Based on a tear-jerker novel that had the courage to peer into some dark spaces, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” turns out to be better than the book, and still very much intrinsically weepy but wrapped in barbed wire. Mousy retiree Harold receives a letter from an ex-colleague recently shoved into a hospice eight hundred kilometers north, and on impulse decides to walk (having never walked before) to sustain her with the power of some intrinsic faith. The movie tracks his painful, then blissful trek up the spine of England, whilst resurrecting the most dire of repressed memories. The book was solipsistic and the movie even more so, and Jim Broadbent puts in the performance of a lifetime as the naively determined every-person who eventually achieves novelty fame and a following of “pilgrims.” Penelope Wilton nails the other key role, that of the even more mousy wife left behind. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is as gentle a movie as you would expect with the novel’s author penning the script, but superb cinematography, maxing out on scenery end the art of the trudge, means that the plot never flags. The ending almost ends up saccharine but resists, and the film triumphs as a result.
An historical novel in the hands of Maggie O’Farrell is always an immersive, controlled experience, and while “The Marriage Portrait” is not quite in the same class as her superb Hamnet, it is a treat. Her time period this time is the middle of the sixteenth century, her locale is northern Italy, and her protagonist is sixteen-year-old Lucrezia, married off by her father, the Duke in Florence, to the new Duke of Ferrara, a manipulative, vulnerable enigma. From the first page, it is clear that Lucrezia is under threat but the threat seems mysterious until it suddenly becomes clear. An independent, artistic young woman, Lucrezia is both naive and resourceful, and the central plot dilemma is: will she survive? The author is a rolling, rhythmic stylist with a wonderful eye for retelling the past, and she brings the Italy of the time of the Medicis to life. The plot is slow but surely spooled, and the build-up to the climax is exciting. If the ending seems too Hollywood, the overall journey of The Marriage Portrait is a splendid one, well worth a read.
A jagged, fierce drama, “Blue Lights” follows three callow probationary cops in Belfast, in bleak suburbs blighted by sectarian troubles. Partnered with a motley lot of experienced mobile officers with varying degrees of cynicism and toughness, the three recruits butt up against ingrained mobsterism, official incompetence, and uncercover interference. The three core actors—Sian Brooke, Katherine Devlin, and Nathan Braniff—are exemplary, but the complete ensemble is equally impressive. A large proportion of the six episodes dwell on the interiors of squad cars or the police station, and both attain solidity with excellent cinematography. A twisty plot knits the episodes together into a truly epic climax that satisfies in so, so many ways. Gritty, uncompromising, yet full of heart, Blue Lights is a cop show with a wonderful difference.
Who can forget the lucid, humane 2014 memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by esteemed but self-deprecating neurosurgeon Henry Marsh? I wept at the documentary The English Surgeon, covering his work in Ukraine. His 2017 volume Admissions: A life in Brain Surgery was equally impressive. Now comes the (perhaps) ultimate instalment: “And Finally: Matters of Life and Death.” Marsh is superbly erudite yet honest and modest as he recounts how he discovers he has advanced cancer in his eighth decade. A natural storyteller, he weaves amongst the tale of his diagnosis and treatment a huge assortment of fascinating topics, from recollections of surgery, through the topic of consciousness, through euthanasia, to the highly imaginative tales he Facetime’d his granddaughters with during Covid lockdown. Throughout, he remains brutally frank and humane. And Finally is an exemplary missive to humanity from an exemplary human being.
“Invisible Friends: How Microbes Shape Our Lives and the World Around Us,” written by a microbial ecologist, tackles a topic of our day, the new understanding that our worlds—the earth, our bodies, everything around us—are filled with uncountable numbers of “invisible friends,” namely bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. Nothing on Earth, not even us, stands alone and apart from a vast equilibrium/disequilibrium of microbes. Jake Robinson is a cogent, conversational stylist with admirable clarity of expression and as he delineates how microbes can both harm (Covid-19, say) and preponderantly aid us, it feels like a shifting of consicuosness. Even if you rebel against notions of “Gaia” and “deep ecology,” the author’s patient work depicting our “old friends” battling against antibiotics, aiding our health and longevity, buttressing our soils, forests, and crops, and providing new insights in fields as diverse as forensics and space exploration … all his patient labor presents a new, inescapable worldview. More than a fascinating, engaging read, Invisible Friends should be required reading for current and upcoming generations.
