Reviews

THE LATE SHOW (Renée Ballard #01), by Michael Connelly

In my continuing exploration of Michael Connelly’s vast body of work I was intrigued by this book, whose main character is Detective Renée Ballard, and as I started to read I wondered whether she might end up being Harry Bosch’s successor: The Late Show was published in 2017, a good number of years after my latest Bosch book – 2001 – where the more famous detective is portrayed as middle aged, so it only stands to reason that, narratively speaking, as the years go by he might not be as active and energetic as in the stories I’m reading now, and a need for passing over his legacy might become unavoidable for his creator.  What’s interesting – and refreshing – here is that Ballard is not a female version of Bosch: of course she’s a dedicated investigator nurturing a strong sense of justice, but the similarities end here, and I’ve both enjoyed and welcomed Connelly’s decision to craft her character.

Renée Ballard is a LAPD detective who has been sent to the night shift (sarcastically nicknamed “the late show”) after her accusations of sexual harassment by a superior officers have come to nothing, also thanks to the guilty silence of her former partner. So Renée is now relegated to the graveyard shift, her cases destined to be assigned to the daytime detectives for the real work: the assignment is a career-ender and the place where the unwanted troublemakers are buried and forgotten. Still, Renée wants to do her job as best as she can, and so one night she’s faced with three cases, a credit card fraud, the savage beating of a transgender hooker and a nightclub shooting that left five victims on the ground: unable to let go what look like intriguing clues, she keeps on investigating even when the brass – in the person of Lt. Olivas, the man who harassed her – make it clear she must stay away from the cases.  Renée’s determination to do what’s right for the victims brings her dangerously close to being reprimanded – or worse – but she still keeps on going, finding herself in mortal danger and uncovering a thread of corruption inside the police department.

I liked Renée Ballard very much, both for her strengths and her frailties: a tragedy in her early life left her scarred but not broken and she’s unwilling to give in to the frustrations of a dead-end job by doing her very best day after day. What I found intriguing is the way she practically lives a homeless life, spending her free time on the beach together with her dog Lola and periodically visiting her grandmother for “laundry duty”: this choice ends up giving her a great deal of freedom, which seems to be her greater need in life. Moreover, despite the way she’s been treated she has not given in to bitter resentment and actively cares for the victims, granting them the dignity that’s often denied them when the job turns many law enforcers into jaded and cynical individuals: this is particularly true in Renée’s dealings with the transgender victim, who she’s not ready to cruelly dismiss as some of her colleagues do. And last but not least, her interactions with Lt. Olivas, even in the face of the sarcasm he wields, from the position of strength of the male privilege he wears as armor, are professionally dignified and made me respect her even more – particularly during a fantastic exchange near the end of the book.

Story-wise, The Late Show is pure Connelly magic: the three cases are interwoven through a good use of suspense, adrenaline-infused action scenes and a few quite unexpected twists and turns: one in particular caught me totally by surprise, since all clues seemed to point in a very definite direction, so that when the revelation came along I had to recover my jaw from the floor because nothing would have made me suspect that particular character.  But that’s part and parcel of this author’s trademark writing…

The usual Los Angeles background is present here as in the other novels – the hillside homes and the seediest areas, the ‘in’ nigthclubs and the streets where hookers ply their trade – but in here there is a very welcome addition coming from the beaches where Ballard goes in her off hours surfing on a paddle board (in reminiscence of the childhood she spent in Hawaii) and spending time with her dog – a delightful side character herself.

Ballard is a wonderful and successful addition to Michael Connelly’s creations and the proof that he does not fall prey to formulaic writing and character design: even though I’ve barely made a dent in his vast bibliography, it’s clear that I can expect the unexpected with each new book I approach, and I look forward to meeting again his new creature, particularly because I’ve learned that she will be back in the Bosch series by pairing with the author’s famous detective in a book some twelve titles down the road from where I stand now. It will be more than interesting to see these two work together…

My Rating:

Reviews

FINDERS KEEPERS (Bill Hodges Trilogy #2), by Stephen King

Not unlike what happened with the previous book in this series, Mr. Mercedes, I found myself thinking that Stephen King’s skills work better when applied to horror and supernatural themes, because this foray into crime/thriller territory seems to hinder a little his artistic flair, even though Finders Keepers still remains a good, quite enjoyable story. The ending of the novel made me wonder if the author did not entertain some thoughts along those same lines, because in the final portion of the story he introduces some supernatural elements that so far were absent from the overall narrative. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

John Rothstein is a once-famous author who chose to stop publishing his works a long time ago, although he has not stopped writing, pouring his thoughts and ideas into a series of notebooks he keeps sealed in a safe. Morris Bellamy is a young man obsessed with Rothstein’s works, and in particular with the protagonist of the novels – Jimmy Gold – whose character arc down the road displeased him immensely. Being the kind of fan who cannot take ‘no’ for an answer (in a sort of mirror image of Annie Wilkes from Misery), Bellamy breaks into Rothstein’s house, kills him and steals the author’s notebooks from the safe, together with a sizable amount of cash: the notebooks contain many unpublished short stories, and the final Jimmy Gold novel – a real treasure trove for the obsessed young man, who proceeds to store his precious findings into a trunk he hides near his house, intending to read them at his leisure. Unfortunately, a previous crime he committed catches up with him, so he’s arrested and jailed for a few decades – his thoughts never far from the cherished catch he intends to retrieve once he will regain his freedom.

