The Scorpion’s Fire by Frank Kennedy [7/10]

Frank Kennedy The Scorpion's Fire review

A hugely ambitious space opera series approaches its grand climax. The eighth in the Beyond the Impossible ennealogy (that’s a nine-part sequence; I had to look it up), “The Scorpion’s Fire” sees author Frank Kennedy marshalling his capacious cast of characters—the varied military leaders, some immortal, the diplomats, the politicians, the second-universe villains, the god-in-waiting Royal—for the closing book’s fireworks. The author is as deft and readable as ever, this time circling around the main players, atmospherically using dialogue and interaction to provide a flavor of the complex negotiations underlying unity as the People’s Collectorate prepares for a war to end all wars What little battle action occurs in this book is, as in the previous seven books, thrillingly depicted. What impressed me most as I read was the breadth of the canvas and the clarity with which it was woven into the story. If you have been following the series upon my recommendations, The Scorpion’s Fire will leave you breathless with anticipation for the finale.

Everything Everywhere All at Once by the Daniels [10/10]

Everywhere Everywhere All at Once review

Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the hugely idiosyncratic creation of the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), is a riot of invention, emotion, cinematography, and something unique that only movies can offer. Michelle Yeoh triumphs in the hugely demanding role of Evelyn, burnt-out, crabby owner of a laundromat, who is thrust into the role of saving all the universes of a world of many, through a series of escalating fantabulous adventures. The key support actors of Stephanie Hsu (Evelyn’s daughter Joy), Ke Huy Quan (husband Waymond), and Jamie Lee Curtis (a tax collector among other roles) are also superb. The way-out-there plotline is massively smart and ambitious, the cinematography is sublime, the action scenes scorch typical Marvel/Disney pyrotechnics, and the attention to detail is woozily fabulous. Not a moment of the running time of two-and-a-quarter hours feels slow or too fast. All in all, Everything Everywhere All at Once is not something I can recommend to many around me, with their circumscribed palates, but for me it is hands down the most powerful, intelligent film of this year. At its core, it addresses the issues we existentialists exult in and fret about every day. And so many scenes are laugh-out-loud funny but, even when theoretically stooopid, are delivered respectfully. Cinematically unique, something I cannot process yet but will do so over repeated viewings, it vies for 2022’s crown.

Wildlife in the Balance by Simon Mustoe [8/10]

Simon Mustoe Wildlife in the Balance review

An ode to the unbreakable ecological links between the human species and the profusion of animal species threatened by humanity’s global footprint, “Wildlife in the Balance: Why Animals Are Humanity’s Best Hope” is a riot of stories, observations, and ideas. The book careens all over the place, but its central core—the notion that if we drive animals to extinction, we surely shall follow them—is never far away. An eloquent stylist, Simon Mustoe pours his heart out into a plea for a deeper understanding of our essential coexistence with animals and a new path forward. The final two chapters comprise a fervent eight-step “blueprint for human survival” and an animal-focused impact statement. Readers who think they understand concepts such as conservation and biodiversity would do well to enjoy, as I did, Wildlife in the Balance.

Kleo [9/10]

Kleo review

Kleo” is one heck of a surprise, seemingly the child of the brilliantly plotted Patriot series and the stylish, gory mayhem of Killing Eve. Chock full of visual treats, imaginatively varying in pace, and plotted with verve over eight unpredictable episodes, it is never wholly original, yet always fresh. Jella Haase is perfect as East German assassin Kleo, wrongfully imprisoned and then released when the Berlin Wall comes down. Set on revenge, she eventually enlists unlikely companions such as druggy Thilo and hapless West German cop Sven. The scriptwriters and directors are not afraid to take chances, with the result that every episode is a hoot from start to end. No grand themes intrude but the post-Cold War German backdrop fascinates, and the music is an exuberant feast. Kleo is a 2022 standout.

The Botanist by M.W. Craven [8/10]

M W Craven The Botanist review

The fifth in the crime fiction series featuring bulldozing DS Washington Poe of the National Crime Authority and his odd-couple partner, Tilly Bradshaw, a super-brilliant but innocent analyst, “The Botanist” is another beguiling M.W. Craven rocket ride. Pitted against the super-clever poisoner calling himself The Botanist, whose specialty is murdering bad folks in locked rooms, Poe also finds himself scrambling to save his forensic scientist pal Estelle, implicated in another no-escape locked-room mystery. If those descriptions signal complexity to you, let there be no mistake: this is classic, complex, clue-based genre fiction, but it comes laced with acerbic humor and dolloped out with clockwork pacing. The author flirts with plot obsession, which is what ended up turning Jeffrey Deaver’s initially pleasing thrillers into self-pastiches, but the jaunty style, the perky characters, and the controlled pacing keep the Craven engine on a steady footing. The Botanist can be read as a standalone, a most enjoyable one, but really, for a series this much fun, do yourself a favor and start back at #1, The Puppet Show.

The Parrot in the Mirror by Antone Martinho-Truswell [8/10]

Antone Martinho-Truswell The Parrot in the Mirror review

Australian-resident zoologist Antone Martinho-Truswell has a roving mind and spirited, engaging pen. “The Parrot in the Mirror: How Evolving to Be Like Birds Made Us Human” is his fascinating notion that some of what we are as humans is the result of convergent evolution matching how birds evolved far, far earlier. Birds broke off from the evolutionary tree of dinosaurs, then, much later, humans evolved on a completely different branch. Yet some of our traits, driven by the pressures of evolution, have ended up being closer to those of birds than to how other mammals behave. The author is a sparkling writer, able to draw the reader along challenging but fascinating routes, turning what could have been turgid academic theory into a marvelous tale. I was drawn to The Parrot in the Mirror by a fascination for the fifteen crane species of birds, one of the more ancient groups of birds, and I found the book to be a valuable read, but I feel certain that many general nonfiction readers would sink into the storytelling.

The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg [8/10]

Dr eat Thunberg The Climate Book review

A brilliantly edited and curated guide to the climate crisis, from the science to mitigation to adaptation to responses, “The Climate Book” is a surprisingly readable tome of impeccable timing. Greta Thunberg masterfully guides the narrative, using her amazing, laser-sharp perspective, by interspersing her own eighteen editor’s/activist’s essays. A spectacular roster of over eighty scientists, professionals, policymakers, and activists (I like the fact that their superb credentials are listed only in the table of contents, when we read them, we’re expected to know who they are) provide the encyclopedic coverage of all the data and issues.

Zeke Hausfather is as lucid as ever covering methane, Katharine Hayhoe sums up the growing frequency and dangerousness of heatwaves, Fredericke Otto tells us about climate change attribution, Peter Gleick shares his insights as the pre-eminent expert on water threats, and Tamsin Edwards sketches out the likely outcomes at 1.5º, 2º, and 4º. The most chilling “hot off the presses” (at least to me) news comes from one of the most passionate, eloquent, brilliant climate scientists, Johan Rokström, warning us that “we have reached an existential fork in the road.” The issue is tipping points. Two decades ago “we still thought that the risk of irreversible changes with large impacts was very low, and that there was only a serious risk at 5–6°C of warming. … Today, our best understanding is that even at 1.5°C, and certainly between 1.5 and 2°C, we are taking enormous risks.” Gulp!

Right here, right now, The Climate Book is an essential compendium and action manual regarding the climate crisis. Everyone is obliged to read it.

Humanity’s Moment by Joelle Gergis [9/10]

Joelle Gergis Humanity's Moment review

Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope” is a most welcome rarity, the recent journey of a dedicated climate scientist with an eloquent pen and a compassionate heart. This was not a physical trek but a grinding mental journey helping to assess scientific evidence and then assemble it into conclusions for the hot-off-the-press IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Masterfully, she uses a step-by-step overview of that report, expressed in lucid prose, to provide a fully up-to-date Climate Science 101 course for the reader, while also recounting her own experiences, including journal entries. In effect, this book is a window into one climate scientist’s ”real” views on the climate crisis, over and above what the necessarily conservative and careful IPCC report states. As she works, she witnesses what the reader does, our Earth burning, melting, flooding and bending under winds, and it near breaks her heart. The final section of the book then becomes her reckoning with those heartrending experiences and here the author’s prose blooms. In the end, Humanity’s Moment morphs into a Silent-Spring-like ode to humanity’s quest for justice and hope. Of all the climate crisis books you notice this year, make this one your reading priority.

Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit by Assaad Razzouk [8/10]

Assaad Razzouk Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit review

Clean energy entrepreneur and ”thought leader” punches solidly with “Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit: What They Don’t Tell You About the Climate Crisis,” tackling in over two dozen info-packed, straight-talking chapters aspects of the climate crisis and its possible solutions. Mostly he confirmed a view I have held for five years, namely that ”it’s all about zeroing fossil fuels, forget everything else, period.” Individual actions and accountability are important, he preaches (in this case, to the converted), but often deliberately distracting, and under this rubric he includes plastics recycling, tree planting, offsets, veganism, flight shaming, corporate ESG, and so on. Pour opprobrium on cruise ships, fight for insects, ride a bike, hit the top ninety sinners, and so on. Employing a sizzling, fact-laden style, the author makes every chapter a revelation or helpful synthesis. Even if you think you know it all, Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit is a delightful ride and essential companion.

Liberation Day by George Saunders [6/10]

George Saunders Liberation Day review

The nine short stories in “Liberation Day” are a mix of immersive character studies and boundary-stretching brutal sci-fi concepts unwound for the reader. The title story, for example, posits slaves shackled and semi-tortured to vocalise scripts for an ultra-rich family, while in “Ghoul,” a hellish amusement park is maintained by brainwashed slaves. The heroes in such stories grapple with survival and purpose, parodies of the real world. “The Mom of Bold Action” puts us in the head of a scatty mother trying to write mini fables, who swings into Trumpian action when her son is mildly assaulted and her husband retaliates. This story is a virtuoso turn, a frenetic unreliable-narrator rant that reveals much about our current world. The author is a master of prose, control, and hidden depths, but I found most of the protagonists impressive rather than moving, puppets twirling upon the master’s command, so I suggest you sample Liberation Day before taking the plunge. If it amazes you, you are a George Saunders fan; if it merely evokes admiration, this collection might fall a tad flat.