The Wrong Side of Goodbye, by Michael Connelly / *****

9780316225946I’ve been reading Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series for nearly 20 years at this point, a fact that’s driven home not only by each new book, but by the character himself, who has aged in more or less real time along with the series. What’s more, Bosch has continued to evolve over time, not just as a character, but as a policeman; indeed, over the course of the last couple of books, Bosch finally retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, leaving him to find a new way to define himself. Because what is Harry Bosch without the need to pursue justice and right wrongs?

And so, in The Wrong Side of Goodbye, which is not just a great Harry Bosch novel, but just a plain great police procedural by one of the best in the business, we find Harry working for the San Fernando Police Department part-time, helping a smaller community with its more minor issues, assisting in clearing some older cases, and picking up occasional side gigs that call for investigatory work. What that means is that, at any given point, Harry Bosch has quite a bit going on – in this case, a private gig helping a business legend track down a possible illegitimate heir, an active police investigation into a serial rapist, and his private life as a father. And once you add into this the way that the private gig means diving back into the memories of Vietnam for Harry, that complicates things even further.

In lesser hands, this could easily feel overstuffed or cluttered, but Connelly makes it work, turning Bosch’s juggling of all of these threads into part of the text, and (thankfully) resisting the all-too-common urge to make them all connected to each other. Yes, some of the stress from one can bleed into the other, but this isn’t one of those thrillers where the serial rapist is secretly working against the heir or something; instead, it’s a book about police work, as Bosch runs down his leads carefully and methodically, talking to witnesses, running the tapes, and checking his evidence, and using his experience to help him read the situations. It’s easy to forget how satisfying that can be as a read – just the act of following someone as they do their job running down a case – and The Wrong Side of Goodbye is a reminder that Connelly hasn’t been a bestseller for all these years for no reason whatsoever. Indeed, The Wrong Side of Goodbye is one of the best books he’s written in a while, given how it plays with the cold case aspects of the recent books, dives into Harry’s emotional past, immerses you in police work, and lets each play out in an intelligent and interesting way.

The result is a great read, by any standards; the search for the heir plays to the “cold cases” aspects of the series that were so gripping, to say nothing of seeing the long shadows of Vietnam casts over even the second and third generations out. The rapist section of the book is gripping and fascinating, diving into complex police work and showing how a simple intuition can turn everything around, and giving us some nice dramatic reveals along the way. And Bosch’s personal life, as always, is a joy to read, as we see this lone wolf who’s become the parent of a college-age woman. Add to that Connelly’s gift for tapping into the zeitgeist – here, playing with racial politics both personal and economic – and you have a truly great entry in the series. How many authors could be on their nineteenth book in a set and still have it be this good?

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Wonderstruck / ***

wonderstruck-first-posterEven after about a week of tossing around Wonderstruck, the new Todd Haynes film, in my mind, I’m still not entirely sure what to think of it. Sometimes, that can be a good thing, as in the case of something like mother!, which all but demands that you spend time pondering its intricacies and mysteries. But sometimes, as in the case of Wonderstruck, it’s more trying to figure out exactly why the movie didn’t work for me. It’s well made, as you’d expect from Haynes, and features a few really bold choices that really create an interesting world to play around in. And yet, as a whole, Wonderstruck is a tad overwrought, a bit tedious, and far less than the sum of its parts. By the end, you’ll wonder if there was really any real story here at all.

Unfolding across two time periods, Wonderstruck follows two different children that run away from home. In the 1920’s, a young deaf girl named Rose (played by newcomer Millicent Simmonds, who a) is actually deaf and b) has such a wonderful presence on film) runs away from her domineering father in search of a silent film actress; meanwhile, in the 1970’s, a boy named Ben (played by Oakes Fegley, of the new Pete’s Dragon), still reeling from the death of his mother and an accident that caused him to go deaf, makes his way to New York in the hopes of uncovering information about his father, whom he never knew.

Haynes cuts between the stories well, generally not hammering the similarities too hard, and telling each in a wholly different way. The 1970’s period trappings are fine, but the films soars in the 1920’s sections, which finds Haynes mimicking the silent film style and capturing his world in crisp black-and-white. The problem, though, is that neither story has that much interesting going on, and neither feels like enough to support the film. Simmonds is great in her part, and the 1920’s section of the film is undeniably stronger – it’s better made, more emotionally interesting, and the silent film being used as a way of portraying deafness is a great touch. But it still feels slight, and doubly so when it becomes clear that we’re supposed to be more invested in Ben’s story, which feels contrived and thin throughout, before leading to some unsatsifying resolutions. By the end, Wonderstruck becomes Ben’s story, and given how much better the 1920’s tale is, reducing it to a form of backstory is a bit disappointing.

There are still some treats to be had in Wonderstruck, from its depiction of museums after hours to a whimsical and unexpected storytelling choice in the final act that injects some life into the movie. But in the end, Wonderstruck feels empty; yes, Haynes finds some neat stylistic touches to inject, and there are some nice scenes, but nothing really supports the film’s length, invests us in the characters, or makes the film like it has anything to say.

IMDb

Strange Weather, by Joe Hill / **** ½

34066621I’m not sure why it is that Joe Hill has become so thought of as horror fiction by so many people, myself included. Yes, his novels and stories undoubtedly dip their toes into horror, sometimes wholeheartedly embracing it. Yes, he’s the son of America’s most famous writer, a man who has become synonymous with the horror genre. But to categorize Joe Hill’s work as simply “horror” fiction is to do it a disservice, something that his collection of novellas Strange Weather reminds us. Yes, Hill can scare us…but it says something that the most horrifying, disturbing story here is entirely realistic and set within the everyday world, without a single supernatural element at all. Yes, he loves to push the boundaries of what’s “normal,” and dives into the trappings of genre fiction, including a great horror tale…but when your collection also contains stories about a man trapped on the outside of a UFO in the sky, a sobering look at American gun culture, and a thoroughly unusual apocalyptic tale that doesn’t fit into any sort of sort of conventional box, it’s hard to look at Hill as anything less than a genre writer who’s uninterested in writing stories that neatly compartmentalize themselves. And that’s all the better for us as readers.

As its subtitle suggests, Strange Weather is a collection of four short novels, each of which is engrossing in its own way, while also managing to remind the reader of Hill’s incredible range. The collection’s opener, “Snapshot,” for instance, is ostensibly a standard horror story, following a young boy as he becomes aware of a sinister figure in his neighborhood whose camera seems to capture more than just images of those in its viewfinder. And, yes, Hill lets this unfold in typical horror fashion, building its unease and then delivering a disturbing payoff. And yet, that’s not where the story ends. Indeed, Hill lets “Snapshot” go on longer than you expect, slowly turning the story into something more heartfelt and effective than just a standard horror tale, and one that surprises you by having more to it than just some creepy ideas.

Much the same could be said for “Aloft,” the third story here, which tells the story of a young man skydiving both to commemorate the life of a late friend and to impress the girl he’s been in love with for years. But his jump goes awry, not in the leaping, but in the landing – because he lands on what appears to be a UFO. What’s stranger?The UFO seems to react to his presence, giving him the things he needs, all while never allowing him a way down. “Aloft” is utterly strange throughout, feeling utterly unpredictable throughout, because we have little frame of reference. What results is part brush with death, part inexplicable alien encounter, and part paranormal story, all resulting in a satisfying ending more focused on its character than its plotting (though I loved the ultimate answers as to the nature of this craft). Similarly, the collection’s closer, “Rain,” is an apocalyptic tale, giving us a world where rain is no longer water, but instead hard, needle-like crystals wreaking havoc on what’s below. Following its lesbian protagonist (a nice move away from “white straight male” as the default hero for a story) as she makes her way across the state to convey the message of her girlfriend’s death to her family, “Rain” trades in the traditional post-apocalyptic tropes – panics in the street, martial warfare, paranoia – but in a uniquely 21st century way, with MMA fighters mourning their kittens, Russians spreading propaganda, government officials tweeting their threats, and more. It would all almost be a black comedy at times if it weren’t so bleak and haunting in its devastation.

But, in many ways, the most important – and the most affecting – tale in the collection is “Loaded,” in which Hill dives headfirst into America’s complicated, toxic relationship with guns. From loners who fetishize military equipment to racist snap judgments, from the links between abusers and gun violence to the pervasive and noxious myth of the “good guy with a gun,” “Loaded” makes no apologies for its stances and never backs down from the painful realities it’s depicting. No, “Loaded” doesn’t have a character spell out its messages, but it’s not necessary; the points are impossible to miss, and Hill makes them hurt as much as possible. It’s a viscerally, emotionally upsetting story, one that’s even more so in the wake of yet another shooting – but after all, when aren’t we these days? That “Loaded” is so potent, so upsetting, so powerful is maybe the best testament yet to Hill’s skill – and a reminder that, far from only being a horror novelist, Hill is something far more capable, surprising, and broadly talented – and if you doubt it, well, Strange Weather should be a welcome reminder.

