Dark Sacred Night – Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly has a great track record as one of the finest crime writers of all time. This is not his finest hour. (If you are looking to start on a Connelly book, don’t start here!)

The problem is that the book features one of his oldest and finest characters – long in the tooth angry old detective Harry Bosch – and one of his newest – newcomer Detective RenĂ©e Ballard. What comes across is that the author is tired of Bosch and wants to finish him off. However, it appears he doesn’t feel confident enough that Ballard is a strong enough character to generate the same loyalty. So, Connelly is keeping the pot boiling. Unfortunately, to do that this time around, he delivered a decent enough tale but one that lacked the fire and passion I would have expected.

The story, such as it is, involves Bosch dragging Ballard into a cold case. (Is there any other kind, he half-joked.) Both are trying to find out who murdered Daisy Clayton, a 15-year-old runaway, back in 2009. The back story is good, as is the characterization on an individual basis. But it lacks sizzle. The plot doesn’t excite, rarely surprises, and sort of limps along. One red herring takes up an inordinate amount of time and space to no great effect. Bosch seems to be less of a whole character without his daughter. And Bosch and Ballard don’t spark the same atmosphere when they are working together. It lacks chemistry.

The ending was a bit of a disappointment. Rarely would I have thought that was even possible for Connelly.

All in all, it was OK, but not up to the standards I would expect from this author. Good, but not good enough.

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Scrublands – Chris Hammer

This is a terrific novel which packages a complex plot, finely observed characterization, decent dialog, and a well crafted (albeit stark) backdrop and produces as fine a novel as you are likely to read. It’s simply wonderful.

Set in the Australian outback, the background is that one year previously the priest in small town Riversend shot dead five of his congregation before one of the local policemen shot and killed the priest. As the novel opens, a somewhat bedraggled and PTSD suffering journalist, Martin Scarsden arrives in town to do a follow up feature. Scarsden’s work discloses something different from the previously reported version of what went down. From there on, matters accelerate out of control as Scarsden discovers his mission to get to the truth has ignited some serious opposition.

Scarsden has his own personal issues, but he also suffers from business challenges given that his employers are looking to cut costs and keep their media outlet operating. I get the impression Chris Hammer is campaigning a wee bit for the journalism profession, but in a way that does not detract from the authenticity of the portraits nor the entertainment value of the story. In other words, he does not overdo it – it’s simply another fine feature among many.

The author constructs such a clear sensation of the oppressive heat and the listlessness of the environment that you may find yourself drinking lots so as to keep cool! The realities of life in a small outback town, struggling with drought, unemployment, and the challenges of just getting through day-to-day life are sympathetically displayed. Similarly, the characters draw you in so that it doesn’t take much imagination to put you in their place.

It’s also noteworthy that despite the intricacies of the plot, the author never loses control. Each strand is distinct, logical, and well thought out. The coming together of all the loose ends is handled with aplomb. I found it a thoroughly immersive experience.

One of the best books I have read, ever. Yes, it’s that good.

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Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – K. J. Parker


Do you like fantasy fiction? Yes? Then buy this book. You will love it.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a great city and the less than great man who becomes responsible for saving it from the besieging forces camped outside. But this is no normal siege, and this is no normal tale. It’s bursting with humor (mostly dark) and invention, and changes of plot direction that can momentarily lave you dazzled. It’s great entertainment, with a fascinating main character anti-hero, and an onslaught of supporting characters that add to the developing tension, and the need to keep on turning the page.

Primarily, the narrative is the thing. Parker is a top class storyteller, and the story is one deserving of his skills. It helps that – despite the fantasy setting – what is on show is a panorama of all too realistic human behavior; there’s good, bad, and indifferent. Fate intervenes. Things do not always work out. But it’s always enthralling.

Just great.

