Sit Up Straight by Vinh Pham [7/10]

Vinh Pham Sit Up Straight review

Let’s get one matter out of the way. Vinh Pham is an American physio spruiking a business and catering for celebrities, and his new book, “Sit Up Straight: Futureproof Your Body Against Chronic Pain with 12 Simple Movements,” is partly a marketing tool. I found myself irritated by that aspect of the read. But fear not, reader, for Pham is also most generous with his teachings and advice. I try and incorporate up to an hour of stretches (handed down from a lifetime of physios addressing my structural maladies), so I’m naturally drawn to the author’s basic premise: “future proof” your body, especially your spine, by moving more and better, and specifically by toning up a holistic set of muscles, ligaments, and tendons. At one extreme, “movement is life,” the heading of one of Pham’s dozen chapters, is the core precept, and it is so, so apt. At the other extreme, Pham includes a dozen daily routines, in the chapter “The Posture Hygiene Plan,” timed for fifteen minutes (in practice, my initial trial took a bit longer), that are a goldmine for a receptive reader.

Structurally, the book is somewhat chaotic, but have patience. Sink in and explore. Take advantage of the advice and recommended routines in Sit Up Straight. Otherwise, dear reader, you may well find yourself in the hands of a physiotherapist prescribing something similar as cure.

Atoms and Ashes by Serhii Plokhy [8/10]

Serhii Plokhy Atoms and Ashes review

Chernobyl is one of the modern world’s “lest we forget” disasters, and in very recent times, two superlative historians wrote marvelous complementary histories of our worst nuclear power cataclysm. Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy, now at Harvard, penned an account unforgettably enriched by Ukrainian research in 2018, then in 2019 came journalist Adam Higginbotham’s vivid history. Now, apparently based on requests from readers asking “what about the other nuclear power crises?”, Serhii Plokhy has surveyed, from a historian’s perspective, our half dozen defining nuclear disasters. “Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima” tackles two accidents from the nuclear weapons world, Bikini Atoll in 1954 and Kyshtym in 1957, then cycles through England’s Windscale (oft overlooked) in 1956, America’s Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 (generously, the author does not just recycle his 2018 masterpiece but adds original material), and Japan’s Fukushima in 2011, Each chapter is a model of accuracy, depth, insight, and drama.

Atoms and Ashes is a bountiful cocktail that suits both the general reader and the student. It comes highly recommended.

Devil House by John Darnielle [7/10]

John Darnielle Devil House review

Fount of excellent indie band The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle startled the world with one of the most amazing debut novels, Wolf in White Van,” back in 2014. Mysterious, literate, human, it haunts me still. Follow-up Universal Harvester, in 2017, also intrigued. Plenty of hype built up for his new “Devil House,” and it is justly deserved. Somewhat misleadingly cast as a mashup of “gripping” storytelling and experimentation, it is fair to say the novel is much more the latter.

Revolving around the methods and ethics of an established true crime writer investigating an unsolved, mid-1980s “satanic” double homicide in a small town north of Los Angeles, the storyline begins conventionally but then veers into a strange medieval tale, a retelling (in the unusual second person present tense) of an earlier double killing, a letter from a victim’s mother, and in a final twist, the perspective of the writer’s childhood friend, covering the final write-up of the book and featuring a devious twist easily forecast by the reader. Darnielle is brilliant at conveying inner thoughts and locations, and is never rushed, so that the final result is an unapologetic, experimental discourse on the pleasures, pitfalls, and morality of true crime writing.

