The Untaken Path by Frank Kennedy [8/10]

Frank The Untaken Path review

I can think of few hard science-fiction authors as ambitious as Frank Kennedy, who with ”The Untaken Path” has woven seven books of space operatic magic (the series is called Beyond the Impossible) . And he is not done yet. The series’ plotline has twisted and caromed, ever expanding within an empire of space into alternative universes, and there has not been a moment when the author has not been firmly in control. A truly impressive cast of characters, some as reprehensible as anything in Game of Thrones, has variously been featured in the first six books, and now in The Untaken Path, they all come together, humans and immortals who waged bloody war against each other but now must unite against an even greater danger. The book features a wonderfully realized interstellar unifying conference, its politics as intelligently presented as anything by John Scalzi or Arkady Martine. And in a twist weirder than any yet in the series, yet credibly presented, one of the series’ most memorable characters, the immortal, savage, irascible Royal, finds himself in a world-out-of-time at the center of the universe, playing a part that he cannot comprehend. The Untaken Path is one of my favorite instalments in the series and you should devour it after the previous six, just to be ahead of the author’s upcoming ascent to fame.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel [8/10]

Emily St. John Mandel Sea of Tranquility review

After the triumph of Station Eleven, anticipation was high for “Sea of Tranquility” and I can confirm it is a gem. If it is not quite the masterpiece I might have anticipated, perhaps a trifle overplotted, perhaps a trifle short for its immense subject matter, nonetheless it is a tour de force of brilliant, mind-twisting plotting and characterization. A 1912 adventurer in Canada, a 2020 woman, a 2203 author, and a 2401 time traveler … their lives and stories intertwine bafflingly until the author miraculously ties all the loose ends together. In essence, this is a classic time-travel sci-fi novel from the 1960s, updated and told with piercing humanity. The novel pulses with a longing for fulfillment, even in the face of pandemics and moon-bound artificial cities. The author is a light-fingered, eloquent stylist, and the book melts the hours away like butter. Wonderful.

The Kitchen Brigade by Louis Julien-Petit [8/10]

The Kitchen Brigade review

I recently watched the trailer for a documentary about a group of amateur sommeliers who triumph at a wine show, and, dear viewer, I cringed. The template of Mighty Ducks invites cringeworthy sentimentalism, so I simply could not stomach the sommelier tale. “The Kitchen Brigade,” however, takes that “rank outsiders who are coached to wild success” template and freshens it up. The storyline is simple: a superbly trained, doctrinaire chef signs up to cook for a hostel for illegal immigrants in France, and, after initially resisting, trains the eclectic group of young, perilously situated men in her trade. Whilst Audrey Lamy strikes an aggressive coaching pose that does not invite viewer identification (and the screenplay’s transition point is weak), what she does convey is the flash and skill and discipline of the chef’s trade, and it becomes quite thrilling to see the callow young adults embrace top-level cuisine. And the various immigrants, all modestly portrayed, offer a moving window into the harsh world of illegal immigration.

The climax might be predictable, the message might be gushy, but The Kitchen Brigade zips along at a commendable pace and, unexpectedly, moved me to (unsentimental) tears. Well worth catching.

Shifty’s Boys by Chris Offutt [7/10]

Chris Offutt Shifty’s Boys review

The second in an emerging noir series set in rural Kentucky, “Shifty’s Boys” features a military policeman on sick leave after an explosion ruined a leg. Mick Hardin is very much an archetypal private eye: damaged, blunt, shy, but decisive and violent, and possessing a strong internal moral code. When a local drug dealer is found murdered and his irascible mother asks Mick to investigate, events gradually escalate from patient detective work to the possibility of vigilante justice. The author pens direct character-focused prose that is not showy but is all the more powerful for it. The plot is tightly controlled, the ancillary characters add spice, and the requisite action scenes are deftly unfurled. Shifty’s Boys is a welcome, swift read executed with panache.

The Sandman [7/10]

The Sandman review

Having never read master storyteller Neil Gaiman’s comic series of the same name, I came to the new ten-episode streaming series of ”The Sandman” with great anticipation, for I have loved his novels. Initially I confess to wondering what I’d let myself in for, for the opening couple of episodes are oddly flat, but from Episode 3, the story takes off. Indeed what impresses about the show is Gaiman’s intrinsic plotting genius, with the strange tale of Morpheus, also known as Dream or The Sandman, who supplies humanity’s slumber stories, continually surprising the viewer in gasp-worthy ways. Lush CGI creates wonderful supernatural tableau scenes. The key role of Morpheus is played by Tom Sturridge, and I oscillated between finding his performances ponderous and relishing his more dramatic flourishes, and in any case, superlative stints by actors such as Boyd Holbrook, Vanesu Samunyai, and Stephen Fry round out a satisfying cast. The plot can seem muted at times, and I could imagine how the comic book rendition might be more vivid, and, frankly, the old-style orchestral soundtrack is embarrassing, but overall, The Sandman makes for intriguing science-fiction enjoyment.

