This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends by Nicole Perlroth [8/10]

Nicole Perlroth This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends review

Two decades ago, I did enough research into the world of hackers and cybersecurity to know about black hats and white hats and the dark, sometimes romantic world they inhabit. I even worked for a cyber protection company for a few months. Well, reading “This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race” is an eye opener. How the software/online world has transformed! That old slapdash, cowboy world changed when so many software holes became apparent that some of them, “day zeros,” became tagged as special; money lurched after them; governments joined the gold rush; America rampaged all over the world but then its enemies stole or reverse engineered its goodies; and suddenly here we are, in Nicole Perlroth’s world. Seven years of dogged, brilliant journalistic investigation into the murkiest depths have yielded a mind-blowing book of coverage and revelation. Essentially, Perlroth tells us, we are fucked, although, of course, she tells the tale far more elegantly, for she’s a superb, sprightly stylist. Backed by hundreds of interviews, peopled by emblematic hackers and mercenaries and spooks, Perlroth’s jaw-dropping narrative begs the question: why hasn’t much worse befallen the world’s online/software-driven infrastructure? Reading her recommendations for ameliorative action at the end suggests, to me at least, that the answer is: good fortune. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends is one of 2021’s essential reads and a pleasure to consume at that.

Smoke by Joe Ide [7/10]

Joe Ide Smoke review

The fifth instalment in the ongoing adventures of Isaiah Quintabe, geeky private detective extraordinaire in the hells of Los Angeles, “Smoke” no longer follows the standard format of “client presents case, IQ solves it.” At the end of the explosive fourth book, IQ fled LA and Grace, the love of his life, shattered by violence. Smoke chronicles his recovery steps, hidden a long way away, while back in his home town, we follow the adventures of Grace, sometime friend Deronda, and his on-again-off-again hipster partner Dodson, while the author introduces three disparate villains of varying levels of depravity. Like James Lee Burke, Joe Ide seems to specialise in picaresque, nigh emblematic bad guys, and Smoke sizzles with their horrors and plans. The plot rockets along, and the characters are, as always, alive with zest and ripe dialogue and thoughts. I missed the old IQ, solver of puzzles, until some of the subplots meshed together and he is forced to use all his skills. A white-knuckle ride, that’s what Smoke is, and wonderfully written. I would recommend beginning at the first book, though.

As the Love Continues by Mogwai [7/10]

Mogwai As the Love Continues review

Mogwai’s tenth album in nearly a quarter of a century, “As the Love Continues,” encapsulates all the elements of their unfolding brand of music, from post-rock, bass-heavy walls of sound, through tinkly keyboard contrasts, to melodic instrumental wig-outs. If it doesn’t contain the grandeur of a couple of the band’s earliest classics, there is a pleasing sense of variety and craftsmanship that pervades As the Love Continues, and the album’s overall impact is one of a satisfying journey. Moods of grace and grandeur and sadness seem especially fitting in a world still stifled by lockdowns. Highlights include the panoramic, six-minute “Midnight Fit,” with its bursting strings; the opening “To the Bin My Friend, We Vacate the Earth,” unfurling into booming majesty; the surprisingly cheesy but brilliantly choreographed “Supposedly, We Were Nightmares”; and “Dry Fantasy” which somehow grafts that bass-loaded Mogwai grandeur onto a Tangerine Dream melody. As the Love Continues is, perhaps unexpectedly, perhaps foretold, a career highlight.

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell [6/10]

Malcolm Gladwell The Bomber Mafia review

A Malcolm Gladwell book or podcast (and they are similar) is a breath of fresh intellectual air. Even if you disagree with his latest thinking, his argument always chimes sweetly and the telling is sure-footed. “The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War” is another readily readable slice of history, this time the quest of a ragtag group of American air force officers, from just before WWII, to invent pinpoint bombing and, potentially, to make ground and sea warfare moot. Gladwell tackles this idea slowly and thoughtfully, telling the tale of a reclusive, crusty Dutch inventor who invents the bomb sight, then traversing the war until the post-war lunacies of Curtis LeMay. Carry The Bomber Mafia to a park in springtime, read it in one sitting, and momentarily consider Gladwell’s intriguing musings soon forgotten.

On Time and Water by Andri Snær Magnason [8/10]

Andri Snaer Magnason On Time and Water review

Missing out on Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason’s varied works to date is regrettable, for on the evidence of “On Time and Water,” he is a sumptuous, precise stylist. Part memoir, part historical exploration, part climate emergency plea, part climate science exposition, On Time and Water ranges effortlessly over Magnason’s investigations into Finland’s ancient glaciers, indeed the world’s glaciers, as they begin to melt at an accelerating rate; over the notion of past time as experienced by his grandparents; over mythologies, generating his conceit that a holy cow has reached out to him to write the book; and over the notion of future time in the Anthropocene Age. Two interviews with the Dalai Lama offers reflections on mortality and the glacial melting in the Himalayas. Switching effortlessly between journalese and poetic prose, Magnason champions a far richer relationship with the future, out to his great-great-grandchildren, in place of the prevalent short-termism that threatens us all. A most rousing read, On Time and Water should be required reading for young people (we in the older generation seem to be a lost cause).

