Reviews

NETTLE AND BONE, by T. Kingfisher

My first T. Kingfisher book, and certainly not my last, since with this one the author turned me into an instant fan – and with good reason, given that I found the combination of fairy tale elements, tongue-in-cheek humor and delightful characters quite irresistible.

Marra is a princess in a small but pivotal realm set between two larger ones that are in a constant state of conflict: as the youngest of three daughters, she sees her eldest sister Damia married off, for political expediency, to the son of the northern realm king’s, only to learn that a few months into the marriage she died as the result of a fall from a horse.  Her middle sister, Kania, is then chosen to marry that same prince Vorling, in the hope that an heir will seal the alliance between the two realms; then, to prevent the possibility that a child from Marra’s eventual marriage might upset the balance, she is sent to live in a convent.

Rejoining her family for the christening of Kania’s daughter, Marra discovers – to her horror – that her sister is living in a nightmarish situation with a violent, abusive husband whose only goal is to produce a male heir, after which Kania’s life might become worthless: fearing for her sister’s life, and enraged by Vorling’s treatment of her, Marra decides to remove him from the equation, and to fulfill that goal she seeks the aid of a dust-wife (a sort of sorceress dealing with the dead) who sets her on three apparently impossible tasks before lending her help.  On the course of her journey of vengeance, Marra ends up collecting a ragtag group of allies, consisting of the aforementioned dust-wife (and her demon-infested chicken), an apparently goofy godmother who is everything but, a former soldier enslaved to a merchant in the goblin market, and a dog made of bones – oh, and a chick endowed with a sort of magical GPS qualities 😉

Nettle and Bone mixes the classical elements of the quest with those of the found family, wrapping the result in an atmosphere that blends seamlessly darkness and humor, fear and whimsy, and that turns what might look like a “been there, done that” reading experience into something unique and compelling. Most of the credit goes of course to the characters, both as individuals and as members of the group: as they get to know each other in the course of the journey, they also learn to trust their respective gifts and put them to use toward the final goal, and in this way allow the reader to see what makes them tick and appreciate the skill with which the author trust them together.

Marra might not have a high opinion of herself, probably because her family never considered her of great use (except as a second-hand replacement for her older sisters), but when we meet her she’s already more than halfway through the tasks set by the dust-wife, and we are immediately presented with her determination and resilience, qualities that endeared her to me from the very start.  I like the author’s choice of introducing her in medias res and then backtracking to the past and the road that brought her to that point: it’s an excellent way to showcase her emotional and personal growth from the contented almost-nun, who found joy in the simple pleasures of embroidery and tapestry making, to the resolute avenger of her sisters. There is a sentence that encapsulates that transformation very well, and shows how even the more unassuming, self-effacing person can find the courage to act when necessity arises:

[…] watched Vorling’s face and realized that she had never hated before now. This must be what this new feeling was. It took up so much space in her chest that she did not know if she could breathe around it.

Marra might be burdened by self-doubt, fears – mainly fostered by her family’s treatment of her as something of an afterthought, or an inconvenience – and by an overwhelming guilt for not having understood sooner the danger represented by Vorling, but she compensates those traits by not giving up even in the face of apparently impossible obstacles, and in the end she becomes a surprisingly (for the times and background in which the story is set) feminist character, particularly when she understands how women are endangered by the role that this world has saddled them with:

[…] the history of the world was written in women’s wombs and women’s blood 

a consideration that I found even more pertinent in these recent times….

The dust-wife and Agnes the godmother earned my instant sympathy, and not only because they are older women (Crone Power!!!  😀 ) but because the combination of dry humor from the first and apparent absent-mindedness from the second offered many occasions for amusement – and here I feel compelled to mention the demon-infested chicken that’s the dust-wife’s constant companion and whose pointed squawking calls often underline a given situation in a delightfully fun way.  A special place must however be reserved for Bonedog, who literally stole my heart and was one of the best non-human additions to the story.

I did not expect to enjoy this story so much: what on the surface might have seemed a fairy-tale retelling ended up being a compelling adventure with a lot of heart at its core, and it’s my hope that other books from T. Kingfisher will prove equally engrossing and satisfying in what will be my own journey of discovery through this author’s works.

