Irish writer Kevin Barry is all about drama and poetic immersion in settings and the inner lives of characters. His “Beatlebone” was one of my favorite novels from a few years back, although it’s fair to add that a number of readers who read it on my recommendation found it baffling. “Night Boat to Tangier” might well engender the same spectrum of reactions. Two gabby Irish drug crims gather at the seedy port of Algeciras, searching for Moss Hearn’s daughter, reported to be coming in from Tangier. He and Charlie Redmond, one with a limp, the other with one eye, brood, Irish raconteurs the pair of them, while the novel dives back and back into their violent past in Ireland, Spain and Morocco. The author has an extraordinary style, unfurling savage humor and storming lyricism with poetic rhythm. A tale of ambition, lust, madness, and love, this novel is one of 2019’s standouts. Read it and weep, as I did, for these unlikeable but oh so human heroes.
You might think a book titled “Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Even Change Your Life” is too obscure, but I’m always fascinated by how many people I know have opinions on all manner of grammar. The semicolon arouses fandom or rage, it seems to me, and Cecilia Watson energetically and stylishly plunges into that maelstrom of opinions. Riding this secondary punctuation mark’s controversial history from its ancient beginnings, she offers a wonderful set of judgements on its usefulness and usage. I especially enjoyed the chapter where she riffs on the very different semicolon deployments of Raymond Chandler, Irvine Welsh, and Rebecca Solnit. In the end, this concise book is an appeal for scribes to use their imagination: “We will never find THE rules, unshiftable, unchangeable, and incorruptible.” Overall, this is a leftfield intellectual pleasure.
“Recursion” adds a thriller’s pace and many wormholes worth of complexity to all those time travel novels you’ve enjoyed since the Heinlein and Asimov era. A policeman investigates something dubbed the False Memory Syndrome while we watch a neuroscientist, funded by a tycoon, build a technology to store the depths of memories. By the time they meet, the plot spirals into mind-bending time trips that had me gasping with admiration. Crouch is a dab stylist and the hijinks are laced with recurring and building love stories that achieve genuine traction. A winner in both conception and execution.
Iconoclast Malcolm Gladwell is one of those writers I’ll always read or listen to (his podcasts are exceptional) because his oblique nerdy insights into the ordinary could come from no one else. “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” addresses what happens when we talk to or examine strangers, defined as those we don’t know inside out. Gladwell’s curiosity has him exploring spies who fool everybody, innocents accused of crimes because of their demeanour, con artists even smart people trust, confrontations that spiral out of control, and so on and so on. Drawing on a recent more academic book by an expert on the subject of drawing others, he comes up with underlying reasons why our confidence in our ability to “read” others is misplaced. Reading Gladwell means going on a journey of wonderment, and for the first three quarters of “Talking to Strangers,” I was fully absorbed, but the final quarter petered out for one simple reason: his conclusions intrigue but don’t thunder. A quick brain-tease of a book that remains modest in intent, something we see rarely these days.
A most unusual and compelling thriller, “Launch Code” centers on one of those nuclear submarine “near miss” situations that fill us with dread – a 1983 order to release missiles at the Soviet Union, beginning the nuclear winter. The calamity is averted but a crew member is dead and 36 years later, ex-submarine Lieutenant Bill Guth and his family, gathered in England, are embroiled in a related murder. Ridpath is a wonderful plotter and fine stylist and the story rockets towards its multiple-twist ending. All the characters come alive and the rural countryside setting leaps off the pages. I remember Michael Ridpath fondly from his considerably older financial mysteries; he has lost none of his timeliness and flair.
Tech superstar Vivian Liao catapults into an impossibly huge fraught space-opera stage where she and a motley bunch of people, creatures and things battle an omnipresent Empress. If my plot description sounds wild, well, “Empress of Forever” is a sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza and most authors would flounder under the weight of its inventiveness. But Max Gladstone is a passionate, adept author (I came to him via his co-authored novel of lyrical time travel, “This Is How You Lose the Time War“), and here his language blooms. The plot whistles in the dark, the space-time set pieces glow, and all round, this is one superior bout of entertainment and imagination. Most recommended and we should look forward to a genre classic from Gladstone’s incandescent pen.
Is “normal” writing, the language in books, articles, and newspapers, being swept aside by the hordes on the Internet, be it on email, on Twitter, or on social media? Should we care? Gretchen McCullough is the expert of cloud English, a linguist fascinated by and smart about the dizzying changes occurring where least we expect it. “Because Internet: Understanding how Language Is Changing” is McCullough’s odyssey, thesis, and paean to the new. Whether she is exploring emoji or dissecting social patterns in Twitter usage or how slang morphs within different Internet communities, she is erudite, entertaining, and generous. In the end, she emerges as a champion of the new. A rambunctious yet robust tour of a fascinating new land.
Clear-eyed Detective Chief Constable Brendan Moran, homicide head in the Thames Valley between the Cotswolds and the Chiltern Hills, is back for a fifth outing in “Gone Too Soon.” The Irish investigator tackles the baffling murder-disguised-as-suicide of an up-and-coming female pop star. Very much in the hallowed tradition of the British procedural, this fast-paced mystery ducks and weaves through the complications of the dead singer’s life. Moran is of course the hero, and a stalwart. engaging one, but his team, including bouncy George and traumatised Tess, share the limelight. Executed well, atmospheric, with an ending hard to pick . . . a gentle winner.
Kathy, once wild, is about to marry an older Englishman in “Crudo.” Trump and Brexit whirl around her. The novel careens from the excesses of the rich to the existential despairs of the rich, across location after location, in a dizzying sequence that fleshes out what is a slight plot. But the plot isn’t the point, rather it’s the sharp inner commentary taken from the headlines and also from the works of punk author Kathy Acker. I haven’t read Olivia Laing’s nonfiction but intend to, for this is intellectually sharp writing (not as funny as I imagined, but then, I’m not easily tickled) that intrigues long after Kathy’s journey ceases.
In “Where the Forest Meets the Stars,” ornithologist Joanna, researching birds in Illinois forest, stumbles upon Ursa, a mysterious child who claims to be from the stars. From this enigmatic start, the author skilfully throws in Gabe, a reticent young man selling eggs by the roadside, and the plot expands in waves of confusion and increasing tumult. To my genre-sensitive eye, the plotting at the start raised too many questions, and I resisted falling under the author’s gentle spells until nearly halfway through. But surrender I did, and the final third, with plot shocks and deepening character revelations, builds to a crescendo that then turns slightly schmaltzy in the best possible way. An intriguing, enjoyable debut.