Owlcat’s CBR V review #21 of The Light In the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I always look forward to reading his newest novel.  Recently, he has occasionally drifted away from the New England locales of most of his novels, for which he has been criticized, although I continued to enjoy his stories like Skeletons At the Feast, with the theme of a defeated Germany in WWII,  and The Sandcastle Girls, with a theme of the Armenian genocide that few Americans know much about.  The latter was particularly good.  Therefore, when I read that The Light in the Ruins was another historically based novel, I did not expect that would be problematic for me.  However, although this was an interesting story and basically well written, somehow the author missed his mark and I came away from it feeling disappointed.

As is typical of many novels these days, there are parallel stories going on, with one story ultimately affecting the other.  In this case, Bohjalian is telling the story of a noble Italian family, the Rosatis, in Tuscany during WWII in 1943/44, who have for many years during the conflict managed to avoid and ignore the worst of it, until the war began turning against the Italian allies, Nazi Germany.  When Germany discards their facade of being allies with Italy and essentially become their occupier, and as a result there is conflict and turmoil within the Rosati family.  Two sons are in the Italian army, Marco in Sicily and Vittore in Florence. The assumption by their family is that they are in “safe” locations. Marco, however, experiences first hand, the Allies’ invasion of Italy and the real horrors of the war.  Vittore convinces himself he is protecting the Italian art world as he works with the Germans and their art thievery. At the villa, called Chimera, the remaining family refuses to recognize the reality of the war that they have so far been able to ignore, living with what they consider some minor inconveniences, and attempting to continue living as much as possible as they always have. They believed the family would be reunited when the war ended and they could resume their prior lives of comfort and wealth.  At the villa are Antonio Rosati, the patriarch of the family, his wife, his son Marco’s wife and two children, and his daughter Cristina.

Gradually, however, the war invades their quiet, “normal” lives. The Germans have intruded on them and neighbors and townspeople are beginning to resent the family’s having German guests at the villa, and become even more suspect when one of them and Cristina begin to fall in love begin to have a relationship. The Germans at the same time, begin to feel nothing but disdain for the family and the villa becomes a distortion of the safe haven it had once been for the family.

This story of the Rosati family is told through chapters that alternate with the story of monstrous murder in 1953 of two family members.  This part of the story is partially narrated by the murderer himself, though the reader has no idea who the murderer is.  I made several guesses and until the end, wasn’t even close.  The other part of this murder mystery focuses on Serafina Bettini, a female homicide detective who had previously been a partisan during the war.  She is badly scarred both physically and emotionally but a good detective, and the Rosati killings result in her own demons resurfacing, so this becomes a story within a story within a story.

As usual, Bohjalian’s characters are well developed, well defined, and each a dichotomy of good and bad.  In other words, they are normal people, if somewhat flawed, dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Even some of the Germans are portrayed with a conscience and conflict within, although some are portrayed as pure evil.  Everyone, including Rosatis themselves, as well as a number of the Germans and even the partisans, are forced by their situations as a result of the war to make choices that are nearly impossible to make.  A good author asks the reader to question themselves as to what they would do in a similar situation, and in this, Bohjalian hits his mark.

Overall, however, I came away from the story tired of the alternating chapters, feeling it was a contrived gimmick, and since the story was told within a 10-year span, don’t think it was a necessary tool to move it along.  A more linear approach would have worked better for me.  I also did not like the murder’s narration, which was generally at the beginning of several of the 1953 chapters;  I found it distracting and not particularly creative. I have noticed a tendency with Bohjalian, too, more recently to focus on the physical horrors within a story to the point that he is beginning to become too graphic and much less subtle than he has been over the years.  Reading this book would make me a little more hesitant to read his next one as a result.  So, I can’t really recommend it and feel badly that I can’t.  I am hoping he returns to his more insightful self-discovery stories and style, which he could still pursue with historical based novels, if those are his choice.  I’m hoping this book was more of an experiment to see what his readers would tolerate and/or enjoy.