My Rating:

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

INSOMNIA, by Sarah Pinborough

My history with Sarah Pinborough’s novels is somewhat uneven, since I quite enjoyed the first two books I read – Murder and Mayhem – and liked 13 Minutes well enough, but was baffled, to say the least, by Behind her Eyes, which made me a little wary of her narrative themes. Now that I know I must always expect the unexpected from her novels, I feel more comfortable with whatever storytelling path she chooses to travel, and that’s why I was able to immerse myself fully into Insomnia.

Emma Averell seems to have everything working for her: a gratifying job as a divorce attorney, a stay-at-home husband who can take care of the children – a teenager girl and a younger boy; a beautiful home, a good life. But as the focus moves closer, we are able to see some cracks in this apparently perfect picture, not least her approaching 40th birthday: not so much as an indication of the passage of time, but because of her family history. When Emma’s mother turned 40 she started becoming unhinged, mostly from lack of sleep, and in the end she tried to kill Emma’s older sister Phoebe, so that she was committed to a mental hospital and the two girls were given to foster care. With that fateful birthday fast approaching, Phoebe comes back into Emma’s life by telling her that their mother hurt herself seriously and is not expected to survive long, bringing a lot of Emma’s buried past to the surface, and what’s worse, she starts to experience a debilitating form of insomnia that is resistant to any pharmacological help and that brings about worrisome fugue states that might be the indication Emma is headed in the same direction as her mother.  And so her “perfect” world starts to crumble, piece by piece, around her… 

The central theme of this story is without doubt Emma’s sudden inability to sleep, a phenomenon that manifests itself out of the blue and is at the root of the character’s slow but inexorable descent into a nightmarish experience in which everything and everyone she had counted on falls apart, leaving her alone and in doubt of her own actions, of reality itself – to the extent that as a reader I wondered more than once if there was some “gaslighting” plan in operation.  The strong pull the novel was able to exert on my imagination comes from the fact that I know how unsettling insomnia can be: of course I never experienced it to Emma’s same, dramatic extent, but I know what it’s like to be unable to fall asleep, even when you badly need the rest, and I’ve had my share of totally sleepless nights, when being awake makes you feel somehow alienated from the rest of the world.  So I was able to sympathize with Emma’s plight, up to a certain point, although after a while some of her actions and decision looked far too much “out there” to enable me to maintain that same level of empathy.

And it’s here that my familiarity with Sarah Pinborough’s style came into play, because my most recent reads taught me that her characters are often complicated and not completely likable, no matter how much one can rationalize their motives and actions: on one side, the paranoia brought on by lack of sleep and by the progressive alienation from family and friends turned Emma into this somewhat crazed person who acted in unpredictable and often senseless ways; on the other, seeing how her immediate family seemed more concerned with the results of her problems, rather than with the causes, helped me feel more sensitive to her plight. The husband’s mid-life crisis, the teenage daughter’s rebelliousness and the boy’s behavioral problems, piled on top of Emma’s sleeplessness and fear of losing her mind, create such an impending sense of doom, such a claustrophobic environment that I literally devoured the novel in search of the solution to the mystery.

Speaking of which, be prepared because it’s a somewhat weird one: with this author you have to accept the intrusion of the uncanny into the mundane; if that acceptance works, so does the story – I’ve learned this lesson with Behind Her Eyes (and it took me a little while, and a revisitation of the story through its televised version, before I accepted that reveal) and that’s helped me here, together with the fact that the novel is conceived in such a way that most everyone in Emma’s life becomes a suspect sooner or later, leading you through a series of proverbial red herrings that turn this already engrossing enigma into quite the page-turner.  Discovering that your assumptions were wrong is indeed a great part of the fun in reading Insomnia.

And I certainly had fun with this book….

My Rating:

Reviews

DYER STREET PUNK WITCHES (Ordshaw #7), by Phil Williams

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks for this opportunity.

And so we’re back to the fictional city of Ordshaw, where magic lurks just beyond the corner of your eye, after the slight “detour” which brought us around the world with Phil William’s Ikiri Duology, even though that story also showed some connection to this main site of weird phenomena.

