The brilliant author of the six-strong Sean Duffy series, Irishman Adrian McKinty has shifted terrain with magical effect. “The Chain” is one of those blockbuster thrillers with a premise so remarkable one wonders why it hasn’t been used before. A single mother, on an ordinary day, is thrust into hell when her daughter is kidnapped and she’s told by the kidnapper to pay a ransom (in bitcoin!) and to perpetuate “the chain” by kidnapping someone else’s child. The book kicks off at a ferocious pace and then accelerates, building up tension to an almost unbearable level. The characters, both heroes and villains, are vividly portrayed. McKinty is a robust yet elegant stylist and manages to both catapult the action and mystery forward and retain deep character connections. For this reader, “The Chain” was a single-night midnight-breaching read. A 2019 standout.
“The Testaments” is not, repeat is not, a sequel to Margaret Atwood’s revolutionary dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Indeed it could not follow that classic novel’s trajectory, if only because the TV series has usurped the plot. Instead Atwood reexamines the perverted, horrific world of Gilead, commencing a decade and a half later, and switching from a claustrophobic single viewpoint to three interwoven narratives, two of handmaids and one of ruthless Aunt Lydia. Atwood is among the world’s most assured novelists, each word and sentence carefully chosen, and the story zips along pleasingly. By the halfway point, one spies an overall arc and then races to uncover the dramatized endgame, and the overall read is intriguing and satisfying. But the deep immersion in political terror that “The Handmaid’s Tale” engendered is missing and the plot-driven structure distanced this reader somewhat from any of the three characters. If you’re a fan of the original, this is a must-read, but “The Testaments” will surely not sit as the same class of classic.
An outpouring of punk emotion in eleven musical bites, “Twelve Nudes” exhausts but sticks in the mind. I’d never come across Ezra Furman before but here she expunges all her heart and mind into bite-sized morsels that scream across the sky. Despair at the state of Trumpian America is the dominant harshness, ameliorated beautifully by a singalong sense of melody. Her hoarse shriek is inexplicably exhilarating. Highlights include the blistering two minutes of “Thermometer,” incandescent opener “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone,” the naïve political brilliance of “In America,” and her liberation anthem, “What Can You Do But Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But really, let this short album wash over you again and again, you’ll not be disappointed.
I swoon over Angel Olsen’s torch song voice allied to her deft guitar and dramatic indie tunes, like a reincarnation of Dusty Springfield. All her releases so far have been wonderful and “All Mirrors” is wonderful again but this time dressed up in extravagant arrangements including a mini orchestra and thumping drums. The songs seem to explore ambiguous thoughts and emotions amidst growing fame, and the several songs speak to that aching emotionality featured on her previous album. If perhaps I enjoyed her solo indie music making before, the super-fried production here does not detract from her soaring climaxes. I play three songs again and again: the torchy title song, the tremulous vocals over the dubby floor of “New Love Cassette,” and the breathy bounce of “What It Is.” But selecting highlights is the wrong way to listen to “All Mirrors.” Instead, revel in the artistry of the entire eleven-song cycle.
An irresistible binge beckons in the shape of the four Criminal seasons of three episodes each, namely “Criminal: United Kingdom,” “Criminal: Spain,” “Criminal: France,” and “Criminal: Germany.” Each of the twelve episodes is set in the same two rooms, a crime interview room and the onlookers’ room behind a one-way mirror, and each features one or two interviewers quizzing a suspect while the rest of a combined interview team of five or six hovers next door. The only differences between the four locales are a cosmetic one involving different out-of-a-corridor-scenes meant to beckon London, Paris, etc.; and different teams speaking different languages. Each 45-minute episode is an intriguing standalone puzzle and interrogation contest. Each provides a satisfying twist. Each suite of three episodes features intriguing character tussles and engagements within the teams. With such a “built for live theatre” setting, the end result is a dozen fascinating, well-written narratives of suspense and modern relevance. The overall roster of a couple of dozen hero-interrogators is pleasingly diverse and stocked with tremendously effective actors. All in all, the four series make for a 2019 viewing highlight. Spain stands out as the most intense, France is the most startling, Germany sets the most sombre mood, and United Kingdom contains the slickest tension, but watch them all! Admire and enjoy.
