Slow Horses Season 1 [8/10]

Slow Horses Season 1 review

Mick Herron’s Slough House/Jackson Lamb series, soon to be eight books strong, is justly praised both as a stylistic breath of fresh air in the often turgid genre of spy fiction and for its propulsive, complex, tricky plots. “Slow Horses” brings the series’ first book, of the same name, to the streaming stage and I, along with many others, wondered if the screen version could do justice to the print version. My heart need not have fluttered. The six-episode first season not only hews close to the book (something purists always yearn for) but nails the key criteria of acting, script, direction, and pacing. The most important actor, of course, is Gary Oldman. He transports himself into the skin of the repulsive, farting, ontime-super-spy Lamb, who has been banished to run Slough House (rendered wonderfully in all its seedy glory), a spy shop of rejects (although the word ”run” does not really apply because all Lamb wants from them is to do nothing). Jack Lowden as River, Saski Reeves as Standish, Christopher Chung as Roddy … all are marvellous. And Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Di Taverner … wow! The plotline of a young Muslim kidnapped and facing beheading follows the book’s labyrinthine details and James Hawes’s direction for all six episodes is flawless. This first season of Slow Horses is tense, chilling, yet witty and smart, perfect for both the Herron fan and the Herron neophyte.

The Genesis Defense by Frank Kennedy [7/10]

Frank Kennedy The Genesis Defense review

The Genesis Defense” is the fifth of the amazingly complex, involving space opera series Beyond the Impossible. From what I can see, Book 6 will complete “the second movement” of the series, and it’s not clear to me how sprawling the series will become. Certainly the tale as it stands in The Genesis Defense feels like it is just warming up. In any case, this series is a reading pleasure that I always delight in, and I have accorded the earlier four books complimentary reviews. This time out, we catch up with Royal, an immoral, immortal assassin who clearly will remain central, plus we track the fraught overshadowing plan of the Inventor, he of changed name and vision, and also Bonju, a scientist-warrior. Two universes collide as the evil Swarm crosses the Divide. As you can tell from this resume, I can’t tell you to read this as a standalone or as an introduction to the amazingly febrile, thrilling world of Frank Kennedy. But I can tell you The Genesis Defense maintains the standard, and is both exciting and fascinating to read.

Maror by Lavie Tidhar [8/10]

Lavie Tidhar Maror review

Who can forget the savage, musical James Ellroy prose circa the L.A. Quartet books? Now we have a successor and fittingly, the action takes place in modern Israel. Lavie Tidhar, a marvelous multi-genre author who never fails to delight, has now penned his noir opus, “Maror.” Spanning over three decades from the early seventies, it is the amoral tale of the underbelly of Israeli society, sitting on the shoulders of the nation’s cops (always corrupt), thieves, drug runners, whores, and assassins. Written with a relentless rhythm (allied to disparate music of the times) and scabrous, tough-as-nails prose, different parts of Israel feature, as well as Mexico, war-riven Lebanon, steamy Colombian jungles, and elsewhere. And every story features the enigmatic kingpin Cohen, a senior policeman pulling the strings while quoting flowery sayings and exerting a charismatic pull on all around him. Maror is a heady, nonstop brew of terror, violence, and mayhem, while also exuding swathes of coursing humanity. Deserves to be a cult classic, if not an award winner.

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan [7/10]

Dervla McTiernan The Murder Rule review

Irish crime writer Dervla McTiernan burst onto the scene with 2018’s claustrophobic, clever The Ruin, and she has kept to an annual release schedule since. “The Murder Rule” is a diabolically clever combination of courtroom drama, procedural mystery, and revenge thriller, and it hangs on a humdinger of a hook: what if someone joins the Innocence Project, dedicated to freeing longstanding wrongly convicted murderers, with the aim of vengeance not freedom (I’m not offering a spoiler here, the novel’s blurb says just that). Law student Hannah blackmails herself onto the University of Virginia’s classic team of crusaders and the author gradually reveals the hidden story of her motives. McTiernan is superb at unraveling the plot, which explores two old crimes in forensic detail, and the evidence-gathering plotlines are plotted well. Hannah is an engaging protagonist and all the other characters mesh in well. Toward the end, courtroom scenes introduce an almost Perry-Mason-ish atmosphere, I suspect most readers will not be able to put the book down. My only final quibble was a denouement, after clever twists, that felt emotionally untrue, but I do very much recommend The Murder Rule.

The Art of the Tale by Steven James & Tom Morrisey [7/10]

Steven James Tom Morrisey The Art of the Tale review

A writer who also reads books to others, I’m woefully inadequate as raconteur, speechifier and improviser. Hence I was immediately drawn to “The Art of the Tale: Engage Your Audience, Elevate Your Organization, and Share Your Message Through Storytelling,” written by Steven James, prolific thriller novelist, writing teacher, and speechmaking consultant, coequally with Tom Morrisey, a similarly prolific writer in nonfiction genres, plus a teacher/consultant. In this book, they address how to “tell a story,” which mostly means standing in front of an audience to recount a tale or present something to sell or entertain. As such, the “tale” they instruct upon is less the grand narrative and more the quick or shaggy dog story. The two authors write alternate chapters, interposing with asides on each others’ teachings, and both are, as one would hope, wonderfully intelligent and focused instructors. They move from the basics of “story” through to the nuts and bolts of preparing, administering, and excelling at the nine-minute (or whatever length) spoken address. I found every chapter to be strangely apposite for my own long-form writing. Peppered with dozens of apt case studies, The Art of the Tale should be required reading for anyone wishing to communicate via story or needing to speak in public.

