Science writer Riley Black takes no prisoners in her barnstorming “The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction and the Beginning of Our World,” an exuberantly portrayed depiction of the “dinosaur extinction” event that took place around 66 million years ago when an asteroid eleven kilometers in size ploughed from space into Arizona. Using extravagant, lyrical prose that would not be out of place in a wild space opera sci-fi novel, she brings to life the panoply of lumbering beasts on land, in air, and undersea that dominated the planet, and then works forward from the point of impact in gradually escalating time shifts to indicate the workings of evolution in the aftermath, capturing the rise of birds (my particular interest) and pointing toward the advent of mammalian humans. This is a bold approach that eschews the usual academic cautiousness when dealing with the uncertainties of fossil evidence, but the author, at the end of her narrative, doubles back to explain the scientific underpinnings, including the necessary caveats. It is tough for the layperson to absorb the workings of deep time; The Last Days of the Dinosaurs enables just that, and in style.
Built to Move by Juliet Starrett & Kelly Starrett [8/10]
Is “Built to Move: The 10 Essential Habits to Help you Move Freely and Live Fully” an old person’s choice of reading? Certainly pensionability most readily drives an interest in the topics covered in this fascinating, readable, stylish, and useful plea for a conscious approach to bodily mobility and balance. But as the authors keep pointing out, the earlier one attends to those parts of the body that fray and stiffen with age, the more readily one maintains resilience and physical freedom throughout life. As they reiterate often, the modern office and home environments encourage basic inbuilt bodily flexibility to fray. At my age (68), as someone who exercises and indeed stretches (albeit a tad incoherently), I was enraptured from the start. The “ten essential habits” cover more general concerns such as sleep, breathing, walking, dietary basics, and the office environment, but the book’s foundational value lies in five chapters dealing with balance, squatting, neck/shoulders, hip mobility, and sitting/rising. Sounds easy, you say? In my case, I plan to work through the book gradually over a year, incorporating their progressive programs, and, based on my read-through, I am confident I shall be a more limber, alive individual at the end. I commend Built to Move to any reader keen to maximize joyous enjoyment of the world.
Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder by Kerryn Mayne [6/10]
“Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder” is a spirited Australian take on novels like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, that is, a tale of a female teacher in a outer suburban Melbourne school who is “on the spectrum” and suppressing horrific childhood traumas. Lenny Marks was taken away from her parents as a child and lives a regimented, orderly life, until a government letter lifts the veil from her past. I enjoyed the central character. the well-staged plot, and the cast of characters orbiting Lenny Marks. The author’s style is fresh and vivid. All that said, two shadows were cast onto my reading: I was not fully convinced of Lenny’s character and its inconsistencies (I am aware this is a personal reaction, others may well find the depiction true); and the energetic style lacked some nuance. Overall, Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder should receive a decent readership and is a welcome look at this fraught subject matter.
EO by Jerzy Skolimowski [6/10]
A surreal road trip movie from the eyes of a donkey, “EO” treats the viewer to a number of richly evocative scenes but falls short of creating a compelling narrative. The donkey, EO, appears to us first in a circus, bathed in the love of a young woman, a narrative anchor that recurs a few times in the form of memories but then peters out. As EO is passed from one semi-bestial human (braying soccer hooligans, animal traders, horse/donkey-meat transporters) to another, brief moments of joy pop up in the form of children and a returning prodigal son, before an ending that clunks down like a guillotine. Mesmerizing scenes (EO walking across the front of a dam cascading deafening water, his hooves clip-clopping in courtyards) command attention, amidst baffling avant-garde moments (robot creatures, Isabelle Huppert in a humans-only piece) that sap any emerging plot. If the intention is to portray animals in servitude to evil humans, the donkey’s doleful eye does evoke some sympathy, but (to this viewer at least) that sympathy never progresses to revelatory empathy. The cinematography is amazingly adventurous and the music is dramatic, often surging, but also sometimes overly crude. Overall, I recommend you see EO, for you might respond more viscerally, but I thought it (like many recent films) a squandered opportunity.