Jon Gertner, NYT journalist and historian, has penned a modern masterpiece of natural history at the outer edge of climate change science with “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.” Greenland has never been on my reading list but from the first page, Gertner propels a spellbinding, eloquent account of the history of that frozen mass. The first seven chapters recount macho death-defying exploration, the rousing tales of Nansen and Peary at the end of the nineteenth century, crossing and exploring one of earth’s last and most forbidding frontiers. Rasmussen and Wegener take the story through the first half of the twentieth century, still mostly raw exploration, but an emerging realisation of the scientific secrets locked in Greenland’s ice morphs the tale after World War II towards knowledge. Gertner is brilliant describing how American Cold War might and money transformed the frozen waste into an air base and a science Camp Central (eventually crushed by the ice). Ice core drilling into the eighties is described in thrilling terms. When it was realized Greenland had begun melting, albeit slowly at first, airplane surveying at first, and then satellite blanketing, began to pursue astonishing science: how much ice is on Greenland and how is it changing? Gertner’s thrilling account of the 2010s includes images of cautious glaciologists stunned by the accelerating ice melt. Rising sea levels beckon, far faster than anyone predicted. “So we have very little time,” Gertner warns, “a few years, maybe a few decades.” Every thinking human should read “The Ice at the End of the World” tomorrow.
Ten years ago, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” proved to be instrumental in shifting me towards vegetarianism, so naturally I gravitated to his altogether new take on the subject in “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast“.” But whereas the first was a polemic for vegetarianism, “We Are the Weather” turns out to be a remarkable philosophical exploration of the terror and meaning of climate change in the Anthropocene Era. Sure, Foer is now recommending we all just skip meat for breakfast and that this alone would greatly impact global carbon emissions, but that fades before the power of his intelligence and prose in addressing the heartbreak and attendant nihilism that any sensible appraisal of our future entails. His penultimate chapter, “Dispute with the soul,” is extraordinary, a dialogue of one mind with itself, oscillating between despair and various forms of hope. I felt the author had a direct line into my head as I read it, and I’ve returned to the teasing, looping discussion again and again. Throughout the book, Foer’s prose is personal and precise and elegant: “There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance. Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.” Ah, so true. I predict this lively, wise reflection will remain a classic for years. Go grab it, it won’t fail you.
Having come to this noir black-as-pitch series late, I found the first episode of Season 2 of “Mr Inbetween” to be slow. Little did I know. From the second episode, the season slides into a tense, aching momentum that had me delighted, shocked and baffled simultaneously. Nash Edgerton’s direction is sublime but the star of the show is indubitably Scott Ryan, both in his completely believable portrayal of hit man Ray Shoesmith and in his brilliant, underplayed script. The “in-between” world of Ray is the contrast between him as father, brother, and friend, and his profession, a profession chosen because of his warped personality, a personality both mysterious to himself but also, as shown in scene after scene, very keenly weighed. The eleven episodes ebb and flow between domesticity and flaring, unemotional (but hey, so, so, emotional in impact) violence. I’ve spent much of my life pondering evil and violence – this series brought my up close to it. The writing and directorial team managed to achieve the impossible, leaving me at the edge of tears for a human being I hope to never have anything to do with. Watch it and be amazed at the power of cinema. One closing scene, a bare minute klaxoned by Nick Cave’s “Tupelo” is the most unforgettable of the year.
American geologist Marcia Bjornerud is on a mission to educate us, to the extent we need it, about our planet and the swathes of its four and a half billion years of history. “Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World” is a beguiling mix of artful lecturing, personal narrative, and purposeful reflection. The “timefulness” of the book’s title is a term she conjures up to highlight the admixture of ancient and recent geological and related aspects of Earth that are, in her view, the important features we need to consider when saving ourselves from within our new geological era, the Anthropocene. Bjornerud is an elegant, personal writer and this book carries out its mandate fully and to great effect. Read it and learn, friends.
“Rewind” is an intricately plotted mystery involving spooky holiday cottages, hidden cameras, a missing social media star, and a social media journo who aims to conquer the crime beat. Dodging back and forth in time, in and out of different characters’ viewpoints (including a malevolent player), the author choreographs a Hitchcockian mystery cum thriller. The locales shine, the dialogue crackles, and I enjoyed the ride, although it must be said a shadow of manipulation hangs around the edges of the reading experience. Clever and well done.