Briefly Very Beautiful by Roz Dineen [6/10]

Roz Dineen Briefly Very Beautiful review

Dystopic fiction is running rampant and logically so. A debut novel, Briefly Very Beautiful is a claustrophobic, intense tale of a young mother with three young children, two of them brought to her by a husband now working as a medic in an overseas war. The world is steadily and catastrophically breaking down, from infrastructure to the American political order, and the air is becoming dire. The author writes heartfelt, close-up prose in support of this narrative of a human world gone mad and awry, told from a dense domestic viewpoint. When her city threatens to become unlivable, the woman sets off with her charges to search for sanctuary with her family-in-law, first in a gated estate, then over a border to a secluded property. Halfway through the engrossing story, the focus shifts to a story of familial dysfunction, hidden evils, and domestic betrayal, and I must confess I found the intricacies of treacherous human groupings and the hero’s responses, to be less fascinating than the background breakdown. Overall, this is an engaging, worthwhile read.

Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford [9/10]

Francis Spufford Cahokia Jazz review

A voluptuous stylist with honed storytelling chops and lyrical descriptive skills, Francis Spufford is rightly famed for his two previous novels. Golden Hill and Light Perpetual. His new novel, Cahokia Jazz, is a departure of genre but equally impressive and engrossing. Set in a counter-factual 1922 in which American Indians retained land and some power, in a counter-factual city near St Louis, the book is also a noir gumshoe classic, with a hefty police detective (brilliantly also portrayed as an ex-Jjazz pianist) clumsily pursuing a ritualistic murder. This world is ruled by American Indians, of a type steeped in Inca myths, and the author brilliantly weaves together the strands of the three intertwined groups (whites, Indians, and blacks). Every scene is drenched in the atmosphere of a rich, three-race city setting. I caught echoes of the Chinatown movie and Jonathen Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn in the roughshod, smart exploits of the appealing detective. The plot can be expected to twist and turn, and so it does, all under effective control. Cahokia Jazz is a complex, engrossing, exhilarating literary/mystery mash-up that catapults towards an ending both startling and totally logical. If you haven’t experienced Spufford magic yet, dive in!

Boy Swallows Universe [9/10]

Boy Swallows Universe review

Based on Trent Dalton’s mega bestselling novel of the same name, Boy Swallows Universe, a lovingly crafted seven-episode streaming show, never flinches from the dark side of the original work. Eli Bell grows up in the harsh light of the bogan drug world of 1980s Brisbane, accompanied by his semi-savant older brother Eli. Even as his parents and stepfather sell and take drugs or alcohol, a naive optimism grips Eli, and both the actors portraying him over a decade, Felix Cameron (especially) and Zax Burgess, convey this superbly. The other actors in a busy ensemble are also superb, with special mention of Simon Baker as Eli’s agoraphobic alcoholic estranged father. The bleak yet somehow lovely background of Brisbane’s grungier suburbs is on full display with lush cinematography and the music score is evocative. The underlying book veered, in my opinion, toward the overly histrionic, but John Collee’s script, and the work of three directors, achieve a powerful balance that marries gritty reality, emotive aspirations, surreal elements, and narrative tension. Boy Swallows Universe is a triumph, definitely the highlight of the 2024 Australian movie/show scene and a worthy aspirant globally.

The Great Escaper [4/10]

The Great Escaper review

If someone were to pass me a magazine article, say, about a 90-year-old British WWII vet who gatecrashes the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk in France and becomes plastered on the front covers of newspapers … well, I’d read and mutter “interesting.” As a movie, The Great Escaper is a dull, drama-deficient failure. Michael Caine convincingly plays the vet shuffling with his walker but the lines he is given by the pedestrian script blunt his performance. Only toward the end is he allowed to shine a little and display real emotion, but by sticking to veracity the narrative can find no tension or friction. In theory, Glenda Jackson should work well as his wife, the two of them clearly meant to portray what it is like to be very elderly but still bask in seventy years of love, but her performance is all hammy edges and no traction. The music is abominably treacly and the supporting cast adds few sparks. All up, The Great Escaper might make sense if you adore World War II nostalgia but otherwise, skip it.

Annika Season 2 [9/10]

Annika Season 2 review

Season 1 of Annika startled me with its narrative device of the main character regularly speaking directly to the viewer, and it took me one and a half episodes to come to grips with the notion. I suspect that in many writers’/directors’/actors’ hands, musings, usually around a cultural or historical theme, and confessions would backfire badly, but in this case, the effect is stunning. Each episode of this procedural series is standalone, with the key Marine Homicide investigator solving a distinct murder, and somehow the chats-to-viewer mesh seamlessly with both the murder case and the evolving lives of the homicide crew. The script crackles with superb dialogue, Directorial control never falters, marrying action and investigation to scenes on and around Scottish waters. And, most important of all, Nicola Walker is brilliant in her portrayal of DI Annika Strandhed. As a bonus, the other bit characters are also portrayed wonderfully well; Jamie Sives is especially absorbing as DS Michael McAndrews, #2 in the unit and someone with longstanding linkages with Annika. Season 1 ended with a brilliant cliffhanger, a climax that spills over into the six episodes of Season 2 with satisfying cohesion, and Season 2 itself does not lack for a fine finale. Overall, Annika has proven to be a welcome surprise package.

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett [9/10]

Janice Hallett The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels review

A cozy mystery rendered via emails, interviews, WhatsApps, etc., etc. The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels might seem destined to be an anodyne interlude. The plot essentials could fall flat, also: when two rival true-crime authors tackle the horrific ritual killings of five people eighteen years earlier, basing their investigations around a mysterious baby born then, hidden layers of artifice fall like dominoes. As the cliche goes, nothing about the original satanic cult case withstands scrutiny. But Janice Hallett displays consummate craft skills in bringing both the plot and the third-hand storytelling devices into a glow of character-based tension that gripped this reader for the duration of a one-sitting read. The myriad twists and turns of the investigation equally startle and remain convincing, and the author somehow manages to keep all the many strands of evidence clear in the reader’s mind. The resulting concoction of cleverness and humanity is an intoxicating brew. Consider The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels as one of those dream marriages, Agatha Christie betrothed to True Detective.

Listen by Michel Faber [6/10]

Michel Faber Listen review

Michel Faber novels (not that I’ve read any, to my regret) have always struck me as bold and subversive, and this impression is more than confirmed by his latest memoir/nonfiction book that tackles a subject close to my heart: rock music appreciation. Listen: On Music, Sound and Us bravely stipulates, from the outset: “I’m not here to change your mind about Dusty Springfield or Shostakovich or Tupac Shakur or synthpop. I’m here to change your mind about your mind.” And the author, writing with refreshing openness and stylishness, proceeds exactly down that path, tackling all manner of listening-related subjects, from volume to genre to atonality to classical music to white bias. The book is a heady brew of energetic essays, each one enjoyable, although it can be difficult to discern a throughline of thought or even, sometimes, the relevance of a given essay to the book’s expressed central aims. The entire reading experience of Listen left me glad of the read but slightly nonplussed. Call it a quirky specialty book, then, one that will find the readers it should find.

The Hunger Habit by Judson Brewer [7/10]

Judson Brewer The Hunger Habit review

A specialized book that will appeal to those genuinely seeking to improve their diets and eating lifestyles (unfortunately even those suffering from poor dietary choices tend to avoid change), The Hunger Habit: Why We Eat When We’re Not Hungry and How to Stop, is a timely and useful blueprint. The author, an American psychiatrist and neuroscientist, has been at the forefront of helping overweight people for decades. Moreover, he is a fluid, clear stylist who maintains a strong forward momentum through the book, so that the read is by no means difficult or technical. Structured as 21 days of aspects of his ideas for change, The Hunger Habit rejects the notion of willpower in dietary change. Instead his processes revolve around curiosity and self-kindness, with the central idea (this is my summary, which may gloss over Brewer’s sophisticated approach) being that if you can observe (aka: note in a mindful sense) yourself as you overeat (or eat badly), eventually your brain will begin to correct your behavior. Properly tackled, this book might well be some readers’ salvations.

The Age of Grievance by Frank Bruni [7/10]

Frank Bruni The Age of Grievance review

Columnist Frank Bruni’s 2022 memoir about vision impairment, The Beauty of Dusk, was gorgeously written, so I snapped up The Age of Grievance as soon as I could. A wide-angled look at the modern phenomenon of grievance politics and culture, this measured, wise everyperson treatise again hums with lovely prose. For example: “The beef that younger generations had with us Boomers was that we’d exploited our turn at the carving station. Now came the divvying-up of gristle and burnt ends.” Bruni emphasizes that grievance per se is a tool for progress, but only if legitimately applied, and he puts the modern, corroding, hate-tinted variety down to this: “There have always been big gaps between how the rich, how the middle class, and how the less fortunate live. Inequality is nothing new. But its present iteration is distinctive, and it’s distinctive in a manner that encourages grievance.” He comes at the subject from myriad angles. A section on the growing presence of dystopian books, movies, and shows, especially zombie-related ones, chimed with me; I had, in my own amateurish fashion, noted how many attractive (for I find myself attracted to them) dystopian items fall into my cultural bucket. He ventures into “cancellation” concerns but with a measured tone: “We’ve let the kind of sensitivity we lacked in the past and very much need in the present morph, in many instances, into a hypersensitivity so strange and even illogical that it’s a kind of insensitivity all its own.” The tumbling of grievance into radicalism hovering on the edge of violence is, naturally, decried: “What’s radicalizing them are grievances puffed up beyond all rationale, swollen by contemporary life and modern politics to the size of a zeppelin.” In two closing chapters, he offers the welcome idea that what is needed is a new humility, humility from politicians, from journalists, from activists, from “ourselves.” Practical suggestions address the U.S. Congress, cities (large and small), employment, education, and social media. The Age of Grievance will, I fear, fail to stand out from the ruck of advice/analysis books currently flooding our bookshops, but it is a superior read of depth and style.

The Best Minds by Jonathan Rosen [10/10]

Jonathan Rosen The Best Minds review

Anyone who has experience of a loved one with mental illness, especially severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, knows the terrain as terrifying and lonely. In The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions, American author and editor Jonathan Rosen provides us with an unparalleled vantage on the subject, through a deeply personal memoir/biography that centers on his childhood best friend Michael Laudor. Along the way, the author beams a sharp light on the last century or so of psychiatry and the societal care of mental patients. Laudor’s story is portrayed as both heroic and tragic. A supremely “bright” young man, Laudor begins exhibiting hallucinations and madness in his early adult years, comes close to dropping out of society, is resurrected by a supporting community of legal mentors who support him to a legal qualification, has a moment in the sun due to a New York Times article that portrays him as a courageous high-performing schizophrenic, plus a pending movie treatment, and then in 1998 (aged 35) commits a horrifying act of violence. It has taken the author a decade and a half to process his friend’s tumultuous life, and the result is an eloquent, tightly controlled, vehement and passionate account that is both intellectually energizing and emotionally harrowing to read. The Best Minds is a triumph.