The Starling [5/10]

The Starling review

A mixed bag, this one. On the one hand, the first half of “The Starling” sets up a dramatically rewarding narrative of a married couple whose baby dies, plunging the husband into institutionalised depression and the wife into stoic activity, their stalled dynamic disrupted by a protective bird and a wise veterinarian. Notably, Melissa McCarthy is pitch-perfect as the wife, Chris O’Dowd captivates as the husband, and Kevin Kline is perfect for the role of the sage. For half the film, the plot and pacing are masterful and the film grips. But the second half fails to match the first, descending into cliche and sentimentality. Overall, The Starling is an entertaining ninety minutes that should have been so much more.

Warmth by Daniel Sherrell [7/10]

Daniel Sherrell Warmth review

Most climate change writing is by “adults,” us older folks who poisoned the well in the first place, so how refreshing it is to 20s-something activist Daniel Sherrell’s meditations on the subject, “Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World.” Sherrell is a captivating stylist with a wide-ranging mind, with a capacity to think more deeply about the subject than most of us (and indeed some of his reflections dug a little too deep for me). Structured as a letter to a potential child, the book ranges back and forth through time, and weaves in tales of his activism and his pursuit of understanding, including a wonderfully evoked outback “journey” with indigenous folks in Broome, Australia. Especially noticeable is his rage against my generation, mostly against the immoral denialists and obstructionists, but also a general contempt. I understand and appreciate this, and I found the read to be a fast-flowing and bracing one. Warmth is highly recommended for those of you exploring the gap between doomism and gung-ho activism.

Dead Ground by M. W. Craven [8/10]

M. W. Craven Dead Ground review

Dead Ground” is the fourth outing for a sparkling mystery series featuring serial killer hunters Detective Sergeant Washington Poe and his analyst, Tilley Bradshaw. He is bluff, unstoppable, and intuitive, while she is super-geeky and nigh socially inept. The novel opens with a riveting scene featuring vault bandits wearing James-Bond-actor masks and quickly moves to a baseball bat murder in a Cardiff brothel. Poe and Bradshaw become swept up into MI5’s domain, and the case (the cases?) grows ever more baffling. The author proceeds in short, sprightly chapters featuring pitch-perfect dialogue, with wonderful control of pacing. A classic mystery plot with unforeseen twists pins the reader to her seat. But the feature that distinguishes this series from the many mystery offerings I read is the hilarious, yet emotionally true rapport between Poe and Tilley. Dead Ground begs to be read in a single sitting and is one of 2021’s bumper mysteries.

The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh [5/10]

Steve Cavanagh The Devil’s Advocate review

Eddie Flynn is a fine hero for Steve Cavanagh’s six-strong legal thriller series: both an ex-con-artist and a lawyer for underdogs, he is determined and smart. ”The Devil’s Advocate” has a sensationalistic plot that roars into action from page one: a relentless “death row” prosecutor in rural Alabama, a young man accused of a grotesque murder, a defense attorney gone missing, and Flynn drafted in to save the day against impossible odds. The author is a sprightly stylist who piles on the action, buttressing it with vigorous characterisation and wonderful dialogue. I thoroughly enjoyed the first five Flynn outings and The Devil’s Advocate is just as much a roller-coaster ride as they were, but this time round, the expertly wrought pacing is unwound slightly by cartoonish villains, an overly complex web of characters supporting Flynn, and a twist that had me shaking my head in disbelief. If, like me, you’re a fan, stick with this fun outing, but if you are new to Eddie Flynn, tackle the first few books.

Falling by T. J. Newman [7/10]

T. J. Newman Falling review

Airplane thrillers—thrillers set on planes, not thrillers meant to be read on planes—need a cracking plot and flawless execution, and “Falling” possesses both. Debut novelist T. J. Newman’s premise, that of a pilot told to crash a commercial flight to save his family, sets off a fast plotline controlled superbly, and the escalating tension kept this reader glued to his seat. The author is a robust stylist and the airplane milieu is evoked splendidly. My only minor qualm was a strand of patriotic sentimentalism that kept rising to the surface needlessly, but this quibble was swept aside by the pleasure of the read. Falling is a scorching read and an ideal present for your non-reading grand-niece or brother-in-law.

The Star Builders by Arthur Turrell [5/10]

Arthur Terrell The Star Builders review

British physicist Arthur Terrell is the first to acknowledge the chronic label faced by nuclear fusion, that it is perennially the next big thing on the energy front, without getting any closer to fruition. But he, like the fusion pioneers he interviews at length in ”The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet,” is dazzled by this energy source’s progress over the decades, but especially recently. According to his research, the dauntingly difficult task of building a star in a physical structure has advanced by orders of magnitude. Having read about nuclear fusion in the 1950s, when it was first heralded with great fanfare, I have some knowledge but I was glad to learn more, and Terrell is a smooth enough writer. If he is not a riveting stylist, if he bounces too often between enthusiasm and scepticism, if the non-technical explanations of what is plainly a highly technical field still left me somewhat baffled … well, perhaps my eventual lack of engagement exposed a flaw in my mind or attitudes, but in the end, I found The Star Builders to be a diverting read that fell short of compelling.

Aisles by Angel Olsen [7/10]

Angel Olsen Aisles review

One of the most compelling, intelligent musical artists gracing our ears is Angel Olsen. An EP of six songs, comprising 80s songs she recalls from supermarket aisles, “Aisles” is a tasty pandemic-times diversion, a woozy concoction. Olsen’s voice, as always, is hypnotic and emotional, her delivery flawless, and she is not afraid to subvert each song’s original treatment. Standouts are faithful but atmospheric rendition of Alphaville’s “Forever Young”; a gauzy, funereal version of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”; and a lilting go at Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” Look, Aisles is not the next Angel Olsen, the one we’re longing for, but anything she sings is instant ear candy, and Aisles is a loveable diversion.

Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown [5/10]

Bryan Brown Sweet Jimmy review

Who would have thought a famous actor would turn to writing bleak, almost avant-garde noir? ”Sweet Jimmy” presents half a dozen stories of crims, cops, and ordinary people in a sparse Ocker style nothing at all like what you find in most books on the mystery shelves. Three thieving cousins go straight … but women are dying. An ex-swimming coach is scammed – what next? A young thief receives a dangerous windfall. Two tourists accept a lift. The author’s style is noir as noir can be, short sentences hammered around the plot, impressionistic thoughts amongst the raw action. Occasionally the plotting sprays in all directions, with back story popping up opportunistically, and characterisation is laid down with thick brush strokes that sometimes work, sometimes distances. Sweet Jimmy makes for a couple of hours of entertaining crime fiction reading that can, in a couple of the picaresque tales, aspire to emotional truth.

Hemingway by Ken Burns & Lyn Novick [8/10]

Hemingway review

I read Ernest Hemingway too young, in my teens, and I retain a sense of awe and a recognition of stylistic heaven, but little else. I missed some of his seminal works. So “Hemingway,” the six-hour documentary biographical series from Ken Burns and Lyn Novick, proved to be fascinating from the first frame. Using an amazing archive of photographs, video footage, and background material, and accompanied with a stylish soundtrack, the series relates the Nobel-Prize-winning author’s life painstakingly, the measured commentary from Peter Coyote striking a commanding pose. Jeff Daniels narrates Hemingway’s own voice, from his various books, and his delivery is hypnotic. A range of talking heads, from biographers to novelists, provide varying commentary on the life laid before us; striking contributions chime in from Edna O’Brien, Michael Kitakis, and Tobias Wolff. Hemingway’s tale of ascent and descent needs no embellishment and none is given, just a reverential yet sober recounting. I find movie biopics to be sapped of life, yet this documentary hums with tension and import and drama. Hemingway is a balanced, moving, and revelatory examination of an amazing creator’s all-too-human life.

The Running-Shaped Hole by Robert Earl Stewart [6/10]

Robert Earl Stewart The Running-Shaped Hole review

Robert Earl Stewart has this in common with me: he jogs, rather than runs, and running has played a central role in his life. “The Running-Shaped Hole” is his half-decade story of embracing running as a last ditch effort to escape a downward spiral of morbid obesity and morbid depression. Like me, he is ultra slow; like me, he finds purpose in his running quest; unlike me, he seems to have amazing willpower to aspire within a few years to run a half-marathon despite still being heavy. Using a conversational, confessional style, the author weaves an intricate story of his life with a wonderful family as he steps away from the brink of self-destruction, a story replete with tales of running’s pleasures and woes. Sporty readers or those pondering what jogging is like will find The Running-Shaped Hole a useful, entertaining read.