location beautifully presented, being as it is in a mixed-denomination street that has the feel of a stage set. Branagh’s script is relentless as the violence between equally reprehensible British overlord thugs and Unionist hardmen ratchets up, and he relishes grand scenes such as the opening one of burning Catholic homes and, later, a looting riot. Throughout, Branagh returns again and again to the core question facing the family: how can they leave this charismatic city but what is the price of staying? One part a coming-of-age story, one part a love song to Belfast, and one part a retrospective of the unique Troubles, Belfast is a cinematic triumph that left this reviewer in tears.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura [6/10]
“Intimacies,” an intriguing spare novel that never wastes a word, chronicles the days of an interpreter at the International Court in The Hague, her refuge after floating years. Here she becomes enmeshed in a loathsome yet fascinating interpretation assignment, translating for a charismatic yet sinister former president accused of genocide. Outside the court, a love affair seems to be suspended and a friendship invites hidden knowledge. The setting and milieu of the court of international justice is portrayed with a detached clinical eye that renders it fascinating, and the author’s open, running style suits the claustrophobic character-centered atmosphere. So, yes, there is much to admire during the reading of Intimacies, but the final impact is dampened by a mild plot that rouses tension but only partially delivers. An enjoyable read that could have aimed for more.
The Long Game by Simon Rowell [6/10]
Garry Disher is not the only mystery writer tackling the Mornington Peninsula, a bayside neck of land near Melbourne. Simon Rowell’s second puzzler, “The Long Game, ” starring Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer, may not quite match the master’s peerless plotting and characterization, but it’s a rewarding, fast-paced read. The novel’s opener sees a surfer killed with a knife in his chest, and the case soon seems routine, but DS Mayer’s attentive digging soon unearths subtle oddities about the case. Before long, she (and her trusty dog) is on the trail of a devilishly clever opponent. The author’s prose is polished and well-controlled, and the varied locales of the beach are convincingly evoked. The climactic twist, although not telegraphed, might be guessable, but by the end of The Long Game, the tension has ratcheted up enough to provide a fitting ending in any case. Recommended.
The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly [6/10]
Superstar crime fiction writers invariably slide downwards. Even the redoubtable James Lee Burke, for so long my favorite writer in any genre, became a self pastiche. Michael Connelly has always been the exception, his nearly two dozen Harry Bosch novels all perfectly plotted, suffused with characterization, and stylishly penned. Throw in the marvelous Mickey Haller books and it is no wonder that I always snap up the annual (or more frequent!) Connelly treat. “The Dark Hours” is the fourth outing for Renee Ballard, a Los Angeles detective of relentless activity and purpose, seemingly without higher ambitions, who is smart and expedient. The presence of Bosch as her partner/mentor enhanced the previous two Ballard outings. In The Dark Hours, Ballard takes on a New Years Eve killing of mystifying opaqueness while tracking two savage rapists. The author’s command of plot is as masterful as ever, making for an easy armchair read, but for the first time, I found myself thinking, “too much plot, where are the humans?” If you’re a Connelly fan, snap up The Dark Hours. If you’re a general crimmy fan, go back and read the Bosch classics.
Death to 2021 [6/10]
Death to 2020, a rollicking satirical retrospective of a year that could scarcely be believed, was a modest success according to me, and “Death to 2021” is much the same: replete with chuckle-worthy sketches, blessed with wonderful acting, and driven by a sharp screenplay, but somehow, at the end, hollow enough to leave behind a sense of disappointment. Core characters from 2020 triumphantly return: the racist Brexiter hammed up delightfully by Hugh Grant; Cristin Millioti as a MAGA troll; the oh-so-ordinary English wallflower played pitch-perfect by Diane Morgan. Once more Lawrence Fishburne provides mock serioso voiceover commentary. For an hour of slightly savage fun that does manage to encompass the year just gone, don’t hesitate to latch onto Death to 2021.
Fool Me Twice by J M Dalgliesh [8/10]
In just a little over two years, British crime fiction author J M Dalgliesh has pumped out ten police procedurals featuring DI Tom Janssen and his eclectic team of detectives in picturesque Norfolk. Belying that rapidity of publication, the recent Janssen outings have been his best yet, and “Fool Me Twice” is a meaty, twisty investigative treat for the reader hungry for a diet of crime and justice. This time a top lawyer is discovered savagely murdered in his home and the trail through old clients and current family turns out to be as baffling as any Janssen has encountered. The author is a sophisticated, slick stylist, and the supporting cast of characters swirling around dependable, whip-smart Tom makes for a captivating read. I had been hoping that at some point the abiding cast of players would be tested, instead of coasting along like a old-style fictional tableau, but this vague notion was swept aside as soon as I began reading Fool Me Twice. A cracker of a plot, an ace read, Mr. Dalgliesh!
The Lost Daughter by Maggie Gyllenhaal [7/10]
“The Lost Daughter” is a searingly honest examination of the inner life of a mother, an ordinary mother, and Olivia Coleman in the central role is brilliant. Holidaying on a Greek island, 48-year-old Leda butts up against an extended American family, steeped in menace, and when the daughter of one of the men goes missing, the subsequent events build up in shock and fear. Leda, beset with memories of a fraught time when she was a young mother of two, wresting with career aspirations, takes steps that seem destined, in this moody film, to brook disaster. The fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal based her screenplay on an Elana Ferrante novel, just the kind of roiling internal examination that movies seldom attempt, and then directed the film, offered a great chance to make an arthouse classic. But a looseness of narrative control and the arbitrary use of symbolism undercut the power of The Lost Daughter. Nonetheless, it does grip and comes recommended.
Survivor’s Guilt by Robyn Gigl [6/10]
A cross between a high-octane thriller and a courtroom drama, “Survivor’s Guilt” sees transgender attorney Erin McCabe struggling to solve, without ending up as a victim, the murder of a millionaire. When the millionaire’s daughter pleads guilty, McCabe smells the proverbial rat, and with the aid of her practice partner, dives into a horrific world of trafficking and exploitation and evil. The author is a straightforward stylist and the thriller plot itself proceeds a little clumsily, but the underlying storyline and the interaction of Gigl with the victim, herself transgender, keeps the reader interested. The action scenes are gripping. Survivor’s Guilt offers an engrossing, slightly-off-the-beaten-track read.
Long Half-Life by Ian Lowe [7/10]
Veteran environmentalist and antinuclear campaigner, Ian Lowe has written about the nuclear power industry and the nuclear arms race a number of times. Why now again? “Long Half-life: The Nuclear Industry in Australia” is Lowe’s riposte to a recent surge of pro-nuclear rhetoric and sentiment in Australia, a blip on the attention span of Australians that, he believes, might not allow for the history and the facts. Lowe is a cogent stylist with an easy manner, and this book is indeed a useful introduction to the history of nuclear power in Australia, from the days of nuclear testing in remote places, with unrealistic aspirations for nuclear energy, through the peak in interest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, through the two decades of political mayhem around uranium mining towards the end of last century. Lowe is a reasonably fair interlocutor, quite happy to give nuclear technology its due when it deserves it, but it is very hard to argue with his overall conclusion for the nation in 2021. As the only continent without a single power reactor, Australia is too far behind in terms of capability and infrastructure, and in any case, the nature of the nation’s dispersed, privatized utility system means that no firm could ever finance the huge upfront cost of a modern reactor. Long Half-Life is recommended as a skating introduction to its chosen topic.