Some 30 years later, teenage Peter Saubers comes to live in what used to be Morris’ house: the boy’s family suffers from financial hardships because his father was grievously wounded in the job fair attack described in Mr. Mercedes: when he finds a half-buried trunk containing a great number of notebooks and several thousand dollars, Peter decides to send the money to his parents in small installments, as if from an unknown benefactor, and reading the notebooks he discovers both Rothstein’s works and his own love of books and literature, which will shape his future life.  Peter’s troubles start when Bellamy is finally released from prison, and goes to unearth his buried treasure, only to find the trunk empty…

Bill Hodges, Holly and Jerome come into this picture much later, when young Peter finds himself facing Bellamy’s threats and dealing with something much greater and far more dangerous than he can handle: in this second volume of the trilogy, the three of them are more like side characters, while the focus remains mostly of Morris and Peter – and, of course, on books and stories and the love of reading. This was the theme that most appealed to me, unsurprisingly, and in the end I found myself caring less for Hodges & Co.’s investigations and reconstruction of the events than I did for what I perceived as the core story, i.e. the Journey of the Lost Notebooks 🙂

What’s fascinating here is the different approach to literature shown by Morris and Peter, who stand at the opposite ends of the spectrum: the former is a vicious, no good individual whose encounter with Rothstein’s works does not engender a moral uplifting but rather consolidates his outlook on life, to the point that he feels a sort of ownership toward the character, and when Jimmy Gold’s development does not meet his criteria, his rage toward Rothstein knows no bounds. Even though taken to narrative extremes by King, this is the kind of attitude shown by less-balanced readers when writers don’t move their stories toward the fans’ hoped-for direction, or when books don’t come out at an acceptable speed.  On the other hand, Peter is the incarnation of us book lovers, a person who enjoys getting lost in stories, being enchanted by the author’s voice and style, someone who finds in books the means of opening one’s mind, or to seek solace from life’s troubles.

While there are no trademark horror elements in Finders Keepers, it’s still possible to feel dread because the story moves at a slow but unrelenting pace toward the inevitable showdown between Peter and Morris, the first exhibiting all the characteristics of youthful wounded innocence so dear to King’s narrative, and the second portraying the kind of evil that needs no supernatural roots to prove chillingly scary.  They are indeed the zenith and nadir of the story, leaving little room for Hodges and partners who, in this installment, don’t seem to have changed much from their appearance in Mr. Mercedes: of course, Hodges is now living a healthier kind of life, thanks to the scare brought on by his heart attack; and Holly is moving toward a greater independence and self-assurance, as she deals with her psychological problems; and Jerome is less boyish and more mature – but they don’t get enough page space to truly show great changes. In this respect, they sort of suffer from a “middle book syndrome” that will hopefully be overcome in the final volume of the trilogy.

And about this, a few hints in the course of the book, and the last chapter, seem to point toward a return to a horror/supernatural element for the third volume, given the reappearance of Brady Hartsfield – the villain from Mr. Mercedes – and the ominous hints about the danger he might still represent. I for one will more than welcome Stephen King’s return to his old “hunting grounds”, hoping for a delightfully harrowing conclusion to this trilogy.

My Rating:

Reviews

A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT (Harry Bosch #7), by Michael Connelly

This seventh book in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series was a strange experience for me: first because it is a sort of crossover with some of his other works, given that there is an extended cameo appearance for Jack McEvoy, who I previously met in The Poet, and a co-starring role for Terry McCaleb, retired FBI profiler who first appeared in Blood Work, a book I did not read but whose story I’m familiar with thanks to the 2002 movie, starring Clint Eastwood, which I happened to see some time ago. The other difference with previous Harry Bosch books I’ve read comes from the fact that here the LAPD detective has a less active role than usual and the bulk of the investigative process is left in the hands of McCaleb. Still, this odd combination works, creating a suspenseful framework that kept my attention riveted from start to finish, even though – as it happened with the previous books – I was aware of the general narrative threads thanks to the TV series that propelled me toward these novels since last year.