John Darnielle is a fascinating novelist indeed and Devil House only adds to his growing reputation.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel [8/10]

James Kestrel Five Decembers review

Five Decembers” has just won the Edgar Award and within a few pages of the start, one can see why. Author James Kestrel (a pseudonym) writes in commanding prose that places the reader in the depths of every scene. Always in control, never in a rush to progress a plot. In December 1941, Hawaii detective Joe McGrady, his mind full of love, is dispatched to a gruesome murder scene. Before long he is on a plane to Guam and thence to Tokyo, just as World War II comes to Asia. Beginning as a straightforward police procedural, the novel morphs into a wartime hell chronicle, before emerging postwar into a tale of revenge and justice. McGrady is a superb hero, resolute, practical, yet full of yearning. With its expanding canvas and its Cormac-McCarthy-style thematic backdrop and its stylistic surety, Five Decembers is a worthy award winner and will surely surface in the year’s lists.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters [5/10]

Torrey Peters Detransition Baby review

In “Detransition, Baby: A Novel,” Reese, a trans woman who longs to raise a child, is asked by her ex, Amy, who is now Ames, a detransitioned man, to consider a complicated three-way family arrangement to bring up the upcoming baby of Katrina, Ames’s girlfriend and a cis woman. The novel is a wonderfully complex hybrid of a relationship drama and a roaring polemic on the trials of modern trans people, and it’s the latter aspect that makes for a fascinating read, especially for someone like me who longs for a world with full rights for and acceptance of the LGBTQ community, but who has only a shallow knowledge of it. The author accorded me a gratefully absorbed education. The underlying story, of the complex motivations of the key three people and their evolving reactions to Katrina’s approaching birth, was, I consider, less successful. The information dump, interesting as it is, overwhelms any plotline, so that, despite the author’s best efforts to skillfully inject humor and drama, the end result feels like a series of investigative journalism pieces enlivened by modern narrative techniques. Of all the three characters, Ames/Amy is the one who comes closest to springing to life on the page. The plot itself is enjoyable if thin. The dialogue collapses under the need to pontificate. Overall, Detransition, Baby is an enjoyable read but more for content than style or story.

Total Control Season 2 [9/10]

Total Control Season 2 review

Deborah Mailman is one of the most powerful actors in Australia, maybe the world, and when she and Rachel Griffiths (herself a superb performer) and Miranda Dear came up with the idea of an indigenous woman suddenly at the heart of Australia’s poisonous prty political system at a time of razor-thin electoral margins, the idea was a winner but only if execution was sure-footed and dramatic. Well, “Total Control” is an out-and-out blast of top-class moviemaking. The storyline over its two seasons is amped up enough to be called thrilling, yet nothing is over-egged to point of silliness (as our recent election has demonstrated). Mailman is superb as Alex Irving, a fiery new Senator from remote Winton in New South Wales, an incendiary role played to the hilt. Griffiths is equally unforgettable as Rachel Anderson, former Prime Minister (in Season 1) now standing as an independent (as is Irving). Standout supporting actors from a terrific cast include William McInnes as oily leader of the Labor Party and Wesley Patten as Irving’s teenage son. Drones help cinematographer Garry Phillips present a sparkling array of Australia’s varying landscapes and cityscapes. The script is fast, tight, and full of moments of tension, pathos, and triumph. I cannot recommend Total Control enough, and it is hard to imagine any Australian production to best it in 2022 (Season 2 kicked off in November last year). A must-see!

Meltdown: Three Mile Island [8/10]

Meltdown Three Mile Island review

It’s a hard ask to cover the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor disaster with fresh material but “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” a four-part documentary series, does so authoritatively by nabbing a great set of talking heads who were there, by spending a lot of time with ordinary citizens present on the day, and by anchoring the storyline around the tale of Rick Parks, elsewhere in 1979 but a whistleblower on the remediation/decommission activities over ensuing years. Throw in a careful timeline reconstruction, tactical use of actors recreating control room scenes, and a tight, artful script, and this doco could well end up being a university staple intro. Not much new is added to the historic record, and I know pro-nuclear folks will argue with the tenor of it, but I find it to be rather scrupulous with the facts. In fact, it almost understates the drama of the darkest moments of the saga. I particularly enjoyed how neatly director Kief Davidson melded archival reportage, acted scenes, and the various witnesses’ recollections. Meltdown: Three Mile Island is a must-watch documentary on the disaster (financial, not physical) that changed the arc of a technology.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller [6/10]

