Reviews

THE CONCRETE BLONDE (Harry Bosch #3), by Michael Connelly

It’s true that third time’s the charm: this third book in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series looks indeed to have reached the solid ground needed for a continuing story, one that reinforces my resolution of adding more crime/thriller novels to my usual reading “menu” and to give further space in the genre to this series in particular.

A past investigation – one that was previously mentioned in passing – has come to bite Bosch in the behind: four years prior he was involved in the manhunt for the serial killer nicknamed “the Dollmaker” because he used to garishly paint the face of his victims with their own makeup. Following an unexpected lead, Bosch burst into the apartment where the killer brought his victims and shot him when the man seemed to reach for a gun under his pillow: the police found later that Norman Church, that was the man’s name, had a lot of incriminating evidence in that apartment, and therefore Bosch had indeed apprehend the true killer, but his off-procedure actions brought on a severe reprimand and his transfer from the prestigious Robbery Homicide Dept. to the far less glamorous Hollywood Division.

Now Church’s widow is suing Bosch and the LAPD protesting her husband’s innocence: the man was not actually reaching for a gun but for his toupee, and she maintains he was not a serial killer but an honest family man. The situation is complicated when a message, similar to those the serial killer sent to the police, brings to the discovery of another corpse – this one buried under the foundations of a building – and it seems that the victim was killed after Church’s death, therefore raising doubts about Bosch’s performance and threatening him with an accusation of wrongful death. The detective is forced to walk a difficult path between the courthouse, where his every action is put under merciless scrutiny, and the investigation for the new victim, which leads him to question his own past convictions and actions as he and the LAPD try to figure out if there is a copycat killer still on the prowl.

Of the three books I’ve read so far in this series, this is the most fast-paced and engrossing: on one side there is the hunt for evidence about the existence of another serial killer, and then the actual hunt for the man, punctuated by dead-end clues and faulty leads and culminating into a very unexpected (at least for me) revelation; on the other there is the courthouse trial, where Bosch’s conduct and past are put under a ruthless microscope as the prosecuting attorney pulls no punches in her campaign to discredit the detective. The character of Honey Chandler (nicknamed “Money” thanks to her rate of successes in the field) is an intriguing one: a very capable, very determined woman who is able to shake Bosch’s bedrock certainties making him question his own conduct and certainties: this is not the first time his actions have fallen under the spotlight, or that his career has been in jeopardy, but Chandler manages to make it quite close and personal, shaking the foundations of his perception of himself.

This sense of fallibility, this uncertainty, manage to suddenly make Bosch more human, far more relatable than previously shown, and contribute to turn him into a far more sympathetic character than he was so far. He seems less afraid of his emotions and has even started what looks like a stable relationship with a woman, and although he still keeps much of his feelings to himself, he appears willing to admit to their existence and to let them surface from time to time. While from Bosch’s point of view these might appear like weaknesses, these chinks in his carefully construed armor help in rounding his character and adding more layers to it: for a series that runs for the considerable number of books it has reached so far, this is more than necessary because it would be difficult to carry on for long with a protagonist that never changes from his “lone wolf” self – he needs to evolve through experience and in this book I saw the first glimmer of those changes that I hope will continue the transformation in the course of the series.

The layering of characterization goes hand in hand with a compelling plot where the search for and validation of evidence is made more intriguing by a lack of the kind of technology we are used to in our present time: in the mid-90s, when the story is set, the term “legwork” applied to police investigation was still quite apt, as the detectives had to actually move all over the place to confirm or discard each piece of collected information. This allows the author, in this particular case, to take his readers through the seedier parts of Los Angeles, where the porno industry (and the crime racket) made money through hard-core movies and the sale of X-rated tapes – yes, tapes. So quaint… 😉

Another element I enjoyed here is that although the story is focused on the search for a serial killer, we are not exposed to the gorier aspects of the situation, since the author prefers to detail those of the manhunt: this allows for one of the few lighter sections of the book, when we are given an inside view of the re-formed Dollmaker Team and the interactions between the .detectives. As is bound to happen in any task force, the person in charge is not the best-and-brightest of the bunch, and I was amused at the tongue-in-cheek banter of the detectives as they poked fun at their leader practically under his nose.

Where I was slightly dubious, at the end of the previous book, about the possibility of carrying forward with this series, I am now much more hopeful that the next volumes will be as narratively intriguing as this one and look forward to discovering what lies down the road.

My Rating:

Reviews

KILLMAN CREEK (Stillhouse Lake #2), by Rachel Caine

It’s been quite some time since I read the first book in this series, Stillhouse Lake, and one of the reasons I waited so long – besides the usual problems of a crowded TBR – was that my previous experience with one of Rachel Caine’s series, namely The Great Library, soured a little with the second installment and I was wary of a repeat occurrence. It turned out that my doubts were more than founded: to be completely honest, Killman Creek was not a bad read but a good portion of the freshness and inventive of its predecessor was missing in this book, which led me to think that there might be some form of… narrative pattern here.  But let’s proceed with order.

