TV: Longmire (Seasons 1-2)

While far from brilliant, A&E’s Longmire (2012-2014) is a likeable modern western procedural that regularly serves up appealing characters and engaging mysteries. Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) is a small-town sheriff in Wyoming, still grieving from the loss of his wife. The circumstances of her death are a backstory mystery that plays out gradually behind a case of the week, worked on by Walt and his small staff of deputies. Most notable is Vic Moretti (Katee Sackhoff), a snarky Philadelphia transplant who’s a fish out of water in rural Wyoming. More at home is Branch Connolly (Bailey Chase), an ambitious, connected young local with his eye on Walt’s job. And outside of the sheriff’s department, there’s Walt’s best friend Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), who runs a local restaurant, but also proves resourceful in other ways as something of an unofficial deputy.

Longmire doesn’t exactly fuel my viewing passion, but it does inspire a quiet loyalty. Taylor reminds me a little of Lee Majors, a quietly charismatic hero, and while there’s a fair amount of “man-pain” to him, it doesn’t overwhelm the story, and he’s both accessibly flawed and deadpan funny. I’ve never been the biggest fan of either Sackhoff or Phillips, but both of them are perfect in support, as is the aide at the station, Ruby (Louanne Stephens). Meanwhile, the weekly mysteries tend to be intelligent, twisty, and different. The rural western geography plays a big part in the nature of the cases – for example, things like hunting, cattle-rustling, illegal rodeos, and clashes involving a nearby Indian reservation often work their way into the mix. It gives the show a different, refreshing feel than most of the urban cop shows I’ve seen, and while sometimes the profile of the guest star gives away the ending, the detailed and clever plotting often makes it worth watching anyway.

I didn’t love the first two seasons of Longmire, but I liked the show quite a bit – a classy, unique antidote from your standard urban cop fare.

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Novel: Close Call by Stella Rimington

Stella Rimington’s latest Liz Carlyle thriller is Close Call (2014) – another no-nonsense, authentic procedural that maintains the series’ steady, enjoyable standard. An attack against a CIA agent in Yemen serves as an early clue in a slowly-mounting terrorist plot targeting western Europe. Liz spearheads the MI5 effort to track what appears to be a clandestine weapon-smuggling operation that ties into a Yemeni prince, a notorious French gunrunner, and a shady club owner in England. Along with colleagues and allies in the British, French, and American intelligence organizations – including her erstwhile protégé Peggy Kinsolving, shifty MI6 counterpart Geoffrey Fane, and DGSE intelligence officer Martin Seurat – Liz works day and night to uncover and counter the jihadist plot, at considerable personal cost.

Rimington remains a reliable voice for entertaining, if not exactly electrifying, spy fiction – and while I don’t think she quite has the dazzling chops of some of her contemporaries, she remains a favorite for me. Her experience in the security services lends considerable authenticity to the procedural details of the intelligence world. While at times I think the pace of her work might benefit from a bit more conflict and action, I also respect that she rarely sensationalizes or over-glamorizes the business. Her writing style is simple, but accessible and lightning quick. This series strikes me as a perfect fit for adaptation into an ongoing, low-key BBC television series. If that type of show bores you, this series might do the same…but I rather enjoy that type of thing, and I’ll continue to tune in for Liz’s adventures, especially if Rimington continues – as she does here – to subtly shake up the milieu to keep things interesting.

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Film: How I Live Now

“When you’re a teenager, falling in love feels like the end of the world…” Or so I imagine the pitch session for How I Live Now, a British indie that blends post-apocalyptic SF with fairly conventional YA romance. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a bratty American kid, obsessed with the surface trivia of teenaged life, when she’s sent – against her will – to spend a summer with extended family in England. She’s determined not to enjoy her stay, but gradually she begins to find her new life charming – thanks to her fun-loving cousins Piper (Harley Bird), Isaac (Tom Holland), and especially Eddie (George MacKay), with whom she begins an intoxicating, forbidden romance. Her newfound happiness is short-lived, however, when terrorists detonate a nuclear device in London, triggering World War III. Left to their own devices, the kids hole up to survive the ensuing chaos, but when martial law is declared, the war soon encroaches on their peaceful corner of the universe – and separates the young lovers.

It’s a confidently made, perfectly watchable film thanks to high production values and Ronan’s impressive presence; she does have uncommon gravitas for an actor so young. Alas, Ronan’s charisma must make up for the character’s innate unlikeability – not a fatal flaw, since a coming-of-age transformation is part of her journey, but definitely a barrier. More problematic are the genre elements of the story, specifically the romance and the SF. The Daisy-Eddie relationship, so crucial to the plot, is rather rushed and ultimately sparkless. Similarly unconvincing is the apocalyptic war scenario, a vague and hand-wavy conflict that doesn’t ring authentic. Without being able to buy into either the romance or the SFnal world-building, all that’s left to carry the film are its pretty surfaces and, more importantly, its survival story aspects. Those go some distance to making the viewing moderately worthwhile…but not nearly far enough to warrant a more enthusiastic recommendation.

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Novel: Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley

With his second novel, Darin Bradley continues to establish himself as one of SF’s most intriguing new voices. Like his first novel Noise, Chimpanzee (2014) is a timely, forward-looking, and harrowing vision that muses unflinchingly on the future while riffing off of the present.

It’s the story of Dr. Benjamin Cade — soon to be downgraded to Mr. Cade. In a future U.S. wracked by mass unemployment, Cade – like many others – has defaulted spectacularly on his student loans. This makes him a candidate for Renewal, a new government program to repossess already-delivered education. Cade’s fields of interest – cognitive theory, literature, the search for meaning – make his “knowledge-removal therapy” a particularly existential issue. But before the process is complete, he makes one last attempt to use his education – by doling it out for free, on the streets. His decision to turn the world into his classroom doesn’t sit well with the authorities…and it puts him at the center of a slowly mounting cultural revolution.

Bradley writes like a sinister distant cousin of Philip K. Dick, his work dark, disorienting, and unflinching in the best possible way. Chimpanzee unfolds in an eerie, unnerving manner, somehow cleverly assembling its chilling puzzle even as it methodically removes the pieces. I found it a fast, thought-provoking read, classic “if-this-goes-on” SF that confronts contemporary problems with fierce intelligence. It left me very interested to see more of Bradley’s work.

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Film: Seven Days in May

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May (1964) is considered the middle chapter in his “paranoia trilogy,” a thematically linked sequence that begins with The Manchurian Candidate and ends with Seconds. The former is more famous, the latter perhaps more accomplished, but Seven Days in May is also a worthy, politically charged affair. The specific subject here is nuclear proliferation, and the apocalyptic dread it engendered at the height of the Cold War. While aspects of its political dialogue about the military-industrial complex are dated, the gist is still quite relevant.

It’s a male-dominated ensemble film with multiple viewpoint characters, but the pivotal one is Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), a principled Marines Corps colonel who works at the Pentagon. Casey is a hawk who opposes a recent nuclear disarmament treaty advocated by left wing president Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) – but he’s also a firm believer in the Constitution and the democratic process that made that treaty a political reality. The intrigue escalates when he pieces together that his superior, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), isn’t nearly as respectful of American institutions. Scott is a charistmatic right-wing firebrand who believes the Russians won’t hold up their end of the bargain…and much to Casey’s shock and concern, Scott seems willing to go to treasonous extremes to make sure the disarmament treaty doesn’t take effect, even if it means a forcible military coup.

Penned by none other than Rod Serling, who flavors the proceedings with his distinctive voice and memorable turns of phrase, Seven Days in May is probably the least visually arresting of the films in this thematic trilogy. Serling’s deliberate writing favors dialogue to visual story-telling, and Frankenheimer follows the script’s lead. It’s still a compelling film, cleverly and patiently structured, building the drama and intrigue in a manner that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. If the message is a bit politically strident, it’s also – much like Seconds – chillingly prescient. The cast is terrific across the board, bolstered by the likes of Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles. It might be too deliberate and talky by contemporary standards, but I found it a rewarding, historically interesting watch.

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Novel: A Colder War by Charles Cumming

The novels of Charles Cumming have a tendency to propel themselves immediately to the top of my to-read stack, and his latest, A Colder War (2014), isn’t likely to change this trend. The new Thomas Kell adventure is just as colorful, vivid, and enthralling as its predecessor.

