Portable Magic by Emma Smith [8/10]

Emma Smith Portable Magic review

For anyone with even a passing interest in books as objects and (less so) repositories of creativity, “Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers” is sure to delight. Indeed, as someone who has migrated wholesale to ebooks and still reads a dozen a month, I have to say that I disagree with her central thesis, that books are as potent in their physical form as they are in their content, but I still found this historical and conceptual journey an absolute treat. What distinguishes Portable Magic is the gloriousness of the author’s prose, the cadences and rhythms, the wry humor, the embodiment of wonder. It often seems like every page contains a gem of style or sparkling content. I waited until the closing chapters for Emma Smith’s views on the ebook and was gratified by the wise observation: “Until ebooks develop their own particular communicative rhetoric, design, and features, they seem to be shadows or supplements of the physical book, rather than its opposite.” Heartily recommended.”

The Last of the Seven by Steven Hartov [7/10]

Steve Hartov The Last of the Seven review

The Last of the Seven” is a historical WWII war adventure, that, despite inheriting the deathly tag of “based on a true story,” provides rattling action and Middle East/Italy atmosphere, while dabbling in lyricism that only occasionally misfires. The tale of a German-born Jew who thirsts for revenge against the Nazis, recruited to head up a band of similarly rage-consumed soldiers asked to exfiltrate a scientist from a missile base, is not afraid to dwell on the gaps of time between the horrific wartime action. The author is no Ondaatje (I was reminded of The English Patient) but is often a captivating stylist. As befits such a boy’s-own story, I read The Last of the Seven in a single sitting and can commend it.

Euromissiles by Susan Colbourn [8/10]

Susan Colbourn Euromissiles review

Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO” sounds like an arcane topic but in the hands of a superb, engaging American historian proves to be an engrossing delight. It is the story of the 1960s-1980s intermediate-range nuclear weapons—the SS-20s, the Pershing-2s, the cruise missiles, titles that resonate with my memories but might mean little to younger readers—that were touted for the defense/offence of Europe at the “second” height of the Cold War (assuming the Cuban Missile Crisis represented the apogee). Weaving in an astonishing array of archival and other sources, the author relates how a strategy of “flexible response” drove European nations and the United States to develop new missiles; how this galvanized Europeans (and not only Europeans, I remember enlisting in the peace movement in Australia in the early 1980s) to protest; how the new missiles began to be deployed just as Gorbachev entered the scene; and how he and Reagan and later Bush ended up agreeing to junk the lot of them. The author conveys both the inner workings of NATO and the two superpowers over this period, and the on-the-ground political chaos in Europe. Written in a rhythmic, digestible style, and effortlessly ducking back and forth in time amidst the complexity, she has written one of those rare books: a robust history that will stand as a reference book and also an accessible drama for us normal readers. A chapter called “The Year of the Missile” is as riveting as a thriller. Euromissiles is a triumph.

Horse by Geraldine Brooks [8/10]

Geraldine Brooks Horsw review

Any Geraldine Brooks novel is a welcome event and “Horse,” a fictionalized biopic of famous American racehorse Lexington, overlaid with a modern story, is a rich treat of measured, intelligent prose. The current-day tale of a museum scientist and black art historian, revolving around mysterious paintings and bones, seems at first to be on the sidelines of the main storyline of Lexington and his slave groom in the 1850s, but the author meticulously braids all the strands together. I could not imagine anything about horse racing to hold interest but somehow Brooks not only renders that world fascinating but illuminates slavery and racism resonating over nearly two centuries. The characters, especially the three core ones and a charismatic rogue, all sparkle, and the author’s prose is seamless and affecting. Horse is an unexpected triumph.

Staged Season 3 [7/10]

Staged Season 3 review

The opening season of “Staged,” a quirky six-short-episode conceit about a theater performance on Zoom, was both a pandemic lockdown highlight and a perfect showcase for the comic improvisational talents of David Tennant and Michael Sheen (my review). The second season (eight episodes) turned all meta and threw in guest turns by Samuel L. Jackson and Judi Dench, among others (my review). Now, in the post-pandemic world, eight-episode Season 3 spins an intricate ultra-meta tale of a mooted performance by the two fractious stars of a script by series creator/writer/co-star Simon Evans. Season 3 is as inventive as the other two but shows its age, with the comedy fraying badly in a few of the episodes. The support cast from the families of Tennant and Sheen are game but lack the flair of the two raconteurs. But a couple of the middle episodes sparkle and the finale is a tour de force of manic improvisation that is hilarious yet strangely moving. Three seasons is a perfect lifespan for this fecund, low-budget affair and viewers of the first two seasons should wrap up with Staged Season 3.