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The Fatness, by Mark A. Rayner / ****

61iyv8rqaulIt wasn’t until I finished The Fatness, Mark A. Rayner’s satirical novel about obesity and how we handle it both personally and as a society, that I realized that I had read an earlier book by Rayner. Back in 2013, Rayner sent me a review copy of his novel The Fridgularity, another piece of satire, this one focusing on our dependence on social media and the internet. The Fridgularity, I wrote at the time, was “entertaining, if not entirely successful”; it was often very, very funny, but felt a bit spread thin at times, and struggled when it came to plotting. Nonetheless, the ideas and the writing were solid, and the book as a whole was a lot of fun.

I bring this up largely to say that, when I realized that The Fatness was from the same writer, I was really impressed, because it was clear that Rayner had learned from his mistakes in that book while never turning away from what he did well; The Fatness is every bit as wild and funny as The Fridgularity, but its focus, plotting, and character work are all far tighter, and its satirical points all the more effective for that craft.

The Fatness takes place in Canada – but more specifically, it takes place in a mandatory health center known derisively to its occupants as “the Fatness”. In Rayner’s novel, insurance companies, public disgust, and societal pressures have resulted in those above a certain BMI to be more or less forced into these centers until they’re able to reduce their weight. Mind you, as Rayner reminds us in his humorous interstitial notes between chapters, losing weight isn’t as simple as that, and to blame the obese for their weight loss is often to overlook all of the factors that have gone into this modern trend of obesity – factors that range from fast food technology to modern jobs to diets and more.

Rayner reins in some of the more excessive aspects of his style here that occasionally threw The Fridgularity off balance, instead keeping this largely grounded with just enough exaggeration to make his points. (The one exception is the recurring hallucinations plot line, which is sometimes funny but often just a bit odd and out of place.) Instead, he focuses on a society that judges the obese and finds them wanting, preferring to keep them out of sight and judging them for their faults, even as they’re using them to line their corporate and personal pockets. It’s trenchant stuff, but Rayner makes it work by investing us in his characters and their story, and allowing the environment and world to make his critiques.

As with most good works of satire, The Fatness goes for broke sometimes, taking on Weight Watchers, fast food corporations, dating expectations, gender norms, exercise fads, ludicrous dieting therapies, and more; what’s good, though, is that he makes it all feel of a piece, instead of scattering it too far afield. Everything in The Fatness feels like it matters to the story, and Rayner’s ability to both take on so much and make it feel streamlined and focused speaks well to his evolution as a writer. And if those interstitial chapters occasionally feel a bit too on the nose – too much telling in place of showing – he makes them self-effacing and light enough to work, allowing him to bring in some research while still making them feel like humorous asides more than lectures.

The result is a lot of fun, and if it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Fridgularity, that’s to the credit of the book; he’s traded the constant jabs for focus, a grounding in his characters, and a discipline that makes the book more engaging and more effective. More than that, as his afterword shows, it shows a writer who’s reflecting on his strengths and weaknesses, and working to make sure that he doesn’t speak for things he can’t understand. All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun, clever read, one that makes its points with all the barbs they deserve while still telling a fun story.

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Jane / N/A

jane_xlgI don’t talk about my children very often on this blog, and there are all kinds of reasons for that, ranging from not wanting to be one of “those” parents who can’t function without showing pictures of/telling stories about their children to trying to maintain some degree of a barrier between my public and private selfs. And yet, for the sake of this “review” (and let me be clear: this is barely going to be a review, for reasons that will become clear; it’s more of an essay about seeing the film) of the documentary Jane, comprised of newly discovered footage from Jane Goodall’s initial work with chimpanzees in the forests of Gombe, I’m going to need to talk a bit about my 8-year-old daughter.

My daughter has lots of things she loves – Harry Potter, reading in general, music – but two of her biggest are science and animals. So when it came time for her to do a biography project this year, during which she would have to dress up as a historical figure and talk about their life and work, Jane Goodall was a natural fit for her. Here was a woman whose work with chimpanzees literally wrote the book on the matter, setting a bar for knowledge and information that has yet to be cleared, and refusing to be thought of any less simply because she was a woman. All of which was like catnip for my daughter, who spent a lot of October reading books about Goodall and doing research. So when the Belcourt announced that they’d be showing Jane, there was no way we couldn’t go.

