Michelle de Kretser is a formidably talented storyteller whose refined, intelligent tales tickle my mind but rarely enjoin me with her characters. In that respects, “Scary Monsters” reminded me of her other two lauded Miles Franklin Award winners, Questions of Travel and The Life to Come. Like those novels, Scary Monsters teems with intelligence, sparkling storytelling, and subtle connections, but offers protagonists portrayed a little too coolly for my liking.
The novel is a daring marriage of two parts, either of which can be read first. I began with the tale of Lili, an Australian teaching in southern France in the 1980s, a claustrophobic, philosophically imbued portrait of existential longing and Camus-inflected racism toward the local North African immigrants. The second narrative is even bolder, a near-future dystopian satire of an Asian immigrant family (headed by emotionally stunted, ultra cautious Lyle) in an Australia of institutionalized racism and assisted dying. The futuristic satire overflows with imaginative, savage ideas, eventually to the detriment (in my opinion) of any identification with Lyle and his striving family.
Overall, as has always been the case with this novelist’s books, Scary Monsters intrigues and impresses but leaves a halo of ideas well explored but chillingly uninvolving.
Forever a consumer of potentially useful self-help books, I was drawn to ”Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organise Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential out of a fascination with how to source and use data. I also opened the book with skepticism, for this is not a topic known for new ideas. Yet Tiago Forte, an analyst, has developed and honed a “system” with tangible chops. In essence (and here I simplify to the point of possible distortion), the author recommends coping with the modern world’s overloaded data flows by taking digital notes on everything, curating and distilling them as you go, and then harnessing digital apps and folders (and a sensible methodology) to transform raw data (both external and internal, i.e. instincts and impressions) into highly effective creative work. I use a similar process (including some of his shortlisted apps) but with markedly lower efficiency and regularity, so during my reading, i could not help but be filled with respect for the “system.” I commend Building a Second Brain to all those keen to master life for creative purposes.
The Strays, Emily Bitto’s whirlwind tale of avant-garde artists in 1930s Australia, left an abiding impression upon me. “Wild Abandon” offers a vastly different narrative, both in content and style, but cements the author’s status as one of Australia’s most ambitious, serious novelists. The novel, written in a grandiose (yet grounded) style that reminded me of both Updike and DeLillo, takes enormous risks and succeeds grandly. Like a modern-day Nick Carroway, naive Australian Will, reeling from hometown heartbreak, embarks on a end-of-days adventure through end-of-days, capitalistic America in 2011. From his druggy excesses in glittering New York, Will ends up as a barely-competent assistant to a PTSD-damaged U.S. veteran coping (almost) with a misfit menagerie of exotic wild beasts in remote rural Ohio. From the start, Will lurches from mishap to mishap, heading for the big crash.
The author’s capacious style soars over the modern and rural landscapes. The portrayals of the lions, wolves and other animals in their cages is magnificent, conveying their raw power, majesty, and beauty. The author does not hesitate to swing from an immersive, lyrical view from Will’s unschooled viewpoint into snap portraits of Will by those he meets, and these disjunctive flights of storytelling are most impressive, reminding me of Rushdie at his best. The plot of Wild Abandon is both luxuriant and relentlessly tense, and the eventual denouement of Will’s road trip is stunning.
Wild Abandon will surely win awards, local and overseas.
When distinguised American novelist Amy Bloom began to notice memory slippage, subtle (and then not so subtle) withdrawal from his usual zestful life, she did nothing, and then there came the MRI and the neurologist’s verdict of early onset Alzheimer’s. “I’d rather die on my feet,” husband Brian says, ”than live on my knees,” and ”In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss” is Bloom’s candid, spirited memoir of the 2020 trip to Switzerland into the embrace of Dignitas, one only a couple of global organizations that enables people to end their own lives with forethought and dignity. Minutely describing the trip, while ducking back in time to the diagnosis phase and the drawn-out period when Bloom battles to find a solution (none is remotely available in the United States), the memoir is simultaneously heart-breaking, refreshingly informative, and humorous, and the author is a lovely, close-up stylist with firm narrative control. In Love is a pacy read that will leave you in tears but also drenched with joy at the love Amy and Brian had.
Olen Steinhauer pens some of the most sparkling, enjoyable modern spy fiction in the genre, and I read the book All the Old Knives some years back, enjoying it. Luckily I could not recall the plot twists, so I came to the movie version, ”All the Old Knives,” with no spoilers and much anticipation. The plot is clever: a spy comes to a posh dinner in California to interview his former love, also a spy, about a terrible hijacking disaster seven years earlier in Vienna. Who was the rogue back then? For the first half, this filmic rendition sparkles: the key leads of Chris Pine as the interrogator, and Thandiwe Newton as the interviewee, work well while the setup and backstory are unfurled. The shady, shabby world of espionage is well conveyed. But the second half flags badly, with a classic twist at the end that I remember being shocked by with the book, but now unfolds so clumsily telegraphed that the climax (both the leads fail here) is a damp squib. Oh, for espionage thrillers to sparkle!
An intriguing novel about three generations in a family, spanning a wannabe hippy in an Indian ashram, his son in present-day Melbourne struggling to find meaning, and the granddaughter in a dystopian near future, “In Moonland” wrestles with family bonds and quests for transcendence. The author is a commanding stylist, inhabiting each of his different characters and their environments with ease, and the writing is precise yet supple.
Superbly written, In Moonland struck me as a tale with little modern-day plot momentum, almost a collection of evocative, yearning short stories. An enjoyable read, it left me unfulfilled at the close, but I’ll be sure to read anything the author tackles, such is his skill.
Recently bemoaning the dearth of sparkling thrillers, I came to the eight-episode streaming adaptation, ”The Ipcress File,” of Len Deighton’s classic 1962 spy novel (which I had forgotten was, incredibly given its stature now, his debut) with rank trepidation. I need not have fussed, for this rendition, scripted by John Hodges and directed by James Watkins, is superb from the opening scenes. Capturing perfectly the 60s vibe, the Cold War backdrop, the period placement, and Deighton’s exaggerated but oh-so-true-to-the-times plot, it powers along with precision, thrills, and wit. Joe Cole, whom I’m watching in Peaky Blinders in catch-up mode, is vastly distinct as neophyte secret agent Harry Palmer from Michael Caine (who starred as Palmer in three films from 1965) but just as effective, never playing a false note and easily warmed to. The script increases the class aspect of Harry Palmer, a move executed with elegance. Lucy Boynton is stellar as fellow spy Jean, here given a much enhanced role, and Tom Hollander shines as Dalby the meister-spy. The theme music and soundtrack are aptly nuanced and the cinematography is wonderful to watch. Pacing of the six episodes proceeds cleverly, with a rather blithe early mood darkening considerably by the end.
All in all, The Ipcress File deserves to be classic spy movie material and I hope Season 2 can be confirmed soon.
I never watched the original Predator movies but if “Prey,” a prequel set 300 years ago among a Comanche tribe, is any guide, those thriller/horror movies involved a futuristic killing machine (able, for example, to become invisible) who comes to town to battle the handiest warrior around, with lots of click-click-clicking (its signature sound when unseen) and foulsome roaring and grotequeque mayhem. I am not complaining, for I knew the terrain when I began watching, and I knew that the two narrative levers of the film would be horrid dread and the intellectual puzzle of how the hero would outwit such a capable enemy, and, truth be told, much of Prey is commendable. Amber Midthunder does a credible job as Naru, the female warrior unjustly dismissed by her tribe and indeed the Predator. The cinematography is splendid and atmospheric, conveying an olden-days world. The CGI is splendid and the action scenes rock. What prevented me from moving from mindless enjoyment to genuine respect was an unexpected lack of gasping terror, something I can easily fall into. Quite why the encroaching tension and the ravening monster left me nonplussed is not clear to me, but you may well differ, you may well find Prey a shining example of this genre.
“The Responder,” written by ex-cop Tony Schumacher, follows a car-bound first responder over a few nights, with his life spiraling out of control as he battles what is effectively PTSD. A tableau around the cop, including his family, two drug addicts, a rival cop, a drug dealer friend, and a partner foisted upon him, swirls and builds with a meticulous plotline. But it’s the standout acting performance of Martin Freeman, so gritty and realistic and human, that drives the six-episode series. This is unvarnished reality without melodrama (and featuring accents that almost mandate subtitles), and it works a treat. Over the first four episodes, the dramatic build-up almost becomes unbearable. The camerawork in Liverpool is superb.
A sense of bleakness pervades the series from the outset and it can be grim going in the second and third episodes, but towards the end, a sense of redemption and exhilaration seems to inhabit our hero. The final episode of The Responder is a cracker, and the entire streaming show is highly recommended.
Bill McGuire, a British volcanologist of repute, has, with his “Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide,” written a steely-eyed post-COP26 assessment of Earth’s and humanity’s prospects within the unfolding climate crisis. It is sure to ignite yet another hot debate about the plusses and downsides of doomsaying but the author, although bleak in his worldview, is never less than fair with his judgments. He wastes little time with the denialists, instead laying out the science, including the gaps in climate science and the unknown risks with tipping points, and then walking through the upcoming predictions for heat, floods, fires, storms, famines, diseases, and so on and so on. I expected to be laid low by his confident pessimism (the likelihood of +1.5C are slim and +2C is at risk) but instead came away much better informed (and, given that I read a lot on the subject, that is itself a wonderment with this book) and ready for witnessing and action. Hothouse Earth indeed: you must devour it and weep and gnash teeth and take positive steps.