The Nano Flower - Peter F. Hamilton

**** Perfectly built, but too calculated and cold towards the ending

I liked this novel very much, until I came to the last part on New London, of which I am not really able to digest the conclusion. And this inevitably has a negative influence on my overall judgment.
As always Hamilton is a master at managing complex plots in an elaborate backdrop and make many well developed characters interact in it. In this sense, “The Nano Flower” is the link between its first production set on Earth in the near future and the space opera of his later books.
Although the series is known as the Greg Mandel trilogy, Mandel has a secondary role in this book, as he is on stage as much as the other characters, or even less than them. I must say this disappointed me a bit, because I really like this character, who in the previous books was undoubtedly the hero, and I expected at least a most decisive role of him in the resolution of the story, which however didn’t happen. The cornerstone of this novel is no doubt Julia Evans, although she cannot be considered the protagonist either. More simply it can be called a choral novel.
Less investigative than the previous ones, which is not necessarily positive, and more imaginative, although longer, this book is more fast-paced and engaging than them, thanks to the always excellent prose of Hamilton.
I would have given five stars, but I found the whole story of Royan, including the ending, quite depressing. I could not, in any way, like his selfish choices towards his family. His motives still don’t make sense to me. And likewise I found Julia too cold in reacting to the dramatic conclusion of the story of this character. I felt, in the behaviour of both, something deeply wrong in terms of human emotions, which gave me the feeling that the ending was almost worked out in the cold, without any involvement, losing all contact with the humanity of the characters. And all this clashes with the way Hamilton had dug up to that point in their mind and psychology.
I also have difficulty to consider credible that a character as powerful as Julia Evans really cares so much for the good of mankind and secondarily for her interests. It is unrealistic to say the least, especially when compared with the far from rosy future that is described in this trilogy.

Both aspects have caused my suspension of disbelief to collapse. What a pity.

The Nano Flower on Amazon.

Sycamore Row - John Grisham

***** A secret guarded by sycamores

This novel by Grisham, despite being set in the same place and having the same protagonist of “A Time to Kill,” is not a real sequel to it, and can be read without knowing the story of the first one, of which just a few mentions are made, only where necessary.
The theme is the same, namely that of racism. This time Jack Brigance, a lawyer in Ford County, a county in the southern United States where racism was still a major problem thirty years ago (and I suppose it still is), is grappling with a holographic will written by a wealthy white man that, before committing suicide (he was dying of cancer), decides to disinherit his children and leave 90% of his assets, 24 million dollars, to his black maid. This gives rise to a legal battle to contest the will.
I loved, as always, the characterization of the characters, both main and secondary ones, and the reconstruction of the setting (Ford County in the 80’s). Add to this the usual skill of Grisham in telling the many tricks behind the preparation of a law suit capable of doing much fanfare.
While the disinherited children go to great lengths to accuse Lettie of captation (i.e. of pushing the man to change his will, taking advantage of his condition, so that he left everything to her), no one seems to wonder why he did it, what is below his action.
And so, quietly, a subplot unravels that leads to the truth, and that is related to the title.
This is a story of something that could really have happened, strikingly realistic. It’s a story that fascinates and leaves a smile at its epilogue.

I have only one negative note to report. I love the way Grisham wants you to enter the setting, even by telling all legal mechanisms and details about the characters. In this book, though, I had the impression that the info-dump was really a bit excessive or otherwise told in a little engaging way.

Sycamore Row on Amazon.

