Irish crime writer Dervla McTiernan burst onto the scene with 2018’s claustrophobic, clever The Ruin, and she has kept to an annual release schedule since. “The Murder Rule” is a diabolically clever combination of courtroom drama, procedural mystery, and revenge thriller, and it hangs on a humdinger of a hook: what if someone joins the Innocence Project, dedicated to freeing longstanding wrongly convicted murderers, with the aim of vengeance not freedom (I’m not offering a spoiler here, the novel’s blurb says just that). Law student Hannah blackmails herself onto the University of Virginia’s classic team of crusaders and the author gradually reveals the hidden story of her motives. McTiernan is superb at unraveling the plot, which explores two old crimes in forensic detail, and the evidence-gathering plotlines are plotted well. Hannah is an engaging protagonist and all the other characters mesh in well. Toward the end, courtroom scenes introduce an almost Perry-Mason-ish atmosphere, I suspect most readers will not be able to put the book down. My only final quibble was a denouement, after clever twists, that felt emotionally untrue, but I do very much recommend The Murder Rule.
A writer who also reads books to others, I’m woefully inadequate as raconteur, speechifier and improviser. Hence I was immediately drawn to “The Art of the Tale: Engage Your Audience, Elevate Your Organization, and Share Your Message Through Storytelling,” written by Steven James, prolific thriller novelist, writing teacher, and speechmaking consultant, coequally with Tom Morrisey, a similarly prolific writer in nonfiction genres, plus a teacher/consultant. In this book, they address how to “tell a story,” which mostly means standing in front of an audience to recount a tale or present something to sell or entertain. As such, the “tale” they instruct upon is less the grand narrative and more the quick or shaggy dog story. The two authors write alternate chapters, interposing with asides on each others’ teachings, and both are, as one would hope, wonderfully intelligent and focused instructors. They move from the basics of “story” through to the nuts and bolts of preparing, administering, and excelling at the nine-minute (or whatever length) spoken address. I found every chapter to be strangely apposite for my own long-form writing. Peppered with dozens of apt case studies, The Art of the Tale should be required reading for anyone wishing to communicate via story or needing to speak in public.
Very Australian, quirky as all heck, and wonderfully authentic, “Bump” is now two seasons long. The first season was especially compelling, introducing the fascinating premise of Year 11 student Oli (flawlessly portrayed by Nathalie Morris), completely unaware she is pregnant, delivering a baby at school. Her struggles to come to grips with this bombshell, amidst the dramas of two families notable for turmoil and drama, occupy the first season’s story arc, and it’s a breathtaking journey. In Season 2, Oly and (spoiler alert if you haven’t watched Season 1) Santi, her down-to-earth one night stand or boyfriend or partner (he comes across as all of these at various points) settle into forging a life with their baby while growing up. (By the way, Santi is also brilliantly portrayed, by Carlos Sanson Jnr.) This season’s canvas expands to flesh out the subplots of Oly’s and Santi’s roiling families and their diverse friends, and by the end of the season, there is a sense of the series settling into a family saga. (As another aside, the star turn here is from cowriter Claudia Karvan, compelling as Oly’s wise but all-too-human mother.) Season 2 felt simultaneously warmly welcoming and narratively fresh, and is also heartily recommended, if not quite as startling as the opener. Bump seems destined for a third season; let us hope it resists slumping into soapie territory.
Drivetime radio star Kate Langbroek took the big leap in 2019 and moved her family of six to Bologna, a jump into the unknown predicated on a sudden infatuation with the food, culture, and society of Italy. “Ciao Bella!: Six Take Italy” is her story of two years immersed in Italy, part travelogue, part family memoir, part ode to la dolce vita. With the Coronavirus unleashed nearby in 2020, the story takes on dark overtones, and that year tests the entire family. Travel memoirs require evocative writing or extreme drama, and time in northern Italy was never going to involve the latter, so the book revolves around the author’s amusing, passionate rendering of events that otherwise might be labeled as prosaic. While Ciao Bella will never trump Barry Lopez or Colin Thubron, I found it to be a sassy and often wise discourse on everyday life in transplanted circumstance, and also, of course, a glimpse into the secrets of Italy.
Graeme Simsion was no instant success; not until his fifties did he produce the wildly successful rom-com novel The Rosie Project, which he then followed up with two sequels, another comedy, and then two hiking-based, romantic novels together with his wife. “The Novel Project: A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Novel, Memoir or Biography” distils his writing methodology for posterity and other writing aspirants, and what is fascinating about this book is that he spends more time planning and plotting his novels than he does writing them, at least in terms of elapsed time. Employing ideas from scriptwriting (the field he entered first), he spends a long time developing the guts of a novel, in terms of themes, characters, and plot arcs, before working hard on scenes/beats using easy-to-reorder index cards. The actual drafting is a sustained, short-lived process, following which he edits and reworks, edits and reworks, polishing assiduously. It’s an eminently logical process and one that appeals mightily to me, so I found the entire book hugely rewarding. Simsion is a stylish, flowing writer, and the book is full of easygoing candor and humor. A fan of how-to-write books, I rarely judge any of them to be freshly worthwhile. The Novel Project is a wonderful exception and is heartily recommended for anyone longing to craft a novel (or indeed, as the title promises, a memoir or biography).
“Extra Innings” offered beguiling viewing in its early scenes, as we come to know teen David in Brooklyn in the 60s, passionate about baseball against the wishes of his devout Syrian Jewish family. Aidan Pierce Brennan is brilliant as David, coping with both familial barriers and the looming tragic presence of his older, psychologically troubled brother. But this promising start is squandered by a second half, covering David’s move to California to tilt at a professional baseball career. Haunted by a family tragedy and riven by his family’s lack of interest in his vocation, the stage was set for a resounding narrative and conclusion. But lackluster casting and acting, with the actors hamstrung by a plotline that peters out, fail to match the atmospheric milieu of the flower power era. I left the cinema troubled by a real sense of failed ambition. Extra Innings retains interest throughout but interest does not a drama make.
Why is justly praised thriller writer Robert Harris so badly adapted to film? “The Fear Index” is the second Harris adaptation I’ve watched this year (in a review, I rated Munich as 5/10) and I am so disappointed. As a screen adaptation of four episodes, it is a mess that retains some of the book’s excitement but dashes the viewing experience on rocks of lackluster casting and clumsy scripting. Harris’s 2011 novel was a thumping thriller exploring the leading-edge investment frontier of computerization, both fascinating and packed with adventure. The screen season began well enough, with our hero, the geeky founder of a firm using computer algorithms to amass data and analyze investment opportunities, attacked in his luxury home and then baffled by a dizzying escalation of strange threats. The first two episodes captured what I recalled of the book, the orchestrated thrills and the imparting of information about a strange human world, although even then it was clear that the appealingly drawn intellectual of the book had morphed onscreen into a histrionic dodo of wooden emotions. But midway through, the entire exercise turned into a pointless blur of half-decent actors eking out a plotline that captured a fraction of the richness of the novel. In the book, the climax is sound and fury and catharsis; onscreen, the climax is clumsy and inauthentic. If you are fascinated by the investment world, by all means view The Fear Index; the premise is wonderful. But as drama, it falls short of any recommendation threshold.
Historian Andrew Leatherbarrow does not lack for courage. After tackling the calamity that was Chernobyl 01:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster in 2016, now he wrestles with “Melting Sun: The History of Nuclear Power in Japan, and the Disaster at Fukushima Daiichi.” As with his previous book, Leatherbarrow’s forte is meticulous assemblage of publicly available date, which for Fukushima must have been daunting, so analyzed and dissected has the 2011 disaster been. Patiently he walks through the post-WWII development of nuclear energy in Japan, up to construction of and operation of the six-reactor power plant on the east coast, then plunges the reader into a hour-by-hour exposition of the calamity, during which three of the reactors melted down. I have read all the accounts of those fraught days and they fall between two extremes, the technical unwinding of the accident and the dramatization of the terror-ridden moments. Melting Sun straddles both angles, being both meticulous on the nuts and bolts, and driven by the storyline. As such, this version might not quite suit the geek out to comprehend or the nonfiction devotee seeking atmosphere, but if you are in the large middle audience wanting to relive but also learn, it could be your one stop shop to all that is Fukushima Daiichi. A treat and most accomplished.
Amidst a boom in indie-published UK crime fiction of high quality, Andrew Lowe’s series featuring homicide cop Jake Sawyer ranks at the apex. Sawyer is a mythically appealing protagonist, super smart yet unconventional, a martial arts devotee yet wracked by traumas from a terrible family past. In “Cruel Summer,” the seventh in the series, our hero finds himself seconded, after barely escaping sacking in his Peak District domicile, to London, to assist the Met with a baffling series of truly horrific murders. The author is a superb stylist, fluid, pacey, and atmospheric, with an ear for sharp dialogue, and in this book is at the height of his prowess. The book powers along relentlessly and the denouement is a wonderment of adept wrap-up. Throughout this main plot trickles a subplot of various groupings of evildoers intent on bringing Sawyer down, a continuing thread in the series, and at least in this novel, this diversions feels a little like that, a diversion, but I take it on trust that in the next volume or so, all will intersect gratifyingly. Cruel Summer is a rocket of a mystery, best consumed in one armchair sitting.
Primarily intended for an academic/policy wonk audience, “Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation” is a stunning surprise. Books on proliferation, arms control, etc., are by definition dense with facts and analysis, yet Vipin Narang, an MIT political scientist, cuts through the thicket with stark, clear prose laced with insight, to the point where I believe some general readers would benefit from diving in. This terrain is crowded with analysts seeking to understand why certain countries (beyond the original quintet of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China) have pursued nuclear weapons, sometimes to the point of becoming irrevocably nuclear-armed (here we’re talking about India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea), more often turning around (or being turned around) before then. Narang’s brilliant idea is to conceptualize not WHY but HOW, that is, what strategies were (or are) being employed. He deftly distinguishes between hedging, sprinting, sheltered pursuit, and hiding, and anyone familiar with proliferation will immediately be able to line up bomb pursuers and those four labels. Narang unfolds a multi-factorial blueprint for why some states pursue one acquisition strategy, while others proceed differently, and mostly his theory seems borne out in history. More importantly from my perspective, this work on understanding HOW then sharpens our understanding of WHY. The case studies analyzed, in depth but with great clarity, are brilliantly presented, with just the right mix of detail or summation. All in all, Seeking the Bomb is an indispensable tool for us to ensure that the number of nuclear weapons states never enters double figures.