THE BOOK OF COLD CASES, by Simone St.James

When I encountered the synopsis for this novel I was immediately captivated by the story’s potential, and once I started reading I enjoyed the double-timeline, double perspective narrative, which managed to fuel the tension that runs throughout most of the book.

Shea Collins holds a run-of-the-mill job as a doctor’s receptionist by day, while at night she indulges her passion for unsolved crimes, managing a blog called The Book of Cold Cases, where she explores those crimes in well-researched detail. Shea’s keen interest might look somewhat obsessive on the outside, but the readers’ perspective changes once they discover that she survived a brutal assault in her childhood, one that left its mark on her and her ability to connect with strangers.   

The small town in which Shea lives is usually a quiet place, but forty years ago the community was shaken by the case of the Lady Killer: two men had been viciously murdered by a woman leaving cryptic messages on the scenes, and since rich heiress Beth Greer had been seen fleeing the area of one attack, she ended up being investigated for both murders. Worse still, the ballistic exam matched the bullets of both homicides with the ones that killed Beth’s father in his own home, a few years before the Lady Killer started her spree.

Lack of any incriminating evidence ultimately led to Beth’s acquittal, but the small town never forgot, and Beth’s detached, unconventional behavior never helped clear the suspicion hanging over her.

One day, Beth comes for a doctor’s appointment where Shea works, and once the younger woman recognizes the famous patient, she asks for an interview for her blog and – quite surprisingly – Beth agrees, starting a series of encounters between them that take place in the old Greer mansion, a place that seems frozen in time to a few decades prior, and where weird phenomena cast a creepy pall over an already uncomfortable setting.  As the meetings progress and the two women form a sort of bond (calling it ‘friendship’ would indeed stretch the truth), Shea understands that Beth is hiding something, maybe manipulating her for some mysterious reason, and at the same time, the flashbacks into Beth’s past show the evidence of a very unhappy family and one burdened by secrets and unspeakable truths…

The Book of Cold Cases started a bit slowly, and at times it lagged a little, but it never failed to keep me intrigued and compel me to get to the bottom of the mystery: the story is a very atmospheric one, in both temporal lines. The present, where Shea keeps pursuing her investigation with dogged determination, is dominated by the relationship between these two women who might appear quite different on the surface, but in reality have had to deal with traumatic events that have changed their perspective on the outside world. The past, where we learn about Beth’s previous life, blends her personal history (and that of her family) with the media’s intense focus on the murders and Beth’s alleged guilt: in this instance, particularly, one can see how public opinion can be influenced by circumstances to the point that they set themselves in the role of judge and jury. In the late ’70s – the time in which the murders occurred – a young woman, and a rich one, living alone and minding her own business was evidently too unconventional not to attract automatic suspicion and cast Beth in the role of murderer, and the “help” from the press, with the plethora of copies-selling misinformation bandied about, was certainly instrumental in establishing that image. 

The overall picture is indeed an engaging one, but in my opinion it was marred by two factors which spoiled my enjoyment a little: one is the supernatural component, which to me seems… pasted on, for want of a better word, and adds little or nothing to the tenseness of the story. True, the scary manifestations described in the book – the faucets that open on their own, the appearance of blood on the kitchen’s floor where Beth’s father was killed, and so on – add a chilling element to the story, but they are not fundamental in the solution of the mystery, nor do they truly serve to enhance the weirdness of Greer House, whose function as a portal to times past comes from the frozen quality of its decor and furnishings.  The other problem came for me from the too-early discovery of the killer’s identity: given the successful creation – up to that point – of a mood of suspense and mounting dread, this untimely revelation robbed the story of some of its momentum and left me a little disappointed.

Still, since the novel hinged on the interactions between Shea and Beth and the almost osmotic relationship established by their meetings, I found enough material in this novel to keep me engaged until the end, and – more important – to kindle my curiosity toward this author, whose other works I intend to explore in my next reading forays.

My Rating:


LOW TOWN (Low Town #1), by Daniel Polansky

Grimdark fantasy requires a anti-hero at its core, and in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town this role is fulfilled by Warden, the de facto ruler of the worst part of the city of Rigus, the titular Low Town: Warden is a drug dealer (and user), a crime lord and violent enforcer, someone who often pays the corruptible officials to look the other way. On the surface, there would be little to no appeal in such such a character, but the way Polansky paints him, giving the readers access to his inner thoughts through first-person narrative, changes our perspective soon enough.

Warden’s life was never an easy one: orphaned at a tender age when the Great Plague decimated the population of Rigus, he quickly learned to fend for himself acquiring street wisdom and cunning, and once he was old enough he enlisted in the army where he distinguished himself in war. On his return to civilian life he became a law enforcer, once again leaving his mark in the feared secret police branch of Black House, but something happened that made him quit and return to his old turf, where he became the man he is today: ruthless, cynical and with self-destructive tendencies.  As the story starts, however, we see a different side of Warden as Low Town is plagued by the disappearance of a number of children, whose desecrated bodies are later found, to the horror of the community: set on finding the perpetrators of these hideous acts, Warden sets on a personal crusade that will take him into contact with the seediest corners of the city as well as the higher spheres of society, in a journey peppered with false starts and red herrings, and also touched by this world’s peculiar kind of magic.

The story’s background is depicted quite vividly through Warden’s movements across the city: dirty, chaotic, dangerous, and yet quite alive in its noir vibe that is one of the compelling elements of the novel; it’s the perfect breeding ground for drug dealers and violent gangs, and this widespread corruption is not limited to the slums, because the higher-ups are just as bad as the people they rule upon, making this city a place where survival requires strength and viciousness – or, to quote Warden’s own words:

It’s a cold world. I’ve adjusted to the temperature.

And yet, despite his cynicism and the brutality he employs against rivals and people who cross his path, Warden does have some redeeming qualities which show, more than through his actions or his thoughts, through the kind of company he keeps when he’s not fulfilling his role as crime lord: Alphonsus and his wife, who manage the Staggering Earl, the pub that is Warden’s home and refuge, and who both look after him with a kind of disconsolate acceptance of the man’s dangerous life-style; the Crane, the elderly, ailing magician who used to be his point of reference in his days as a street-wise dweller; Wren, the savvy urchin he takes on as an apprentice and deals with through a form of tough love that speaks louder than any words.

Given this premise, it’s not surprising to see Warden launch himself in the hunt for the monster who is abducting and killing children in Low Town, in a quest that reminded me of the lonely adventures of the private detectives that noir literature made us familiar with: and indeed Rigus and the enclave of Low Town don’t feel that different – despite the medieval-like background – from any description of New York or Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s where those crime thrillers were set.   And like those modern detectives, Warden often risks his life and is assaulted and viciously beaten by people who don’t appreciate his nosy attitude or more simply see the opportunity of settling old scores.  It’s in these circumstances – like a breathtaking chase through the alleys and canals of the city – that Warden’s gritty determination shines through, together with the desire to do justice for those young, innocent victims who have no one to speak for them: though unexpressed, the reasoning for such persistence is clear, since he must see himself reflected in them, just as he sees something of himself in young Wren.  And that’s the main redeeming quality for this character, who might appear despicable at a superficial glance, but who ends up showing a good heart and something approaching a conscience, despite the constant, cynical denial that does not manage to completely mask what’s underneath.

My “graduation” from Daniel Polansky’s short fiction to this full-length novel proved to be a very immersive, quite compelling journey and the discovery of a character who might not make it easy to relate to him, but still is too intriguing to simply dismiss as a “crusty bad guy”. There are many untraveled areas in his past and in his psychological makeup that I’m certain will make for some interesting exploration in the next novels of the series. Hopefully, I will be able to return to the fascinating seediness of Low Town soon…

My Rating:


THE ASHES OF LONDON (Marwood & Lovett #1), by Andrew Taylor

This novel proved to be one of those precious finds that offer, besides an intriguing story to follow, a peek into a historical period I know next to nothing about, so that I feel compelled to search online more details and learn something new in the process.  The background for The Ashes of London is that of the Restoration, the time in which King Charles II ascended to the throne of England after the execution of his father, Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell’s rule: in September 1666 the city of London was devastated by fire, and it’s during the final days of this disastrous occurrence – and its aftermath – that the book’s events take place.

James Marwood is a civil servant trying to keep a low profile in the hope that his masters forget he’s the son of one of the revolutionaries whose movement brought about the demise of the previous king: saddled with the difficult task of caring for his ailing father, whose time in prison after the conspiracy’s failure left him weakened in both body and mind, Marwood is torn between his filial duties and the need to further his career so that he can tend to what’s left of his family in reasonable comfort.  Catherine Lovett is the daughter of one of the conspirators as well, her father being a wanted fugitive: she’s been left in the care of an uncle who is keen on marrying her off to a very unsavory character, while all she dreams about is architectural design, an unheard-of pastime for a woman in those days.   The paths of these two characters are destined to cross, in part due to various circumstances and in part because of both their fathers’ affiliations, while the city of London tries to recover from the still-smoldering fires and a series of bizarre murders reveals the dangerous undercurrents running through the political and social fabric of the realm.

I very much appreciated the intriguing mix at the roots of this book, where historical fiction blends with a crime investigation and a good dose of political plotting and conspiracies, but most of all I enjoyed the “time travel” opportunities offered by the story, thanks to the descriptions of the day-to-day life of 17th Century England and the great social turmoil lurking under the surface. What I found particularly fascinating were the details of the city of London, which the author was able to depict with a cinematic, quite evocative quality that brought to life the sounds, sights – and unfortunately smells – of a bustling city which was grievously wounded by the Great Fire.  There is an intriguing parallel here between the precarious political situation, in which the new King knows he still has to deal with the remnants of the conspiracy which prompted his father’s downfall, and the daily struggles of the citizenry, whose houses have been destroyed by the fire and have to live in ramshackle hovels or in the ruins of their burned-out homes, with no certainty about the immediate future.  This is the background on which the main themes of civil unrest and inequality stand, together with a look at the social mores of the times and their consequences on people, particularly the two main characters.

James Marwood was soon able to inspire my sympathy, not least because his POV is written in the first person, allowing us to be instantly privy to his thoughts and troubles: as he deals with his professional duties, which are carried on through the double difficulty of being effective while keeping a low profile, we understand he’s a decent human being gifted with a good heart, and if sometimes he struggles with the frustration of having to care for a father who tethers between dementia and the dreams of a “new order”, he does so with such a deeply ingrained affection and respect for the old man, that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Catherine, on the other hand, is more feisty and combative (often, and with reason, very fiercely so), and she’s also very “modern”, character-wise, because of her keen interest for architecture, which leads her to dream of a more unfettered life – practically an impossibility in those times. She is no frivolous dreamer, though, and when circumstances require her to adapt to change, sometimes through harrowing events, she shows a resiliency and an inner strength that are nothing if not admirable.  Both Cat and Marwood suffer for the sins of their respective fathers, offering the opportunity for a commentary on a society that visits those sins on the innocent offspring of past conspirators.

Alongside these two main characters move a number of intriguing figures which help depict quite clearly the atmosphere of the times through their greed and depravity, cunning and coarseness, without forgetting the proverbial movers and shakers – some of them real-life persons – who complete this fascinating picture of an era of turmoil and change.  Among them I want to mention Mistress Alderley, Cat’s aunt, who under her unprepossessing exterior shows great skills in being the proverbial power behind the throne in more ways than one; or the ruling monarch Charles II, who in a very human moment shows his desire to know more about the father he barely knew before he was killed; and again Edward, Cat’s despicable cousin who represents the entitled attitude of the lesser nobility who believes nothing and no one can stand in their way.

The Ashes of London is a very immersive portrayal of a time and a place I know I will enjoy visiting again through the next books, and it represents one of the best bookish finds of this year so far.

My Rating:



I received this story collection from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

This time around, the delightful surprise in receiving Stephanie Burgis’ new work to read and review was compounded by the discovery that it was a collection of short stories and, more important still, that they went in quite unexpected directions – narratively speaking – from this author’s usually light and playful style.  Which does not mean, of course, that you will not find some of her spirited and plucky heroines here, or that you will not travel through some of her Regency-inspired worlds: there is that, of course, but also some darker stories and themes that follow the time-honored fairy tale pattern of mixing darkness and light for added narrative depth.

And speaking of fairy tales, Touchstones contains not one but two retellings of the Cinderella myth, a longer one where the girl in question is quite reluctant to accept her destiny, and a shorter story that takes a very, very unexpected direction: in both instances I was thoroughly amused at the way Ms. Burgis turned the well known fable upside down, particularly in The Wrong Foot where we get a closer look at the famous Prince Charming only to discover that he’s… well, no, find out for yourselves! 😉

Staying with the lighter mood of the collection, The Disastrous Debut of Agatha Tremain is a fun romp through the idiosyncrasies of Regency society thanks to a spirited girl and her evil aunt, very much in line with the author’s previous offerings, while The Art of Deception follows a somewhat unlikely sword master and his friend as they move through the treacherous waters of a magical academy.  On the other hand, Love You, Flatmate is set in our present world during the Covid outbreak, but it will make you smile as you consider the effects of forced cohabitation between… ahem… different species.

For the darker themes, I would like to mention Dreaming Harry, in which we discover that a child’s imagination, when fueled by the wrong images (and a particular accident at the time of birth…) can be a quite dangerous thing.  Dancing in the Dark is a very poignant story about loss and the way a friendly ghost can assuage it. And again, True Names will take you on the harrowing path traveled by a young woman whose unexpected visitor brings a deadly threat.  My favorite story, however, is House of Secrets: the dark journey of a very special girl whose distant father you will come to hate and despise as much as I did.

Once again, Stephanie Burgis managed to take me out of this world into her special realms, in a variegated tour that proved to be both amusing and shocking, whimsical and weird, but always, always totally engaging:  I mentioned only a handful of the stories included in this collection, but there are many more that will take you down unusual paths and fuel your imagination.

If you already encountered her works, you will find in Touchstones her trademark narrative skills; if she’s a new-to-you author, this anthology might very well be the way to get to know her writing. In each case, it will be a reading experience not to be missed…

My Rating:


THE NARROWS (Harry Bosch #10), by Michael Connelly

With book 10 in the Harry Bosch series I continue my exploration of the “uncharted lands” of this character, as opposed to what I’ve experienced so far in the seven seasons of the TV show inspired by it, which means that on top of the skilled storytelling I’ve come to expect from Michael Connelly I can now enjoy totally new investigations, an element that adds more spice to these engaging stories.

The Narrows starts with two apparently unrelated narrative threads:  one concerns the return of the serial killer protagonist of the novel The Poet, and of FBI agent Rachel Walling, who was far from convinced that her quarry had died in the final shootout that ended the chase; the other features Bosch as he’s contacted by the widow of former FBI agent Terry McCaleb (encountered in A Darkness More than Night), because she’s convinced that the heart attack that ended her husband’s life was far from a natural occurrence, and needs Bosch’s help to uncover the truth. 

As events unfold, it becomes clear that the two investigations are strictly linked, so that Bosch and Walling must combine their skills to catch the killer and end his reign of terror, while dealing with several obstacles on their path: Walling, who was sent to a dead-end assignment after the debacle with the Poet, is chafing under the restraints imposed by her role as a mere observer, and feels that the team leader is more preoccupied with the political implications of the chase, rather than with the success of the mission. Bosch, for his part, is even more keenly aware that without a badge many doors are closed to him, and the long-standing rivalry between law enforcement agencies is clipping his proverbial wings, leaving him with little room to maneuver. And on top of it all, he and Walling are both strong, determined people, and cooperation does not come too easy to either of them, reducing their field effectiveness when they really need it at full strength.

The Narrows is truly what many like to call a “page turner”, blending the chase for a dangerously intelligent serial killer with a fascinating collection of clues that paint the whole picture through a logical progression that nonetheless proves both exciting and distressing, thanks to the many red herrings that take characters and readers off track so that it’s almost impossible to predict what will come next. By now I’ve acquired enough familiarity with Michael Connelly’s “modus operandi” to know that I need to pay attention to the smallest detail he lays down, because sooner or later it will fit into the bigger picture, offering a deeper understanding of the story.   It’s worth mentioning how the narrative is split between the first person when the author deals with Harry Bosch (a trend initiated with the previous novel) and the third person with the other characters: it gives the story a very peculiar quality and at the same time is reminiscent of the classic noir novels where the P.I. protagonists (the role Harry is playing now) offered their point of view as a form of internal monologue.

The background – again the cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas are front and center here – comes alive through the author’s descriptions and becomes another character of the story, enhancing it with a cinematic quality that alternates the glamorous and the gritty in a very balanced blend. The best example is offered by the titular Narrows, which is a man-made channel created to funnel the excess of rainwater and avoid the flooding of the city of Los Angeles. Bosch mentions it in passing:

[…] the river. Trapped between those walls. When I was a kid we called it ‘the narrows’. When it rains like this the water moves fast. It’s deadly. When it rains you stay away from the narrows.

offering a foreshadowing for future events that I found very intriguing – on hindsight.

Where the story is the frame, characters are its true substance: from the minor roles – like the unpleasantly entitled FBI team leader, or the other agents, or again McCaleb’s grieving widow and his partner in the boating operation – to the two protagonists, Bosch and Walling, everyone is clearly defined no matter how much page space they occupy, and in the case of these two we can see the evolution from the last time we met them.  Walling is disillusioned after her posting in a remote location where her investigative skills are hardly necessary, but she is far from beaten, and her determination in catching the Poet is quite admirable, even when she chooses to go against the rules: in this she is the perfect complement for Bosch, who never cared much for authority, so that I was delighted to observe these two unlikely “partners in crime” as they pursued the leads with little or no concern for the consequences.

As for Bosch, while he’s still the proverbial dog with a bone with every case that catches his attention, he’s a very different private person: discovering the existence of his 4-years old daughter changed his perspective on life, and even managed to soften him in his personal approach. The man who can relentlessly pursue bad guys is also able to sit down and read stories to his child, reveling in the joy of her closeness and the candor of her affection; the reality of this daughter whose existence he ignored until a short while ago forces him to consider his actions – and their consequences – for the long-range effects they might have.  Where Bosch used to be a loner, he now has a very important focus in his life, one that certainly informs his choices for the present and the future.

[…] the innocence of a child will bring you back and give the shield of joy with which to protect yourself.

Along with these changes in Bosch’s personal life, more might be forthcoming in his profession, thanks to the offer he receives to participate in a newly-formed division of the LAPD dealing with cold cases: the pull of these forgotten victims might be strong enough to make him go back to his old job, giving voice to those who cannot do it for themselves anymore. Once again, I can only look forward to what awaits me down the road with this very intriguing character.

My Rating:


A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers

My previous experience with Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series had led me to expect, from this second installment, another easygoing journey into this multi-hued universe where everyone seems to coexist in peace with everyone else, and book 2 was that, indeed, but there were also other narrative elements that “spiced up” the mix and made my experience even more intriguing.

At the end of the first book, the ship’s AI Lovelace had to undergo a hard reset, which restored its functions but also erased the personality built over time by the interactions with the crew, causing them no little grief – particularly where tech Jenks was concerned.  A friend of Jenks, Pepper, offered Lovelace a different chance by installing the AI into an artificial body, shaped like a human female: the process being a very illegal one, Lovelace’s only option was to move in with Pepper and her mate Blue to their home on the outpost of Port Coriol, where the new being – now renamed Sidra – could learn how to act like an organic human and avoid any kind of suspicion. 

A Closed and Common Orbit is the chronicle of Lovelace/Sidra’s journey as she adapts to her new situation, whose unforeseen limitations and newfound freedoms make her adjustments far from easy; but the book is not focused only on Sidra, as she shares narrative space with another character, Jane 23, who is one of the many clones employed in a scrap recycling factory on a distant planet, where the girls are cruelly used as cheap labor by a totally amoral system.  The two stories interweave in alternating chapters, and present two different sides of a quest for identity and self-determination, for the means to survive in a world so different from the one where one’s awareness had set its roots: two very fascinating journeys, indeed, which run parallel for a while, until they intersect in a poignant way which then makes room for the kind of “happy ending” that seems to be Becky Chambers’ narrative trademark.

Sidra (formerly Lovelace) must now deal with the curtailing of her cognitive abilities and the limitations of the human form she now inhabits, which sometimes give way to a sort of agoraphobia, compounded by the need to keep her differences under control lest she reveal what she truly is, and endanger the friends who are helping her. Science fiction often presented us with instances of A.I.s trying to be more human, to transcend their programming and become more similar to their organic creators, but Sidra’s path is somewhat hindered by the longing for those abilities that are now precluded her, so that her story is focused on this seemingly irresolvable dichotomy. I liked how her friends Pepper and Blue go out of their way to ease Sidra’s transition, offering her the sense of friendship and family that her previous iteration had enjoyed aboard the Wayfarer, but what I truly loved were her interaction with the alien Tak and their almost-philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, sentience, love. Tak is an Aeluon, a creature whose language comes from the changing hues of its skin rather than actual words (even though it uses implants that allow it to communicate verbally), and I saw a sort of parallel between Tak and Sidra, both “strangers in a strange land” reaching out to each other with a depth of growing friendship that in my eyes overshadowed even the selfless one offered by Pepper and Blue.

Much as Sidra’s journey proved fascinating, I was drawn more intensely by the chapters focusing on Jane 23, on her discovery of an outside world beyond the confines of the factory where she was effectively enslaved, and her meeting with Owl, the A.I. of a derelict shuttle that offers Jane a safe place in the outside wasteland where packs of ferocious dogs roam among the piles of abandoned scraps. The theme of family is once again explored in these sections of the novel, a family of two where Owl is nothing more than a voice from the walls and a sketched face on the monitors, and yet the A.I. is able to give Jane the means to learn, grow and move beyond the limitations imposed by her earlier life: it’s fascinating to observe how much the relationship between Owl and Jane parallels that of a mother and daughter, with Jane going from the total trust of childhood to the rebellion of teenager years and finally to the understanding and affection that comes later.  And Owl is indeed at the center of a desperate search from a grown-up Jane (in her new identity), so that she can reconnect with her A.I. “mother” and fill the gaping void in her little family.

These two apparently distant storylines have more points of contact that one could imagine, and they do converge in a quite poignant fashion toward the latter part of the novel, where the various pieces of the puzzle begin to connect in a quite emotional way and solidify into a final picture where once again the ties of family, friendship and love are reaffirmed in the kind of rosy, but certainly not saccharine-sweet, picture that I have by now come to expect from Becky Chambers’ stories, which might look somewhat unrealistic from a jaded point of view, but which are quite comforting in their hopeful and optimistic outlook.

And that’s what we so deeply need now and again…

My Rating: