“When Stars Grow Dark” is the seventh outing for Detective Chief Inspector Brendan Moran, an authoritative homicide investigator with an eclectic Thames Valley team. This time a car crash reveals an aged man clearly dead before the accident, which soon segues into a baffling serial killer mystery. At the same time, an ongoing spy-linked thread, tying Moran back to his Garda days in Ireland spirals out of control and drags him to Rotterdam. A sparkling series this is indeed, and I judge this book to be the highlight. Cunningly plotted, superbly paced, imbued with locales bucolic and otherwise, When Stars Grow Dark is notably graced with an involving ensemble of police characters that, for me at least, evoked the mastery of Garry Disher with his brilliant Peninsula Crimes series. I can feel certain this sparkling mystery will rank among my crime fiction exemplars of 2021.
A much lauded Russian author, Sergei Lebedev was unknown to me until recently, but if his fifth novel, “Untraceable,” is any guide, he will only grow in stature. Dubbed a political thriller, Untraceable is a riveting examination of state and private morality, anchored in hot-off-the-press news. An ex-Soviet super-chemist in charge of developing ultra toxic bioweapons at an institution called The Island, Professor Kailitin flees the collapsed empire and disappears under a new identity. Now, when another defector is mysteriously killed by a toxin that seems to leave no trace, Kailitin is called to help. But that arouses interest from Putin’s Russia, and two seasoned operatives depart to bring Kailitin down, using his own supreme nerve agent. No blockbuster, Untraceable is artfully structured as a thriller of predators chasing prey, but the author is far more interested in all his characters’ past and present emotional and ethical landscapes. Engrossingly atmospheric, the alternating chapters of Untraceable reminded me of James Sallis’s pithy, noir novels, creating in the reader not only visceral excitement but also lingering disquiet about our inner lives. Superb.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a passionate, semi-autobiographical examination of creative calling in the life of New York playwright Radha Blank, hailed at age thirty but almost a has-been at age forty. Reshaping herself, almost on a whim, as rapper RhadaMUSPrime, she embarks on a journey of artistic choice between twisting a play to fit a white audience or embracing scorching rapping from scratch. Radha Blank’s self-deprecating script fizzes with life and oscillates between intelligent dialogue, fiery performances, and funny situations. Directed by Blank, the film seems assured and mature, and while her own central performance occasionally (in my view) seems forced, some brilliant performances around her (just soak up Peter Kim and Oswin Benjamin) more than compensate. No rap fan, I nonetheless swooned at the rap scenes. A fresh take on a theme close to my heart, The Forty-Year-Old Version captivated me.
Arkady Martine’s opening space opera novel set in the Teixcalaanli Empire, A Memory Called Empire, won the Hugo Award, and my review judged it to be a worthy crown holder. That novel saw an outpost’s diplomat trainee thrust into high society and deal with a fused memory and treachery. Now Martine returns with “A Desolation Called Peace,” and this time our hero must negotiate with unreadable aliens poaching Empire ships on Empire’s fringe. The author is a superb world builder and the new setting comes vividly, and strangely, to life. As in the opening book, different characters lead the cleverlplot towards an accelerating finale. If I found the storyline of A Desolation Called Peace slightly less riveting than the first plot, I nonetheless read it in a white heat and thoroughly enjoyed it. A captivating two-volume space opera that feels as modern as it seems a nod to the classics.
Consummate writer of explanatory books, journalist/scribe David Pogue spotted an absence: even as climate change alters our lives, no one prepares properly for it at the individual level. Hence his “How to Prepare for Climate Change: A Practical Guide to Surviving the Chaos,” a comprehensive manual of anything that might occur to you right now in adapting to a warmer, turbulent planet (except for eating, something he found he could not tackle). Pogue is a deft stylist: “Just for fun, have a look at Miami … by 2060, a staggering 58.5% of Miami’s inhabitable land will be underwater. By 2100, it’ll be more like 94%. Miami is going away.” The book’s organization makes sense, Pogue structures each chapter well, and if anything seems relevant to you, well, this book is fascinating and useful. The problem is that much of it is dull, explication of emergencies few of us want or need to address quite just yet. We do not all need to prepare for floods, wildfires, storms, diseases, etc., etc. A manual for the second quarter of the 21st Century, How to Prepare for Climate Change should sit on your bookshelf, but the degree to which it engages your attention will depend on your own capacity for adaptive enquiry.
Low-key indie folk-rock that sat easily on my turntable, “Off Off On” impressed without upturning my world. Kate Stables’s gentle vocals reveal impressionistic lyrics over crafted arrangements that can branch into jazzy sax and brass. Recommended as a whole, with standout tracks being the softly chugging “Coming to get you nowhere” and the building “Started again.”
Ancient history is a novelistic sub-genre I shy away from but Steven Pressfield is a master of dramatic storytelling and something about “A Man at Arms,” its grand theme, drew me in. And I am so glad I opened its cover, for I read it in two evenings of transfixion. In the first century A.D., a new religion’s disciple’s letter on its way from Jerusalem to Corinthian rebels becomes an empire-shifting hunt. The Romans hire an amoral man-at-arms, our hero, who winds up with a ragtag team pursuing the letter. Then the moral balance shifts and his journey becomes an utterly compelling ordeal amidst savagery and corruption, a quest against odds almost impossible to contemplate, a quest only he might contemplate. Pressfield is justly famous for his nonfiction advice series to writers about how to pen compelling fiction, and in A Man at Arms, he provides a bloodthirsty yet noble case study. In a sense the ancient Roman and Jewish setting is artificial, for the novel reeks of a classic Western or a Star Wars epic, but at the same time, of course, the setting imbues the entire quest with significance. Written in a semi-formal voice of gravity, this novel startled me with its universal relevance and dramatic tension. Magnificent.
The homespun 60s-ish cover of “Swallowing the Sun” promises folk-rock and gentle melodies, and Steve Robinson, an English folkie who has spent two decades in a US band (The Headlights) and touring with Roger McGuinn, delivers on those promises. On his aptly named Sunshine Drenchy Records, he delivers eleven ear worms of folk-rock or folk-pop , all of them instant lockdown companions. Dave Gregory, one of my heroes from XTC, adds stunning guitar on two songs, especially impressive on “Needle in the Red,” a lustrous song of despair. So many blessed associations whizzed around my sonic mind as I basked in this stellar album—Wesley Stace, late-season Jayhawks, Elliott Smith, even the Microphones—all of them smart yet eschewing fat production. Highlights include the deliriously joyful “Dizzy Love Song,” sun drenched indeed; the Beatleesque “Mr Empty Head”; and “Milk and a Dash,” straight out of my 1960s and with a memorable chorus of “memories make us, then they take us down.” Swallowing the Sun seems certain to register in my top albums of 2021.
Another week, another robot soldier military sci-fi thriller. Set in a near-future somewhere in Ukraine, “Outside the Wire” posits a disgraced drone pilot being mysteriously teamed up with an android officer on a quest to quash nuclear Armageddon. The two leads are handsomely and authoritatively played by Damson Idris and Anthony Mackie respectively, with most of the bit players just plot fodder. Cracking action scenes are a strong feature of the film and the brooding wasteland ambience is well captured. Individual scenes, especially the tense interplay between the two heroes, are well written and directed. At one level, one can surrender to a ho-hum action movie, but the intriguing storyline begs for more skill. Unfortunately, not only is the setup of Outside the Wire cursed by silliness, a sequence of plot twists, clearly intended to be dramatic and unexpected, leaves one shaking one’s head with incredulity. Overall, acceptable entertainment that might have shone.
“Whoosh!” is a whoosh indeed, a synthesis by a revered band in their 70s of a musical genre they helped invent. It’s always been tempting to equate Deep Purple with Ian Gillan, the Purple vocalist with the screamingest, purest, most expressive voice of them all, and on this, their 21st album, he is in classic (if no longer screamy) form. But really, the heart of the band is the drum/bass combo of Ian Paice and Roger Glover, and they pound out thirteen varied yet unmistakable heavy metal/psych/boogie songs. Throw in eclectic keyboardist Don Airey and super guitar noodler Steve Morse, and you find that every track, even the more stock standard tunes, jumps out of the gate and delivers. They sound just like the show I went to in Festival Hall in Melbourne in the early 70s and while that seems ossified, it is also a source of comfort. Standout tracks are the chugging, raging “The Long Way Round”; the band interplay, straight out of the 1960s, and the easy majesty of Gillan’s vocals on “Nothing at All”; and the echoes of Gillan’s vocal harshness on his attack on politicians, “No Need to Shout.” Whoosh! is not for you, young music fan, but it’s plenty solid and fine.