Reviews

Short Story: SHARDS, by Ian Rogers – #wyrdandwonder

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Read the story online

A very creepy, quite disturbing tale made even more so by the lack of any explanation about the hows and whys of what happens.

The story starts, quite similarly to many horror movies, with a group of teenagers driving toward a secluded cabin in the woods to celebrate their upcoming graduation and to have some fun. There are many elements that are familiar to followers of the genre: the dilapidated cabin, the isolated location, and a mysterious trapdoor leading toward a dark basement… And yet, the way this story develops leads toward some quite unexpected paths, making the reader constantly wonder what’s at play here.

The very first sentence points toward a tragedy, no mystery here: we know from the start that something horrible will happen here, and that makes the cheer and fun of the outing that the group is enjoying even more poignant, particularly because it’s easy to see these people are very comfortable with each other since they grew up together and have developed a very close relationship.

If the dread of what happens in the cabin is bad enough, what the survivors have to endure afterwards is even more ghastly, because it becomes quite apparent that the evil in the cellar did not remain there, and it wants more of what it obtained. And it does not end with death…

Thoroughly chilling, and quite compelling.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE STRANGER TIMES (Stranger Times #1), by C.K. McDonnell – #wyrdandwonder

As it so often happens, I took notice of this book thanks to the review from fellow blogger Lynn, but did not add it immediately to my reading queue, so that it took Lynn’s mention of the second volume in the series to finally push me start this one, and now I know I will not let too much time elapse before adding the sequel to my TBR because I had a great deal of fun with The Stranger Times.

The book title refers to a Manchester-based newspaper focused on the strange and the bizarre – like alien visitations or kidnappings, the birth of two-headed cows and so forth – its anchor to reality being that the paper is only reporting those weird occurrences, not stating a belief in them.  The staff is just as eccentric as the news it publishes, consisting of Vincent Banecroft, the editor, a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited drunkard who lives on the premises; Grace, Banecroft’s secretary and office manager, whose main activities consist in keeping the editor’s profanities to a minimum and making tea for everyone; Reggie and Ox, the actual reporters, who seem to have lost faith in their work; and Stella, the young apprentice who looks far from happy about being there.

The latest addition to the team is Hannah, recently divorced from a philandering husband and the recipient of unwanted fame for having set fire to their home while burning the man’s clothes: having left her comfortable life behind, Hannah is in dire need of work and her last chance comes though the ad published by the Stranger Times, claiming to look for “desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”.  Despite the oddities of the place, and Banecroft’s foul temper, it does not take long for Hannah to find her niche as assistant editor in this new setting, and just in time, because strange happenings are troubling the city of Manchester and soon enough a death that touches the staff very close to home launches them into an investigation where the supernatural and its dangers are not limited to the rantings of the newspaper’s readers.

The rapid POV changes in the story – which besides the main characters include a powerful villain, a police inspector and some of the gruesome crimes’ victims – make for a quick and lively run through this book, which alternates its more dramatic aspects with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that I found quite refreshing for the genre: Urban Fantasy tends to be uniformly dark, its characters often tormented by a dismal past, and finding here this successful blend of seriousness and fun offered a very welcome respite from the gloom of our current reality.

Where the story is quite intriguing, listing a series of bizarre deaths and the hints of some magical dastardly plot our heroes need to prevent, the characters are its true backbone and it’s through their spirited exchanges that their nature is revealed as they turn, slowly but surely, from a group of people at odds with each other into something approaching a found family.  Hannah is of course the one whose journey is more detailed, and the one who shows the greatest changes: at first she is not only the classic “fish out of water” due to the upheavals in her life, she also looks somewhat clueless and fumbling, since her first days at the Stranger Times are a source of misery, thanks to Banecroft’s vicious attitude and to her duties for “Loon Day”, when a long theory of contributors comes calling with their weird anecdotes.  But as the days pass, we can see how those challenges help Hannah to tap some unknown reserves and turn into a determined, proactive person who is also able to face unusual or terrifying situations and even to challenge Banecroft on his own ground, probably gaining his unexpressed respect in the process.