In Search of One Last Song by Patrick Galbraith [6/10]

Patrick Galbraith In Search of One Last Song review

Those fighting to save Earth’s species come in many different shapes and shades, and “In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s Disappearing Birds and the People Trying to Save Them” represents the author’s dedicated travels all over United Kingdom to talk to such frustrated souls. Ten chapters cover ten birds hovering on the edge of disappearing. Some of those species at risk are in fact species hunted by shooters on game reserves, such as Capercaillie and Black Grouse. For me, the more intriguing birds were those like the cliff settling Kittiwake, the elusive Bittern, the mythical Nightingale, and the wheeling Hen Harrier. Intriguingly, Lapwing, a prolific species here in Australia, is a chapter. The people tracked down by Galbraith turn out to be a rather offbeat, sometimes eccentric group of conservationists, gamekeepers, activists, and poets. A fascinating aspect is that in the United Kingdom, where there is essentially no real wilderness left, oftentimes the issues encountered come down to environmental and local politics, pitching bird lovers against fans of deer or badgers, for example. The author is a sedate, evocative stylist, and I have to admit I found the half of the book devoted to his own traveling experience to be frustratingly off the point, but In Search of One Last Song is a valuable, thought-provoking collective cry of anguish in this Anthropocene Era.

Treasure and Dirt by Chris Hammer [7/10]

Chris Hammer Treasure and Dirt review

Chris Hammer has never transcended his first magnificent murder mystery starring newspaperman Martin Scarsden, Scrublands. Scarsden has returned in two more pacy, complex crime fiction books, and now a bit player in those, Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic travels to a remote New South Wales opal mining town to investigate the crucifixion of a miner. ”Treasure and Dirt” also introduces a feisty young detective Nell Buchanan. Buchanan and Lucic team up to trawl through a complex set of clues involving locals, tycoons, even a nutcase cult leader. The author is a dab hand with an immersive first person present-tense style that could become wearisome in lesser hands, and his plots are so complex that they need fanatical genre readers to tackle them, but his core strength is atmospheric settings, in this case the strange world of jewel mining. Treasure and Dirt is perhaps slightly less compelling than the Scarsden series, but it demands single-sitting reading and rockets along. Recommended.

Bad Actors by Mick Herron [8/10]

Mick Herron Bad Actors review

The eighth book in the Jackson Lamb/Slough House spy thriller series by the best living writer in that genre, “Bad Actors” arrives just after the first streaming series has dropped, which makes for a fascinating juxtaposition. The Slow Horses first season was wonderful (see my review), but its main contribution to my own enjoyment of Mick Herron’s creations is that my mental image of shambolic spymeister Lamb is now subsumed by Gary Oldman’s virtuoso screen depiction. So Bad Actors felt to me, during my reading, different. Not better or worse but different. Mick Herron’s storyline is his usual wicked imagination running riot: when the British Prime Minister’s chief headkicker, plotting to bring Regent House under his thumb, ”loses” a key staffer, a complex string of dastardly schemes begins to unwind. The author must have had fun writing Bad Actors. With River Cartwright off stage, Shirley Dander, the slow horse with a substance problem and anger management issues, takes center stage, and she is a riotous act. Othe slow horses remain memorable, as do some characters I had assumed were gone for good, and of course, in the middle are Jackson Lamb himself and Lady Diana, the top national spy, jousting and finding ways to work together. Herron is at the peak of his craft, combining top action, mounting suspense, savage satire, and human depth, all with prose to die for. Another fine instalment and I, like many others, cannot wait for the next one.

Downton Abbey: A New Era [3/10]

Downton Abbey A New Era review

Let me be brief. I watched the first two seasons of Downton Abbey, all those years ago, with some pleasure. Edgy doses of “upstairs versus downstairs” sustained some decent drama amidst the pointless pomp. But the series went downhill and “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is its nadir, a pointless movie of pomp without drama. Amazingly, all the original series actors seem to be in the film but their performances are polished wooden dross. The plotline is execrable and the jokes are, well, entirely unfunny. Only one scene, in which Kevin Doyle gives a wonderful cameo of Molesley acting out a silent film, possesses any eclat. All that said, the folks I went to the Lido with enjoyed the visuals and easy watching, so all I can do is warn. Go see Downton Abbey: A New Era expecting a reprise of the much-loved series, but go forearmed.

Patriot Season 2 [10/10]

Patriot Season 2 review

A two-season series that slithered by me, “Patriot” is nothing like anything you have watched before, a mix of spy story, vicious satire, family drama, existential treatise, and flat-out comic genius. Michael Dorman stars in a brilliant turn as John, a spy run by his father Tom, with a brother who is a congressman. In the first series, John masqueraded as a pipe engineer in a firm trying to get a sale in Luxembourg, with his real mission being to pass money to an Iranian seeking to derail the nation’s nuclear weapons quest. That mission ended with the money leaving on a train, John watching ambivalently. In Season 2, the mission moves to Paris and all eight episodes are atmospherically shot in Parisian streets. Now the mission is darker, and a constellation of subplot characters revolving around John (all played brilliantly by a diverse cast, with special mention needing to be made of a standout performance by Kurtwood Smith as a substance-susceptible engineering legend) in strange sequences. Season 2 is not only darker than Season 1, it is also more tragic, luckily still laced with laugh-out-loud scenes and moments. The end is utterly unpredictable but then so, so right, and the final frames are superb. Patriot is a standout of my viewing over the last few years, and I cannot fathom why no one knows about it.