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:

Reviews

Review: THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King

Once a staunch Stephen King fan, in later years I was often disappointed by his works, finding them less engaging than I was used to in the past, and for several years I gave up on keeping updated with his new production, but for some reason the premise of The Outsider compelled me to try again, and now I’m glad I listened to my proverbial “book vibes”.  Even though this is far from a perfect story, certainly not comparable to the heights of The Stand, or Salem’s Lot, just to name a couple, which I consider the peaks of Stephen King’s career, The Outsider went a long way toward reviving my faith in this author.

The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of a brutal rape/murder perpetrated on a child: forensic evidence and some witness statements seem to point the investigators in the direction of Terry Maitland, an apparently flawless husband and father of two, beloved teacher and the coach of the city’s junior baseball team. Fueled by the gruesomeness of the act and the need to quickly secure the murderer to justice, lead detective Ralph Anderson puts aside some of the discrepancies that surfaced in the course of the investigation and arrests Maitland publicly, during one of the pivotal baseball games of the season.

While the man keeps protesting his innocence, evidence to support his claim – and which contradicts both the forensic findings and the witness statements – comes to the fore: at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the young victim, Maitland was in another city, attending a conference with some colleagues, not to mention being caught on camera by the TV crews covering the event.  Despite the doubts caused by this paradox, and the sheer impossibility of a man being present in two places at once, the justice machine moves forward without pause, the ripples caused by the following events expanding in a dramatic and unpredictable way.

Even though this story starts as a mystery/thriller, anyone who has read any previous work by Stephen King can imagine that the explanation for such an impossible occurrence resides in the realm of the supernatural, and after a while it becomes clear where the story is headed, but it hardly matters that the reader is able to picture how events will develop, because this is the classic case in which the journey is more important than the destination.  And The Outsider is indeed a compelling journey, one that makes it difficult to put the book down.

One of the narrative strengths of Mr. King’s storytelling is his ability to describe the dynamics and mindset of small communities, and here the citizens of Flint City – the place where the first part of the novel is based – are no exception: once presented with a possible target for the (quite understandable, of course) shock and rage following the heinous crime, they are more than ready to focus them on Maitland, uncaring of the fact that until the day prior to the arrest he was an upstanding and respected citizen, one to whom many of them brought their kids for baseball practice, a person they liked and trusted.  Once the mob mentality has taken over, they forget all too easily the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet, and become deaf and blind to any kind of evidence that might sow doubt about the man’s guilt, transforming the citizenry into a blood-thirsty horde not unlike those that stood at the foot of the guillotine waiting for heads to roll.

While reading these pages, especially those concerned with Maitland’s arraignment and the descriptions of the crowd surrounding the tribunal, I often thought that we don’t need to look for the supernatural or the downright horrific to feel dread, because human nature is more than enough, and sometimes it can manifest in ways that give the lie to the more nightmarish of Lovecraftian creatures. And I confess that I was more frightened by the portrayal of that maddened crow whose fear and need for retribution debased them to a nearly bestial level, than I was about the actual “monster” of the story, because I know that this latter was generated out of the author’s inventiveness, while the mob mentality is an unescapable fact of life.

Another fascinating aspect of this story comes from the dichotomy between hard facts and the uncanny, and the ability of the human mind to bridge the gap between the two: King’s characters often find themselves challenged by the weird and the unbelievable and are forced to test their mettle against something their minds refuse to consider as part of the world. In this case, as in previous stories I read, they might emerge triumphant but  are never left unscathed – the price to be paid for victory and survival is the loss of innocence, of the belief in the predictability of the universe surrounding them.

Still, as I said before, The Outsider is not a perfect story, and there are some details that kept nagging at me and prevented me from fully enjoying it or from giving it the higher rating I envisioned as I was still immersed in the narrative.  For starters, the slow, meticulous buildup of tension seems to come to an end far too quickly and far too easily: the mundane way in which evil is vanquished feels too abrupt and almost comical – a sharp contrast with everything that went on before.  Another, and stronger, issue I had concerned the portrayal of women, since their characterization made me think that the novel might have been written (or set) in the ‘60s rather than in the present.  Jeannie Anderson is one such example, her supportive demeanor toward her husband looking more the product of a “stand by your man” attitude rather than being half of an equal partnership; then there is the only woman detective in the Flint City Police Department, and her role is that of being hugely pregnant more than offering any investigative contribution.

The greatest disappointment, however, came from the character of Holly Gibney, a private investigator: hers is a peculiar personality, one saddled with psychological and behavioral problems that counterbalance a sharp, inquisitive mind, and as such she could have been a very intriguing figure in the economy of the story, but her lack of self-esteem and her inability to fully accept the acknowledgement of her value seemed geared to undermine any contribution she offered to the task force.  Which ended up being kind of annoying…

Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Outsider and I consider it a welcome return to my old “Stephen King haunts” after such a long time…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: 13 MINUTES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

My previous experience with Sarah Pinborough’s work through her novels Mayhem and Murder led me to expect only the best from this author, but I have to say that with 13 Minutes those expectations were more than exceeded: from start to finish this story kept me glued to the book in an adrenaline-rich rollercoaster that gave the label of ‘unputdownable’ a whole new level of meaning.

16-year old Natasha is rescued from the icy river in which she fell, and literally brought back to life by the paramedics, since she was clinically dead for 13 minutes. No one knows how she ended in the freezing waters, least of all Natasha herself who suffers from retrograde amnesia, so the investigators are looking both at attempted suicide – although nothing in Natasha’s life appears to lead in this direction – and at foul play.

This latter option seems to gain some substance when Natasha notices the strange behavior of her two best friends, Jenny and Hayley, who seem to be hiding something: the three of them, dubbed “the Barbies” by their school mates because of their looks and popularity, used to be a close knit group standing at the top of their peers’ social standing, equally admired and envied by everyone, but now there seems to be an insincere overtone in Jenny’s and Hayley’s demeanor, something that alarms and arouses Tasha’s suspicions.  For this reason she places some distance between herself and the other two Barbies, and reconnects with Rebecca, who used to be her best friend when they were younger and was mercilessly discarded when Tasha opted to move in more glamorous circles.

For her own part Becca, despite the devil-may-care attitude developed after being shunned by Tasha, is all too eager to resume the friendship and is able to silence her qualms about ditching her new friend Hannah, a plain but steadfast girl with whom she’s become close, in her turn adopting the same heartless approach exhibited by Tasha in the past: she’s aware of the profound injustice of the whole situation, but at the same time she is consumed by the need to get to the bottom of the mystery and in that way regain her place by Tasha’s side.

From this point on, the hints and clues about what might really have happened in that fateful night are laid out in a breadcrumb trail that offers misdirections and red herrings rather than answers, until the final revelation that comes as a shock and a surprise – at least that’s what it turned out to be for me since I could never have figured out that this was the intention of the author all along.

The first consideration that came to my mind once I closed the book was that I’m glad to have gone through my teenage years without major troubles, never having had to face the kind of peer pressures that Sarah Pinborough describes in this novel: granted, when I was a teenager (which was a very, very long time ago…) there was none of the aggressive viciousness described here, none of the sick thrill of ganging up on a victim for the simple pleasure of seeing to their moral and social destruction – of course there were closed groups and cliques even back then, but those who were not part of them were simply left to their own devices, not targeted as the victims of choice in the guise of Stephen King’s Carrie, for example.

Here though, physical looks and social standing seem to be the parameters by which people are measured, with those at the top (in this case the Barbies) laying down the laws ruling the microcosm represented by the school environment. Such a volatile mix is also compounded by the presence of social media and their swift diffusion of news, comments and judgements which can make or break one’s image with a viral swiftness of propagation.  When considering the ease with which the mere perception of an individual can be changed on the sole basis of a post or a comment that’s shared almost instantly across the web, it’s uncomfortably evident that this is nothing short of a lethal weapon that’s being wielded by people who seem ignorant of its inherent danger – or are they?  While it’s clear that teenage years are the most difficult transition time in the growth of a human being, it’s also evident that what used to be unthinking childish malice ends up becoming a well-honed knife these young people know how to wield with unerring, cruel precision.

On this disturbing background, the main characters all come across as quite unlikable, a mix of shallowness and immaturity that does not spare even Becca, who on the surface prides herself in not caring for the Barbies’ less… grounded interests, but deep down feels the need to belong, to be accepted, and for the sake of this acceptance does not think twice about adopting the other girls’ mean standards of behavior.  What’s interesting here is that the story changes its point of view every time the author switches from one character to another, and after a while it becomes clear that many of them – if not all – are unreliable narrators, some of them because they don’t have all the clues to move forward, and some of them because they are lying outright, as the reader discovers at some point.

And this is indeed the major strength of 13 Minutes: Sarah Pinborough leads her readers through a merry chase in which she keeps offering ambiguous leads that take them toward dead ends, each time building what seems like a sure development only to pull the rug from under their feet at the last minute, and leaving them clueless and disoriented and back to square one. Manipulation is indeed the code word here: of emotions, needs and desires visited by characters on each other, and of expectations and perceptions offered by the author to her readers and then dismantled with a snap of her fingers.

I am unable to recall a story that both baffled and impressed me in such a way, but one thing is certain, that my admiration for Ms. Pinborough’s skills reached new heights and confirmed her in the “must read everything she writes” position she already enjoyed.

Very highly recommended…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SOMEONE LIKE ME, by M.R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

With an author like M.R. Carey, who made himself known with such outstanding works like The Girl with All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge, there is no question that the announcement of a new book of his would catch my attention, and my curiosity: Someone Like Me deals with a totally different genre compared to the two previous books I read, but still it offers a compelling, impossible-to-put-down experience.

Reviewing Someone Like Me proved to be something of a reviewing challenge, however, because I found myself walking the thin edge between description and spoiler and trying to avoid the latter as much as I could, since there are some revelations, in the course of the book, that should be met on their own, so this post might sound a little vague, for which I apologize in advance.

The story revolves around two main characters, quite different from each other: Liz Kendall is a single mother, who is trying to raise her two kids – child Molly and teenager Zac – while facing the aftermath of the divorce from her husband Marc, a violent man prone to domestic abuse.  Returning the children to their mother after a court-sanctioned weekend with them, Marc enters into an argument with Liz and blinded by rage tries to throttle her: in the past Liz never reacted to Marc’s violence, partly because she did not have the strength of character to resist and partly because she thought that offering herself as a target she would turn Marc’s rage away from the kids.  This time, however, something seems to take control of Liz’s willpower: grabbing a broken bottle from the kitchen’s floor, she hits her former husband’s face, shocking him so much that he breaks the assault for a long enough time to allow the neighbors to intervene and call the police.  The authorities’ involvement shines a spotlight on Marc’s past and present behavior, and Liz is able to obtain a restraining order and to start the process of removing the ex-husband’s poisonous presence from their lives, but the incident also seems to have woken up something that Liz did not even know she harbored…

Fran Watts is a sixteen-year old girl burdened by a dramatic past: ten years before she was abducted by a very disturbed man who thought she was a monster and kept her captive for a couple of terrible days before the police found her and arrested the man. Since then Fran has tried to deal with the nightmares from that experience, but there seems to be no amount of medication or psychological counseling that can help her completely: there are times when the reality around the girl seems to shift in small but still frightening details – a bedcover changing color, a differently shaped armchair or a different image in the pictures hanging on the wall.  These alterations of the surrounding reality make Fran somewhat skittish, and therefore a loner since she has been dubbed as ‘weird’ at school and she can only rely on the support of her widowed father and the friendlier of her hallucinations, the fox Jinx, a character from a cartoon series Fran loved as a child, the only one of the unreal elements plaguing her mind that the young girl feels comfortable with.

These two apparently unrelated individuals do indeed share a certain element of commonality, and here comes the tricky part of the review, because talking about it would be a huge disservice to the readers of this gripping book: what I can safely share is that it’s an interesting take on a well-known theme, and one that kept me turning the pages in a compulsive way until the end.  Since I need to steer away from that avenue of discussion, I can only concentrate on the characters – and as I’ve come to expect from M.R. Carey’s work, they are both interesting and realistically drawn.

Liz, despite having endured Marc’s abuse, is not what you could expect from a victim: she does suffer from many insecurities, granted, and she knows she was not strong enough to defy her husband’s progressively worsening attitude, but she found her strength and courage through her children and the need to protect them from the physical and psychological abuse that the man might have visited on them.  We see through her recollections how she used to be a different person, one with a strong spirit and some dreams (like her love for performing music with her band) that were slowly subsumed, as it often happens in these cases, by her acquiescence to Marc’s desires first and to his violence later. Yet she does not see herself as a victim, does not act like one, because all her drives have been channeled into making Molly and Zac two strong, self-reliant kids, so that her success in that respect is what gives her the motivation to remake herself into a different person and what makes her a very relatable – if not completely positive – character.

Fran stands somewhat at Liz’s opposite end of the spectrum: even though the repercussions of the kidnapping have left unhealed scars on her soul, she has learned to draw strength from that past and the knowledge that she survived it, despite the nightmares that still afflict her. She is very independent and more mature than her age would entail, one of the sides of her character I most admired being her constant strife to avoid burdening her father with her troubles: the relationship between the two of them is indeed one of the highlights of this novel, one based on affectionate jokes that hide the deeper concerns each of them harbors for the other.

The main concepts around which the novel revolves are those of identity and of the road not taken, of the way life’s experiences shape people’s characters and inform their psychological makeup – in a way the subject of parallel universes is touched on, but in a different, novel way that gives this story an added level of intensity.  This is the best I can do without spoiling the overall arc of Someone Like Me, and I can only add that it’s a story that builds up at a relentless pace and keeps you glued to the pages with no chance of coming up for air.  And if the final resolution seems to come a little too easily, or the inevitable fallout looks a bit on the light side – at least in comparison with the highly dramatic events piling up over the course of the story – I can still call myself satisfied with the overall result.

In my opinion, this book manages to surpass M.R. Carey’s previous novels in narrative strength and characterization, and considering how strong those earlier stories were, you can get an idea of how compelling this one is.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine

Sometimes it’s good to expand beyond one’s reading preferences, if nothing else to sample the skills of a known author in a different genre: it’s the case of Rachel Caine, whose Great Library books I quite liked and who choose to branch off into thrillers with Stillhouse Lake.  This is a genre I used to read extensively once upon a time, but have not visited for quite a while, and this novel helped in reminding me that you don’t need supernatural elements like ghosts, demons or vampires – just to quote a few – to instill horror in a reader: there are instances where plain, old human evil is more than enough.  If not downright worse.

Gina Royal believed she had the perfect life: a loving husband, two wonderful children, a good house and no financial problems. That is, until a freak car crash revealed the horror behind the façade: what went on in the garage where her husband Mel had built his off-limits-to-everyone workshop had nothing to do with do-it-yourself projects and everything to do with the abduction, torture and murder of a number of young women.  Arrested and tried as an accessory to Mel’s foul deeds, Gina was later found innocent by the law but not by the public opinion, so she was forced to change her name and try to stay ahead of the haters, always on the move, with the protection of her children as her paramount goal.

The titular Stillhouse Lake is a remote rural location where Gina – now Gwen Proctor, the latest in her assumed identities – seems to have found a modicum of stability for herself and her teenaged kids, fourteen-year-old Lanny and eleven-year-old Connor.  The years have marked them all deeply: apart from the aftermath of what they have called The Event that destroyed their entire world, their rootless life and the constant need to look over their shoulder, leaving as light a footprint as possible, have severely hindered the children’s normal growth.  Just imagine what it might mean for a modern teenager to have to limit access to the internet, or to a smartphone’s functions, not to mention the need to keep guarding one’s words so as to avoid dangerous slips of the tongue: Lanny and Connor had to learn to cope with their lack of friends and of a peer group to share experiences with.

Still, Gwen’s family seems to have finally found a sort of balance, a sense of home they have been missing in recent years, when the past comes crashing back on them with a vengeance: faced with the contrasting need of picking up stakes once again, or standing her ground and fighting for the right to have a normal life, Gwen will need to tap all her newfound confidence and courage if she wants to defeat old ghosts and provide as normal a future as possible for Lanny and Connor.

As I was saying, human cruelty easily provides more material for scary plots than your run-of-the-mill critter ever could: in this case we are offered a closer look on a kind of victim that’s frequently ignored when dealing with serial killers – the perpetrator’s close relatives.  Once a serial offender is discovered, there’s a question the general public can’t help asking: how could their immediate family not be aware of what was going on?  How could they not see the signs?  Gina/Gwen is a case in point: her husband Mel brought his victims to the family’s garage, where he proceeded to slowly torture and then kill them, and public opinion finds it hard to believe that she was unaware of it all. Yet, seeing things from her perspective, it’s easy to understand the hows and whys of such… selective blindness: for instance, Mel was outwardly the model husband and father, and only a few enlightening flashbacks show how his mask did slip now and then, and how a woman like Gina – one with a yearning to feel loved and needed – might have rationalized those episodes and closed her eyes to the deeper, darker implications of Mel’s behavior.  Moreover, a personality like Gina’s would be the perfect clay in the hands of such a skilled manipulator like Mel, whose depths of depravity surface only from the letters he sends her from the prison, messages where he reveals his true face with the abandon of someone who feels finally free from the need to hide the dominant side of their nature.

Learning the truth is both traumatizing and liberating: as we meet Gwen for the first time, she’s in a shooting range for the final stages of obtaining a handgun permit and we see clearly how she’s determined to take her life into her own hands, to be the one who makes the choices: as she says at some point, that trauma made her stronger and she will not go back to being Gina, weak and easily controlled Gina, any longer.

Another kind of darkness in this story comes from the people who refuse to let Gwen and her children rebuild their life, hunting and haunting them with the sins of the monster who shared their home: I’m not talking about the victims’ relatives, whose pain and rage is understandable but who very rarely transform their desire for revenge into concrete actions, but rather those ghouls who enjoy delving into bloody crimes, either by a form of morbid fascination or an unexpressed desire to emulate the killer (and from where I stand, the border between the two is frightfully thin…).  In Stillhouse Lake, these people fill message boards with their plans of exacting revenge for Mel’s crimes on his children, often graphically exemplifying such dreadful ideas, and not even realizing that their purported need for justice is indistinguishable from a serial killer modus operandi.  The anonymity the Internet offers to these individuals, the possibility to express the foulest of thoughts with impunity, is something we can observe daily with various degrees of intensity, and it offers a gloomy commentary on the general status of the human soul…

Besides these interesting psychological observations, Stillhouse Lake is an intense, gripping story that makes for a compulsive reading and ends with surprise development that will carry the story into the next book with undiminished momentum.  No one could ask for more in a suspense-filled novel.

 

My Rating: