ALL THE BLOOD WE SHARE, by Camilla Bruce

Reading this book made me reflect on the fact that we generally consider serial killers a phenomenon of more recent times, while in reality these deranged individuals must always have been among us, their actions gone mostly unreported due to a lack of the kind of information network we enjoy nowadays. Granted, we all know about Jack the Ripper, but he must be the exception that proves the rule…

Before reading All the Blood We Share I was unaware of the existence of the Bender family and their bloody deeds, so that I went online to seek some more information about them, once I finished the novel, discovering that the author had only filled a few unknown angles with fiction, remaining quite faithful to the macabre reality of the events.

The Bender family arrived in Kansas in the second half of the 19th Century, fleeing from justice after a series of crimes about which the reader will learn as the story develops. The father William and his son John built a house (or rather a shack…) near the town of Cherryvale and were joined at a later date by William’s wife, Elvira, and her daughter Kate.   The family had little to no intention of becoming farmers – which given the arid nature of the territory is hardly surprising – and they transformed the homestead into an inn where travelers headed west could buy some basic supplies, enjoy a home-cooked meal and even spend a night under a proper roof.

The family’s goal was to make some money and be able to buy a better farm in a more amenable location, possibly similar to the one they had to leave behind when running from the law, but their earnings as inn-keepers were far below the expectations, and so they decided to kill and rob travelers of their valuables, burying the bodies on the property.  In those times and places it was hardly surprising that a few travelers never reached their intended destination, but at some point the Benders chose the wrong victims and that brought the attention of relatives and authorities on their inn, forcing them to flee in the night and leave behind everything – including a number of corpses.

This is, in broad terms, the story told in All the Blood We Share, at least as far as the basic facts are concerned: the focus of the novel, however, is on the dynamics and personalities of this family of killers, a family for which the term ‘dysfunctional’ is indeed a big understatement. The patriarch William seems at first the more grounded one among them, but as time goes by we see the darkness under the surface, a combination of gullibility and greed that becomes even more shocking with the onset of what looks like Alzheimer.  His son John is a brooding, introverted person who is easily swayed and manipulated by his step-sister Kate, for whom he harbors possessive and jealous feelings.  Mother Elvira is the more complex of the four characters, and the one who intrigued me most: on one side she is bitterly missing the better life she had to leave behind, almost blackmailing Kate into providing the means for a better one, on the other she is the only one voicing her displeasure for the family’s “business” and her fears of discovery.

But it’s Kate the one who enjoys the more intense focus in the story: outwardly sunny and gregarious, she holds a darkness inside that seems like a separate creature and demands to be satisfied, therefore turning Kate into the instigator for the Bender’s murderous activities. The family looks like a group of people bound by necessity rather than affection, and Kate is the one who dreams of getting away and making a life for herself: to accomplish this goal she reinvents herself as a medium, claiming to be in contact with the souls of the departed and planning to make her fortune thanks to this “talent”.  What she truly accomplishes is to use her tricks to divert the community’s attention from the disappearances and to lull her step-father into believing that the murders are inspired by some higher beings looking out for the Benders.

The way in which Kate is portrayed here highlights all the markers for a serial killer as we have come to recognize them: she is self-centered and totally lacking in empathy, has a high consideration of herself and her cunning, actually enjoys the act of killing and is indeed the one to murder the hapless victims, cutting their throats after William rendered them unconscious with a blow to the head.  There are several passages where we are made privy to Kate’s inner thoughts, and they are exactly what we have come to expect from a serial killer, starting from the sense of power that comes from the very act of murder:

 The darkness is like that: heady and strong. […] I was in awe of the power in my hands

and going on with the practice of collecting the unfortunates’ buttons, which she keeps in a box and handles while revisiting the crimes:

I fondled the buttons one by one, as was my habit. All the while, I thought about their deaths: how they had looked; how I had hurt them; the moment when they went

If the Benders’ story proved to be quite harrowing, I appreciated the author’s way of relaying it in an almost detached way that leaves no space to morbid fascination, and I quite enjoyed her depiction of the small community of Cherryvale, a desolate, harsh place with bitterly cold winters and scorching summers, where ignorance and superstition walk hand in hand offering the perfect terrain for con artists like Kate to take advantage of people’s naiveté.  Equally enlightening – and quite chilling – is the reaction of those citizens once the Benders’ activities are revealed: toward the end of the novel the author offers a classic example of mob mentality that badly needs a scapegoat and looks for it in the wrong direction – but that hardly matters as long as they get their proverbial “pound of flesh”.  I have to admit that this segment of the story had an even harder impact on me than the actual murders perpetrated by the Benders…

This was my first novel by Camilla Bruce, but it will certainly not be the last: I like her incisive, sharp writing and the way she can keep a reader engaged even in the most harrowing of stories, and I look forward to her other books.

