How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil [7/10]

Vaclav Smil How the World Really Works review

Vaclav Smil is one of the most prolific “energy for every person” educators around, his works over the past two decades building on each other to “How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future.” In a sense, this is his magnum opus, his summary of the world of the 2020s and how to approach humanity’s fraught future. Smil is a squirrel of measurable, describable facts about humankind’s technological and energy-related passage over the centuries. His scorn for both climate crisis advocates for fast, global change and for techno miracle cure purveyors, a scabrous grumbling throughout the book, is both useful (we need to be grounded in real numbers) and ultimately diminishing (his contempt for some notions sounds more curmudgeonly than analytical). Grumpiness notwithstanding, Smil’s insistence on data and numbers and logic is a bracing benefit for all of us seeking to discern our current predicament and a future response to it. A bonus of How the World Really Works is that the author is an entertaining, nimble writer, so that the book is never dull. Recommended.

When We Fall by Aoife Clifford [6/10]

Aiofe Clifford When We Fall review

A dominant strand of Australian crime fiction is the small town mystery, in which a hero returns to uncover dark secrets and exact justice. In “When We Fall,” city lawyer Alex is back in her sleepy, wind-smashed coastal hometown ( suspect it is in Tasmania), to care for her mother, increasingly lost in dementia. When she stumbles on a beachside body, somehow linked to an earlier one, Alex dons the mantle of amateur investigator. Very much a classic crime fiction entry, When We Fall is packed to the brim with suspects, red herrings, and final twists. The author is a smooth, immersive stylist and although the frenetic plot somehow runs low on tension toward the end, When We Fall packages a satisfying comfortable read.

Bridgerton Season 2 [6/10]

Bridgerton Season 2 review

The first season of “Bridgerton” was over-the-top ludicrous, shallow, and cliched, yet I found it to be a fast-paced diversion with considerable eclat. It will not surprise you to learn that Season 2 is exactly the same. Now we watch the second of the populous Bridgerton clan (we are, it seems, destined for a season to drop every year for a decade), Anthony, calculatingly strivs to wed a pretty Indian woman while reluctantly subsiding into love for his fiancée’s sister. Even more so than Season I, the plot backbone is a classic romance one, and every standard plot device from the romance genre is unfurled. Luckily, the engaging subplot of Lady Whistledown, an anonymous gossip purveyor, has carried over and certainly offers relief from the saccharine tedium. Jonathan Bailey and Kate Ashley, perfectly cast, sparkle in their key roles, and the large supporting cast remains strong. As in Season 1, half the scenes of Bridgerton’s return season set one cringing; luckily the other half work as fizzy eye candy.

Interceptor by Matthew Reilly [7/10]

Interceptor review

Matthew Reilly, the Australian thriller writer who reinvented thrillers by taking out the boring bits…I stopped reading his books after chapters ended with killer sharks crashing through walls but I have always admired his resolve, his scenic composition chops, and his never-ending instinct to escalate a plot. Well, his first film as director (and co-writer), “Interceptor,” exactly met my expectations. The plot is suitably comic book: a female officer aboard an offshore platform that intercepts Russian nuclear ballistic missiles has to battle seemingly unstoppable traitorous forces helmed by a redoubtable villain, against the clock, the penalty being 300 millions American deaths. Elsa Pataky plays the hero in a bravado performance that is equally wooden and spot on; Luke Bracey matches her capabilities as the terrorist. Action scenes are the crux and they are choreographed like classical ballet.

My tone no doubt conveys disparagement but I found the entire film refreshingly basic, elemental, and satisfying in the sense (a very male one, no doubt) of providing an hour and a half of battle hijinks that pleasurably reminded me of my thrill of discovering the Alastair Maclean thrillers as a youth. Expect no more and you too will lap up Interceptor like delectable popcorn.

Put Your Ass (Where Your Heart Wants to Be) by Steven Pressfield [8/10]

Steven Pressfield is a phenomenon, a highly talented writer (with a compendiously varied oeuvre) and an exceedingly spirited and effective nonfiction author in the “self-help for creatives” genre. If you are a creative person, especially if you are a writer, any of his books can strike a strong chord with your calling, and “Put Your Ass (Where Your Heart Wants to Be)” is no exception. Culled and adapted from a series of blog posts on the most basic question one faces in creative life—how can I motivate myself, day in, day out?—this book might or might not aid you. In my case, it saved me (as did a couple of his similar books). After a health scare, I was motivated to push on with writing but lacked pep. Reading exhortation such as “There is no other time. Today is the Superbowl. Today is the day I give birth. Today is the day I die” set me up for sustained effort. And Pressfield is no mere Anthony Robbins, full of blather, he proffers wise anecdotes and considered strategies. For the select audience of people like me, I can think of no better helper right now than Put Your Ass (Where Your Heart Wants to Be).

