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.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang [7/10]

Ted Chiang Exhalation review

Ted Chiang is the thinking person’s sci-fi inventor, a writer of amazing short stories in the tradition, perhaps, of Phillip K. Dick. Chiang’s output is not prolific but a piercing intelligence illuminates his eclectic body of works. He might well drift in obscurity, except his most famous story was made into the stunning sci-fi movie “Arrival.” Now his second volume “Exhalation.” showcase seven short stories published over the last decade and a half, plus two new tales. All of the stories vary in subject matter, style, tone, and plotting. All of them make the reader think. A handful seem didactic but if these aren’t what you come to sci-fi for, rest assured. There are at least two long gems here. “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” posits a world in which commercially sold prisms let you interrogate your alternative realities a little apart from you own. And “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is glorious, a galloping tale of avatar-style software-bound “lives” tended by a zookeeper. Ted Chiang celebrates imagination at its most free and lyrical.

The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker [6/10]

Rob Walker The Art of Noticing review

If you have any interest at all in expanding your attentiveness or in finding new ways to see the world or in unlocking your creative spark, I commend “The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You.” Brilliant design journalist Rob Walker is a magpie, picking out how artists and thinkers of many different types cultivate a muscle of paying attention, of “noticing.” The book is a cornucopia of 131 different exercises, some almost puny, some major projects, all persuading you to no longer just coast through life. Walker is an engaging, lucid writer who really sweeps you up. Me, I’ve decided to have a go at five of his 131, and just by listing them, you can tell if this book is for you: “Spot something new every day”; “Don’t photograph, draw” (I’m such a bad artist that I can’t wait to do this without fear of failure); “Follow the quiet” (just walk in the direction of least noise); “Take a photo walk, with no camera”; and “Interview a friend, loved one, stranger – or even an ideological nemesis)”. Marvellous

Top End Wedding [6/10]

Top End Wedding review

A romantic comedy sprawled across eye candy tourist sites in the Northern Territory promises at the very least to refresh the eye, and Wayne Blair, the director of “Top End Wedding” delivers with some airy, delightful road trip scenes. A feature co-written by Joshua Tyler and Miranda Tapsell, who also stars as the prospective bride trying to track down her walkabout mother, this straightforward film mucks the viewer around a bit, confusing drama with comedy and vice versa, but in the end delivers a breezy feelgood tale. Gwilym Lee brings fresh-faced brio to his role as the quippy fiancé and the other supporting roles work fine. If the plot lags and can feel prosaic, I did enjoy the way the indigenous family and cultural aspects were treated with respect. And yes, I laughed in a couple of spot, and that’s ample for modern rom-com. Simple but not quite simplistic, “Top End Wedding” is perky froth.

Coders by Clive Thompson [8/10]

Clive Thompson Coders review

Here’s one for the geeks, the real heroes of the universe. Forget the soldiers, the tycoons, the footballers, it’s the programmers, the ones who write the code that underpins our modern world, who rule. Clive Thompson, an assured chronicler and a deft stylist, does something remarkable with “Coders,” attempting to write the history of modern programming, and to a large degree, succeeds. Moving through the generations of hardware and software, and the generations of attending coders, Thompson interviews the super creators, the uber coders, the role models for all those filmic tropes we love, but also the regular folks who program for a living. He addresses meritocracy, gender biases, coding style, and our current discontents with the ubiquitous software we use. I’ve done some coding in my own life, of a very mixed quality, and I’ve written fictional characters from that world, so I found every chapter fascinating. If at the end one has the feeling that “Coders” does not quite delineate a coherent history, well, I think we’ll need the luxury of some more passing time before we have anything truly magisterial. In the meantime, this is a balm for the soul, a paean to those who shape the digital.

Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich [9/10]

Nathaniel Rich Losing Earth review

Novelist and top-notch journalist Nathaniel Rich has opened my eyes, completely altering my understanding of the history of climate change. “Losing Earth: A Recent History” relates the barely believable tale of how scientists already understood in 1979 (hey, let’s be clear, we’re talking about four decades ago!) exactly what global warming is and what the eventual consequences must be. What’s more, in the United States, a bipartisan decade of hearings, legislative efforts, and general discussions took place through the reigns of Carter and Reagan. Only when the oil industry turned its beady eye on the issue did partisanship and disinformation swing into action, and in 1989 Bush senior started the tradition of resisting international and national corrective action. Originally published in the New York Times Magazine, Rich’s wonderfully written and meticulous history not only puts climate change into the correct historical framework, but he includes a stunning afterword, a call to action that exhorts: “But there is one thing that each of us can do ourselves … We can call the villains the villains, the heroes heroes, the victims victims, and ourselves complicit.” This book makes for essential reading.