The woman calling herself Gwen Proctor used to be Gina Royal, unsuspecting wife of Melvin Royal, a vicious serial killer: when a freak accident revealed the horrors hidden in Melvin’s garage, no one felt inclined to believe in Gina’s innocence, because it seemed impossible that she would not know what was going on; no one seemed to understand that a meek, subtly plagiarized wife would be unable to see behind the curtain of normalcy projected by her husband. Once the trial established her innocence, Gina had to keep on the move to save herself and her two children by the hordes of haters who hounded them, mostly thanks to the pervasiveness of the internet: changing her name and keeping on the move were the only options she had, and so Gwen Proctor was born.

In Stillhouse Lake we encountered Gwen finding a place where she wanted to stay and start to build a new life for herself and her teenage children, but Melvin’s reach and vindictiveness – enhanced by a hacker collective called Absalom – went beyond the prison’s barriers and once more shattered Gwen’s existence, culminating in Melvin’s escape from jail and a further level of threat for Gwen and her small family.  Killman Creek sees Gwen choosing to go on the offensive: with the help of Sam, the brother of one of Melvin’s victims, she decides to hunt down her former husband and physically remove him from the equation once and forever.  Easier said than done, though: as the only escaped inmate still at large, Melvin seems able to remain several steps ahead, enjoying the mental torture he can inflict on Gwen just as much as he enjoyed the physical violence visited on his victims, and the people from Absalom keep adding new damning material to Gwen’s profile, to the point that her innocence is dramatically contested both by her shocked children and by a still-grieving Sam, so that she finds herself even more isolated than before and chooses to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Melvin in the hope of forever ending her torment.

The pace in Killman Creek is indeed relentless and there seems to be no way out of the intricate network of deceit and remote control that Melvin and Absalom have created against Gwen, but in the end this complicated web turns out to be counterproductive because it requires such a high suspension of disbelief that the drama feels phony. There is far too much on the table: Absalom’s powers, Melvin’s almost psychic intuitions, a reclusive billionaire with an interest in the matter, an FBI agent ready to go rogue to help Sam, and Gwen’s younger son acting like a very naive monkey wrench in his mother’s plans.  

Moreover, at some point a series of fake videos sheds a very suspicious light on Gwen’s past and creates a tragic fracture between her, the children and Sam, and that was the element that managed to shatter my “belief bubble”, because it felt so contrived and over the top and it added a further layer of drama which, at that point, seemed totally unnecessary.  Since it was firmly established that Absalom could easily manipulate evidence, and it was equally established that Gina/Gwen had no part in her husband’s murderous activities, I would have expected the fake vids to create some doubts and some shock, yes, but not the violent rejection she had to endure from everyone, as if her every single action so far, her fierce protectiveness toward her kids and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them, amounted to nothing.  It looks as if the author thought the mix was not complex enough, and she felt the need to add a melodramatic angle that I found both superfluous and annoying – and which apparently left no consequences, because in the end all was forgotten and forgiven as if it never happened: understandable as far as the children are concerned, far less so with Sam…

The characters, which in the previous book had been established as complex and nuanced, here lose some of that complexity and take a step back in favor of the action: nothing wrong with this, of course, but they also seem to de-evolve in comparison with their former selves. Gwen, despite the resolution to go on the offensive, looks like the proverbial headless chicken running in circles and makes a series of foolish mistakes; Sam is there only to brood and doubt; and the kids, who used to have my total understanding for being forced to grow too soon, here appear as the embodiment of the worst in YA characters, forced angst included.  Even Melvin, who so far had looked like an evil manipulator gifted with a twisted intelligence, here appears like nothing more than the classic, mustache-twirling villain.

It’s a pity that such a good opportunity to keep exploring the troubles and traumas of a serial killer’s family was turned into a paint-by-the-numbers thriller that from the midpoint onwards saw me skimming more than reading: I wanted to see how the situation would be resolved, but I had lost faith in the characters’ journey. A pity indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ICE (Harry Bosch #2), by Michael Connelly

My attempt at broadening my reading horizons by including more fictional genres in my TBR worked quite successfully with the first book in Michael Connelly’s Bosch series, The Black Echo, so I did not wait too long to move forward with this second novel: while it ultimately turned out to be an enjoyable experience, and it added some new layers to the main character, it did not have the same narrative drive as the first volume – probably a classic case of “second book syndrome”…

Maverick detective Harry Bosch is spending his Christmas alone and on call for any homicide summons from his department, when he hears on the radio that the body of a colleague was found in a dingy motel, a possible suicide. It’s strange enough that he was not called to the scene, and it’s stranger still that the Assistant Chief of police seems bent on keeping him away from the investigation – when the next morning Bosch’s commander saddles him with a few open cases to be solved as quickly as possible, his suspicions escalate, and being like the proverbial dog with a bone he decides to take a closer look into the deceased cop’s death, particularly once he discovers that two of those pending cases foisted on him seem to be connected with it. A further compelling clue comes through a file that Cal Moore, the suicide, was compiling about the traffic of a new drug – the titular Black Ice – and that he had asked his former colleagues to forward the documentation to Bosch, as if he knew that he would not be able to complete it.