Following the events of A Foreign Country, veteran agent Thomas Kell remains in professional exile, biding his time and waiting for the chance to get back to work for MI6. He gets his opportunity when there’s a crisis in Turkey: Paul Wallinger, an old friend and the head of station in Ankara, dies mysteriously in a plane crash. Kell’s fringe status once again situates him to discreetly investigate, a case that sends him to Istanbul and the islands of the eastern Mediterranean. There he reconnects with old colleagues, meets new ones, gathers and analyzes the intelligence, surveils suspects, and – unexpectedly – becomes romantically entangled with Paul’s spirited daughter, Rachel. As it turns out, Paul’s death may be connected to recent operational disasters in the Middle East, and as Kell follows the breadcrumbs, it quickly becomes clear there’s a gaping leak in the US-UK intelligence apparat – one that, until it’s plugged, will leave careers and lives hanging in the balance.

This is, first and foremost, assured and wholly engaging spy fiction. Picturesque locales, idiosyncratic operatives, thorny interservice politics, ideologies and betrayals, detailed tradecraft – it has all the wonderful earmarks of a compelling spy yarn. But what makes Cumming’s work so accessible for me is his focus on the “outspider spy:” the agents looking in from the edges, longing to belong to the secret world even as it seems determined to destroy them. Kell fits squarely into that mold, a tradition started with Alec Milius back in A Spy By Nature. He desires acceptance and inclusion in the spy world, and greatly resents it lack, even as he thrives on the fringes of that world. That notion resonates with me, I think, because when you expand the idea out, it touches on very human problems in the wider world: the complicated, unforgiving system of expectations, norms, and standards we hold ourselves up against, the world’s ruthless cliquism and croneyism, the power networks of privilege and policy and wealth. Cumming always deftly manages the surface details of the genre, but never loses sight of the human angle underneath it all: the personal motivations and the emotional costs. Kell is determined, cunning, highly ambitious, but also flawed: petty at times, prone to schoolboy jealousies and fits of rage. There’s always a person inside the spy in Cumming’s work, and that person’s struggle is often easy to relate to and sympathize with – because it so neatly parallels so many experiences an individual may have, when interacting with with a group, an institution, even a society. It’s a strong theme that spy fiction is particularly adept at exploring – and Cumming, in my book, is definitely among the best at it.

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Film: Carve Her Name with Pride

Netflix spent months convincing me I should watch Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), so I finally obliged…and indeed, it is my kind of movie. Hardly among the top rank of World War II spy thrillers, it’s nonetheless an effective and occasionally moving one, rendered noteworthy as an unusual early action vehicle for a female star.

At the height of World War II, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) falls in love with a dashing soldier of the French foreign legion, only to lose him to the war shortly after their marriage. A child of a British father and a French mother, Violette – fluent in French, athletic, fearless, and uncommonly motivated – is given a unique opportunity to aid the war effort. Despite having a young child by her short-lived marriage, she agrees to become a spy, jumping behind enemy lines to aid the French resistance.

Based on true events, this film is almost identical structurally to another one I watched recently, Decision Before Dawn, showing the origin, the training, and finally the missions of an unlikely spy. Carve Her Name with Pride isn’t nearly as accomplished, however, at least partially because it’s a much more modest production. While it is a vehicle for a female action hero, the feminist subtext is dated: Violette isn’t characterized much beyond her gender, and her story skews toward the home front, family, and marriage. But McKenna is an accessible lead, and the action scenes late in the film, when the going gets tough, are bracing – with Violette right in the thick of it. Carve Her Name with Pride is an uneven and occasionally slow wartime drama, but for me it was a diverting weekend matinee, quietly rewarding.

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Novel: Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

As a long-time reader of science fiction, I frequently defend the genre as literature’s most inclusive: the one that can absorb and contain the elements of other genres, but go even further thanks to SF’s speculative, visionary potential. Generally speaking I still think that’s true, but I also have to acknowledge that I haven’t read enough mainstream fiction to know exactly how true. Jennifer Egan’s fiction puts my theory to the test. While most definitely a mainstream novel, Look at Me (2002) plays the inclusivity game in reverse, incorporating the protocols of other genres into its penetrating, beautifully written examination of America’s obsession with image. It blends elements of mystery, thriller, and PI fiction into its milieu, and even – in an abstract, thematic way – the protocols of spy fiction and SF. It’s the total package, and uncommonly satisfying on many levels.

Charlotte Swenson is a fading supermodel when her career is derailed by a spectacular car accident. She survives, but the resulting plastic surgery makes her subtly, strangely unrecognizable, essentially throwing her very identity and image into question. She recovers, slowly, in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois, exactly the kind of Everywhere USA she became a model to escape, but the intervening years show it in a new light – and, when she eventually returns to New York to resume what remains of her career, her mysterious new anonymity has a similarly transforming effect on her professional environment.

Charlotte is the central figure, but the novel spins off from and informs her story with a number of other characters: the daughter of her best friend from high school, also named Charlotte, and her troubled university professor uncle Moose; a scruffy New York PI named Anthony Halliday; and an undercover terrorist from the Middle East, who is experiencing America for the first time.  Egan intertwines these fascinating lives, and it’s a bracing narrative – fragmented but intrinsically connected, a  technique not unlike her brilliant later novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, another incisive and thought-provoking critique of America. If there the metaphor was rock ‘n’ roll, here it’s image:  perceptions versus realities, the nature of identity, surfaces and subtexts, cultural and societal expectations, peer pressure, the American dream…these themes are all richly, engagingly explored. The characters of Look at Me struggle with these issues, each of their experiences colored by the unforgiving filter of the American backdrop; comparing what they want against what’s expected of them, reconciling their inner selves with how they present externally, trying to see the real world through the cloudy lens of individual perception.

Thematically it’s a fascinating hall of mirrors, eloquent and literary, but not shying away from the tools of genre to enhance the message. Egan’s reflections on the nature of identity are positively science fictional, and there’s also a prescient futurism to her contemporary world-building (the rise of social media, reality television, and the specter of escalating anti-American terrorism – it’s all quite ahead of its time, considering when it was written). Meanwhile, detective and spy fiction tropes creep into the mix: what it’s like to live one’s cover, to look one way and feel another, to keep secrets, to deceive loved ones and enemies alike, and to relentlessly pursue hidden truths. All of these elements contribute to the thematic structure – and also make this a particularly accessible mainstream novel for readers steeped in genre convention. It’s smart, powerful, and totally absorbing, and left me hungry for more of the author’s work.

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Novel: Hurricane Fever by Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell’s whip-fast near-future thriller Hurricane Fever (2014) continues the series that began with Arctic Rising, and it’s another topical, bracingly entertaining read. This one features Prudence “Roo” Jones, a retired agent for a joint intelligence agency in the Caribbean. Roo’s peaceful retirement is spoiled by a phone call from a dead former friend in the service, which lures him reluctantly back into the spy game. He winds up in possession of a drive full of stolen weather data, and soon becomes a person of interest on the agendas of several people, including his friend’s grieving sister Kit. He doesn’t know what the data means, but he quickly learns that someone is willing to kill for it, and it leads him back into a life he left behind to uncover an international conspiracy.

It’s a very short, fast read that adeptly fuses classic spy thriller tropes with just-around-the-corner speculation, a winning combination deftly executed. Roo is an engaging and accessible protagonist, and the world-building is convincing and interesting stuff, from the spy-tech gadgets to the details of climate change and heavy weather. From time to time the plot feels a little rushed to me, and the overarching premise behind the hugger-mugger is a bit over-the-top – a mad scheme right out of Monologuing Bond Villain territory. But with its accessible characters, vivid Caribbean setting, and non-stop action, I couldn’t find much to complain about. Hopefully there will be more in this series.

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Novel: Strange Country by Deborah Coates

Deborah Coates’ rural fantasy trilogy comes to a conclusion in Strange Country (2014), another quietly entertaining blend of dark magic, smoldering romance, and upper midwestern quirkiness. This one’s narrative splits time between its two central figures:  Hallie Michaels, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan whose near-death experience has lodged her permanently in between the realms of life and death, and Deputy Boyd Davies, a principled lawman beset by precognitive dreams. The procedural intrigue gets underway when a local citizen is gunned down by a high-powered rifle. Boyd, who is with the woman when she’s killed, launches an investigation that slowly unveils a twenty-year-old mystery, buried in the chilly North Dakota landscape.  His efforts to solve the crime tie into Hallie’s strange, death-realm visions, as her connection with the local land and its people pulls her reluctantly into a web of supernatural mystery.

Strange Country’s plot isn’t quite as propulsive as its predecessors, but I still enjoyed the novel’s vivid, eerie setting, authentic characters, and distinctive midwestern voice. The sparsely populated, wide open North Dakota backdrop is just as much a character as any of the oddball denizens of West Prairie City, a windy, singular blend of Longmire stoicism and Twin Peaks eccentricity. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ll see of Hallie and Boyd, but if it is, I’m going to miss their weird supernatural afflictions and lingering looks, as well as the series’ atmospheric, slow-building mysteries.

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