Review: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The Late Show by Michael Connelly, Paperback, Allen & Unwin, July 2017, 405p. RRP: A$32.99

2.5 stars

Michael Connelly is a huge name in crime thrillers, and The Late Show introduces his latest hopeful franchisee, Renée Ballard. I’ve read a couple of Connelly’s Bosch novels, and was expecting in The Late Show an exciting thriller read.

Renée is a LAPD Detective who has been exiled to the ‘late shift’ at Hollywood Station. She’s partnered up with Jenkins, a character that we never really seem to get to know, despite having an interesting premise. She is unhappy with her new posting, because it means that she doesn’t get to ‘keep’ the cases she works during the night, instead passing them off to other Detectives in the morning. So when she gets to follow through with a serious assault of a transgendered prostitute she jumps at the chance. Ballard also finds herself embroiled in a night-club shooting where five people were shot. Things of course become complicated and she finds herself needing to solve that case while also working her night-shifts.

When I first picked up this book, I was excited that a huge triller author had written a guaranteed bestseller with a female lead, and for the first quarter of the book I was rooting for Renée and was bonding with her. However, I believe that Connelly didn’t handle this character as well as he does Bosch or Haller: Renée Ballard never really felt like a complete person, rather a collection of parts that started to infuriate me. The amount of times we hear about her paddle-boarding is nauseating, her love of surfing and her father’s death all seem to combine to add nothing to the plot but just are clumsy attempts to make Renée human, but he failed to engage me. Her housing situation had the possibility to complicate matters further, to be an interesting development, and it never came to fruition.

Not once did the fact that she was sleeping three hours a night actually impact the plot, she never made a mistake due to fatigue, and she just ran on coffee. Connelly makes such a massive deal about this, but never actually uses it to further the plot. As the book rolled on, I found the suspense wasn’t there in high doses either. The ‘thrilling’ part of the novel lacked kick. It was fine, but it certainly wasn’t anything groundbreaking. To make this book ‘friendly’ to audiences, it’s been neutered.

It was still readable, and I finished it, but it’s not a stand out novel to me. For established fans, it is probably a fair addition to the Connelly back catalogue, but I’d recommend new readers go and read some of his earlier works, especially the Bosch series.

Thank you Allen & Unwin for the review copy of The Late Show.

Review: A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride, Paperback, HarperCollins Publishers, May 2017, 608p

4.5 stars

 

I’m a huge fan of Stuart MacBride’s McRae and Steel series and although A Dark So Deadly doesn’t fit into that fictional universe, it certainly will appeal to fans of that series.  The characters in this novel are entertaining, well-drawn, and a real credit to the author. A Dark So Deadly has cemented MacBride as one of the best thriller writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and is fast becoming one of my go to recommendations for family and friends when they want a twisted crime read.

For fans of either the McRae or Henderson series by MacBride, the setting will be blissfully familiar: the Scotland that inhabits this novel is wet, miserable and full of various butties. One of the best things about this book is that you really get a feel for where the action is taking place, similar to the writing in the first three or four Logan McRae novels.

The characters of A Dark So Deadly are certainly interesting. The plot follows DC Callum MacGregor, who has recently joined the ‘Misfit Mob’ because he’s apparently rubbish at his job. The remaining members of the crew are colourful, there’s DI “Mother” Malcolmson who is recovering from a massive heart attack, DS McAdams who is dying of cancer and insists on constantly talking in verse, DC Franklin, the latest addition to the team who seems to have a stick stuck up somewhere, DS ‘Dotty’ Hodgkin, who is confined to a wheelchair and is one of the few likeable characters in the novel, and DC Watt, who is one of the least likeable characters of any novel ever written. Watching these guys try and crack a rapidly evolving case is part comedy, part tragedy, but 100% entertainment.

While not believable, the plot is certainly twisted – with red herrings and misdirection aplenty. I was sure I had worked out what was happening about three quarters of the way through the novel, and while I had guessed some things correctly, other parts of the conclusion floored me. It’s one of MacBride’s strengths, being able to keep his reader guessing until the last.

I’m tempted to classify this book as a comedy – although with such dark content it certainly would offend some lovers of that genre – MacGregor’s life just gets worse and worse and you can’t help but feel sorry, and you certainly spend a good amount of the book laughing at him and his antics. This novel is long, but the combination of the killer plot, humour,  and excellent characters, you’re happy to stick around to the last page. 

I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes dark, twisted stories of any variety. Certainly, to people with strong stomachs. This is a standalone novel of the highest order, one where you get to bond with the characters in a manner normally found in series. A Dark So Deadly is a great place to start if you are wanting to pick up MacBride’s writing: although you might find yourself addicted, just like I have.

Review: The Mayfly by James Hazel

The Mayfly by James Hazel, (Charlie Priest, #1), Paperback, Zaffre Publishing, June 2017, 408p.

4 out of 5 stars

James Hazel’s The Mayfly is a shockingly good debut, and certainly not what I was expecting. For a first published novel, this book was very well written and quite tight in its execution of a somewhat complex plot.

Charlie Priest (which is an awesome name for a protagonist) was a detective and left the police force to be a lawyer. Priest, as a character, has some very interesting premises: he suffers from dissociative disorder, has an angry ex-wife, and appears to think he has no social skills. The way Hazel includes dissociative disorder in The Mayfly is excellent – Priest doesn’t seem to suffer from ‘multiple personality disorder’ which is the cliché I was expecting when I started this book, but rather descends into a sort of parallel reality in his head and becomes pretty much useless. What he does during this period is not revealed to the reader, but is hinted at through Priest’s brother, a serial killer with the same condition.

Did I forget to mention the brother who is a serial killer? Another thing that’s going on with Charlie Priest, his brother is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for murder. He suffers from the same condition Charlie does, and it seems to be the cause of his murderous past. William Priest was a psychologist and seems to enjoy playing games with the people in his life. I would love to see more of William and Charlie interacting in future books, their relationship seems complex and interesting.

Some aspects of this novel are predictable. I had guessed the rest of the plot about half way through and while the characters are all interesting, sometimes it seemed like every character was just too special. However, The Mayfly is still a gripping and intense crime novel, so although I had an idea of what was coming, I stuck with it to see if it was as insane of a plot as I suspected. I was not disappointed.

If this review seems to be negative, it is only because as I was reading it I was looking for weaknesses – and of course found some. Hazel has delivered a wonderful, albeit slightly flawed debut novel. I read it in a single day, and found the writing to be perfectly balanced between action and description. As the opening stand of a series of novels, it perfectly introduces all the characters and intrigues the reader as to what shenanigans are going to happen in the next instalment. I will certainly be picking up the next book by James Hazel, and if you are looking for a fresh voice in the crime fiction genre you should take a look at Charlie Priest.

Thank you to Zaffre Publishing for a review copy of this novel.

Review: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski

This is a very short and belated review of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Thadeusz Borowski. I read this many months ago, and through a potent combination of procrastination and inability to actually talk about this book, late reviews happen.

I wanted to read more Holocaust literature, especially from voices who had actually lived and experienced the atrocities. Borowski’s work is translated from Polish and he survived both Auschwitz and Dachau. I’ve read Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, and I think I hold the somewhat unpopular opinion in finding more depth and interest in both Borowski and Levi over the better known Wiesel. It’s difficult to talk about ‘enjoyment’ of a Holocaust novel because you really shouldn’t, and I know I can’t, ‘enjoy’ these stories but you can still get something out of reading them. You walk away with a small fragment of understanding and a large slice of humble pie.

Talking from the historical point of view, these are interesting stories Borowski has put together, but we aren’t told if they are actual autobiographical accounts. You can’t be sure what is recollection and what is fabrication. Regardless of the amount of fictionalization, they are still important and illuminating vignettes of life in a concentration camp.

Borowski’s language is beautiful, thematic and dark. Thadeusz puts dark yet beautiful imagery in contrast with the atrocities of the Holocaust, creating some really haunting literature. There are a variety of stories in this collection, not just the title story, but besides having the Holocaust in common, they all discuss the idea of hope, or the subsequent loss of hope. Borowski describes people arriving in trains at Auschwitz, knowing that they were being led to their deaths, but hoping that it wasn’t going to come to that and following the instructions given to them by other prisoners – walking to the showers in the hope of being treated as human beings. An expectation I think we all can appreciate.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen would have to be one of the darkest and most harrowing books I have ever read. It won’t leave me any time soon.

Review: Painted Skins by Matt Hilton

Painted Skins by Matt Hilton, (Tess Grey & Po Villere, #2), eARC from netgalley, Severn House Publishers, December 2016, 256p.

4 out of 5 stars.

Painted Skins is the latest book in the Tess Grey & Po Villere series, and although I haven’t read Blood Tracks, which is the first title, I was still enthralled in the lives of these characters. In Tess Grey, Hilton has managed to build a believable, real and strong female protagonist who carries the action of this series easily. Often female leads in crime thrillers are either infallible action stars who single-handedly take on gangs of bad guys and come out without a scratch, or they are purely the brains behind the operation and then rely on the men around her to deal with the sharp end of the action. Tess and Hilton fall into neither of these traps, and that’s refreshing.

The characters in Painted Skins are great, I really enjoyed both Tess and Po – they come from such different backgrounds and work together in a wonderful way. I loved that although they are romantically involved, there’s no subplot about their relationship – that often gets tedious and stops the momentum in thrillers – but you learn about their relationship while they are navigating the case and trying to save a young woman from a kidnapper.

I will try not to give anything away, but Painted Skins reminded me a lot of Matt Hilton’s early Joe Hunter novels, it is two friends hunting down a deranged individual and stopping at nothing to deliver justice. The bad guys that fill both the Hunter and Grey & Villere series are some of the darkest, bone-chilling monsters I’ve ever encountered in literature. I’m not very squeamish, and I read many thrillers a year, but Hilton’s bad guys always stick with me for years to come, and I have a feeling that this book’s villain will be the same.

Hilton’s writing is great – to the point and polished. Painted Skins is a tightly constructed and well-executed crime thriller. Whenever I am asked for advice on what constitutes a good fight scene I just point to the closest Matt Hilton book.

I will certainly be hunting out the first book in the Grey & Villere series, I can’t wait to return to this universe!

Thank you to Severn House Publishers for providing a review copy of this book.

Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Norton Critical Edition (4th ed). First pub. 1899, 506p.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

It’s taken me a long time to actually rea Heart of Darkness. I was supposed to read it in first year of university, but I skipped it and wrote my assignments on the other novels in the course. I now regret that decision, because Heart of Darkness is a great short novel that would probably have helped me out in my history degree as well as my English studies.

It is interesting to read Heart of Darkness as a text in light of colonisation and post-colonisation. You really get a glimpse into how people were thinking about the ‘exploration’ of ‘new worlds’. Be prepared for lots of mentions of ‘savages’, and archaic language that is now interpreted as offensive, but was accepted vocabulary at the time. It is interesting that at the end of the story, the white people come off as much worse characters than any of the ‘savages’ featured in the story.

I was expecting an adventure text from Heart of Darkness and instead I ended up receiving something more along the lines of a supernatural ghost story. This actually disappointed me – I love action and adventure. However, I think that it makes Heart of Darkness more accessible for many of today’s readers because we’re exposed to supernatural content in books all the time. I wonder what people of the time took from the supernatural element of the narrative.

Heart of Darkness was not my first Joseph Conrad, in fact I read and reviewed The Secret Agent last year for the Classics Club (link to review). I enjoyed the plot of The Secret Agent, and I would say that overall I enjoyed The Secret Agent more than I enjoyed Heart of Darkness. The writing style in The Secret Agent is different, not as descriptive or as full of allegory. The language in Heart of Darkness is certainly more lyrical and beautiful than The Secret Agent but to me, the language makes it harder to get at the story. I enjoyed reading passages of Heart of Darkness out loud, the language is beautiful – if you like accomplished writing, then Heart of Darkness is for you, if you like plot driven and simple prose, maybe try The Secret Agent first, like I did.

I will be picking up more of Conrad’s works, I did enjoy Heart of Darkness, and I’ve heard that Under Western Eyes is related to The Secret Agent, and responsive to Crime and Punishment, which sounds interesting.

Review: Grunt by Mary Roach

Grunt by Mary Roach, ARC, Oneworld, November 2016, 285p.

4 out of 5 stars.

Grunt is a book about war unlike any other I have encountered – and I’ve certainly read my fair share of war books. Mary Roach goes behind the science and technology of modern soldiering, and the issues and advances that scientists are making for the men and women on the front line. This is not a book for the faint hearted, it is full of blood, gore and swearing and doesn’t shy away from some hard truths about the US Defence Force. Grunt is a book for those curious about how uniforms come to be, what happens when you take shrapnel to your, uh, nether regions? Do soldiers get travellers’ diarrhoea like the rest of us? What is life aboard a submarine like?

Roach, of course, has investigated and researched all these topics and more and written a brilliant non-fiction book that is very accessible. Much of the research is communicated by descriptions of her conversations with people in the military, and her experiences while researching. Sometimes Roach throws in a reference from a medical or scientific journal, but most of her evidence takes the form of interviews with experts and those who are actually experiencing the technology and science – the grunts. This makes this book very easy to read and digest, but not something I would be reaching for as a reference text. Its value is purely entertainment, and on that score, it delivers.

Grunt is richly and at times, darkly humorous. There were quite a few times that I was laughing at a dead body or something that may have killed someone – most of the book is framed in a humorous fashion, with quips and hilarious facts accompanying the science and evidence. Grunt is also the first book that I felt physically ill reading (I don’t recommend eating BBQ meat while reading Chapter 9: The Maggot Paradox). I imagine some men would also feel a bit delicate reading through chapters 4 & 5, both of which deal with damage and recovery from injury to the male groin. Entertaining and informative for a woman, but when I read a couple selected paragraphs to my boyfriend, he promptly asked me to stop and made pained wincing facial expressions.

A could of years ago I added Roach’s book Stiff, which is all about the science of dead bodies, to my Goodreads TBR. I’m not sure when I removed it, but I certainly didn’t read it, but I will now be adding that back onto my TBR – Grunt sold me on Roach’s style and approach to writing and science. I’m looking forward to working my way through her back catalogue of weird and wonderful books full of strange and surreal facts. And I’ll be buying Grunt as a Christmas present for a family member who loves war non-fiction and has a really twisted sense of humour. I want to see his reaction to chapters 4 through 5. I might also put a putrid scratch and sniff at the start of Chapter 10: What Doesn’t Kill You Will Make You Reek.

Thankyou Oneworld publishers for the review copy. This book was provided to me in exchange for an honest review.