The Power of the Dog - Don Wislow

**** Intense, violent, shocking

This is an extremely complex and ambitious novel, which certainly took a huge research by the author on the dynamics of the drug trade between Mexico and the United States. I don’t know the topic well, but the impression I got from reading it is that the author reports real facts, though of course the characters and specific details of their stories are fictional. But they are absolutely plausible.
While reading I saw in my mind scenes from the film “Sicario” and I felt the same feeling of discomfort, but a thousand times amplified by the evocative power of the written word.
The story is engaging, and so shocking, when the author shows the heinous acts of violence and murder. Some sequences leave in suspense and urge you to continue reading until you learn how it ends. It contains so many double and triple games that it is difficult to see a twist as it arrives. Maybe you know it’s coming, but you have no idea what will happen.
Moreover I particularly liked the connection between the beginning of the novel and the end of one of the last chapters.
In general this is a book that must be tackled with the intention of reading it in a short period, because the abundance of detail puts a strain on the reader’s memory. Personally I think this is a good thing for a novel, as it is a sign of a great work of structuring the plot and because it stimulates me as a reader.
Conversely, there are some aspects which have prevented me from giving it full marks.
The novel offers a lot of info-dump on the drug trade, politics, and everything about it. I understand that it is essential to understand the context in which the plot takes place, but I had a hard time reading all this information and I tended to skip it, without this making me miss anything essential to the understanding of story, because I was more interested in characters. All this often breaks the action, because there is an alternation of told pages, which tend to bore you (unless you are interested in the subject), and real action.
There are also too many characters. It isn’t a problem in itself, but their excessive amount makes strenuous to feel empathy for them. It is difficult to “feel” them in yourself, and when you succeed, then they disappear for tens of pages.
In particular, the decision to dedicate each of the first three chapters to a character is quite distracting. I was about to give up at the second chapter, because I did not see any relevance with the first. It seemed another story. Only at the end of the third I started reconnecting things and appreciating the plot, but not all readers can go on like this, because the chapters are very long.
Finally, there really is a lot of violence, shown in a very graphic way, which makes it not suitable for people easily suggestible. I myself was happy to have finished the reading, because at times the book was having a bad impact on my mood. Also this aspect is not negative in itself, because it shows how the book manages to engage the reader, but personally I don’t like this kind of deep involvement with violent and often disgusting acts.

In other words, it’s a great book, a powerful novel, but I would have preferred not to have read it, because it left me with many negative feelings. For this reason I don’t think I will read its sequel.

Somewhere in Time - Richard Matheson

***** Can you change the past?

Matheson’s novels are all special in some way. What fascinates me about this author is his ability to present completely different stories, often in different genres, which do not seem to feel the passing of time. When I open a book of his, whatever the period when he wrote it, I already know that I will remain stunned.
“Somewhere in Time” (or “Bid Time Return”, depending on the edition) is many things: a novel about travelling in time, but also about love, and a fake diary of the descent into madness of a person suffering from an incurable disease. It is up to the reader to decide how to interpret it. Whatever their choice, they’ll find an engaging and intense work in their hands.
While reading I really felt in the mind and skin of the protagonist (the usual almost-hero of Matheson’s book, in whom every person can identify with because of his being ordinary and fallible) and I also got carried away in the past by the evocative historical reconstruction of places and customs. The involvement was such that I read the entire second half, in which the plot seems to accelerate, in no time.
As always in his books, the story is terribly modern to be more than forty-five years old (in this case). So many time travel stories were written, but here the main character does not find some technological or magical device to go into another period. Here the protagonist discovers by accident the traces of his own passage in the past and is convinced that he is intended to go there, and to do so, he just has to believe it.
And Matheson makes us live his inner life in such a realistic way that we end up believing it too.
The structure of the story is really well designed. It is not easy to tell by means of a diary, which is a retrospective narration of events, and make the reader feel as if they were happening in that very moment. To achieve this the author puts some breaks in the plot that the protagonist uses to report briefly on what has just happened. Actually there is nothing really short, since the narrated scenes are often very long, but it is still a compelling literary device.
The ending is a bit expected, but the logic of the whole and the poetry with which it is expressed makes it still satisfactory.
Perhaps what makes this novel particularly good is the fact that despite the story belongs to the fantasy genre, however, it gives the impression that it is not only plausible, but also that it really happened, thanks to Matheson’s ability to mix facts and real historical figures with invented ones.
The only downside, in my opinion, is that the initial part of the novel is a bit slow, but do not be deterred. Go on. You will not regret it.

Somewhere in Time on Amazon.

