“Agent Running in the Field” see maestro Le Carre firmly back in the spy ring, spooling out a tale of a middle-aged, mid-level British agent runner put in charge of a ragtag operative group that stumbles upon a Ukraine-linked plot. Throw in a mysterious baleful young squash-playing friend, an idealistic female spy, and the agent runner’s very British wife, and the story careens along with seemingly erratic twists, all told in a virtuoso Le Carre character-centric style that is a delight to read. To me, “Agent Running in the Field” marries the pell-mell plots of recent Le Carre novels to the subterranean storylines and themes of the Smiley days. If our hero morphs into an over-acting old star, and thus slightly shallow, the intensity of the plot and the bitterness of modern reality underlying it more than compensate. A rush of a read.
As I found last year, a field of excellent books was in general surpassed by an exemplary array of streaming seasons and films. A half year of lockdown viewing (some of it diving back into late 2019) yields seven TV seasons and three movies, of which only one is a documentary, four are thriller/mystery, three are sci-fi/fantasy, and two are contemporary dramas. I rated Succession Season 2 as a flawless 10/10, six films as 9/10, and four as 8/10. In no particular order (where one or two creators “created” the end product, I’ve listed them as authors, but often movie/seasons involve too many creators to cite):
Undone by Raphael Bob-Waksberg & Kate Purdy—who would have thought an animated sci-fi head trip movie would be one of 2019’s stronger offerings?
Unbelievable—a fine team of writers, excellent direction, and stellar acting make this excellent series, a mix of nitty-gritty whodunnit and victim drama, a must-see.
Succession Season 2—every one of the ten episodes of this Shakespearian corporate drama had me transfixed … flawless execution.
Bosch Season 6—as dependable as ever but exhibiting no drop in quality, with justice-driven Harry Bosch only one of the compelling characters.
Juice by Tyson Culver & Robert Bryce—a scintillating and captivating documentary about a seemingly dreary topic, electricity … an exemplar of story and film-making.
Killing Eve Season 3—even as the dramas of Eve and Villanelle shift towards the slightly cartoonish, the visual and narrative content, and the acting, remain vibrant.
Giri/Haji—Yakuza in London … an intoxicating pleasure of plot, acting, cinematography, and even music.
Parasite by Bong Joon-ho—a weird upstairs/downstairs drama in Seoul, compelling viewing from the first frame to the coda, that justly won this year’s Oscar
Proxima by Alice Winocour—the science fiction storyline following a female astronaut training to go to Mars is in reality a prop for one of the most moving parent-child dramas I’ve ever seen.
Good Omens—Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s beloved fantasy extravaganza about an angel and a demon in the last days is crowned by stunning acting performances.
Reading has been vital during the first half of 2020, over three months of which was spent in full or partial lockdown. Seven novels and three nonfiction books (a handful of which were actually published late in 2019) made my Top 10. Of the ten stellar books, seven were rated 9/10 and three (Where the Crawdads Sing, Peace, and Our Final Warning) hit 8/10. In no particular order:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens—echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, a robust tale, and singing descriptions of nature.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty—a remarkable thriller premise, a ferocious pace that will consume a night, and deep character connections.
Joe Ide’s Hi Five—number 4 in a Sherlock-Holmes-esque private eye series set in gangland LA … gorgeous writing.
Mark Jaccard’s The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success—superbly written and life-changing and mandatory. Hear that: mandatory.
Jenny Offill’s Weather—brilliant, muscular, experimental fiction that distills our climate emergency era.
The Reversing Tide by Frank Kennedy—third in a vast space opera series, a rocketing, stylish treat.
The Man Who Solved the Market by Greg Zuckerman—business histories rarely compel but this tour de force telling of a finance quant’s career is a superb exception.
Garry Disher’s Peace—the second in a murder mystery series set in the dry farming land of South Australia … richly rewarding and not a word wasted.
Our Final Warning by Mark Lynas—where will our one-degree world end up and how fast … wonderfully framed and written … if you read one global warming book in 2020, make it this one.
The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey—a post-apocalyptic novel, superbly plotted with an immersive hero … first in a trilogy that could become a classic.
“Scrubland,” the debut by Australian author Chris Hammer featuring his investigative hero, journalist Martin Scarsden, was a poised triumph of plot and character and evocative setting. Hammer’s sophomore novel, “Silver,” again features Scarsden, transplanted now to a tucked-away seaside town, Port Silver. This was where Scarsden grew up and his beau, Mandalay, has bought a house there, and within pages Martin is embroiled in a terrible murder. As in the debut, the mystery is a labyrinthine puzzler, the kind us mystery fans love, and Hammer orchestrates the unfolding with consummate skill. In contrast to the drought-blighted setting of “Scrubland,” this novel brings out the seaside vibe in an engrossing manner. If I found Scarsden to be less deeply portrayed this time round, especially in his plot-centric relationship with Mandalay, I was once more swept up by the rocketing plot and smooth writing. Not quite the sensation the first novel was, “Silver” is nonetheless a splendid, big-and-complex-plot mystery that reads like a dream.
