A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly / **** ½

71mvwmg4azlThere are basically two ways to review A Game of Ghosts: one is by comparing it to just about any other thriller out there, and the other is by comparing it to the rest of the Charlie Parker series. On the former scale, as usual, John Connolly reminds you that he’s one of the greatest thriller writers working today, and blows just about any of the others out of the water; on the latter, it’s a solid, engaging entry, but not among the best of the series.

As usual for the Parker series, A Game of Ghosts blurs the lines between the crime genre and supernatural horror; while the book opens with Charlie Parker being tasked with tracking down a missing private detective, it doesn’t take long before the story spirals outward into a malevolent cult whose female members are in touch with vicious, dangerous spirits. And, as usual, Connolly doesn’t just deliver gripping action set pieces and a complicated crime saga; he’s also genuinely terrifying throughout, giving even the hardiest readers chills and unease as he plunges deeply into what he’s called “the honeycomb world”. As for the question as to whether his supernatural entities or his villains are more evil and horrifying…well, that’s up for debate.

A Game of Ghosts is the 15th novel in the Parker series, and it’s not an ideal spot for new readers to come in, even though the plot is entirely self-contained. But the best parts of A Game of Ghosts come as Connolly adds to the complex ongoing mythology of his world, whether it’s the increasingly odd aspects of Parker’s daughter Sam, his tenuous and uneasy relationship with federal authorities, or some unexpected developments with regard to that strange, tobacco-stained figure only known as The Collector. Even better, though, are the character beats; while the ongoing saga draws me in, the horror unsettles me, and the writing moves me, it’s the characters that I love, and that wonderful trio of Parker and his friends Angel and Louis continue to bring out life and friendship in wonderfully strange, dark ways.

For all of that, though, A Game of Ghosts often feels like Parker barely needs to be in the book; indeed, near the end of the book, Parker makes the comment that he feels like he’s constantly playing catch up with everything that’s going on. It reminds me of the earlier entry in the series The Whisperers, which again felt as though Parker was merely an observer – or maybe “witness” is a better word. Much happens here, and there’s little denying that Parker is a central part of it all, but it almost feels as though he’s reduced to a passive role in the novel rather than driving the story along. That this is perhaps intended by Connolly (and, given that Parker frequently comments that he feels that much is being kept from him in all of this, it seems likely) doesn’t quite stop it from being a bit frustrating.

Even so, A Game of Ghosts is a Charlie Parker book by John Connolly. And what that means is that it will be riveting, darkly funny when you least expect, intense, morally complex, terrifying, and disturbing – often all at the same time. And while all of that is happening, you’re also getting beautiful writing, complex characterization, and fantastic plotting. In short, it’s another brilliant read by one of the best authors that a lot of people aren’t reading. And if it’s not quite my favorite in the series, that’s okay; I’d still read even the weakest Parker book multiple times, and hold it up as a knockout.

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The Crossing, by Michael Connelly / **** ½

51-j9ahfjllFor a long time, my general rule of thumb on Michael Connelly was that his series were great, but anytime he did a crossover novel – A Darkness More than Night‘s meeting between Bosch and Terry McCaleb, for instance, or The Narrows, which found Bosch investigating the killer from The Poet – the results were invariably among his weakest work. And yet, somehow that rule has been broken once Connelly starting combining Harry Bosch, the dedicated cop, and Mickey Haller, the effective (if grandstanding) attorney. Part of that, I think, is that these characters contrast nicely with each other, giving them wildly different perspectives on the world, and different approaches to the same problems. But part of that also comes from how each character has developed over time, to the point where we know not only how complicated they are internally, but how they project a different side of themselves that isn’t always accurate.

The last collaboration between the two came from Haller’s perspective, so it seems only fair to switch to Bosch’s for The Crossing, which finds Bosch finally leaving behind the police life once and for all by crossing the line into helping a defense attorney. That the man is his half-brother doesn’t matter; that this is genuinely a case of justice gone wrong, even less. No, for Bosch – and for many of his former brothers in blue – the taking of this case is the final move away from being a homicide detective and from how Bosch defines himself, and that’s no small thing. Thankfully, Connelly treats it as such, making Bosch’s self-questioning as much of the book’s content as the case he’s investigating (as well as allowing Bosch to constantly weigh his sense of justice against Haller’s trial-based approach to the world).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Connelly’s gift for plotting has only gotten better over time, this time creating an intricate web of murder and blackmail that only gradually reveals itself as, once again, tying into the zeitgeist as Connelly so often does. From casual references to Ferguson to community police relations, Connelly makes the book contemporary while never beating the reader over the head. As for the murder case itself, the motivations and plotting are great and fascinating; admittedly, some of the mechanics and logistics of what happens are a little over the top, but I’ll let it slide in favor of a good story.