Miranda Cowley Heller The Paper Palace review

A novel of set-piece scenes involving two families with longstanding connections, plus flashbacks, “The Paper Palace” turns its pages effortlessly, with the author being particularly agile with hectic dialogue. I can’t fault the artful scenes. But the story—a woman having to choose between her longest-lived love and her equally loved husband—veers dangerously close to sentimental romance cliché. Even the nominally harrowing flashback scenes involving abuse seem artificially grafted onto a seemingly never-ending “will she, won’t she” seesaw. The central narrator, the alluring yet secretive Elle, is sharply drawn with the aid of a close-up present-tense first-person voice, but the two male characters remain constructs. Elle’s mother is a crucial secondary character but never cohered to me. All up, The Paper Palace is a sprightly read that many readers may enjoy, but, at least to this reviewer, is quickly forgotten.

Anatomy of a Scandal [5/10]

Anatomy of a Scandal review

Netflix seems awash with competent thriller series like “Anatomy of a Scandal,” a six-parter based on a bestselling novel. This one concerns a handsome, uber-high-flying British politician (cast well in Rupert Friend and competently acted out) who is accused of rape, the plot swirling around the pollie and his pretty wife (Sienna Miller does a reasonable job), and the phenomenally savage prosecuting lawyer (a standout role from Michelle Dockery). No spoilers here, but the slow build-up over the first few episodes devolves into a savage plot twist that, frankly, elicits disbelief. The courtroom scenes are sharply directed but much else is a drifting mélange. Anatomy of a Scandal is not shockingly poor, just an average watchable show that I mildly enjoyed but then dismissed when the final credits rolled.

2022 Top 10 Shows/Movies halfway through the year

2022Top 10 Shows Movies so far

As was the case last year, the last six months of viewing (movies and streaming shows) blessed me with more stellar experiences than my half year of reading. That doesn’t mean viewing eclipsed reading overall, for I’m seeing a tailing off of the “golden age of streaming shows/movies,” with Netflix in particular reverting to mostly average or below-average fodder. But the best shows and movies across the many streamers and the cinemas were exceptional. Five dramas, four thrillers, and one comedy, and three of them rated at the perfect score of 10/10. Sink in, dear viewer, sink in.

The links below take you to my review.

The standout screening this year has been Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon (10/10), which I’ve seen twice with a third time to come. Two outstanding acting performances and an engrossing, human, existential tale. A masterpiece.

Released with far greater fanfare but also highly individualistic was Belfast (10/10), a stunning tale of The Troubles written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. An ode to a city, a coming-of-age drama, and much more.

Another perfect show: Station Eleven (10/10) based on the wonderfully plotted and peopled novel by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a patient ten-parter that should be lovingly embraced not binged.

Douglas Henshall’s career best performance in the sixth season of Shetland (9/10) is more than enough reason to savor the six episodes.

And what a hoot to view the ten episodes of The Lincoln Lawyer (9/10), perfect courtroom thriller fodder.

Ditto for the quirky-as-shit comedy-drama series of Only Murders in the Building (9/10). Wonderfully acted and smart as hell.

CODA (8/10) is the kind of sentimental Mighty-Ducks-style movie that should not work. But it does and that’s due to both the acting and the resonant script.

“A splendid tale exuberantly told,” an “amnesiac in jeopardy” thriller set in magnificently filmed Australian outback locations, The Tourist (8/10)is six episodes of joy.

Another Australian drama series but a multi-family drama of great depth and wonderful acting, the second season of Bump (8/10) is as splendid as the first.

Last but definitely not least, if you haven’t discovered the stellar, rollicking, literary spy thriller Jackson Lamb series of Mick Herron, you can instead binge on the six atmospheric episodes of the first season of Slow Horses (8/10).