The tale of Hanford’s success with plutonium manufacture over the decades for the Nagasaki nuke and then onwards for a generation of atomic and hydrogen bombs, “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age” is a retelling, but a fresh and vital one. So many of the Manhattan Project and Cold War accounts are too complex, too technical, or too biased. Steve Olson, who hails from the east of Washington State, where the vast plutonium factory sprang up, offers an everyperson account that manages to be both accurate and accessible, both sympathetic (often awestruck) and sad. His unique, and most apt, take on the nuclear weapons enterprise is through the chemistry of plutonium: its discovery, mastery, and production. Olson is a cogent, entertaining writer, and he maintains a steady narrative pace. The Apocalypse Factory celebrates and bemoans a chapter of human achievement, and it comes highly recommended.
Built around a solid thriller idea, and unfurled with tremendous energy, “The Guest List” offers a quick read with little ongoing punch. When guests assemble for a bang-up wedding on a storm-struck remote island off the Irish coast, secrets boil over the top and murder eventuates. Told with great panache by Lucy Foley, a writer with promise, the action is related from numerous points of view, and it’s soon clear that barely a single soul is not keeping secrets. The different characters are well delineated, though with surprisingly little depth, the plot is paced out well, and “The Guest List” can be recommended as an engaging one-sitting read. All that said, the whodunnit outcome springs out as a fizzer and the entire exercise is suffused with a James-Patterson-like sheen.
Jonathan Lethem veers all over the literary genre landscape, always has, and he forever runs the risk of alienating his rapt fans. His previous novel, The Feral Detective left me rather nonplussed, so I hoped “The Arrest,” another switchback turn to the dystopia genre, would restore my faith. Fortunately it does, although the first few chapters are genuinely mystifying. The chapters themselves are short snippets, sometimes only a page long, and the book’s central character, Sandy Duplessis, is a scatty, mild mess, hardly a compelling narrative focus. But Lethem is a superb stylist (albeit in many different styles) and quickly one becomes absorbed in Sandy’s woozy worldview. The storyline is almost daft: after “the Arrest,” a global event that turns off nearly all technology, Sandy is comfortably numb in a rural Maine community that seems to be waiting for apocalypse, when his old movie producer buddy, an outre bullshit personality, arrives in a nuclear-powered digging machine. Throw in Sandy’s sister who once was ambiguously involved with the buddy, and the plot aches with foreboding but also crackles with Sandy’s life journey. Part dystopia, part satire, part examination of love and friendship, The Arrest is an odd fish novel that compels, a memorable peek into a man’s heart and soul. Heartily recommended.
A most unlikely minor miracle. Spy the cover of a sharp-eyed but older woman emblazoned with a title of “Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life” in a book shop, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing this as a lame How-To full of platitudes. Luckily, when I spotted this book, I was in the know, for I’d soaked up Twyla Tharp’s astringent, vital advice bible for writers and other creatives, The Creative Habit, back in 2006. Tharp is an iconic choreographer, so both her books come from the world of dance but her message in both books, which is that it’s all about hard work and discipline, transcend her world. Keep It Moving offers twelve robust chapters of advice from Tharp, pitched at my age and older (she is over 70), and each chapter includes a set of physical exercises (“Squirm,” “Jump for Joy,” “marking your day,” and so on) and each of these strikes me as valuable. The author evangelizes movement and attitude, cajoles, and preaches, all expressed in a vibrant, blunt, intelligent style. For someone like me in the target audience, Keep It Moving is one of the best exercise How-To books I’ve come across, and I heartily recommend it for all ages.
A titan amongst modern sci-fi authors, N. K. Jemisin channels Lovecraft with “The City We Became,” the first book in a trilogy concerning a hideous, tentacled, savagely humorous creature out to destroy the Big Apple. Five New Yorkers find themselves as avatars of different boroughs of New York, and are thrust into chaotic discovery and battle, none of them clear on why they are chosen or what they are capable of. The author masterfully embraces the diverse set of heroes, each so different, each brimming with modern challenges drawn straight from this week’s headlines. The complex plot rockets along, sometimes perhaps lacking a fully laid out storyline, and the creature-versus-kinda-superhero battles pulse with virtuosity. I felt the middle section sagged under the weight of too much world-building baggage, but the ending was solid and promises a dramatic second book. Unusual and arresting.
“The Yield” won this year’s Miles Franklin Award and it deserves this and all its other accolades. Tara June Winch is a talented stylist but it is the narrative daring of The Yield that stands out during reading. Three strands are brought to bear: a young indigenous woman returns to the New South Wales property of her childhood, her traditional-yet-modern community; her recently deceased grandfather’s compilation of a Wiradjuri lexicon, a celebration of a language that also reveals secrets; and the area’s founding missionary’s memoirs at the turn of the 20th Century. All in different styles, all fascinating in their own ways. It is of course modern August Gondiwindi’s story that is front of stage, involving the past but also a battle against a mining company, and it is this tale that drew me in most. The other two strands were impressive and informative but also, perhaps, a little distancing. Overall, I commend The Yield, a heavy yet truth-telling novel with resonance in the times of 2020.
“A Shooting at Chateau Rock” is British writer/journalist Martin Walker’s thirteenth in the Bruno series, roughly one a year, and it’s a strong showing after a couple of duds. Bruno is Chief of Police of a picturesque hamlet in southwestern France. Handsome, resourceful, smart as a whip, superbly personable, and a wonderful cook to boot, Bruno is both a quintessential mystery sleuth and a frustrating cliche, and the series offers the same dichotomy. Yes, Bruno’s gourmet meals with friends provide loads of the local color so vital for the modern mystery, but recent instalments have seemed more akin to cooking-and-and-equestrian romances than crime fiction. A Shooting at Chateau Rock ups Walker’s surehanded plotting and the result is a pleasing page turner. When Bruno investigates a deceased estate, he stumbles onto fraud and deception linked to a Russian semi-oligarch, and a complex thread of connections threatens to overwhelm the obsessed policeman. The usual roster of side characters is, for once, complementary and rewarding rather than distracting for the reader. All in all, I can recommend Number 13 as a fast-paced, atmospheric Bruno.
“The Godmother” is an offbeat French mystery (winner of that country’s major mystery prize). It’s short, mired in details, oddly compelling, and a refreshing antidote to the smooth crime offerings that are a staple of my reading. Patience Portefeux is in her early fifties, works as an Arabic translator for French cops, and is sole support for children and mother. When she becomes privy to wire tapping information that only she understands, something in her snaps and she crosses over to the dark side. My plot description fails to credit Hannelore Cayre with her chief strength, an immersive, matter-of-fact style that suffuses Patience with life from the novel’s opening words. The richly detailed plot, the milieu of the minutiae of the drug world, and a laconic palette grace a one-night read that is sure to delight.
A decade and a half ago, I joined a tour of the Hazelwood coal-fired power station, two hours east of Melbourne in the coal-smoke-engulfed Latrobe Valley. I was researching renewable energy. Hazelwood impressed me not at all; it was shabby and dirty. Burning the most carboniferous brown coal of all, Hazelwood was an icon of global warming evil. New Zealand writer and journalist Tom Doig has now written a riveting account of the 2014 coal fires, and “Hazelwood” can stand as an eagle-eyed epitaph to that sorry pile of scrap. Assembling a stellar array of local eyewitness, Doig dramatizes the forty-five days of uncontrollable fire, the heroism and inept officialdom, the illness-wracked aftermath, and the eventual taxpayer imposts. He writes with great panache and verve, and by leaving himself out of the story altogether, creates a tense tale that makes for a breathless single-night read. I was especially taken by how venal the plant’s operator, GDF Suez (later rebadged as Engie) was, before, during, and after the horrific blaze. Engie eventually just walked away from the mess by closing Hazelwood down, and if there is any silver lining to that sorry saga, it is that maybe planet Earth was spared a certain amount of emissions. Grab Hazelwood, it’s a must-read.
Academician and biographer Judith Brett shines a light on one of the most crucial global sectors, at least in terms of Australia, in “The Coal Curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future: Quarterly Essay 78.” An extended essay, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Brett, a readable, coherent, passage through history to our present impasse. She covers the years after the wool trade segued into a growing mining sector; the battle for indigenous rights; the backlash in the 80s as the mining companies organized lobbying and advertising; what Brett calls “state capture” in the 90s and 00s as the Minerals Council seemed to be able to persuade Australians to support mining despite few actual jobs on the ground; the climate change denial campaigns that brought down leaders on both sides. The pernicious influence of the mining industry has been clear for a long time, but Brett is superb at succinctly summing up both history and current status. In the end, The Coal Curse does offer some hope for Australia to shift before the country is assigned a climate action pariah status: “Public concern about climate change is as strong as when Howard was in government, the financial calculations are much more favourable to renewables, and business leaders are more aware of the risks of a heating planet.” The Coal Curse is a masterful insertion into our national debate, and is heartily recommended.