But best of all, The Crossing once again shows Connelly’s ability to keep the Bosch series fresh and evolving, even after 20 years. From an active police beat to cold cases, the Bosch series has changed with its hero, letting his job shift as his career and personality dictate. And The Crossing finds Bosch trying to figure out who he’s going to be if he’s not a policeman anymore. And while he may not stay a defense attorney’s investigator for more than one book, it’s a sign of what kind of character that Bosch is that I’m willing to follow him for no matter what comes next in his life.

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The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

27209225A few months ago, I stumbled across The Devil’s Detective, which told the story of Thomas Fool, a damned soul doing his best to investigate murders in Hell. It was a book that completely caught me off guard, and blew me away, creating an astonishingly vivid world, and truly committing to its premise – after all, how could you solve murders in a place designed around suffering? Unsworth’s novel embraced that question, turning it into a book in which Fool’s quest for hope and answers is as much a defiance of Hell as it is a murder mystery. It was an incredible, beautifully written book that I loved, and one that I was eager to see followed up.

Now comes The Devil’s Evidence, the second (and hopefully not last) Thomas Fool novel, which picks up some time after the first book. Fool’s stature has continued to grow, but what that means for Hell – which seems to have embraced the idea of Information Men – remains to be seen. Is Fool just a pawn in Hell’s games, or his own man? But before he can deal with that question too much, or work on the series of fires that are breaking out across Hell, he’s drafted into accompanying a delegation of demons into Heaven. And once he arrives, he starts to realize that he’s been brought here to exercise his particular skills all over again – because something horrible is happening in Heaven.

Just as he did in The Devil’s Detective, Unsworth makes his book work by embracing his environment, creating a take on Heaven unlike anything else out there (much as he did with Hell). Unsworth’s Heaven is a beautiful place, but a strange one, with joyful souls in constant waking dreams, and angels unable to perceive anything that might leave them questioning the perfection of their world. It’s a rich, strange world, and as viewed through Fool’s eyes, one that’s both beautiful and utterly alien, both appealing and wholly wrong. More than that, it’s a deeply strange place, much like Unsworth’s Hell; in both places, the idea of religion, sin, or forgiveness feel almost absent and abstract, as though they barely matter at all to the final product.

Once again, though, it’s Unsworth’s rich prose and storytelling skills that make this such a knockout, though. As Fool begins to investigate the horrific crimes throughout Heaven, Unsworth keeps the pressure building, introducing off-kilter angels, ratcheting up the tension between Fool and the demons who resent him, and escalating the stakes far beyond these original murders. Through it all, Unsworth keeps us invested in Fool’s fate – not only his life, but his emotional stakes, his sense of purpose, and his efforts to find something resembling happiness in a horrific life. And once again, that quest for meaning and understanding becomes important as an end unto itself, with knowledge serving both as its own reward and its own curse.

The Devil’s Evidence is a worthy sequel in every way, and that’s no small feat, given how much I loved The Devil’s Detective; it avoids the problem of repetition by letting the story, the world, and the characters evolve and grow, expanding Unsworth’s odd cosmology in the most logical way. And the result is every bit the book that Detective was, working both as horror novel and detective story, as neo-noir and dark fantasy, as bleak crime novel and surreal Barker-esque horror. It’s a wonderfully unique novel, and one that leaves me eager for more Thomas Fool to come.

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The Handmaiden / *****

the-handmaiden-posterOver the past decade or so, I’ve become more and more of a fan of Korean cinema, which seems to approach genre boundaries as suggestions at best, and more commonly, as outdated and pointless. Whether you’re following the insane twists and turns of Save the Green Planet!, in awe of the astonishing kinetic energy of The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, spending your time torn between laughter and horror at Memories of Murder, gleefully watching as Snowpiercer swings from black comedy to political allegory to horrific violence, or digging through the devious (and deviant) world of Oldboy, there’s something incredible about the way that Korean filmmakers defy easy categorization. And for me – as for many – my gateway into the country’s cinema came in the films of Chan-Wook Park, who helmed Oldboy and the rest of the so-called “vengeance” trilogy. Sure, Oldboy was the breakthrough, but as I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, I found myself realizing that what Park was turning out was unlike much else I had ever seen, and in awe of the surprises they could pull off. And so, when I started to hear the praise and reaction The Handmaiden was getting, I got even more excited than usual for a new Park film.

