“Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It” spoke to me from its opening words. Our frenetic inner self-talk, so necessary to our brilliant human consciousness, can readily spiral into debilitating anxiety and madness, and, as someone who generally regards himself as supremely logical, I find myself periodically hijacked—by myself! Neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross, an expert on the theory and treatment of retrograde self-talk, addresses the subject in a fascinating book that assembles, over seven discrete chapters, lessons and tips and tools for all of us. The case studies beguile . Kross writes engagingly with admirable cogency. If at the end I felt that the menu of chatter-wrangling tools is easier read than employed, that just illustrates the immensity of the task facing us. Chatter is welcome and a ready read.
In my mind, for my reading slate, “Klara and the Sun” seemed a natural progression from Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, which I read a couple of years ago and labeled a triumph. Both are near-term sci-fi-world examinations of artificial intelligence tackled by literary fiction giants, rather than the science fiction authors we generally turn to for futurism. McEwan’s novel in particular seemed to attract the ire of sci-fi fans, but I have never believed that non-genre novelists cannot tackle the future. Well, Klara and the Sun adopts a similar narrative conceit to Machines Like Me, in that Klara is an Artificial Friend, a synthetic humanoid designed to be used by humans in the home, in the same way that robot Adam was purchased in McEwan’s book. But whilst McEwan considered Adam from the point of view of his human hero, this time we see the world from Klara’s intelligent but askew perspective. Bought by a teenage girl who seems to be constantly ill, Klara gradually unpeels her new world, and, no surprise to any Ishiguro fan, it is a warped, quietly dystopian world. Ishiguro’s deceptive prose style is simple to the point of parody but its strength is a consistency of internal perception, one that sucks the reader in, even as the author deftly reveals what is going on. I found the final third of Klara and the Sun to be emotionally devastating and when I turned the final page, I was struck by the realization that the novel is just as much about love and loneliness as it is about robotics. After The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s only clunker, I can heartily recommend Klara and the Sun.
Debut novelist Dawnie Walton has achieved something remarkable with “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.” She has penned a novel about rock music that both evokes the music, in evocative language, and captures the surrounding swirl of business and culture. In New York in the early seventies, just as flower power morphed into something grand, young Opal, an African American singer of charismatic looks, and Neville, a recently arrived white singer-songwriter from Birmingham, click together in the Big Apple. Black funk pairs with white punk to create a fictional, incendiary group that takes the world by storm for a brief period. Now, five decades later, a renowned American music journalist reaches back to construct an oral history, reviving both the facts of two careers but also possible dire skeletons. Constructed as interlaced interview records spiced up with editorial asides and the journalist’s own story, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev leapfrogs the boredom often associated with fake oral history, and artfully constructs a thrilling tale replete with rock music’s real footprint. Innovative, wonderfully written, and illuminating, it is a ravishing debut.
Scott Hunter is one of the most able and prolific police procedural authors in the market, and I had read all seven (and reviewed three of them on this site) of his DCI Brendan Moran series set in the Thames Valley region around Oxford. But I was unprepared for and delighted by the quick release of Number 8, “The Cold Light of Death.” This time around, the author first places us in 1976, embroiled in a shop owner’s murder, then jumps four and a half decades to the present day, when a body is unearthed and Moran, with his usual crew, needs to solve a case as cold as a case can be. As we have come to expect from this author, the writing is supple and easy to read, the complex plot unfolds in steady hands, and the ensemble cast, riffing off each other, enriches the entire reading experience. Procedurals beg to be read in a single sitting, and I spent an enjoyable evening with The Cold Light of Death, but at the end, in spite of a a series of satisfying fake climaxes, I felt a smidgen dissatisfied. There was nothing in the triumvirate of plot, characterization, and setting that seemed awry, rather I sensed insubstantiality in this addition to the stellar series. The Cold Light of Day marks time, and marks it entertainingly, but I find myself hoping for an upping of the stakes in the next one.