The Banshees of Inisherin by Martin McDonagh [5/10]

The Banshees of Inisherin review

An unabashed devotee of Martin McDonagh (who can forget In Bruges and Nine Billboards Outside Ebbling, Missouri?), my first film of 2023, his “The Banshees of Inisherin,” came laden with expectations. Alas, these were shattered, although it took the entire 94 minutes of this wickedly dark drama/comedy to dump me into an odd sense of betrayal. So much of this movie feels just right (in a McDonagh sense): the wonderful atmospherics of an isolated Irish island in the 1920s; the tinkly childish music; the Irish dialogue laced with humor and irony; and the sustained build-up of tension. Colin Farrell tries so hard with his portrayal of Pádraic, a naive young man blessed with natural optimism. Brendan Gleeson, playing Pádraic’s lifelong drinking companion, Colm, a craggy older man, imbues his character with marvellously expressive eyebrows and a malevolent stare. The plotline can be summed up simply: Colm decides summarily one day he no longer “likes” Pádraic and asks to be left alone, something Pádraic cannot abide, and their existential tussle around their friendship status escalates into darker and darker territory. All well and fine, and I watched with fascination. It was only when the film ended, with a post-climax final encounter between the ex-friends, that I suddenly appreciated how little the central characters meant to me. Whether due to a flawed script, or due to off-kilter overacting, neither Pádraic or Colm registered as real people in a real world. The Banshees of Insherin was, I thought, almost angrily, a perfect McDonagh slice of blackness, but only on paper. On the screen it failed.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus [7/10]

Bonnie Garmus Lessons in Chemistry review

A runaway hit, “Lessons in Chemistry” is a sparky, socially aware novel that centers on a single mother in the strait-laced America of the early 1960s. A dogged, resolutely rational scientist battling the forces of misogyny and patriarchalism before feminism, the young chemist accidentally falls into hosting a national cooking show, on which her earnest scientific views threaten to overturn housewives’ lives. The first third of the novel, in which the author imaginatively and with great brio thrusts us into the era and the various lives of the characters, works spectacularly well, at once propulsive, entertaining, and often funny. And the pell-mell climax, in which the various narrative strands come together, and a mystery is revealed, felt most satisfying to me as reader. The middle section was less successful, at least in my humble opinion, with characterization forced and the style less vivacious. All in all, Lessons in Chemistry entertains while mildly provoking, making for a hearty three-night read.

Why We Hurt by Paul Biegler [8/10]

Paul Biegler Why We Hurt review

Former doctor turned journalist, Paul Biegler has vaulted from his own knee pains to a fascinating exploration of the mystifying world of pain. To my untutored mind, the question he asks is: why is one person’s chronic or severe pain another person’s ho-hum. “Why Does It Still Hurt?: How the Power of Knowledge Can Overcome Chronic Pain” travels the world interviewing people with harrowing pain journeys, and the scientists and doctors who seem to be groping towards a more accurate picture of pain than the one societies currently have. Taking a crude notion such as neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability and tendency to rewire itself, towards specific clues as to pain’s origins (besides the obvious one of a physically painful instance) and towards revolutionary treatments (that no longer fixate on surgery and pills), Biegler provides an enlightening window into pain. And this is no academic yawn: the author is an evocative, fluent stylist supremely in control of his material. Why We Hurt is modern scientific/medical journalism of the highest order.

Corsage by Marie Kreutzer [9/10]

Corsage review

Apparently the subject of “Corsage,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is immensely popular in retrospect. As an anti-royalist much more preoccupied with modern history than with earlier times, I had never heard of her and for the first quarter hour of this resolutely arthouse movie, I chafed. This imaginative survey of the empress’s life over about a year in 1877-78 casts the royal one as a beauty who is hemmed in by her role. The cinematography portrays a gloomy if spectacular world of palaces and mansions, a world that confines our hero to having her corsage cinched tight in order to display the proper female figure and to ceremonial appearances. Writer/director Marie Kreutzer glides from episode to episode, often inconclusively, offers up ahistorical events, and messes with gender inferences, and my early experience in the cinema filled me with dread about the entire movie. But Kreutzer authoritatively ratchets up the emotional angst with powerful scene after powerful scene, until the ending feels borne on tragic wings. And the music! Two modern songs redone as if past are one thing, but the multiple arrangements of Camille’s “She Was” tore at my heart. The conclusion is enigmatic and I like it just so, a fitting ending to a film I barely understand but see as brilliant and heartbreaking.

Intelligence Horizon by R Andrew Russell [6/10]

R Andrew Russell Intelligence Horizon revview

The second in a brainy sci-fi series about modern AI, “Intelligence Horizon” is a worthy sequel to Intelligent Consent (see my review), in which an AI-designing engineer finds himself dealing with a robot carrying a mind identical to his. As in the first instalment, this time we see a pair of humans wrestle with their own consciences as their robotic skills seem destined for military us, whilst the robot and a new friend struggle to survive against villains on Mars. A quick read enhanced by wry humor, Intelligence Horizon suits its genre well.