The marketing of “The Death of Noah Glass” suggests a literary mystery, and while there is a puzzle nestled in the book’s pages, this novel produces few thrills. Rather it’s a nuanced, immersive journey with a son and a daughter of an art historian suddenly found dead in a pool. The languorous (in a good way) narrative splits between Sydney and Palermo, and the interspersed back story of Noah Glass fills out the details. All three characters are complex, worthy individuals tossed around by their natures and by fate, and Gail Jones, a splendid writer, delves deep into their natures. Locales are vividly drawn. If the plot offers more, in the way of thrillerly thrills, than it promises, that highlights the gentleness of “The Death of Noah Glass,” a reflectiveness that is memorable.
Banging out a prequel to a thriving mystery series, ten books strong, doesn’t sound like marketing wisdom, but “The Infirmary,” #11 in the DCI Ryan roster but set in Newcastle in 2014, stands strongly on its own feet. DCI Ryan (note the lack of first name) investigates a particularly vicious serial killer who has just added the police investigator to his victim list. Ryan is a wonderfully drawn, stolid sheriff, and his supporting cast of officers comes alive vividly. The pace rattles along under firm authorial control and the plot is clever in that detailed, police procedural way we’ve grown to love. Ross’s style is engaging with frequent sprinklings of humour or irony. I read the book in a couple of sittings and now look forward to catching up with the full series.
Having enjoyed the part biopic of liberal iconic judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “On the Basis of Sex” (I rated it as 7/10), I was ruing the fact that I’d missed the short Australian season of the more life-encompassing documentary “RBG.” Luckily it has popped up on free-to-air here, so I’ve taken a look. And this is a most fascinating documentary, especially for a non-American who is only vaguely aware of the huge role Supreme Court judges play in political, let alone judicial life in the United States. Ginsburg’s pivotal role in initiating a revolution against discriminatory legislation is interesting enough, but then her more recent role as sensible dissenter on the Supreme Court, during a conservative phase of the country, is most absorbing. The documentary itself is competently unfurled, with plenty of modern-day, frail-but-unbowed Ginsburg on show, and some good interview material. But I sensed something missing. The key moments of drama in Ginsburg’s past are explored but not deeply and something about the “plotting” of the film renders it unexciting. In an era when documentary makers can turn fact into riveting entertainment, “RGB” is interesting to watch but fails to catch hold. One to see but not a highlight.
What grabbed my attention most was Johnson circling back from bin Laden to the personal, pointing out towards the end of the book that “most of the important personal decisions we make in our lives do require some kind of full-spectrum deliberation,” that is, analysis involving highly complex variables with uncertain predictability. He concludes by examining his decision to move across the country and in the process taught me a lot about “how to take a complex, multivariable situation shaped by many ‘threadlike pressures’ and chart a path into the future.” I’m using his insights right now and I believe the plans I’m making are far more nuanced and solid than before reading “Farsighted.” Highly recommended.
Christian Lorentzen’s passionate “Like This or Die” Harpers Magazine article (you may well find it behind a paywall) laments what he sees as the passing of the opinionated, serious-minded book reviewer in favor of the new world of Spotify-like, Netflix-like algorithms and lists and review-bites. I admired this article and can sympathise with it, and I continue to visit more “esoteric” review sites, but at the most basic level, I can’t agree with Lorentzen.
Well, I can give his stance a tick but at the same time must recuse myself, for this site, Read Listen Watch, is probably everything he despises. I make no excuses. What I like to do is select culture, mostly culture I suspect I’m going to enjoy but also “stuff I should check out” of “shit it’ll be good for me to examine,” and to consume that culture and then provide pithy reviews (which in my case I define as markers for other intelligent culture fiends), including (and this is no doubt anathema to Lorentzen) a rating number. I mean well and I don’t hesitate to rate something as 3/10 or 9/10, with no pressure from other critics or the masses. I’m appreciative of others’ similarly styled reviews and I believe I’m doing the world a service. And my form of “reviewing” pumps exhilarated blood through my veins.
Mission Impossible meets Berlin Station. “Two Spies Reach out From the Grave” is that rarity, a boy’s own adventure with a super spy, implanted earpiece giving him a window into the world, combined with modern-day geopolitical intrigue and treachery. Nathan Adamson careens around the world, sent in on impossible assignments in impossible places, while a very old (actually very, very old) ex-French Resistance spy, Nathan’s friend, unearths secrets from the past. Chad Huskins writes in a clipped yet fulsome, “right there in the middle” first-person style that works brilliantly, with no friction at all between one place and the next, and the fight or flight scenes are kinetic. Characterisation is surprisingly deep for such a novel. I loved the varied locales lit by a torchlight of battlefield intrigue and the author’s knowledge of the arcane world of the modern spy seems amazingly complete. There is a sense in which the plot grows absurd, but as with the MI franchise, you go with the flow, just to follow our hero and heroine to the double-crossing end. A vibrant new entry into a genre mostly full of forgettable heroes and battles.
Cass McCombs is the epitome of indie cult in the world or rock music, wilfully obscure with lyrics, tunes and music, yet he is rightly revered for hypnotic, rewarding music. “Tip of the Sphere” is his ninth and, regrettable, not one of his best. The opener, “I Followed the River South to What,” is wonderful burbling McCombs, and “Sleeping Volcanoes,” with its references to Armageddon, quickly found a niggling spot in my head, but the other tracks contain little magic and the closer, “Rounder,” is plain tepid. It’s hard to be obscurantist and still win hearts, and on this release, McCombs has dropped the ball.
One of the mystery genre’s core magics is immersion in specialized locales or milieus. Ex-journo A.C. Fuller sets his series around his former profession, and “The Last Journalist,” the fifth featuring Alex Vane, is fascinating for its insider status. When one of America’s most revered newsmen plummets to his death after dining with Alex, the race is on to find out why. The protagonist is an engaging hero, as is his co-star for this outing, a feisty independent investigator, and all the many characters are pleasingly portrayed. Seattle comes to life in the novel’s pages. My only grizzle by the end of a satisfying read was a rather humdrum plot denouement. A strong instalment in a strong series.
Geoff Dyer is a wickedly highbrow-yet-lowbrow cultural critic with a huge range of interests and consummate writing skills. Anything he writes is inherently sweet to read but much of his purview is not to my taste, so I hadn’t read anything of his for ages. “‘Broad sword Calling Danny Boy’: Where Eagles Dare” attracted me because the Alastair Maclean novel and movie were childhood favorites of mine. This short book is structured as a scene-by-scene walkthrough of the film, with Dyer mostly taking the piss out of the actors, the scripts, any damned thing at all, with polymathic asides thrown in seemingly at random. It’s a tour de force of cultural examination and I cannot express too much admiration for Dyer’s central achievement, which is to criticise the film (and even more so the book) but eventually bringing the reader along to a position of admiration. And here I am in complete agreement: if I were to watch the film now, surely I’d wince and cringe, yet it was one of the most thrilling movies of my early life, as it was of Dyer’s. This book won’t be for everyone, but lovers of film, especially action film, and lovers of exquisite dissection of a film will swoon.
Years of panting prematurely over spy thriller writers anointed as the next “Le Carre” have left me blasé about such claims, and that’s my excuse for somehow overlooking Oxford author Mick Herron. By “overlooking” I’m signalling, that yes, Herron is the genuine article, a brilliant stylist with a cynical wit that imbues his books with unexpected gravitas. And boy, can he plot! I stumbled across and then reviewed a recent novella, “The Drop,” and then went hunting for the full Jackson Lamb series. “London Rules” is Number 5 and if it’s not quite as stunning as a couple of the earlier ones, it’s still a magnificent novel. This time England is rocked by weird, savage terrorist acts at the same time as one of Jackson Lamb’s “slow horses,” webhead Roderick Ho, finds himself a target. All the series characters seem particularly beset by their demons and Lamb rampages in his usual gross, feinting way. The storyline rockets along and then shifts and shifts again. As ever, the scene setting is sublime. Herron’s dialogue has never been more scabrous. It’s taking a long time to unpeel the onion skin layers around Lamb but I’m in it for the long haul, relishing every tricksy, pulled-right-out-of-the-headlines story.