What was more unusual, though, was the constant references to how “feminist” The Handmaiden was. Park is a lot of things – a master of visual style, a thrilling storyteller, a masterful director – but you’d be hard pressed to find the feminism of many of his films. And yet, when you see his most recent film – the underrated Stoker, his English-language debut – you can see a man who’s starting to empathize more with his female characters, to understand the sexual dimensions (and danger) to the twisted worlds he created. And so, I was intrigued, but not quite sold.

And yet, it all turns out to be true – The Handmaiden is a pointedly, assuredly feminist film. It’s also a period piece set in 1930’s Korea; it’s also a twisty, convoluted crime story. It’s also a glorious black comedy, and a tale full of violence and menace. Oh, and it’s a lesbian love story, with some quite explicit sex scenes that come along the way. In other words, it’s about what you’d expect from Park – and that means, in addition to all of that wildness, it’s also incredibly stylish, darkly funny, wonderfully performed, oozing with atmosphere, and constantly doing what you least expect.

Taken in its simplest sense, The Handmaiden is the story of a young Korean woman who’s hired as the new handmaiden for a Japanese heiress. (Side note: the way the film handles the dual-language issue with subtitles is a simple but effective method that I really appreciated.) Not long after she arrives, the heiress starts being courted by a Japanese count who’s been working with her uncle (who also serves as her caretaker). All of which sounds simple enough – except that, within the first five minutes, the film reveals that the handmaiden and the count are actually partners in crime, working together to scam the heiress out of her fortune.

And if you think that sounds complicated, that’s before the handmaiden and the heiress begin to spend all their time together, and maybe start falling for each other…and before the big reveals start crashing their way through the film. Because everything I’ve told you doesn’t even get past the first third of the plot, and doesn’t even begin to touch on the layers of weirdness, depravity, and violence that are lurking in the shadows. But the simple version is: if all you’re looking for is a great twisty crime story, The Handmaiden delivers in spades, with schemes within schemes, double crosses aplenty, and loads of shady people working their cons.

So, yes, The Handmaiden is undeniably a stylish, great thriller. But beyond that, it’s also a wonderfully feminist work, like so many have pointed out. Explaining how would be to give away some of the fun; suffice to say, the movie really gets going when the women fall in love, and once you realize exactly what the things are that they’re rebelling against  – and maybe why our heiress’s aunt committed suicide in that tree outside her window – it’s not hard to love The Handmaiden as a story about men who abuse women and the way they pay for their cruelty. Except, well, even that’s not quite right…but it’s close enough for the purposes of this review, and without digging too deeply into what’s going on plot-wise by the end.

The thing about The Handmaiden is that, essentially, it’s a crime thriller, one with a lesbian love story tucked into it. But summarizing the film that way is to rob it of its many pleasures – its beautiful and lush staging, its great performances, its wonderfully shifting moods, its thoughtful subtext, and its gleeful willingness to shift gears on a dime and take you wherever it feels like going. Is it pulpy, a little trashy, a little excessive? Oh, undeniably. But is it also incredibly fun, wonderfully invigorating, and excitingly unpredictable? Hugely so. And once you factor in the wonderful style and boundary-defying nature of it all, you’ve got a fantastic time in the theater. Just, you know, don’t take your mom to this one.

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The Steel Kiss, by Jeffery Deaver / ****

thesteelkissusa-220x332There was a time when Jeffery Deaver’s books were day one reads for me – instant purchases, to be devoured and enjoyed. My enthusiasm for his books has waxed and waned over the years, though, as Deaver has turned more and more formulaic, and for every great read he writes (The Kill RoomThe October List), he turns out a few generic, forgettable, or even bad ones (Trouble in MindRoadside Crosses).

And so, when I first started to read The Steel Kiss, I got annoyed with what I felt like were Deaver’s usual tropes – the obvious misleads and feints, the half truths – and quit. But I’m glad I went back to The Steel Kiss, because what I got as I read was an engaging, really fun read, and a firmer grip on what Deaver has become over the years: basically, he’s become CSI or NCIS, the very shows I always felt like his books inspired, complete with the rhythms and patterns that come along with such entertainment.

