Twenty novels under her belt, and, according to the front-cover blurb, a “ten-million-copy” bestselling author, Lisa Jewell is new to me. Her latest, None of This Is True, fizzes with plot inventiveness but will not entice me to read more from her. When a 45-year-old podcaster bumps into another woman born in the same hospital on the same day, she starts a new podcast, “Hi! I’m Your Birthday Twin!” (and Penguin, the publisher, has actually produced a four-episode podcast mirroring the book, which makes me cringe). The interviewee turns out to have a dark present and a dark past, and the author skillfully unravels all these murky strands as the darkness invades the podcaster’s own life. Written in the present tense, and cutting between both main characters, interposed with podcast and (weirdly) Netflix segments, sufficient tension is spun to make None of This Is True a quick meal. But, despite earnest interior explorations of both characters, the plot intricacies (familiar to anyone reading in the sub-genre launched, perhaps, by Harlan Coben) swamp any sense of reader identification, and the twisty, fierce climax leaves only an empty palate.
Michael Connelly’s made-up-but-realistic world of LA detectives and homicides has, like many long-running series, evolved into a complex tapestry. Resurrection Walk finds the reader walking in two shoes: the first-person, jaunty worldview of high-profile defense lawyer Mickey Haller, and the second-person, highly intense story following Harry Bosch, ex.-legendary, contrary homicide detective, now a private investigator with health problems. Cameo appearances grace us, from Maddie, Bosch’s policewoman daughter, and Renee Ballard, another homicide detective who has starred in a few Connelly novels. All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that Connelly’s “world” works, unlike those of many longstanding crime fiction superstars. In Resurrection Walk, a woman who has spent four years behind bars for murdering her husbanded manages to snare Haller’s attention. When he agrees to represent her and unleashes Bosch to check up on the woman’s indictment and trial, he unleashes a fraught sequence of events. The novel alternates between painstaking plod work and compelling, complex courtroom scenes; Connelly is that rare writer who excels with both. I read it in two plane hop immersions, the perfect book for the occasion.
The cinematic magic in Scrapper is why we watch at all. A debut indie film that embraces quirkiness and homespun verisimilitude, Charlotte Regan’s debut release shoves the viewer into the world of twelve-year-old Georgie living alone (and escaping the dreaded “social services” by persuading a friend to record conversational scraps as a mythical “Uncle Winston Churchill”) after the death of her mother. Life is bicycle stealing and domestic rigour amidst grief avoidance. Vaulting over her back fence comes Jason, her father who flitted to Spain before her birth, a jaunty laddish man not especially suited to assuming fatherly duties. The two clash and ebb, clash and ebb, while the viewer settles, via jittery cinematography and eclectic music and an excellent supporting cast, into a convincing absorption of a blue-collar British neighbourhood. Regan punctuates the earthy, dialogue-driven narrative with jarring surreal moments: talking-heads interviews with locals, a captioned spider conversation, visually recreated thoughts. All of this melds deliciously, resulting in a sense that we KNOW the two central characters, both (at least in my own case) vastly out of our own experience, and this knowing infuses visceral tension as the central question plays out: will the new father bring salvation or tragedy? I doubt I’ll find myself as invested in a 2023 movie as I was in Scrapper.
I failed to watch the original Extraction but one recent evening, an urge came upon me to watch a dumbass action movie. They serve a purpose. And Chris Hemsworth comes across as at least slightly self-effacing. Hence Extraction 2, two hours and two minutes of an “extraction team” of specialists rescuing a woman from a Georgian prison and then battling a Georgian criminal overlord seeking revenge. The overarching “personal” storyline involves the Hemsworth hero recovering from the first film and regretting his neglectful-father past. We do not expect much from this type of John-Wick-style film and some of what we do expect is occasionally delivered this time: extended gore-video-game scenes, two of which are done well, one of which is plain stupid; a partially atmospheric bad guy; sweeping cinematics; a huge train crash; plenty of quips in dialogue that can sometimes hit the mark but more often seems overly flippant; tight tense scenes but also overblown dull action scenes. The acting is formulaic except for sparks of life from Hemsworth, clearly wrestling with a patchy script. All in all, Extraction 2 gets a pass grade but only just.
Much praised Irish novelist Paul Murray’s first three books whizzed past me but I am making amends. A third of the way through The Bee Sting, a voluptuous, multi-point-of-view modern saga of an Irish family in financial, spiritual, and emotional chaos, it struck me that I was reading a fresh take on Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Like that wonderment, The Bee Sting cycles around different characters, after a financial crash and amidst a clearly signalled climate crisis crash: teenage daughter Cassie, frantically caught up in the web of a glamorous friend; younger son PJ, anxious for stability and immersed in the online gaming world; mother Imelda, beautiful but unrefined, her sections told as a stream of consciousness befitting her oscillating mind; and, most centrally, father Dickie, heading for bankruptcy with his father’s business and wracked by secrets, a man of gentleness beset in his world. The author’s four different prose styles boil and bubble wonderfully and his interlaced plot is carefully woven. This is a novel to be read slowly, the mood oscillating between dread and clever humor. Admire the author’s virtuosic juggling of stories and witness the four souls fan apart and then seek to converge as the end approaches via frenetic character switching. I recommend The Bee Sting highly, predicting you will either swoon by the end or, like me, nod with admiration while deciding that the author’s climactic plotting took the characters beyond what the rest of this 596-page journey presaged.
Within a few pages of commencing Hanging the Devil, the sixth in a San Francisco crime fiction series featuring private investigator Cape Weathers, by Tim Maleeny, something about the confident style, the sassy dialogue, and the kinetic plotting reminded me of that grandmaster of the genre, Stuart M. Kaminsky. The comparison only goes so far—Maleeny maxes out on humor—but it remained apt for the rest of the evening it took me to rocket through this engaging, fascinating novel. Revolving around an eleven-year-old illegal immigrant girl from Hong Kong, who witnesses a daring art museum heist seemingly perpetrated by a ghost, Hanging the Devil sees our PI hero, Cape Weathers, and his crime solving partner, ninja-style Sally Mei, navigate the murky depths of the city’s Chinese and Russian crime gangs. Blithe inventiveness suffuses every page, all the characters joke through even the direst of situations, and the chapter-to-chapter jumps are a pleasure in themselves. Such a pleasure and one that will send me back to the earlier five books in the series!
Dominic Smith rose to fame with 2016’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a novel I enjoyed but failed to bond with. Return to Valetto redresses the scales, for this is a reading bounty that feels like an old-fashioned novel from my childhood (I was going to say it is redolent of Somerset Maugham, but my memory of his works is so vague by now that such a statement would be spuriously specific). The story is assembled quickly but from then on, the pace is measured. There is one plot revelation or twist (no surprise really) but no final surprises. A large cast of characters is allowed to insinuate itself into the readers’ mind through scene after perfect scene. The setting, the ten-person near-abandoned village of (imaginary) Valetto in Umbria, is vividly brought to life, with food in particular part of most scenes. The protagonist, an academic who has lost his mother and his wife, travels to Valetto to live in his mother’s bequeathal, a cottage amongst his aunts’ and near-centenarian grandmother’s abodes, only to find a woman squatting in his cottage, with a claim of ownership reaching back into the terrors of fascist wartime Italy. The author exhibits a masterful control of the returnee’s perspective, from which the entire novel is told (no character switches, no flashbacks); only slowly do we realize his flaws. A final climax takes half the novel to get there and is worth the wait. Amongst my 2023 reading, Return to Valetto is an unexpected gem.
Kenneth Branagh has begun to desecrate the memory of Agatha Christie. I yawned through his cinematic rendition of Murder on the Orient Express, skipped Death on the Nile due to awful online feedback, and only went to A Haunting in Venice because a movie club mandated it. I wish I had called in sick. Branagh himself displays no enthusiasm for his lead role of Hercule Poirot and the other actors, even such usually reliable performers as Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Doran, are limp in the grip of a clunky script. Venice as a setting is wasted, with most of the 103 minutes spent immersed in a gloomy storm, and the music is a weak reed. The Christie plot is perfectly serviceable, with a fine climactic twist, but is swamped by the mediocrity of its telling. Woeful.
Shayda offers a tense, credible, timely drama about an Iranian woman, with her six-year-old daughter, hiding in an Australian women’s shelter from her abusive Iranian husband, who has the relentless goal of taking the girl with him when he returns to Iran. Written and directed by Australian/Iranian Noora Niasari, the film kicks off in suspense mode, with the protagonist peering out of the shelter’s windows whenever a car approaches, and from then on, the tension is palpable. Niasari’s narrative control successfully melds the escalating plot and sweet mother-daughter moments, although I felt that some of the celebratory scenes played out too long. Zar Amir Ebrahim is flawless in the lead role and Osamah Sami plays the creepy, religious husband to a tee. Shayda is a well crafted, tense, and germane film.
What a healing, eloquent book A Therapeutic Journey: Lessons from The School of Life is! I have not read Alain de Botton for years and have tended to view his School of Life as undoubtedly helpful but also as an upper middle-class self-help clinic. Yet something of this book reeled me in and I suspect it was because I experienced existential anxiety a couple of years ago. Perhaps A Therapeutic Journey best suits not those afflicted with serious mental conditions but those hovering on the edge of serious damage. Be that as it may, the book is a treat, moving from the issues confronting those in despair, to a suite of pictures/photographs offering existential or mental health vantage points, to a sweeping, rousing collection of ideas around the rubric of “hope.” The author writes in soft, compassionate prose that is a pleasure to read, and a wonderful sense of novelty pervades the entire book; this is not typical of how-to tomes. Personally, I found A Therapeutic Journey to be indeed “therapy in the reading,” and anyone anxious or gloomy should seek it out.