Reviews

THE CLOSERS (Harry Bosch #11), by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch’s return to the LAPD, after a three-years hiatus in which he tried to reinvent himself as a private investigator, marks Michael Connelly’s return to third-person narrative, which had been shifted to first-person in the previous two books, as if to mark the similarity between Bosch’s new chosen profession and the classic noir narrative of the solitary P.I.  The switchback does not affect the reader’s immersion in the story, of course, although I’m still curious about the author’s choice and wondering if it was an experiment he then decided to abandon.

Harry is back to his old stomping ground, armed once again with the badge that will allow him to open doors and be as effective as humanly possible in seeking justice for the victims: enrolled in the refurbished cold cases department, now renamed Open Unsolved Unit, he teams up with his old partner Kizmin Rider as the two are assigned a case from 1988, that of the murder of sixteen-year old Rebecca Verloren, who was abducted from her home and then killed. The murder had been mismanaged from the start, initially mistaken as a runaway case, and then as suicide: once forensic evidence pointed to murder, too many of the vital clues had been lost, making it impossible to find a perpetrator.  Now the analysis of DNA evidence (much improved since then) seems to point to a small-time felon who used to live near Rebecca: Bosch and Rider will have to review what evidence survived the passing of time and find a way to connect the pieces into a viable picture.  The passage of time will not be the only obstacle they will encounter on their path, since resistance from inside the police department and some ever-present political maneuvering threaten to crush their efforts, and to nip Bosch’s new career in the bud as the figure of former Chief of police Irving looms quite large on the horizon…

The transformation of Harry Bosch from the “loose cannon” he used to be into a more thoughtful, more sedate detective continues in this 11th novel of the series, and apart from the fact that this change is appropriate – since no individual remains the same throughout their life – it also marks the passing of time and the differences in outlook that experience (and hopefully wisdom) can visit on people. There are some moments in which the “old” Harry seems to surface, the one who preferred to cut corners and defy the system to bring justice to the victims, but here he appears more inclined to listen to his better angels and, more importantly, to his partner’s cooler advice.  One of the elements I more appreciated in this book is the working relationship between Bosch and Rider, one that comes from mutual respect and the appreciation of one another’s strengths. 

He was back on the job with her less than a day and they had already dropped back into the easy rhythm of their prior partnership. He was happy.

Kiz Rider’s character is a skillful blend of hard-won competence and innate empathy, all rolled into a no-nonsense person who is not afraid of calling out her former mentor on his flaws, or warning him that he might jeopardize both the investigation and their careers with his unorthodox choices.  The “old” Harry might have scoffed at such warnings and kept going, the “new” one not only listens, but has the honesty of admitting his faults and attempting to correct them: the two of them complement each other very well, and I hope that Michael Connelly will let us have more of this successful investigative duo in the next books, because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

As far as the story itself goes, it’s less “adventurous” than the previous ones, given that it follows the investigation as Bosch and Rider start back from scratch, collecting all the surviving evidence and trying to gather any new detail that might help them in finding the perpetrator, but I appreciated it all the same because I’m always fascinated by the mechanics of investigation, especially wherever forensic clues are concerned.  What truly stands out in The Closers is the depiction of a crime’s emotional fallout for the victim’s relatives, particularly when they are not afforded any form of closure: here we see how Rebecca’s parents never recovered from their child’s murder – the mother living in the same house and keeping her daughter’s room as she left it, a shrine to the memory of a life lost when its potential was still to be explored; the father falling into an abyss of despair and alcohol from which he’s trying to emerge in small, painful steps.  These parents’ anguish touches Bosch in quite a poignant way, which is hardly surprising because he’s a father now and, even though it remains unexpressed, the thought that he might lose his daughter to the cruelty of the world lurks just behind his awareness, lending him the drive to bring some form of justice to these bereaved parents.

The investigation, slow-paced as it is, moves unfailingly toward its resolution, one that proved quite surprising to me, and in so doing explores all the avenues offered by the few clues the detectives can work with: we see them research the possibilities of sex crime, and then of hate crime – which also affords a diversion into the murky world of racism and white supremacy – and once again opens a window into the multilayered aspects of a big city like Los Angeles, one that

[…] shimmered out there like a million dreams, not all of them good

And Bosch is certainly back to shine his own light on the pockets of darkness nesting among those bright dreams, he’s back in his true element and not the proverbial fish-out-of-water he felt like in the previous two books: on this respect, there is a very enlightening passage in which he tells Rider that he had noticed how he walked favoring one leg, only to become aware that he was unconsciously compensating for the lack of the service weapon at his side – not so much the gun in itself, but what it represented for his ability to respond to the unheard cries of the victims.  This new start in his life is exactly what he always wanted, and needed, to satisfy his drive for justice, and it feels like the start of new, intriguing chapter in this character’s journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

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:

Reviews

EVERSION, by Alastair Reynolds

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Alastair Reynolds’ name is always enough to make me pay attention to any new book he publishes: so far I’ve learned to expect space opera stories strongly based on science and dealing with a galaxy-wide scope of events, so my curiosity was piqued by the blurb for Eversion, which sounded like a very different take from those themes. It turned out to be a very unexpected, deeply engaging read that held my attention from start to finish and offered a quite unusual story that mixed some Groundhog Day vibes with tales of exploration and an alien mystery shrouded in a quasi-Lovecraftian shade of fear: in short, a story that compelled me to burn the proverbial midnight oil to see where the author would take me.