Banecroft himself is a very interesting character: even though he’s outwardly rude and profanity-inclined (to the point that Grace had to put a daily limit to his use of nasty language), and lives in what can only be described as a disgusting mess of papers, dirty clothes and empty liquor bottles, it’s difficult to outright hate him because the way he’s written and his over-the-top demeanor lead the reader more toward indulgent amusement than real disapproval. What’s more, there are some hints at a past tragedy that might explain his current manners (or lack thereof…) and that I hope will be explored in more depth in the next book(s).  I liked Grace very much, particularly for the unflappable way in which she deals both with Banecroft and with young Stella, whose difficult-teenager attitude hides a very interesting secret which ties with some of the information (sorry, no spoilers!) we gather along the way. And, last but not least, the interactions between Reggie and Ox are nothing short of delightful.

What’s interesting here is that we see the point of view of the villain just as much as that of our “heroes” and that serves to counterbalance the whimsical tone of the story with some darkness, which grounds the story in its dramatic aspect as we learn of the increasing danger presented by this mysterious figure as he claims his victims with a sort of… amused nonchalance that’s quite chilling.

I had a very good run with The Stranger Times, to the point that I have already acquired the sequel – This Charming Man: the blend of Urban Fantasy and humor is very well balanced, an amusing journey that at times makes you laugh out loud, particularly when you get “extracts” from the newspaper itself detailing some of the published articles.  A different take on the usual elements of the genre that will not disappoint and will leave you with a smile on your face.

My Rating:

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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

Short Story: BABY TEETH, by Daniel Polansky

Click on the link to read the story online

I previously read a couple of short stories by Daniel Polansky, so his name on this one caught my attention just as much as the promise of a vampire-related tale, which is one of my favorite horror tropes.

Baby Teeth is the story of a vampire infestation in a small town, related by the an adult Graham reminiscing on his teenage yers: back then, his schoolmate Penny died of a mysterious illness and after the funeral Graham felt the need to go back to the funeral parlor, where he was stunned by the apparition of a pale-faced Penny, who however approaches him with a “tangled mess of canines broken glass torn aluminum dirty needles half-sharpened razor blades” before being impaled – by a stranger, named Hercules – clearly a vampire hunter.

The story goes on by depicting the strange alliance between the grumpy Hercules and Graham, whose intimate knowledge of the realms of Dungeons & Dragons predisposed him to acknowledge the supernatural with easy acceptance. Graham is the classic “nerd”, more interested in books than sports, and a couple of veiled mentions hint at some hazing by the stronger boys, but when he understands that a vampiric threat might have been claiming victims in his town for decades, he’s eager to help Hercules in his endeavors. Not that it’s an easy feat, because, in Graham’s own words, he’s not hero material, and yet we see him being quite invested in the search, even when his fears – and his feelings of inadequacy – might get the best of him.

Baby Teeth feels almost like the outline of a larger tale, and it would be easy to ask for more, but still it’s an intriguing story with a good pace and some interesting character work, confirming me that Daniel Polansky is an author to pay close attention to.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 (Dead Djinn Universe #0.3), by P. Djèlì Clark

My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities,  proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.

In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs.  Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…

The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.

Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s.  Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance.  Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.

Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:

That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women

For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SILENCE, by S.A. Barnes

Answering distress calls from space is a sure way of meeting countless forms of trouble, and Dead Silence proves this point once again with a compelling, claustrophobic story that successfully mixes science fiction and horror.

Claire Kovalik and her crew of four are nearing the end of their last tour of duty servicing Earth’s comweb relays: from now on, Verux Corporation’s maintenance will be done through automated drones and Claire – whose past history made her unfit for reassignment on any other kind of ship – is now destined to a dead-end groundside clerical job. This bleak future seems inevitable until the LINA (the maintenance ship under Claire’s lead) receives a distress signal from beyond the comweb’s farthest range: as impossible as it might seem, the call comes from the Aurora, a luxury vessel that disappeared in mysterious circumstances twenty years previously, during its maiden voyage. The discovery, together with the possibility of financial security obtained through a salvage operation, drives Claire and her crew to board the Aurora, but what they find is a nightmare scenario: frozen corpses floating in microgravity, the unmistakable signs of senseless violence, and cryptic sentences drawn in blood on the walls. What’s worse, the LINA’s crew seems increasingly affected by this gruesome scenario as they keep hearing voices or seeing other people, impossible as it looks on this ship of the dead: fighting against time to effect the repairs necessary to bring the Aurora back toward civilized space, Claire and her crew must battle with their inner demons and the inexplicable horror that influenced the passengers, driving them to murder or suicide in countless gruesome ways…

Dead Silence drew me in from the very start, mostly thanks to its split narrative alternating between a present in which Claire is trying to reconstruct what happened on the Aurora, relaying her fragmented recollections to two Verux officials, and the recent past in which the LINA crew faces the grisly mystery aboard the lost ship – there is also a third timeline, seen through brief flashbacks, in which we learn that Claire is the only survivor of a doomed colony decimated by a viral infection, and which explains the heavy psychological burden that she’s been carrying ever since.  Learning from the start that something went hideously wrong with the mission, and progressing forward toward the discovery in alternating timelines, is the factor that grabbed my interest from page one and compelled me to read on, fighting the mounting sense of dread that the story creates very skillfully.