“Proxima,” written and directed by Alice Winocour, is a straightforwardly plotted film so stunningly well executed and blessed with acting performances, that the cinematic stage effortlessly expands into a window on life and love. Eva Green deserves an Oscar for her sublime performance as Sarah, a French astronaut selected to join an international space mission, partnering with American Mike (played oh so right by Matt Dillon) and Russian Aleksey (an understated performance by Anton Ocheivsky that is like much of the film, thoroughly convincing, almost documentary style). The mission is heading to Mars and Sarah is subjected to rigorous training which is, again, fully realistic. But Sarah has a young daughter (the role amazingly powerfully nailed by Zélie Akerman Loreau) who is perceptive, emotive, and deeply centered. From the movie’s opening frames, we’re clear that the story is not about space, it addresses love and duty and ambition and all the gaps between. Moving from Cologne to Russia’s Star City, ahum with the mundanity and excitement of preparation for space, the film circles back, again and again, to mother-daughter moments and embraces and glances that break your heart. Well, “Proxima” breached my heart’s walls repeatedly, completely unexpectedly, which is code for “I wept, fellow viewers.” Even now, three days later, I can close my eyes and see the bond wrestling with the upcoming gulf – how can they stand it? This film deserves the status of quiet classic.
The fourth in a solid police procedural series set in evocative Norfolk, “Tell No Tales” finds dependable, sharp-minded, unstoppable Detective Inspector Tom Jansson pursuing the truth behind the mortal fall of an unidentified man from Sheringham Cliffs. I have walked the 78 kilometers of marshes, dunes, and beaches of the Norfolk Coastal Path and author J. M. Dalgliesh’s evocative descriptions of fictional Sheringham brought vivid memories back to life. Alongside his usual team, Jansson is now lumbered with a new Detective Sergeant, Cassie Knight, and the subtle interactions of this new relationship build on his evolving intricate storyline, in a familiar, slow-burning progression. The dead man turns out to have a dark past and as treacherous a present, and Jansson’s swirling set of clues almost unmoors him. As usual, Dalgliesh’s prose is smooth and muscular, his grounding in Norfolk is flawless, and his characterization is solid. The plot involves sinister outside forces, a device that can unroot the plot from the closely observed characters, but the climax is, as usual in this Hidden Norfolk series, satisfying and twisty. “Tell No Tales” is another fast, delectable read.
Garry Disher is a national treasure, a writer of subtlety and prodigious narrative control. “Peace” is the second in a murder mystery series set in the dry farming land of South Australia, starring Hirsch (aka Sergeant Paul Hirschhausen), a newbie in a small country town. None of your standard crime fiction tics for Hirsch: he is a decent, hardworking cop with a sharp mind. Disher is brilliant at setting the scene and bringing this unforgiving area of Australia to life, and in “Peace” he takes his time building up a tapestry of crimes, minor and then, dramatically, most major. The final third is a rollercoaster of investigation and action. A large array of characters, all people I’m sure you recognize, sparkles amidst Hirsch’s relentless pursuit of hard-won justice. Disher does not waste a word and the pages tumble under the reader’s eye; this is late-night compulsion. One of my favorite mystery reads in 2020.
“The Glovemaker” is an earnest historical novel set in a remote Mormon community in Utah in the late nineteenth century. A lone woman frets about her late-to-return husband when a fugitive lands on her doorstep. In an era thick with persecution (a fascinating unexpected morsel of history), the law will surely follow, and the novel turns into a fraught set of moral decisions by her and her neighbor. The setting amongst Utah’s canyons is vividly portrayed. “The Glovemaker” is a smooth read, most interesting, although the plot fails to live up to its early dramatic promise.
What saved me in my teen years was a mobile library housed in a bus. “The Giver of Stars” offers the fascinating tale of an even older mobile library, a horseback service run by women in rural Kentucky in the late 30s, so of course I was hooked. Jo Jo Moyes is a capable stylist, perhaps a little prone to clichés in characterisation and dialogue, but her steady plot, involving as it does marital woes, the library service’s battles against conservative men, and even a death, drew me in. Englishwoman Alice Wright and firebrand Margery O’Hare emerge as memorable. Descriptions of the library’s routes in all seasons bristle with life. An enjoyable read, although the ending rounded matters up too cleanly for my twisted likings.
Two brilliant musicians from different fields, Mark T. Smith from that unforgettable propulsive group, Explosions In The Sky, and Matthew Robert Cooper of crackly, fuzzy ambient Eluvium, combine to make up Inventions. “Continuous Portrait,” their third album, is a modest yet rather thrilling collection of oddball tunes. “Calico” settles into a rattling, shuffling rhythm overlaid by choral voice, banjo and thumped keys. The pastoral title track combines in a smooth organic whole disparate ambient elements such as burbles, rhymic chimes, and whispers. “Hints and Omens,” the longest of the nine tracks, begins with laughter and interjected keyboard figures and sounds, and then morphs into a pleasing EITS-style grandiose panorama. Some of the tracks are properly background ambient, but overall “Continuous Portrait” is more than the sum of its disparate parts, a moody, optimistic ode to modern music.