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Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #12: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

I was unfamiliar with this author, Ben H. Winters, when I came across the title of this book and a synopsis that intrigued me.  I have always been fascinated by post apocalyptic stories but this one is pre-apocalyptic and I thought this would be an interesting and unique take on the world in general and the character in particular. The impending apocalypse is an asteroid that is due to strike earth, although initially people do not know exactly where, but wherever, it is going to change life on earth forever; the implication is that it will have the same effect on the human race as the asteroid that struck earth and destroyed the dinosaurs. I was also unaware when I began reading this book that it is the first in a trilogy, the second of which is not available until July (I have pre-ordered it), so be forewarned!

I enjoyed Winters’s relaxed style of writing that allows him to develop his characters and his plots (there are several) realistically but without a glibness that sometimes authors descend into.  He gives enough information about both to keep the reader interested and to relate to the main character so that we want him to succeed and want to follow him to wherever his leads take him.

The main character is Hank Palace, a young police detective in Concord, New Hampshire (which also appealed to me since the story takes place in New England).  Unlike a lot of people, he has not reacted pessimistically to the impending doom.  He has seen people react with suicide and with fulfilling their “bucket lists,” so many that bucket listing has become a verb.  Because of a shortage of employees everywhere as a result, life is already changing; one of those changes is that Hank has become a detective much sooner than he might have otherwise, and it’s something he always wanted to be so he is determined to do the best job he can, regardless of the circumstances.

His first case is a hanger;  Concord, in fact, has become known as a “hanger town,” where people commit suicide in great numbers rather than face the anticipated immediate death with the asteroid’s impact, or the aftermath that will likely lead to a long and lingering death if the impact is elsewhere on the globe.  The apparent hanger is Peter Zell, who seems to have hung himself from a towel bar in a McDonald’s, but when Hank is investigating the circumstances around his death, he first begins to suspect it’s more than the result of suicide, that it could be a murder. Others in his department think he’s overzealous and wonder what it matters anyway, given the world’s situation, but he is determined to ferret out the truth.  In doing so, he encounters apathy, lies, misdirections, and his own attempted murder (twice), although others think he is overreacting or misjudging and is maybe a little paranoid. Nevertheless, the mystery around Zell’s demise, and Hank’s determination to solve this case, continue throughout the book, culminating in a final analysis at the end of the book.

In the midst of all this, there is a subplot around his relationship with his sister and her unclear determination to reveal what might be government overt operations.  He has always been protective of her since they became orphans and she manipulates him into helping her without his realizing until it’s too late that he is part of her plot.  This story line, which is also more convoluted than the more simple suicide/murder case, remains unresolved at the end of the book, and I assume will be continued through the second and maybe the third books.

The asteroid also does not hit earth at the end of this book but the location of the impending impact has been revealed, that it will occur in Southeast Asia.  Peoples’ reactions to the impending catastrophe are varied, from resignation to sadness to fear. People are looking for ways to escape and trying to build rocket ships, and others are determined to do all sorts of things they never did because they were being “good” and living by the rules, and suddenly the rules are meaningless. Lawlessness begins to emerge with random shootings, some looting, but overall people are living their desperate lives in many ways as they always have and some are going a bit further, with charity and peace their goals.  The government seems to be attempting to remain in control and issuing mandates, some ignored, some applied.  The book clearly  asks questions of the reader:  What would your reaction be if you knew you and everyone around you had only six months to live? Would you take the noble route or the not-so-noble route?  Would you choose to stay at your job or do the bucket-list thing? Would you choose suicide or wait to see what is really going to happen?  What would affect your decisions, i.e., family members starving, being attacked, knowing there are those who are exploiting the situation and/or have found a way to circumvent it? Do we just keep on as if nothing is going to happen, because in the end, asteroid or not, don’t we all die anyway?  Lots of questions. There is a quote by Hank midway through the novel that says, “You can’t think too much about what happens next, you really can’t,” which I felt reflects his overall philosophy and could be applied to both an impending catastrophe or a normal lifespan.

This is a complex story, and the book ended with my definitely being frustrated, but in a good way.  The fact that Hank resolves the primary case that was introduced at the beginning of the book, with all of its twists and turns in plot and character, gave me the sense that story was wrapped up and that was satisfying. But there are the loose threads or two that remain, his sister’s story and the impact itself of the asteroid, that I assume will re-emerge in the sequels. I am very anxious to read the second book to see where it leads.

Owlcat’s #CBR 5 Review #11 : Alex Cross, Run by James Patterson

I have read all of James Patterson’s Alex Cross detective novels, some of which have been disappointing and appeared to be written by a committee, or phoned in, or written specifically to make it as a movie, which is true of two of his novels.  This most recent Alex Cross crime thriller is one of his better ones.

As usual, his primary character is Alex Cross himself, a Washington, DC, police detective (and incidentally a psychologist, but that gets mentioned only once in this novel).  Around him are his usual secondary characters, his second wife Bree (his first was murdered), his Nana (the grandmother who raised him and now helps raise his three children), the children (one in college and two younger ones), and in this case, a fourth child, a teenager named Ava, whom the family is currently fostering and hoping to adopt, despite the emotional traumas and resulting damage to her psyche that prevents her from trusting this family or any adult who might help her, and making her particularly vulnerable to repeating past experiences.

Patterson uses an interesting technique when writing, using the first person narration when it is Alex Cross but third person when it is the supporting characters.  Sometimes this gets in the way of following the story lines but other times, such as in this book, I think it enhances the perspectives.

As usual, the crimes he investigates are horrific and there have been times in the past when I have found them more gory than necessary.  This time, Patterson seems to have reigned himself in somewhat, describing the brutality clearly but not dwelling on the scenes, which was a relief.

In this novel, there at first appears to be four story lines:  one involves the murders of young blonde women, all similarly killed and posed;  the other involves young gay men, again all similarly killed and similarly disposed of; another involves a man who is apparently stalking Cross, intent on revenge for his perception that Cross had taken from him his daughter who was killed in a crossfire in the past; and Ava’s story. Very quickly we learn that the first two story lines are really one, that the two perpetrators of the murders of the young blonde women and the young gay men are feeding each others fantasies and have been doing so since college (and this is a good 40 years-plus later).  The stalker story begins separately from Ava’s story, but there is a point where we begin to realize that his narrative is going to become wrapped up in Ava’s.  All of these stories feel like jigsaw puzzle pieces until Cross slowly begins to manipulate and recognize the pieces, and even once that occurs, there is the intensity and anxiety of his not having done so quickly enough.  At one point in the novel, because he knows one of the characters is goading him and trying to undermine him by blogging with implications and innuendos about him, and he reacts unprofessionally by physically attacking the man, that thread of the stalker/Ava story becomes entangled by Cross’s temporarily being relieved of duty and possibly facing criminal charges.  In that way, he becomes another separate part of the novel.  Eventually, of course, it all comes together, although not exactly as we would expect it to – parts of it do, parts of it don’t.  Rather like life itself.

Patterson very clearly manipulates the reader with suspense and plot and with his characters, particularly the perpetrators. Cross is an old “friend” for me so I already have a well-established idea of who he is and what he looks like, etc.  I do think my one criticism of this book would be that someone unfamiliar with the character might not understand where he is coming from nor the depth of his development.  That said, however, I did like the fact that a bit more than usual, Patterson involved Cross more within his family, so we got to see his interactions there and his own vulnerabilities as a result.

I did enjoy this book, obviously.  It was a thriller full of suspense and his writing flowed well from scene to scene and character to character.  I think it helps to have read some of his other Cross novels but it isn’t necessary, either, because it’s so well developed.