The Spy’s Wife by Fiona McIntosh [3/10]

Fiona McIntosh The Spy's Wife review

Of course reading is highly individualistic. Of course all of us prefer this or that “type of book” (call it a genre, if you like). My reading tastes extend to many genres but I was warned, when I took up “The Spy’s Wife,” by the coy pink flowers hanging upside down in one corner of the book’s back cover. The pretty girl with windswept, coiffured hair leaning out of a train window on the front cover was another clue. The Spy’s Wife is part of a widespread genre halfway between formulaic romance and harder-edged “general women’s fiction.” Sure enough, the enticing overall plotline—in the late 30s, a northern English widow falls for a German man and ends up throwing herself into espionage in Nazi Germany to attempt to save him—is belied by plain prose, explanatory dialogue, and an unrealistic plot.

In its favor, The Spy’s Wife is easily knocked over in a few hours and for those of you who adore this genre, it may well be a winner.

The Forgiven [5/10]

The Forgiven review

Based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, “The Forgiven” is sumptuously shot in Morocco, where a decadent party is being held in an American’s posh villa. David, a drunk self-contemptuous surgeon (played with biting force and growing poignancy by Ralph Fiennes), is driving to the festivities, with his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain is given little to work with), through the desert in the dark, when they hit a Moroccan teenager and kill him. The film then morphs into a morality portrait, when the boy’s ancient father arrives to retrieve the body. The Forgiven presents as two interwoven halves; in one, David journeys to find himself through his haze of privilege; in the other, writer-director revels in portraying loathsome morons behaving in repellent ways. The trouble is, the second portion contains no narrative tension at all, is just a backdrop that quickly grows tedious for the viewer. This could have been a fine film but ends up as an unsatisfying mixed bag.

Still Life by Sarah Winman [7/10]

Sarah Winman Still Life review

What an exuberant, spattering style British novelist Sarah Winman employs! Every scene is seemingly narrated by a jaundiced yet sentimental rhapsodist. Dialogue sparkles, time passes in unequal chunks, and extravagant characters abrade. For me at least, that means her books both enthrall and distance. Scenes captivate or scenes flabbergast. So it is with her fourth novel, “Still Life,” a sprawling novel around war’s residues, a love of Florence, London’s East End, the influence of art, the construction of families, and the mysteries of love. A cast of characters (and I use that phrase advisedly, one can imagine a swirling roster of actors) spans WWII to the 1970s, including a stolid, loving solder; a lesbian art afficionado; an independent Englishwomen; an eccentric man; and a parrot(!).

Still Life has all of the above going for it and if you are a Sarah Winman fan, or can recognize this form of extravagant saga-making, it will surely delight. For me, as mentioned at the outset, the outsized prose and the risky plotline zig-zags left me attached to the central hero but none of the other characters. Nonetheless, a bounteous read.

Where the Crawdads Sing [6/10]

Where the Crawdads Sing review

Where the Crawdads Sing” is a competent if uninspiring filmic version of Delia Owens’s captivating bestseller. The tale of an abandoned “marsh girl” who grows up alone in the wetlands and swamps of North Carolina, ending up in court on a murder charge, was notable in its book form for exquisite descriptions of nature, and that, at least, has been lovingly captured in the movie (albeit to the sound of the sappiest music score I can recall in years). Daisy Edgar-Jones is cast well as the shy recluse growing into a woman but the portrayal suffers from inconsistencies in the script. Aspects that the book covered well, such as the girl’s transition into a published author/illustrator, are mucked up in the movie. The two male leads are earnest but unconvincing. Overall, Where the Crawdads Sing made me cringe over its first half but went some way toward redemption with a rousing courtroom resolution (although the epilogue felt tacked on). Enjoyable but hokey.

Runaway by Erin Keene [7/10]

Erin Keane Runaway review

An editor at Salon, with an expansive yet forensic style, Erin Keane explores her mysterious parents and her upbringing in a sprightly, relevant memoir, “Runaway: Notes on the Myths that Made Me.” Her mother ran away for the first time at the age of 13. It was 1970, just after the peak of flower power. I was fifteen years old then and longed, some days, to run away, but I was dutiful and never did. Erin Keene’s mother did and over the next two years survived and flourished in America’s cities. Then at age fifteen, she married a thirty-six-year-old man, Erin’s father. The father died when the daughter was five and she grew up among family secrets and myths. Runaway digs into the past while interrogating the cultural props the author employed during her youth, interrogating, for example, the movie Manhattan reviewed after the revelations of #MeToo, and The Gilmore Girls.

Yes, Runaway retells her familial story but it also shines a light on the most ancient of questions: who tells our stories and why and how? Heartily recommended.