Old Friends by Felicity Everett [8/10]

Felicity Everett Old Friends review

A tightly plotted domestic drama with wonderful characterization, “Old Friends” is my favorite read from Felicity Everett’s four novels, each a model of atmospheric storytelling underpinned by aspects of modern life. Architect Harriet and PR firm owner Mark live with their two teenage sons in a verdant London suburb. Their “besties,” ex-rock-star Gary and put-upon Yvette, together with two daughters, live nearby, one notch down the social scale. When Gary pushes his family up north to Manchester, Harriet seizes a chance for both families to live communally in a single house. But all the characters are floundering in their lives, and gradually cracks emerge in marriages and friendships, cracks that expand with creepy certainty toward tragedy. The author is a consummate novelist, bringing all the characters vibrantly into the reader’s brain, while propelling a busy, dark plotline toward the climax. Old Friends is a sparkling, modern tale; for me, a two-sitting read. I fancy for many a single sitting will be compulsory.

The Heartless Hinds by Frank Kennedy [9/10]

Frank Kennedy The Heartless Hinds review

In these antsy times, blessed is the space opera, unfurling rousing adventures at the edge of comprehension. My favorite in recent times has been the Frank Kennedy series set in the vast, unforgiving universe of the crushing Collectorate. The first quartet of books, titled The Impossible Future, set the scene with great gusto and intelligence, and now Beyond the Impossible is upping the ante, with a mind-blowing plot being carefully revealed over more than four books. I know this series exceeds quartet size because the just-released fourth in the series, “The Heartless Hinds,” is only just beginning to stitch together the disparate story threads. Kennedy is an effortless stylist, especially with his flowing, witty dialogue, and in his superbly choreographed action scenes. Not a word is wasted, yet the pace never feels hurried. In The Heartless Hinds, Kara Syung, the feisty, clever noblewoman we met in the first book of the series and now part of the crew of a deadly warship, negotiates on a planet populated with Earth’s ex-Africans; immortal Exeter Woolsey joins the Aeternan super-warriors headed by a core character from the first series; and Angela Poussard, once top Chancellor, plots and plots. Behind the mayhem and planetary jockeying, the mysterious Inventor pulls strings. The plot is invigoratingly complex, testimony to a master world builder in action. Hard-core science fiction like this can end up feeling frivolous. Not so this series, and The Heartless Hinds is already a highlight of 2022.

7½ by Christos Tsiolkas [6/10]

Christos Tsiolkas Seven and a Half review

Christos Tsiolkas is one of my heroes, a novelist of prodigious stylistic skills and immense courage. Even when his books baffle or thwart, I relish the reading experience. “” is one of his most left-field outings yet, a freewheeling mix of fiction writing, metafiction, nature writing, and memoir. Nothing much happens: a novelist, clearly the author, spends a few days at a self-imposed retreat on the Australian coastline, exulting in the natural world around him while sinking into powerful familial memories and sketching out a (familiarly Tsiolkian) novel about an ex-porn star. With a backdrop of our tumultuous Covid-beset, Trump-blighted and the narrator’s struggles with political engagement, the floating mix of strikingly lyrical “sinking into nature” scenes, the raw, sexually fervid recollections, and the glimpse of a writer writing via a work-in-progress … all this beguiled me without prying open my mind or heart. I would categorize as a fascinating byroad.

The Night Gate by Peter May [5/10]

Peter May The Night Gate review

Peter May is one of the most prolific novelists (mainly mysteries or thrillers) still working, and “The Night Gate” is the seventh in a series stretching back to 2006. Starring Enzo Macleod, a half-Scottish, half-Italian forensic scientist, my impression of the Enzo series is, unfortunately, one of a fine beginning with baffling plots and an engaging hero, declining steadily as a growing cast of extras drags down the action. After skipping numbers 5 and 6, I tried The Night Gate with high hopes. The author is an adept stylist and orchestrates scenes well, but the specific plot of The Night Gate, a twin-track historical-current unwinding, which revolves around Nazis chasing the Mona Lisa during WWII, quickly bored me. I guessed the twist ending. No doubt The Night Gate will be lapped up by Peter May’s loyal followers but I cannot recommend it as an entry point.

C’mon C’mon by Mike Mills [10/10]

C'mon C'mon review

While watching, transfixed, “C’mon C’mon,” I almost shouted “Who is Mike Mills and why have I not seen anything by him?” An American filmmaker with a huge reputation, this is his fourth full-length feature, and it’s a crime he is not better known. The instant the movie clocks on, you know this is an arthouse film: shot in black and white (Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is fluid and subtle, perfectly aligned); low-key dialogue; eclectic, even weird music; swift transitions between scenes; a willingness to dwell or pan out. The story is simple. Johnny, a radio journalist working with a small team to conduct oral interviews with the youth of America about their prospects, hopes, and dreams, comes to the aid of his sister Viv who needs to tend to her manic husband. Their nine-year-old son Jesse becomes Johnny’s charge, and as Viv’s burdens increase, uncle and nephew gradually get to know each other and embark on a road trip of sorts, the locale eventually changing to New Orleans. C’mon C’mon is very much a character study of those three, and the performances of Joaquin Phoenix (endearingly rumpled, earnest, and lost), Gaby Hoffmann (heroically part frazzled and enduring and intelligent), and, most of all, Woody Norman (screen role of the year, in my estimation, assured yet vulnerable, achingly present) are sublime. This reviewer’s stony heart was broken again and again, yet never by sentimentality, always by recognition of truth and love. Ah, enough, enough, go and see C’mon C’mon. I tag it as masterpiece.

