Tuesday, December 29, 2009

9 Dragons, by Michael Connelly

The latest in the Harry Bosch series, this one goes into territory rarely experienced by Bosch.

Bosch and his partner Ferras are assigned what appears to be a routine liquor store robbery. The owner, John Li, was killed before he could reach his gun. The killer took the disk from the digital camera for that day, but left two other disks that Li had saved. Bosch looks through the two carefully and discovers a possible motive for the killing. Along with a representative from the Asian Crimes Unit Bosch postulates a connection to an Asian triad based in Hong Kong.

A possible suspect is brought in for questioning and is arrested for extortion. Harry then receives a threatening phone call that he suspects came from a Triad member. And then a video of Harry's thirteen-year-old daughter showing her tied up and held in some unknown place.

Harry only met his daughter when she was four, and had no idea she existed before that. He managed to find a way into her life and an uneasy alliance with her mother, Eleanor Wish, to whom he was once married. Mother and daughter now live in Hong Kong, where Madeline has been learning Chinese and Eleanor works for a casino. So when Harry gets the video he heads for Hong Kong.

What follows is a breathless chase to find his daughter, perhaps more hectic than anything Bosch has experienced before. He leaves devastation in his wake and reason to pile on yet another load of regret. And as we have come to see in other Connelly books, there are twists at the end.

Harry has mellowed over the years but still has "the mission" to get a case solved as quickly as possible. This impatience often costs him dearly but also often means success in his solve rate. He still makes rash decisions and is impatient with those who do not see the job as he does, but he's more cautious, has learned from the past. He is not spending as much time castigating himself and has moved more into his role as father. It's a role that will be interesting to watch him fill.

Note: not the type book I usually write about here because I usually just write my reviews of mysteries on bookcrossing.com and nowhere else. This book is a loaner, however, not registered with bookcrossing, and I wanted to be sure I got some of my thoughts down somewhere.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dearly Devoted Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

Second in the series. Elements of Dexter's life change fairly rapidly. It is probably wise to read these books in order.

In this novel Dexter is faced with another serial killer whose work makes Dex swoon with envy. Oh wait, this killer doesn't always kill, quite. He does worse. What he creates from his victims is unimaginable. Dexter would be happy to watch the further evolution of this character from the sidelines - with the thought of eventually making him his own victim, of course - except that he kidnaps someone of whom sister Deborah is inordinately fond. Dexter does not like to face Deb's wrath so makes it his mission to track down the dastardly creature.

Meanwhile, Dex fixes on a child-killer and his accomplice and tries to find the time and privacy to dispatch them both. His efforts here are hampered by two things: a further involvement with his girlfriend Rita and her two children, and Sergeant Doakes, who seriously has it in for poor Dex. Dexter's dark passenger recognizes something similar in Doakes, which may explain why Doakes is the only one in the police department who sees the evil in Dexter. And who is determined to catch him out. To the extent of following him everywhere. Makes for some problems in tracking down victims, fer sure.

At one point Doakes is also kidnapped. Dexter does not do his all to save him, as he is more than willing to let him be the next victim of the vivisectionist. This aspect of the Dexter of the novel differs from the one in the television series. I don't see the tv Dex just letting this kind of nature take its course. The tv Dex is simply nicer, and the serial killer part of him hangs rather awkwardly on his frame. While the television series owes a lot to the books the story lines also differ enough that it's possible to enjoy both independently.

Note: Another book that I would normally not review here. But this copy is a library copy, loaned to me by a friend, thus no bookcrossing registration number. I did not want to lose my thoughts about it so I post them here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

The first in the series. We meet Dexter, lovable serial killer, for the first time.

In some ways he is hardly lovable. Although Dex has learned from his foster father to channel his need to kill so that he only kills those "worth killing", he clearly enjoys the task and revels in the pain and blood attendant to it. He readily admits to having no conscience, no real feelings, to faking it.

Yet somehow we are with him. We sympathize with his needs and want him to stay out of harm's way. We don't want him caught. And after all, he is offing those who have no redeeming social (or other) value.

In this episode Dexter has dreams. He has, in the past, been blessed with dreamless deep sleep. But now he wakes with dreams that are disturbing, some of which seem to foretell the future or poke into another mind - or is it another mind? Dex is not sure where these thoughts come from. He is used to hearing from his "dark passenger", the urge that pushes him to kill. Are the dreams a part of that or something more?

The dreams tend to be related to recent murders. Murders of prostitutes where the body is cut neatly into pieces and where there is no blood. All of the blood has been drained from the bodies. When Dexter has his first view of one of these crime scenes he is dizzy with admiration. So perfect, these murders. Clean, precise, perfect. He doesn't spend any time feeling sorry for the prostitutes, even envies this murderer his freedom to kill innocent victims.

The dreams lead Dexter on and even help him find the murderer eventually. When he does, however, he faces the surprise of his life, and the choice of his life.

It is hard, in some ways, to read a book series after it has become a television series. Having seen the television series first I tend to think of the television characters first, comparing them to the upstart characters in the books, while of course the books came first. I wonder how I would have felt about the television series if I'd read the books first. For the two are different in many respects. It isn't surprising that the Dexter on television is nicer and less obsessed by blood and torture than the one in the book. I suspect the producers found that bloodthirsty version one that would be hard to sustain, week after week, without losing a large part of the audience. It is one thing to read of some actions and another to see them.

The book Dexter also has a slightly different sense of humor. They both joke, to themselves, about who Dexter really is and what he wants. The book version also deadpans comments about Miami that are, frankly, very funny. In fact, I may enjoy this aspect of the books most of all. The book Dex seems a little more real in some ways, more threatening. Neither is as frightening as any real serial killer, I suspect, however.

Dexter is surrounded by characters with the same names in both the books and the tv series, but the characters also differ here and there. I am finding the television characters more complex and interesting than those in the book. As I read more of the series I may revise my thoughts.

Note: Another book that would I would not normally review here. I usually knock out mystery reviews in bookcrossing only, with a few rare exceptions. This book, plus the second in the series, were lent to me, though, and have no bookcrossing registration.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Lost Art of Gratitude, by Alexander McCall Smith

In this episode of the Isabel Dalhousie series, Isabel is living with Jamie, the father of their young son, to which they are both dedicated. Isabel continues to feel some embarrassment that she is older than Jamie and that he dated her niece Cat before becoming interested in her. Makes for some awkward moments, especially considering that Cat doesn't take such things well.

A philosopher by trade (editor and owner of the Journal of Applied Ethics) and by nature, Isabel exhibits the "generosity of spirit" that characterizes Smith's books. When she accidentally meets Minty Auchterlonie, an investment banker she met before in unfortunate circumstances, and when Minty asks her to help her with a favor, Isabel is at once at a loss because of her negative feelings about Minty (which she thinks uncharitable) and because she feels an obligation to help others when the opportunity arises. Her quandary, she discovers, is that she doesn't know what to make of Mindy, truly, and she wants to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, Cat takes up with a tightrope walker and Jamie and Isabel test their love for each other.

Not a mystery but rather an exploration of ethics (as are all of Smith's books, really), this makes for a satisfying book that has all of the sly, harmless humor we associate with Smith.

A note: Normally I do not review this type book in this journal but instead leave the reviews at bookcrossing.com. However, this book was on loan to me and was not a bookcrossing book so I needed some place to express my thoughts and tamp down my memory.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pharmakon, by Dirk Wittenborn

The story of a family - especially the story of one man and one son - who are affected for life by an experiment gone wrong. Also a cautionary tale about psychiatric drugs, albeit a subtle one.

Will Friedrich, an ambitious psychologist struggling as a teacher at Yale University, hears of a plant that has remarkable effects on depressed persons. He embarks on a research project to investigate the properties of the plant with the hope of creating a drug that can lift people from sadness into happiness. Ironically, Friedrich believes sadness is the human condition. Yet he wanted more for some, if not himself.

Friedrich enrolls brilliant yet awkward and very sad young Casper Gedsic in the program. His research partner, Dr. Bunny Winton, senses that this subject may cause difficulty for the project because of his inquisitive mind, yet ultimately she accepts him. With the drug Gedsic experiences changes far beyond anyone's expectations, moving from shy and stuttering to confident and essentially amoral. He doesn't just accept that sad and bad things happen and we must move on, he moves on immediately, even from his own misdeeds. He loses much of his conscience.

The experiment ends and Gedsic runs headlong into withdrawal. Unfortunately, his mind, his brain perhaps, has changed forever, and not in a good way.

Friedrich watches as his prize subject turns homicidal and he ends the research project early. From then on he is haunted by what he has done to an innocent student. He and his family live in the shadow of the disturbed Casper. It colors all of their lives, even those who know nothing about it.

Yes, it is a story about the family and of the coming of age of one member of that family. More, though, it is about how that young man's growth is affected by the decisions of his father, made before he was born. It is the story of our responsibilities toward one another.