Michael Connelly: The Night Fire


My bingo pre-read and a very welcome return to Los Angeles — or at least, the version thereof that constitutes the world of Connelly’s characters, which however only ends up making the city a major character of its own in addition to the humans living in it.

Harry Bosch may not officially be a cold case investigator any longer, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking justice for those who died without their murderers ever having been brought to justice; particularly if he is handed the relevant file by the widow of his own recently-deceased mentor.  He ropes in Ballard, and I loved seeing that it was she who was first to tumble to what was wrong with that long-dead investigation.  (I’m also relieved that, for the time being at least, Connelly doesn’t seem to be planning to make a couple out of them.)  Two other investigations keep our two protagonists busy at the same time, both concerned with more recent deaths.  The ending relies a bit too much on coincidence for my liking (for however much Connelly may be protesting that there is no such thing — and of course, in his writer’s mind there isn’t, since he’s the one who plotted the whole thing out to begin with, but from the characters’ / from inside the story’s perspective, it still remains a case of protesting too much); yet, by and large, a more than solid entry in the series.  It also would seem to explain, incidentally, why Connelly decided to focus on Jack McEvoy for a change again for his next book (Fair Warning), as there are recent developments in Bosch’s (and potentially Mickey Haller’s and Maddie’s) lives that he’ll likely will want to take some time developing.

Halloween Bingo 2020: The First Week (+1 Day)

This year’s Halloween Bingo started a lot more promising than last year’s with a strong joint entry in Michael Connelly’s Bosch and Ballard series, and in fact, not one of the books I read earned less than a four-star rating — with the standout being Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which turned out to be a perfect choice for the “Psych” square.

 

The “Week 1” Books


Michael Connelly: The Night Fire

My bingo pre-read and a very welcome return to Los Angeles — or at least, the version thereof that constitutes the world of Connelly’s characters, which however only ends up making the city a major character of its own in addition to the humans living in it.

Harry Bosch may not officially be a cold case investigator any longer, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking justice for those who died without their murderers ever having been brought to justice; particularly if he is handed the relevant file by the widow of his own recently-deceased mentor.  He ropes in Ballard, and I loved seeing that it was she who was first to tumble to what was wrong with that long-dead investigation.  (I’m also relieved that, for the time being at least, Connelly doesn’t seem to be planning to make a couple out of them.)  Two other investigations keep our two protagonists busy at the same time, both concerned with more recent deaths.  The ending relies a bit too much on coincidence for my liking (for however much Connelly may be protesting that there is no such thing — and of course, in his writer’s mind there isn’t, since he’s the one who plotted the whole thing out to begin with, but from the characters’ / from inside the story’s perspective, it still remains a case of protesting too much); yet, by and large, a more than solid entry in the series.  It also would seem to explain, incidentally, why Connelly decided to focus on Jack McEvoy for a change again for his next book (Fair Warning), as there are recent developments in Bosch’s (and potentially Mickey Haller’s and Maddie’s) lives that he’ll likely will want to take some time developing.

 


Joy Ellis: They Disappeared

Before starting this book, I’d said I hoped Ellis was done with the serial killer plots, as I had a feeling she was at risk of turning into a one trick pony that way — well, let’s say I both did and didn’t get my wish.  (Several gruesome deaths, yes, but not a mentally diseased mind behind them.)  I loved that Ellis had the courage to give us a fresh perspective on IT whiz Orla Cracken: There’s always a risk associated with making a character heretofore so unapproachable and shrouded in secrecy as her more accessible, but Ellis pulled it of very well for the most part … even though I’m only half convinced by the part of “Orac”‘s past that is explored most in depth here: surely, based on the feats we’ve seen her perform in the past (and based on what we now know about her training), this should be a mystery that Orac herself should have been able to solve long ago — and on her own?  Be that as it may, though, it was interesting to see another character being included in this particular series’s sweep of Ellis’s authorial focus.  I also liked the setting she picked for this book — “urban exploration” — which seems almost tailor-made for her sort of books; even if her protagonists (who are all cops, after all) have a somewhat too tolerant (if not, downright gushing) attitude to that occupation, which is prohibited for a reason, after all.

Big spoiler warning for a previous non-series book, however: While I think it’s fair to say that any reader reading the Jackman & Evans series as such out of order does so at their peril (and this is true for this particular book, too, as it provides — or would seem to provide — a definite ending for one of the past several books’ major narrative strands, so it should definitely be read after everything from The Guilty Ones onwards by anyone wanting to avoid spoilers in that regard), I’m still a bit miffed to see this book also containing a major spoiler for a recent stand-alone by Ellis, which I haven’t read yet and had been planning to get to later this year (Guide Star).  I’m fine with authors setting all of their various series in the same universe (Michael Connelly does the same thing, after all), and as long as this merely meant swapping supporting characters (like Dr. Wilkinson) or cross-references in dialogue, I haven’t had a problem with this  sort of thing in Ellis’s case so far, either.  But the main characters from Guide Star have, it would seem, fully been integrated into the Jackman & Evans series, and Ellis apparently couldn’t find a way of doing that without giving away that other book’s conclusion, as it constitutes a major premise of the events in They Disappeared.  Shame.

 


Margery Allingham: More Work for the Undertaker

The thirteenth book in the Campion series; one of the few I hadn’t read yet and thus, a proximate choice for the “13” bingo square.  In tone, I find that the post-WWII stories are markedly darker than the series’s very first entries, which by and large is all to the good, however; even if they don’t quite reach the heights of The Case of the Late Pig, Police at the Funeral, or Death of a Ghost.  The story is typically wacky and also a typical entry in the series in other respects (characters, setting, etc.) nevertheless, culminating in a rather outré / macabre chase (the clue is in the title) … and introducing a character who will feature as a light in other post-WWII episodes as well (now that Stanislaus Oates has made it all the way to the top of the apple tree), the theatrically / oratorically-gifted D.I. Charlie Luke.

 


Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die

Wow. What a stunner. Blake (aka Cecil Day Lewis) messes with the reader’s mind literally from page 1, and being fully aware of the fact still doesn’t mean you’ll be up to what he is doing — or at least not all of it.  Even to begin talking about the plot would mean giving away half  the twists, so let’s just say it concerns a writer’s search for the reckless driver who mowed down his little son a few months earlier, as well as a family dominated by a bullying patriarch (and his equally bullying mother).  And from outright suggestions of lunacy to characters deliberately disguising their identities — or their innermost nature and / or intentions — to a myriad other ways in which Blake indulges in his cat-and-mouse game with the reader’s mind (authorial / narrative perspective, sequencing — the whole kit and caboodle), this is one big screwed-up joy ride … for those of us who like this sort of thing every so often, that is.

Side note 1: If you’ve read any of Blake’s other Nigel Strangeways books before (particularly any of the early ones), forget everything you’ve seen there.  Even though this book features both the Strangeways couple (Nick and Georgina) and Inspector Blunt, it is anything but a typical entry in the series (and all the better for it).

Side note 2: If you are interested in sailing, you may particularly enjoy this story.  It also probably helps to be familiar with the lingo  — which I am not, but I could follow along nevertheless, and during the one crucial scene set on a boat, I was just too glued to my speakers to pause listening in order to embark on an online search for the meaning of individual terms.

 


Agatha Christie: The Thirteen Problems

Audio revisit courtesy of Joan Hickson’s narration, both for Halloween Bingo and as part of the Agatha Christie Centennary celebration of her first novel (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) — and I find I’m drawn to these stories more and more with every time I’m revisiting them. Review HERE.

 

Currently Reading


Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anne Meredith): Death in Fancy Dress

Country house mystery meets Wuthering Heights, with rather enjoyable effects (though more for the reader than for the main characters).  I’ll probably finish this either tonight or tomorrow morning.

 

The State of the Card

Master Update Post: HERE

 

My Markers


Read             Called                   Read & Called   Read = Called

Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/13 (Day 13): New Releases?

One recommendation and three expectations:

Ann Leckie – The Raven Tower: That rare beast of a newly-released book that worked for me on every level despite all the hype attached to it.  Fantasy / supernatural, but without the usual menagerie of magical beasts: instead, an alternative early medieval society and its (very much alive) gods, with a truly awesome narrator. My review is HERE.

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments: The new release I’m looking at with the greatest amount of trepidation, because come on, how do you match something as iconic and monumental as The Handmaid’s Tale … even as that book’s own author?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow: The book that, thanks to Chris’s review, instantly made it onto a good number of Halloween Bingo reading lists; including mine.  A modernized (well, sort of) retelling of the Popol Vuh rendered in a storyteller’s voice, what’s not to like?

And, finally:

Michael Connelly – The Night Fire: Connelly never lets up and his writing is still as crisp as on day one.  Bosch and Ballard return as a team (I’m very much hoping as a team only), moonlighting in the investigation of a cold case Bosch has “inherited” from his recently-deceased mentor. — Side note: I’ve been bingeing on the Bosch TV series while compiling my “Halloween Bingo pre-party” posts up to now, which of course has only served to increase my anticipation of this particular book.

 

 

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Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/09 (Day 9): Book Suggestions for the New Squares? Part 1: "Paint It Black"

Today’s prompt is for favorite horror reads; that not being much of my thing (outside, perhaps, the gothic classics and anything more edifying or funny rather than scary), I think I’m going to leave that prompt to Char, Bark’s Books (aka Bark at the Ghouls), and the site’s other horror fans.  Instead, I’m going to catch up on the prompt from the day before yesterday — I’m really, really excited about the new squares.

This is going to be another multiple-post reply … because come on, these covers are just too beautiful not to give them a space of their own!

                                                      

 

 

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Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/01 (Day 1): Mystery or Horror?

 

Mystery, definitely.

For one thing, I’m a total chicken — I can’t look at blood (not even, or rather, especially not my own, e.g. in medical procedures); and anything shocking, spooky, or otherwise unnaturally unsettling just has me running for the rafters.  That’s particularly true at night — which is when I’m doing a good deal of my reading — but basically, it applies 24/7.  So that not only rules out slashers and other forms of gory horror, but pretty much any and all forms of psychological horror as well.  The only stories typically classified as “horror” that I can go near are classics where I essentially know what’s going to happen from the word “go” (e.g., Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), or ghost stories (mostly classics as well) where the appearance of the ghost(s) is (1) in itself not overly unsettling, at least not in the way in which it is presented to the reader, and / or (2) tied to a larger point that the author is trying to make.  (E.g.  most of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, Charles Dickens’s The Signalman and — of course — A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, and Oscar Wilde’s hilarious send-up of the genre, The Canterville Ghost.)  Edgar Allan Poe is a special case … I do love some of his writing (e.g., The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven), but The Tell-Tale Heart creeped the hell out of me way back in high school, and that cat story (which shall remain unnamed in this post) … well, let’s just say once was once too often.

And then — well, I became a mystery reader all the way back in elementary school, and that was probably the most formative reading experience of my entire life.  It started with a series of books specifically targeting elementary school kids, whose (idiomatic) title went straight to my little smarta$$ jugular, challenging me to demonstrate I had what it took to solve them.  From there, it was practically guaranteed I’d move on to and love the Three Investigators series — by which time my mom had caught on once and for all, too, and in short order presented me with my first Agatha Christie — After the Funeral, which for that reason alone will always be one of my personal favorites.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

I’ve long stopped looking “just” for clever puzzles in mysteries, although that is still at least one of the things I want to see — it takes a lot of other things in a book to work well for me if I’ve solved the mystery early on and still end up liking the book.  But on the other hand, I’ll be just as unhappy if I can’t connect, on some level or other, with the main character (or if not them, at least an important supporting character) — or if I’m presented with shallowly drawn, cardboard or just flat out boring characters, or if the plot just ties one trope onto the next or is otherwise devoid of originality.  In other words, a mystery that works for me will always be more than merely the hunt for a killer (or other criminal, as the case may be) — it will be a complex blend of well-drawn, individual characters and an intelligent plot, and ideally the characters will also have some other (e.g., personal) challenges to deal with on their journey to the mystery’s solution.

Since I also love historical fiction (and nonfiction), historical mysteries are a particular favorite — provided they’re well-researched, such as Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series (a long-time favorite) and C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series (my most recent “must-read” series) –, but I’ve never lost my love for the Golden Age classics — next to Christie, in particular Sherlock Holmes and everything Dorothy L. Sayers, as probably everybody here knows — and am thrilled to also see Golden Age crime fiction above and beyond the eternal great ones making such a huge comeback in recent years.  Martin Edwards, the current president (and chief archivist) of both the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association, may not be everybody’s cup of tea personally, but there’s no denying that his lobbying for the revival of Golden and Silver Age crime fiction has a lot to do with this, and I think he deserves huge plaudits on those grounds alone.  That said, P.D. James’s writing (and her Inspector Dalgliesh) also has had a special place in my heart for longer than I can remember … and I’m inordinately happy to have discovered many more great women crime writers and women detectives in recent years; most recently, Joy Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series (*waves to Jennifer*).

Oh, and for the record, the “I can’t look at blood” thing applies to mysteries as well, of course — which is one of the reasons why as a rule I don’t read serial killer books; nor any other mysteries where I know, going in, that the corpse or the crime scene will be described in gratuitously graphic terms.   [She said, side-eying J.K. Rowling for the second Cormoran Strike book, which definitely should come with a warning label attached.]  However, I am not at all opposed to grit and grime in a mystery’s setting — in fact, I particularly enjoy both classic noir crime fiction (with Raymond Chandler a particular favorite) and modern crime fiction that takes a look at the state of society, such as Michael Connelly’s and Ian Rankin’s books.

 

 

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Books With a Difference

Responding to Moonlight Reader’s “call for papers (= titles / authors)” — there are quite a number of excellent lists out there already; anyway, here’s my contribution … or a first draft, at least.  Links go to my reviews (or status updates / summary blog posts / author pages) to the extent I’ve posted any.

Not necessarily in this (or any particular) order:

Dorothy L. Sayers: Are Women Human?
Sayers didn’t like to be called a feminist, because she was adverse to ideology for ideology’s sake, but nobody makes the case for equality and for the notion that a person’s qualification for a job depends not (at all) on their sex but solely — gasp — on their qualifications and experience more eloquently than she did in these two speeches.  (I gave up on the attempt to review this little book when I realized that I was basically fawn-quoting half its contents, but the BL book page lists two very good reviews by others.)  Sayers’s crime fiction is legendary, of course, but she’d totally be short-changed if she were ever reduced to that … even to a brilliant book like Gaudy Night (which transforms into fiction much of what she addresses here).  This should be taught and listed right alongside Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Moderata Fonte: The Worth of Women
If you thought women in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance didn’t know how to speak up for themselves, think again.  There’s Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pizan … and then, there is 16th century Venetian Moderata Fonte.  The Worth of Women is, essentially, a witty, pithy conversation among several women preparing one of them (the daughter of another one of their number) for her wedding, and it covers everything from women’s daily life and struggle (as such, but in particular vis-à-vis the stupidity and inferiority of the other sex, which without any justification whatsoever has been declared “superior”), their wishes, desires, etc.  The young bride, who actually doesn’t much feel like marrying to begin with, is consoled over the fact that she really has to (the only alternative being the cloister) by the assurance that every effort has gone into finding her a good husband (i.e., the best specimen from an inherently inferior selection), and receives manifold advice on how to get around him.  The whole text reads refreshingly contemporary, very much to the point — and in part, it is just laugh-out-loud funny.  (“Moderata Fonte” was, incidentally, the pen name of a lady actually named Modesta Pozzo, which means … exactly the same thing: Modest Fountain.  [Or Fountain of Modesty.]  And yes, I probably should review this book at some point, too — God knows, I added enough quotes from it on Goodreads back in the day …)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
One of my highlights of 2018 and the book that (in large parts) inspired my personal “Around the World in 80 Books” challenge; an insightful, heartbreaking, unflinching, and just all around amazingly written look at the 1960s’ Biafra war, post-independence Nigerian society and the human condition as such, by one of today’s most brilliant writers, period.  Eye-opening in so many ways.  (And yes, admittedly this one is on several of those published “must read” lists, too, but in this one instance I don’t care.  This really is a book that everybody should read.)