The novel starts, quite unexpectedly, on a sailing ship from the early 19th Century, the Demeter, traveling through the icy waters of Norway: Dr. Silas Coade, the ship’s surgeon, is the narrating voice of the story as he relates the goal of the expedition, a search for a mysterious construct – named the Edifice – that could be reached through a narrow passage in the ice. The expedition members include, besides the good doctor, the leader of the group, boisterous Master Topolsky; Coronel Ramos, a weapons and explosives expert; tormented mathematician Dupin, and a few others, including Lady Ada Cossile, a noblewoman of great knowledge and prickly disposition.  As their intended destination approaches, we get to know the various members of the group and learn about the frictions generated by such different characters sharing close quarters: once the passage is located, though, and the wreck of a previous visiting ship – the Europa – is discovered, tempers flare in a heated exchange of accusations, and then disaster strikes in a most unexpected way. But it’s not the end, because in the next chapter we find once again Dr. Coade on Demeter, only this time he finds himself on a late 19th Century steamship, forging the waters near Patagonia – and still looking for a mysterious passage and an equally mysterious Edifice…

The pattern repeats itself again as the time frame proceeds forward and Demeter morphs from sail ship to steamship to dirigible to spaceship, always seeking to uncover the mystery of the Edifice, always forging through a dangerous passage and always meeting with disaster in one form or another. Some elements remain the same throughout the various versions of the story, however: the characters and their respective roles; Dr. Coade’s addiction to drugs and his literary aspirations which take the form of speculative fiction in which he imagines more advanced technology; Ramos’ head injury which Coade treats successfully and which leads to a close friendship between the two men; Ada Cossile’s pointed remarks which seem to target the doctor more than anyone else, and the hints that she might know more about him than circumstances seem to warrant.  It all adds to a compelling narrative that kept me reading on as the picture gained more details with each new iteration, until the core of the puzzle was revealed and it opened the door toward the real situation and danger facing the complement of the Demeter.

The buildup of narrative pressure is certainly the strongest element in Eversion: from the moment in which the story resumes after the first catastrophic ending, although in a slightly different form, it’s clear that there is more at work here than meets the eye, and obtaining the answers to the many questions posed by the story becomes the main attraction in this compelling novel, where the new elements manage only to tease the readers’ imagination, leading them to formulate hypotheses that most of the times prove wrong. When I previously mentioned the Groundhog Day vibes I might have made this story sound like a series of repetitions, but it’s far from that, not only because of the changes in temporal and technological setting for each iteration, but also because there is always some new detail that adds something to the overall picture, while never offering a way to pierce the mystery.  Being kept guessing might prove somewhat frustrating, but it’s also a sure way to compel you to forge ahead and look for the final revelation – which will prove to be quite unexpected.

One of the other intriguing components in this novel is the enigma tied to the Edifice, a place whose size and shape appear almost Lovecraftian in their mind- and space-bending quality and also because of the bothersome messages left by the unfortunate crew of Europa about the horrors waiting there: there is nothing more chilling than an incomplete message about something terrible and inescapable coming from the depths, and here it’s also paired with Dr. Coade recurring dream about a

[…] stumbling progress down a stone tunnel, a scurrying nightmare charged with the terrible conviction that I myself were already dead.

which will get a startling but consistent explanation once the veil will be pierced.

Compared to Alastair Reynolds’ previous works, Eversion lacks the sense of galactic vastness one can find in them, but it’s the rather confined background of this story which allows him to explore in greater depth the characters (something which I felt was somewhat missing from his other novels) and to linger on their interactions and personalities. There is a greater focus here on friendship and interpersonal relationships, mixed with some intriguing discussions about ethics and the kind of acceptable sacrifices to be tolerated in the quest for knowledge: it all gains an intriguing meaning once we learn about the reality of the situation facing Coade and the crew of Demeter, adding depth and humanity to what, until that point, was just a puzzling mystery.

While quite different from my previous experience with Alastair Reynolds’ writing, Eversion proved to be a fascinating novel combining science fiction and mystery in a seamless blend: prepare for something unexpected but totally engrossing…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE HUNGER OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #2), by John Gwynne #wyrdandwonder

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

The Hunger of the Gods was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, given that its predecessor, The Shadow of the Gods, was one of the best novels I read in 2021 and I was eager to find myself again in the company of the characters I had come to love in this Norse-inspired saga.

First things first, I need to express my appreciation for author John Gwynne’s choice to place at the start of the book not only a list of characters but a very useful synopsis of the events so far: even though I still had a good recollection of the previous novel, many details had by now escaped me, so it was important for me to regain my footing in the story before diving into the second volume. 

The action starts where we left it in book 1: the dragon goddess Lik-Rifa has been resurrected and her followers, the Raven Feeders, start with her the journey to reclaim the rule of the land and free the so-called Tainted – humans in whose veins runs the blood of gods – from their servitude; to that end they are training the Tainted children who have been kidnapped from their families in the use of powers bestowed by that blood.  Lik-Rifa is not, however, the only resurrected god, because the Battle Grim, led by Elvar, bring back to life the wolf-god Ulfrir with the goal of battling Lik-Rifa and freeing young Bjarn, the son of witch Uspa to whom Elvar has pledged a binding oath. And former warrior Orka, whose own son Breca is among the kidnapped children, is still in pursuit of the Raven Feeders, and reconnects with her old company of the Bloodsworn, the Tainted warriors she left long ago to raise a family and live in peace; young former thrall Varg is with them as well and he’s learning to master his powers as he seeks his own vengeance for the murder of his sister.