The Hades Factor - Robert Ludlum & Gayle Lynds

***** A contagious . . . action thriller

The plot of this novel is well-designed and is focused on a very charismatic and credible male character, Jonathan Smith. Jon, as his friends call him, is a doctor, but also a soldier. He is an intelligent man and full of resources, but not the classic perfect action man. He has faults, makes mistakes, but in the end he is also a bit lucky (as it always happens in novels).
Even if this book wasn’t written only by Ludlum, who would be dead the year after its publication, his touch is evident. In fact, despite being a very long book, it reads just as quickly, almost creating dependency, and has the right balance between action and introspection of the characters.
The theme, that of a pandemic caused voluntarily to obtain a financial return, makes you think. The scenario, although extreme, is however realistic and, precisely for this reason, gives the chills.
The scientific part, although it is not overly developed (for the benefit of the reader, who should not put up with any info-dump), is credible.
Among the characters I particularly liked Marty, a nerd with Asperger’s Syndrome. It was interesting to follow the fluctuation of his thoughts as the levels of the drugs changed in his body.
On the other hand, this novel is not without downsides, starting with an excessive head hopping. It is not functional to the story, so it seems almost causal and sometimes it makes you lose empathy with the characters.
The ending opens to a series of books that can be read separately with limited or no real subplot, which unfortunately sounds like a commercial operation. For this reason I do not think I’ll read more books in this series, because the next two, to which Ludlum participated (I cannot say to what extent) are posthumous, while all others are completely written by other authors.
Despite the downsides, I really enjoyed reading this book, so I still decided to give it full marks.

The Hades Factor on Amazon.

Hell House - Richard Matheson

**** Ghosts do not exist, do they?

I never know what to expect with Matheson. It moves freely between fantasy, paranormal and speculation fiction, always proposing stories outside the box. This, compared to other books I’ve read, is different because of the lack of a real main character around which the whole story revolves. It is in fact a choral novel that fully falls within the canons of horror, where one by one the characters that seem to have a primary role die, leaving only one or two at the end. In addition, there is the paranormal element that returns frequently in his works and here is yet addressed once in an original way.
Overall it is a novel that seems almost contemporary, since it is not afraid to put together violent, thorny and blasphemous elements, despite forty years passed since it was written.
The plot is compelling, especially in some passages. The subdivision of the scenes through the timestamp, therefore without chapters, encourages reading and increases the anxiogenic effect.

Unfortunately I read an Italian edition with a very old translation, although it does not affect much the perception of contemporaneity of the work, once you get used to the language, but it obviously cancels the illusion. Added to this is a classic horror ending that is quite predictable and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Hell House on Amazon.

The Black Ice - Michael Connelly

***** The corrupt cop

Another nice complex story for the second book in the Bosch series.
Although you find the same messed-up character of the first one, it is not a separated episode, because only after the reading of the first book you can completely understand this one.
Bosch is back from the vacation taken after the first case and now the Christmas season is approaching, which causes him further depression. The whole story takes place in a few exciting days. There is also a brief mention, without the name, to a character of the previous book, which, apparently, will return in one of the next ones.
This time the topic is drug trafficking across the border with Mexico and its links with the police. The atmosphere reminded me of the film “Sicario”. Connelly puts all the elements before your eyes, but you are distracted by so many and such details (beautiful descriptions and reflections on Los Angeles, as well as those on the two border cities: you have the impression to be there) that you realise what’s obvious only at the end, when he slams it on your face.
Of course there’s the usual romantic break, although as usual it implies a certain melancholy and despair.
I liked the resolution of the story in which the protagonist chooses not to follow the rules and the open ending on Bosch’s life.

I can’t wait to read the next one.

The Black Ice on Amazon.

Hitman: Agent 47: choreographed shootings and assassins without emotions

Since it is a film based on a video game my expectations were not very high. I decided to watch it, because action movies with high rate of murder victims are fun and this, in particular, shows the confrontation between two interesting actors: Rupert Friend, whom I already appreciated in “Homeland”, and Zachary Quinto, who since July 2016 has established himself on a permanent basis as wallpaper of my computer in the role of Spock.

Friend is already accustomed to the role of a killer. In “Homeland”, he was a CIA operative who more than once had been sent to kill some strategic target. His glacial expression, which in “Hitman: Agent 47” is accentuated by his shaved hair and impeccable clothing, gives him the appearance of a programmed, emotionless killer. It is certainly not in this role that you can better appreciate his acting skills, but he is absolutely perfect as agent 47.

Quinto, who finds himself playing the role of John Smith, the antagonist, as the movie itself does not require special acting skills, shows how good he is anyway. His character changes its attitude during the film and Quinto manages to underline this change, giving us the impression that we are facing a new character. He really needs a little effort. His expressiveness is such that a minimal alteration in his facial lines and look give him a completely different image to the viewer.