As I said, the story is interesting enough, although not as gripping as the previous one, probably because I expected the same kind of sustained pacing that here was missing and picked up only toward the three quarter mark; this slower rhythm, however, is offset by a more concentrated focus on characterization and on some introspection that adds a few new layers to Bosch’s personality and sheds more light into his past. We learn further details about his childhood, for example, like the fact that he was orphaned at twelve and spent long years being shuttled from one foster family to another, which explains his solitary way of life: there is an interesting passage here where we see how he sort of bonds with a coyote prowling the wilderness near his house – recognizing a kind of affinity with the lonely animal, one that is later acknowledged by one of Bosch’s bosses who tells him that while he is enrolled in the police department he does not behave as if he were part of it, and that explains his often reckless disregard for the rules and the chain of command.

While this side of Bosch’s character carries from the previous book, here one can also see a slight softening of his bluntness toward others, particularly when his investigation brings him across the border to Mexico and he discovers the similarities between his early life and that of his deceased colleague, whose death has by this time been ruled as homicide rather than suicide, prompting the detective to follow the trail of clues and bring justice to the victim – the main drive that powers his every action.  This slow mellowing of Bosch’s rough edges is something I’m looking forward to in the course of the continuing series, because the theme of the “lone wolf” existing in an emotional vacuum would carry with difficulty through the next 20-odd books without becoming a cliché.

Speaking of clichés, however, Bosch’s relationship with women seems to follow the guidelines of the noir genre, and where this might have been interesting enough in the previous book, where FBI agent Eleanor Wish was an intriguing foil (and as close as a femme fatale as her personality allowed) for the detective, here we see him entangled with no less than two women at the same time, and both of them look more like props than characters on their own right.  I tried to keep in mind that the book was written 27 years ago and that a lot of proverbial water flowed under equally proverbial bridges, but Bosch’s treatment of both women skirts chauvinism in a very dangerous, very irritating way that grates even more than his endless smoking.

This, together with a too-convoluted plot that at times did not roll forward very smoothly, and with an ending that was saddled with too much explanation, brought my rating down a notch: second books often being difficult beasts to tame, I’m ready to give this series some more time to see if it develops into the successful string of books that many are praising. The next one will probably offer a deciding factor…

My Rating:

Reviews

LITTLE SECRETS, by Jennifer Hillier

 

First things first, I have to thank Mogsy at Bibliosanctum for showcasing this title a short while ago, when I had decided to diversify my reading materials by branching out in other directions: since crime and thriller are among the other genres I enjoy besides fantasy and SF, this book looked just perfect, and it turned out to be a quick, immersive read that I found quite difficult to put down.

Marin Machado lives what you could call a charmed life: owner of a chain of hair salons catering to the affluent and the famous, married to equally successful and loving Derek, mother to four-year old Sebastian –  she can indeed call herself lucky. That is, until one day, shortly before Christmas, a momentary distraction in a crowded market results in the abduction of Sebastian, last seen by security cameras as he leaves the area hand in hand with a Santa-costumed man.  Roughly one and a half years after the kidnapping, Sebastian has not been found and even the FBI put the case on the back burner given the absence of further useful evidence. 

Despite wallowing in understandable despair, and some suicidal thoughts, Marin is not ready to call it quits and she enlists a private investigator to continue the search, to leave no stone unturned: what the P.I. finds, however, is not a clue to Sebastian’s whereabouts, but rather the incontrovertible proof that Derek has been having an affair with a younger woman for the past six months.  The revelation shocks Marin out of her well of misery and turns her on the path of vengeance, driving her to seek “professional help” to remove the threat of the other woman from her already crumbling marriage: this path, however, will prove to have unforeseeable consequences and will lead Marin to agonizing choices and shocking discoveries.

Where this novel starts as the portrayal of every parent’s worst nightmare, the abduction of a child, it soon veers off in a different direction, and I have to admit that I was quite surprised, not so much by the change of narrative focus but rather by the intensity of Marin’s commitment to her new objective: when we see her after the dramatic prologue, she is a ghost of her former self, consumed by guilt for that momentary distraction and by anguished thoughts about what might have happened to her son. She attends regular meetings with a support group of similarly affected parents, and while their therapeutic value might be dubious, they at least give her a chance to talk with people who understand where she is, emotionally and psychologically, filling the place left by the growing distance with her husband. The discovery of the affair seems to give her a new lease on life, so to speak, the pain for the unbearable loss of her child turning into simmering anger that stops at nothing, not even the thought of commissioning a murder – probably because she finally found a target for that anger: she does not know who took Sebastian away from her, but she knows now who is trying to deprive her of what’s left of her family, and in this she is not powerless anymore.

There is not a single sympathetic character in this novel and when we get to know them (through present actions and flashbacks to the past) we see how deeply flawed they are: Marin suffers from a selfish streak, evident in her dealings with longtime friend and former lover Sal, who she ditched quickly when a better prospect came along, but still remains her go-to person in times of need. And like many other betrayed women before her, she prefers to direct her hatred only toward the rival, the housebreaker, conveniently forgetting that in extra-marital affairs the people involved are always two, sharing the blame in equal measure.  For his part, Derek looks like the perfect jerk, one who was already guilty of a fling during Marin’s pregnancy, which makes her resolution to win him back even more baffling: and little does it matter that he seems already tired of the other woman and is acting accordingly – the picture that comes out of his behavior is not a very pleasant one.

The real surprise, though, comes from the author’s choice of giving voice to McKenzie, the mistress, so that her character is substantially fleshed out and we are able to see the motivations compelling her – not that they are uplifting ones, of course. What the young woman is, and has been for a good part of her twenty-four years, is a professional girlfriend: she latches on to older, preferably married men, waiting for the inevitable breakout time to earn what she sees as well-deserved severance pay.  McKenzie’s shallowness, her fixation with social media and the number of likes she gathers by sharing the trivial minutiae of her everyday life, all contribute to make her the focus of readers’ animosity: there seems to be no redeeming quality to her, no perception of right and wrong, something that hints at some early, irreparable damage…

If the description of these characters and the situation they find themselves in sounds right out of a soap opera, think again: this is a thriller through and through and as the story progresses we realize that there is more under the surface than we – or the characters – bargained for. Apart from the angle of loss and despair following a tragedy, like the kidnapping of a child, there is the examination of the psychological implications of such an event, their aftermath on relationships, and the consequences of betrayal and vengeance. And there is a massive surprise at the end, because all these elements – past and present – are connected and this connection comes out as a big surprise toward the end of the story.

I have to admit that the way the various plot lines were brought to their end felt a little too convenient, and saddled with more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’ for my own tastes, but still the road up to that point was a very easy, very intriguing one and I enjoyed every single minute I spent there, which will certainly prompt me to look for more of Jennifer Hillier’s works.

 

My Rating:   

 

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY:  Books I Loved but Never Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  

 

 

Since I started blogging in 2014 there is a huge amount of books I read, enjoyed but never had the chance to review, and I’m very happy of this Top Ten Tuesday prompt that will give me the opportunity of talking a little about them.

 

Of course the pride of place goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, which I often mentioned but never examined in depth – and here is a thought for the future, when I might decide to finally write down my considerations, after a thorough reread of course. So, ladies and gentlemen, here are THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, by JRR Tolkien

 

Another constant feature of my exchanges with fellow bloggers is of course DUNE, by Frank Herbert, that for me is the SF equivalent of Tolkien’s works as far as the impact on my imagination goes.

 

Moving to a different genre, there is THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, by Frederick Forsyth, one of my “blasts from the past, the high adrenaline story (probably fictional, but who knows?) of a skilled marksman and killer-for-hire whose target is nothing else but Charles de Gaulle. The man is a shadow, and as elusive as smoke, and the story of the hunt for this man is one of the best thrillers I ever read.

 

EYE OF THE NEEDLE, by Ken Follett is another novel that took my breath away: it follows a German spy working undercover in England during WWII and collecting information on the Allies’ defenses and troops deployment. He is called The Needle because of his penchant for a stiletto as a weapon of choice.  This novel is a successful blend of thriller and historical fiction, and a compulsive read as well.

 

THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins: I read this one on the recommendation of a friend and I enjoyed the dystopian setting as well as the main character, who shortly became a sort of template for many YA heroines – not always as successful in characterization as Katniss was.

 

HEROES DIE, by Matthew Woodring Stover is a very peculiar novel, because it starts as epic fantasy, following the adventures of Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, a fearless hero, only to reveal at some point that the fantasy setting is an alternate world in which actors like Caine are sent to playact their exploits as a form of entertainment for the viewers of our modern world. It’s a weirdly hybrid premise, but it works very well…

 

WARCHILD, by Karin Lowachee is one of the most poignant stories I ever read: young Jos is enslaved by pirates who capture the ship he was traveling on, killing all the adults. To survive in such an abusive world he will have to go to horrible extremes and suffer the anguish of torn loyalties. A highly emotional story and one that literally tore at my soul.

