Ah, Kitty Flanagan! The first six-episode season of “Fisk” was brilliant (my review), a feast of droll comedy and resonant characterisation, and the follow-up six-episode season is even funnier. Very much an Australian-inflected, Melbourne-soaked show, Season 2 takes up the tale of a well-meaning but blunt lawyer (played in sublime fashion by Flanagan) in a husband-wife-lawyer-due practice in the tram-dinging heartland of the inner city. The inventive storytelling of the first season continues apace, with each episode offering delighted laughter, intellectual pleasure at plot twists, and (surprisingly) poignancy in the final episode. Somehow Flanagan manages to humanise all the diverse characters she skewers. Roll on Fisk Season 3, please!
Marina Benjamin is that rarest of chroniclers: unflinching, reflective, eloquent, oddly unsystematic but all the better for it. “A Little Give: The Unsung, Unseen, Undone Work of Women” follows her brilliant Insomnia, a book that entranced me but also proved to be solidly useful. In this outing, she muses about aspects of life sometimes tagged as “women’s work,” although nearly every essay resonated with my experiences. The many paradoxes of housecleaning, its horridness ranged against its virtuous necessity overlaid by our inherited strictures, are tackled from a number of angles, all worth reflecting upon. Her repeated reflection about caring for the sick or elderly reminded me of my years helping look after a disabled brother, and she nails the impossibility of succeeding in the eyes of either the carer or the cared-for. I am a “non-dog person” who was a besotted dog owner for a decade and a half; the author’s joys from her dog reminded me to open up my heart again. Benjamin’s essayistic insights blend seamlessly with stories from her life and drawing from the works of others. Always she is fluent yet direct. The reading is a boon and I have turned around to commence a second pass.
Nonproliferation/proliferation of nuclear weaponry is unsurprisingly destined for a restricted audience, but it is a vital topic, and books continue to pour out covering different aspects of it. I doubt if anyone has done as much research—tertiary, secondary, and primary (including staggering amounts of archival digging)— than historian Jonathan Hunt. “The Nuclear Club: How America and the World Policed the Atom from Hiroshima to Vietnam” tackles the tale of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which got up globally in 1968, but so much more is covered than the mere ins and outs of a treaty. The author is especially compendious and strong on the swirling, changing international geopolitics within the United Nations during a time of both Cold War escalation and decolonialization. Reading the book is both enjoyably smooth and dauntingly dense; I confess it took me a while (perhaps as all good books should). Hunt’s overall thesis is, according to my reading, that beyond the idealism of preventing proliferation, and beyond fear of untrammeled Armageddon risks, what brought the Treaty into being was the shared need of the United States and the Soviet Union to solidify the “nuclear club” of the title, a world in which a few preeminent countries can have nukes and have imprimatur to prevent others from doing so. Overall, The Nuclear Club is exciting, valuable reading.
If you know a Star Wars fan, you know what fandom is like. Me, I watched and enjoyed the original 1977 blockbuster but fast lost interest in what I felt to be an increasingly fluffy franchise. The rest of the Star Wars phenomenon passed me by, until I chanced upon the first season of The Mandelorian last year. It felt like a moody wastern action movie; I enjoyed it. Now, prompted by accolades from friends, I’ve binged the dozen episodes of what is clearly Season 1 of “Andor.” And I can report that it is quality sci-fi, serious and moody, with a fine story arc, excellent acting, and superlative world building. In some form of long-before prequel to Star Wars, amidst the birth of the Rebel Alliance challenging the despotic Empire, we follow Cassian Andor, a tough, unsuccessful grifter in a faraway planet, who attracts the brutality of the Empire and the curiosity of Luthen Rael, master rebel plotter. Cassian’s fraught adventures over the many hours of this season slowly but surely seek to bring him from self-centered impulses towards revolution. Diego Luna is the key. As Cassian, he is sharp-eyed and driven, with a talent for daredevilry, an understated performance that suits perfectly the gritty plotline. And Stellan Skarsgård soars as Luthen. The action sequences are superb, the supporting actors are excellent, and direction is tight without being rushed. My only qualms were with some of the sets (they looked fake) and the insipid music so characteristic of this franchise. Overall, Andor is one of 2022’s most rewarding science fiction outings.
