The Quiet Pools - Michael P. Kube-McDowell

***** Surprisingly outstanding

I came across this book in a jumble sale. The objectively ugly cover (in the Italian edition), which reminds me of a manual, was almost discouraging me from buying it, but convinced by the price, I decided to pick it up. When I started reading it, I was immediately pleasantly surprised by the opening scene featuring some action, which won my last hesitation due to the many typos.
Although the original book was published in 1990, the future in it is still fairly plausible, although some anachronism can be noticed. However, it isn’t much.
The story goes parallel with the events regarding some characters, which then end up joining in an unexpected way. I immediately felt a bond with Christopher’s character, which, because of the remarkable presence in the scenes, and the fact that his deep psychological introspection is shown, has a role very similar to a protagonist.
The plot deals with the imminent launch of an interstellar ship, Memphis, with ten thousand future colonists of a new world, the method by which they are selected, and the attempt to boycott this mission by a movement contrary to it, whose supporters believe that we need to improve the situation on Earth before going to other worlds and that, in particular, depriving our planet of some of its brighter minds is wrong. Their conviction comes into fanaticism with acts of violence, murder, and even terrorism.
The way in which those who are in this movement reason (if this can be call reasoning) is really scary. Ignorance, insanity, and cruelty characterise them and suggest a reflection that can be easily applied to certain aggressive outbreaks made today on social networks, when it comes to the colonisation of Mars or in general to space exploration. You feel relieved that they are just words and that there is no one like Jeremiah (of this novel) capable of fomenting such people, just because they wouldn’t be able to go beyond the show of their ignorance and the outburst of their frustrations on the web.
Yet reading the terrible actions of Jeremiah’s followers in this novel, even if it is fiction, made me feel the same disgust mixed with fear that such comments on Facebook are more and more often able to arise in me.
In this context, which is already interesting in itself, a number of extremely controversial characters are inserted, as is the kind of future society shown in the novel in some ways. Among that, for example, the existence of marriages with more than two people, often even open ones, made me grimace, because the way it is shown reduces the very concept of marriage to having someone to whom you are physically attracted available in the same house. The topic seemed to be put there to highlight some personal problems of a character, without however having an own credibility. In addition, in the end, I was happy with the way that particular aspect resolved in the story of that character (and I must say that this has contributed to the overall liking of the book).
However, I don’t want to go into detail, because I think that the less you know about the plot of this book, the more you have the chance to be positively surprised. I just say it’s a complex novel, but so well structured that it does need to be too long. This probably depends on the fact that the original plot comes from an unpublished old short story by the same author, which he expanded, preventing it to explode in a thousand directions, as it happens when you start from an idea not quite defined. What came out is a work that combines the synthesis with a satisfactory development of the narrative strands, embellished here and there by totally unpredictable twists and accelerations of the action.
If you love that kind of hard science fiction in which the characters’ introspection is not overlooked, as it plays a crucial role in the story equal with the one of the so-called “big themes”, and you run into this text, don’t let it escape.

The Quiet Pools on Amazon.

The Matlock Paper - Robert Ludlum

***** Another accidental hero by Ludlum

A great author such as Ludlum had the ability to enter into completely different settings and stories, at the same time proposing a version of his “flawed” hero, to whom all sorts of things happened in the book and who was at risk of dying more than once, but in the end he could succeed, despite the fact that he always made many false steps and hurt himself a great deal.
In this case, there’s a British university teacher, James Matlock, who is involved in trying to get rid of a huge organization connected to drug trafficking, prostitution, and much more, that involves many American universities. Matlock is not a fool. Being a former soldier, he is full of inventive. However, he finds himself struggling against something bigger than him and in doing so, in an escalation of murders, chases, abductions, explosions and so on, at some point, he will not know how many of the parties are at stake and whether there is at least one that he can trust.
In this book Ludlum, as always, shows a great inventiveness and his ability to keep you turning the pages. Along with Matlock, the reader will try to come up with a tricky net of intrigues and, perhaps, survive.
Although this book is written in 1973, the book is very timely. Of course, there are no mobiles, there is no internet and so many other technologies we can find in action thrillers these years, but the difficulty created by the absence of such means, with the protagonist who is forced to go hunting for telephone booths (!), makes your reading even more enjoyable and the sense of danger more realistic.