 

Vampires are among my favorite supernatural creatures, and the main reason I’m so fascinated by them is that SALEM’S LOT, by Stephen King, is the first book I read focusing on them, and one I still consider a fundamental story in the genre. And that scene of the young, freshly turned boy, calling to his friend from beyond the window, is one that I will never forget.

 

CHASM CITY, by Alastair Reynolds, was my introduction to the author’s Revelation Space saga: it introduced me to his rich universe and to the horrifying concept fo the Melding Plague, a virus attacking nanotechnology and from there infecting the organic material in human bodies with implants. A city so ravaged by the Plague is the background for a nightmarish search for vengeance…

 

Are there some… unsung favorites in your bookcases?

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ECHO (Harry Bosch #1), by Michael Connelly

 

For quite some time now I have been thinking about branching out of my preferred “stomping ground” focused on speculative fiction, not so much because of reader fatigue but rather for a healthy change of pace through a more varied choice of reading material.  In the past, besides SFF, I’ve always enjoyed books in the thriller/crime niche, and I’ve recently marked as interesting several titles in these genres that were showcased by my fellow bloggers, but what really compelled me to finally turn those good resolutions into reality was a tv series.  In the past I had noticed, in the customer suggestions from Amazon Prime Video, the series Bosch and at some point during the lockdown months I decided to take a look: in the space of a handful of episodes I was won over by the story and characters, so that once I discovered they were based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, I decided that my new “reading adventure” would start there – and it turned out to be an inspired choice, indeed.

Mr. Connelly’s successful series focuses on the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, a L.A.P.D. detective whose dogged determination in solving cases equals only his total disregard for departmental politics, which makes him quite unpopular with the powers that be and always on the brink of dismissal. In this first case, Bosch is called on the scene of what looks like a death by overdose, and only a few conflicting details and the fact that he knows the victim – a former comrade, and like Bosch a Vietnam vet – will drive the detective to investigate deeper into what is beyond doubt a murder staged like an accidental death. Despite the inherent difficulties and the bureaucratic obstacles in his path, Harry pursues the elusive evidence that leads him to discover a long-planned, convoluted heist that will not only put him against well-organized masterminds and unfriendly co-workers, but will force him to face some of the demons of his past.

One of the most noticeable differences between the tv series and the book is of course the time setting: while the former takes place in the present, the latter – published in 1992 – is set some 30 years in the past and this accounts for the lack of some elements we have come to take for granted, like cell phones, easy internet searches or information merge between law enforcement databases. Still, this does not detract from the story in any way, and one of its major themes – the predicament of overseas wars’ veterans, who come back home and struggle to reclaim their place in society – is as actual now as it was back then. What I found truly unsettling, however, was the protagonist’s chain smoking: it’s not just that now we are more aware of the dangers inherent in smoking than we were back then, just as it’s not only that as a reformed smoker (I’m proud to say that I quit in 1982 and never relapsed) I now look at it as a ghastly habit – there was so much virtual cigarette smoke in the book that I often felt the need to air the room…. 😀

Apart from these minor distractions, The Black Echo proved to be a very compelling read, one that blends intriguing characterization and an interesting plot that managed to surprise me at several turns, encouraging me to look for the other books in the series: this is Michael Connelly’s debut novel, and it shows already a firm grasp of pace and characterization, so that I know I can only expect the rest of his works to keep improving from this remarkable starting point.

Storywise, I found the depiction of the city of Los Angeles quite intriguing: forget the glamor that’s part and parcel of the world’s entertainment capital, forget the endless, palm-lined avenues and the beaches where beautiful people laze in the sun – here you will get to know the dirty, shabby, ugly face of the city, its graffiti-stained walls, its concrete drainage ditches and the abandoned pipes where the homeless and the dregs of society take refuge. This far from rosy view of L.A. is mirrored by the stark depiction of a police department more focused on bureaucracy and internal politics than in crime-solving work: at some point we learn about Bosch’s partner’s alternate activity as a real estate agent, a job that gets more attention and energies than the man devotes to his primary one.  This is the main reason that sets Bosch apart from most of his colleagues: he’s grimly determined to go to the bottom of things, to bring justice to the victims, and he does so with a dogged persistence that stems from an event in his past, one that’s mentioned in passing here and will certainly come to dominate his attitude as the story moves forward.