Aminatta Forna: The Memory of Love
My Half of a Yellow Sun of 2019; the book which alone would have made that “Around the World” challenge a winner even if I’d hate every other book I’ve so far read for it (which I don’t).  Trauma, fractured lives and society, love, betrayal, war and peace in post-independence Sierra Leone (1960s-70s and present day).  Forna is Adichie’s equal in every respect and then some.  For a bonus experience, get the audio version narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith: He transforms a book that is extraordinary already in its own right from a deeply atmospheric and emotional experience into visceral goosebumps material.

Xinran: The Good Women of China
Before she emigrated to the UK, Xinran was a radio presenter in Nanjing: Inspired by the letters she received by women listeners, she started a broadcast series dedicated to their stories, some of which she tells in this book.  Her broadcasts gave Chinese women — firmly under the big collective male thumb for centuries and still considered beings of a lower order today — a voice that they hadn’t had until then; now her books give non-Chinese readers a pespective on an aspect of Chinese society that most definitely doesn’t figure in the pretty picture of a modern high-tech society that China would love to present to the world.

Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking and Lindgren’s Wartime Diaries (“A World Gone Mad”)
Pippi Longstocking taught me, when I had barely learned to read, that girls can go anywhere and do anything they set their minds to. — Lindgren’s wartime diaries are tinged with the same sense of humor and profound humanity as her children’s books, in addition to containing a spot-on analysis of the political situation in the years between 1939 and 1945 and many insights into her daily life.

Lion Feuchtwanger: Die Jüdin von Toledo (Raquel, the Jewess of Toledo, aka A Spanish Ballad)
A bit hard to come by in translation, but absolutely worthwhile checking out (and an indisputable evergreen classic in the original German): Set during the medieval Spanish Reconquista (the era when Christian princes and armies were wresting the Spanish peninsula back from the Muslims), in Toledo, during a phase when Christians, Jews and Muslims were living together peacefully in Castile; the true-life story of — married — (Christian) King Alfonso of Castile and his love for a young woman of Jewish faith.  Lots of food for thought on multicultural societies, tolerance, broadmindedness and responsible choices that applies today just as much as it did then.  I first read this decades ago and it has stayed with me ever since.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio
More on multicultural societies, tolerance, conscience and choices; set in the Avignon area of Provence during three distinct historical periods: the end / breakdown of the Roman empire, the medieval schism of the Catholic church (when the popes were residing in Avignon), and the Nazi occupation of France.  All three periods are linked by a mysterious manuscript, and in all three periods the (male) protagonists are guided by a woman who is their superior in wisdom and who becomes their inspiration.  Another one of those books that have stayed with me for years and years.

Wallace Stegner: Remembering Laughter
MR mentioned Angle of Repose, and I’d agree that is Stegner’s best novel (it’s also far and away my favorite book by him); but I do also have a soft spot for his very first novella, written as his (winning) entry in a writing competition, in which all of the hallmarks of his fiction are already present, most importantly the backdrop of his beloved Western Plains and the topic of people’s isolation from each other (even when they’re ostensibly in company).

Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera may be the books by García Márquez that the creators of those “must read” lists tell you to read (and I don’t exactly disagree), but this brief novella set in a small Columbian seaside town is every bit as worthwhile of notice: A deconstruction, in a mere 100 pages and in reverse chronology, of an honor killing and the society that has allowed it to happen.  Completely and utterly spine-chilling.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton
Actually, any nonfiction by Rushdie (for my money, most of his fiction writing as well, but part of that is on “those lists” anyway, and I know Rushdie’s style of fiction writing isn’t everybody’s cup of tea).  I’ve read some of his essays, but not enough of them yet to make for a full collection, so I’ll go with the one nonfiction book of his that I actually have read cover to cover: His memoir of the fatwā years.  Unapologetically personal and subjective, even if oddly — and to me, jarringly — written in the third instead of the first person; but definitely one of my must-read books of the recent years and one that I have every expectation will stand the test of time.

For completion’s sake: His essays are collected in two volumes entitled Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and  Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I’m hoping to complete both of them, too, some day soon.

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana and John Le Carré: The Tailor of Panama
Two takes on essentially the same topic — corruption, Western espionage and military shenanigans in Central America –, both redolent with satire and featuring a bumbling spy against his own will as their MC.  I’m not a fan of either author’s entire body of work, but I find both of their takes on this particular topic equally irresistible … and unfortunately, they seem to have regained consiiderable topicality in recent years.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
By which I do not mean the recent TV adaptation but the actual book, as well as (by way of a companion piece) the full cast BBC audio adaptation.  Armageddon will never again be as much fun — but Pratchett and Gaiman wouldn’t be Pratchett and Gaiman if there weren’t a sharp-edged undercurrent, too: Unlike the TV adaptation with its squeaky-clean looks, the book does not shy away from taking an uncomfortably close look at religion and society.  And then, of course, there’s Crowley and Aziraphale …

(Honorary entry from Pratchett’s Discworld series: Hogfather.  Just because.)

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch Series
One of the two ongoing crime fiction series that I’m still following religiously and have been, from very early on.  Connelly nails L.A., to the point that it becomes a character in its own right in his novels rather than merely a backdrop.  Harry Bosch is a Vietnam vet, your quintessential curmudgeonly loner with a big heart, fiercely loyal (motto: “Everybody counts or nobody counts”) and hates corruption, grift and nepotism in the LAPD more than anything else.  One of my all-time early favorite entries in the series is book no. 6, Angels Flight (which deals with the Rodney King riots and their fallout), but really, Connelly just keeps getting better and better.  The TV series starring Titus Welliver as Harry makes for great companion material, but to me the books will always come first.  (Even more so now that some of them are actually narrated by Mr. Welliver in the audio versions.)

Ian Rankin: Inspector Rebus Series
The other long-lasting crime fiction series that I’ve been following since pretty much forever; for similar reasons as Connelly’s Harry Bosh series: Edinburgh is a character of its own rather than mere backdrop; John Rebus (ex-S.A.S.) is Harry Bosch’s brother in spirit in virtually every respect — except that Bosch has a daughter, whereas Rebus has (or had, until recently) his booze — and like Connelly, Rankin does not shy away from addressing the social and political topics of the day in his novels.  For me, Rankin had found his Rebus legs, oddly enough, also in book 6 of the series, Mortal Causes (which deals with the “white supremacy” /  neofascist brand of Scottish nationalism), but he, too, just keeps getting better and better.

P.D. James: Inspector Dalgliesh Series
From the waning years of the Silver Age of detective fiction (post-WWII through the 1960s) all the way to the New Millennium, James was the reigning queen of British mystery writers, and for a reason.  Her friend (and rival for those honors) Ruth Rendell may have been more prolific, but every so often gave in to populism and cliché — not so James.  She was unequaled at setting a scene and creating a suspenseful atmosphere, and in the best tradition of the Golden Age masters, her mysteries always turned on psychology first and foremost.  Means and opportunity were important, but it was humans and their relationshp that she was chiefly interested in.   I have no doubt that her books will stand the test of time just as well as those of Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers and their generation of mystery writers.

Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters
The second book in Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series; an absolute stunner in every single way.  Mike Finn and Jennifer(‘s Books) weren’t that enchanted with Ellis’s other series (Nikki Galena), and I have only read one other book by her so far (Jackman & Evans no. 1), but be that as it may, this one is completely worth it and then some.  Set in the Fen Country, dripping with dark atmosphere, with a likeable and fully rounded pair of detectives as MCs — and a veritable jaw-dropper of a finale.  Oh, and the audio version (of the entire series) is narrated by Richard Armitage.

Peter Grainger: An Accidental Death
New Fen Country crime fiction series no. 2, and every bit as atmospheric and well-written as Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters.  This is the first book in the DC Smith series, which centers on a formerly higher-ranking policeman who has chosen to stay on the job as a detective sergeant (rather than go into retirement), so as to be able to actually do hands-on crime solving work instead of being shackled to his desk dealing with police administration.  Again, highly recommended, and I am very much looking forward to continue reading the series. — With this series and those by Ellis, I’m also really, really happy to have found not one but several new series set in a part of Britain that has not yet been written to death.

Donna Andrews: Meg Langslow Series
I am not anywhere near a reader of modern cozies (and though Golden Age mysteries are often lumped into that category, to my mind few of them really belong there) — I quickly get bored by trademark kinks and similar forms of repetitive humor, and I often find their plotlines, characters and settings unconvincing, shallow and overly sugarcoated.  Donna Andrews is the exception to the rule: I probably still wouldn’t read too many of her books back to back, but visits to the crazy but comfortable world of her small-town Virginia have become a Christmas reading tradition in the last couple of years that I’ve really come to look forward to.  Favorite entries to date: Duck the Halls, The Nightingale Before Christmas, and Six Geese A’Slayin’.

Jennifer Worth: Call the Midwife
Midwifery in London’s East End, in the mid-20th century.  I’m not even a mother myself, but man, I’ve never been more grateful for the advances in modern medicine than after reading this book.  Well, and other social advances obviously.  Gotta love the Sisters, though …

 

Jared Diamond: Collapse and The World Until Yesterday
Diamond won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs and Steel, but these two books (particularly: Collapse) are, to my mind, much more relevant to the world in which we’re living today; in analyzing both the state of our modern, globalized world (and its chances for a sustainable future) and the lessons to be learned from past societies: those whose choices led them to failure as much as those whose choices led to success and long-term survival.  Diamond is anything but a prophet of disaster, but being a scientist, he cannot and of course does not shrink from simple, indisputable facts and realities.  At no time have voices like his needed to be listened to and taken seriously as much as today.