Now, with that being said, there’s no denying the fun that can come out of a Deaver book. The Steel Kiss is simple but effective, following Rhyme as he helps out with a civil case inspired by the horrific death of a man in a malfunctioning escalator. Meanwhile, Sachs is trying to track down an anti-consumerist killer who’s killing people using the devices that make their lives easier. Will these two cases come together? Of course they will. And does it all somehow connect a bit to Pulaski’s extracurricular activities with local drug dealers? More or less.

And yet, even while I recognized all the formulas at play, and many of Deaver’s usual tools and tricks, I enjoyed The Steel Kiss pretty well. Deaver’s made an effort to mix things up a little here and there in the series, and while this doesn’t result in the really fantastic read of The Kill Room, it’s still a lot of fun, delivering some good thrills, at least one genuinely big surprise (even if I rolled my eyes at the explanation afterward), and an engaging antagonist who kept me involved.

I don’t think Deaver is the favorite author for me that he was once, but I think I’ve realized along the way that it’s not that he’s gotten worse, either. It’s just that Deaver has a formula that works, by and large, and he’s pretty happy working in that formula. And while I prefer my books a little more adventurous, a little more original, there’s no denying the pleasure that comes from watching Deaver construct his puzzles and unravel the clues, nor the fun of watching him tie all of his various plot threads together in more elegant ways than you assumed – or the fun of being fooled by him, even when you think you have him figured out. Are these day one purchases for me anymore? No, not really…but will I buy them as the equivalent of beach reads? More than likely.

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The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville / ****

515jvth5w9lThere’s a lot of things that can draw you into a book. Sometimes it’s the author; sometimes it’s the plot description; sometimes, it’s something as simple as an intriguing cover or title that draws you in. In the case of The Ghosts of Belfast, it was the pull quotes. More specifically, it was the authors of two of those quotes, each of whom raved about the book, calling it an incredible debut, and a great – and unsettling – piece of crime fiction. Those two authors? James Ellroy and John Connolly, two men who rank among the finest craftsmen working in the genre today. So when you get their praises, you’ve got my attention. But in a way, those two names can tell you everything you need to know about this book.

The Ghosts of Belfast (originally titled The Twelve) focuses on former (more or less) IRA hitman Gerry Fegan, a man haunted – perhaps literally – by his crimes. Neville’s novel is set after the worst of The Troubles, as Ireland works on an unsteady path to peace – a path that means men like Fegan are out of their place and time. As the novel opens, Fegan is drinking – something he does quite often these days – and trying to ignore the twelve spectral visions which haunt him day and night. Maybe they’re only in his head; maybe they’re real. But whatever the case, each represents someone he’s killed. But when Fegan kills a man to appease one of the visions, and the vision disappears, he becomes a man on a new mission – one of vengeance.

The connection to John Connolly seems obvious for anyone who’s read the Parker series. A hint of the supernatural, dark men with dark motives, a penchant for violence, and, of course, the Irish worldview that permeates the book. And yet, to focus too much on the ghosts – which may or may not exist – is to miss the point of the book. Indeed, even though both titles the book has had imply that the book centers on these figures, instead, this is a novel about guilt, and violence, and shame. It’s a book that’s about the scars left behind in the wake of the Troubles, yes, but also the scars left behind by the men who fought for their independence, and who’ve done horrific, brutal things in the name of that fight.

Which brings us to the Ellroy connection. The men of Ghosts of Belfast are fighters. They’re revolutionaries, freedom fighters – and, with all the emotional heft that comes with the word, “terrorists.” And even the closest thing we get to a hero turns out to be a deeply broken one, a man who may have lost any sense of a moral compass in an effort to stay alive and stay safe. In other words, they’re the exact sorts of men that Ellroy writes about: men capable of anything, as long as the cause – or the money – is right. And as the book’s focus widens beyond the mission of Gerry Fegan, we see that the book is about more than one man’s guilt; it’s about the uneasy new status of Ireland, the complex new morality and balance that’s giving Ireland a new lease on life.

The Ghosts of Belfast is a complex novel, and not an easy one to pigeonhole. In some ways, it’s a bleak revenge novel; at other times, it’s a complex, nuanced look at a politically difficult period in Ireland’s evolution. Sometimes, it’s a sprawling look at corruption and crime; other times, it’s a painful dissection of guilt and violence. Sometimes, it’s a book about what it takes – and what it’s worth – to maintain peace. And other times, it’s simply about brutality and what men do to each other in the name of the greater good.

