The Umbrella Academy (created by Jeremy Slater) Episodes 2 to 5 [7/10]

The Umbrella Academy review

Doesn’t the world shine more brightly with imaginative tales like “The Umbrella Academy” out there? I rated the first episode highly and went into the next four episodes expecting the earth. And the freshness of the concept, the sparkling acting (if in the first episode I was drawn to Tom Hopper, Ellen Page and Aidan Gallagher, over these four hours I grew to admire Robert Sheehan as dissolute Klaus, David Castaneda as blade-throwing Diego, and Cameron Britton as jaded enforcer Hazel), the lush props, and the brilliant orchestration of action, all of these were admirable. Yet I couldn’t help but shake my head as the plot veered from crazy-neat to plodding and back again. By Episode 5, I queried my commitment, but that episode corrects course and offers intriguing developments in the offing. So … I’ve been tested over the season’s opening half but remain optimistic that the concept’s fresh premise and filmic chops will bear fruit over the second half.

Hiding to Nothing by Andy Muir [5/10]

Andy Muir Hiding to Nothing review

A “crimmy” ( as some of my friends refer, perhaps ever so disparagingly, to a crime novel) set in formerly industrial Newcastle towards the Queensland border, in a world of petty criminals and small time business people and ordinary folk, “Hiding to Nothing” is the second boisterous outing of house painter Lachlan Munro. Lachie is a house painter but also attracts chaos and swirling wrongdoing; this time the mix is a milk bar robbery, gangster Billy Wong and Lachie’s combustible con father. The action is swift, caper after caper, and the dialogue is sharp (though not as humorous as I’d expected, reflecting more on my sense of humour than on the author’s style). A fun read over a few hours straight and a peep into the feral side of a lively Australian city.

Chernobyl by Craig Mazin [10/10]

Chernobyl HBO mini-series review

To everyone’s surprise, the “Chernobyl HBO mini-series” hit the streaming world with a bang. Who would have thought a five-hour reprise of the world’s worst nuclear accident, way back in 1986, would enthrall non-specialist viewers? But it has caught on for one reason: it is an exemplary example of movie making. The subject matter is “on song” to me (I’m writing a history of nuclear reactors) but even I was swept up by a combination of a riveting, theme-soaked script, careful period scene-setting, impeccable casting and acting, and even a weird atonal soundtrack. Over five hours, it is impossible to both “get the whole damned thing essentially accurate” and “follow the original chronology completely faithfully,” and fortunately creator/writer Craig Mazin has opted for the former approach, which works in a deeply holistic way. (If you’ve a completist bent, do yourself the added favor of listening to Mazin chatting with Peter Sagal on the accompanying “The Chernobyl Podcast” episode after each episode viewing.) Johan Renck’s direction is meticulous and infused with purpose. The script zings! Jared Harris nails the lead character Legasov but Stellen Skarsgard almost steals the show as Soviet strongman Shcherbina. “Chernobyl” is a must-see (it’s my only 10/10 rating since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road“) about a subject that remains pertinent.

Checking Out: Anticlockwise by T.W.M. Ashford [7/10]

T.W.M. Ashford Checking Out Anticlockwise review

Only a few weeks after enjoying the second book in T.W.M. Ashford’s “Checking Out” time travel cum space romp series, I jumped straight into the concluding Book 3, “Checking Out: Anticlockwise.” George Webber, once a guest at the Le Petite Monde hotel, gateway to the multiverse, takes a lead role in this adventure, partnered with concierge Pierre, in wild corners of the universe and the cracks in its time continuum. Once again, the pell-mell zany time travel plot twists come thick and fast, once again the Doctor-Who-style fights and flights entertain, and once again a light sense of humor leavens the strangeness. The entire concoction is served up with wonderful flair and control. Another one-sitting read and another smile-inducing pleasure.

A State at Any Cost by Tom Segev [ 7/10]

Tom Segev A State at Any Cost review

I’m no expert on the history of Israel or the life story of its founder (self-declared and, in truth, actual) founder, David Ben-Gurion, but I found “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion” to be comprehensive, sophisticated, and in line with the facts I knew. Using scads of archival material presumably never before available, Tom Segev, a leading, and at times controversial, historian/journalist, takes the enigma of Ben-Gurion and adds plenty of flesh to it. Ben-Gurion could be wild and woolly, almost insane, or he could be the most conscientious diplomat. His personality veered all over the spectrum. I was fascinated to discover that core elements endured through his life: his passion for politics and its power bases; the concept of a Jewish state, come what may, whatever was required; a love of reading; tempestuous relationships; and a deep hankering for his place in the panoply of history. Segev retains superb control over his material, and writes vigorously and methodically. Although this is the only bio of the icon I have fully read, any competitor for historical authority must surely be quite remarkable. I commend “A State at Any Cost” to both the keen modern history buff and the explorer of Israel’s genesis.