Harry Bosch is heavily involved in the trial of David Storey, a movie director accused of the murder of a young actress he strangled during sex, then taking her body home and staging an apparent suicide.  Meanwhile, Detective Winston of the LAPD is dealing with the murder of a lowlife named Edward Gunn, whose strangely ritualistic details have her so baffled that she seeks the advice of Terry McCaleb, once a noted FBI profiler but now retired after a massive heart attack and subsequent transplant.  When McCaleb discovers that Bosch had been watching Gunn for some time looking for the evidence of a crime, and that some of the grisly details of the murder link back to the works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, after whom the detective is named, he becomes convinced that Harry murdered Gunn in an act of deranged vengeance – and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it, as the two narrative threads of the story become dramatically entangled.

As I stated above, this novel has a peculiar flavor if compared with the previous ones, mostly because Harry Bosch here looks more like a guest star and Terry McCaleb is the front and center character, and for once it’s odd to see Harry not taking part in an investigation, although I have to say that the courtroom scenes where he finally enjoys the spotlight are among the best segments of the book: Connelly takes us through the sometimes painstaking details of the judicial process with such a flair that these sections are as engaging and thrilling as action scenes and they actually infuse some vitality in what had been something of a slow start with McCaleb’s part of the story.  Moreover, this change in perspective allows us to see another side of Harry Bosch – or maybe the evolution of his personality that started with the previous book: even though he’s still quite determined (or dogged, some would say), he looks more grounded, less prone to stormy outbursts, and instead focuses more closely on getting things done the right way to insure that the guilty face the justice they deserve. He’s still somewhat cynical about the system and the loopholes it offers to offenders, but he looks better inclined than before to stay within the rules to get the desired results.

On the other hand, I was dubious about McCaleb as a character, given that for someone who used to be a successful profiler he seems to fall far too easily for what is clearly a frame-up: even discarding the fact that we readers know intuitively that Bosch could not have murdered Gunn, because that’s not his style, the clues left in Gunn’s murder scene, those references pointing toward Bosch the painter and the punishments for sinners depicted in his works, everything looks contrived and – as detective Winston points out – plainly foolish for Harry to leave such a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to him. But McCaleb is so determined to follow his instinct that he chooses to ignore the obvious: this led me to wonder whether he truly was such a great profiler or if he rather wanted so badly to be once again in the “game” that he preferred to shoehorn the evidence into his choice framework rather than collecting it and then, and only then, assembling the whole picture.  Or maybe he wants so badly to reconnect with the past he clearly misses so much, that he’s ready to ignore reason and listen only to that instinct that used to serve him so well once – a that now does not seem to work that well. This single focus that at times looks close to obsession did little to endear his character to me, and even later, when he understands he might have been barking up the proverbial wrong tree, I struggled to change my opinion and to see him in a better light.

Still, the conflict between these two different individuals drives the story just as much as the two narrative threads at its root, evolving into a novel that is compellingly fast-paced, its two halves merging into one another with effortless ease and showing once again the dark side of a city where glamor and glitter hide corruption and darkness more often than not.  Showing also how Michael Connelly’s writing and plotting skills kept improving as he moved forward with this series, which to date remains one of my go-to choices when I am in the mood for some engaging thriller.

My Rating:

Reviews

INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE (Unsub #2), by Meg Gardiner

When, not long ago, I discovered Meg Gardiner as a crime/thriller writer, I vowed to read more of her works soon, and for once I was able to fulfill this promise to myself. Into the Black Nowhere is the second novel in the Unsub series, and once again it deals with the hunt for a serial killer – in this case, as I’ve since learned, one tailored on the heinous deeds of Ted Bundy.

Caitlin Hendrix, the protagonist of the search for the so-called Prophet, the serial murderer whose actions were portrayed in Unsub, is now working as the latest addition to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit: at the start of the book the team is sent to Texas where a series of disturbing killings is plaguing the small town of Solace.  On Saturday nights women are disappearing literally into thin air, with practically no sign of a struggle, and when their bodies are found they are all dressed in nightgowns, fully made up and surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims – many, many more than the accounted-for recent disappearances.

When similar victims are targeted outside of town, it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing not only with a very clever perpetrator, but also one who is fully prepared to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers, certain that he will prove smarter than them, and untouchable.  Thanks to some unexpected information provided by a woman who may have crossed paths with the killer in the past, and has been living in abject fear since then, the team sets their sights on an individual who seems to enjoy taunting them, and it will take all of Caitlin’s physical and mental stamina to gain the upper hand and stop the escalating killing spree.

Law enforcement procedures are front and center here, even more than they were in Unsub, which makes for an enthralling read – and one where the “gore factor” is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on the methods employed to build the different clues into as clear a picture as possible: what I liked most is the fact that we, as readers, are privy to the same level of information as the police forces, so that it feels as we are right in the center of the action and not observing it from an all-knowing, vantage position, which makes for a more intriguing story and one that moves with a breathless, relentless pace.  Even though at some point the identity of the killer ceases to be a mystery, the story never loses its momentum, turning from a fierce hunt for a nameless, faceless man, into a battle of wills and wits between opposing forces – a battle whose outcome is not certain until the very end, which offers many exciting action sequences and a constant adrenaline flow.

