A fascinating post-pandemic oddity, “How to Be Broken” is a mixture of trauma psychology briefer (from a psychologist who works in military and police field training) and nakedly honest pandemic memoir. The author never dwells on the fact that she is a thriller writer with half a dozen books on shelves, but from the outset, the reader knows that the storyline and the pacing are in capable hands. Smoothly written and earthed by excellent tales from the annals of trauma, How to Be Broken systematically works through the nature of “being broken,” with specific reference to the terrors of a global pandemic, before offering hope for emergence from the damage. My Covid-19 experience was benign, despite being ensnared in one of the world’s most draconian lockdowns, but even I experienced swathes of disorientation and anxiety, and this book enabled me to discern more clearly what I had been through and how I might even profit, emotionally and psychologically, from the experience. Recommended.
As a failed mathematician who once read about the mysteries of modern physics, I was drawn to “Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions” by the promise of life insights from that exalted discipline. And Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist, gets to work from the start with topics I can recall as baffling way back when. Taking great pains to distinguish what science can prove from more philosophical positions (and here it turns out not only religious advocates and philosophers have views but also countless physicists and mathematicians themselves), she resolutely and clearly explains and analyzes and concludes about …. well, about the tricky shit, such as quantum mechanics, the nature of time, multiverses, soul/mind, free will, the Big Bang/end, and more. On one of the key topics, she shifted my view altogether (to be fair, a friend had primed me, but I had not been quite ready), and each fascinating chapter contains elucidations as educative as any I’ve seen. Employing a dazzling, forward style dotted with casual humor, the author teaches, opines, and wraps up. Existential Physics is, plainly, not for everyone, but if it has any appeal at all to you, it will catapult you on an exhilarating journey, that I guarantee. Wonderful.
Australian actor-turned-writer/director Thomas M. Wright was not familiar to me until I sank into his latest film, ”The Stranger,” but he is now definitely on my must-watch list, for this is a powerful, powerful movie. Not to everyone’s taste, it unwinds a gritty crime tale in relentlessly arthouse fashion, filmed in stark, murky colors, overlain by a soundtrack of unbearable, creaking techno tension. Joel Edgerton offers a career-best depiction of an undercover cop—intense and troubled—in Western Australia trying to get close to a murder suspect by enfolding him in an intricate, fake web of a new crime gang. The murder of the child, years earlier, is brilliantly woven into the storyline. Sean Harris, however, is the real star of the show: his turn as the bearded, asthma-puffer-wielding suspect, has to be seen to be believed. Alternately anxiously shambling and Manson-reminiscent terrifying, Harris’s portrayal had me literally looking over my shoulder. Thomas Wright eschews all of film’s standard devices of flashbacks, tidy explanatory scenes, and easily dramatic scenes, opting instead for a relentless, documentary-style unfolding interspersed with unexplained dreams and eerie portents of terror. Many will find it too far outside the standard crime thriller genre, but I was swept away. Will The Stranger snap up the awards it deserves? Probably not. But you, dear viewer, should fall under its dark spell.
“Little Fires Everywhere,” based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel, is a slowly warming powder keg of an eight-part series that examines motherhood in racially torn America. Set in a self-righteous white suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in the late Nineties, it pits two fiery women and their families against each other (although at first they join as allies): an “appearances are everything” bossy, workaholic white mother (played with steely precision by Reece Witherspoon) and a nomadic black artist (I was at first less convinced by Kerry Washington but her performance accelerated after the first couple of episodes). Four white teenage children, running the gamut from a seemingly perfect achiever who aspires to Harvard, through two very different boys, to the youngest and most rebellious, connect in complex spirals with one black teenage daughter. All five teenagers are more than ably portrayed by a fine cast. The plotline permutes the five (and the two main women and a husband, plus an illegal immigrant who abandoned her child to be adopted by another white woman) into a tapestry illustrating (occasionally with a heavier hand) themes such as racism, biracial sexuality, abortion, transracial adoption, and family secrecy. The final two episodes explode with passion and tension, and the climax works on a number of levels. Little Fires Everywhere is a splendid, tight family drama series.
A hugely ambitious space opera series approaches its grand climax. The eighth in the Beyond the Impossible ennealogy (that’s a nine-part sequence; I had to look it up), “The Scorpion’s Fire” sees author Frank Kennedy marshalling his capacious cast of characters—the varied military leaders, some immortal, the diplomats, the politicians, the second-universe villains, the god-in-waiting Royal—for the closing book’s fireworks. The author is as deft and readable as ever, this time circling around the main players, atmospherically using dialogue and interaction to provide a flavor of the complex negotiations underlying unity as the People’s Collectorate prepares for a war to end all wars What little battle action occurs in this book is, as in the previous seven books, thrillingly depicted. What impressed me most as I read was the breadth of the canvas and the clarity with which it was woven into the story. If you have been following the series upon my recommendations, The Scorpion’s Fire will leave you breathless with anticipation for the finale.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the hugely idiosyncratic creation of the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), is a riot of invention, emotion, cinematography, and something unique that only movies can offer. Michelle Yeoh triumphs in the hugely demanding role of Evelyn, burnt-out, crabby owner of a laundromat, who is thrust into the role of saving all the universes of a world of many, through a series of escalating fantabulous adventures. The key support actors of Stephanie Hsu (Evelyn’s daughter Joy), Ke Huy Quan (husband Waymond), and Jamie Lee Curtis (a tax collector among other roles) are also superb. The way-out-there plotline is massively smart and ambitious, the cinematography is sublime, the action scenes scorch typical Marvel/Disney pyrotechnics, and the attention to detail is woozily fabulous. Not a moment of the running time of two-and-a-quarter hours feels slow or too fast. All in all, Everything Everywhere All at Once is not something I can recommend to many around me, with their circumscribed palates, but for me it is hands down the most powerful, intelligent film of this year. At its core, it addresses the issues we existentialists exult in and fret about every day. And so many scenes are laugh-out-loud funny but, even when theoretically stooopid, are delivered respectfully. Cinematically unique, something I cannot process yet but will do so over repeated viewings, it vies for 2022’s crown.
An ode to the unbreakable ecological links between the human species and the profusion of animal species threatened by humanity’s global footprint, “Wildlife in the Balance: Why Animals Are Humanity’s Best Hope” is a riot of stories, observations, and ideas. The book careens all over the place, but its central core—the notion that if we drive animals to extinction, we surely shall follow them—is never far away. An eloquent stylist, Simon Mustoe pours his heart out into a plea for a deeper understanding of our essential coexistence with animals and a new path forward. The final two chapters comprise a fervent eight-step “blueprint for human survival” and an animal-focused impact statement. Readers who think they understand concepts such as conservation and biodiversity would do well to enjoy, as I did, Wildlife in the Balance.
”Kleo” is one heck of a surprise, seemingly the child of the brilliantly plotted Patriot series and the stylish, gory mayhem of Killing Eve. Chock full of visual treats, imaginatively varying in pace, and plotted with verve over eight unpredictable episodes, it is never wholly original, yet always fresh. Jella Haase is perfect as East German assassin Kleo, wrongfully imprisoned and then released when the Berlin Wall comes down. Set on revenge, she eventually enlists unlikely companions such as druggy Thilo and hapless West German cop Sven. The scriptwriters and directors are not afraid to take chances, with the result that every episode is a hoot from start to end. No grand themes intrude but the post-Cold War German backdrop fascinates, and the music is an exuberant feast. Kleo is a 2022 standout.
The fifth in the crime fiction series featuring bulldozing DS Washington Poe of the National Crime Authority and his odd-couple partner, Tilly Bradshaw, a super-brilliant but innocent analyst, “The Botanist” is another beguiling M.W. Craven rocket ride. Pitted against the super-clever poisoner calling himself The Botanist, whose specialty is murdering bad folks in locked rooms, Poe also finds himself scrambling to save his forensic scientist pal Estelle, implicated in another no-escape locked-room mystery. If those descriptions signal complexity to you, let there be no mistake: this is classic, complex, clue-based genre fiction, but it comes laced with acerbic humor and dolloped out with clockwork pacing. The author flirts with plot obsession, which is what ended up turning Jeffrey Deaver’s initially pleasing thrillers into self-pastiches, but the jaunty style, the perky characters, and the controlled pacing keep the Craven engine on a steady footing. The Botanist can be read as a standalone, a most enjoyable one, but really, for a series this much fun, do yourself a favor and start back at #1, The Puppet Show.
Australian-resident zoologist Antone Martinho-Truswell has a roving mind and spirited, engaging pen. “The Parrot in the Mirror: How Evolving to Be Like Birds Made Us Human” is his fascinating notion that some of what we are as humans is the result of convergent evolution matching how birds evolved far, far earlier. Birds broke off from the evolutionary tree of dinosaurs, then, much later, humans evolved on a completely different branch. Yet some of our traits, driven by the pressures of evolution, have ended up being closer to those of birds than to how other mammals behave. The author is a sparkling writer, able to draw the reader along challenging but fascinating routes, turning what could have been turgid academic theory into a marvelous tale. I was drawn to The Parrot in the Mirror by a fascination for the fifteen crane species of birds, one of the more ancient groups of birds, and I found the book to be a valuable read, but I feel certain that many general nonfiction readers would sink into the storytelling.