Based on an extraordinary segment of NASA’s history that somehow passed by me this century, one that begs for a deft, challenging treatment, “Good Night Oppy” covers all the bases but is let down by its underpinnings (for a documentary, call it the script, if you like) and its style (call it the direction). In 2003, NASA launched two separate rockets holding “rover” explorers, autonomous geological exploration vehicles, and landed them both on Mars. Ninety days was their expected lifespan, but one of them, Opportunity (the Oppy of the title) kept going for nearly fifteen years. It’s a gasp-worthy tale, with the added overtone that the entire NASA crew back on Earth grows to personify the two robots, and this filmic treatment is engaging and fascinating. But it could have been much better. American saccharine sentimentality rears its ugly head, as personified by that horrid string soundtrack music that is barely tolerable; half of the talking heads are tremendous, some are not; and the overt backdrop of lauding NASA, without remission, clouds what could have been a fine ending. Call Good Night Oppy a misspent opportunity.
A jaunty tale with oodles of atmosphere, “Nimblefoot” entertains without captivating. Robert Drewe is a distinctive stylist, infusing every page with atmosphere, but I found the storyline (based on a true story, wherein may lie the problem), about a child prodigy athlete and Melbourne Cup winner on the run from corrupt cops and private detectives, to rush onward without grabbing. Similarly, the central character, while alive enough on the page, feels underdone in some subtle way. The interesting aspects of the novel lie in its portrayal of a number of cities or towns in late nineteenth century Australia; the author brings every place to vivid life. If you are a Drewe fan (and I a few such fans) or are drawn to the historical background, Nimblefoot would make for a stylish, enjoyable read.
An intriguing but hit-and-miss documentary, “The Lost City of Melbourne” offers a fascinating retrospective of the architecture of Melbourne since the grand construction of the gold rush era. Its primary lens of the city’s many cinema houses, most of which have vanished, is well done but drags slightly over the first two-thirds. The underlying thesis of architectural and cultural loss comes through but failed to completely convince this viewer. Any Melburnian in particular will find much of the archival photographic and video footage a trip through memory lane. The finale is perkier, with an uptick of both storyline and music, and The Lost City of Melbourne is a valuable contribution to the historical record.
As in 2021, this year comprised two distinct halves, Whereas the best of the best in 2021 popped up in the first half, in 2022 the reverse happened. What that meant in practice is that there was a slight downturn in viewing pleasure for a whole year from the middle of 2021. Looking back, I sensed that slump and had begun to attribute it to the mooted “end of the golden age of streaming content,” only to then be delighted by a slew of stellar series or films. The Top 10 contains two thrillers, two science fiction movies, a comedy, and five more general dramas. Whilst I viewed a number of fine documentaries, none of them made this year’s apex list. To give an indication of the flood of superlative releases in the second half of 2023, seven of the Top 10 were accorded the maximum rating of 10 out of 10 (by contrast, 2021 had only one 10-er). (Links below are to my reviews.)
The second (and final) season (10/10) of Patriot is, like the first season, a mesmerizing delight. Not a scene or a shot is wasted, every word shimmers with intelligence, Funny, tense, sad, often all together … 2022’s standout.
The crowning movie was Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon (10/10), which I’ve seen three times. Two outstanding acting performances and an engrossing, human, existential tale. A masterpiece.
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.
The Bear (10/10), a scintillating show of eight snappy episodes, about a Michelin chef who inherits his brother’s ramshackle cafe/restaurant in Chicago, never lets up. Jammed with human insight.
Released with full 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.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (10/10) is so wild conceptually that even for sci-fans, it should not work. But it does. Awe inspiring and, by the end, emotionally rich.
As funny as the first season of Only Murders in the Building was, the second season (10/10) is even more hilarious. Martin Short and Steve Martin reign.
Capturing with perfect panache Len Deighton’s 60s spy-thriller style, the six episodes of The Ipcress File (9/10) make for exhilarating viewing.
Colm Bairead’s The Quiet Girl (9/10) moves purposefully through a simple tale to break your heart.