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Power of the Dog Series – Don Winslow

There are three books in the series:

  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Cartel
  • The Border

The central characters are Art Keller, a US government official waging the war on drugs, and Adan Barrera, the major player in the Mexican drug underworld. Over the course of the three books, each of these characters is developed beyond the archetypal goodie and baddie, as the continual struggle to stem the drug tide is artlessly implemented by the governmental forces, helped – in the loosest sense of the word – by Keller’s somewhat unconventional approach. Continue reading

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Off Armageddon Reef – David Weber

This is the first of a successful space opera series that is built around the idea of the last survivors of humanity hiding out (from their alien foe) in a faraway planet. To minimize the risks of their being found, the rulers have imposed an anti-technology religion. So far, so good. Unfortunately, whatever interest I had in the scenario was killed stone dead by leaden dialog and too many flourishes of overwriting. The poor characterization didn’t help. Neither did the palpable lack of tension.

In a word: avoid.

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The Quantum Magician – Derek Kunsken

Billed as a science fiction heist tale, this book did not engage me nearly as much as I would have liked.

First, the characters are flatter than the proverbial pancake. Interesting? Not really.

Second, the character interactions often came across as stilted, as if the plot required certain things to occur, but the characters didn’t believe their actions were credible.

Third the sci-fi setting was OK, but it lacked substance and any wow effect.

Finally, the story telling didn’t work for me. The writing neither inspired nor involved me.

In a word, dull.

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Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

This is a space opera tale of a sentient spaceship, Trouble Dog, that is attempting to repay a perceived sort of debt to society for formerly acting as a warship. Now it is part of the House of Reclamation, trying to rescue spaceships that get into trouble. The crew have their part to play as the current mission starts: to investigate the disappearance of a ship in a disputed star system.

On that missing ship was one Ona Sudak, a poet. Separately, intelligence officer Ashton Childe is ordered to find and rescue Sudak.

Both strands come together and become involved in something more significant than the disappearance of a single ship.

I did not like this. The story is OK. It features some cool stuff, like sentient ships, but I found the writing so clunky and pedestrian that I lost interest. It’s fun in places, but only rarely. And ever so predictable. The characters do not seem believable. The dialog is, to put it mildly, often unconvincing. The futuristic universe has nothing that marks it out as unique or fresh. To put it another way, this is derivative. Now that can be overcome, but there needs to be compensating factors and there are none to be found.

A dead end. Not recommended.

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Stalkers – Paul Finch

This is a modern crime novel about a large number of women who have disappeared. All of them have vanished into thin air without apparent rhyme nor reason. One such girl’s sister connects to Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg, who is supposedly investigating the disappearances, and off they not so jolly well go.

Inevitably, their investigation puts them in danger, especially as they get closer to the truth of what is behind the disappearances.

Heckenburg is one of these invincible guys, but if you can suspend your disbelief about that aspect, the rest of the tale does have its entertaining and suspenseful moments. The book is also somewhat bloody and, at times, relentless in its violence. Unfortunately, the supporting characters do not amount to much, and there’s nothing of substance by way of atmospheric backdrop.

The writing didn’t work for me. It didn’t connect. Oh, the words all made sense, and the story was clear enough. But the writing never drew me in. I could have stopped reading and would not have cared what happened to the characters.

So, what you have is a lightweight production which is easy enough to read, but ultimately (for me) unsatisfying. It was OK, but I won’t be going any further with the series.

 

 

 

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The List – Mick Herron

This is another standalone (short) spy novel by Mick Herron, set in the same backdrop as the terrific Jackson Lamb series, but telling a separate story, though with some passing references to the characters in that series.

John Bachelor works for MI5 and is the handler of Dieter Hess, an old foreign spy. When Hess dies, Bachelor finds out that the old spy had set up a secret bank account. In the world of espionage, that’s a big red warning sign, suggesting the spy was a double agent. So, Bachelor – who is in serious trouble for failing to spot the secret bank account when Hess was alive – has to dig around and find out what the truth is. Of course, this being a spy story, all is not what it seems, and the investigation has to make its way through some murky passages.

This is a short, simply told and effective cracker of a tale, well worthy of your reading time. Herron lights the fuse and it slowly burns away, drawing the reader in.

The characters are beautifully described, and the plot exquisitely told. The world of espionage seems all too real.

In short, if you are a fan of spy fiction, this is a must. If you are not a fan of spy fiction, this may change your mind.

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