In a small northern English coastal town soon after World War I, a nerdy young naturalist spends his days combing the shore and observing birds. His beautiful, locally born wife seems content with a housewife’s routine life. Through their eyes, “The Woodcock” is a tale of love, lust, hubris, morality, and humanity, a tale that speedily takes off when a larger-than-life American whaler, together with his red-haired daughters, arrives in town planning to build the equivalent of Coney Island out into the sea. A brilliant nonfiction writer, with five books under his belt, Richard Smyth has taken to fiction with aplomb, displaying on every page the flair, economy, and eloquence needed to lift this story from the realm of period piece (I found myself recalling two recent movies, Ammonite and The Dig) into something magical. A naturalist himself, the author imbues the town and coastline with cinematic depth, and his portrayal of the extended cast of characters, local or transplanted, is as keen as that of the birdlife. An accelerating pace transported me, over two evenings, to a grand, unpredictable yet fitting climax, and over those two evenings, I had occasion to chuckle and gasp. Quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year, The Woodcock is an unmitigated delight.
In a quintessential small Australian country town, the young journalist hero of “Catch Us the Foxes” stumbles upon the ritualistically mutilated body of her best friend, and embarks on a crusade to track down the killers. Debut author Nicola West sends the plot spiraling into deep dark corners of this hidden rural world, deep into the lives of her friends and family, and the brisk plotting is one of the highlights of this entertaining novel. But it is difficult to empathize with a crime solver who seems to oscillate between robust competence and trembling anxiety, and one of the plot machinations had me guffawing in disbelief. Catch Us the Foxes is pleasant, if flawed, reading.
Somehow radiating an old-fashioned thriller vibe, “The Necklace” follows struggling waitress Susan, who embarks on a convoluted pilgrimage across America to North Dakota, where the monster who slayed her infant daughter two decades earlier is up for death row execution. The problem is, as she struggles against all odds to complete her journey in times, evidence pops up that questions the entire history of the slaying. Matt Witten does a splendid job of immersing the reader in Susan’s being, and his sense of pacing is exquisite. The overall plot, as a thriller/mystery plot, is by no means intricate, but the author’s skill is such that I read the book in one evening sitting, locked to my seat. Most entertaining and satisfying.
The spy thriller genre markets itself well, with the catch being that some of my recent reading in this field has marked itself as competent but over-complex, a tad weak on characterization and purpose. Prolific thriller author Henry Porter, with the third of his Paul Samson series, “The Old Enemy,” honors the genre’s promise of espionage skullduggery but renders his two core characters as real humans and carefully stage manages a complicated tapestry of twists rooted in WWII-evil. In other words, The Old Enemy satisfies as it intrigues and thrills. Paul Samson, an ex-MI6 agent now freelance, and his old flame Anastasia are gathered up into a storm when an old spy is assassinated and Anastasia’s husband is poisoned while appearing before the US Congress. Whizzing around the espionage globe, the author choreographs a seemingly realistic conspiracy plot replete with Jason Bourne thrills. The dialogue is dab, the settings deftly drawn, and the climax more than satisfies. The Old Enemy: one of the classy spy releases of 2021.
Charlie Newton marries the writing chops of Elmore Leonard to an over-the-top, gritty thriller sensibility that feels old-fashioned to me, perhaps channeling Alistair MacLean. Last year’s Privateers was a hoot to read without transcending its extravagant plot, but now this underrated author has written the standout book of his career. “Canaryville” is at once an ode to an iconic Irish-American suburb of Chicago and a kinetic thriller plucked straight from the headlines. When a bomb massacre occurs in Canaryville, accompanied by lurid killings nearby, the great industrial city is poised on the edge of a new white-black war, and the only one who can track down the killer is police officer Denny Banahan, child of Canaryville and now embroiled in controversy, ready to retire and in love. The author is a master of controlled pell-mell plotting, the huge cast of riveting characters is wonderfully portrayed, and the bleak, black, humorous dialogue enriches every page. Throw in a villain creepy enough to out-creep Hannibal Lecter, and Canaryville is an immersive triumph that must be read in one sitting.
In the by-now hallowed tradition of Emma Donoghue’s decade-old Room, “The Last Thing to Burn” is a harrowing, immersive tale of a woman trapped in an imprisoned life on an English farm, trapped by the vastness of the countryside and her psychopathic captor’s surveillance system. Enslaved to provide a weird wifely life to the brutal man, Jane (his name for her) has no hope, no prospects … until chinks of possibility open and a new reason for hope emerges. The first standalone novel for Will Dean, a British-born resident of Sweden, shows this author in superb command of a claustrophobic thriller that will likely be read in one sitting. The central character of Jane springs to life from the opening pages and the bucolic-yet-horrifying setting is vividly presented. Surely The Last Thing to Burn will be snapped up for a movie version.