Character-wise, it was interesting meeting Caitlin again and seeing how her past experiences – those of her troubled youth and the more recent ones in the hunt for the Prophet – have left their mark on her and are coloring her present attitude: where in the first book she was out to prove that she could be an effective police officer despite her family’s heavy past, here she is the “rookie”, and needs to demonstrate that her previous success was not a fluke and that she could rightly belong in the FBI’s elite team.  Still, she is a flawed individual, one who is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, and this factor is the one that lends her the human quality that many so-called kickass heroines lack: deep-seated insecurities play a pivotal role in her psychological makeup, but at the same time they prove (in this particular context) to be an asset of sorts when she decides to confront the killer on his hunting ground – an asset but also a danger, because her adversary is a cunning individual, ready to perceive and exploit any sign of weakness in his potential victims.  

These confrontations offer several moments of hair-raising uncertainty because there is no assurance that the outcome will be the hoped-for one.  Which brings me to the window opened by the author on the mind of the serial killer, whose trains of thought and motivations are showcased with no recourse to morbid detail or – worse – mustache-twirling inner musings: you see a man determined to pursue his murderous instincts but at the same time able to project a suave, non-threatening exterior that becomes even more terrifying when compared to the evil lurking beneath, and made me wonder more than once how many of these monsters are hiding under the façade of normalcy we see every day. It’s a chilling thought indeed…

Back to the characters, there is one who deserves a special mention: special agent Rainey is one of the senior officers in Caitlin’s team, and I very much enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude first, and then the fact that she acts as a form of distant mentor for Caitlin, guiding her with a delightful dry humor through the obstacles and pitfalls of her new profession. Rainey is both an experienced agent and a mother, combining her professional and personal lives into a seamless, apparently effortless whole: it’s the kind of depiction that can only reinforce a concept that fiction still has some troubles dealing with.

This second, riveting book from an author I only recently discovered can only persuade me to explore more of Meg Gardiner’s works (and I saw there is a good number of them): as samples of her writing skills both Unsub and Into the Black Nowhere are very encouraging for my future explorations of her novels, of which the third volume in this series will certainly be the next one – and soon.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE POET (Jack McEvoy #1), by Michael Connelly

Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…

The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.

Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it.  Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one. 

FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her.  Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.

If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel.  And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…

My Rating:

Reviews

ANGEL’S FLIGHT (Harry Bosch #6), by Michael Connelly

With this sixth novel in the Harry Bosch series I have come to envision Michael Connelly as my number one go-to author when I am in the mood for some crime/thriller fiction, and I’m now quite ready to explore his writings beyond this more famous series, because I’m certain that I will find myself equally enthralled by the brilliant combination of narrative skills and engaging storytelling that is the author’s trademark. And there is a great deal of Connelly works to explore, indeed…

Angels Flight is the best Bosch novel I’ve read so far, showing a confident mastery of pace and characterization whose growth I have witnessed throughout the previous books I read, and also incorporating several social and moral themes that feel completely actual even now, more than twenty years after the book’s first publication. The title refers to what I’ve learned is a famous Los Angeles landmark, a cable car system connecting a lower area of the city with one of its hills: when Bosch is called on the scene to investigate a double murder, he discovers that one of the victims is Howard Elias, an African-American attorney well-known for his numerous lawsuits against police brutality. Elias was due to start shortly on the proceedings against the detectives who caused grievous injuries to the suspect in a kidnapping and homicide: the man was later declared not guilty once the real perpetrator was apprehended, and is now suing the city for the barbarous way the interrogation was carried out.

The investigation is therefore fraught with many social and political pitfalls, not least the growing suspicion that Elias might have been killed by a police officer, which is causing mounting unrest and the concern that riots might explode once more in a city that has not forgotten the Rodney King case from a few years before. Bosch and his team – the old-time partner Jerry Edgar and the newest acquisition Kizmin Rider – must be very careful in the way they move, both because the media eyes are on them and also because they have to navigate the dangerous waters of public relations and departmental policy, which manage to place some irksome fetters on Bosch’s methods in his unrelenting search for truth.  Moreover, Bosch is dealing with personal problems, since his year-old marriage seems to be already over and he’s facing the very real possibility of finding himself alone again after gaining a measure of happiness and stability with Eleanor: the Harry Bosch we see here is at his emotional weakest, once again having to experience the heavy sense of loss that has been a constant theme in his life – this unexpected vulnerability has the effect of making him appear more human, which adds some quite welcome softness to a character that so far has been depicted as harshly inexorable in his quest for justice.

Having met these stories first through their televised version, I am once again delighted in discovering that the two mediums are quite different in the way the facts are told, showing marked differences both in the final outcome and in other details, which results in my always being surprised at how events turn out in the books: my reading experience is never compromised – for want of a better word – by the knowledge gained through the TV show, and I’ve come to envision the two versions of this series as complementary and enhancing each other. A great combination indeed.