In this second book, these three main POVs are joined by some new ones, which offer a different perspective to the story while balancing the characters’ range with some… less positive traits: Bjorr – formerly attached to the Battle Grim – has been revealed as a mole for the Raven Feeders, and has now returned to them, but does not feel totally comfortable anymore with his old companions, memories of the camaraderie he shared with the Battle Grim, and guilt over his murder of the former band leader, often intruding in his thoughts, while the suffering of the kidnapped children never fails to weigh on his conscience. The dichotomy showed by Bjorr makes him a very interesting character, one with still a foot in his previous life: even though his stint with the Battle Grim was done in service of his goddess, he seems unable to completely accept her harsh rule and the methods she employs to reclaim power, turning him into a potential lynchpin for future events. 

Gudvarr, on the other hand, is another matter: his failure in capturing Orka after her incursion in Queen Helka’s hall has put him in a difficult position and he needs to establish his usefulness, while seeking glory and recognition – unfortunately he’s something of a coward, and the dichotomy between his outward behavior and his inner thoughts reveals this quite clearly: what I found surprising, given the pettiness of the character, is that I enjoyed reading about his exploits and his undeniable skill in taking advantage of situations. For starters, he represents a necessary balance to the heroism and endurance of the main characters, and then his ability to land on his feet more often than not is a very enjoyable counterpoint to his less-than-palatable attitude.

But of course the original trio of Orka, Elvar and Varg still enjoys the limelight here, as they travel on their individual paths toward the goals they set themselves: Orka is probably the one who exhibits the less changes, but it’s not surprising when considering that her focus is only on freeing Breca and avenging the murder of her husband at the hands of the kidnappers. All of Orca’s energy is concentrated in the fierce determination that keeps propelling her over hardships and dangers, and there is little room for anything else, apart perhaps from the growing gruff affection toward traveling companion Lif, who is slowly evolving from village fisherman toward warrior.  Things might change in the next book, however, given that Orka is at the root of the truly massive cliffhanger that ends this second installment – and which left me both stunned and not a little exasperated…

Varg, former thrall and now part of the Bloodsworn, is gaining confidence in his newly discovered abilities, but even more he’s getting settled in this found family that is both teaching him how to be a warrior and how to be part of a loving, caring group. He’s growing in confidence just as much as he grows closer to his companions, and it’s poignant to see how much this lonesome individual is thriving in the company of the Bloodsworn, even though the love they show him is more often than not of the though kind. Again, the story shows great balance here, juxtaposing the ferocious battle scenes, which are depicted in the usual cinematic way you can expect from John Gwynne, and the quieter moments when affectionate hazing or discussions about cheese (yes, I kid you not) serve to strengthen the bonds among these people.

In the first book of this series, Elvar was the one I felt less attached to, even though I recognized the potential in this character, a young woman who had given up a life of privilege to be free and gain some glory for herself: now that she’s stepped into the role of chief of the Battle Grim, she needs to re-think her approach – the responsibilities that the position heaped on her shoulder weigh heavily on her and help mature her, turning Elvar into a more thoughtful – but also more effective – person than she was at the beginning. And I have to admit that the chapter focusing on her return to her ancestral home was both gripping and emotionally satisfying, and I look forward to seeing how her journey will continue.

Where the characters proved extremely rewarding in their continued path, the story itself seemed to suffer a little from the “middle book syndrome”, in that the characters’ constant travels looked a bit meandering, slowing the pace and at times making me feel the compulsion to skip ahead – something that never happened to me with John Gwynne’s novels. With hindsight, I can see that it was a way of positioning the game pieces on the board – so to speak – and preparing the events for the final showdown, and I can say that I enjoyed the final chapters very much, given the adrenaline-infused series of events that they portray.  The slight lull I perceived might very well be the calm that precedes the storm we will certainly witness in the final book of the trilogy – one I’m bracing for and looking forward to with great expectations.

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Reviews

LOST LIGHT (Harry Bosch #9), by Michael Connelly

There is a number of changes in this ninth book from Connelly’s Harry Bosch series that mark a turning point from the past: the narrative surprisingly switches from the previously employed third person to first person, making the reader directly privy to Bosch’s inner thoughts; the former LAPD detective resigned from his job at the end of book 8 and now holds a P.I. license, but still has not taken any steps in that direction; for the first time since I began this series, the story was completely new to me, since it did not find its way into the TV show scripts, so I didn’t know what to expect; and at the end of this novel a major shift in Harry Bosch’s life comes to light – not a surprise for me, given my familiarity with the TV series, and one I was looking forward to, but certainly a huge one for the character. But I will get back to that in a while…

Harry is still adjusting to his new civilian status, taking life at a slower pace, free of the encumbrance of rules and regulations, but still – by his own admission – something is missing, and after a while he understands what it is:

I was living like a jazz musician waiting for a gig.

It does not take long for the former cop to know how to fill that void: if before his resignation his work as a detective felt like a mission, that has not changed now that he does not wear a badge anymore:

My mission remained intact. My job in this world, badge or no badge, was to stand for the dead.

And in this case the dead is Angella Benton, the victim of a crime Harry investigated a few years previously and which was never solved: the young woman was found murdered on her own doorstep, in what looked like a sex crime – Bosch is haunted by the image of the victim’s corpse, whose hands stretched away from the body as if in prayer, pleading for justice.  Angella worked in movie production and a couple of days after her murder the set where she was employed was the theater of the robbery of a huge sum of money that was never recovered: Bosch was on the location that day, collecting clues about the young woman’s murder, and was able to shoot one of the robbers, although they all managed to escape with the 2 millions in cash from the set.  Convinced that the two crimes are somehow connected, Bosch starts his own investigation and – unsurprisingly – ends up locking horns not just with the police department and their unhappiness at his meddling, but also with the FBI: the case does intersect with an investigation on terrorism (the book is set two years after 9/11, so the country is still on high alert after the attack) and the mysterious disappearance of an agent who was tangentially involved with the stolen money.

The main theme of Bosch’s new “mission” is indeed frustration: not just because of the now-cold trail of evidence, but mostly because his civilian status now bars many of the doors that once would have been wide open to him; this newfound freedom widens the range of his maneuverability, but also forces him to be more creative in situations where simply showing his badge would have granted unlimited access. This is particularly true in his dealings with the FBI: with the exception of his old acquaintance Roy Lindell (whom he met in Trunk Music), the other members of the Bureau view him with suspicion, or worse, offering to Michael Connelly the opportunity for thoughtful considerations on the “siege mentality” of those years and on the way some members of law enforcement stood on the thin line between their protective duty and a show of arrogant disregard for civilized rules.  As usual, the author abstains from any form of commentary, leaving to his readers the freedom to draw their own conclusions, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Back to Bosch, the present shift in perspective (and freedom of movement) offers the readers new facets of his personality together with a way to keep the character fresh and interesting: where he felt something of an outsider before – keeping to himself, often moving on different tracks – now heis indeed forced to be the loose cannon, paying the price for it with the lack of protection once afforded by the badge, and the subtle sense of insecurity that comes from it. Which does not however deter him from the mission, like a modern errant knight determined to right the wrongs he encounters on his path.  What’s interesting is that the counterpoint to this isolation is given by the number of faces from the past that come to the fore in the course of the story, almost a sort of reunion – or maybe a long goodbye to the past: besides the already mentioned Lindell there are the LA Times journalist Keisha Russel, former colleague and protegé Kizmin Rider and, last but certainly not least, Bosch’s ex wife Eleanor, for whom he still harbors deep feelings which enhance his core of loneliness.

There is an interesting thread concerning Rider here, because in more than one occasion Bosch is delighted to acknowledge he taught her well with something approaching paternal pride, a sentiment that on hindsight feels almost like foreshadowing because at the very end of the novel Harry discovers he is indeed a father when Eleanor introduces him to their four year old daughter Maddie. This was no surprise for me, given my familiarity with the televised story, and it was instead a development I was looking forward to because in the show the relationship between Bosch and his daughter – a teenager on screen – was one of my favorite features of the series.  

This fateful meeting, placed at the very end of the book, is both extremely poignant – we see Harry kneeling in front of the child as he holds her hands in amazed wonder – and also the high point of what I’ve come to see as a transitional book, one where changes in  his career and personal life meet to open a new path. Where that path will lead will be a discovery for both the characters and the readers: this particular reader cannot wait to see what’s in store in the next books, my only certainty being that I now fully trust Michael Connelly to always deliver an intriguing, engrossing and emotionally satisfying story with each new novel in this series.

My Rating:

Reviews

END OF WATCH (Bill Hodges #3), by Stephen King

While I enjoyed the two previous books in this series, where Stephen King explores the terrain of crime fiction rather than his trademark horror, I did feel that something was missing – i.e. the supernatural element for which this author is famous. It’s possible, as I surmised in my review of the previous installment, that King himself might have felt the need to go back to his narrative roots, because toward the end of Finders Keepers he prepared the ground for this return.

Brady Hartsfield, the deranged individual also known as the Mercedes Killer, has languished in a mental hospital for several years, reduced to a catatonic state by a traumatic head injury inflicted by Holly Gibney – Bill Hodges’ assistant – to stop him from detonating a bomb in a crowded auditorium.  But Brady – either thanks to some unforeseeable recuperative powers, or to seedy Dr. Babineau’s experimental therapy – has regained control of his mind, if not of his body, and shown some telekinetic abilities that allow him to set in motion a chain of terrifying events, including the ability to seize control of other people’s minds through an apparently inoffensive game console.

Hodges, now retired and managing an investigative agency with his friends Holly and Jerome, never believed that Brady was as harmless as he looked, and when a series of strange suicides targets people who survived Hartsfield’s road carnage, he is more determined than ever to get to the truth, further motivated by the discovery that his time is running out, due to a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.

As I said, End of Watch sees the return of the supernatural elements that King’s readers have come to expect from his works and where, as it so often happens in his stories, the most innocent-looking objects can turn into powerful instruments of mayhem and devastation: in this case the Zappit – the game console from a now-failed firm that Brady’s minions are offering for free to potential victims – becomes the conduit for Hartsfield’s mind-control thanks to an unforeseen, hypnosis-inducing feature in one of the game demos.   Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series, introduced us to this utterly despicable individual, one totally devoid of any moral compass, whose desire to emerge from anonymity is mated with a deep, unfocused rage toward the world and a desire for revenge, which is here compounded by the long years spent as a virtual vegetable in the hospital.  