Fire, Storm and Flood by James Dyke [5/10]

James Dyke Fire Storm and Flood review

Fire, Storm and Flood: The Violence of Climate Change” is labelled “a photographic record” of the climate emergency, and is structured as stunning stock photos, each accompanied by a couple of pages of fluent narrative prose. The author, a British Earth systems scientist, has artfully selected vignettes and climate tales from around the world and through time. As a collection of short essays on aspects of climate change occurring now or forecast to occur with certainty, it is timely. Essays that impacted me included the one of back to back photos of a glacier now and decades ago; the heavily populated Thar Desert across Pakistan and India; the ignominy of the Athabasca Oil Sands; the 2018 China heatwave; and Death Valley temperatures approaching wet bulb death levels. Although useful and often compelling, I pined for a cogent narrative through-line to shape for my reading, and I was irritated by the book’s progressive timeline which is small and unreadable on a tablet. Fire, Storm and Flood is worth considering if you are hungry for global warming stories.

News of the World [8/10]

News of the World review

Tom Hanks’s movies by now loom larger than the actual storyline or script, his trademark reserved seriousness casting a shadow over each one. Some of them half work, others triumph. “News of the World” is in the latter category despite a plot that screams feelgood from the start. A blighted Civil War veteran, who has restored some self pride by becoming a news reader, toting rolled-up broadsheets across the scarred, postwar south and reading them, for coins, to the assembled citizenry. This central plot device in itself inject heft into the film for this viewer, for I love reading to others. The news reader stumbles upon a young girl who was ripped from her family by the Kiowas and can no longer speaks English. Abandoned by terrible fate, she is taken under the wing of our hero, who undertakes a perilous journey, through hideous wayfarers and corrupt communities, to her former German relatives. One realizes early that the ending will be sweet enough, but strangely enough, the filmmaking skill in evidence here washes away the cliches. The wild West is grittily portrayed in subdued colors, Hanks’s young co-star Helena Zengel puts in a riveting performance, and the violent set pieces are brilliantly staged. The ending delighted me. News of the World is an unexpected triumph.

The Spiral by Iain Ryan [7/10]

Iain Ryan The Spiral review

Iain Ryan’s previous noir outing, The Student, featured a gormless, unlikeable character in an academic setting, thrust down a violent rabbit hole “The Spiral” has that much in common with its predecessor, only this time our protagonist Erma is a lecturer adept at martial arts and researching choose-your-own-adventure novels. After a colleague shoots her twice, nearly killing her, and then dies, Erma is left with unanswered questions that spur a twisting, semi-surreal plot that unfolds, slowly at first, before plunging into a classic noir hellishness. Erma is viscerally rendered; I disliked her from the get-go but was gripped by a desire to see her triumph against terrible odds. The author is a savagely realistic stylist, notable for pungent dialogue. The book’s blurb mentions Mullholland Drive; a seemingly bizarre feature is a parallel narrative inside a computer game, but even this feature resolves itself intelligently. Overall, The Spiral is a coruscating, white-knuckle adventure in adept hands, like a plunge into an Arctic ice hole.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams [8/10]

Pip Williams The Dictionary of Lost Words review

The tone of “The Dictionary of Lost Words,” an ode to words and dictionaries and the impact of both on our inner and outer lives, is earnest, sweet, and surprisingly unadorned. In short, this debut novel by Australian Pip Williams should have set my teeth grinding. Indeed it took a third of the book for the underlying intelligence and subtlety of the unfolding yarn to grip me in its maw. The story of Esme, daughter of one of the lexicographers assembling and adjudicating the first Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the Twentieth Century, amasses gravity as she grows from childhood into marriage, amidst World War I and, crucially, the suffragette movement. At a young age, she begins to collect unwanted words, which so often arose from women’s language and experiences, and eventually she moves to collect women’s word herself. Thus the closing half of The Dictionary of Lost Words escalates into an absorbing, affecting morality tale that resonates in our current times. Plus, of course, any book that celebrates words and their subtleties should be celebrated. Gentle and deep.

The Painter and the Thief by Benjamin Ree [9/10]

The Painter and the Thief review

Filmed over four years and perfectly constructed by hitherto unknown documentary filmmaker Benjamin Rees, “The Painter and the Thief” is concurrently a fascinating relationship drama, a deep reflection on art, and an exploration of humanity. When painter Barbara Kysilkova’s two standout paintings are robbed from an Oslo gallery, the main thief, drug addict Karl Bertil-Nordland is soon caught. The paintings remain missing. On an impulse, the painter asks the thief if she can paint him; on an impulse, he agrees. I won’t spoil the riveting plot but suffice to say the two begin a fraught journey together, the thief spiraling back towards prison but yearning for the light, the painter struggling with inner darkness and artistic poverty. The discreet capture of scenes, often months apart, casts each event as private and intense. Barbara and Karl are charismatic in their own ways, both questing. The entire arc of the story is unexpected and moments of beauty abound. Not a moment is wasted, and The Painter and the Thief deserves to be anointed in this year’s awards.