The Secret Hours by Mick Herron [10/10]

Mick Herron The Secret Hours review

Of course we were pining for our next hit of Jackson Lamb ruling over his band of misfits at Slough House, but no, “The Secret Hours” is billed as a standalone spy thriller. That is not exactly true, even though The Secret Hours does not mention the Slow Horses, for this novel is a hefty (nearly 400 pages) “origins of” backstory, dressed up within a startlingly up-to-date internal investigation by the secret service. After an opening action scene that is the most pulse-pounding bravura stretch of writing I have read for years, the novel devolves into a wishy-washy inquiry run by two hapless desk jockeys, saturated with the author’s trademark wisecrack, cynical take on the modern world, into which explodes ancient spy tales from 1994 Berlin (Berlin being, of course, the heart of all spy thrillers, ever since the advent of George Smiley). Herron’s plotting is as devious and brilliant as any he has deployed and the spook atmospherics are superb. From the start, I sensed a deep homage to some of John Le Carre’s classics, the ones where innocents and not-so-innocents intertwine into a tapestry of grand beauty, horror, and yes, love. All of the above words add up to a verdict that surprised when it dawned on me: The Secret Hours is Mick Herron’s masterpiece, a grand drama written so well it will survive the eons. It is a compulsory read but, I regret to say, one that should properly follow the eight Slough House novels (and please, don’t omit the four interposing novellas!). Grace yourself with those books and The Secret Hours, and you too shall be redeemed.

Shrinking [6/10]

Shrinking review

Dreamed up by a Ted Lasso front runner and one of that show’s stars, Shrinking is a jiggly comedy about a grieving therapist’s attempts to radically reinvent his psychological methods. Chaos ensues and a chaotic social circle around the therapist provides drama and fun. Jason Segel is wonderful as Jimmy the therapist, and the supporting cast is fine, including a fine turn by Harrison Ford as Jimmy’s grouchy therapist boss. The comedy flows endlessly and while not all of it is laugh-out-aloud hilarious, one scene in particular, a barfing one, had me shaking with laughter. The quality of the first nine episodes varies a little, a couple falling rather flat, but overall Shrinking, with its half an hour per episode, is an engaging concoction with loads of intelligence. Until, that is, the tenth and final episode that wraps it all up, which is a disaster of lame unoriginality. It is rare these days to see otherwise savvy scriptwriters fall down so badly, but this is not a fall but a plummet. So feel free to watch Shrinking for a mostly engaging tale; just don’t expect to leave the show delighted.

The Monk by Tim Sullivan [6/10]

Tim Sullivan The Monk review

I have come late to British crime writer Tim Sullivan’s series featuring Detective Sergeant George Cross, a dogged homicide detective diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. His fifth, The Monk, sees Cross tackling the savage murder of a seemingly charismatic monk. Befitting his personality, Cross patiently assembles a twisted skein of clues from the past, ably assisted by his fellow sergeant (who at one point wonders if she is the Watson to a Holmes). The plot is deliciously complex and patient, and Cross is a different, sympathetic protagonist with his own personal issues. I enjoyed the overnight read even though the author does overly belabour Cross’s autistic aspects.

Driving Madeleine by Christian Carion [6/10]

Driving Madeleine review

A long, long drive across Paris, with tightly wound, troubled Charles a taxi driver ferrying old, ill Madeleine to a nursing home, gives “Driving Madeleine” license to softly, softly explore two different characters from different eras. An easy conceit that plays out like a theatre play, the film also indirectly shines a light on Paris itself. Dany Boon and Line Renaud are perfectly cast and slot into their roles with happy ease. As the journey progresses, the ice breaks and Madeleine relates (via acted-out flashbacks) the central tragic early highlights of her life. The pair gradually bonds over traffic, ice creams, and a bang-up dinner. Filmmaker Christian Carion is unafraid of drenching the climax in a sappy, predictable glow that blunts any edge the movie could have had, but even that sentimentality seems like a conscious filmic decision rather than poor scripting. Nothing much happens in Driving Madeleine and that in itself drapes it with a cozy warmth that engulfs the viewer.

Moscow X by David McCloskey [7/10]

David McCloskey Moscow X review

An accomplished spy thriller, with a time-honored plotline, Moscow X makes for a splendid weekend of reading. The second complex, realistic outing by David McCloskey, it kicks off with a propulsive scene in an eastern European jail and then ricochets between Putin’s Moscow, London, and Texas. Three main characters drive the action: the wife of a Moscow bank executive and racehorse owner; a lawyer working for a London firm laundering dirty money; and a racehorse breeder. A battle between two antagonistic henchmen of Putin catalyzes the Moscow woman to intersect with the other two, tasked with running a covert operation deep within Russia. Double crosses lead to triple crosses, the action ratchets up with high tension, and the plot twists, twists, and twists. The author provides great verisimilitude concerning modern espionage and money shenanigans. Very much a plot-driven novel, the three main characters nonetheless acquire solidity and gravitas. The author is a robust stylist. All of these elements combine in Moscow X for a satisfying, classical espionage diversion.

Zero Days by Ruth Ware [7/10]

Ruth Ware Zero Days review

The thriller genre is a crowded one and there are always “best seller” authors in it pumping out seemingly “thrilling” books. Unless you specialise exclusively in the genre, you are never going to stay fully on top of it. I had noticed Ruth Ware for a few years but until now had not tackled any of her seven thrillers, until I blitzed Zero Days in two evenings. The title refers to a nefarious “exploit” that hackers use to take over remote computers and systems, and the plot is straight out of Robert Ludlum’s playbook: when Gabe’s husband and fellow “computer security penetration consultant” is killed, with Gabe the inevitable suspect, she goes on the run and, using her “white knight” hacking skills, desperately seeks answers. Propulsive and artfully plotted, with well delineated characters, Zero Days is a top-notch thriller. If the style, a breathless “in the character’s head” one, weighed me down a tad, that was a reflection of my druthers, and you may well appreciate every page. Recommended.

Command Z by Steven Soderbergh [7/10]

Command Z review

Steven Soderbergh directs a recent “movie” with a startling structure and provenance, an outing that delights and intrigues. A maybe-utopian, maybe-dystopian science fiction fable set in July 2023, Command Z is watchable from its own website for a US$8 fee, and parses as eight short episodes accumumulating to the normal length of a film. Michael Cera is scarily certain yet implacable (but also playful) as the AI version of a recently dead billionaire who tasks a motley crew of ordinary employees—a naive enthusiast, a jaded materialist, and a cynical radical—with saving the world by jumping into the minds of people who can influence “evil geniuses” (the title of the 2020 nonfiction book by Kurt Andersen, one the film’s three co-writers) fucking up the world, thereby altering the path of history. The film’s set is primitive and stage-like, yet uncomfortably believable. JJ Maley, Roy Wood, Jr., and Chloe Radcliffe are superb as jiving, jousting psychic adventurers. Under Soderbergh’s direction and a fine script, the movie uncannily segues between tones of simplistic futurism, dead-serious climate crisis debate, and nifty plot twisting. Command Z is an intoxicating brew quite unlike any other I have seen this year, and heartily recommended.

Ted Lasso Season 3 [9/10]

Ted Lasso Season 3 review

The first season of Ted Lasso was a sublime shock to the system (see my review), a sweet but robust tale that combined playful humor with perspicacity. The second season dialled down the smarts but retained the wisdom (see my review). The twelve-episode finale, Season 3, amps up the drama of Lasso, an American coach with a hokey, “wise” style overseeing a British soccer team (that juxtaposition leading to much humor). His team, a wonderfully diverse and well portrayed team, AFC Richmond, had been struggling at the end of Season 2 but is now on the rise. Will it ascend to the top a la Mighty Ducks? At the same time, the creators/writers carefully lay out the ground to conclude the show, which leads to many saccharine moments that could, in lesser hands, be a sopping disappointment. Instead, we are treated to a wonderful mix of humor, pathos, and, most tellingly, life lessons. Season 3 is a triumph and its closing scenes crown one of the most engaging examples of modern streamer-led television. The entire sequence of Ted Lasso is roundly commended.

Turn Every Page by Lizzie Gottlieb [9/10]

Turn Every Page review

If you knew nothing of Robert Caro, the superlative biographer, or Robert Gottlieb, one of the most influential and productive editors of the modern age, “Turn Every Page,” a documentary of their fifty-year author-editor relationship by the editor’s daughter, might seem arcane, only for literary insiders. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyone involved with or interested in creativity, in any field, should watch this on repeat. Brilliantly structured and paced, the documentary weaves their histories, illustrated with archival photographs and videos and enlivened by talking heads of high quality, with talking to both men and watching them work together (on Caro’s fifth volume of his LBJ biography, surely the most anticipated book in decades). Caro’s diligence and idealism shine through, as does Gottlieb’s brilliance and prodigious life. Turning Every Page should garner 2023 awards and you need to watch it.

A Tale of Two Cranes by Nathanial Gronewold [6/10]

Nathanial Gronewold A Tale of Two Cranes review

Written by an ardent journalist pursuing a topic out of love, A Tale of Two Cranes: Lessons Learned from 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act is just the type of book we need, a readable, story-telling exposition unfolding academic research. For many, the topic of the relative success rates of conservation efforts in different countries applied to two similar, highly threatened bird species might hold little intrinsic interest, but there are general threads here, to do with how best we can bend the current looming mass extinction of species towards something sustainable. The storyline is actually very engaging: in southern America, the resplendent Whooping Crane species was on its last legs after World War II, as was the similarly beautiful Red-crowned Crane (until now I had not realized how matching they are in appearance!) in northern Japan. Conservation efforts in the United States fell under the landmark 1973 Endangered Species Act (which the author analyzes with fine detail), while in Japan, individuals led the charge. Both species are now out of the worst danger zone, while still under the hammer, but, the author wonders, which approach worked best? Can we learn from this? Nathanial Gronewold is a super enthusiastic chronicler, so keen to ensure we understand complex material that he is often discursive and repetitive, and he writes in a fluid, conversational manner. Overall, A Tale of Two Cranes is a welcome addition to the recent flood of climate change/conservation reading for the ordinary citizen, and if the topic twitches your antennae, I can recommend it.