Here’s the part where I tell you that Jane is a pretty remarkable documentary. Director Brett Morgen has made an interesting career of working with existing materials to make compelling documentaries – see both the captivating The Kid Stays in the Picture and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck for examples. So it’s not a surprise that he accomplishes so much here, especially given how incredible the footage often is. As a young Goodall works her way into the chimp society and documents it all with the help of her future husband and wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, we watch it all unfold with jaw-dropping closeness. Oh, and we’re definitely watching as van Lawick falls in love with Goodall as he films her too – no doubt about that.

So, yes, Jane is a wonderful documentary. But the reason I’m not adding a rating is that ultimately, I can’t view Jane objectively as a film; generally, what I came away with was not thoughts about the movie, but the experience of watching it cuddled up with my young daughter next to me. From her murmured agreement with Jane’s dream of living with animals to her fascinating, rapt stare as Goodall connected with the animals, watching Jane with my daughter was probably one of my favorite filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had. It was a reminder of how powerful movies are as a communal experience, but more than that, it was a chance to see my daughter thinking about where she could take her life, about how Jane Goodall refused to be defined by being a woman and instead wanted to be known for her work and her mind, and about falling in love with nature and the world around us.

In other words, yes, Jane is a good movie, and a pretty great documentary. But will you ever be able to have the experience I had watching it? Probably not. You won’t get to basically watch my daughter’s mind thinking about how quickly she could move to Africa, or learning how to calmly observe animals, or how to make a life not as a doctor or a zookeeper, but simply as an observer of the natural world – a thing she already loves to do. And that made for a pretty incredible time at the movies, you guys.

IMDb

HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt / *****

81rrbeveeilThere’s a real joy in reading a horror novel that feels unlike much else out there. This is a genre that depends on familiarity and tropes, on finding ways to breathe fresh life into variations on monsters that we’ve seen countless times – the creation of Frankenstein, the vampire, the ghost, and in the case of HEX, the witch. And while there’s much to be said for executing a classic trope in a classic way, there’s even more to be said for finding a fresh approach to it, and doing something unique. And man, does HEX ever come through on that front, giving us a nightmarish modern take on a witch that incorporates technology, social media, paranoia, and the darkness of human nature into a complex, disturbing tale that never backs down.

HEX takes place in Black Spring, New York, a small town that’s wired to the gills with cameras and citizen-run surveillance programs (there’s even a new app that’s much loved by the more tech-savvy town members). The reason for all of this isn’t paranoia, or some sort of government tracking program watching the town; indeed, it’s all about watching a single figure: Katherine van Wyler, the town’s witch…who has lived in this town since her death in 1664. Katherine’s eyes and mouth are sewn up, mind you; nonetheless, she appears all over the town, a strange and unsettling figure who’s lost almost all of her ominous nature simply by virtue of her familiarity. (She’s so common by now that one family simply drapes a cloth over her while she stands in their living room, simply so they don’t have to see her.) And yet, there’s little denying the unease that Katherine can generate – the danger in listening to her whispers, the deaths that can happen when she’s threatened. Even so, she’s part of living in Black Spring – a responsibility that prevents its town members from ever leaving, and find them discouraging newcomers.

But by the time we enter Black Spring, there’s a lot brewing under the surface. There’s a growing discontent among the younger citizens, who know that they’ll never be allowed to leave this town, and want so much more. There are damaged citizens who are starting to hope that Katherine might be able to help them in their lot in life. There’s a town councilman whose control over the town is only tightening. And there’s at least one citizen whose fear of the witch is abating to dangerous levels, to the point where he sees her as a toy, not a horrifying force of nature.

I don’t want to say much about the plot of HEX beyond that; watching as author Thomas Olde Heuvelt dives in and out of lives, keeps Katherine a constant figure of unease, and slowly tightens his plot threads is a joy, and that goes double once you realize just how far he can take this story. Because, rest assured, HEX is a horror novel that gets nightmarish in its payoffs; while Olde Heuvelt never takes the story anywhere that you’re expecting, his willingness to bring out not only supernatural darkness but human cruelty makes this one pack a vicious punch on all sorts of levels. It’s truly scary at times, heartbreaking at others, and brutally disturbing at others. And at all times, it’s riveting, giving us interesting characters and a story that draws us in with them.

It would be easy for HEX to feel overstuffed; this is, after all, the story of a whole town, with a cast of characters that fits that ambition. From a plot perspective, though, Olde Heuvelt nicely juggles everything, keeping all of the action clear, the motivations understandable, and all of the connections and interpersonal dynamics always in focus and used to build the tone and anticipation/dread. From a thematic point of view, he’s sometimes a little less successful; it’s not clear, by book’s end, if this is a book about a supernatural force of evil or about the evil within humanity – or maybe both.