The Matlock Paper on Amazon.

My Sister's Grave - Robert Dugoni

*** A set of things already seen and predictable twists

My opinion on this book has changed a few times while reading it. The beginning did not impress me, but about halfway through the story I found myself involved in it, and then I was miserably disappointed at the end.
Let’s start with the positive aspects.
Dugoni writes well, there is no doubt about that.
The story flows smoothly, thanks to the evocative environments that cannot help but recall dreary images of familiar disturbing villages in the state of Washington, seen in films or on TV. As I said, around the half of the novel, it was interesting and you want to know how it goes on, as you are hoping for a few twists.
Unfortunately, this hope is disappointed.
In fact, you are faced with a whole set of things already seen, starting with the girl who disappeared/was killed in the village where nothing had happened before, to go on with the classic twenty years old case and to end with the snowstorm coming right in the most dramatic moment of story.
Tracy’s character, the protagonist, is not deep enough and I couldn’t identify in her. I liked Dan’s character, but in the end, he didn’t have so much space in the resolution of the story. He is a victim of the events. In addition, the sentimental development between the two is predictable since the beginning and is shown in a cool way, without involving the reader.
The flashbacks are sad and depressing, sometimes they don’t move the plot forward, they are just there as a dramatic element.
The plot itself is the main problem of the novel. Could it have been that in twenty years Tracy focused on who could not be her sister’s murderer and not on who could be?
The motivations of the characters are very weak, especially of those who sent Edmund House to jail. I can’t buy the reason why they never explained that to Tracy, making her torment herself for twenty years.
The author never takes us to think of whom the assassin might be, so that at one point, I hoped it was one of the characters who appeared by chance or just the most unlikely one, but unfortunately I was wrong. In theory, his intention was to suggest someone by means of the behaviour of the people involved in tampering with the evidence, but their motivation for such action is obvious, so not even for a moment I thought that one of them could have killed Sarah. Only in the last part, Dugoni tries to point to a character in particular, but even in this case, it is evident that the theory does not stand, and at the end of the game, the killer is as obvious as possible.
Moreover, all the while, I was amazed at how a detective in Seattle Murder Squad could not see the obvious.
In the face of all this, I didn’t notice any twists in the story, and in general, many of the events that should have surprised me are in fact predictable, as the author anticipates them or in any case directs them towards more developments that are predictable. After the obvious “revelation” of the murderer’s identity I knew how the story would end, because there was no doubt that Tracy would be saved, being the protagonist and being this one the first book in a series.
Finally, the last chapters are pretty useless. The scenes in which she goes to visit some people in the hospital were avoidable; the same can be said about the epilogue.
In a nutshell, I’m sorry but I have to say that, once I realised that it had no originality or surprise, I found the novel quite boring.

The Great Train Robbery - Michael Crichton

***** Great historical reconstruction by the master

The great robbery on the train in 1855 is one of the true stories in which reality overcomes fantasy. The ingenious way with which the robbery was prepared, its development full of twists and the surprising ending seem to be the result of someone’s imagination, and instead they are history.
Crichton wrote this book halfway between account and novel, mixing facts coming from his research with fiction scenes created by him on the basis of such facts. No wonder it became a film. It seems conceived and written for cinema!

The reader has the opportunity to step down in Victorian London and learn its uses and customs, especially regarding crime, starting with the picturesque jargon. You can’t help laughing at some points of the text and you become a fan of the gentleman thief and his companions. The reading is fascinating for all its length, but the most amazing thing is the ending.

The 50/50 Killer - Steve Mosby

**** Amazing, but not credible

Despite my overall positive opinion on this novel, there are so many aspects that have left me puzzled.
The plot is that of the classic ferocious serial killer, who for inscrutable reasons attacks couples, but with the peculiarity of letting one of the two choose who must die, and ends up starting a perverse game with the police.
One of the first things I noticed during my reading is the total absence of a geographic reference. I realised that it was set in the United Kingdom only when a character talked about pounds, but for the rest I had difficulty seeing a precise setting. This thing disoriented me and immediately gave the story a sense of unreality.
At one point, I guessed the identity of the killer, but not all his complicated machinations, and I still don’t get the sense of the latter, since they are self-destructive. You have the impression that the 50/50 Killer did not intend to get caught, yet he ends up doing things to himself that would make his life more difficult in the future, if he escaped from the police. I don’t understand this excess just to put in place such a complex plan. I don’t understand him giving such importance to this plan, despite the circumstances. The author didn’t succeed in convincing me. This character is so central in the story that I’m not content with his madness as a motivation for his actions.
Even his behaviour at the end didn’t convince me. It was too easy to beat him and this gave me little satisfaction. It seemed a solution conceived for the sole purpose of completing the story, but lacking any own intrinsic logic.
Moreover, I could not feel a bond with any character, including the first-person narrator (Mark, the young detective). I have found the inwardness of each of them unconvincing, also because it’s supported by an external reality without clear references.
In particular, I found irritating the paranoid behaviour of Eileen (the wife of Mark’s boss). I couldn’t understand the necessity of it, until it finally became clear to me that this was just a gimmick to create a twist. Even in this case, there is no intrinsic logic or at least it hasn’t been sufficiently shown in the text to make it credible.
I also hated the use the name at the beginning of each section of the book to indicate the character of the point of view. It’s absolutely superfluous and consequently annoying. It seems that the author thinks his readers aren’t able to extract it from the text, which is really bad because it means that he thinks his own text isn’t well written or his readers aren’t smart enough (or both!).
Overall, I found the story depressing and not just because it begins and ends with a funeral.
I was tempted to give it only three stars, but in the end I got up to four, because the killer’s deception is really well thought out and developed and you must acknowledge the author for this remarkable originality, not so much in the idea itself but in the way he was able to put it into practice.

The 50/50 Killer on Amazon.

Westworld: where everything is allowed

The theme of artificial intelligence that evolves into self-consciousness is one of the most beloved and feared themes of science fiction in recent decades, but at the time of Michael Crichton’s “Westworld” it was still moving its first steps in the genre and it’s no coincidence that this film has become a true cult. For this reason, deciding to offer this theme by revisiting the storyline according to the current times in a high-profile, complex-looking TV series was a potentially risky project, especially since it wasn’t the first attempt. Back in 1980 CBS had tried that with “Beyond Westworld”, failing miserably (the series was cancelled after three episodes of the five already produced).
It could result in a success as well as in another flop.
But such fear didn’t stop HBO, the creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and the executive producers JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk (Bad Robot). And luckily, I would add.
The result is “Westworld”, whose first season, which includes ten episodes of 57 minutes (except the last one which lasts 91 minutes), was aired in the autumn of 2016.
And it was undoubtedly a success, so that the series was confirmed for a second season.

The background of the story is not unlike that of Crichton’s film. In a near future, a western themed park called Westworld, whose residents are androids, was created, and visitors are free to do anything without any moral or legal repercussions. The fundamental difference with the film is that the androids of this Westworld really believe that they are human beings with free will. They are real artificial intelligences, they have no idea that their memory, and sometimes also their identity, is tampered with at the beginning of each new narrative cycle. They aren’t shown to us as puppets. On the contrary, we experience much of the story from their point of view.
Absolutely unaware, the residents live innumerable times the same days, which begin with the arrival of visitors by train and continue with interactions with the latter, resulting in unpredictable developments that blend with the patterns defined by the creative department of the park.
This is only the starting point for the development by the androids of self-consciousness, accelerated by Dr Ford, played by great Anthony Hopkins, who is the creative director of the park and head of the development team. In a recent software upgrade, Ford provided the androids with so-called remembrances, meaning an access to fragments of memories belonging to past narrative cycles that are made available to them when triggered by new events. The goal, in theory, would be to make their reactions more natural and the visitors’ experience more realistic, but the consequence on the androids is that their behaviours become abnormal, unpredictable, bringing some of them to the awareness of their condition of pleasure tool and to the desire to get rid of their chains.

Within the plot are shown some characters, which are entrusted with the main narrative threads of the series. We have Dolores Abernathy (played by Evan Rachel Wood), the beautiful resident who wakes up every morning in her home, greets her parents, goes to the town where the train is coming, and here every time she makes different encounters. Dolores is one of the oldest androids in the park and her memory conceals the secrets that will come out with the progress of the story. She is entrusted with one of the paths to achieve the self-consciousness that one of the two founders of the park, Arnold (who died many years before in unknown circumstances), wished for his creatures.
Then there is Maeve Millay (played by Thandie Newton), the smart maitresse of the saloon, who, due to the remembrances, beside having access to events related to old narrative cycles, begins to realise that she has lived the same day several times.
Among those who work at the park stands out Bernard Lowe’s character (played by Jeffrey Wright), Dr Ford’s programmer and right-hand man, who, following the work of his boss, is aware of strange events concerning the behaviour of the residents as well as many intrigues related to Delos, the company that owns the park.
Among the visitors the most interesting is definitely William (played by Jimmi Simpson), who came to the park with his future brother-in-law, more as a duty than for real interest. At the beginning William is not attracted to that kind of fun and tends to see residents as people, especially Dolores.
Finally there are the characters played by the two great stars of the series: The Man in Black (Ed Harris) and the aforementioned Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
We know nothing about the Man in Black, except that he is a rich visitor who has been in the park for thirty years and is obsessed with the search for an imaginary labyrinth, the legacy of the work of the equally elusive Arnold.

Added to these main characters, which appear in all or almost all the episodes of the series, and the storylines of which they are protagonists, is the rest of the excellent cast, creating a story with various facets, which you can grasp in its entirety only in the last episode, when the first season’s narrative arc ends, revealing most of its secrets.

A special mention is due to the series soundtrack (available as a double album), composed and played by Ramin Djawadi, former author of the soundtrack of Game of Thrones, Person of Interest and Pacific Rim. Alongside original pieces, such as the beautiful open credits theme, it features a number of covers of modern tracks, masterfully reinterpreted on the piano in a western style, making them difficult to recognize. Among these are: “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, “Paint It Black” by Rolling Stones, “A Forest” by Cures, “No Surprises” by Radiohead, and “Back To Black” by Amy Winehouse.

But what characterises the most “Westworld” is its complexity. It is not an easy-to-use series in the sense that it forces the viewer to concentrate on the plot, to make their memory work, and above all to ask themselves questions. It would be too easy to let yourself be guided by the story, but soon you realise that there is something that does not match: so many small details, inconsistencies, which must be there for a reason and that are part of the great deception through which the screenwriters drive you. It’s a deception both for the viewers and the protagonists, the androids, and is favoured by the fact that the latter are immutable over time and have a limited sense of time within each single narrative cycle. Even when residents have managed to unlock their memories of past cycles, they aren’t able to place them in a human temporal context.
Time is the key factor. You have the impression that everything is going on at the same time, but it’s all part of the big deception.

Even the topic of an artificial intelligence that evolves is developed in a fairly original way from what we have so far been accustomed to seeing. The AIs aren’t helpless children (such as Chappie) or entities wishing to dominate or exterminate humans (such as Skynet or Cylons). Westworld residents are androids that think they are human and find out they have been betrayed. Their reactions are human and ultimately they are presented as victims of their own creators to whom they are rightly rebelling (only to their creators, not to all humanity), not by madness or wickedness or misunderstanding, but because they have suffered an injustice.
This central theme is mixed with others which often appear in science fiction, such as the presence of characters ignoring their own nature and their past, which strongly resemble those of Philip K. Dick’s. There is the illusion of free will, the infinite repetition of a day or a story in a certain place and, of course, the evolution of artificial intelligence that ends up feeling alive, human, and rebels as such.
The labyrinth so much sought by the Man in Black is not, actually, destined for humans. It is part of the androids’ path towards self-consciousness. Along with this path, carried out by Dolores and Maeve, there is William, a good man, almost a pure one, who in Westworld ends up discovering the dark side of his soul. This is because Westworld is not just a fun park, but it is above all a place where visitors, after eliminating all the limits they have to undergo in real life, find out who and what they really are and, just like in William’s case, end up evolving into something different.

As you can see, these aren’t simple themes at all, and being able to develop them, creating a story that could keep interested a varied audience like the one of TV series, was not easy at all. This complexity, in fact, often results in a slow pace of narration, which really takes off after a few episodes, testing the viewers who, as soon as the series was broadcasted, were forced to wait a week to see the subsequent episode. Certainly a second vision, in retrospect, would help to clarify some remaining doubts.
A particularly interesting aspect is the comparison between the warm, sunny, and dusty park cinematography, and the cold, dark, and aseptic “behind the scenes”. Thanks to this, we can perceive the difference between fiction, which is shown to be reassuring, and reality, which is rather disturbing.
Moreover, a peculiarity of this series is that it takes place only in these two locations. We don’t see the outside world. We know, because it is obvious, that the story is set in the future, but at least in this first season it is impossible to determine how far this future is from us. With the exception of androids, the technology that is shown appears more evolved than ours, but not overly.
It is spontaneous to ask yourself at this point whether in the coming seasons, which could take any unexpected turnaround compared to the open ending of the first one, we will be shown this future. If the level of originality remains the one seen so far, I’m ready to bet that they will surprise us.

The original Italian version of this article appeared on on 15 March 2017.

The Bourne Legacy - Eric Van Lustbader

***** The heir of Bourne (and Ludlum)

The change of pen is evident, though, I have to give merit to Van Lustbader for trying to approach Ludlum in so many small details (for example, the use of swear words, though not so excessively). But the difference is there. Van Lustbader’s writing is much more tidy, but devoid of the madness that Ludlum gave to his characters and made them fragile, fallible, and hence human. This new Jason Bourne is much more clear headed and controlled. One can take as a pretext the passing of time and a greater maturity of the character, who seems to keep control of his psychosis, but there are aspects that a reader, accustomed to the protagonist of the old trilogy, does miss. Although Bourne mentions the existence of a dual personality within himself, I couldn’t see it. There is no trace in the book of the continuous struggle between Jason Bourne and David Webb in his mind, often full of bickering.
This new, indestructible Jason Bourne reminds me of that of the movies and has nothing to do with the man who continued to live on the brink of failure, both physically and mentally, seen in Ludlum’s books.
I must say that, especially at the beginning, this lack has diminished my involvement in the character’s vicissitudes, until an essential element of the plot was brought to light (the title comes from it). From that point on, Van Lustbader played his cards well in digging into the psychology of the character and in his interaction with his “heir”, pushing me to continue reading and stirring up the pleasure of waiting for the moment when I would read again.
I didn’t like the total absence of Marie, who was only mentioned, while in the old trilogy she was a crucial character in the evolution of the protagonist.
Compared to Ludlum’s books, where I never knew what would happen on the next page, Van Lustbader’s story is quite predictable for those who have a bit of experience in action stories. The fact of following a certain natural pattern of evolution of the story is not a demerit in itself, but, compared to Ludlum’s undisciplined prose, Van Lustbader’s one suffers badly.
Rather, I don’t understand the need in such a well-constructed book to use mean tricks like breaking a scene between two chapters. Every single scene is so well written and arouses such curiosity that there is no need to force the reader not to stop at the end of a chapter.
The last part of the book is perfect, to say the least, as it merges introspection (of all characters) and action in a balanced and engaging way. What a shame Bourne makes an inconsistent choice towards the end, that is, not telling anything to his wife. This is totally out of character. But on the other hand, the fact that he thinks so little about his wife in all the novel, while she was constantly the centre of his thoughts in the trilogy, pushes him away from Ludlum’s Bourne, making him once again less human.
And even the choice made by his “heir” is not sufficiently motivated: it is just a pretext to leave the situation pending.
The epilogue has an open ending, as you would expect, which gives hope for the following novels. This, together with the virtual perfection of the last chapters, especially on the emotional level, has pushed me to give the book five stars, despite its defects, proving once more that the ending of a book has a huge influence on the reader’s opinion.

The Bourne Legacy on Amazon.

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

**** Genial anti-hero, forgettable case

With this novel I discover an anti-hero who can’t help but immediately become an idol. Cormoran Strike, son of a rockstar and a supergroupie, and a veteran of Afghanistan, where he has lost one foot and one leg in an explosion, is a private investigator who has just been abandoned by his girlfriend. Everything seems to be failing in his life, when a new interim secretary and a wealthy customer appear; the latter wants to hire him to demonstrate that his sister, a famous top model, hasn’t committed suicide.
The story takes place in the streets of a familiar today’s London, in the world of fashion to which Strike doesn’t belong, but to which he must adapt to carry out his investigation. And he does it well, causing more than a laugh in the reader!
This is a very long novel, which, although offering some glimpses on the main character’s life and although he is undergoing some growth throughout the story, is in all respects a mystery.
Much of the text consists of interrogations and other details of the investigations, which somehow make you lose the feeling of the passing of time. There is so much to prevent the reader from joining points to figure out who the killer is, unless they point directly to the less likely without knowing why.
But in the end who cares of Lula Landry’s murderer?
I have to say that overall I liked it.
There are two things that have prevented me from giving the fifth star.
The first is the author’s (who we know is nothing less than JK Rowling) tendency to change the point of view in the middle of a scene. This has made me lose connection with the story and forced me to stop reading and go back to catch the transition.
The second is that, despite there was all it takes for a greater presence of a subplot related to the main character (which is the best thing in this book), this subplot is only marginal. It’s a shame, because Strike himself is much more interesting than the case, whose resolution has not impressed me and that I have largely forgotten.
If it had not been for the wonderful (certainly not aesthetically!) main character, I wouldn’t have been able to give the book a positive review.

Fury On Sunday - Richard Matheson

***** Short but intense

This short novel is the crazy race of a character who in a few hours succeeds in destroying what remains of his life. Convinced that he was robbed of the woman he loves, he escapes from the asylum, where he is detained for killing his father, and in which he is also victim of abuse, to “save her”. But that woman never shared his feelings. It’s all a creation of his mind.
And the book represents a journey first of all in the mind of the protagonist, the discovery of how madness is generated, and the way it drives him to act.
Even this time, Matheson amazes me with a story completely different from his previous ones. Through the points of view of the five main characters, through the personal way in which each one of them interprets the story, one layer at a time the plot details are revealed. The tone of the whole novel is dramatic, dotted with violence and death. As a reader, I was worried about the fate of the victims, but also of the crazy protagonist, who is in his own way a victim capable of eliciting pity.
The choice of who kills and who survives in the end is not random. Along with the sinking of the protagonist into his delirium, the rise of another character and the redemption of the last victim are revealed.

Fury on Sunday on Amazon.

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn

**** Too many unfortunate coincidences

This novel is characterised by an intricate plot, which the author has been able to handle with care and attention. The many threads are then joined in the end.
The transition between the two timelines is always intelligently done, keeping the reader glued to the book. That’s why I was looking forward to reading it before sleeping.
Perhaps the pace with which the story develops is a little slow and it made me a bit too eager to go further to know what would happen. I could not tie up with the character of the narrator (Libby), but I really liked that of her brother, even though it had moments of unjustified inconsistency.
In my opinion, the main problem of this novel is the presence of excessive coincidences, bad luck and mischief. Too many, all concentrated in a single day.

Moreover the ending is under tone. Once clarified what has happened, the author stops showing and begins to tell, as if she was looking forward to close the book. This left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

Dark Places on Amazon.