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.

Killing Eve Season 2 Episodes 5 to 8 [8/10]

Killing Eve Season 2 review

This second season of “Killing Eve” has been a bit of a seesaw. The first episode almost stops me in my tracks); fortunately the next three episodes plunge deliciously onwards. What then of the season’s second split, the final four episodes, which could be the show’s finale (though I gather Season 3 is promised)? In Episode 5 the plot twitches laterally, with Villanelle co-opted as an ally, a relationship fraught with murky double-cross possibilities. By Episode 6, she and Eve are enmeshed in a terrifying joint operation that delights Villanelle, who seems to be reeling Eve into her world, and simultaneously thrills and terrifies Eve, who no longer knows quite what she is. Sandra Oh remains flawless in her portrayal of Eve but it’s Jodie Comer who shines in what is perhaps the performance of the year, at once whip smart and always on the edge of capricious violence. The dialogue throughout these episodes never misses a beat, the support actors are terrific (special mention to Henry Lloyd-Hughes as super creepy nerdy tycoon Aaron Peel), and the direction and cinematography are tight without showiness. By the start of the final episode, we know all will upend, and it does, in a wonderful aslant way that leads naturally into yet another sequel. Pleasingly, the climax heralds yet another twist in the duality of the Eve-Villanelle quasi love affair. Summing up, Season 2 rivals Season 1, both triumphing as compelling, kinetic modern cinema.

Badbea by Edwyn Collins [8/10]

Edwyn Collins Badbea

In their day, Orange Juice passed me by; my knowledge comes from Robert Forster’s amazing memoir. “Badbea” is frontman Edwyn Collins’s ninth, and his first in a half decade or so. The front cover portrays him hamming it up with a walking stick and a couple of songs work that seam, but this release is no “gentle into the night” strum-along. The sound throughout has a swaggering fatness, every tune is constructed with skill, and Collins’s voice remains a baritone force, able to croon or punk-holler. Buttressed with simple yet poetic lyrics, every song has lodged in my head, replaying while working or jogging. Favorites – and they’re hard to choose – are literate earworm “It’s All About You,” driving “Outside,” and sweet “Beauty.” Grab this – Edwyn Collins is on fire.