All of that makes it a difficult book to describe, and hard to figure out sometimes. And yet, it’s also that same complexity that makes it so rewarding, and so unlike much else out there. To read Ghosts of Belfast is to dip your toes into a very different world, one that’s utterly foreign to many Americans, and one where lines are far blurrier. And if the book sometimes feels uneven, or full of odd juxtapositions, or a bit bumpy…that’s okay. Because there’s something refreshing about a book that feels this ambitious and different, and when it works, it really, really works.

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Preacher (Season 1) / ****

preacher-poster-2There’s never been much quite like Preacher on TV, and in many ways, that’s much of what makes the show so wonderfully entertaining. For all of its flaws – and it definitely has some – there’s an unpredictability to Preacher, a willingness to go where other shows wouldn’t, to move in unexpected directions, and to deliver material in ways that no one else is doing. And while not everything works, there’s something refreshing and exciting about a show that feels so inventive and weird. Does it all work? Oh, God, no. But at least it’s trying. And when it works, it works like gangbusters.

Now, it’s worth nothing that I’ve never read the comic series on which Preacher is based. I’m well aware of it, and indeed, I have the first volume waiting at home to read when I get to it. So I can’t tell you how Preacher does or doesn’t measure up to its source material (apart from the general online feeling that it’s loyal to the spirit of the comics while telling its own story). All I can do is try to convey the gloriously bonkers world that Preacher creates, and the ideas that it’s playing with.

Set in a small Texas town, Preacher revolves around Jesse Custer, who’s struggling to keep his father’s church alive. Mind you, this is Jesse’s second career, something we learn about as we meet Tulip (played spectacularly by Ruth Negga), who knew Jesse in his, shall we say, wilder days. But Jesse is doing his best to walk the straight and narrow, and turn his back on his violent ways. And that works…until two events shake that up: the arrival of Irish vampire Cassidy, and the night when Jesse suddenly gains powers that allow him to control other people.

That’s about as much as you should know about Preacher going in – indeed, it’s about all you may ever get a sense of, other than the fact that the show explodes outward from there, dealing with explorations of guilt over past sins, questions of faith and religion in the face of an awful world, issues of evil, examinations of cruelty, and so much more. How that ends up involving a meat magnate (Jackie Earle Haley) who seems to worship “the God of Meat”, a stern local sheriff, a church secretary having an affair with the mayor, two traveling representatives of Heaven, and more…well, you’ll see. More or less.

The thing is, Preacher flies by the seat of its pants, with an eagerness to deliver insane moments…and sometimes, they don’t work. But more often than not, the show is gleefully, infectiously entertaining, delivering some of the greatest, funniest moments I’ve seen on TV this year, and using its low budget as an asset – I’m thinking here of the off-screen battle witnessed by two children, or a glorious battle in a hotel that’s between only a few actors, and only glimpsed in brief bursts. Add to that a few times when the show is allowed to go all out – a chainsaw fight! – and it’s hard not to have a blast watching the show when it’s allowed to go all out. And if you doubt that, look no further than the finale, which delivers one of the most gutsy, jaw-dropping storylines I’ve seen a TV series attempt, and does it remarkably well.

In the smaller points, though, sometimes the show doesn’t work as well as it needs to. There’s a bit of a heel turn by one character late in the series that comes out of nowhere, making you really question whether that character would be capable of such cruelty. And Jesse himself is an odd beast, sometimes seeming like a compassionate preacher who cares about his flock, and other times being so callous as to be jarring (this is a big issue in the finale, in which Jesse unleashes something massive, and then just walks away in such a jarring way that it’s almost distracting). And, ultimately, there’s the fact that, without spoiling anything, much of the first season feels like a setup for the show to come – like we’ve been watching a long prologue, and that for many of the episodes so far, we’ve been wasting our time.

And yet.

And yet, I’m more excited about the second season of Preacher, mainly because I watched the show find a bit of a stride as it’s gone along, and because it seems to be discarding the weakest elements of the show. I’m excited because it’s a show that seems to be finding itself, and correcting as it goes. And I’m excited because, even with its flaws, there’s nothing quite like it out there, and I enjoyed what I saw a ton. Preacher is an odd beast, and an uneven one, but it’s also a ton of fun, and surprisingly heartfelt with its feelings about religion and faith in a horrific world. And I’m eager to see where those feelings lead us.

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