Outlive by Peter Attia [8/10]
Peter Attia, a Canadian-American doctor, is fascinated, in a very geeky but also practical way, in longevity, and has created a kind-of medical practice around the concept. But as “Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity” confidently avers, Attia is just as concerned about how physically and mentally viable and fruitful the final decades of life—what he calls “healthfulness”—can be, as about how long we live. In general we humans are living longer but as mere shadows of functioning people from as early as our 60s. This is familiar terrain for me, obsessed as I am about existential issues, and a recent health scare has seen me radically transform my diet and sharpen my focus on other aspects of health. Outlive surveys the latest science (and the art, as Attia puts it) of extending and improving longevity. The author is a captivating stylist, freshly honest, with just the right mix of geekiness, advice, and credibility (he acknowledges kudos to almost-coauthor Bill Gifford). Commencing with the most potent weapon in our armory, exercise—not just aerobic, but also strength and stability)—he covers nutrition, sleep, and emotional health, all cogently, steadily, and with a practical bent tailored to individuals. Having read many such books, I can say that Outlive is one of the best (even though I disagree with his nutritional advice) and can be recommended to anyone exploring how to live a better life.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au [4/10]
I came to “Cold Enough for Snow” with high expectations: a much lauded novel with story thrusts close to my heart, parent-child closeness/distance, and art versus real life. And set in Japan, which I have loved traveling in! Alas, it fell flat from the outset. I could divine what the author was trying to get to with the way she portrayed the estranged daughter-mother pair’s touristing in Japan, the daughter’s sophistication yet separation from reality, etc., but the form of her narrative was very limp. Even the most “nothing much happens” novel can build up tension and mystery but this slim volume did none of that. It reminded me of those foreign films that don’t seem to have learnt Storytelling 101. The mother is portrayed subtly and effectively but the daughter felt wooden and unrealistic throughout. Setting is the novel’s strength, delivering wonderful scenes in places I think I’ve been but even here, something fell awry. The author’s style is my biggest beef, a toneless, unrhythmic style that sometimes even felt amateurish (e.g. she uses the phrase “such that,” which I normally only see in corporate comms, a few times). Overall, despite yearning for Cold Enough for Snow to take off, it settles as a mild-mannered, disappointing read.
Everyone I know who has seen “Living” mentions that “Bill Nighy plays Bill Nighy really well,”but that throwaway comment downplays his superb performance as a characterless civil servant in 1950s London who receives a terminal cancer assessment and proceeds on a journey of rediscovery of life’s meanings. Nighy graces us with his usual effete, over-mannered depiction but also soars in naked, emotional scenes. Ably supported by a fine cast, notable for stellar performances from, among others, Aimee Lou Wood and Tom Burke, Nighy turns what is an over-soppy story into a graceful meditation on final days. Also notable is Kazuo Ishiguro’s agile, understated screenplay. Living reaches for no heady heights and carries its sentimentality a little too visibly, but provides oddly welcome viewing in this age of froth and fury.
Outlander Season 6 [8/10]
I came to the “Outlander” series circuitously. In the subgenre of historical time travel, the book series always struck me as too “historical,” whatever that means, and so when my wife became captivated by both the written and cinematic versions, I shied away, until, after two seasons, she persuaded grumpy me to commence with Season 1. I would say this: the TV series veers between jolting historical realism, powerfully portrayed, and soft-porn romanticism, so it took me two seasons to appreciate Diana Gabaldon’s authorial narrative skills while putting up with the fluff. Now, sinking into Season 6, I’m a veteran and a convert. The time-travel aspect is barely present in Season 6, which deals with the looming American Revolutionary War and its impacts on Fraser’s Ridge in North Carolina, the fiefdom of Scottish hero Jamie Fraser and his time-traveling wife, Claire. After a fraught Season 5, this season relaxes somewhat until a harrowing climax, but there is plenty of narrative tinder to explode, from the arrival of a band of religious zealots, to the escalating conflicts with a local indigenous population, to the need to balance a desire to join the historically inevitable rebel movement against the pressures of British rule. Some extraneous sex aside, the characters proceed with dignity and fervour, and the acting is sterling throughout, anchored by the superb leads, Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. Roll on, Season 7, I say through gritted teeth, knowing that we Australians will see it a year later than the rest of the world.
Vesper by Kristina Buožytė & Bruno Samper [8/10]
“Vesper,” a French-Lithuanian-Belgian hybrid, is a post-apocalyptic science fiction extravaganza dripping with murky atmospherics. In a world of mud and muck, shattered by genetic disasters, a young woman, Vesper, played with restrained, believable brilliance by Raffiella Chapman, spends her days eking out an existence trawling horrid swamps for food for herself and her comatose father. Nearby, a monstrous overlord (played with chilling force by Eddie Marsan) makes Vesper’s life difficult. Vesper’s stasis ends when a wan woman stumbles out of a wrecked flying craft, and she is forced to make huge decisions and to unfurl her homegrown biohacking skills. Dark in color, dark in mood, dark in music, Vesper offers bleakness and courage and a beautifully rendered ugly future. Very much arthouse but with a backbone of narrative spark, Vesper stands out from the current overloaded dystopian sub-genre.
Written by Bec Evans & Chris Smith [6/10]
Writers thirst for advice on how to write, and this writer/reader is no exception. I am a strong fan of artistic creative coach Eric Maisel, whose books have saved me many a time. But I’m always up for more, and “Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit That Lasts,” written by writer Bec Evans and journalist/researcher Chris Smith, is a welcome addition to this sub-genre. They run Prolifiko, a writers’ coaching business that would, on the basis of Written, be a great aid to many writers. Essentially their underlying principle is one of individuality: standard writing advice might suit one person but not another, and over the ten chapters (plus a terrific concluding section), they provide tons and tons of tips around a careful framework based on research (into writers) and psychology/neuroscience. Much of the stylishly presented theory and advice was at least vaguely familiar to this grizzled writer but I extracted a number of new or forgotten gems about how to write in our distracted, fraught modern world. Whether you are a writer launching yourself or a jaded hack, Written is recommended as highly readable and most useful.