An Unsettled Grave by Bernard Schaffer [6/10]

Bernard Schaffer An Unsettled Grave review

Another of my recent forays into police procedurals set in the back blocks of America, this time in rural Pennsylvania, “An Unsettled Grave” is the second outing for inexperienced but whip-smart Detective Carrie Santero. She teams up again with relentless hunter of killers, Jacob Rein (this time jobless and homeless after the furies of the series’ Book 1), when a child’s foot emerges from a grave. Secrets three decades old are re-ignited. Bernard Schaffer writes smoothly and Santero in particular works well as a feisty protagonist. If I tired a little of flashback scenes (I know they have their place but I prefer present-day drama in procedurals), the climax satisfied and the entire read flowed like a river.

Pivot by L. C. Barlow [6/10]

L. C. Barlow Pivot review

Horror being one of the few genres I rarely visit, “Pivot,” a claustrophobic gothic about a boy raised as an assassin by a mysterious cult leader, took nearly its full length to impress itself upon me. You need a certain mindset to sink into a book in which young Jack, fearful of father figure Cyrus, hones killing skills, at first on a perennially reincarnating uncle figure and then on strangers. L. C. Barlow writes convincingly, if a little at a distance, of this unlikeable world, especially the gory parts. But it is only when teenage Jack begins to explore his house for the source of Cyrus’s power, that the book accelerates and I thoroughly enjoyed the final third with its sinuous plot twists. For horror fans and toe dippers like myself.

Black Mountain by Laird Barron [7/10]

Laird Barron Black Mountain review

Once I inform you that “Black Mountain” is dark and hardboiled noir, I trust you’ll self select. If you’re a fan of Ellroy or his peers, you’ll find plenty to like here. The second instalment of the adventures of Isaiah Coleridge, a huge, part-Maori ex-mob enforcer now hanging out his PI shingle in the Hudson Valley, a headless mobster starts off proceedings, and the action grows heavier by the chapter, involving a semi-mythical killer and corporate connections. Coleridge has a philosophical bent and Laird Barron’s writing veers towards James-Lee-Burke-style lyricism, atmospheric to my ear. The dialogue is snappy and mostly effective. “Black Mountain” is a smooth ride through well-traveled genre terrain and if that’s your thing, it’ll while away some evenings.

Working by Robert Caro [9/10]

Robert Caro Working review

Robert Caro has written arguably the most magnificent biography of all time, though when I say “written,” he’s produced four volumes of his “Year of Lyndon Johnson Series,” and we’re eagerly awaiting the next one set during LBJ’s presidency. He also claims to want to write a full autobiography but, aged 83, has in the meantime produced a spellbinding collection of memoir-type essays called “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.” Perhaps you need to be interested in how history can be written to appreciate this. I like to think anyone will sink into it like I did and simply marvel at his tales of an obsessive, perfectionist craftsman. He describes breakthrough interviews with LBJ’s irascible brother, his secret backer, his vote fraud bagman, his driver, his widow. He mesmerises by describing how he learned about the two places LBJ inhabited most, the original Texan Hill Country, and the Capitol. If Caro seems to imply LBJ was a villain, just read the chapter on how he fooled the southern politicians to bring in the most far-reaching civil rights legislation ever achieved in the United States, i.e. he was also a hero. Caro’s modest discourse on the hardships he endured over nearly half a century of bio writing is also wonderful. Reading “Working” is inspiring and revelatory.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb [8/10]

Lori Gottlieb Maybe You Should Talk to Someone review

I’ve never been to a psychotherapist (to use a loose term) nor do I know anyone who has (though perhaps I haven’t asked my friends?). And yet I support the notion that some form of therapist or counsellor could well be enormously helpful. On the positive side of this knowledge balance sheet, I have read tons of novels featuring therapy sessions, which has accorded me the illusion of “understanding” how the process works. To prick the bubble of that illusion, I’ve now turned to a book much talked about, Lori Gottlieb’s “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.” I now count myself privileged, for Gottlieb not only seems like an ideal, passionately humane therapist, but her tell-all shows an adept, deep-thinking storyteller. Boldly, she alternates stories of her clients – fascinating, all of them – with a tale of her own plunge into despair after a relationship breakdown and her own subsequent sessions with, it turns out, an equally devoted therapist. This narrative decision grants Gottlieb licence to really delve into how therapy might occur, what it can do, and the painstaking way it unfolds. “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” is an intoxicating read from the very first page. I was especially taken with her excruciatingly patient journey with patient John, who Gottlieb at an early point in the book categorizes as “an asshole with exceptional teeth”; what begins as a description of an ordeal gradually morphs into muted success (or is it?). In turns funny, disturbing, and enlightening, this is a rare book indeed, an illumination of modern humanity.