People in politics, the terrain of the powerful second season (9/10) of Total Control … this was the year’s best Australian show bar none.
2022 was a year of reading that puzzles in retrospect, although in the thick of things I noticed nothing. It’s not that the amount of quality reading savored diminished in any way. I rated 64 books at my minimum mark of excellence, that is, 8 out of 10. What strikes me now is that many fine novels read during the year failed to excite me enough to elicit the penultimate accolade of 9 out of 10. In 2020, half of my Top 10 was nonfiction. Last year only two Top 10 books were not novels. But this year, eight of the ten most impressive books in terms of style and impact were nonfiction. Only two novels met the cut, one a slim masterpiece, the other a rambunctious space opera thriller. Peering into the results more closely, of the eight nonfiction books, three were about climate change, two were about the natural world (but probably I’m getting more interested in nature as I get on top of the climate crisis in factual terms), two were piercing memoirs, and one cropped up as a result of my mid-year health scare.
What this means is that I cannot commend this annual wrap-up to you, general reader, as heartily as I have in the past. If doomster tomes, nature tutorials, illness memoirs, and a food overview don’t interest you, the list below will be thin gruel indeed. For that I apologize. But hey, superb writing awaits with every one of these books, so if you want to explore new areas, this could be your chance. (The links below take you to my review.)
For the quality of his penmanship and the rigorousness of his righteous investigation, the one book that stood out most was George Monbiot’s Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet (10/10). This might seem like a dour subject to many but trust me, Monbiot turns a devilishly complex issue into a thrilling literary adventure.
The incredibly talented, ardent journalist Ed Yong penned the most informative and fascinating book of the year. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (10/10) is a must-read for anyone with an ounce of curiosity.
Bedtime Story (10/10) by Chloe Hooper. A short memoir of illness, children, and literature/stories, told in a pacey yet lyrical style that is wondrous to read on every page. Moving and illuminating.
Koala: A Life in Trees (10/10) is a stunning, revelatory examination of the iconic Australian animal, told through a personal journey undertaken by naturalist/author Danielle Clode. Another essential read, especially if you’re not an Aussie.
Food for Life: The New Science of Eating Well (9/10) by Tim Spector is essential for anyone critically examining their own diet. A brilliantly structured and executed excavation of the current state of knowledge, it is also stylishly penned. I didn’t even agree with all of it but still gained immensely from the read.
Barely longer than a novella but packing a dispassionate emotional wallop, Small Things Like These (9/10) should have won Claire Keegan the Booker Prize (says he cheekily, having only read a couple on the shortlist).
Journalist Frank Bruni’s “graceful and profound” memoir of eyesight loss, The Beauty of Dusk (9/10). Very different in style and approach to Chloe Hooper’s memoir, it also lingers long after reading.
Simon Mundey’s eyewitness-to-climate-crisis tour de force, Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis (9/10) will lift off any remaining scales from your eyes.
Told from the other side of the trench by an IPCC hero-scientist, and offering more succor than the previous book, Joelle Gergis’s Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope (9/10) should also be in the canon of the subject.
Frank Kennedy is unwinding the longest, most complex, most involving space opera saga in years, and the fourth in the series, The Heartless Hinds (9/10), is my favorite so far (believe it or not, four more instalments were published over the rest of the year!). You must begin at Book 1, but treat yourself, why don’t you?
What a heart stopping start to 2023! Season 1 of “Slow Horses” was brilliant (my review), the exact same mix of spy thriller action and stringent humor we encounter in Mick Herron’s underlying books. Season 2 tops the opening season, although I am unsure whether that is due to a stronger novelistic plot or familiarization with the characters. In this labyrinthine episode (one that clever scriptwriting and very tight direction master), Jackson Lamb’s hapless Slow House crew finds itself enmeshed in the death of an old ex-agent that might provide a clue to sleeper Soviet agents still in pastoral Britain. The body count is high, the tension never relents, the ensemble cast are uniformly brilliant, and Gary Oldman revels in his profane portrayal of a Cold War warrior gone decrepit but still deceptively astute and effective. How can Slow Horses Season 3 possibly top this level of outperformance?