Bump by Claudia Karvan & Kelsey Munro Season 2 [8/10]

Bump Season 2 review

Very Australian, quirky as all heck, and wonderfully authentic, “Bump” is now two seasons long. The first season was especially compelling, introducing the fascinating premise of Year 11 student Oli (flawlessly portrayed by Nathalie Morris), completely unaware she is pregnant, delivering a baby at school. Her struggles to come to grips with this bombshell, amidst the dramas of two families notable for turmoil and drama, occupy the first season’s story arc, and it’s a breathtaking journey. In Season 2, Oly and (spoiler alert if you haven’t watched Season 1) Santi, her down-to-earth one night stand or boyfriend or partner (he comes across as all of these at various points) settle into forging a life with their baby while growing up. (By the way, Santi is also brilliantly portrayed, by Carlos Sanson Jnr.) This season’s canvas expands to flesh out the subplots of Oly’s and Santi’s roiling families and their diverse friends, and by the end of the season, there is a sense of the series settling into a family saga. (As another aside, the star turn here is from cowriter Claudia Karvan, compelling as Oly’s wise but all-too-human mother.) Season 2 felt simultaneously warmly welcoming and narratively fresh, and is also heartily recommended, if not quite as startling as the opener. Bump seems destined for a third season; let us hope it resists slumping into soapie territory.

Ciao Bella by Kate Langbroek [6/10]

Kate Langbroek Ciao Bella review

Drivetime radio star Kate Langbroek took the big leap in 2019 and moved her family of six to Bologna, a jump into the unknown predicated on a sudden infatuation with the food, culture, and society of Italy. “Ciao Bella!: Six Take Italy” is her story of two years immersed in Italy, part travelogue, part family memoir, part ode to la dolce vita. With the Coronavirus unleashed nearby in 2020, the story takes on dark overtones, and that year tests the entire family. Travel memoirs require evocative writing or extreme drama, and time in northern Italy was never going to involve the latter, so the book revolves around the author’s amusing, passionate rendering of events that otherwise might be labeled as prosaic. While Ciao Bella will never trump Barry Lopez or Colin Thubron, I found it to be a sassy and often wise discourse on everyday life in transplanted circumstance, and also, of course, a glimpse into the secrets of Italy.

The Novel Project by Graeme Simsion [8/10]

Graeme Simsion The Novel Project review

Graeme Simsion was no instant success; not until his fifties did he produce the wildly successful rom-com novel The Rosie Project, which he then followed up with two sequels, another comedy, and then two hiking-based, romantic novels together with his wife. “The Novel Project: A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Novel, Memoir or Biography” distils his writing methodology for posterity and other writing aspirants, and what is fascinating about this book is that he spends more time planning and plotting his novels than he does writing them, at least in terms of elapsed time. Employing ideas from scriptwriting (the field he entered first), he spends a long time developing the guts of a novel, in terms of themes, characters, and plot arcs, before working hard on scenes/beats using easy-to-reorder index cards. The actual drafting is a sustained, short-lived process, following which he edits and reworks, edits and reworks, polishing assiduously. It’s an eminently logical process and one that appeals mightily to me, so I found the entire book hugely rewarding. Simsion is a stylish, flowing writer, and the book is full of easygoing candor and humor. A fan of how-to-write books, I rarely judge any of them to be freshly worthwhile. The Novel Project is a wonderful exception and is heartily recommended for anyone longing to craft a novel (or indeed, as the title promises, a memoir or biography).

Extra Innings by Albert Dabah [5/10]

Extra Innings review

Extra Innings” offered beguiling viewing in its early scenes, as we come to know teen David in Brooklyn in the 60s, passionate about baseball against the wishes of his devout Syrian Jewish family. Aidan Pierce Brennan is brilliant as David, coping with both familial barriers and the looming tragic presence of his older, psychologically troubled brother. But this promising start is squandered by a second half, covering David’s move to California to tilt at a professional baseball career. Haunted by a family tragedy and riven by his family’s lack of interest in his vocation, the stage was set for a resounding narrative and conclusion. But lackluster casting and acting, with the actors hamstrung by a plotline that peters out, fail to match the atmospheric milieu of the flower power era. I left the cinema troubled by a real sense of failed ambition. Extra Innings retains interest throughout but interest does not a drama make.

The Fear Index [5/10]

The Fear Index review

Why is justly praised thriller writer Robert Harris so badly adapted to film? “The Fear Index” is the second Harris adaptation I’ve watched this year (in a review, I rated Munich as 5/10) and I am so disappointed. As a screen adaptation of four episodes, it is a mess that retains some of the book’s excitement but dashes the viewing experience on rocks of lackluster casting and clumsy scripting. Harris’s 2011 novel was a thumping thriller exploring the leading-edge investment frontier of computerization, both fascinating and packed with adventure. The screen season began well enough, with our hero, the geeky founder of a firm using computer algorithms to amass data and analyze investment opportunities, attacked in his luxury home and then baffled by a dizzying escalation of strange threats. The first two episodes captured what I recalled of the book, the orchestrated thrills and the imparting of information about a strange human world, although even then it was clear that the appealingly drawn intellectual of the book had morphed onscreen into a histrionic dodo of wooden emotions. But midway through, the entire exercise turned into a pointless blur of half-decent actors eking out a plotline that captured a fraction of the richness of the novel. In the book, the climax is sound and fury and catharsis; onscreen, the climax is clumsy and inauthentic. If you are fascinated by the investment world, by all means view The Fear Index; the premise is wonderful. But as drama, it falls short of any recommendation threshold.