Sales success in any fiction genre seems to sprout dozens of copycat novels with similarly pitched covers. The domestic mystery/thriller, exploring a family’s twisted interactions with an interloper, is a favored trope, and “The Housemaid” both rings true to its sub-genre and, alas, fails badly at the basics of storytelling. When a young woman with a mysterious past joins a household as a live-in maid, the seemingly frayed wife and seemingly perfect husband come under the microscope. The signals about “unseen depths” are so strong that this reader was surprised not at all at the early twists, the mid-novel twists, and the final twists. Written in that breathless, close-up, first-person style that works only when wielded with skill and a distinctive voice, The Housemaid is a messy yawn from start to finish.
Instalment eighteen of an illustrious police procedural series, starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, “A World of Curiosities” showcases the nimble storytelling gymnastics of Louise Penny in the service of a twisty, dark plot. Into Gamache’s bucolic home village of Three Pines come two young adults whom he rescued, years ago, from their mother’s murder. Are they healed or warped, Gamache ponders, as an inexplicable mystery, a painting of the “world of curiosities” of the title, is discovered, unfolding an escalating series of portentous messages. Penny is an adept stylist, taking the reader between the points of view of Gamache, his police offsider, and various other characters, and the first half of the book mightily impressed me. But then the burden of seventeen earlier unread mysteries began to weigh down on the plot, the inevitable freight of an ever-expanding cast of characters clogging the tale, until an evil echo from a prior book suddenly popped up unbidden. The final third of the novel became increasingly baroque and over-dramatised, and, not for the first time, I finished A World of Curiosities reflecting that mystery writers with long series eventually lose themselves in relationship tapestries that sap all tension.
Seasoned environmental reporters Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal set off at the start of 2021 on a 40,000-kilometer camper trailer odyssey around America, with detours to South America and Hawai’i, a feverish close-up look at how desperate humans from different branches of society—science, birdwatching, conservation, philanthropy—are scrabbling to protect our fellow winged beings. Their story, chronicled with directness, grace, and humility, is told in “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds.” As it becomes ever clearer that we are flirting with cascading species extinctions over coming decades, if there is one book you need to grasp the urgency, this is it. Their chapter “Vanishing by the billions” is alone worth the price of the book, dramatizing as it does the 2019 publication of a joint paper revealing that a quarter of American birds have died in the last half century. Even the paper’s authors were shattered by their findings. The authors provide riveting examples of bird rescue attempts, new technologies (audio, radar, satellite, eBird community science), and last-ditch efforts (such as releasing hordes of lab mosquitoes into Hawaiian skies or clonal resurrection work). Throughout, Anders and Beverly remain upbeat and in awe of the ambitions and hearts of the heroes they portray, but this reader, turning the final page, wept. A Wing and a Prayer is a 2023 must-read.
If you self-style yourself as the “world’s top project manager,” and then write a book, you had better deliver. Bent Flyvbjerg certainly does that with “How Big Things Get Done: Lessons from the World’s Top Project Manager,” a fascinating and highly readable look at projects (mostly very big, but occasionally individual-sized): why they typically vastly overrun their deadlines and cost far, far more than promised at the start. Backed by a huge database of project statistics and brilliantly chosen case studies, Flyvbjerg has allied with a polished writer of business/how-to bestsellers, Dan Gardner. The fusion of those two professionals, one a project manager, one a writer/researcher, proves to be magical. In this review, I refrain from plot spoilers, but be assured that the underlying chapter-by-chapter thesis on how to hit deadlines and budgets, to the benefit of society (and companies/individuals), is compelling. Even if you are far removed from major projects, arm yourself with How Big Things Get Done and as an informed member of the public, help judge the grandiose plans of politicians and companies, all for the betterment of all of us. In summary, if this superb read fails to win awards in its categories, I will be most disappointed.