As we follow Brady’s steps in extending his influence beyond the walls of his prison, carefully plotting his scheme and taking gleeful satisfaction in the first “field tests”, it’s impossible not to be affected by the sense of impending doom and by the fear that Hodges & Co. might not manage to collect all the clues into a complete picture and stop Hartsfield’s plans.  The added element of Hodges’ impending death adds a further  emotional layer to the mix, particularly where the distressed reactions of Holly and Jerome are concerned: the three of them have become as close as family, and in the case of Holly and Hodges the only family they can count on for affection and support, making their interactions quite poignant, and a necessary balance to the spreading evil orchestrated by Hartsfield.

One of the themes that can be often found in King’s novels is that of the hurt visited on young people, on the loss of the innocence that should be their armor, and End of Watch is no exception: Brady’s mind control exerted through the Zappits tends to push the teenagers who received them toward suicide, working on their insecurities and vulnerabilities. There are some heart-wrenching sequences in which we are made privy to these young people’s inner turmoil, and seeing the way in which Brady exploits them brings the true horror of this story to the surface: the supernatural element of the novel allowed him to connect with these troubled minds, but what he does to them to ensnare them in his “suicide ring” is as real as it is loathsome and for me it rekindled the all-encompassing hate I felt for this character and his utterly unredeemable inclinations.

For this reason, the sense of family that comes from Hodges & Co. feels even more important than ever, and leaves room for some character evolution that I felt was somewhat missing from the previous novel: Hodges himself has come a long way from the man we saw at the start of the series, when he was depressed and despondent – even the awareness of his approaching end does not generate any bitterness, but rather the knowledge that he’s ultimately led a good life, and that he’s leaving an important legacy through Holly and Jerome. And Holly herself – a character I have come to be very fond of – might still be battling her profound insecurities, but you can see how Hodges’ and Jerome’s support set her on a path of independence and self-assurance that can teach her to make a positive use of what others might perceive as obsessive behavior.

As a series ender, this third novel leads us through a breath-stopping chase that kept me on the edge of my seat, but what’s more important here is the sense of a closing circle, of wrapping up the events started by Brady’s road-rage killing spree in the first book: the mass murder at the job fair constantly informs the narrative throughout the series, and we are shown how it affected both individuals and the community as a whole, so it’s important to have closure in this final book,  particularly where Brady Hartsfield is concerned, because the poetic justice inherent in his end feels not only satisfying, but also quite right

The Bill Hodges trilogy was indeed a different reading experience for me, as far as Stephen King’s works are concerned, but also an intriguing one, and it helped to rekindle my interest in this author after a long hiatus. I guess more optimism for future reads is quite justified…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT (Unsub #3), by Meg Gardiner

This is my third foray into Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series, and the one which showcases its constant improvement both story- and character-wise.  My renewed interest in crime fiction can now rely on two excellent authors: Michael Connelly and Meg Gardiner.

In this new case, former detective and now FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix has been called to Los Angeles to investigate a series of brutal home invasions: the unsub (short for Unknown Subject) committing the crimes targets houses where families with children live, viciously kills the parents and terrorizes the children, often leaving crude messages or pictures of eyes on the walls.  The press has taken to call him the Midnight Man, because that’s the hour when he’s liable to strike, when everyone in the house is sleeping and therefore more defenseless.  As both the police and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit struggle to pinpoint the identity and the personality of the killer – who is extremely careful not to leave clues or recognizable images on surveillance cameras – the Midnight Man makes his first mistake by attacking young Hannah’s house: the girl manages not only to give the alarm and therefore save her parents’ life, she is also able to offer some important information to the investigators, turning into a pivotal witness for law enforcement but also painting a target on her own back because the killer is deadly set in removing the danger, and the intolerable failure, she represents.

The Dark Corners of the Night turned out to be not only the most gripping novel in the series so far, but also one that affected me quite deeply in an unexpected way: while I was reading the book, I was awakened one night by a noise – with all probability one of the not-so-careful people living one floor above moving around with no consideration for  the late hour or their neighbors’ rest. At any other time I might simply have grumbled and tried to go back to sleep, but the power of the story I was reading was such that I had to take a tour of the apartment and check that the door was locked, even though I kept berating myself for such silliness: I’ve read a good number of thrillers, I’ve read horror stories, for pity’s sake, and I’ve never given any though to “monsters” lurking in the dark, but this time I did – that’s the extent of my emotional involvement with this book.

This novel is indeed a compulsive read that will keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the time: the descriptions of the killer’s incursions, the urgent search for any clue or piece of information that might lead to his capture, and the final, adrenaline-infused chase through the city, all combine to create a breathless atmosphere of suspense that will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Even the relatively quieter moments, when details are examined and we are made privy to the intriguing aspects of law enforcement procedures, feel like part of that pressing need to know what motivates this unsub, who he is and what can be done to find and stop his killing spree.  The greater attraction here comes from following the police and FBI’s steps in collating the evidence, slowly but surely piecing together the various elements of the puzzle: as readers we get the same information that law enforcements has and therefore we feel like we’re moving alongside them in this journey, with no privileged outlook that might lead us to get the whole picture before the characters. Plot-wise, this is my preferred method of exploring a story, because I love being surprised and discovering that any hunch I might have had was totally wrong.

