The second in a series featuring Washington reporter Beck Rikki, “Naked Truth” has a plot more twisty than any I’ve read this year, which should have been a boon. The story revolves around a dead U.S. chief justice and seems to involve every major politician and lawyer in the country, and the sequences of doublecrossing rivals some of those old Ludlum thrillers. The various settings are pithily described, the dialogue froths with wit and energy, and the unwinding of the plot is pleasingly relentless. But our hero Beck, while dogged and smart in the way that crime solvers need to be, rarely came alive to me, and Pullen’s machinations with different points of view merely moved from one cardboard character to another. I liked the intricacies of American reportage and, until towards the end, enjoyed trying (unsuccessfully) to second guess the plot surprises, but the one-sitting reading left me cold.
Robert Plomin, a prolific and longstanding behavioral geneticist (itself a relatively new profession) has, with “Blueprint,” announced an Eden-facing (in his eyes, that is) grand theorem, namely that nature (aka our genes) trumps nurture (aka our environment). “I hope,” he writes, “this no longer sounds like just another pop-psychology claim without evidence to back it up.” He takes the reader steadily and stylishly through his work on twin studies, which purportedly dramatize the unexpectedly high influence of genetics – on so many matters of interest, from depression to braininess, from introspection to insomnia, from addiction to marriage stability. Then he and his peers tried and failed to find links between particular genes and psychological traits and outcomes. Now, they aggregate tens of thousands of “SNPs,” genetic morsels each contributing (he claims) a miniscule amount, into a grand “polygenic score.” One’s polygenic score causes (not just correlates with) a raft of psychological features. I enjoyed the book: Plomin writes clearly, with stylish gusto but also with precision, in a tightly organized fashion. I also recommend “Blueprint” as a layperson’s intro to this burgeoning field. Read it because you must. However, as a confused but numerate layperson, I caution you on his societally explosive conclusions. Two possible blind spots occur to me. Firstly, Plomin admits his results depend on the “environment” of a given time and place. Might it not be true that in a “better” environment, the influence of the gene becomes muted? Perhaps his results reflect our cruel, unsupporting world. Secondly, a “trust me” indecipherable “score,” without explanatory roots, has to be suspicious. What hidden complexities will be revealed with further time and enquiry, and will they rubbish his claims? Look, I’m dubious and suspect he is swept up by his own amazement, but I heartily recommend the scintillating read.
I rated the TV series Bodyguard’s opening episode as only 5/10. Plenty of mood but just mood. Well, by the middle of the six-episode series, the plot explodes, with twist after twist, so I recommend you plough on after the opener. Richard Madden sheds some of the stodginess of his initial portrayal of bodyguard Budd, and Keeley Hawes is terrrific as frosty Home Secretary Montague. The scriptwriters get more and more daring with each fresh episode, and the closing scenes of Episode 3 are stunning. The motives of the police and the security services grow to be gratifyingly murky, and all the supporting characters are well nuanced and credible. Will the second half continue to grip? The signs are auspicious.
A historian enlists the aid of Helen Oddfellow, a London tour guide, the lure being a lost Marlowe masterpiece, and rapidly the two are in jeopardy, murderous jeopardy. If this sounds like Dan Brown territory, Unlawful Things is not like that at all, entirely to its credit. Debut thriller writer Anna Sayburn Lane plots like a dream, weaving together high-action drama and a fascinating historical puzzle. Helen is a splendid character, as is Nick, the journalist who teams up with her, and the supporting characters are complex and real. The settings in London and the countryside are beautifully evoked. The climax and postmortem are both timed to perfection. A great example of a thriller with intellectual panache.
Never been to a fashion show and never will, so a documentary on the life of designer Lee Alexander McQueen hardly beckoned. Luckily I embrace risk, for from the first frame, the co-directors (and Etedgui wrote the script) of “McQueen” gripped me. With no fancy back and forth, just a chronological telling, they employ an artful mix of interview, fashion show footage, and family-style footage to chart McQueen’s rise from Brit youth to Gucci-owned superstar, and then to his untimely demise at age 40 (that’s not a spoiler, this is a doco, right?). Quite what converts a boring documentary into compelling drama is never clear to me, but I commend this magic to you. The ancient theme of the fraught flip side of genetic creativity is handled without express messaging. The visuals are, of course, vivid. Even Michael Nyman’s music, which I’ve gotten sick of in movies, suits the moody ambience. All in all, McQueen is an expertly paced, absorbing documentary paean to an exhausting talent.
The visual arts elude this reviewer, so I’m normally unlikely to read Sebastian Smee, prominent Washington Post art critic, but his topic “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age” (the cornerstone piece in Quarterly Essay 72) is right up my alley. What an inspired impulse to read this nuanced, undogmatic, sharp look at the modern world of Facebook, Twitter and their kin! Smee tentatively labels himself a materialist like me but, as I do, he uses the language of spirituality and creativity as he proceeds to explore “the inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often mysterious, even to ourselves.” His method isn’t didactic or technically philosophical. Instead he meanders through and around the short stories of Anton Chekhov, the films of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, a portrait by Paul Cezanne, a Rachel Cusk novel, Gillian Wearing’s paintings, and so on. How is social media altering the slippery “inner life,” he asks, and chips away at familiar charges of social media’s adverse impacts. Never more than hesitant, his explorations intoxicated me. In the end, he sees our modern response to mortality and aloneness is “to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible,” facilitated and urged on by the internet. Are we “excavating too much…?” Can “we find ways to pay attention again to our solitude…?” I cannot recommend too highly this exhilarating, wise reflection.
John Le Carre’s mantle is a tough one to don. Every few years a new pretender is crowned by critics and mostly I’ve admired them without spotting more than occasional glimpses of greatness. In the last decade, I’ve become less and less inclined to dwell in the spy thriller genre, just for that reason. Well, more fool me, because Mick Herron, lauded by Val McDermid as “the John le Carré of our generation,” is the real deal that has somehow snuck past my gaze. Over a decade and a half, he has produced four novels in the Zoe Boehm series and now five in the highly acclaimed, award-winning Slough House series (with one on the way next year). A friend recommended I tackle the first Slough House book, Slow Horses, in audiobook form, and I’m currently rivetted by that, but in the meantime Herron has released his second Slough House novella, The Drop, so I grabbed that and devoured its 112 pages in a single sitting. Whilst the full pricing of The Drop means I can’t recommend it as an entrée into Herron’s catalogue, if you’re a Herron fan, by all means read it, for it contains what I’m realizes are his trademark attributes: a serpentine plot cunningly divulged; larger-than-life, all-too-humanly-cynical characters, stunning set-piece scenes; a coruscating wit; and, amazingly enough, a humane sense of outrage and compassion underneath the theatrics. It’s that last achievement, an almost miraculous undertone of morality, that imparts the greatness of Le Carre onto the shoulders of Mick Herron.
An opening scene of death and abandonment in the rain, rain, rain of 1993 Galway . . . the same ordinary-guy detective, Cormac Reilly (very much in the mold of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk), embroiled in a cold case twenty years later in Galway . . . a stink of police corruption and Catholic misdeeds in the “dark heart of Ireland,” as the blurb for The Ruin puts it . . . all of this filled me with pre-reading dread. I’m not against convention, even cliché, in crime fiction, for the genre is one of reassuring tropes, but debut author Dervla McTiernan’s much hyped novel seemed destined to be a yawn. Instead The Ruin is a sparkling, assured surprise package: fulsome characters, a complex and clever plot that drags one onward, deftly styled prose, and locales one can see and smell. The familiar themes of justice and evil across the decades nonetheless impacted me; I found myself quite moved. So . . . start on the first page and I guarantee you’ll be grabbed and transported.
The first in a dystopian trilogy, Prometheus Rising begins in a Britain of sealed cities and barbaric Outer Areas. Adama, a doctor, finds himself outside London and soon embarks on a quest to find his old love through bloody battle. The concept, whilst not fully fresh, is a beguiling mix of futurism and archaism, and the many battle scenes are vigorously and effectively drawn. The settings, in classic rural British sites, are evocative. The author’s pacing is so assured that it took me half the book to realize why it failed to fully engage, and I think there are two reasons. Firstly, clunky prose glitches occur often enough to annoy, and secondly, the overall earnest, portentous voice never rings quite true. Overall, I’d recommend this for dystopian fiction fans, with caveats.
Mancunian band James’s fifteenth album, “Living in Extraordinary Times,” came out a while ago and I ordinarily would not go back so far, but the city of Melbourne was recently graced with their presence. Their show was one of the most stunning in my recent memory and I’m compelled to bring your attention to this release, exploding with every emotion from rage to lust/love to compassion. James straddle anthemic rock, gorgeous pop melodies, chugging distortion, and strident choruses. Singer Tim Booth is a brilliant lyricist and here he is at his sublime best. Every track is a winner but let me single out the closer from their concert, which had the entire audience swooning and swaying to a lovely paean to human diversity, singing along to “There’s only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here.” You only live once: experience James here at their best.