What is interesting is that while Bosch’s dedication is admirable, he’s not portrayed as the proverbial square-jawed, unblemished hero: on the contrary he’s a deeply flawed individual – a lone wolf rather than a team player – one who seems to go out of his way to keep people at a distance or to be unpleasant, as if he enjoys aggravating them.  This aspect of his character is in synch with the overall noir atmosphere of the story, evident in the often blunt prose that nonetheless manages to be vividly descriptive. There is a darkness in Bosch’s soul that both keeps him apart from the rest of humanity and compels him to look in places others prefer to ignore: the book’s title refers to a feeling he experienced as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, the sensation of the darkness coming alive in those stifling, claustrophobic spaces – he lost something of himself in those tunnels, and only facing his fears he might find it again. There is a passage in the novel where we get a glimpse of Bosch’s mindset through the description of a painting that fascinates him, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

 

 

He mostly sees himself as the man sitting alone on one side of the counter, but there is a part of his mind that hopes he might be the other guy, the one sitting alongside the woman: it’s this drive toward normality, coexisting with his cynical acceptance of reality, that makes him such a fascinating character whose exploration is just as intriguing as that of the mysteries he needs to solve.

As a first foray into new “territory”, The Black Echo proved to be a very encouraging attempt, and it will certainly not be the last in this compelling series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Books on My Summer 2020 TBR

 

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  This week’s topic is:

BOOKS ON MY SUMMER 2020 TBR

This summer I would like to finish some of the series that have resided long on my TBR: these are all series I enjoy, but I tend to get distracted by the “new entries” I find for myself or, more often, thanks to the reviews of my fellow bloggers, so that at times long months elapse between one book in a series and the next one.

So the first part of this TTT dedicated to my summer reading plans is dedicated those series. Starting with:

 

Daniel Abraham: The Spider’s War (The Dagger and the Coin #5)

I have enjoyed this fantasy saga very much, and this is the final book, where the various narrative threads will come to their conclusion. While it’s possible to label this series as classic fantasy, there are a few interesting angles here, most notably the political influence of banks and the pressures they can exert on the power plays.

 

John Gwynne: Ruin (The Faithful and the Fallen #4)
John Gwynne: Wrath (The Faithful and the Fallen #5)

I discovered John Gwynne’s work when I read the first book of his new saga Of Blood and Bone, and I was immediately enthralled by his world where demonic and angelic creatures fight a long-standing, bitter conflict, so that I felt compelled to learn more about the story’s background through the previous series set some time before the current one. The titles of the two remaining books promise an engaging read, indeed…

 

Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold (First Law World #4)
Joe Abercrombie: Red Country (First Law World #5)
Joe Abercrombie: The Heroes (First Law World #6)

Another case of ex post facto back-tracking: the First Law trilogy had been languishing on my TBR for a long time, and it took the publication of his new novel, A Little Hatred, to finally drive me to read the series that brought him to fame. Now that I have finished the first three books I intend to continue with the volumes that are set in this same harsh and brutal, but totally fascinating world.  Best Served Cold will be a re-read, but it’s been so long since I discovered it, that I’m certain it will feel like something new.

 

Alongside the series that I want to finish, there are those that are still ongoing and whose new books I need to read as soon as I can because they portray engrossing stories that caught my attention from page one. And for these I’m changing genre from Fantasy to Science Fiction:

 

Gareth Powell: Light of Impossible Stars (Embers of War #3)

The adventures of sentient ship Trouble Dog and its crew should come to a close with this third novel in a series that rapidly gained a high place in my preferences. The previous book ended with a cliffhanger showing the galaxy on the brink of another devastating war, this time not between opposing factions but against a fleet of ships bent on eradicating all conflicts by extermination. To say that I’m impatient to learn what will happen would be a massive understatement…

 

W. Michael Gear: Unreconciled (Donovan #4)

This amazing series focusing on the colonization of a very hostile alien world is one of the best space operas I remember reading, and I’m very happy that the originally predicted 3 books have now gained a fourth installment and – hopefully – a few more after this one. There is so much to explore about Donovan and its colonists, not to mention the dreadful consequences of the space-translation technology that often results in ships being completely lost or facing nightmarish journeys.

 

And last but not least two new entries:

 

Harry Turtledove: Bombs Away (The Hot War #1)

I have wanted to read one of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history works for a long time, and when I saw the mention of this one I was immediately intrigued: the premise is that of the dreadful consequences of a nuclear war between the superpowers emerging at the end of World War II.  Probably not the most uplifting kind of story I could have picked, but still it’s worth taking a look at.

 

Michael Connelly: The Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1)

A definite change from my usual stomping grounds…

I have been thinking for a while about exploring new territory, and mystery is indeed the genre that most appeals to me besides fantasy and SF. By happy coincidence I have discovered on Amazon Video the TV show Bosch, inspired by the long-standing series written by Michael Connelly, widely acclaimed as one of the best authors of crime fiction: my enthusiasm for the TV show – so far the best procedural I have encountered in my “travels” – compelled me to buy Connelly’s first novel portraying his character, an unconventional, headstrong detective with a dark past. I’m curious to see where this foray away from dragons and aliens will lead me 🙂

 

And what are you planning to read this summer?