Meg Gardiner’s novels don’t rely on plot alone, though, because she always manages to achieve a good balance between that and character development.  Caitlin Hendrix is of course the one under the brighter spotlight, and here we see how the search for the Midnight Man and his elusive trail ends up affecting her: while this book can be read as a stand-alone, it would be better to be aware of Caitlin’s difficult journey and the emotional scars from both her past, and the more recent events, to fully comprehend some of her reactions to the stress of the chase, particularly when she falls back to some compulsive habits that plagued her youth. Since fiction has accustomed us to see law enforcement officers as tough, unyielding individuals, we tend to forget they are human beings as well, and therefore subject to human frailties, which might sometimes reduce their field effectiveness but helps greatly in sympathizing with them and seeing them as people: this is the case with Caitlin’s flaws, which don’t demean her but instead offer a balanced counterpoint to her investigating skills.

Dark Corners also offers an intriguing character study with young Hannah: gifted with great courage and observational skills well beyond her years, she offers the intriguing portrait of a child who goes through some harrowing experiences but has the strength and presence of mind to fight against her fears and offer the police the means to apprehend the killer. I quite enjoyed the interactions between Hannah and Caitlin, with the latter probably seeing in the young girl a mirror of herself, of a victim who refuses to be relegated in that role and acts proactively with every means at her disposal.  On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the Midnight Man: as his profile becomes less hazy and we start to understand what makes him tick and what propelled him toward his killing spree, it’s impossible not to be chilled by the realization that there might be many like him living literally next door, and that it might take only a little shift in their precarious balance to tip them off toward such darkness.

As the novel neared its conclusion I was already mourning the fact that Caitlin’s story seemed to be headed toward a final wrap, because I have been enjoying these novels very much, but I was glad to discover that the final paragraphs hint toward new developments though the possible return of an old adversary, which means that a fourth book might very well be in the works as I write this. If that’s the case I am surely on board for more, and as I wait I can always explore some other works from Meg Gardiner who is – happily for me – a very prolific author.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE KAIJU PRESERVATION SOCIETY, by John Scalzi

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity

The past two years have indisputably affected us all, one way or the other, and yet it was still a surprise for me to learn that even a cheerful personality like that of writer John Scalzi, who comes across as an individual gifted with an inexhaustible reserve of whimsical humor, suffered from the heavy toll of the situation: in the Author’s Note at the end of this book he shares his difficult journey with a book he was attempting to write, a book that was ultimately put on the back burner in favor of this one. In Scalzi’s own words, that other book was a “brooding symphony”, while The Kaiju Preservation Society is a “pop song”, one “meant to be light and catchy”: I, for one, am very grateful that he was inspired to write it, because it turned out to be a delightfully escapist story that for a couple of days managed to entertain me, making me smile often and laugh out loud in several occasions. In these times, this is a precious gift, indeed.

At the onset of the Covid pandemic, Jamie Gray works in the marketing department of a food-delivery startup named füdmüd, from which he’s suddenly fired: in dire need of paying the bills, and with job opportunities vanishing quickly due to the crisis, he has no other choice but to accept work in actually delivering food to füdmüd’s clients.  Having been befriended by one of them, Jamie is offered a chance to work with the KPS and he accepts eagerly: what he does not know is that the job will entail direct contact with huge, Godzilla-like creatures in a very unusual, very unexpected environment. While making new friends and adjusting to the new work situation, Jamie will need all his resourcefulness and dexterity to deal with the unexpected challenges presented by this job, and to defeat the dastardly plot of the (required) evil corporation – and to lift things, of course, because that’s what he was hired to do…

Jamie is an easy person to get attached to, not least because he’s a nerd, his dialogue crowded with pop-culture and SF references that bring instant recognition and a sense of easy kinship: in the course of the story, he turns from a simple Things Lifter to a hero (even if an unassuming one) and where other less skilled writers might have fallen into the “Gary Stu Trap” with him, Scalzi takes that trope and turns it on its head, creating a fun, very relatable main character we can all root for.  He’s the lone Everyman in the midst of a group of quite talented scientists, and yet his penchant for SF-related themes allows him to take the mental steps necessary to adjust to the KPS environment and to thrive in it: I’ve often maintained that the kind of “mind training” offered by speculative fiction makes us nerds able to bridge chasms that might scare other people, because we can go that extra mile with no effort at all, and Jamie is indeed proof of that.

As far as personal interactions go, I found The Kaiju Preservation Society enjoys the same kind of easygoing, humorous banter I first encountered in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series: here it serves both to define characters and to provide the necessary scientific explanations (both real and imagined) that might otherwise have felt like weighty info dumps and that instead flow easily and at times even become entertainingly informative.  The sense of camaraderie, and then friendship, that binds these different people is a joy to behold and serves to balance out the unavoidable drama and loss that at some point hit the small community, forcing these dedicated, peaceful scientists (plus the Weight Lifter) to tap their reserves of courage and face an impending threat and the high stakes it brings about.

That threat comes – of course – from corporate greed and in particular from an individual Jamie knows well: this guy is the epitome of the mustache-twirling villain and, again, he might have turned into an unavoidable trope, but once again Scalzi manages to poke some fun at this particular cliché by shining a bright light on it instead of trying to mask it. It’s a well-know (and much scorned) habit for villains to launch in detailed monologues about their intentions before attempting to kill the heroes, and this particular bad guy indulges in it quite a bit, but here the habit of “monologuing” is openly addressed both by the villain and his would-be victims, turning what could otherwise have been a trite situation into another opportunity for John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor. In other words, this is a… tongue-in-cheek villain, one I both loathed and enjoyed.

Last but not least, this novel focuses on a singular and fascinating environment inhabited by these huge, towering creatures – and their proportionately big parasites – and sporting its own well-crafted ecosystem in which even the most outlandish feature has its reason to be, and is part of the fun in the story.  I quite enjoyed The Kaiju Preservation Society, not only for its amusement quotient, but because of its hopefulness and optimism: these elements might look utopian, given that in the real world things almost never work so well, but as I said at the start of this review, we all need a bit of light in the darkness now and then, to believe that good can triumph over evil, and this book provided these features at the right time. For which I’m certainly grateful…

My Rating:

Reviews

CITY OF BONES (Harry Bosch #8), by Michael Connelly

I was eager to reach this installment in Michael Connelly’s series because the story told in City of Bones constitutes the narrative core for the first season of the TV series, which made me finally aware of this author’s works and introduced me to a very intriguing character.  Unlike what happened with previous books, here both narrative paths (book and TV) follow the same progression, so there were no surprises for me story wise, and yet the novel was able to capture my attention from start to finish as if it were completely new – a further demonstration of Connelly’s narrative skills, not that I really needed it at this point…

It’s the first day of the new year, and – unsurprisingly – Harry Bosch is on duty when he’s called to the site of a grim discovery: the bones of a murdered child that have been lying in the ground for a long time, probably a couple of decades. Even worse than the murder of a child is the revelation that the poor kid had been the victim of prolonged abuse, as testified by the multiple healed fractures evident in the bones: nothing like this kind of innocent victim can drive Harry Bosch on an unstoppable quest to find the perpetrator, not even the awareness that the long time elapsed might turn into a fruitless search, at times hindered by the LAPD politics which don’t look too kindly on such an expenditure of time and resources for what looks like a very cold case.

But Bosch is quite determined to get to the bottom of this because this time it’s not just a matter of being faithful to his motto “everybody counts, or nobody counts”, which drives him to seek justice for those who don’t have a voice anymore; this time the case feels close and personal, touching on the hardships of his own childhood, spent between uncaring foster families and indifferent institutions after the murder of his own mother. Even though it’s never expressed openly, Bosch feels a kinship with young Arthur Delacroix, the victim, and also the need to avenge his stolen innocence. As he muses at some point:

Child cases haunted you. They hollowed you out and scarred you. There was no bulletproof vest thick enough to stop you from being pierced. Child cases left you knowing the world was full of lost light.

City of Bones is much more than a compelling police procedural, even though it’s a fascinatingly detailed one, because it turns out to be the book in which Bosch’s psychological makeup is explored in greater depth than before, showing how under the abrasive surface of his personality there is a very human individual who built that exterior armor of bluntness as a defense against the injuries of the world. The detective’s flaws are showcased here more than in previous books, often portraying him as fallible, since his single focus on the goal tends to make him ignore peripheral details that are later revealed in their importance, but it’s thanks to these flaws that the human being can be seen, and appreciated.

There are a couple of instances in which we see Bosch lowering his “shields” in this novel: one is focused on his relationship with Julia, a trainee officer who exposes him to the double dangers of letting down his defenses (and later paying the price) and of going against the department’s regulations concerning romantic attachments inside the force. Julia seems just as determined as he is in making a difference, but does so without the years-long experience that the older detective has acquired over time, and this costs her dearly, leaving Bosch saddled with an undefinable sense of guilt that weighs heavily on him.  The other instance concerns his exchanges with the forensic pathologist charged with the examination of young Arthur’s bones: there is a moment in which the doctor shows Bosch some bones recovered from the city’s tar pits, bones that reveal how murder was a component of society even in prehistoric times – the indication that human wickedness possesses deep roots indeed. Which brings Bosch to a bitter conclusion:

[…] a truth he had known for too long. That true evil could never be taken out of the world. At best he was wading into the dark waters of the abyss with two leaking buckets in his hands.

It’s a very sad consideration, and probably the start of the process leading to the unexpected decision Bosch makes at the end of the book: a decision that mirrors the one he takes at the end of the TV series, but for completely different reasons.  It’s possible that this choice comes from a number of factors, not least the depressing links between law enforcement and its political ramifications, which here also dovetail with media relationships and community awareness, creating a mix that the detective finds unpalatable and more constricting than ever.  This heavy equation is further burdened by the lack of complete closure in the case: yes, the murderer is finally apprehended but it looks almost like an afterthought, and this certainly does not bring any kind of comfort to the shattered and dysfunctional family of poor Arthur, or to Bosch himself.  The prospect of an incoming promotion leaves him cold and distant, almost in acknowledgment of the emptiness of the task he has dedicated himself to for so long: in the very moment we are allowed to see more clearly into the soul of this character, we are also led to what looks like a massive shift in his perspective and his life:

He had always known that the would be lost without his job and his badge and his mission. In that moment he came to realize that he could be just as lost with it all […] The very thing he thought he needed the most was the thing that drew the shroud of futility around him. He made a decision.

Even though I have an inkling about what that decision might be, I more than look forward to actually learning what it is, and to allow Michael Connelly to intrigue me once again with his stories centered on such a fascinating character. I know that I will not wait too long to get to the next book in line…

My Rating:

Reviews

LEVIATHAN FALLS (The Expanse #9), by James S.A. Corey

Reaching the end of a beloved series is always a bittersweet experience (and the fact that the TV show inspired by this book series has also reached its final season adds to the feeling of loss, but I digress…), yet it’s also true that when a story comes to an end leaving readers wanting for more it means that the author has done an excellent job, and this is quite true for the highly successful, decade-long run of The Expanse

At the close of the previous installment, the might of the Laconian empire had suffered a hard blow, compounded by the disappearance of its leader, High Consul Duarte, and the crew of the Rocinante had finally reunited, taking with them Duarte’s daughter, Teresa. Elsewhere, scientist Elvi Okoye continued her studies on the protomolecule creators and on the mysterious entities that obliterated them and that still represented a clear and present danger for everyone.

Leviathan Falls opens with the desperate search for Duarte, introducing a new character in the person of Colonel Tanaka, a ruthless, cold-blooded operative who is given carte blanche to recover the Laconian leader and who clearly enjoys the unfettered freedom about collateral damage she’s given: her cat-and-mouse game with the Rocinante’s crew showcases very well her callousness but also her tunnel vision where Holden & Co. are concerned, because their longtime experience with difficult situations (together with a good amount of luck) has gifted them with the kind of flexibility that allows them to thwart Tanaka’s plans time and again. And I for one have to admit that witnessing the Colonel’s angry frustration was quite satisfying, since she’s the kind of character that I just love to hate…

The stakes, in this final book, are of course high: though diminished, the Laconian empire is still a force to be reckoned with; the rebellious systems, coordinated by Naomi Nagata, lack the resources and the organization necessary to deal a significant blow to the enemy; and the ruthlessly dangerous aliens responsible for the destruction of the gates’ builders are ready to do the same to humanity as a whole. And yet, even though the story does not lack for edge-of-your-seat scenes, furious battles and harrowing journeys through weird alien constructs, the overall mood is more sober, more inclined to melancholy – it might have been the projection of my own sadness at the end of the saga, granted, but with hindsight this book is, after all, a long goodbye to a number of characters I have come to know well and love as real people, just as they, in the course of the series, went from total strangers thrown together by circumstances to a tightly knit family.

Even in the midst of a galaxy-wide conflict, it’s the crew of the Rocinante that still earns the spotlight in this final act, and despite all that has happened to them over the years, despite the unavoidable injuries of passing time or life’s emotional wounds, they hold on to each other through learned trust and affection, in a sort of symbiosis which needs no words to make them work as a unit.

Time and use had changed them, but it hadn’t changed what they were. There was joy in that. A promise.

Thinking about the persons they were at the beginning, and seeing how time and experiences changed their outlook, made me aware of the long road they traveled as characters: Naomi kept trying to be as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible, guilt from her past compelling her to keep to the shadows, and yet she ended up being the leader of the resistance against Laconia, putting her mechanical skills at the service of the vast “machine” of the underground; Alex had always skirted his commitments as a husband and a father, preferring the freedom and joy of piloting a ship, but in the end the choice he makes is focused on his son and grandson.  And Holden, who had chosen a nondescript work on an ice hauler to be free from responsibilities, little by little found himself at the center of big and momentous events, so that his ultimate decision is a supremely selfless one, which looks even more poignant when considering that his return from imprisonment on Laconia had left him “scarred and broken” in the wake of the physical and emotional torture he had endured, and that he would have deserved some peace after so much suffering.

The only one who remains a constant is Amos: not even the uncanny changes he underwent in the course of the previous book managed to shift him from the steadfast presence I’ve come to appreciate and expect, someone who can come up with startlingly wise advice: 

“You’re overthinking this, Cap’n. You got now and you got the second your lights go out. Meantime is the only time there is.”

Amos’ personality is a weird combination of menacing strength, expressed in nonchalant understatement, and of unexpected gentleness, which we see – time and again – in his penchant for picking up strays: from distraught botanist Prax, looking for his missing daughter, to Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, former enemy he added to the Roci’s crew, to Teresa Duarte (plus her dog), who seems to come as close as an adopted daughter for the apparently unemotional mechanic.  Maybe it’s not so strange when considering Amos’ past and his (albeit unexpressed) desire to protect the helpless, which makes a great deal of sense when we see Amos as the one to get the very last word in this final book, in his role as protector and guardian.

If the final chapter in The Expanse is not as “epic” as might have been expected, it’s however quite rewarding thanks to the quiet but poignant emotions that stand as its backbone: I’m not ashamed to admit that some of these goodbyes affected me deeply because, despite the 9-books run, I was not ready to part company with this crew, and the only comfort to be had was the hopeful outlook on humanity given by the last paragraphs. Granted, in this series humanity did show some of its worst traits, but also the capacity to move beyond them, or at least of being willing to try: the hint that the story does go on behind the closing curtain is indeed a glimmer of hope, and I will stick to that while I wait for these two amazing authors to create something new and equally compelling in the future.

My Rating: