Thomas Perry pens stylishly crafted traditional thrillers, often based around very bad people. The pleasures in a Thomas Perry novel – and they are pleasures – consist of intricate, fascinating plots; characters drawn deeply enough to engage as more than plot cyphers; and subject matter drawn from the dark side of humanity. “Eddie’s Boy” (coming out in December) is the fourth instalment of a series nearly four decades old; “The Butcher’s Boy” won the Edgar Best First Mystery Award in 1983. Now Michael Schaeffer, trained long ago to be a mob hit man and astonishingly good at it, is older, settled in the English countryside. When, on the very first page of this juggernaut of action, assassins arrive to kill him, he is forced to resurrect his skills and go looking for those after him, a meticulously plotted journey to Australia and then to the heart of crooked America. I guarantee you’ll not put the book down, and if sometimes Schaeffer’s bleak world curdles inside your stomach, the cat-and-mouse hijinks soon flush the bile away. A thriller reader’s thriller and worth every engrossing minute.
Grant Snider is one of the best comic strip illustrator/writers around. He writes for adults but also for children, and it’s with the latter that he shines. His previous book, “What Color Is Night?,” is my favorite book to read to grandchildren. The follow-up, “What Sound Is Morning?,” hits the same sweet spots: a lovely tale of morning sounds, scenes, and activities; a focus on morning sounds; intricate, evocative drawings; lyrical text that challenges children and keeps adults satisfied; and a beautiful palette of early morning reds, yellows and oranges. Somehow Snider captures fully the pregnant promise of dawn and the early morn. “What Sound Is Morning?,” like its predecessor, is destined to blossom into a classic.
In “Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet,” the mammoth subject of the future of food and eating for eight billion humans amidst global warming is tackled by three Canadian academics in disciplines ranging from food, history, and ecology. Many books are tumbling out about this impossible-to-fully-cover subject, but the authors achieve focus and a cogent narrative by framing the wider subject around eight foods, namely algae, caribou, kale, millet, tuna, crickets, milk, and rice. For example, “Crickets” is a wonderfully informative and entertaining chapter tackling new foods and technologies aimed at shifting populations from meat/fish eating to more climate-sustainable diets, including Impossible Burgers and, yes, crunchy crickets. The chapter “Rice” considers the Nirvana of a tech fix in the form of C4 rice or nitrogen-fixing corn. In the end, “Uncertain Harvest” offers few answers because there are no magic bullets. Any globally relevant “solution” involves changing human behaviors on diet and social justice. But we need to be clear-headed, and this book offers wide-ranging and clear-headed sagacity, and is a strangely entertaining read to boot.
A gently evolving tale with underlying gravity, “A Terrible Country” follows a young American who returns to Moscow to care for his dementing grandmother, at the tail end of the 2010s. It’s a classic tale of innocence awakening, as Keith Gessen’s lovingly detailed pen describes modern Russia contrasted with the grandmother’s memories of the Stalinist/Brezhnevian Soviet era. Our hero is so earnestly lovable and innocent, yet Putin’s Russia is so seductive and dangerous! The plot involves no earth-shattering events, rather our Andrei gradually becomes enmeshed in his new world, to the point where he imagines it’s his new home and that he is Russian, only to find he is, after all, the naïve foreigner. Knowing a little about that neck of the woods, I loved the nitty-gritty, well described details, and Gessen’s dialogue is constantly amusing. For the life of me, I can’t quite place “A Terrible Country” against some of my favorite novels over the seventies, but suffice it to say this feels old-fashioned and intelligently so. If you have any interest in Russia, grab this and soak it in.
One of the recurring morsels of advice artfully provided by Sallie Tisdale, author and palliative nurse and Zen Buddhist, in her remarkable “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying,” is that when it comes to your death, “all the planning and support and advance directives in the world won’t give you control.” Time and time again she stresses that in this final journey, every individual makes herself anew. And yet, paradoxically, in this book she guides us through falling ill, falling mortally ill, dying, and, for survivors, grieving. Sometimes advice to a carer, sometimes wisdom for those about to die, a mix of tales and instructions and analyses, “Advice for Future Corpses” manages (at least for me it did) pierce the veil of blindness and disregard around death. She writes: “At the moment of death, a thousand tiny things happen. A fading, a flattening out.” And then, tenderly, she describes the body after death. Wonderful writing throughout. I appreciate this isn’t for anyone, but if being honest and being prepared are something you ascribe to, Sallie Tisdale is your beacon.
Part of the On XXX series, “On Hope” is a pamphlet-length blast of vigor from Daisy Jeffrey, a core leader of the huge 2019 Australia Climate Strike rally (and its strikes). Unlike many of the On series, Jeffrey offers little stylistic complexity, instead we get an “in the moment” picture of a couple of years of feverish organizing amidst school work, culminating in a huge success. The very fact of this book, based on that event, gladdens the heart in these days of existential climate doom, but I also enjoyed her “fly on the wall” account of the hope-ridden but disappointing COP25 in Madrid. A useful and engaging chronicle.
When I read “Six Degrees,” Mark Lynas’s blistering warning, way back in the good old days of 2007, the experience scared the shit out of me. I needed that fright and since then I’ve strived to keep on top of our future in a globally warmed world by reading as much as I can in the popular, and sometimes scientific, press. Some brilliant works have ensued over the thirteen years since “Six Degrees,” but none of them had quite the same sensible framing. So Lynas’s complete remake of that classic, just released, “Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency,” had to jump to the top of my reading pile. We are now in a one degree world, as Lynas opens the book with, and over the course of this sober, stunning book, he takes us through what the latest science says two degrees, three degrees, four degrees. five degrees, or even six degrees would look like, plus how soon or likely each of these outcomes looms. Lynas is a robustly fair analyst: in a couple of cases, the prognosis is slightly improved from 2007 but mostly matters are worse. “Our Final Warning” is brilliantly organized and the writing is clear and elegant. If you read one global warming book in 2020, this should be it. As for me, I’m more than shit scared now, I’m bereft. Unless we act, I’ll see in two degrees in a decade-plus and maybe three degrees before I die; my grandchildren face four degrees and human civilization under threat.
At once an encyclopedic tour de force about all things to do with whales and whaling, and a lyrical exploration of humans and other species on the brink of the next great extinction, “Fathoms: The World in the Whale” is a blessing. An immersive, beautifully written mix of academic exploration, philosophical musings, and research memoir, it is a right book for a right time. Australian author Rebecca Giggs covers every aspect of whales fully (sometimes, it must be said, too exhaustively for this simple soul). A number of times, I gasped at unexpected knowledge revealed or fresh insights gained. “Fathoms” is recommended for anyone with the slightest fascination with nature and our environment.
The third DI Tom Janssen mystery to be released in just over half a year, “Kill Our Sins” is another solid slab of entertainment perfect for lockdown times. When fisherman retrieve a badly mutilated female body off the Norfolk Coast, Jannsen, the stolid, relentlessly analytical homicide detective, aided by his offsider and by his boss Tamara, sets out to plumb the past and put justice to rights. All clues point to long-ago school friends but the plot is murky enough to almost derail Janssen. As ever, Dalgliesh keeps up a steady clip and the plot bucks and twists. Norfolk is a wonderful backdrop. A fine, complex read.
Avarind Adiga, 2008 Booker Prize winner (for “The Tiger“) is, in my considered opinion, one of the most immersive, brilliant stylists alive. “Amnesty,” his fifth novel, mashes us, within the opening page, into the mind of an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney, a young, earnest man on the cusp of a solid existence after three years of anxiety. When a cleaning client is murdered, Danny realizes who the killer is and must choose between justice for the dead and his own deportation. Told over one breathless day, a plotting triumph that weaves Danny’s past into a thriller ripped from the headlines, the novel broadcasts the fraught, ridiculous sub-world of the illegal, a person without status, almost without existence. Not many novels can entertain superbly (a one-sitting reading this is, I guarantee) while speaking to our modern world, while bringing us into the mind and heart of a person irretrievably split between duty and self-fear. “Amnesty” is one of the finest novels of 2020 so far.