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace by Michael Krepon [8/10]

Michael Krepon Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace review

Influential arms control practitioner and expert, and co-founder of the Stimson Center, Michael Krepon has now authored his life-defining masterpiece, “Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control.” At once a comprehensive history of nuclear arms control, a character-based blow-by-blow account of the epochal arms control agreements that have been struck, and a fervent plea for a return to formal negotiating with Russia (and now China), Krepon’s book will surely be required reading in universities for decades. Positioning arms control as the necessary partner of deterrence theory, the author makes a thoroughly convincing case for the efficacy and necessity for patient diplomacy (backed by wise leadership) to throttle the existential risk of nuclear warfare. The author is an engaging stylist who seems to have interviewed everyone possible, and he keeps a firm narrative grip on what is really an beguiling grand fable. Perhaps Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace is not for everyone—if you’ve never heard of START, you’ll need to concentrate—but anyone sinking into this absorbing, exciting, essential book will come out at the end both chastened (the ongoing risks!) and heartened (for heaven’s sake, Ronald Reagan is a hero!).

The Tourist by Harry & Jack Williams [8/10]

The Tourist review

A showcase for Jamie Dorman that is so much more, “The Tourist” is a kinetic mix of road thriller, amnesiac mystery, and rollicking humor. Dorman plays a slouchy Irishman, almost crushed to death by a mystery truck driver, who wakes up with no memory and an innate desire to discover the truth in the remote Australian outback. Filmed superbly by two brilliant cinematographers, the landscapes with towns connected by iconic dusty roads seem to be characters in their own rights. Dorman is not the only outstanding actor, either. Of special note is Danielle Macdonald, spot-on as a rookie policewoman of self-effacing character, who, despite herself, is sucked into pursuing and aiding the mystery man. All of the above—fine acting, evocative settings, and a classic mystery setup—would be nothing without a fizzing, clever plot, and Harry and Jack Williams deliver, combining twists and flashbacks and lunatic action into a web that delighted this viewer over six equally fabulous episodes. The Tourist gives itself few graces but is a splendid tale exuberantly told.

Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann [7/10]

Colum McCann Everything in This Country Must review

Colum McCann cannot write a stodgy paragraph and his latest offering, “Everything in this Country Must,” showcases his subtle, freighted prose. The author is a master at revealing without explicating, and here, over the course of a novella and short story, he portrays aspects of the Irish Troubles with sensitivity and grace. In the title novella, a teenage girl becomes enmeshed in the dramatic rescue of her Catholic father’s horse by boisterous, unthinking British solders. The two short stories also feature teenagers, one in exile with his mother while an uncle endures a hunger strike, the other helping his mother build poles for a Republican protest march while his crippled father sleeps. To my mind, the author is better suited to novels, as these shorter works cover little narrative ground and can underwhelm, but as always, the pleasure is in the lyricism.

The Insider by Matthew Richardson [7/10]

Matthew Richardson The Insider review

Spy fiction frustrates. Crowded with enthusiastic pretenders to the throne of Le Carre and Deighton, the genre rarely fulfils hopes for a genuinely rewarding plot coupled to uncliched characters (that is, spies who leap off the pages as real). All of this is preface to congratulating “The Insider” as a “classic” twisty Soviets-versus-Brits mole-in-the-middle adventure that weighs more than its plot. The author’s brilliant asset is Solomon Vine, a doughty, insomniac former spy recalled upon the murder of a London-based Russian oligarch who, known only to four top bureaucrats, had been a British asset. Can Vine track down the mole before national disaster? In framing the book’s central question as I have just done, I’m signaling that the plot is a fervid race against time from the Jason Bourne playbook, which would ordinarily turn a book cartoonish, but The Insider never feels less than solid, embodied in the figure of Vine, a natural spy gripped by love of intrigue. With a rollercoaster ending, The Insider snafu’d an evening of my life, and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Speed & Scale by John Doerr [9/10]

John Doerr Speed & Scale review

Prescriptions for the global climate crisis can inspire but they rarely impress with precision, so John Doerr’s “Speed & Scale: A Global Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now” is a timely, brilliantly conceived and superbly written treat. Doerr, who helms Kleiner Perkins, one of the world’s most successful venture capital firms, is one of my kind of folks, a paragon of planning and monitoring. His underpinning OKR methodology, the acryonym standing for Objectives tied to measurable Key Results, might seem better suited to a widget startup, but in Speed & Scale he manages to embrace the entire challenge of zeroing 59 gigawatts of carbon emissions by 2050, and to break it up into sectors and ancillary targets, in a way that even I, a climate action neophyte, could follow. Indeed the book offers wonderful coherence and understandability. I feared that Doerr would, like Bill Gates recently, focus excessively on the role of innovation, but he is balanced throughout, covering quite aptly the political actions needed to shut down all fossil fuel burning, the advocacy to motivate the huge changes required, and global equity, as well as, of course, the key roles of investment and invention. Speed & Scale is a must-read for every climate emergency activist keen for an action blueprint.