How long since I read a grand civilization-spanning novel? Echoes, perhaps muted, of Asimov in Frank Kennedy’s latest, “The Latest Everything.” No plot spoilers beyond what’s in the blurb: Jamie Sheridan, fleeing his backwoods town, finds himself being hunted by people he’s known all his life. The plot escalates, thickens, then spirals into a sprawling tale involving galactic forces timetabling his inevitable death. Jamie is an innocent beautifully portrayed, as are his two young fellow battlers. Kennedy is a sure-handed stylist and the book never misses a beat. Be swept up!
After every serial killer thriller, shouldn’t one read a cozy mystery? Gentle and intricate, the clues being the point, a la Agatha C, they’re a wonderful antidote. Murder in Mud, the second in a series featuring author and home husband Oliver Atkinson, is a lovely example of the sub-genre. In the first series book, his mind was inhabited by a female “hitchhiker,” a ghostly presence, in this book the hitchhiker is a grumpy Scotsman who prompts Oliver to investigate a murder involving the ghost’s great, great grandson. Oliver insinuates himself into the investigation and the plot unfurls like clockwork. Author Strong writes in a breezy, atmospheric style, the dialogue is sharp, and the other characters are well fleshed out. A breezy read that tickles the mind. Most enjoyable.
What an unanticipated gem! Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, has been brought to the screen with consummate artistry and intelligence by Joel Edgerton, fresh from his triumph with a very different film, Loving. I approached “Boy Erased” with trepidation, not wanting to witness close up the moral perfidy of conversion therapy. I thought I knew all about conversion therapy: using tactics akin to military psychological torture, with physical violence often thrown in, religious zealots set out to “convert” LGBT Christians into “normality,” a process intrinsically doomed to fail. In Boy Erased, Jared, a sweet, earnest, gay eighteen-year-old agrees with his minister father and his mother to be sent to a short day-stay conversion camp. Lucas Hedges is unbelievably powerful in his portrayal of Jared, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman don’t miss as beat as dad and mum, and Edgerton himself makes the flesh cringe as the camp’s overpowering, sociopathic head. As we witness with unfurling horror the diabolical process used to break down the camp’s young men and women, and as we see Jared struggling mightily to reconcile what he is seeing and experiencing, with his love for his parents,and his faith, the tension cooks and cooks. The climax is thrilling and then an extended aftermath rounds out the story with style. Eduard Grau’s cinematography, centered around close-ups of Jarrod’s questing face, is artful, and for once in a movie of this type, the discreet soundtrack blends perfectly. Stunning, not a moment awry.
“The Absent Man” is the second in an urban fantasy thriller series set in a sumptuously imagined Britain alongside a shadowy world of “Others.” Our rather baroque hero, Bermuda Jones, works for a police organization charged with dealing with evil creatures “crossing over,” and he is an appealing mixture of India-Jones-bravado, wisecracks, courage, and dejection. Author Enright’s plotting is nice and tight, places (this time centering on Glasgow) come to life, and characterisation is vivid if sometimes overwrought. I enjoyed this and its predecessor and will follow the series along, but I wish I didn’t have to reread and reread character motivations and themes. Action scenes are written very well but the general writing can be quite awkward. A readable, exciting adventure in a beguiling double-world.
As an addon book (by a hired gun) after the original Dragon Tattoo trilogy was ended with author Stieg Larsson’s death, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” was a barely passable thriller. Now brought to the big screen, the movie is a kinetic, lush zinger. Claire Foy, unrecognizable as The Queen or Neil Armstrong’s wife (her very recent roles), mesmerises as troubled super-hacker Lisbeth Salander. Quite how she does it, I can’t explain, but somehow Foy transcends the Bond-ish lurid plot, to the extent that every scene with her at center stage is a winning scene. The other actors are also perfectly cast, if somewhat limited by the narrative. If I was occasionally troubled by the “full-on-thriller” styling, that mattered little, for the combination of propulsive plotting and staging with Foy’s virtuoso performance swept me up. 117 minutes vanished and I emerged from the cinema overwhelmed and, weirdly enough, reflective. Bring on the next one in this post-Larsson series, I say.
The final half of the fourth “Bosch” season blasts onwards from the high drama of Episodes 4 and 5, with Bosch closing in on the murderer of a controversial African-American defense lawyer, while also tracking down killers much closer to home and digging into his own past. Titus Welliver inhabits the role of Bosch and here he reaches a new level of acting veracity. All the cogs of the intricate main plot, all the many support actors, all the subplots, all of these mesh into a satisfying, glorious whole. The highs and lows of LA are depicted grittily. I sank into the fascinating intricacies of evidence and clues and frame-ups. No need to hesitate, folks. Even if Bosch Seasons 1 to 3 passed you by, Season 4 is a 2018 highlight!
James Clear, with his book “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones,” follows on from a wonderful 2012 bestseller I’ve personally used a lot, namely Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit.” The powerful idea behind both books is to address the psychological stages we go through when slave to a habit, either to promote a new, virtuous habit, or to kill a beastly habit. By breaking down habits into stages, we can, so the theory goes, more readily promote or kill them. Duhigg used three stages: cue, routine, reward. James Clear adds another one, ending up with cue, craving, response, and reward. He’s a deft writer of crystalline explanations and uses a marvellous array of supporting examples. Anecdotes from his own life also help. The book is well laid out, with excellent diagrams and charts. Again reverting to personal experience, I question whether any habit-forming or habit-breaking process can overcome lack of fundamental motivation, a point Clear acknowledges very early, but if you’re seeking a path forward to an optimal armoury of habits, this will be most useful reading. One of the few recent “how-to” books that resonates freshly.
As with film biopics, so too with novels tagged on the front cover as “based on an incredible true story,” as “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is emblazoned. Can truth coexist with intelligent art? Well, I must have grown disgruntled from plenty of filmic and literary “true story” clunkers, for I only tackled Heather Morris’s novel because a discerning friend was enthusiastic, and I must admit I was wrong. “Tattooist” is about the man who survived Auschwitz because he snared the rare, protected job of hammering tattoos into the skins of the new arrivals at that hellhole atrocity. Employing gently rhythmic prose written in the first person, Morris walks in the shoes of Lale Sokolov as he survives, simply survives, but then is smitten by Gita, a young female inmate. The plot opens with tattooing and then, incredible as it may seem, escalates in tension all the way to war’s end and aftermath. I could barely read the scenes featuring butcher Doctor Mengeles, long my icon of pure evil, but all the characters, good and bad, are deftly brought to life (and often to death). With no fuss or tedium, the geography and workings of Auschwitz (and adjacent Birkenau) grow to life. As I implied above, the author’s prose is not showy at all, but calm and respectful, adding the necessary gravity and distance for the material. I wept at the end. Never forget, that’s our guiding light, and we must be thankful for Heather Morris and the trust shown in her by Lale.
British singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi has bloomed on her third release, “Hunter.” This is a powerful collection of songs propelled by drama and bold lyrics around gender and sexuality. She has one of those voices equally at home soaring or roaring or cooing, and ordinarily I’d be left a little cold by this kind of vocals, but not so in this case. Calvi’s guitar work is brilliant. I enjoyed the variety, ranging from swoony “Swimming Pool,” to dramatic, controversial “Hunter,” to snappy “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy.” The penny dropped when I discovered the producer is Nick Launay; he adds heft and grace and, yes, drama, to every track. A risky, triumphant album, “Hunter” is well worth a listen.
Tread with care, filmmaker! Biopics seem to paralyze screenwriters and directors, so I approached “First Man“—examining the life of one of the Twentieth Century’s icons, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon—with trepidation. I need not have worried. Josh Singer’s screenplay, closely based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of the same name, is wonderful, focusing on both the astronaut’s inner life and the juddering, fraught, cramped life of space pioneers. Director Damien Chazelle has followed up “La La Land” with a filmic perspective of alternatively majestic and muted intelligence. Long at 141 minutes, it should have been ponderous but instead time in the cinema just slips away. And the acting! I’ve idolized Ryan Gosling since the masterpiece “Drive” and here he inhabits Armstrong, illuming both his social reticence and his driven engineering passion. Claire Foy – is there a part she can’t play? – steals the show as Janet Armstrong. The cinematography, the music, the pacing . . . all wonderful. So go see “First Man” to find out how deep and sharp movies can be at illuminating history.