(Sidebar on this: HEX was originally published in Dutch, and set in the Netherlands. When Tor Books decided to translate and publish the book in English, Olde Heuvelt decided to rewrite the book and set it in New York to make it easier for American audiences to lose themselves in its world. He also decided to rewrite the book’s ending greatly, and while he doesn’t explain the original ending in HEX’s afterword, I’ve been able to find out enough to say that the English ending does feel more focused thematically, and gives a sense of what message Olde Heuvelt was attempting to convey. I would be curious to read the original ending, though, which sounds far more unhinged and nightmarish than what we got – and honestly, that’s saying something.)

But honestly, little of that matters while you’re reading HEX, because all you’ll be thinking is that this book moves with all the force and unease of a strange nightmare, mixing in its details in a way that maximizes unease while delaying its payoffs until they’ll hit their hardest. It does what the best horror should do: sets the scene and invests you in its world and characters, so that when things go bad, we’re not only scared, but all the more uneasy for the fate of this community. And trust me, when things go bad here? They go very, very bad.

All in all, HEX is one of my favorite horror novels in a long time – it’s utterly original, fascinatingly told, genuinely scary and disturbing, and just moves like a rocket. It’s got me hoping that there’s a lot more of Olde Heuvelt’s work to come on this side of the pond, because I definitely want to read a lot more of it.

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I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh / **

i-let-you-go-pbI Let You Go, the debut novel by British author Clare Mackintosh (whose resume of police work is more than enough to impress), came to me with no small amount of praise, most notably for the twist it apparently delivered. I didn’t really know much else about the book – to be honest, I somehow had gotten the idea that it was more of a thriller than a crime novel for some reason, and so was a little surprised when it became clear that, at its core, this was a mystery novel, albeit one with some interesting themes and ideas. The problem is, except for that twist (which I’ll talk around – I won’t spoil), there’s not much of interest or substance to I Let You Go; what you have is perfectly fine, at best, but without much of note to recommend it as particularly great.

The hook is simple, revolving around a hit-and-run accident in which a small child is hit and killed by a car whose driver immediately flees the scene, leaving the child to die. Half of the book follows the police detectives Ray Stevens and Kate Evans as they work to track down the driver; the other (done in alternating chapters) follows the grieving mother Jenna Gray, reeling from the accident, as she moves to the Welsh coast in an attempt to rebuild her life. That’s not a bad concept for the book in of itself; the Gray chapters allow the book to explore the grieving process, as well as what it’s like to survive trauma and to let down one’s walls; meanwhile, Mackintosh’s police experience shows through as she tracks the case over time, following up slim leads and trying to keep the brass interesting in moving the case along.

All of this is fine; Mackintosh keeps things moving at a good pace, and more importantly, she invests her time in her characters, especially when it comes to Jenna and the pain she’s going through. The problem, though, is that it’s never really more than “fine”; it’s all adequate, sure, but there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before. That’s doubly true when it comes to the relationship between Ray and Kate, which feels like the tossed-in romance subplot of so many generic detective stories (to say nothing of almost any popcorn film). And while Jenna is well-fleshed out, there’s a sense of wheel-spinning to her story…up until the halfway point of the book, when Mackintosh draws her two threads together in a fairly surprising reveal.

In an ideal world, that twist (which, again, is pretty good, if not the jaw-dropper I had been hearing) would kick off a great second half of the book; now that the cards are on the table, Mackintosh should be able to really move the story into more interesting, complex territory. Instead, the book gets increasingly silly, building to another big reveal that’s so ludicrous that it ruined whatever goodwill the story had built up, giving me an absurd moment that takes the interesting material Mackintosh had been handling and makes it all silly and theatrical. What’s worse, Mackintosh starts treating difficult, intense subject matter – most notably, psychological and physical abuse – in an increasingly “suspenseful” way, moving away from the sobering reality of trauma that she had been dealing with, and turning it into thriller-movie supervillainy. It feels cheap and in bad taste, even before the ridiculous epilogue that throws whatever depth she had managed out the window in the name of an eye-roller of a cliffhanger.

There are books that can survive a bad ending; unfortunately, I Let You Go isn’t really one of them. The first part of the book isn’t interesting or compelling enough to survive the bad taste that the book’s climax will leave in your mouth, and even setting all of that aside, there’s little here that hasn’t been done elsewhere – and done better. There are some neat ideas at work, and Mackintosh’s interest in following the emotional aftermath of horrific crimes is worthy. But with its generic police detectives and increasingly absurd plotting, there’s just not much here to recommend beyond one pretty neat reveal that’s certainly not going to change your life.

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