As for Claire, she is a fascinating character because there are so many dark areas in her past that carry on in the present – including her suicidal thoughts at the prospect of being denied the freedom of space once the last repair tour will be over – and turn her into a possibly unreliable narrator, particularly when we learn that she seems to be the only survivor of the LINA as well, with no memory about what happened to her crew, except for some ghastly flashes of their deaths – provided, of course, that these are real memories and not part of the… visions that have been plaguing Claire since her childhood in the failed colony.  Claire is indeed not new at ghostly visitations, and at first, when she sees some weird images on board the Aurora, she believes them part of her psychological problems, but when her crew mates start having the same kinds of encounters – which become increasingly horrifying and realistic – it becomes clear that something else is at work here.

The descriptions of what Claire’s crew finds aboard the doomed ship are quite vivid, a frozen (literally so) tableau of what must have been the last moments for crew and passengers alike before the life support cut off, and it’s clear that some form of madness must have infected them all because there is evidence both of deadly struggles and of suicides, the latter apparently induced by some form of despair or terror. The dreadful scenario is magnified by the luxurious setting, that of a ship where no expenses were spared for the comfort and enjoyment of the wealthy passengers, and yet no level of opulence could save those people from the deadly dangers of space, which is revealed once again as a hostile environment set on killing any “trespassers”.   And whatever it is that pushed the people aboard Aurora toward violence is still present, encroaching on the minds of LINA’s crew, and further deteriorating the already tense interpersonal relationships between them as it enhances the climate of antagonism and distrust already present from the start.

I have to say that the author managed very successfully to infuse the story, from the very start, with a sense of dread and unshakable uneasiness, focusing them into a need to know what really happened, both to the Aurora and to Claire’s crew. I felt great sympathy for Claire because, despite her apparent unreliability, she comes across as an honest person, one whose life has been very difficult to say the least, but who is still capable of great feats of courage and determination in spite of the obstacles – material and psychological – on her path. 

Where the novel falters a little, in my opinion, is in the revelation of the underlying mystery of the Aurora’s disaster, because after the amazing buildup leading to it, it feels almost… mundane, for want of a better word, and while it might make sense in consideration of the background laid by the story, to me it seemed quite anti-climactic. Also, the lack of explanation about Claire’s “ability” to see ghosts was slightly disappointing, because the little clues linking back to her childhood trauma appeared to point toward something intriguing.  But these are minor problems in what proved to be a very appealing read, one that kept me awake until the small hours out of a burning need to see where the story would lead: as far as “space horror” goes, Dead Silence was a quite satisfactory find.

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

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CONQUERING THE WORLD (The Siege #3), by K.J. Parker

The third book in K.J. Parker’s The Siege presents once again a story set in the same world as the two previous volumes, but this time not in the City we have come to know through the chronicles of Orhan the engineer and Notker the actor turned leader: here the protagonist is Felix (the lucky), a Robur national sent as a diplomatic envoy and translator to the Echmen empire. 

Felix ended there under a cloud of disgrace caused by an ill-considered liaison which cost him dearly, both physically and socially, and all he wants now is to keep a low profile and read books: easier said than done though, because first he ends up saving the life of a Hus princess-hostage, who was going to be executed because of a grammatical misunderstanding, and then he’s in turn saved by that same princess once it seems that the Robur nation has been obliterated and that Felix is its only survivor. From that moment on, Felix – and the princess – will embark on a journey across the wide world that will lead them to meet its many different peoples, as the former translator starts what can only be termed as an incredible revolution that will change the balance of power through the application of an apparently unplanned conquest strategy.

The protagonists of Parker’s novels, despite their differences, share a common unreliability as narrators, and what’s more they make no mystery of it – Felix is indeed the one who seems to be the most open on the subject, in respect of his predecessors:

I really don’t understand why people go on about how wonderful the truth is. In my experience, all it does is make trouble.

This is even more true here because, as the story moves forward, we learn that what appears as a series of unconnected and unplanned choices ends up generating very serendipitous results that point toward a carefully orchestrated plan. Felix’s narration makes it all look quite accidental, or at the very least the product of inspiration drawn from one of the many books he’s read, but after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that he’s not “encouraging” the outcome from the sidelines.  Especially when he says things like this:

Everything I’ve touched I’ve translated, into one thing or the other.

To further muddy the waters, at some point he makes a mention of his offhand humorous approach to situations, drawing a parallel between it and the ink squids use as camouflage against predators, and adding that under the layers of that protective humor he’s quite scared, but given his unreliability as a narrator it’s not so easy to fully believe him. 

All of the above turns Felix into a character that is difficult to relate to, and there are times when I felt quite annoyed with him – in a half-amused way, granted, but still annoyed, so that I could quite sympathize with the princess when she berated him and looked ready to use physical violence.  And yet, the relationship between the two of them (which cannot turn into a romantic pairing because of Felix’s… unfortunate situation) is one of the narrative delights of the story, with the two of them forming a complicated partnership that nonetheless works on many levels and offers some very amusing scenes, like the ones where Felix translates her profanity-laden speeches into something more diplomatically appropriate.

What truly differentiates this book from its predecessors is that the story follows a journey/quest model rather than being set in the City, which offers the author the chance to have a lot of fun with the different names and customs of the many tribes our two fugitive travelers meet: the travelogue might look somewhat confusing because the book does not have a map, which might have made things more visually understandable, but it’s a minor inconvenience after all, because Felix’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of these peoples, their history and above all their quirks, makes for an amusing sketch of this world and its inhabitants who, despite the outward cultural differences, seem to share a deep distrust of strangers – but also the inability to resist the translator’s quick tongue and powers of conviction.

At times, the long lists of places and tribes – complete with details about customs and laws – feels like too much information and one could be tempted to skip forward to get back to the main story, but I don’t recommend it, because you might lose some entertaining detail. Granted, these finer points might not be indispensable in the Grand Scheme of Things, but they are often too funny to be missed, like the long, drawn-out story about a man who wanted to make money by selling camels. And in the end, camels DO prove to be quite effective in battle… 😉

In the end I had great fun with the Practical Guide, even though the third iteration of this series reserved little surprises as far as the outcome would be, but like the story it tells, what truly matters here is the characters’ journey and not its end, and in the course of that journey there is great room for fun and a few laughs – and we all need that, from time to time.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE ANGEL OF KHAN el-KHALILI (Dead Djinn Universe # 0.2), by P. Djelì Clark

While searching for a short story to act as “intermission” between books, I saw this second short offering in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series (you can read it online on Tor.com) and the first paragraph totally captured me with its mysteriously evocative tone: written in an unusual second person POV, it details the journey of young Aliaa searching for a miracle to save her sister, the victim of a factory fire and now dying of her grievous injuries.

Knowing that the granting of such a momentous wish from a djinn would carry its own uncertainties, since djinns are fickle creatures, Aliaa seeks the help of an angel, one of the enigmatic beings who hide inside huge,  human-shaped constructs, and to do so she roams the bazaar’s streets at night.  The description of the deserted night-time market, in opposition to its bustling daytime activity, is one of the best parts of this story: as it happened with the previous one set in this same world, I am in awe of Clark’s descriptive skills that not only paint a picture of this sector of Cairo, but bring to life the sounds and smells of it, making it the perfect setting to Aliaa’s desperate search and to her fears and insecurities.

Once she finds herself in the presence of the angel, the young girl discovers that the payment for the requested miracle might be more than she is ready to pay, and that it will require a painful soul-searching that translates into actual physical pain: the main theme here is that of revealing one’s secrets and guilt, of bringing them to the surface and – maybe – letting go of them, even though the process of gifting them to the angel sounds both painful and gruesomely mechanical.

Mixed with the personal details of Aliaa’s life there are some intriguing peeks into Cairo’s evolving society, one where women are striving for emancipation and the right to superior learning, but are also struggling to turn those dreams into reality by working themselves ragged in factories, where laborers’ conditions are dreadful and accidents a daily occurrence.  Aliaa – and her sister Aisha, or their co-workers – are the other side of the coin represented by the more emancipated Fatma el-Sha’arawi, so that, through these two loosely connected stories, we gain a more detailed knowledge of the social background of a city whose eyes are turned to the future but whose roots are still firmly set into the past.

I am quite intrigued by this series of short stories, and very much look forward to the others that await me down the line…

My Rating: