Exercise-hungry non-athletes like me, clumsy and inept, love to read advice books based on “real” athletes. We are besieged by recommendations, corrective counsel, and products based on measuring and coaching elites. Thus I was drawn to “Good to Go: How to Eat, Sleep and Rest Like a Champion,” a sprightly, insight-packed investigation by journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden. Eleven fascinating chapters tackle everything from ice baths to sports drinks, energy bars, massage, pre- and post-even nutrition, meditation, metrics, and rest. If Aschwanden has one gift to a reader, it is this: “research” on athletes and fitness and performance is typically of poor scientific potency. Experiments are too small, poorly structured, and unable to screen out coexisting factors. Like dietetics, sports/activity science is barely scientific. Weaving her way through the fields of information and hype, Aschwanden gradually gleans what might actually help you and me make sense of our sporting and recovery efforts. Good to Go is an entertaining, useful book.
If you’re like me and enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, and then watched the movie starring Matt Damon, you know what to expect in Weir’s latest novel, “Project Hail Mary.” Perhaps like me, when you first encounter the namesake spaceship hurtling millions of kilometers from earth and wake up in the head of its sole survivor, uber geek Ryland Grace, you’ll picture a groggy Matt Damon, waking up to solve the puzzle of his whereabouts and his stupendous mission, rolling up his sleeves to calculate and make and shift and actuate, disarmingly using brainpower to stay alive, resurrect his mission, and yes, save humanity. Andy Weir is an elegant, natural stylist, perfectly evoking Ryland’s jokey, gritty personality. The plot careens towards ever more jaw-dropping space events, taking a twist midstream into territory scarcely believable but executed with such panache that I, the reader, flowed with it. I’m guessing if excessive sci-fi science is a turnoff, you’ll reject this book, but if you love any form of mental tussling, grab it and strap in for a jolly freewheeling ride. You might even, like me, read it in two enjoyable sittings. Project Hail Mary takes too many outrageous plot risks, and is too tailor-made for another super-hero-like Matt-Damon-starring movie, to be genuinely stirring, but science-driven entertainment of this quality is indeed rare.
I cannot summon up another writer whose prose makes me swoon as much as Kevin Barry’s does. A masterful mix of Irish scutty and lyricism, any Barry page just feels so damned pleasurable to absorb! Especially powerful is his knack of capturing places and moods. His dialogue is an object lesson for lesser writers. Therefore, even though I am not a short story fan, I devoured the eleven tales in “That Old Country Music” and can vouch for every one of them. Most notable are “The Coast of Leitrim,” a love story that can break a heart; the glorious drunken mayhem of “Toronto and the State of Grace”; and the slapstick of “Who’s-Dead McCarthy.” Read all eleven, dear reader, That Old Country Music is a joy.
A captivating, swaggering literary novel about the American battle for unionism and workers’ rights in the cruel hard times of the early Twentieth Century, “The Cold Millions” showcases Jess Walter at his scintillating peak. Channeling E. L. Doctorow, he focuses on Spokane in the northwest, on two brothers at the rough edge of capitalism, one passionate about the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World), the other one younger and protective of his sibling. Careening events put them in the path of a fascinating, sinister tycoon and police thugs and assassins, and ally them with a female socialist firebrand. Jess Walter, like Doctorow, seamlessly plonks the small pawns of the world amongst real-life, outsized makers of history, and he seems capable of writing from the point of view of all the protagonists and antagonists. Roughhouse America springs to life in his scenes and the plot propels and surprises. All in all, The Cold Millions is a triumph and a hell of a fine read.
A mystery writer with fine motor control of a book’s pace, Jane Harper’s previous best sellers were evocatively imbued with their landscapes, whether the harsh Australian bush, a lush Australian rainforest, or a cattle farm. “The Survivors” takes place in a small Tasmanian coastal town and once again, the author nails the locale: the beach, rocks, and fishing boats. When Kieran, who had fled for the big smoke after tragedy had struck, returns to his home town, and a body turns up on a beach, the past and present collide as he digs into both. The character roster, immediately recognizable from such a town, is skillfully realized, the plot turns are gratifyingly opaque, and the background of disaster and guilt is almost palpable. As with Harper’s first three novels, I read The Survivors in one sitting, and if I questioned whether the climax sold the earlier engrossing pages short, I can still heartily recommend it.
Extinction of species is taking place at a rate one or two magnitudes greater than evolution’s outcome, with humans the immediate and background cause. As a child, naturalist Michael Blencowe was fascinated, as only children can be, with tales and pictures of near-mythic animals, birds, and butterflies that have disappeared from our plant. “Gone: A Search for What Remains of the World’s Extinct Creatures” is his passionate, engaged tale of finding what traces are left of eleven vanished species. A most determined historian of doom, Blencowe travels from the Bering Sea to the Galapagos isles, from Finland to San Francisco. The onsite trips are evocative, but even more so are his reverent forays into museums with their fossils, skeletons, and preserves carcasses. He pursues the leftover remnants of the last Great Auks on a forsaken Devon island and in a Danish museum. New Zealand’s sad history of its isolated, vulnerable birds killed and eaten is told thrice by the author, with the Moa’s demise striking me as most tragic. The Dodo, he writes, “has achieved a dubious immortality: the smiling face of extinctions.” The tone throughout is a convivial mix of pithy recounting of histories and flights of easygoing lyricism. Towards the end, he expertly weaves in wider questions enmeshed with global warming. For anyone brewing over our fate and Earth’s fate, Gone is a welcome, enjoyable feast.
The seventh of the Norfolk ensemble police procedural series starring Detective Inspector Tom Janssen, “Kill Them Cold” is polished and devious. J M Dalgliesh fashions his smartly paced mysteries with plain, subtle prose, and something of Norfolk’s coastal melancholy percolates the pages. Janssen himself is a smart, commanding, yet uncomplicated hero, and his associates and team make up a diverse crew. In this outing, skeletal remains of a young woman are unearthed near an archaeological dig site., and speedy investigative teamwork results in a suspect shortlist that baffles Janssen. The last third of the novel accelerates in tension and the twisty outcome culminates in a dramatic shock. Very much in the mold of the classic English mystery, Kill Them Cold entertains with a burnished glow.
Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti has stylishly penned a most intriguing book, “Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now.” Ialenti address two specific audiences: readers interested in “ancestor thinking” or “deep time,” that is, adopting a future-oriented perspective on the world and on life; and readers interested in nuclear power, specifically the radioactive waste aspect of it. An anthropologist, he embedded himself in the life and work of an army of specialists working to bury Finland’s spent nuclear fuel far below the ground, keeping the world safe from the radioactive poisons for thousands of years or longer. The patient Finnish approach is twenty five years old and completion is not planned until the next century. Deep Time Reckoning delves, analyses, and muses, with Ialenti concerned about how the Finns are tackling this monumental task and why the Finnish population wholeheartedly backs it (imagine anything similar in America!); but also how the rest of world can learn from Finland, especially in order to tackle the climate emergency. The author’s passionate, cogent voice, and his wide-ranging essaying, might also lift Deep Time Reckoning out of its specialist concerns and find it a deserved wider audience.
The seventh in the engrossing, razor-sharp spy thriller series by Mick Herron, alternately labelled as the Jackson Lamb series or the Slough House series, is innocuously titled “Slough House.” If the previous two signaled a dip in helter-skelter pacing, Slough House more than makes up for them. Until around Book Four, Herron did his best to keep each book as a standalone in its own right, but by now the interlaced lives of the huge ensemble cast render that impossible, so when this juggernaut kicks off with two pages of mayhem, followed by byzantine twists involving spy assassins and MI5 skullduggery, it takes all one’s concentration to keep up. By a third of the way through, the grandeur of the story’s conceit has a grip and I read Slough House in a blur of gasps, chuckles, and admirative shakes of the head. The author’s acerbic wit is ascendant, and the two core characters of repellent but magnificent Jackson Lamb, and doughty, quick-witted River Cartwright dominate. Buckle up, dear reader of Books 1 to 6, for a brilliant ride, and if you are new to Mick Herron, do yourself the favor of a lifetime and devour all seven volumes in a sprint.
Fans of Cold War history should examine “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World,” a sure-footed, elegantly written account of what might seem an obscure byway in the annals of those times. Journalist Lesley Blume relates how John Hersey came to write Hiroshima, his bracing, superbly written account of the experiences of six Japanese citizens in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. Blume relates how the New Yorker magazine heads plotted with Hersey (already, at the young age of 30, well-known, with a Pulitzer under his belt) to embed himself into the post-war occupation in Japan, travel to blitzed Hiroshima, fool his U.S. military minders, carry out interviews, and then, back in New York, write a full-issue article in secret. The resultant release on August 31, 1946, revealed both the Armageddon-like impact of that one bomb and its radioactive aftermath, and the American government’s successful (until then) media clamp. Without wasting a word, the author recreates the tension of the days and the article’s provenance. She must have read everything ever written about Hersey and the bomb, and the endnotes and bibliography are a role model of historical exactitude. Fallout would be rather specialist were it not for the ongoing, vital legacy of Hiroshima itself. Never out of print since 1946, John Hersey’s monument has been bought by three million people. It is available this very minute for US$7 and I recommend you read it first, weep, then sink into Fallout. And never forget.