Kit Fadoulous used to be the leader of the punk rock band of the Dire Grrls together with her friends Madison and Clover, and at some point in their career they found online Betsy Burdock’s Book of Spells, a sort of do-it-yourself grimoire which changed their lives, teaching them to enhance their music with spells.  As the story starts, it’s a few decades after those “golden years” and Kit has taken on the job of editor for an independent paper focused on pointing out local authorities’ failings and on promoting worthy enterprises. She now lives in one of Ordshaw’s worst areas, one that is both crime ridden and abandoned to its own devices, and lost contact with her former friends: still surrounded by an aura of mystery and a whiff of witchcraft, Kit barely manages to keep he publication afloat, and her situation becomes even more complicated when a friend from the past warns her about the return of an old foe, bent on resurrecting the ancient gang wars – and he seems to have enrolled someone able to summon magic…

As is often the case with the Ordshaw series, saying too much about the plot would spoil the enjoyment of the story, and there is much to be discovered here, particularly because each chapter begins with a look at the past of Kit and her band – and how their art mixed with witchcraft and the gangs’ territorial wars, often with unpredictable and dramatic results – and then proceeds to add more details to the overall picture of the present, moving with a swift pace toward some final revelations that end up being quite surprising.  What’s different here, in respect of the other books in the series, is that the weirdness does not come from otherworldly phenomena or creatures, but from the wielding of magic through spells which are reinforced by the mixing of very, very strange elements: the excerpts from Betsy Burdock’s book are both intriguing and fun, enhanced by the fictional author’s unique brand of humor, and I enjoyed them very much.

Kit is an intriguing character (one, I have to admit, I was curious about since this book’s cover reveal some time ago): still very much tied to her punk rock singer persona in the manner of dress and the way she relates to others, there is a definite layer of wisdom through adversity added to her personality that instantly endeared her to me, a reaction that deepened as I understood that she carries a heavy burden from the past and from the fracturing of what used to be a very strong bond with her bandmates.  Every reference to that past is tinged with poignant regret and a sense of guilt that Kit probably tries to assuage through her tireless work in favor of the community: using magic imbued the three girls with a heady sense of power, but Kit has come to realize that the payoff was far too steep – there is one instance in which she warns about the consequences of that carelessly wielded magic, summarizing its noxious effects:

We don’t know how to heal things. Only how to break them.

Other characters, like Ellie – Kit’s virtual second in command at the paper – or newcomer Aaron, a young man who seems scared of his own shadow until he reveals unexpected talents, move around Kit like planets around the sun, helping to better define her psychological makeup and to underline her strengths and frailties. 

And of course there is always the city of Ordshaw acting as both background and character: as I often commented, talking about this series, there is a storytelling quality to these books that makes me imagine this city as colored in sepia tones, or immersed in a sort of perennial dusk: here that sensation is enhanced by the descriptions of the area where Kit operates, the community of St. Alphege, a once lively but now run-down sector where organized crime put some very deep roots and where the distraction of local authorities did nothing to improve the citizens’ living conditions.

[…] bare brick walls and windows barred like a prison, roads pocked with holes and pavements dotted with weeds. Even the sky’s blanket grey conspired to give the estate a miserable appearance.

Dyer Street Punk Witches (which is available from today) is loosely related to the rest of the series, so it can be read as a stand-alone, but if it can make you curious about the other Ordshaw stories, know that this unusual Urban Fantasy saga will prove both intriguing and entertaining in its peculiar weirdness…

My Rating:

Reviews

THIS CHARMING MAN (The Stranger Times #2), by C.K. McDonnell

The second installment in this Urban Fantasy series cemented the impression I derived from The Stranger Times: that CK McDonnell’s take on the genre is a winning one, moving away from its usual mix of magic, darkness and characters’ inner demons to create a blend where humor and the uncanny fuse into a story that remains engaging and entertaining from start to finish, even when actual monsters come into play.

In the first volume the author introduced the motley group of people working at the Stranger Times, the paper reporting on weird occurrences not so much as a way of lending them credit but rather of exploring the supernatural as a duty to the public.  We therefore were able to know the chief editor, Vincent Banecroft – on the surface an unpleasant individual given to heavy drinking and scarce personal hygiene; his long-suffering secretary Grace and her daily battles against her boss’ endless streams of profanity; the intern Stella, a young woman whose origins (and powers) are shrouded in mystery; reporters Reggie and Ox, peculiar but lovable people. The new addition to the staff, Hannah, came to work for the paper as a last resort after facing the troubles of a messy divorce.

