The Swimming Pool - Louise Candlish

***** An engaging and unpredictable story

I read each page of this book with great curiosity, because it was not the usual thriller with a dark and dramatic atmosphere where somebody eventually dies.
Aside from the prologue, “The Swimming Pool” brings you into the life of Natalie, a normal woman with a husband and a teenage daughter, who lives an extraordinary experience: make friends with Lara Channing, a local celebrity. She is thrown into an artificial environment that attracts her more and more, leading her to overlook her old friends and family.
What’s behind this interest from Lara about her?
The great thing about this book is that you don’t have the slightest idea of ​​where it will end up. What is the conflict that defines it? Does it concern Natalie, her husband, her daughter or Lara? Or someone else?
Well, every day I was anxiously waiting for the moment to immerse myself in it to find out what would happen next.
The characters are well built and the plot is never boring, although there is little action. In retrospect, I realise that this novel is characterized by a very well defined structure that allows the reader not to lose themselves in its three timelines.
During the reading, I sensed the author’s efforts to keep my focus on the core of story, preventing me from taking too much notice about the daughter of the protagonist, Molly, but I didn’t realise to what extent this aspect was crucial.
Moreover, the ending is the most beautiful thing in the book and made me decide for five stars, instead of the four deserved by the rest of the novel, especially because of the way it creates a parallelism between mother and daughter.
This does not mean that “The Swimming Pool” is a perfect novel.
I didn’t appreciate the misleading use of the prologue, for example.
Attention, spoiler: the prologue is a dream, not a real event. During the reading of the whole book, I was tormenting myself to try to place it in the story, but then I found out that I couldn’t, since it wasn’t a real event. And this was a disappointment.
As I said before, the novel is well structured, but at times, it’s too much structured that it looks artificial. The transition between the various timelines seems forced by the need to follow a pattern rather than giving the impression of being spontaneous within the development of the plot, and this distracted me several times from immersing myself into reading.
Moreover, the protagonist is overly naïve and weak. It is immediately apparent that Lara has approached her for a reason. In particular, the attitude of the protagonist of feeling always regretful even in the light of the deception she has suffered is irritating. Natalie has an overly low consideration of herself. I expected a reaction from her, revenge. What he had done as a girl could not be compared to the gravity in Lara’s actions, because the latter is an adult. Yet Natalie does not really get angry, she continues to feel guilty.
Once I reached the penultimate chapter, which is a long tedious account, I feared the story would implode. But then this is unexpectedly saved by the last chapter and I’m sorry that no more space was given to Molly, whose character is certainly much more interesting than her mother’s is.

The Swimming Pool on Amazon.

Ripper - Isabel Allende

***** The (almost) thriller you don’t expect

I had never read anything by Allende, it just had not happened until this book ended up in my hands. I was curious that an author like her, who certainly didn’t write genre fiction, had tested herself with a thriller. How was it possible?
But, as I read, I realised that “thriller” was little more than a label given to a book that is hardly labelable.
Of course there is a serial killer, an investigation and in the end a considerable amount of suspense, even some action and the discovery of an unthinkable murderer, but the core of this novel isn’t the plot, but its bizarre characters and the way in which Allende paints a picture of their outside of the box (and surely funny) life, immersed in San Francisco daily life. Unlike many thrillers that seem to be created by using the same schemes, “Ripper” is a wide-ranging novel, full of digressions that, like the tiles of a puzzle, fit into the general picture. They are so distant from each other that we cannot guess what we will see in the final image, but in the end we don’t care much, because each one of them entertains, inspires and somewhat enriches us thanks to the almost endless inventiveness of the author in creating the strangest of characters, using a simply wonderful prose.

It is without doubt one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

Ripper on Amazon.

The Last Coyote - Michael Connelly

***** Bosch never disappoints you

This time Harry Bosch has to deal with a case from the past that personally concerns him: the murder of his mother, a prostitute whose death has never found an explanation. For a long time he wanted to avoid taking care of it, but now in a new period of crisis he’s facing (his woman left him, his house will be demolished and he is suspended from work for attacking his boss, while he sees the returning of his problems with alcohol) he decides to make clear about a murder of which nobody has never cared, except him.
Connelly’s pen throws us into Los Angeles’ most obscure places in the 90s and 60s to follow Bosch in his quest for truth. Once again, the author shows us another facet of this wonderful character, so complex that it is an inexhaustible source of conflicts that never bore and succeeds in making the reader identify in him.
As in the previous novels, we are led to a number of theories, but the answer is before our eyes, yet invisible until the end, because our involvement in Bosch’s personal and emotional events makes us almost blind to the details, just as it happens to him.

The Last Coyote on Amazon.

The Girl in the Ice - Robert Bryndza

*** Interesting plot, but unconvincing execution

This book never takes off.
It starts with the typical scene of certain crime thrillers, narrated from the point of view of the victim; a scene we already know how it will end. The protagonist, Erika Foster, is a detective of Slovak origin (like the author), who is considered to be very good at her job, but has just lost her husband during a police action. He is recalled to work to investigate this case because of her skills, but is constantly hindered by her boss, who seems to want anything but solve it (I wished it were so ... and instead he simply acts in a senseless way). Erika, like the usual rude and impulsive policewoman cliché at all costs (characteristics that would automatically make anyone unfit to have a police command role), disobeys her boss, becomes aggressive, behaves a bit crazily and ends up also embarrassing him in public, because it seems she has no other reason for life but solving the case.
Honestly, I found the behaviour of all the characters often artificial, over the top or illogical.
Can a good detective who found a message from the serial killer in their pocket do not worry about finding things out of place in their own flat? Very sly, I would say. Like Sherlock Holmes!
The novel from time to time moves away from the protagonist, showing scenes from unimportant points of view. In particular, the climax scene is not from the point of view of Foster, who among other things has not quite understood who the killer is until he threatens her.
In short, apart from the slightest curiosity of understanding the identity of the killer, the novel has failed to engage me.
Moreover, this edition leaves a bit to be desired as well, amongst unwittingly comical typos (the dessert becomes a desert!), others that are incomprehensible (the same name written two times in the same line but in two different ways), annoying repetitions and even formatting errors.
It gave me the impression of the first naive attempt to write a thriller, perhaps inspired by cinema, rather than an imagined and structured story for the written word. Probably the style of the author has improved in the next books in the series, but I guess I will never find out.

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.