Back to Angels Flight, there is a pervading sense of uneasiness running throughout the book, partly due to the tense situation created by Elias’ murder, but also coming from the constantly shifting suspicion that jumps from one subject to another as the investigation progresses in fits and starts, encountering a good number of false leads and willful misdirections.  Bosch and his team have to deal not only with the usual difficulties inherent in a murder investigation, but also with politics and with the institutional optics which require a solution that will keep the brewing troubles under control, rather than finding the real perpetrator of the crime, and that’s something that goes against Bosch’s personal inclinations. In the end it all boils down to a contest between opposing drives, the resolution bringing no catharsis at all because it becomes quite clear that there are no winners and losers in such a situation – everyone loses here, the concept of justice being the greatest victim. This conflict is embodied by the constant clash between Bosch and Chief Irving, the political face of the police department: unlike his screen version, Irving is far less tolerant of Bosch’s insubordination and unconventional tactics, being even more concerned with public perception here than he looks in the tv show. I found the willpower matches between the two of them quite fascinating, because the author is able to convey both characters’ emotions through the heated exchanges where the unsaid carries the same weight, if not more, of what is openly expressed: it’s fascinating to see how they represent the two faces of the same coin, and how they ultimately balance each other out in pursuing what they believe to be the best for their city.

On top of the engrossing events at its core, Angels Flight portrays some painful social conflicts that are still unresolved now, twenty years after the novel was written, and therefore it feels just as actual as the fictional facts it describes: where it’s somewhat depressing to acknowledge that after more than two decades things have not changed much – if at all – on the other hand this story is imbued with a sense of reality that strengthens its narrative impact and turns it into a far more powerful novel than might have been originally intended.

My Rating:

Reviews

UNSUB (Unsub #1), by Meg Gardiner

I saw the review for Unsub on a fellow blogger’s site some time ago – I forget who it was, or I would thank them properly for showcasing one of the best thrillers I remember reading in ages. This novel, while not being for the faint of heart, is a compelling journey into the mind of a cold-blooded serial killer and of the law enforcement officers hunting him, in a hazardous cat-and-mouse game that favors the battle of wits between the two opposing forces rather than indulging in the more gruesome details of the crimes themselves, which was the main reason I stopped watching shows like Criminal Minds when the “gore factor” became more important than the psychological analysis, which I find much more fascinating.

In the ’90s, the area around San Francisco was the hunting grounds for a serial killer nicknamed The Prophet because of the enigmatic messages he left on the scenes: detective Mack Hendrix gave everything he had in the hunt for the killer and emerged from the battle devastated in body and mind, while the unsub – acronym for Unknown Subject – was never captured and seemed to vanish into thin air. Now, after twenty years, new murder scenes following the Prophet’s same m.o. are appearing again, and police officers are wondering if their killer has resurfaced or if the killings are the work of a copycat.  Caitlin Hendrix, Mack’s daughter and a police officer herself, is determined to find the Prophet, both for the sake of her city and to restore the good name of her father, who is seen as unhinged and unreliable. As the victims’ number climbs, the Prophet establishes a sort of direct communication with Caitlin, with the intent of drawing her into a trap that will destroy her as it happened with her father, while the young police officer tries to stay one step ahead of the killer and to win the deadly game.

The phrase “it was impossible to put the book down” can be found so often that it somewhat lost its impact, and that’s the main reason I usually avoid using it, but in this case it’s the perfect description of what UNSUB did to me: while at times it can be quite distressing because of the Prophet’s brutally arranged displays of his work, it also offers some distance thanks to the emotional difference between the written word and a filmed scene, so that readers can concentrate on the actual clues and on the relentless – and often discouraging – efforts from law enforcement in preventing these crimes and catching their perpetrator. Meg Gardiner draws you into the story in such a way that, just like her protagonist, you need to see the end, see where the deceptively arranged clues and the many twists and turns will lead – and hope that at the end justice will emerge victorious.

I liked Caitlin as a character, mostly because she is flawed and is going around with a huge chip on her shoulder, but her determination in getting at the root of it all and finally catching the killer is strong, stronger than the despair that comes from seeing how the killer keeps eluding the chase: no matter how many hard hits she takes, she keeps trying to move forward knowing that to win the fight she must be smarter than her enemy. Caitlin is not depicted as some kind of super-hero, and it’s her humanity and imperfections that make her so compelling as a character and that kept me glued to the book to see where and how the story would end. And let me tell you that it did not end in any predictable way…

The Prophet, for all his inhuman focus on making his victims suffer and the police feel inadequate and lost, is an equally fascinating character, mostly because he appears quite lucid in his madness and very proficient in advance planning, not unlike a consummate chess player who’s able to plot for several moves ahead in the game. His ability to predict how the victims or the police will behave makes him a terrible adversary indeed, quite far from the mindless killer looking only for a blood-soaked series of murders.  There is also the added factor of his choice of messages and murder scenes that take inspiration from a well-known work of literature – one I’m not going to mention to leave the surprise of discovery intact: this element was of particular interest for me because I studied the source material back in my school days, and I was intrigued by the discovery of how certain well-remembered passages were tied with the Prophet’s work and his goals.

UNSUB is a dark story, no doubt about it, and there are moments when it becomes thoroughly ominous and disturbing, but at the same time it feels very authentic – the main reason it turns out to be so immersive. I would not mind seeing it turned into a movie because it possesses all the right elements for a breath-stealing one, but lacking that there are two more published book in this series that promise to be equally riveting: having just discovered Meg Gardiner’s talent, I intend to explore more of her works as soon as possible.

My Rating:

Reviews

LATER, by Stephen King

My years-long negative streak with Stephen King’s books seems to be definitely over: the last few books of his I read all turned out to be as engaging as the stories I used to enjoy, and Later is only the last example in my lineup of positive reads.

Even though it’s a shorter story when compared with King’s usual production, Later sports all the elements that I’ve come to expect from the Master of Horror: this novel might not be classified as his usual horror creation, since there are not many blood-chilling elements in it, and there is also a mystery/crime component added that changes a little the expected parameters, but in the end this proved to be an entertaining, page-turning read, and one I enjoyed very much.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people: not exactly ghosts as was the case for the young protagonist of Shyamalan’s movie alluded to here with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor, but rather people newly departed and on their way to the Great Beyond. Jamie is able to see and hear them (although after a while their voice fades, as do they before disappearing forever) and to ask them questions to which the dead are compelled to reply truthfully.  Jamie’s single mother runs a literary agency and she’s able to stay afloat – barely – thanks to the best selling author of a successful series: when the man suddenly dies just as he was outlining his last novel, the one where all the mysteries hinted at in previous books would be revealed, Tia Conklin needs Jamie to contact the deceased author to get all the information he can gather on the story, so she can ghost-write it and keep the company in business and financial health.

The trouble starts when Liz Dutton, Tia’s former girlfriend and a cop with too many problems and not enough scruples, decides to use Jamie’s talent to discover where a serial bomber, who just took his own life, did hide his latest explosive package: something ancient and evil rides on the shoulders of the man and starts haunting Jamie, forcing him to resort to a harrowing ritual to get rid of the creature. That is, until the boy needs the thing’s help against Liz when the dishonorably discharged ex-cop kidnaps Jamie for one last, heinous act…

Very few authors can successfully filter the problems and inconsistencies of the world through the eyes of a child as Stephen King does: unlike other protagonists of his stories, Jamie is not shunned, bullied or otherwise made to suffer by peers or adults, but he does witness his mother’s struggles to survive in an unsettled economy and through a difficult relationship, all the while dealing with a “gift” that sets him apart from other kids, forcing him to keep secrets, and ultimately places him in danger. Jamie’s voice, as he grows up over the years from childhood to young adulthood, feels true and natural and for this reason it’s easy to connect to him and see the world through his eyes: innate resilience helps him navigate through the difficulties posed by his peculiar talent, particularly in the instances where his innocence is threatened. This is another theme dear to King, the way in which the adult world (or the supernatural) can rob children of that innocence, exposing them too early to situations that require them to grow before their time: in Jamie’s case this is compounded by Liz’s relentless focus first and greed later, so that he’s forced to come into contact with the darker aspects of the human mind, which more often than not are far more  frightening than actual supernatural horror. 

Young Jamie is able to find some balance in this very unusual existence thanks to the certainty of his mother’s love – even though he’s quite aware of her flaws both as a parent and an adult – and the guidance of old Professor Burkett, the closest thing to a father figure he can depend on: the relationship between Burkett and Jamie, both in life and after the old man’s death, reminded me somehow of the dynamic explored in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, one of the short stories from King’s If It Bleeds collection.  The somewhat cranky professor, like many of Stephen King’s memorable figures, is the one providing Jamie with a stable anchor and a perspective that helps the boy focus on the problems at hand rather than his fear, and offers a delightful dynamic between wide-eyed youth and grumpy old age that is one of the author’s trademarks.

There might be nothing new, narratively speaking, in this novel, but it does not matter much in the face of the story’s easy flow, which is carried by the constant curiosity engendered by Jamie hinting at other developments to be disclosed, indeed, later: the young protagonist keeps his audience captivated like serialized novels did in the latter part of the 19th Century, by promising further revelations yet to come.  This choice led me to wonder weather Jamie might be considered an unreliable narrator – either embellishing or changing events to suit them to the overall flavor of his story: that’s a doubt that surfaced for me once a detail of Jamie’s origin is revealed, because he himself first offers an explanation for the chain of events, only to deny its accuracy in the next page.

This detail (I will not spoil it, but if you’ve read the book you know what I am referring to) does not affect the story in any way – and I’ve kept wondering what it should mean in the overall scheme of it – but rather offers an off-key note to the ending which, in my opinion, would have stood quite well on its own without this added… baggage.  Still, Later feels like vintage King, indeed, and I would recommend it to his longtime fans – and not only them.

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SPACE, by Kali Wallace

After my engrossing first encounter with Kali Wallace’s previous book, Salvation Day, I had great expectations for her new novel and I’m happy to report they were all met, if not surpassed: the synopsis made me think about a delightfully tense SF movie from the ‘80s, Outland, and there were some similar vibes here, mostly due to the background in which the story takes place, although Dead Space moves in quite a different direction.

Hester used to be a gifted AI expert, part of a deep space expedition toward Titan, where the exploration of Saturn’s biggest satellite would be assisted by Vanguard, an evolved form of artificial intelligence capable of learning and adapting, Hester’s ultimate achievement. Unfortunately the Symposium, the science ship built for the mission, had been infiltrated by extremists who managed to sabotage it and kill most of the science team. Hester survived, although devastated both mentally and physically: the left side of her body is now mostly prosthetics, implanted by the doctors of Parthenope Enterprises, the corporation to which she is now in deep debt. To repay it, Hester has accepted to work as security analyst on the mining colony of Hygiea – a thankless, menial job that crushes her already defeated spirit and misuses her brilliant mind.

When one of her Symposium friends, another survivor of the disaster now working in a different mining outpost, is killed in mysterious circumstances shortly after having sent Hester a weird message, she joins the investigative team to discover what truly happened to her old colleague David and finds herself embroiled in a spiral of conflicting clues and unsettling revelations that is only the surface layer of a deeper, far more dangerous conspiracy, and she will need to rekindle all her old skills and determination if she wants to survive and avoid disaster on a massive scale.

Like Salvation Day, this novel offers a view of the future that’s far from comforting: the drive for space seems to have been taken over by big corporations whose sole purpose is to exploit the resources in the Solar System, gaining as much profit as possible with the minimum of expenditure in the areas of workers’ comfort or safety. It does not take much, as Wallace describes the mining outposts disseminated throughout the Belt, to compare this background with Earth’s mining towns of old, where the miners’ wages were spent almost entirely in company-owned shops and utilities, therefore creating a vicious circle of legalized indentured slavery.  Hygiea and Nimue (the site of the investigation for David’s murder) represent this set-up in dreary relief, so that it’s easy to picture ill-lighted, barely maintained tunnels, none too clean, inhabited by a gloomy humanity whose sole, desperate goal is to beat the system of diminishing returns that keeps them tied to these balls of rock. 

There is a claustrophobic quality to the story – which seems to be Kali Wallace’s skillful trademark – that works hand in hand with Hester’s despondent attitude, and even if she is not prone to self-pity, one can feel the quiet despair that has turned her once-brilliant personality into the sharp, cutting posture of someone who feels detached from humanity, sometimes even her own:

[…] didn’t stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.

It doesn’t take much, however, to bring her out of this self-imposed numbness: once the investigation into David’s murder starts and progresses from the first appearance of a personal attack from a co-worker to something more complex, and with far-reaching implications, once the dangers pile up and Hester’s life is threatened at every step of the way, she is finally able to wake up her old self, the one that was smothered by post-traumatic stress and the thankless job she has been trapped into. When the real Hester emerges, we are finally able to see the intelligent, intense person who dreamed of exploring a new world and dared to create something amazing and revolutionary as Vanguard, the person we see in the brief flashbacks before the Symposium disaster.  What happens on Nimue, as ghastly and horrifying as it is, is the systemic shock she needs to finally process her grief and loss and reclaim the keen scientific mind that had propelled her in the past.

Even though Hester’s journey is front and center, there are a few other interesting characters peopling the story, starting from David – her murdered friend – whom we see in the flashbacks and through the descriptions of his coworkers on Nimue: like Hester, the before and after personalities are as different as day and night, stressing once more how the Symposium tragedy shattered these lives, not only through physical damage or because of the heavy debt incurred with medical expenses, but above all for the death of their dreams of advancing science, of learning the mysteries of the cosmos, of making a difference for humanity.  It’s also worth mentioning the Nimue staff which, in pure whodunit style, share a common lack of reliability that enhances the sense of foreboding and danger that permeates the investigation from the very start.

And again, Hester’s partners in the investigative team are quite intriguing, particularly the unit’s leader Adisa, whose Martian origin constitutes a handicap: some time before the Mars settlers rebelled against their inhuman living conditions and the revolt was stamped out with ruthless efficiency, while the powers that be chose to lay the blame for the war on the hapless colonists, who are now the object of scorn and racial slurs.  I was intrigued by these hints about the conflict, just as I was by the apparently self-effacing Adisa who, when push comes to shove, exhibits some very unexpected abilities, but unfortunately the pacing of the story did not allow more than a few, tantalizing glimpses, and that’s my only small disappointment with this novel because I wanted more and would not have minded a deeper digression into this particular topic.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the breathless, adrenaline-rich new story that Kali Wallace gave us with her latest work, a well-crafted mix of thriller, science fiction and social commentary that offers many layers of character exploration while keeping you entranced with a deadly puzzle to solve. Highly recommended.

My Rating:

Reviews

TRUNK MUSIC (Harry Bosch #5), by Michael Connelly

The more I move forward with this series, the more I’m glad that I started reading it propelled by my enjoyment of the TV show it inspired: not only it offers a welcome digression from a steady “diet” of science fiction and fantasy, therefore helping me avoid reader fatigue, it also showcases an engaging character whose personal journey is still ongoing as he deals with interesting murder cases, the complex social microcosm of a big city like Los Angeles and the even more convoluted political ramifications between law enforcement agencies.

Returning to work after the compulsory leave of absence described in the previous book, Harry Bosch is eager to go back to solving homicides, and the first one he’s called to investigate looks like a mob hit: a body is found in the trunk of an abandoned Rolls Royce, and once the victim’s identity is revealed (a small-time producer of porn movies with a side occupation as a money launderer) everything seems to point toward organized crime.  Some details, however, don’t add up and the investigation leads Bosch and colleagues along several paths, both in L.A. and in Las Vegas, where the victim was a frequent visitor: it’s here that the detective makes an unexpected encounter with someone from his past, a chance meeting that is fraught with uncomfortable memories and unrepressed emotions. As the hunt for the killer becomes more complicated Bosch faces a web of misdirections and red herrings – as does the reader – but nothing, not even a false accusation of having planted evidence, will distract him from following his leads with the usual dogged determination, until he solves the case.

In my review of the previous book in the series I spoke of a turning point for the main character, and here the differences in personality and approach to situations are indeed remarkable: Harry Bosch is still relentless in his pursuit of the truth, and he’s still prone to ignoring the rules when they clash with his methods, but while in the past he might have looked possessed by an inner darkness, now he’s more at peace with himself and this attitude reflects on the way he deals with people. It’s possible that having finally solved his mother’s murder he gave himself the permission to be more human, to be happy and to reach out to other people: this new approach is evident in his relationship with his old-time partner Edgar and with the new one assigned to the team, Kiz Rider, who is a brilliant, on-the-rise detective. Rider, and Lieutenant Grace Billets, Bosch’s new chief, are welcome additions to a story that was begging for a few female figures of substance: in particular I was happy for the arrival of Billets because I enjoyed her TV character very much, and because she marks a huge difference from the previous commander, since she is stern and tough but also knows how to give some slack to her detectives when it’s necessary to get things done.

While this “new” Bosch still indulges in his lone-wolf attitude at times, here in Trunk Music we see how he’s able to work with a team – of which he has been given command with a show of faith in his skills as a coordinator – and to ask for the cooperation of other people instead of getting it literally at gunpoint as he used to do in the past: it’s as if he’s been trying to rebuild himself, just as he’s now rebuilding the house that was wrecked by the earthquake in the previous book, and the parallel about new beginnings extends also to his private life, where the chance encounter I mentioned before leads to a momentous change that sees him involved in a stable relationship.  One of the reasons I’m enjoying this series so far is Connelly’s ability of showing his character’s evolution through the experiences he deals with: in this book he faces his own feelings for a woman from his past and comes to admit his vulnerability where she is concerned, but at the same time he’s able to avoid being distracted by those same feelings in his search for the truth. What comes out is a more rounded – and more human – character than the one presented at the beginning of the series, and makes him more relatable and sympathetic.

Of course the investigative parts of the story are no less intriguing than the characters peopling it: the old-fashioned detective activity is still present, of course, with witness questioning, search for connections and so forth, but some details of the forensic angle start to come into play more than they did before – which never fails to intrigue me because I’m totally fascinated by the scientific side of police work. And in this particular case there are several clues that seem marginal at first, only to be later revealed as pivotal in the solution of the case: nothing is left to chance here, there are no hanging threads that end up nowhere, there is instead a fascinating organization at the roots of these stories that leads the reader, alongside the detectives, toward the final revelation and the surprises awaiting there, because there are no foregone conclusions here and the sustained, never slacking pace of the story carries you from step to step while keeping you totally immersed in its progress.

An important consideration, that became more noticeable in Trunk Music, is how the books and the TV series they inspired are similar but never the same: since I encountered these stories in their televised form first, I thought that the “excitement factor” might be diminished by my foreknowledge of the way they went, but this fifth book confirmed how the TV scripts changed many of the pieces on the playing field, allowing me to enjoy the books because of the marked differences between the two mediums. Which leads me to believe that I have still many surprises awaiting me down the road…

My Rating: