Season 1 of Slow Horses was delightful (my review), Season 2 triumphed (my review), what then of Season 3? This season is based on Mick Herron’s third book in the series, Real Tigers, a twisty thriller that has now, in the capable hands of a varied set of screenwriters and directors, come to life in six fast-paced episodes of fun. This time around, someone has kidnapped Catherine Standish, ex-drunk and current secretary of the brilliant, seemingly oafish Jackson Lamb, el supremo at Slough House, home to MI5/Regents Park rejects. From a Bond-esque opening flashback scene in Istanbul plus the present-time kidnapping, the action never ceases. Gary Oldman remains priceless as Lamb, Kristin Scott Thomas has never been as witty and icy as her Lady Diana here, and the actors playing the seven other “slow horses” are perfectly cast and top notch in execution. The wit, mostly taken from the novel, is worth watching the show for, and the episode-by-episode direction is stylish without being slick. All in all, my only very minor comment concerning another sheer pleasure of a season, is that the underlying book felt gritty and realistic, whereas this season seemed over-frenetic (without losing control or picking up plot holes) and even sometimes a tad implausible. Might they have benefitted from drawing Season 3 out to ten episodes?
Chilean author Benjamin Labatut stunned the literary world in 2020 with a fiction-fact blend about early 20th Century scientists, When We Cease to Understand the World. His latest, The Maniac, has a similar bent but is, in my opinion, vastly superior to the earlier one. Rather than testing my patience, as the earlier one did, The Maniac is such a virtuoso rush of fictional/actual reportage spanning a century and bookended by tales of Paul Ehrenfest, despairing peer of Einstein, and the 2016 battle royale between South Korean Go titan and an AI program, AlphaGo. In between, and occupying the heft of the book, is the story of prodigious scientist and intellectual John von Neumann, who was instrumental in birthing the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the computer age, AI, nuclear warfare theory, and game theory. Unlike the earlier book, I surrendered to Labatut’s gold-spun stories covering von Neumann from different character viewpoints. I surrendered even when, say, he spoke in the voice of physicist Eugene Wigner, a voice I found unfamiliar despite reading so much about Wigner. The outsized, super-fervid brain and personality of von Neumann is brought to stunning life, and the scenes around his 1957 death read like science fiction come to reality. The Maniac is a virtuosic delight indeed.
One of the talented geeks (that’s a compliment, by the way) enumerating the details of the climate crisis at website Our World in Data, Hannah Ritchie has done us all a service by addressing the big picture of the challenges of our future. Taking inspiration from one of the heroes of “the data shows us our world has improved over the last century” school of thought, the late Hans Rosling, Ritchie’s thesis is crystal clear and explicated by her new book’s title: Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet. Yes, humanity faces enormous perils studded with prospects of disaster, but one can readily see a happy future fed by all the decarbonization and technological efforts so far. Examples jostle for the reader’s attention: ““It took countries like the UK and the US two centuries to go through the rise and fall of air pollution. With new technologies, countries are going through this transition four times as quickly. Better yet, some of the poorest countries might be able to skip the curve entirely.” Are cities bad? “It’s a romantic idea, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Our cities and urban areas take up just 1% of the world’s habitable land. Agriculture takes up 50%. Our biggest footprint on the world’s land is not the space that we ourselves take up, and build our houses on; it’s the land that’s used to grow our food. This is the biggest driver of deforestation, not the rise of urbanisation. In fact, the migration of people from rural areas to cities has mostly been good for protecting our forests.” Ever since publication, controversy has ranged over a number of Ritchie’s assertions, often on more minor issues, but at least she presents data that can be analyzed. For me, the crowning achievement of Not the End of the World is the way it pivots over the second essential task for humanity (after electrifying everything), which is to cut meat production and consumption markedly. On that our future depends and the reader’s congruence with the author’s optimism will depend on how credible this prospect is.
Lessons in Chemistry, the unexpected hit 2022 novel by Bonnie Garmus, always seemed destined for the screen, so now we have the eight-episode streamer Lessons in Chemistry. Aspects of the novel frustrated my reading experience, but the book’s wonderful mix of 1960s atmospherics, feminism, geekdom, and family dynamics led me to look forward to a tighter, more poised version onscreen. Alas, as I should have expected, the show is a meticulous set rendition (pre-hippy America comes to life) and faithful retelling, but falls flat in the key areas. Brie Larson does a creditable job as heroine Elizabeth Zott, uncertain evangelism for women’s opportunities via a chemistry-centric TV cooking show, but unfortunately creditable is not good enough. Lewis Pullman is simply too restrained as Calvin Evans, the brilliant love of Zott’s life. Other bit players shine somewhat brighter, but the low-key softly voiced script, allied to a limp music score, gives them no chance to shine. Some scenes are stronger than others but the overiding vibe of Lessons in Chemistry is a muted period piece, not the compelling drama I had hoped to sink into.
Season 1 of Fargo, the show flowing from the original Coen Brothers movie, set a very high bar indeed. Season 1 pulsed with Minnesotan desolation and energy, fizzed with plot ideas, and entranced with glowing and dark characterization. It was noir as only noir can be. Season 2 was almost as fine, then the third and fourth seasons somehow lost the magic. Now Noah Hawley, the brains trust throughout, returns with Season 5 and I can report that it is a return to his sublime best. When a demure Minnesotan housewife briefly hits national news and incites a kidnapping attempt springing from her past, a cascade of noir events brings together the woman, not at all as dainty as she seems (Juno Temple is exemplary in this role); her apple-pie husband and daughter; her rampaging billionaire mother-in-law (played with vicious vigor by Jennifer Jason Leigh); a MAGA rogue sherriff (I think Jon Hamm steals the show); a compelling roster of cops and FBI operatives; a compelling cast of crooks; and, in a typical gothic twist, an ultra-creepy super-assassin (Sam Spruell cannot be ignored in any scene). The plot is utterly unpredictable, the violence is both capricious and essential, the dialogue sparkles, and directorial control and flourishes delight. Every one of the ten episodes grips and twists. Watch Season 5 of Fargo to remind yourself what noir is on the screen.
Simon Winchester is the perfect author to attempt a discursive, comprehensive, “knowledgeable” book about humanity’s history with information (distinguishing between information, knowledge, and wisdom). Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic is no dry treatise but an almost chatty, story-led tour through its subject matter. Winchester cannot write a dull sentence, so the reading experience itself is pure pleasure, and if he sometimes detours on a narrative side path just in order to yarn a fine yarn, well, the reader inevitably chuckles and travels with the flow. Fascinating sections include polymaths, encyclopaedias, libraries, paper, the Internet, AI, oral traditions … the list goes on and on. Eventually his narrative goal is to quiz whether, in our modern age of all knowledge being virtually at our fingerprints, knowledge is now useless, and if he never quite comes to a conclusion on that issue, he raises it wonderfully and provocatively. Knowing What We Know is a minor gem of broad-brush history and reportage.
Novels about “different” children and teenagers are, in my experience, a hit or miss read. Some well-regarded works leave me cold, but How to Build a Boat, by Irish novelist Elaine Feeney (whom I’ve never read but will now catch up with), seized me with a clear, cold grip from the outset. Uncompromising in style and approach, the novel revolves around Jamie, a thirteen-year-old boy with an intellect and imagination as wide as the universe, a boy destined to be teased at school. Into his life are thrust two teachers, Tess and Tadhg, both compassionate but life-muddled, and a boat, a currach, in the making. The author is a renowned poet and her predilection for free-flowing verse crops up irregularly and beautifully. The novel shines in those scenes told from Jamie’s disjunctive, lurching viewpoint; I shed a tear often. The novel’s themes of imagination’s heft, the power of love, and how community arises, come to life through the characters, and the author eschews tidiness in plotting. Some may find How to Build a Boat puzzling. I revelled in it.
Distinguished and much lauded French novelist and playwright Marie Ndiaye has penned Vengeance Is Mine, positioned (at least in the English-speaking markets) as a literary thriller. A provincial Bordeaux lawyer lands the case of her lifetime, hired by a man to defend his wife against the charge of drowning their three children. Immediately she remembers him as an older boy who somehow may have violated her in childhood, and her life is turned upside down by memories and vague thoughts of revenge. The author burrows into her protagonist’s mind and some scenes are evocatively drawn, but from the start, I found myself baffled by a formless plot and by stilted dialogue. A feverish atmosphere is well developed but the ending disappoints, and my abiding feeling from the swift read was incomprehension, a bafflement that irked rather than intrigued.
An eloquent novel about guilt and veganism set in the rarefied world of financial quant funds, The Vegan, is like nothing else you will read from 2023. Herschel Caine (isn’t that a swashbuckling name for a finance king?) is one the cusp of riches, with his groundbreaking upstart investment fund, when a minor prank tailspins into a tragedy that derails him, suddenly forcing him to empathize with the world of animals and question his entire life. Employing the lingo of quant funds, but adding a flair for lilting prose, the author tells a deftly plotted tale that leaves the reader guessing until the final chapter, and the ending is simultaneously natural, strange, and correct. The Vegan is a swirling brain trip, a lovingly crafted ode to animals and investment, and a quasi-thriller. Recommended.
Much anticipated because of Anthony Doerr’s brilliant novel, All the Light We Cannot See, a four-part streamer series, commences with one of its many sweeping wartime set pieces, as Allied forces bomb a Nazi-occupied French village and we see a teenage girl broadcasting from an attic room. The girl fled Paris earlier with her father, a museum curator who rescued and hid a precious jewel, and now the father is gone. Enter a young German radio operator (played with intensity by Louis Hofmann), brilliant at his craft and repulsed by his Nazi overlords. Enter a reptilian Nazi jewel hunter (Lars Eidinger is the only actor to imbue the many Nazi villains with any malevolent heft and he does it with style). The three inexorably wend their way to confrontations, amidst numerous flashbacks filling out the tale. The underlying book embraced huge themes of inhumanity, hope, and redemption through culture, and it did so with grave grace. The film’s arc captures the book’s tale faithfully, and it brings war’s kaleidoscopic horrors to stunning life, but the script is pedestrian and many actors are miscast. The music, by stalwart James Newton Howard, is old school strings and is execrable. Overall, All the Light We Cannot See is passable lush entertainment but utterly fails to do the book justice.