At the start of This Charming Man, some time has elapsed but the paper’s troubles keep piling on: the latest problem coming from the realization that the workers renovating the building’s facilities have also installed a secret trapdoor, most certainly as a first step in kidnapping Stella, whose supernatural abilities make her a coveted target. But that’s not everything, because the city of Manchester, where these stories are set, seems to be plagued by a series of vampiric attacks, in dramatic contrast with the tenet – accepted both by mundane and supernatural circles – that vampires don’t exist…. On top of that (did you think the above could be more than enough? Well, think again!) Ox has some serious financial problems, of the kind that involves gambling debts and unsavory characters – those of bodily harm persuasion; Hanna is dealing with her as-yet-to-be-determined feelings for a police inspector with…er… an undisclosed passenger in his head; and we get to know some new players, among them a man who can answer only in the most unadulterated truth, and lives on a boat together with a talking dog. 

One of the best elements in This Charming Man is that the main characters grow in depth and facets, so that  we get to know them better – or to change our first impression of them: this is mainly the case for Vincent Banecroft, whose abrasive outward attitude hides an inner pain for the loss of his wife, whose spirit he tries to contact through the help – as flimsy and difficult to handle as it is – of the ghost of Simon, the young man who wanted to work for Banecroft but lost his life in the previous book.  Seeing the Stranger Times’ editor literally grasp at moonbeams to reconnect with his dead wife changed my perspective on his personality and while I cannot say that I now view him with sympathy – because he’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and despotic as ever – I can see where he comes from, and many of his attitudes make more sense.

Hannah also improved a great deal: she is far less of a fish out of water than she was in the first book – or at least she is where her work at the paper is concerned, because when it comes to dealing with Inspector Sturgess and her as-yet unformed feelings about him it’s another matter. But when she has to deal with Banecroft, his temper and his idiosyncrasies, Hannah can turn into something of a dragon, and she has no qualms in battling with him word for word: their heated exchanges are among the best sections of the story, and I like to see – or rather, to perceive – how her boss must secretly enjoy this new facet from his newest acquisition.   There are also moments in which we see Hannah bonding with her colleagues, particularly Reggie with whom she teams up during an investigation: in this way even Reggie’s character is given a chance to gain more depth and to come more into the light.

As for the story itself, I could not help but be intrigued by the appearance of vampires, and the way they are portrayed here – as a form of mysterious infection rather than the mere product of an attack – adds to the attraction of the story, where both the Founders and the Folk (the movers and shakers working behind the scenes) have an interest in the proceedings, an interest that is not exactly benign…  Not every question gets an answer in this second book, and the still-hanging narrative threads look very promising so that I can look forward with great interest to the next volume in the series, knowing that it will prove as intriguing and amusing as the previous ones: what I saw so far of this continuing story offers a delightful mix of humor and weirdness and enjoyable character that makes The Stranger Times a more than welcome addition to my TBR.

My Rating:

Reviews

Waiting on Wednesday: Dyer Street Punk Witches, by Phil Williams

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme first showcased at Breaking the Spine and now twinned with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings: this weekly meme offers the chance to highlight the upcoming releases that we’re looking out for.  

Until now I never wrote a post for WoW, but recently author Phil Williams was kind enough to contact me with the ARC for his new book, which shares the background of his previous works, i.e. the magic-infested British city of Ordshaw, and the approaching publication date for this new novel prompted me to take advantage of the meme.  

At the start of this year I posted a cover reveal for Dyer Street Punk Witches (follow the LINK if you’re curious about this new story), but today I’m doing something different: Mr. Williams is issuing a set of trading cards for the characters in the book, and here is one of them:

Oscar Tallice is not exactly what you might define as a “good guy”, particularly when you focus on some of the descriptions the author shares about this character, like the “mischievous, untrustworthy glint in his eye and his square-edged, teeth-clenched smile” or the fact that “there’s always an undercurrent of violence” with him. Let me tell you, however, that the some of the examples of humanity you will meet in Dyer Street Punk Witches will make you feel uneasy more often than not…

Are you intrigued? Well, the wait is not going to be too long: on September 12th the book will become available – and so will be my review and that of the other bloggers fortunate enough to have read this novel in advance 😉   Meanwhile, you can take advantage of the QR code embedded in the image to be taken directly to the book’s page on Phil Williams’ site and learn a bit more about Kit, the ass-kicking protagonist of this new Ordshaw adventure.

Happy reading!

LAST MINUTE UPDATE:

Mr. Williams is doing a pre-order promo for the whole deck of trading cards, so I’m sharing the LINK: I encourage you to take a look at all the amazing characters peopling this story

Reviews

GLITTERATI, by Oliver K. Langmead

This is probably the weirdest book I have read so far, and even though I was somewhat prepared for this story – having been inspired to read it by the review of fellow blogger Tammy – still it turned out to be a very odd experience. Intriguing, but definitely odd…

The story is set in a somewhat dystopian version of our world, one that’s divided between normal, everyday people – although they are defined as ‘unfashionable’ or, worse, ’the uglies’ – and the glitterati, the fashionable elite whose only occupation and goal is that of looking fabulous (a word that recurs quite often in the book) by matching outfits and colors and appearance to the various days of the week, or situations or social gatherings. We observe this world through the eyes of Simone as he spends his days in what looks like a constant search for perfection, excellence, fabulousness. 

He and his wife Georgie are among the elite of this rarefied crowd, and Simone seems to have a knack for being a trend setter, but one day the “bubble” bursts as an inconvenient nosebleed mars his outfit of the evening: what might have been a simple – but fashionably devastating – accident turns into a new fashion statement when fellow glitterati Justine adopts it as her own, thus robbing Simone of the glamour of discovery. The Battle of Fashions between the two of them starts a no-holds-barred feud which includes the wearing of armor (fashionable, of course) and some dirty tricks. Simone and Georgie’s life is further complicated by the discovery of a child in their garden, a creature they literally don’t know how to handle, and a social downfall that will, however, change their perspective on life – and fashion.

Glitterati is a somewhat fun book blending a ferocious social commentary, which often veers into the grotesque, with a weird dystopian society that made me think of what The Hunger Games would have been if that story had been about fashion rather than survival – and a few of the outfit descriptions you can find in the book made me think of some Hunger Games characters as they were portrayed in the movies (think about Effie Trinket and you will see what I mean).  But the story is not all fun and foolishness, because there are some very dark elements in there: for example we learn that the Glitterati can have unpleasant memories removed, so that they can’t mar the perfection of one’s style and appearance by unexpectedly surfacing and upsetting their psychological balance. Even an event as mundane as a glass cut on the hand can be removed from memory, although the scene about the wound treatment is something that fell quickly (and quite inexplicably) into horror territory, and which made me wonder about the hows and whys of this bizarre world.

And here is where I was slightly disappointed by Glitterati, because as fun and entertaining the book is, there is no explanation about how this world came to be or what caused this almost unbelievable social divide in which the elite of the Glitterati does not need to work or to have money for their needs and seems to exist only to be admired. Granted, the novel is indeed a compulsive and absorbing read, but once you reach the end the questions start to pop up in your mind, making you challenge the basis of the whole scenario – and you find out that the story is sorely lacking in that sense, particularly when you get a fleeting glimpse of the true role of the elite during an ominous conversation between Simone and his lawyer, but nothing follows that tantalizing glimpse.

Still, it’s impossible not be become invested in Simone’s (and Georgie’s) journey as it turns from a never-ending run of dressing, partying and consumption of drugs into something more… human (for want of a better word): their relationship, as stylized and formal as it appears from their dialogue and interactions, speaks of a deeply rooted and genuine affection, turning them into what feels like a team, while the rest of the characters appear as if they all live in a self-centered fog of narcissistic admiration.   The changes they undergo – Simone in particular – develop in an organic, believable way and even though the ending seems a bit hurried, there is a glimmer of hope for a future in which they might be a little more real and grounded as people and not as the posing mannequins they have been at the beginning.

If you are looking for a story that’s way out of your comfort zone, but which will both entertain and horrify you, Glitterati might very well be the right choice: it might lack a bit of depth, but it will keep you enthralled from start to finish. And that’s not a bad thing at all…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK OF COLD CASES, by Simone St.James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: