Set in Berlin just as the Wall was coming down in 1989, “The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin” has a classic plotline made for those in the John le Carré tradition, a plotline tightly unwound in a gripping manner. When the piano tuner husband of an American translator vanishes, she discovers he was an East German agent runner. What’s more, by dint of good luck, she ends up being the key to tracking down his handler, a super spy, and what began as a tragedy quickly morphs into a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse thriller. Paul Vidich is a stylist with skills a cut above the regular modern spy thriller aspirant, and the plot, characterization, and end-of-Cold-War atmospherics are superb. The Matchmaker is the author’s fifth spy thriller outing and I’ll be reaching into his back catalogue, so impressed was I by this intelligent yet gripping novel.
Adrian McKinty has always been revered by crime fiction aficionados for bringing touches of literary styling, and great intelligence, to superior genre plots. Then he became famous for the brilliant thriller, The Chain (my review), and now, with “The Island,” he seems set for thriller stardom. Drawing on his time in Melbourne, McKinty brings a slab of Deliverance to the Victorian coastline, imagining a tiny island dominated by a redneck family. When a family of four impulsively ferries across, tragedy strikes and suddenly meek Rachel faces down existential crisis after crisis, as she strives to keep them all alive against the odds. As I said, McKinty is an inspired plotter, twisting events into skeins at once logical and unexpected. The pace is breakneck, the writing is pitch-perfect, and the climax is fraught. The Island is a humdinger thriller, snap it up.
“Fight Night” is my belated introduction to the brilliance of Canadian nine-novel-strong author Miriam Toews, and what an intro it is. Told from the pen of eight-year-old Swiv, a girl of wide-ranging mind and little tolerance for cant, the novel is a breathless journey over days of decline of her ailing, magnificent Grandma and final days of pregnancy of Mom, herself a volatile package. Swiv is suspended from school and is a beguiling mix of utter cynic and devotee of her mother and grandmother. The days are a blur of regular activity, until Grandma spontaneously books a flight from Toronto to California, and Swiv accompanies her on a chaotic journey of last rites. And the end approaches … The author is an utterly immersive stylist, forcing this reader to fall quite in love with brave young Swiv, and toward the end, the tension is as fierce as with a thriller. Fight Night is a blast of high-octane literary fiction that brings the essence of life into our hearts.
“Black Cake” is an exuberant panorama of tale after tale of tragedy, immigration, love, and secrets. Byron and Benny, either estranged or disconnected from their mother Eleanor, are stunned when after Eleanor’s death in California, her taped message to them unfurls barely creditable revelation after revelation. Ranging over decades and from a Caribbean island to England to America, this is a classic storyline wrought from seemingly neverending character stories of stupefying (to this reader) complexity. The author spills forth scenes of seeming virtuosity but over the course of the novel, the central characters discard all readerly identification, swamped by the multitude of hoary documentary-style biographies. I sense that many readers may enjoy the tapestry of fated lives, revolving around the recipe of the “black cake,” but this reader found Black Cake to be a modestly enjoyable yawn.
An oddity in the rock/pop pantheon, Belle and Sebastian are quintessentially British in a very modern but regressive way, bouncy yet plaintive, quotidian in lyrics but also profound (bandleader and singer Stuart Murdoch is a Buddhist), straddling genres in the same way that Mike Scott does. “A Bit of Previous,” their tenth and first in seven years, was apparently recorded fully in their native Glasgow, thanks to Covid, and perhaps that explains a pleasing unity to the album’s dozen songs. Skating all over the place amongst their varied influences, the music ranges from violin-led folk, to synth-pop, to pastoral. Murdoch’s lyrical concerns are, as ever, razor-sharp yet thrillingly domestic. There’s nary a dud track on “A Bit of Previous” and if you’ve shied away from the quirkiness, it is a wonderful entry point to the band. Check out the lovely violin intro over a bouncy beat on “Young and Stupid,” delighting in its ridiculously melodic chorus; the deep, beautiful choir backing vocals at the end of the band’s paean to survival, “If They’re Shooting at You”; and Sarah Martin’s sweet-but-angry vocals on the rageful “Reclaim the Night.”
Arcade Fire is a wonderfully strange band, a capable ensemble band revolving around Win Butler, a brilliant songwriter who is also instantly recognizable when singing. Combining elements of alt rock, pomp rock, and synth-pop, it retains cult status. Call it sensitive, theme-based music writ large in front of stadiums. If you are an Arcade Fire fan, you cry with their songs, songs that talk of existential threats and questions, of apartness and togetherness. The last couple of albums have seemed weighed down by themes and over-baroque musical clamour, but “We,” their sixth album, dropped a half decade after the last one, is simply superb, quite as fine as their classics, The Suburbs and Neon Bible. Butler’s songwriting tackles social media, modern anxiety, our desire for transcendence, and much more. The songs, none of them excessively long for once, burst with imagination and melody, and Butler’s voice, after all this time, still shifts something inside me. Highlights include “Age of Anxiety I,” with its winning, repeated chorus; the full-synth earworm “Lightning I & II”; and the quintessential Arcade-Fire-vibe of “Rabbit Hole.” We is my top listen for this year so far, hands down.
After reading Michael Ridpath’s wonderful thrillers set in the financial world, a quarter century ago, I lost track of him until I chanced upon the engaging Launch Code (my review) and then last year’s The Diplomat’s Wife (my review). Now comes “Death in Dalvik,” Book 6 in his Magnus series about an Icelandic murder detective who goes to America and returns as man of hybrid cultures. Entering a series after missing five books can make life tricky but I need not have feared. From the get-go, I knew was in able hands. Magnus is instantly likeable, instantly seen as dogged, intelligent, and moral. The most amazing feature of this outing is that Death in Dalvik, presciently, is all about bitcoins and cryptocurrency, and reaches into the heart of the massive meltdown of all cryptocurrencies unfolding right now. When a nineteen-year-old student from a coastal Icelandic village is gifted a few bitcoin, she in turn passes bitcoin to her mother to save the family farm, and her mother infects the area with cryptocurrency mania. When the mother is savagely murdered. Inspector Magnus Jonson seeks his murderer even as a local cryptocurrency crisis rocks the community. Ridpath is a smooth, adept stylist who brings the strange beauty of Iceland alive. A great strength is a gradual and skillful introduction to the arcane world of cryptocurrencies. The plot rockets along. Death in Dalvik is impressive, reminding me that I must find a beach on which to devour the earlier books.
William Shaw, an English writer and journalist, has written series mysteries and a standalone, none of which I have read, regrettably it now turns out. For “Dead Rich,” a propulsive, old-style adventure story cum thriller, written as G.W. Shaw, is an energetic, superbly crafted treat. Commencing on one of those superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs (a wonderful prescient twist, given recent real-world events), and mostly taking place at sea, a terrain evocatively described, it’s a tale centered around a personable, drifting ex-DJ-star and the ship’s second-in-charge, a capable, loner woman. The plot launches from a defenestration death in London to a battle against what seems like a crew of sea pirates, in the company of the oligarch and his family, and races nonstop, never growing tired or failing to find a new twist. The author’s prose is delightfully supple, always sharp and never slow. Before setting off with Dead Rich, make sure you have a few hours ahead of you, for this is one of the few books in 2022 so far that cannot be put down. Call me old but I was reminded of Alastair Maclean!
“Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More than Ever” is a rambling, intriguing investigation into the notion of adopting a carbon footprint in line with +1.5C, ranging over the many complexities of measurement, allocation, and achievability. An architect by trade and a teacher in sustainable design and a prolific carbon crisis writer, Canadian Lloyd Alter does not really offer a neophyte a prescription on how to fulfil the book’s title, but rather he addresses the relatively educated concerned citizen with a far-ranging discussion into issues such as personal versus collective action; embodied carbon; the subtleties of aiming for a low-carbon living/commuting environment; and the now-long debated notion, explored by many designers, of sufficiency as preferable to either fully electrified or rendered efficient via technology. In the end, Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle settled nothing in my muddled thinking on the subject, but I recommend it to anyone commencing detailed exploration.
Beach House, a Baltimore duo, might sound superficially frothy but repeated listens have always revealed sweet, sweet combinations of dream-pop or synth or folk-pop arrangements overlaid by Victoria LeGrand’s slithering, invasive, sweet vocals. “Once Twice Melody” is at once a grand creation—eighteen tracks, three years in the making, released in four tranches—and a blur of Beach-House-y bubbliness. Unlike a couple of earlier albums with clear killer tracks, here there is a unity of sound and purpose, both creepily soothing and numbing. Once Twice Melody is the perfect post-pandemic floater. Standout tracks include the chugging sugar of “New Romance,” with its Tangerine-Dream-like rondo background; the stately, swirling closer, “Modern Love Stories”; and the inviting ooze of “Another Go Around.”