Normal People by Sally Rooney [8/10]

Normal People threatened to rush past me, a book about young people in and out of love, a species of novel I rarely read, but rave opinions turned me round and I’m so glad they did. Set in Galway and Dublin, zigzagging between the lives of desperately “not normal” Marianne and Connell, the working class boy made good, as they weave in and out of each other’s ranges, this sophomore novel by Sally Rooney is a stunner. I dare any reader not to be captivated by the immersive spell cast through dense dialogue, often mordant and savage, and inner yearnings. Not a word is wasted. With the plot leapfrogging a few months every chapter, my heart was gripped while I tried to anticipate twists that invariably surprised. The ending is sublime. Normal People restores my faith in relationship novels.

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser [7/10]

The Life to Come won this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award and I can see why, for it’s a formidable literary work. This is author Michelle de Kretser’s second Miles Franklin and all six of her novels have gained critical acclaim as well as growing popularity. The Life to Come is her opus, a Tolstoyian cavalcade of five intermeshed characters: sharp-penned author George in Sydney; Sri Lankan Ash with Cassie; translator Celeste in Paris; my favorite character, endlessly ambitious wannabe writer Pippa, shallow yet somehow rapier eyed; and sluggish Sri Lankan spinster Christabel at home and then in Sydney. They know love, they experience aloneness, they interpret each other. The supporting cast of characters number in the dozens and the contemporary settings spring to life on the pages. de Kretser writes stunningly accomplished, dense yet light prose, at its best when savagely funny or acutely emotional. I’ve read most of her oeuvre and have oftentimes found the plots eventful but somehow sapped of drama, and a couple of the book’s sections threatened to sag under the weight of not much, but the final two plot arcs are highly satisfying. An antidote to my more routine reading fare, The Life to Come is a rich work of art.

Venom directed by Ruben Fleischer [6/10]

Even though I was an original Spiderman comic collector, I swore off superhero movies after Thor: Ragnarok, so unsophisticated it curdled my blood. But I’m glad I’ve returned to watch the latest entry from the Marvel world, Venom. Wonderfully directed by Fleischer and with Tom Hardy in top form as a slouchy, bumbling kind of hero who melds with a reptilian “symbiote,” the movie hews close to its superhero-creation myth, a narrative that is both cliched and epic. The rest of the cast has little room to show nuance, but the script is deliciously tight and the dialogue is two notches better than the pap of other recent superhero outings. I classified the film into two parts, a portentous, creepy setup that worked well, and a “mismatched buddy” adventure starring jokey Hardy and jokey symbiote, which I also enjoyed, though the transition between these two halves jarred for a few minutes. Quite why they needed to portray the symbiotes as so excessively loony, instead of something more scary, Alien-style, I’m not sure, but it was easy to enjoy the usual CGI battles and amazing chase scenes. Not the most imaginative of entries into the crowded superhero universe, Venom nonetheless pleases with its fast pace and uncondescending intelligence.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis [9/10]

Michael Lewis is Hercules to us geeks, someone who views the world through the lens of data and analysis, but with a storyteller’s heroic gaze. His mind seems to range across the panoply of human ambitions and his approach is forensic yet his touch is light. The Fifth Risk at first seems to be a magazine commission’s offshoot and something slight, a look at the havoc wrought by Trump’s staggering disregard of the machinery of government, but as Lewis traipses down the corridors of DOE, USDA, DoC, NOAA and so on (let me baffle you with acronyms, so you head to buy this to check out what the public service heroes of America are really doing), one’s jaw drops and then crashes to the floor. And Lewis, our shining light, is not, of course, merely cataloguing one president’s wilful ignorance and disregard, he analyzes the nature of the societal risks posed by government’s such as Trump’s. Not only is The Fifth Risk endlessly fascinating, it is, as ever, a jaunty, deceptively casual and entertaining read. If you read one “tell me what Trump is really like” book in 2018, make it this one.

We’re Not Talking by The Goon Sax [8/10]

Oh, smash your piggy bank on the floor and grab your cash for this sophomore wonder from the precocious, inwardly focused but tune-filled trio of Louis Forster (yes, son of Go-Between Robert Forster and he not only sounds like dad but writes as well as him), James Harrison (who can also pump out words and music inspired) and crisp, bouncy drummer Riley Jones (and she also writes and sings!). The debut of The Goon Sax was all about young love and ennui, and that hasn’t changed with We’re Not Talking, but now the arrangements sparkle and the variety of indie-style songs is astonishing. I’m too old for these loose-chat lyrics, I tried to tell myself, but I’ve been singing them in the shower nonstop! Check out the rollicking “Make Time 4 Love,” the thumping “She Knows” (with a swoony Alex-Harvey-ish hook), the one-minute bedroom solo of “Somewhere Between,” and the XTC-style brilliance of “Get Out.” Not a pop moment wasted, this smells like a classic.

Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell [7/10]

A cross between Carl Hiaasen’s madcap plotting and Adrian McKinty’s scurrilous Irish humor, Caimh McDonnell now closes off his wonderful hybrid mystery Dublin Trilogy with Last Orders, which kicks off with madman Bunny McGarry’s funeral and spirals into a dense, highly Irish plot. Goofy yet sympathetic characters abound, with even the walk-on roles offering pleasure (check out Agent Dove with the metal arm!). Dublin and its pubs and environs is wonderfully brought to life, the humor bubbles, and an alert intelligence underpins what can seem like an out-of-control plot. It took me half a book’s reading to sink into McDonnell’s flow but once I did, I was hooked. A highly recommended, imaginative, enjoyable read.

Bosch Season 4 Episode 1 [7/10]

This review won’t be of much use outside countries like Australia, where Season 4 of the outstanding TV series Bosch has just commenced showing, five months after the original U.S. release. But I’m an Aussie, so review it I must. Well, the first thing to fess up to is that I’ve been an unabashed fan of Michael Connelly’s Bosch crime novels for a quarter century, and I was riveted by TV seasons 1 to 3, so I came to this viewing positively disposed. I haven’t listed the director because the various episodes rotate any number of writers and directors, but I wonder if Aaron Lipstadt, who directs for the first time, is the reason I was immediately struck by a muted tone to the drama commencing with the shooting, at the top of a Bunker Hill funicular, of a defense attorney loathed by LA’s police. The intrinsic plot is freighted with tension but plays out very much in police procedural style, and at the end I wasn’t left with that ache, so familiar from the older seasons, that I simply had to binge watch the next one. Titus Welliver has grown ever more towering in the skin of Bosch, and the other ensemble actors cannot be faulted, but again, no performances stand out. The camerawork is tight without offering grandeur, the settings are LA-gorgeous, and the scripted dialogue is its usual gritty and sharp. Roll on, Episode 2, I say, but let’s hope the mood lifts.

The Janus Run by Douglas Skelton [6/10]

Author Skelton knows how to plot a book, especially one in which the hero, in this case an ex-member of an elite shadow operation, wakes up next to his dead girlfriend and finds himself on the run, pursued by the police and homicidal maniacs. The combination of breakneck action and espionage/mob strategies reminded me of Robert Ludlum, and The Janus Run almost breaks out into that elite category. Almost but not quite, for the writing style is choppy and the blur of action numbs one after a while, something that definitely shouldn’t happen with such a thriller. Not everyone in the extensive cast of characters work as well as protagonist Coleman Lang but I was swept up within the New York City hunt and chase scenes, and enjoyed much of the darkly flavored dialogue. An enjoyable race to the end but oh, how good it could have been!

One Way by S. J. Morden [7/10]

Of all the sci-fi sub-genres, that of space travel, the nitty gritty of it, had almost faded away until it was resurrected seven years ago by Andy Weir’s The Martian. What distinguished that enjoyable novel (remember Matt Damon in the movie?) was a geeky delight in the engineering intricacies of life in space, allied to a fast plot and serviceable writing. Ex-geologist Simon Morden and prolific science fiction novelist, in various sub-genres, has now reprised the original conceit of The Martian – humanity goes there! – with a few twists and just as particular a technical focus. In One Way, the first of a double-volume series, convicted murderer Frank Kittridge joins six other criminals to train up as an astronaut, land on Mars, and bang together housing for humans. Then the deaths occur . . . The murder mystery is no brain twister but does satisfy, Morden brings Kittridge to mordant life, space is exotically evoked, and the techo aspects are delicious. A glorious astronaut-in-jeopardy romp that begs for filmic extension.

Maniac directed by Cary Fukunaga – Episode 1 [9/10]

From its opening frame featuring  a down-and-out Emma Stone (a mesmerising performance) in a half-retro, half-futuristic New York, Fukunaga stuns with sumptuous scenes and wonderful cinematography. Jonah Hill is perfect as the hallucinating depressive son of a scion. In the second half the two volunteer into a pharma’s clearly dodgy group trial, and the signals are clear that this is going to be one trippy experience, perhaps a la Legion (one of my faves from 2017), and that the clashing duo will team up. All the bit players are superb. Not a moment of Maniac is wasted, not a moment is predictable. What a stunner of an opening episode!