Reviews

RECURSION, by Blake Crouch

 

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter was one of the most interesting and engrossing recent discoveries I made, so that once I started seeing Recursion mentioned on the blogosphere, I was eager to learn where the author would narratively lead me this time. Much as that earlier book proved to be an enjoyable read, Recursion stands several notches above it, and even though it requires a very intense focus and some suspension of disbelief, it kept me enthralled for the whole journey and indeed deserved the often-misused term of “unputdownable”.

I have long debated with myself about how to review this book, because it presents the tough challenge of talking about it without venturing into spoiler territory – and believe me, you don’t want to be spoiled about the twists and surprises of this story. So forgive me if I will end up sounding enigmatic or, worse, unclear about the plot, but this novel is best appreciated when you go into it sight unseen…

One of the two main points of view in Recursion is that of Barry Sutton, a troubled New York cop: recently divorced from his wife, he’s burdened with the pain for the death of his teenaged daughter Meghan, who eleven years prior was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The anguish for the girl’s death proved to be the last blow to an already faltering marriage, and now all Barry has to cling to are his work and the alcohol he consumes in worrisome quantities. As the novel opens he’s been called to assist the patrolmen dealing with an attempted suicide: a woman sitting on the ledge of a tall building wants to end her life because she fell prey to False Memory Syndrome. FMS is an affliction that causes the victims to suddenly get a whole range of memories, described as “grey and flat” but still feeling very real, that point to a very different path to one’s life. The dichotomy between the two sets of memories is cause for such distress, in the afflicted individuals, that they often choose to end their life: Barry is unable to stop the woman from jumping, but the connection with FMS compels him to look deeper into the issue, finding much more than he bargained for.

The other player is Helena Smith, a scientist studying the neurological processes of the brain: her goal is to map human memories so that they can be implanted in the brain in case of memory loss. Helena is strongly motivated by her mother’s battle with Alzheimer, and has developed the basis for such a recording process, but funding and time are running out and she despairs of ever being able to fulfill her dream – that is, until billionaire Marcus Slade offers her the chance of turning it into reality. Unfortunately, where money and profit come into play, the “purity” of science suffers, and Helena finds out that her brilliant discovery is being used in a way she would never have predicted.

What I feel comfortable in sharing of the plot, at this point, is that Helena’s breakthrough and the spread of FMS are linked and that the unforeseen application of her technology ends up having profound effects on time and reality, with the world headed toward a massive catastrophe that Helena and Barry – once they team up – are deadly set on trying to avert.

Recursion is a successful blend of science fiction and thriller, and as such – not unlike Crouch’s Dark Matter – offers the readers a breathless journey with mounting stakes and devastating scenarios ranging from mass suicides to nuclear holocaust, with apparently little space dedicated to character development, which is hardly surprising since it’s more plot-oriented than character driven. And yet, on careful consideration, there is a clearly identifiable focus on human traits as personality and memory, which are viewed as interconnected sides of what makes us what we are: if memory is one of the facets that defines us – and we see this in the progressive loss of self suffered by Alzheimer victims – the altering of our memories, the erasure of the experiences that forge human beings as they live their life, is exposed as the ultimate violation, whose extreme consequences are portrayed with the same dramatic impact of an unstoppable avalanche.

Both Helena and Barry are flawed individuals whose actions stem from the need of righting the wrongness in their lives – Helena losing her mother to Alzheimer, Barry feeling the guilt for not protecting her daughter – and for this reason it’s easy to forgive their mistakes, and the way they are doomed to repeat them. The second half of the book sees them desperately trying to correct those mistakes, leading toward some emotionally charged pages that made me forget I was dealing with fictional characters, to care deeply for their success and to feel devastated in observing their failures. Their relationship, and its various iterations in the course of the story (apologies for the obscure reference…) looks like one of the few fixed points in the narrative, and one that even I, despite my wariness for romantic subplots, found unobjectionable.

If I have to find a flaw in this novel – and it’s the reason it’s not getting a full rating – is my puzzlement about one of the plot points, an action (again, apologies for the muddy wording) that’s first indicated as impossible, a choice of path that can only end in the death of the performer and does so with the first and only subject who attempts it. Toward the end of the book, however, it’s indicated as the only way to avoid entropy, and I’m still not clear how it works for the main character… Still, it’s a minor nitpick and it certainly did nothing to spoil my overall enjoyment of Recursion, or to lessen my enthusiasm and curiosity in learning that this novel is going to be turned into a TV series soon.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE NATURALIST (The Naturalist #1), by Andrew Mayne

 

Once again I find myself in the position of offering a widely diverging point of view from the general consensus about a book: while I started The Naturalist with good expectations – given the positive reviews I read about this novel and its companions in the series – and while this reading experience started in the most auspicious way, at some point the whole setup began to unravel and I was unable to stop noticing its glaring flaws.  If I had not already been at the 80% mark when the “bubble” burst, this book would probably have ended in the DNF pile, but at that point I was in the same position of the proverbial car crash observer, unable to tear my eyes away from the disaster happening in front of me, and I had to see it through, no matter what.

The story, in short: Professor Theo Cray is a computational biologist, i.e. a scientist who studies genetic patterns through computer models predicting any given species’ evolution – or regression – according to set parameters. He’s the classical academic high on science and low on people skills, but he’s compelled to take some interest in the world surrounding him when he’s suspected of the murder of a former student. Quickly cleared of the accusation, Cray becomes obsessed with what he sees as a string of similar murders – all ultimately attributed to wild animals – and starts an investigation on his own, a journey that will take him face to face with a cunning killer who has acted unhindered for a long time.

At first there is some suspension of disbelief to be called into action when reading The Naturalist: the police seems blind to the evidence that there is more to it than simple animal attacks; Cray devises a computer program that can predict, with unerring accuracy, where the victims’ bodies are buried, and is able to unearth them, with almost no legal consequences for his evidence tampering; his actions look highly suspicious, and yet Cray can move almost unopposed as he pursues his obsession – that is, if one can overlook the frequent beatings he takes in the course of his investigations, and which he’s able to shrug off thanks to the tight focus on his self-imposed mission.

All of the above does sound quite over the top, but the pacing is such that it’s easy to overlook even the most glaring of discrepancies.  But at some point they do keep adding up and the effort required to move along with the flow becomes more pronounced: if this had been a story based on a science fiction or fantasy medium it would have been easier to take some details for granted – if we can accept spaceships or dragons, the rest comes along as a matter of consequence. But this novel is set in our times, our reality, and it depicts a murder mystery where the main character uses hard science (even when it’s somewhat far-fetched) to arrange the pieces of the puzzle, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to accept the total police incompetence, for example, that is a constant in Cray’s interactions with law enforcement, or the ease with which he can literally dump the unearthed bodies on their doorstep without being held for questioning.

The turning point, however, the instance that caused me to literally crash out of the narrative bubble, happened when the assassin, understanding that Cray is getting close to discover his identity, threatens to kill the people he cares about if the professor will not publicly confess to the murders and then take his own life. That scene should have cranked up the tension, raised the already high stakes, but instead it turned the story into a ludicrous farce, one that instead of keeping me on the edge of the seat only managed to make me laugh – and not in amusement.  Because Cray, instead of going straight to the police, or to warn his endangered friends – or both – chooses to appear as if he’s acceding to the killer’s demands and stages his own death, to be able to go after the murderer himself.

Never mind that he already raised lot of suspicions by his weird digging efforts, he now compounds his previous foolish actions by stealing a corpse from the morgue to stage his suicide, and by taking ghastly measures to make the body look like a fresh one – and here is where I drew the final line against the abuse of reader’s intellect:

I pumped two pints of my blood into his body. I was already running low from my previous accident and not sure if I should have spared even that much.  But to make the thing work, it’s absolutely critical that the medical examiner who shows up on the scene to pronounce the body dead doesn’t see immediate signs of lividity.  To minimize those, I put heparin, a blood thinner, in my donor blood and used a syringe to inject the liquid into his body, then massaged the surrounding area.

Let’s examine the “facts” detailed in this paragraph: two pints of blood are close to a liter, one of the five the human body contains, and Cray had already bled profusely in previous circumstances, so another almost-liter should have laid him flat, not left him able to move around as if nothing had happened. The attempt to mask the signs of livor mortis is quite outlandish (not to say un-scientific), since we are told that the hapless body had been laying in the morgue for two days, and blood pools quickly when the circulation stops because, you know, there is a thing called gravity.  And last but not least, there is no amount of anti-clotting agent you can put in blood and no amount of ‘massaging’ that can restore circulation in a DEAD BODY, and therefore make it appear ‘fresher’ than it is.

As if all of this were not enough, the once-reclusive professor turns into a killer-stalking Rambo who’s able to ignore the pain of injuries and the debilitating effects of more blood loss (besides what he pumped into the corpse, that is…) and proceeds to a final confrontation with his foe that is peppered with repeated instances of (I kid you not) “BANG! BANG!” and “BOOM!” as if it were a graphic novel instead of an allegedly dramatic book.

I’m aware that a less curmudgeonly reader than yours truly would be able to ignore these details, focus on the meat of the story – which did start very promisingly, I acknowledge that – and enjoy it, but as these “writerly sins” kept piling up, my initial rating for the book took a nosedive and never recovered.

 

My Rating: