Therapy Island by Cheekface [8/10]

Chhekface Therapy Island review

Lyrical wordplay abounds throughout the whole of Californian three-piece Cheekface’s debut album “Therapy Island“, which requires multiple listens to appreciate the dexterity of songwriting. On first listen the atonal vocals are prominent over a surf-rock/indie-slacker aesthetic, breaking out into the occasional melody, but it’s not to be written off as unformed or non-cohesive. The album kicks off with “Dry Heat/Nice Town,” a catchy slow jaunt about consumerism, other standouts are “Eternity Leave,” a minute-and-a-half fast paced attack of society and … exactly what the subject is is unclear, and “Here I Was,” with the chorus line “Ten million dollars cash tax free, if you don’t want it, would you give it to me?” and a charming backing vocal track. Overall, “Therapy Island” is much cleverer than it has a right to be and comes recommended.

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir [6/10]

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir review

Dhanush (yes it’s just one name), a Tamil movie star, has to do a Bollywood, right? So midway through “The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir,” out of the blue, conman and romantic Aja (played with verve and affection by Dhanush) and co-star Erin Moriarty launch into an extravagant dance set on a disco floor. Completely out of tenor with the basic plot – Aja takes his mother’s ashes towards Paris but ends up on a circuitous illegal immigrants’ series of journeys that plunge him into love – the dance sequence actually jibes with the film’s playful spirit. A travel adventure? A rom-com? A paean to immigrants? A pilgrim’s passage? A Belgian production deftly directed by little-known Ken Scott, “Fakir” is all of those, and if that bothers you, you’ll have little truck with it. Me, I found it to offer a gentle, often funny, often touching interlude deepened by a few nuggets of insight.

Cribsheet by Emily Oster [7/10]

Cribsheet by Emily Oster review

Emily Oster belongs to the modern movement of economists tackling real life issues and “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool” is her second foray into the minefield of modern parents and children. While her first book, “Expecting Better,” tackled childbirth, this one covers how to raise your newborn. Breastfeeding, sleep position, vaccination, sleep training, walking milestones, discipline, television viewing … you name it, she covers it. And her approach is different to any other such book. She does what I (a former actuary) would do: see what data is available, absorb it all, analyze what she has, and offer commonsense assessments. For example, according to her analysis, there simply isn’t compelling solid-enough evidence to prove that breastfeeding is better for the baby. That doesn’t mean breastfeeding isn’t a boon, just that your decision is yours alone to make and breastfeeding advocates cannot evoke data to sway you. If you’re after a guru to breathlessly guide you, Oster isn’t for you, and indeed sometimes her dry advice (it is leavened with quite some wit) requires close reading. But if you want to cut through the BS, to balance the pros and cons conscientiously, “Cribsheet” is a fount of sagacity.

A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley [6/10]

Chris Womersley A Lovely and Terrible Thing review

Dislocating ghostliness pervades the decade’s worth of seventeen previously published short stories, plus three new ones, in “A Lovely and Terrible Thing,” from talented Melbourne author Chris Womersley. Menacing tales mix with quirky fantastical ones. Children feature often, as do damaged adults, and displaced revenge recurs. The author’s style is precise yet fulsome, laced with character-defining acerbic reflections. The reader quickly becomes accustomed to bracing for shocking plot twists. I was surprised how homogenous this collection is, or perhaps a better descriptor is unified, and my unsettled reactions rarely climbed to gasps of admiration, but I devoured Womersley’s tales with enjoyment.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells [9/10]

David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth review

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” Thus begins “The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future” written by journalist David Wallace-Wells. His take on climate change began with a 2017 New York magazine article that went viral and he’s an elegant, disciplined writer over the course of the eighteen or so punchy chapters. Twelve of them cover the facts: heat death, hunger, plagues of warming, etc., etc., a litany of what is guaranteed to come and what will probably come and what might come. As an antidote to the constrained conservatism of the otherwise heroic IPCC reports, Wallace-Wells is a bracing if thoroughly depressing guide to Earth’s future. The book’s final chapters address modes of thought and reaction to the unfolding tragedy; I found them fascinating whilst not always emerging satisfied. By book’s close, our oracle kicks us again (” No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter.”) then offers oblique comfort: ” There is one civilization we know of, and it is still around, and kicking—for now, at least. Why should we be suspicious of our exceptionality, or choose to understand it only by assuming an imminent demise? Why not choose to feel empowered by it?” As reader, you’ll choose your own response. Whatever you do, do not ignore this vital book.

State of the Union directed by Stephen Frears [7/10]

State of the Union review

Ten episodes, each only ten minutes long, is this a new trend for a TV/streaming season? Perhaps not, but the rather bold (at least in terms of presentation) “State of the Union” is intelligent and sharply focused. Brought to life by the brilliant Nick Hornby and steered by the equally capable Colin Frears, each snippet sees music critic Tom (wonderfully played by Chris O’Dowd) and doctor Louise (more than matched by Rosamund Pike), a modern couple going through marriage counselling, meet up in a bar just before a session. We never witness the therapist encounters, we just catch their talk about their attempts to restore their love, but somehow, due to the script or the thespian performances or the clever plot, we’re fully in the loop all the way. This is no high drama but it is pertinent, whipsaw smart, and ultimately moving. Call it a diversion perhaps, but it amounts to much more than that.

I Have Sinned by Caimh McDonnell [7/10]

Caimh McDonnell I Have Sinned review

Ex-comedian Caimh McDonnell’s fast and funny crime fiction series starring Bunny McGarry, a violence-prone but (in my eyes) lovable Irish thug now roaming the streets of New York, is always a blast. “I Have Sinned” is no exception, plonking the sharp-tongued thunderball into a wild caper involving a padre, an order of Sisters, and a weird gang of assassins. The author is a master of madcap, with several of the set-piece scenes (including the very first one), making me guffaw aloud. In pace and mode and sharpness of wit, it reminds me most of Carl Hiaasen, and that’s no small accolade.

Showdown by Kevin Partner & Mike Kraus [7/10]

Kevin Partner Mike Kraus Showdown review

We’re used to binge watching but I’ve managed, sort of, to also binge read occasionally, most notably recently with the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series of The Long Night by Kevin Partner and Mike Kraus. The first three books represented a classy, steady accretion of story, and I dubbed the next two instalments as “a heady brew.” “Showdown” presents the rousing finale, with our three main protagonists finally united and, together with a hefty roster of fighters, engaged in a final fight over the fate of this post-apocalyptic United States against the seemingly unstoppable Lee Corporation. The authors are as adept at staging the micro skirmishes as the they are with the now inevitable full combat scenes. If I was able to roughly posit the mechanism of closure, that did not spoil my enjoyment in the slightest. The almost-end of the world has never been so enjoyable.

River of Salt by Dave Warner [6/10]

Dave Warner River of Salt review

River of Salt” is a departure by multi-talented Dave Warner, a slow-burning, highly localised mystery/thriller set in a tiny coastal Australian town. The hero is Blake Saunders who operates the Surf Shack and plays guitar in its band, The Twang. Unknown to all is his background as former Philadelphia mob hitman, and when a wacky pal is charged with a brutal murder, Blake’s desperate investigations bring past and present together. Warner is an evocative, stylish writer who somehow reminds me of Garry Disher, a favorite of mine, and the characters (the town Coral Shoals is one) sing. “River of Salt” is not high octane but is a satisfying two-evening read.

Legion Season 2 Episode 1 [8/10]

Legion Season 2 review

The first triumphant season of “Legion” amazed me and left me hankering for more. I’ve come to Season 2 later than I’d have liked and as always, the first question is: what does the first episode presage?

Well, the first quarter hour bewilders, plain bewilders (so here’s the advice plain and simple: watch Season 1 beforehand), but in the magical way the series’ gun writers (presumably overseen by brilliant Noah Hawley) have of forcing suspension of judgement. David Haller, the psychologically wrecked man who turned out to possess superpowers of amazing scope, emerges after a year of absence in yet another of those government labs/strongholds. What has he been doing? How will he help, willingly or unwillingly, to track down the Shadow King, the superpower horror at the heart of Season 1 and at the heart of Haller’s abilities and psychosis?

Dan Stevens is once more superb as Haller, Rachel Keller is even more coy yet steely than in the first season, and the number of wonderful supporting actors, scene by captivating scene, is too great to permit mention of any except Bill Irwin and David Selby. The cinematography and set design are visually intoxicating; I can’t forget a riveting scene of dancing in a disco!

At the end of Episode 1, I’m back in the Legion Earth-world, slightly less puzzled than at the start, and I cannot wait until I see Episode 2 tonight.