  Full disclosure: I know Jared Diamond personally; he’s a longtime friend of my mother’s.  That doesn’t however impact my belief that his voice, and those of scientists like him, need to be heard now more than ever.

Stanley Wells, James Shapiro, Tarnya Cooper and Marcia Pointon: Searching for Shakespeare
Hard to believe this started life as a National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, but it did: A lavishly, gorgeously illustrated, supersized, book-length (240 p.) showcasing of Shakespeare’s life and times; companion to the 2006 exhibition on the NPG’s examination of the authenticity of six portraits then believed to be of the Bard (of which only one, the Chandos Portrait, in addition to the famous First Folio cover of Shakespeare’s works and the statue in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church survived that scrutiny).  More informative in both text and images than many a Shakesperean biography or a book on the history of the 16th / 17th century.

Stanley Wells: Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story
The world of Elizabethan theatre, by the grand master of British Shakespearean scholars and long-time chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Equally engaging, informative and entertaining — and I’m pretty sure the Bard would have appreciated Wells’s not just occasionally pithy turn of phrase.

Antony Sher and Gregory Doran: Woza Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus in South Africa
The future artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of Britain’s greatest contemporary Shakespearean actors (himself born in South Africa) — off stage, a couple — take the Bard’s most controversial and violent play to Sher’s home country … in the middle of Apartheid.  Judging by their tour diaries (in essence, this book), it must have been quite a trip.

Final note, for those who are wondering: Golden Age mysteries have been covered by several other list creators here on BL already, so I decided not to replicate that (obviously, otherwise the better part of the entire canons of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and others would have shown up on my list, too).  Similarly, while Jane Austen, the Brontës, and several other 19th century writers are unquestionably part of my personal canon, they’re also on just about every published “must read” list out there, so there hardly seemed any point in including them here.  Ditto Greek mythology.  Ditto William Shakespeare (the plays themselves, that is).  Ditto Oscar Wilde.  Ditto John Steinbeck.  Etc. …

And now that I’m finally about to hit “post”, I’m probably going to think of a whole other list of books that I really ought to have included here!

 

Original post:
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Michael Connelly: The Late Show / Two Kinds of Truth / Dark Sacred Night

Ballard and Bosch: A Michael Connelly Mini-Binge

I managed to fall behind on 3 books by Michael Connelly over the course of the past 2 years — how in the world did that happen?  He’s one of my most consistent go-to authors for reliably high quality crime fiction … as well as for taking me right back to L.A., if only inside my head.  So, high time to catch up, especially since everybody else whose reviews I trust seems to have already read and reviewed these three.  In sum, I find that I’m mostly happy to have returned to what’s come to be known as “the Harry Bosch universe” … though the obvious question is how long Connelly is going to be able to keep Bosch going.  Are we seeing a changing of the guard, with Renée Ballard and Mickey Haller — and possibly Maddie Bosch — eventually taking Harry’s place?  Last year, Connelly still said no, but 14 months on from that interview, I’m not sure that’s still the answer he would give now.  Ultimately, time and the next books will have to tell.

To take each book in turn:

The Late Show (2017)

Renée Ballard’s debut.  Her character is based on a real cop, LAPD Detective Mitzi Roberts, who is an advisor to Connelly (and, I think, the Harry Bosch TV series), and who once worked the “late show” — the night shift — in the Hollywood division herself; so Renée’s character and work environment comes with a lot of personal insight, and it shows (even if it’s not Connelly’s own, first-hand insight).

Obviously Connelly had to give Ballard a motivation to want to hang on to the cases we see her confronting in the first pages of the book instead of just handing them over to the relevant “desks” tasked with these kinds of crimes in daytime hours, and it just about works here — but even in this first book I wasn’t wholly convinced, and I can see several problems with this scenario going forward.  To name but two: (1) Detectives on the “late show” simply do not handle cases to the end, and at some point the reasons Connelly gives Ballard for wanting to hang on to her initial investigations are almost necessarily going to stretch credibility — in and of themselves as well as in terms of their overall frequency.  (2) Anyone who’s ever pulled several allnighters in a row, or existed for a sustained period on a maximum of 3-4 hours of sleep (with irregular sleeping times at that) knows that this sort of lifestyle is a virtually guaranteed shortcut to a crashing burnout — and I don’t mean the kind that can be cured by a few good nights of rest or an extended vacation.  So I think at some point Connelly won’t have any other option than making Ballard return to daytime hours if he wants to keep her storyline credible. I can see why she’d reject the option at the end of this particular book, coming as it does from a completely unapologetic Lt. Olivas, but eventually she’ll just have to find a way.  Maybe her guilty feelings about Lola and about having to kennel her all the time are going to make a difference?

That all being said, I mostly like Ballard — she’s smart, tough and straightforward; just what I want my heroines to be, not least if they are cops.  She’s also a bit reckless, though, and that’s another thing that could turn out a problem eventually (not only for herself, for obvious reasons, but also in the meta-world, with Connelly’s readers).  The book’s writing and plotting are Michael Connelly at his most atmospheric and empathetic, however, and the three interwoven cases / storylines are classic L.A. — murder, corruption, fraud, and the shady side of Sunset Boulevard.  What’s not to like about that … as crime fiction fodder, at any rate?

 

Two Kinds of Truth (2017)

Much as I liked Renée Ballard, I confess I was more than happy to return to Harry Bosch in this book, who still finds himself where recent events have landed him … as a volunteer with SFPD (that’s San Fernando Police Department, not San Francisco) in “the Valley” on the other (= northern) side of the mountain range separating the City of Los Angeles from, well, the San Fernando Valley.  (And yes, “from the Valley” and “Valley girl / boy” still has a similar connotation as “hillbilly” does elsewhere in the U.S. — or anyway, it still used to have when I was living in L.A.  Despicable cliché aside, not that there’s actually much justification to this, what with easily half of L.A.’s white collar workforce now living either in “the Valley” or elsewhere outside the City of Los Angeles proper, but I guess old stereotypes die hard.)

In essence, I was pretty happy, too, with the way Connelly managed to find a way for Bosch to keep his hand in “proper” police business even after his inglorious exit from LAPD — permanently becoming an investigator for a defense attorney, even for his half-brother Mickey Haller, simply would not have suited him.  Connelly overplayed the “experienced RHD detective” card a bit at the beginning of this book, I thought: surely, even in a small police department like SFPD that sees few murders by L.A. standards (which, let’s face it, still doesn’t necessarily mean “few” in absolute terms), officers securing a murder scene would not have to be told by a volunteer retired detective (a) to completely cordon off the entire scene and (b) to secure the scene by watching / looking outward, not inward, from their positions at the cordon.  And if I didn’t have reason to believe Harry was keeping himself fit for his activities at SFPD (because even clearing cold cases isn’t exactly a 9-to-5 desk job), and if I hadn’t also watched him bluff himself out of a critical situation often enough over the course of his career, I might have disbelieved the final “showdown” in a small passenger plane while flying over the desert at the end of one of the book’s interwoven investigative strands.

But by and large, it made sense to me for Harry to be involved in an investigation specifically making use of his advancing age by having him go undercover in a prescription drug smuggling sting as an allegedly addicted retiree; and it also made sense to me for his complicated relationship with the LAPD to play out the way it does here in an old case threatening to bite him in the rear.  And although the final courtroom scene in that case has distinct overtones of Law and Order (which is not necessarily a statement on its verisimilitude — though for the record, I love Law and Order), and it moreover relies on a near-deus-ex-machina-style coincidence and on a manipulation on the part of Haller bordering on the unethical and perilous to Harry to boot, I can’t help but root for Haller and Bosch as a team, and for Haller to take down the bad guys in court at the end, every single time.  As a side note, I was also happy for a former partner of Bosch’s to make a surprise reappearance here.

So all in all, I was a pretty happy camper with this book, and given that the writing and plotting here is easily up to Connelly’s best, I’d have been completely willing to overlook minor quibbles like the “should SFPD officers really need Harry Bosch to tell them how to secure a murder scene” bit … if the book hadn’t ended on a note playing straight into one of my growing grumbles with the series as a whole, namely, Harry’s penchant for “fatal” women.  (Which is not necessarily the same as “femmes fatales”, btw, though he sure has had his share of encounters with those as well.)

Which leads me straight on to my review of the currently latest book in the series, and since one particular narrative strain (and especially the ending) of Two Kinds of Truth also sets up the core premise of Dark Sacred Night, I’m going to put the better part of my review of that book into spoiler tags, because there’s no way I can address my quibbles with that book without also addressing those narrative elements — they are in fact what gives rise to my quibbles.

 

Dark Sacred Night (2018)

Given that Michael Connelly’s fictional extension of L.A. is essentially a homogeneous universe in which all of his main characters meet sooner or later, it was only a matter of time until Renée Ballard would run into Harry Bosch.  She does so here … and lands another investigation that takes her out of her “late show” duties; a cold case that nobody is seriously pursuing, not even Lucía Soto, Bosch’s final partner at LAPD, who is officially the lead investigator but who has been pulled into the Department’s #MeToo task force.

And let’s get this one out of the way first, if I had slight concerns where Connelly might be going with Ballard’s “moonlighting at daytime” in The Late Show, they certainly didn’t get any less here.  I’m not a cop, but I have had, in my own life, more than one day-night-day(-night-day) sequence of the sort that Ballard is giving herself here, and I know for certain fact that there is no way she’d still have had the mental and physical alertness she is showing here on day 2, let alone on day 3 of that sequence.  And yes, I realize that Ballard does indeed have moments where she doesn’t exactly act like the sharpest knife in the LAPD’s drawer.  Those, though, don’t even begin to do justice to the state of exhaustion she actually should be in; even less so would she have been fit enough to fulfill the critical role she keeps playing, especially towards the end of the book.

My bigger concern here is with Harry Bosch, though.  And not so much on account of his age as such — I actually liked how Connelly shows him literally being wrong-footed in a situation he had underestimated, to the detriment of the investigation and of a witness’s life and well-being, and to the point of being given the can by SFPD.  But Jesus f*cking Christ, Harry, won’t you ever learn a single lesson when it comes to women?  And it’s not even like your readers can’t see this one coming on 10 miles against a stiff headwind.  The moment I learned in Two Kinds of Truth that a woman he met there, Elizabeth Clayton, had turned to drugs to blunt the emotional trauma of the unsolved murder of her teenage runaway daughter Daisy (addicted to “hard” drugs herself and selling herself on the street), I knew what to expect next:

1. Bosch would go after Elizabeth, get her into detox and therapy and just generally “rescue” her from addiction.
2.  Bosch would then get involved with Elizabeth once and for all, which would include:
(a)  Starting a cold case investigation into Daisy’s murder, and
(b)  Having a(n ultimately physical) relationship with Elizabeth — without ever wondering whether she was actually ready for this or, for that matter, what exactly it was he felt for her … or she for him.
3.  The whole thing would come crashing down on both Bosch and Elizabeth with disastrous results for both of them.

And boy, did I wish that for once I had been wrong.  But, alas, I wasn’t.

Now, obviously helping a prescription drug addict to overcome her addiction and even offering her shelter in your own home is an act of major altruism, and if this had been my first Bosch book, I’d probably have been pretty favorably impressed with him.  As it was, though … it just felt like we’ve all been down this sort of road way too often already.  And it’s not like Harry is completely incapable of forming functioning close relationships; he has overcome considerable hurdles to build one with his daughter Maddie, and he’s managed to work closely with many of his partners on the job: Connelly himself, in Two Kinds of Truth, uses the analogy of being able to go blindly into an intersection in a high speed car chase solely on the “all clear” of your partner, and there is not a partner in Bosch’s entire career who would not have been able to trust Bosch to precisely that extent.  So for however messed-up Harry Bosch personally may be (and he assuredly is, plenty), it’s not like he’d be lacking any and all social skills — or were uncapable to take a step back and critically reflect on his own actions.  Because without either of these abilities, he would unquestionably have screwed up his relationship with Maddie to a royal degree, and nobody would have lasted long as his partner at LAPD, either.  Yet, when it comes to the women in his private life, he gets it wrong every single time.  And I’m past caring why or rationalizing based on Harry’s childhood, the murder of his mother and what he later found out about it, his absent father, his Vietnam “tunnel rat” experience, and whatever else.  Harry is past retirement age.  He should have found a way to deal with his ill-perceived “saviour” complex eons ago.  It’s overdue for him to finally find that way out now.

Thankfully, the book does actually include another investigation, and it’s this one that eventually gets Bosch into trouble — in more than one respect.  Yet, here, too he ought to seriously take a step back and critically reassess his own position.  He himself has made the resolution that, if he should ever find he’s no longer up to the job, he would quit and leave the field to others.  But he’s barely out on his backside from SFPD … and what does the man do?  He walks up to Ballard and suggests an informal “cold case” partnership to her, with her being inside LAPD and him freelancing on the outside.  Which isn’t only entirely unprofessional — on both their parts, incidentally, in addition to which Ballard will be breaking pretty much every single rule of investigative and department protocol — but also goes straight against Bosch’s own resolution, because it’s not like he doesn’t know full well that he’s out on his ear because he himself has screwed up.  Fatally.  To thine own self be true, Harry?  Ah, well … anything to continue the series for yet another book or two, Mr. Connelly?

Now, if only Ballard hadn’t accepted Harry’s “informal partnership” offer.  But alas, she did.  And I’m currently hoping and praying that this is all we’ll be seeing of them in the next book(s).  Because I got a very funny vibe at the end of Dark Sacred Night, and it’s not like Ballard hasn’t her share of personal issues, either …

Character quibbles aside, Connelly probably couldn’t write a thoroughly bad book if he tried, I’m still right back in L.A. with every word that he writes, and I actually did like the second (gang-related) narrative strain of Dark Sacred Night.  And since a key character, Elizabeth Clayton, is a mother, I’m also claiming this one for the Russian Mother’s Day square in 24 Festive Tasks.

 

 

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Michael Connelly: Angels Flight

Angels Flight: Michael ConnellyGripping and true to detail.

I read this book on the flight to the U.S. which initiated my move to this country several years ago. Having spent a couple of months in L.A. in 1991 just prior to the first Rodney King trial (which was to spark the upheaval this book, in part, draws on), at a time when tension was already palpable in the air, “Angels Flight” immediately brought back my memories of that time. Now that I have lived in in Los Angeles again (from 2000 to 2003), I can appreciate even better Michael Connelly’s excellent insight into the politics of this city and the situation of the LAPD, where, with the “C.R.A.S.H.” scandal, the ghost of the old beast would later come to rear its ugly head yet again. Connelly’s rendition is true to detail in every respect – even his description of the ongoing struggle to define the role of the “inspector general,” whose position was created as a response to the Rodney King trials and tribulations; who widely, however, and for a long time was not considered as effective as the creators of that office had originally had in mind.

“Angel’s Flight” was Connelly’s first book I read, and it immediately drew me into the Harry Bosch series. I have since become an ardent fan and am always eagerly awaiting the next installment. Michael Connelly is one of the few authors who have never once disappointed me.