Australia has a recent tradition of generating “feral” novels starring those society tends to overlook (think Tim Winton’s recent “The Shepherd’s Hut,” Tony Birch’s “Ghost River,” and “Sophie Laguna’s “The Eye of the Sheep“). “Boy Swallows Universe” fits neatly into this stream and also into a strand of extravagant yarning. Set in early 80s Brisbane, Trent Dalton plunges us into the world of twelve-year-old Eli. Brother Gus is mute and possibly clairvoyant, stepfather Lyle is a drug dealer, and babysitter Slim is a famous escapee. His family is as dysfunctional as can be: druggy mum and alcoholic dad. Eli’s enemies are legion. The author writes up a storm, a wonderful lyric mixture of Eli’s adventures, if adventure is the proper word for events humorous or harrowing. It’s a highly immersive coming-of-age tale, and although at first I was underwhelmed by the hyperactive bravura of it all, by the end, by the time Trent Dalton puts all the pieces together for his rousing finale, I was mightily impressed. A bright debut by a promising author.
As with the second series, the third series of “Cardinal” kicks off with a simmer rather than boil, but my deep immersion in the first two seasons allows me to luxuriate in the ominous set-up sequencing. Based on the wonderful Giles Blunt thriller series set in the small northern Canadian town of Algonquin Bay, “Cardinal” terrifies yet offers redemption through the dogged, sometimes inspired, pursuit of killers by detectives John Cardinal (masterfully portrayed by Billy Campbell) and Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse’s understated acting grows in stature with each episode). Season 3 begins grimly, with the terrible suicide scene from the closer of Season 2, with a laundromat suicide threat, with seemingly unrelated ATM muggings. A young woman on a tryst witnesses a horrendous murder. Great music, wonderful filming, and a ratcheting plot all build up to what promises to be another stellar season.
A psychological scientist, Julie Shaw has tackled one of those issues or themes that fascinate me most, namely the nature of evil in our human world. “Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side” is an unusual offering in the this field, one that attracts interest from neuroscience (and this is what Shaw wants to explore, among other things) and moral philosophy and true crime. Her book is like nothing else I’ve read on the subject. Because what she is about is “destroying the fundamental conceptualisations of good and evil as black and white, replacing them with nuance and scientific insight.” All of us, she reckons on the basis of her work, can become any manner of evil. She wades into the worlds of murderers, paedophiles, sadists, psychopaths, and genocidaires, but “but this book is not really about them. It is about you. I want you to understand your own thoughts and proclivities more than I want to pick apart specific examples of other people’s transgressions.” Shaw is a fluent, persuasive writer, and the book is fascinating from start to end. Yet I remained unconvinced that she has demonstrated relativism (“Let us not confuse our fear of death with justification for dehumanising people who have inflicted it”) but also abhorrence of evil, both of which she regularly espouses. All in all, “Making Evil” is recommended for anyone driven, like me, to seek clarity on the nature of evil and how society should tackle it.
“Killing Eve” was one of my 2018 highlights, a luscious mix of psycho thriller, spy thriller, and relationship comedy. It was whip smart and in its two lead actors, Jodie Comer (playing the gruesome yet child-like super assassin Villanelle) and Sandra Oh (as Eve Palastri the blundering but brilliant secret service analyst) were incandescent. I’ve come to Season 2 with trepidation, even though the Season 1 finale prefigured more, because the central premise of the series – a good spy after the psychopath but strangely attracted towards her – has already been thoroughly explored. Well, Season 2’s opener doesn’t muck about, beginning 30 seconds after Eve stabbed Villanelle at the end of the previous offering. We see Eve lurching back to London, trying to pick up her life, we see Villanelle staggering, all bloody, through Paris to survive. Yet the episode falters with the need to take a breath after the breakneck pace it follows. Very little happens and we know the characters so well, no surprises there ensue either. It’s more of the same but almost downbeat and at the end, I found myself wondering if “Killing Eve” should instead have been a one-season blitz. Yet I’m more than intrigued enough to continue onward. Watch if you’re a fan, make sure the first season is under your belt first.
Episode 1 of this picaresque series captivated me (I rated it at 8/10) and the next three episodes of “Russian Doll” up the ante even further. Natasha Lyonne sparkles as the profane, feisty Nadia seeking clues as to why she keeps dying and returning to life at her birthday party. Concentration is needed, for it’s clear every minor plot twist and turn could mean something else later. A bevy of fascinating characters, all played brilliantly, sashays in and out of Nadia’s growing nightmare. The cinematography by Chris Teague is sublime and the music rocks. And then, at the end of Episode 4, a plot twist occurs that had me leap from my chair. Holy shmoly! I can’t wait for the second half of the season. Highly, highly recommended as a perfect example of how a prosaic idea can be turned into riveting cinema.
What an unusual artist, Jake Webb, the Methyl Ethel chieftain, channelling Human League and Abba while singing in a falsetto that seems not to echo any other singer. The Perth band is labelled as “psych” but I think that downplays their nervous, lush, loping sound. Not my kind of music, normally (though I adored Human League way back when), but somehow “Triage” has insinuated itself into my weasel brain. Opener “Ruiner” is piano/synth heaven, “All the Elements” subverts its low-key intro into ear candy that sticks around, and the quick piano over synth groove of “Hip Horror” somehow work wonderfully. The lyrics seem to brush across topics of love and introspection, but they’re not central to the eccentric appeal of this surprise package. Recommended as both summer road trip backdrop and study wallpaper.
The superhero film genre is in deep schtuck. What was once a wondrous sci-fi-category is now mired in overkill stupidity. Look, I know box offices continue to like anything from the Marvel or DC stables, but I can barely watch those, and each time I do, I regret it (see my take on Venom for example and who can forget how infantile “Thor: Ragnarok” was). But all is not lost. “Legion” was fabulous, in all the ways a superhero movie is meant to be, and now “The Umbrella Academy,” based on a Dark Horse Comics (never heard of them, which is apposite) series, shows tons of promise in the first episode. The premise is that an eccentric billionaire has trained up seven superheroes with different talents and now Daddy is dead. Something will happen! Tom Hopper is exactly the right kind of stolid as Luther, the eldest Umbrella Academy member, young Aidan Gallagher shines as Number Five, and Ellen Page captures reticent Vanya beautifully. The scenes are lush, the music fab, and the overall vibe is dark and expectant. Episode 1 is mostly setup but that task is carried out with proper intelligence, and I look forward to continuing onward.
Where can Ricky Gervais go after all the places he’s been? “After Life” is an intriguing choice – a bittersweet marriage of Gervais piss-take scorn and sentimentality, the tale of an ordinary English journo bereft and nihilistic after his wife’s cancer death – but the opening episode works beautifully. We walk with slumpy, morose, “kill me soon” Tony, through a day in his little pretty English village, as he interacts with colleagues, especially his brother-in-law Matt (wonderfully portrayed by Tom Basden), his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, even his postman. Some of the trademark Gervais scabrous humor almost set me hooting, but even the less wild scenes possessed great, intelligent, quiet funniness. All in all, the first episode works really well, but I guess the question is – what will become of what seems a really hokey plot?
“Life After Life” introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s imagination and prose, and I’m an admirer of her Jackson Brodie series. “Transcription” is somewhat of a detour, a literary post-WWII spy thriller set in England. A young precocious woman, recruited to perform a minor role in a wartime counter-espionage department, discovers a decade later, as a BBC producer, that the past never goes away. Atkinson’s lead character is wonderful and her writing is immersive, but spy fiction is a demanding genre, and a right-angle plot twist at the end left me a little nonplussed. Fans of the current revival in wartime and post-war stories could well lap this us and I raced through the read in Atkinson’s masterful hands.
Dogged lawyer Dan Grant and harried investigator Jayne Brett set off on their third outing in “The Innocent Ones.” Neil White offers an easy, close-up style and a twisty plot, revolving around a murdered journalist following up a cold case of child killings. The two protagonists are easily appealing if a little blancmange in the modern day of heroes with huge handicaps. The Yorkshire settings are well portrayed. Recommended especially for fans of stalwart authors like Peter Robinson.