The clashes between the two are spectacular, often performed with their bare hands, so much that you almost feel pain in their place for the way they are beaten or for their flights. Obviously they come out with just a few scratches. Not to mention the perfectly choreographed shootings. In both cases I found myself repeatedly laughing alone for how entertaining they were.

The film also includes a third main character, Katia van Dees, played by Hannah Ware, but I must admit that (maybe because I am a woman) I barely noticed her presence!

It is clear that we are not talking about a film that expects to appear remotely plausible. It is the transposition of a video game and therefore it is definitely above the lines, but it is also characterised by excellent special effects that confer a considerable realism to the dynamics of the scenes, even the most gory ones, without causing, however, any special form of horror or disgust, just as it does in video games since it remains clear in the mind of the viewer that it’s fiction.

Hitman: Agent 47“ is the second film in the “Hitman” series. The first, “Hitman“ was released in 2007. But it might not be the last. A clue in this respect is given by the small scene embedded within the end credits, but I don’t tell you more to avoid any spoilers.

Up For Love: a clever romantic comedy

Like many of you, I got to know for the first time Jean Dujardin thanks to his interpretation of George Valentin in “The Artist”, which earned him the Academy Award for Best Lead Actor in 2012. Then I saw him again years later in a dramatic role in “French Connection”, another film that I enjoyed very much.
In “Up For Love”, thanks to special effects, Dujardin is actually playing the role of a person with dwarfism in a hilarious comedy that also leads you to think.

His skills as an actor are once again undisputed and emerge even more in the roles in which he cannot take advantage of one of his qualities. In “The Artist” it was his voice and in this film it’s his handsomeness. Yes, because Dujardin is undoubtedly a handsome man and manages to keep intact his charm also in the role of Alexandre, who is barely one metre thirty-six centimetres tall.

I must say that the special effects, while lowering him, have not rendered faithfully the altered proportions caused by dwarfism, but applying a certain suspension of disbelief, he is convincing enough, especially in shots where you don’t see his body in full.

Beyond these technical aspects, “Up For Love” is a really nice movie.

Well, the protagonists are anything but poor devils. Alexandre is a famous architect living in a villa with a swimming pool along with his ambitious son, who for the moment is economically dependent on him (but he is bound to succeed). Diane (played by the Belgian actress Virginie Efira) is a lawyer who owns a law firm together with her former husband.
The whole context in which they move is very movie-like: parties, gallery openings, parachuting (which seems almost a no-brainer that anyone could practice), houses that seem royal palaces, secret venues, and so on.

The distribution and timing of the gags are absolutely perfect, so that the film slips away fast between a laugh and the other.
Alexandre could be the classic Prince Charming; he is charming, funny, successful, but he lacks at least forty centimetres to achieve perfection, forty centimetres that weigh a lot.
Despite some quite deliberately unrealistic elements of the plot, it is easy to step into the shoes of Diane, who, although being in love with Alexandre, suffers the judgment of others.
It can be easy to say that love overcomes all obstacles, but in reality standing alongside someone who is different creates many problems. Ignoring them and pretending they don’t matter doesn’t make them disappear, but what this little cinema gem tries to convey is that you need to be aware and find ways to deal with them day-to-day, as it should always happen between two people who decide to share their lives.
Of course, if you are rich as the main characters of “Up For Love”, it is undoubtedly easier!

In other words this is a film that combines a non-trivial reflection and comic situations, beautifully rendered by the skill of the cast (not only of the two lead actors).
After watching it you feel refreshed and in good spirits, but you haven’t completely turned off your brain for a hundred minutes.

Jason Bourne: smart, determined, indestructible

If I had to rely on the films focused on this character, of which I recently have also watched the first three again, I would come to the conclusion that Jason Bourne doesn’t sleep (and if he tries, he is haunted by nightmares), doesn’t eat, tours half the world mostly by train and this doesn’t seem to tire him the least, isn’t afraid of anything, doesn’t care about anyone (except Marie, that is precisely why she was eliminated in the second film), the rare occasions when he is wounded he becomes stronger, and he doesn’t even need to carry a weapon: when the time comes and he is faced with no less than three well-trained agents, he knock them out within seconds, barehanded, and takes one of their guns.
In short, he is indestructible.

Yes, of course, he had that nasty amnesia and his memories resurface conveniently little by little, so as to put together the plot of another film. But the more he remembers, the less the man he was before emerges: the elusive David Webb.

What I notice as we go on with the films is the disappearance of any empathy in the character, which gradually dehumanises himself as he moves faster and faster from one to another breathtaking action scene.
In “The Bourne Identity” I wondered who he was, just like he did; I felt concern for him and the woman who had decided to trust him and help him. Only some years later, when I read the book by Robert Ludlum, to which it was inspired, I learned this is the only film in the series to have some connection with the novels. And you see it, since Bourne in the first film is a character with a certain depth. Although he instinctively behaves like a war machine, he is full of doubts and fears, like his literary alter ego. The plot is a bit different, because the context in which it takes place is far ahead in time and this required some adaptation. Furthermore, the film medium imposes a certain reduction and simplification of the novel, which, instead, is extremely intricate.

But, since the moment it detaches from the work of Ludlum (which, I must admit, inspired my action thriller “Kindred Intentions”), the one which suffer most from the consequences is precisely Bourne’s character. What characterises this work disappears: this character being a bit crazy, his wavering between the normal personality of Webb and the one thirsty for revenge of Bourne, his being fallible.
In fact, Bourne in films rarely makes a mistake. He is always a step ahead of others. And this characteristic is accentuated by the deletion of any bonds with other people, starting from Marie (played by the talented Franka Potente), even if what moves him is, in theory at least, a desire for revenge as well as survival, combined with the absence of any fear of death.

In this context, the same plots are repeated. Someone wants to kill him, usually someone from the CIA, whether this is an official and approved decision or not. They unleash against him the most ruthless assets (how much I like this term for a hired assassin!). So bad. They kill anyone who stands in their way, but never once they manage to get rid of Bourne.
On the other hand, when he flees in a car or motorcycle with someone, this someone ends up getting the bullet meant for him.
And you don’t know how that has bothered me when I understood that it would happen again in this last film. I was watching the long chase in Athens and I remembered that one in India at the beginning of “The Bourne Supremacy”. It was predictable that it would end like this. And in both cases I was sorry, as two characters (the only ones) with whom he had a bond that gave continuity to the plot were eliminated.

Jason Bourne” is a repetition of all these elements, held together by a secret to be discovered regarding the protagonist’s father, which is the only new element. The rest is action, action, and more action.
Not that I’m complaining. I love action.
During the film I felt glued to my seat to follow the swirling succession of events and continuous cutting away of the camera, accompanied by the certainty that Bourne would always prevail. The fun part was to find out how he would succeed, what they would invent for him to overcome all obstacles, what other famous city he would put on fire and how he still would outwit the others.

And then there are the car chases. It doesn’t matter if his opponent drives a Humvee, blasting the other vehicles as if they were bowling pins, and Bourne has a normal car. The latter will be bruised, but will always be fast, indeed, even faster than before. He, who can do everything, will drive without stopping, dodging the cars that come his way, because he certainly cannot help but enter a trafficked road against the flow. It doesn’t matter if Bourne is injured and not fastening his seat belt. When the car overturns and he comes out limping, he will still be able to fight barehanded with his opponent. He will risk succumbing, but eventually a last-gasp effort will save him.

Let’s not forget his cunning and audacity. Bourne watches from a distance (but not too far) that one CIA character that basically doesn’t consider him a threat, and he anticipates their moves. It had already happened with the one played by Joan Allen in “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”, and now it’s time for Alicia Vikander, whom, although being a good actress and despite I have much appreciated her in other films, I just cannot like in this film because of her selfishness. But do not worry: Bourne has understood her well. He will prove it in the end.

In short, this film has all it takes to please me, but I liked it less than the first and the third one, and I don’t know if more or less then the second one. Maybe it depends on the progressive chillness shown by the protagonist. Or perhaps simply because I didn’t accept how Nicky Parsons, played by Julia Stiles, who is one of my favourite actresses, is treated. Lately she is increasingly relegated to secondary roles in films and I was hoping that after “The Bourne Ultimatum”, where she was one of the main characters, the latter would be repeated in “Jason Bourne”.

Well, I will suck it up. And, if there is a sequel (the open ending would suggest so), I’ll have to see that too. After all, I cannot miss a movie with Matt Damon.