My Rating:


THE OVERLOOK (Harry Bosch #13), by Michael Connelly

It happens to me sometimes to catch a series of false starts with books: either these books are not my cup of tea or I’m in a picky mood and nothing seems to meet my tastes. When that happens I know the only way to get over such a gloomy outlook is to pick up a “palate cleanser” of sorts, and one of my tested and true comfort reads is a crime/thriller by Michael Connelly – I know his stories never disappoint me and they always manage to bring me back on track.

The Overlook is the shortest novel in the Harry Bosch series, only 164 pages on my e-reader, but still it managed to keep me intrigued from start to finish, also thanks to the relentless pace that helped me focus on the story despite it being one already visited in the TV series: it’s not the first time I’ve observed this phenomenon, and once again I must admire the author’s writing skills in this regard.

After a stint in the Open-Unsolved department Bosch is now working in the Homicide Special division and has been assigned a new partner, the young and upcoming Ignacio Ferras. The two come to work on the case of a man found murdered on an overlook on Mulholland Drive: the victim was shot in the back of the head, execution style, and is identified as a doctor working with radioactive materials. An inspection of the doctor’s house finds his wife bound and gagged and reveals that she was used to compel the husband to steal a considerable quantity of Cesium, probably with the goal of fabricating a dirty bomb.

The discovery brings the FBI in  on the investigation, given the apparent terrorist nature of the crime, and Bosch’s old acquaintance Rachel Walling is part of the team charged with finding the dangerous material before it can be used in a devastating way.   The FBI’s cavalier attitude toward the case, both in trying to take over every aspect of the operation and in shunting the actual murder on the sidelines, prioritizing the recovery of the Cesium, does not go well with Bosch, of course.  Being who he is, the detective refuses to give in gracefully and fights what he sees as the Feds’ intrusion into his murder investigation, particularly when some details don’t seem to add up but are deemed irrelevant by the FBI.

The story itself is a compelling one – even though I was aware, thanks to the TV series, of the unexpected twist that comes at some point – but what is even more interesting is the deeper look into the siege mentality that took hold of the law enforcement agencies after the attacks on 9/11: the most evident consequence is the heightened state of reactivity of those agencies that brings them to sometimes react on insufficient or misleading information, falling prey to a sort of knee-jerk reaction that can prove more counterproductive than anything else.  What comes out of this picture is a wounded, damaged society that still has to find its balance in the wake of of a terrible shock.  There is a segment of the story where it’s possible to see clearly how someone invested with power, but not with enough discernment to exercise it properly, can be manipulated into actions that deepen the deterioration in the social framework – and that, in this specific case, lead the investigation on a totally false track, but since I’m now nearing spoiler territory I will say no more about it… 😉

As for Bosch himself, while I can understand his all-encompassing desire to bring justice to the victim, and his impatience with the high-handed methods of the FBI, his usual recklessness here felt more in service to his own ego than to the investigation: it’s something I remarked in my review of the previous book, and here its presence makes itself felt more heavily.  Even though in the end he’s proven to have been right, his reverting to the tactics of his younger self seems to point to an involution in Bosch’s character, and this is particularly evident in the relationship with his new partner: some of Harry’s actions are not only ill-advised, they could prove dangerous, career-wise, and his off-hand dismissal of those dangers, in the face of his partner’s objections, stresses once more how he is ultimately a lone wolf – and not necessarily one worthy of unconditional admiration.  While this character development was somewhat troubling, I have to admit that the author was right in showing his creature’s “dark side” more often because it makes him more real than any shiny-armor-clad “hero”.

The story itself is fast-paced (the sensation is that everything happens in a very short time frame) and engaging despite the already quoted familiarity: this time the main event in the book mirrors exactly what I saw on TV, but Michael Connelly’s writing is such that my immersion in the story never wavered for a moment.  While there was no surprise in the plot, the depiction of the investigation itself, with its twists and turns, and of the pall of fear imposed by a terrorist threat, was more than enough to offer a compelling and satisfactory read.

My Rating:


RECKONING (Donovan #6), by W. Michael Gear

Every time I learn of a new Donovan book I know I’m in for a treat: this series does not only focus on one of my favorite SF themes, the colonization of an alien planet, but it also offers new narrative avenues with each installment, so that the series remains fresh and highly enjoyable.

Reckoning takes a slightly different approach from its predecessors in that it does not explore one of the many dangers facing the colonists in their battle for survival on this very hostile planet, but rather on the evolution of the characters I have come to know and appreciate over time. Of course Donovan and its many hazards are still front and center, but this time the menace comes from Earth and the Corporation, whose visiting representatives have come to take in hand the situation.

With the return of Ashanti, one of the ships that managed to survive the dangers of interstellar travel, laden with its rich cargo of rare metals and precious stones mined on Donovan, the Corporation understands that such wealth in the hands of individuals (like the criminal Dan Wirth, who came back home with his massive plunder) might end up unsettling the balance of power in the Solar System, so a group of representative from some of the most influential families boards the ship Turalon with the goal of asserting the Corporation’s rule on Donovan. They are joined by a Board appointed Inspector General, who will audit Kalico Aguila’s actions so far and decide if she’s gone far too native to be allowed to continue in her role as Board Supervisor.

As Turalon approaches the planet we readers are presented with the underhanded maneuvers that the four representatives play in the attempt of gaining dominance even before making planetfall: they are not only powerful, ruthless individuals who stop at nothing to achieve their goals, they help us see that the corporate boardrooms in the Solar System are as dangerous as Donovan’s jungles and these scions of influential families are bloodthirsty predators in the same league as quetzals. And yet we readers already know that statistical data about Donovan and the hard facts of planetary life are two different things, so part of the enjoyment in reading a new book comes from the reactions of the “fresh meat” (as new arrivals are called) to the reality of life on the ground and in the few areas that colonists have come to claim as their own.  

This is particularly true for Falise Taglioni, the sister of Derek (Dek) Taglioni whose full adaptation to Donovan we saw in previous installments: Falise is not only the family’s cold-blooded assassin, she is a spoiled brat far too used to having her way, so that her constant refusal to adapt to groundside conditions offers several opportunities for entertainment – both for the readers and the locals. The disparity between her outlandish outfits and the frontier environment at Port Authority serves the author well in demonstrating the dichotomy between the light-years-distant corporate mindset and the reality of life on Donovan.  Like Kalico Aguila before her, Falise will have to accept the fact that mankind must adapt to the environment rather than taming it to its desires and learning the hard way that, as the saying goes, people get to Donovan to stay or die of find themselves. The way in which Falise will find herself while remaining true to her core nature is certainly one of the most intriguing facets of this novel.

As far as the “old” characters in the series are concerned, the focus here shifts a little from Talina or Dek, to follow more closely Kalico Aguila and young Kylee. The first is well aware that her tenure on Donovan might be at its end, given that the Inspector General is clearly out for her blood – and with him we have one of the most despicable characters created by the author, one that I’m sure you will all hate with a passion.  Kalico has not only invested all her energies in the mining of planetary resources, she has become a Donovanian through and through (and has the scars to prove it…): she is one of the people for whom the titular reckoning has arrived and might signify the end of her role on Donovan and a return in disgrace to the Solar System.  The way in which this particular situation develops represents one of the more compelling and satisfying segments of the novel, one that I followed with a mixture of anxiety and amusement – the latter sentiment due to the sheer unpredictability of the colonists…

Kylee held the biggest surprise in store for me: while I found her character intriguing in her past appearances in the series, I did not exactly connect to her, but here – grown up and struggling to reconcile her hard-earned maturity with the pains of adolescence – I enjoyed her sections and above all the practical, foul-mouthed approach to life she shows, particularly in her dealings with Falise Taglioni, to whom she acts as a sort of mentor in all things Donovan.  The interactions between the two of them – the hardened survivor and the spoiled outworlder – offer some of the most entertaining segments in the novel and have managed to change my outlook about Kylee herself.

This sixth book in the series is aptly titled Reckoning, because many of the proverbial chickens come home to roost here, and that’s one of the reasons I found the book quite engrossing, literally flying from one chapter to the next in my eagerness to know how the various situations would be resolved. While it’s true that we learn nothing new here about the planet itself and its dangers, the interpersonal relationships and the unavoidable clash between the colonists and the new arrivals (not to mention a couple of unexpected murders and a few quetzal incursions) were more than enough to keep my attention riveted and to fuel my expectations for the next book in line – I know I will not be disappointed.

My Rating:


COME WITH ME, by Ronald Malfi

Having discovered Ronald Malfi’s works through the very engrossing novel that was Black Mouth, I was eager to further explore this author’s production and choose this book which is quite different in tone and storytelling but is equally riveting.

Aaron Decker lives a very normal, very contented life with his wife Allison: he works as a translator of Japanese books, she is a journalist in the local paper, and for the last five years they have enjoyed each other’s company and mutual complicity, but as the story starts Aaron’s world crumbles into pieces as Allison is killed in one of the many freak shootings that happen in shopping malls. Stricken by grief and unable to make sense of what happened, Aaron stumbles on a motel’s receipt showing that Allison stopped there during one of her husband’s absences from home, and suspecting his wife of having been involved in a secret relationship he tries to retrace her steps in the months prior to her demise.

What Aaron finds, however, is quite different: for years – even before their meeting – Allison had been on the hunt for a serial killer, a man who certainly murdered Allison’s own sister and probably a number of other girls across the country.  As he tries to unravel the string of clues Allison was following, Aaron discovers a side of his wife, and a part of her past, that was unknown to him and he decides to follow in her path, to bring the man to justice and accomplish what Allison was unable to do.

What Come With Me boils down to is an all-encompassing obsession, one transmitted from Allison to Aaron, both of them trying to come to terms with the grief of an unbearable loss and finding in the single-minded focus of the hunt a reason to live and – maybe – learn to process the death of a loved one.  There is also a supernatural thread running throughout the novel, mostly centered on Aaron’s perception of a presence in the house, something he wants to believe is a remnant of Allison: lights blink on and off in the bedroom closet, the house’s virtual speakers come on playing Allison’s favorite songs, a shadow seems to linger in their shared study.  But it’s unclear if these manifestations – if they are indeed messages from the Great Beyond – are real or if they are the product of Aaron’s grief and his desire to connect with Allison in some way.

Aaron could somehow be classified as an unreliable narrator: much of the clues he pieces together don’t seem to fit, and it’s easy to suspect that he might not be as objective as his search would require, and his relentless pursuit of the killer takes on the color of obsession more than anything else, as if Allison’s own obsession had taken hold of his mind. It’s also intriguing to observe that the narrative is almost a long letter to departed Allison, to whom Aaron addresses his feelings and the progression of his quest.

Come With Me is a very atmospheric story imbued with a strong sense of impending doom, and at the same time it’s the exploration of two characters whose surface appearance at the start of the novel changes drastically as the narrative unfolds: on one side we have Aaron, a guy who looks level-headed and pragmatic and who sets himself on the hunt for a killer by taking risks and almost courting danger with what looks like reckless abandon, almost as if his loss had engendered a death wish; on the other we have Allison, a woman capable of leading a double life, keeping her darker pursuits from her husband – one of the most poignant facets of the story comes indeed from Aaron’s discovery of a side of his wife he was never able to perceive before.

I must confess that at some point in the novel I believed that it had become mired in Aaron’s grief-fueled search, as if his actions were leading him (and therefore the reader) in aimlessly repeating circles, and it also looked as if the mix of disparate clues, paranormal manifestations and weird findings (like the eerie collection of dolls he finds inside an abandoned factory) were taking me nowhere: I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel, moving forward only through sheer curiosity to see where this apparently ungainly mess was headed.   Luckily for me, that curiosity made me persevere and arrive at the final resolution where all the little pieces of information the author had scattered throughout the book came to fruition, not only where the identity of the serial killer was concerned, but more importantly where the haunting phenomena Aaron experiences finally paid off. And they did so in the most shockingly unforeseeable way.  I am not going to say any more because of spoilers, but I was pleasantly stunned by the way some sentences or some seemingly unrelated occurrences contributed to such an unexpected ending.

There is still a final consideration I need to share: the inciting incident for this novel comes from a very real and very personal event concerning the author, described in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. If you tend to skip these tidbits of information, don’t do it here, because these words will offer a further shade of meaning to the overall story.  One that confirms Ronal Malfi as one of the writers I must keep on my radar…

My Rating: