Kick-off reads

This year, I get the ball rolling with a treat from the king of crime writing. Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours tacks another chapter to the Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch tandem. The book sees the duo solving murders while Ballard contends with COVID and her lackadaisical co-workers. The novel, like the majority of his releases, is both a bestseller and critical success. I followed this up with Hostage by Clare Mackintosh. This comprises my first foray into her work. Although it’s not as good as Connelly, it does offer a fresh plot. There’s trouble on a plane flying nonstop from London to Sydney, the first such voyage. Finally, I tackled The Boys, a nostalgic memoir by two former child stars. Ron Howard has since made a name as a first-class director, while brother Clint has found his niche as an acting veteran. 

1. The Dark Hours (Connelly). To be honest, this was actually a pre-Christmas read. The book represented the 32nd title of last year. In this instalment, Detective Ballard is still working the night shift, hence the title. She’s called to a murder scene after the post-New Year celebrations. A former gang member has been gunned down and Ballard seems like the only five-oh who’d give her quality time to the case. Even her superior seems to care just about his impending retirement. The investigation leads her to a cold case that was worked by Harry Bosch. As expected, the two tag-team to reveal the secrets. The book is divided into three parts: Midnight Men; Use of Force; and The Insurrection.

In another probe, a pair of masked assailants have been terrorising women at night. The two intruders, nicknamed the Midnight Men, would enter into their targets’ place before violating them and leaving. The police have caught on two prior incidents. The third victim was Cindy Carpenter, who was initially uncooperative. As the plot unfolds, Ballard begins telegraphing the clues like Sherlock Holmes. She races against the clock to prevent further catastrophes. It must be noted that these cases are outside her range and must be passed on to relevant departments. However, her resolve to solve crimes does not waver and she works them through the holiday weekend. 

Meanwhile, Ballard learns that the casualty had some debts and was knee-deep into a dodgy factoring enterprise. Most unnerving was the connection to the uniforms. Ballard reminds me of a younger Bosch, with the same determination and occasional disregard for the rules.  On a few occasions, much like Bosch, she even ignores direct orders from her bosses. The results of the pandemic are everywhere. Streets deserted, low morale on the force, shops ignored, and masks are mandatory. Working from home has become the norm. Ballard is a surfer and she braves the waves even as the beaches are forgotten. 

There’s also a side story where she gets Pinto, a new canine. Her previous pooch, Lola, had passed away. She also has a new beau, a paramedic named Garrett Single. She has likewise moved to a new condo. Ballard is given an opportunity to be assigned away from the dark hours, but she likes her job. She risks her own skin and even her badge to outwit the baddies. I noticed that the department has gone ultra-modern, with electric cars for forensics and a treasure trove of cases now digitised. Searching said cases, as Renee experiences, is still a laborious task. Connelly’s style still draws me. He has short chapters with punchy dialogue and sufficient description. His characters change and in all, his prose remains easy. There are many good crime writers but we need more like Connelly.

Rating: 5/5

2. Hostage (Clare Mackintosh). A spanking new Connelly would be a tough act for any title to follow. The beginning of this thriller did not blow me away. I believe there were a few too many characters. What’s not missing are twists. For the first half of the novel, readers will guess at the reason for the plane’s hijacking. They will wonder why Adam is acting strange and why his daughter’s epipen is on the World Airways jet. They will scratch their heads at the sudden death of a business class passenger. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Mina – the protagonist – was training as a pilot before dropping out. The real explanation would be revealed later. 

Mina’s dilemma is every parent’s nightmare. As the senior flight attendant, she is threatened and coerced into doing the enemies’ bidding. Will she comply and save her adopted daughter’s life? Or do otherwise and preserve hundreds of others? Who is the lass babysitting their child? Indeed, there were a few instances where she reminded herself that she shouldn’t have been aboard. She made a last-minute swap to spend Christmas away from her husband, who she presumes is cheating on her. As people onboard are killed, she must make tough choices.

Hostage is divided into fifty-two chapters. They alternate between the protagonists’ viewpoint (mostly Adam and Mina) and the dubious passengers of Flight 79. The former often involves a subtitle of how many hours are left to Sydney. The hijackers are far from a one-man army. The first reactions from passengers is to cull the jihadists, settling on an Arab berk. While their suspicions subside, there wouldn’t be a reason why the author spotlighted him. Meanwhile, Mina is also doubted, given her olive skin. She is a first-generation Pom: her father is French while her mother is Algerian. We would learn that the baddies would try to crash the plane against the Sydney Opera House to highlight their message to the world. There is room for a final twist in the end. As the saying goes, ‘Be careful who you trust.’  

The novel was more a challenging one than Connelly. I usually read fiction with a rating of four stars and above. This was the only read out of eighteen novels last year that was below four. In fairness, Hostage hovered around that mark for a while but now it’s settled under four. This is not a text that you could binge on and finish in a few days, unlike Connelly. Props though to Mackintosh for crafting an accessible title. I rarely had to check the word finder and all the foreign words were British colloquialisms. The ending, in a nutshell, was anti-Connelly. After almost four hundred pages, it was a convincing conclusion. In a time where air travel is quite restricted, it’s nice to pick up a book like Hostage

Rating: 3.9/5

3. The Boys (Ron and Clint Howard). This is an intimate portrait into the lives of a Hollywood family. Since most of the action takes place in the 60s and 70s, this was before my time. The Howard brothers were born into a family of actors. Dad Rance and mum Jean had been aspiring thespians who had worked in theatre. Once their kids were in demand, the couple put their ambitions in the backseat and fully supported their sons’ job demands. Jean became a homemaker while Rance continued to act in small parts. The family prided themselves for their acting chops; they could channel the character when the need arises. The kids grew up in Burbank, California.

Ron’s most memorable turn was in The Andy Griffith Show as Opie. Then, he was known as Ronny Howard. Opie has become synonymous with redheads. The show lasted for eight seasons and was number one in the ratings when it folded, a rare feat. While playing Opie, Ron grew up on Paramount Television. As an outsider who was schooled in the studio, he was bullied when he actually showed up to the classroom. Meanwhile, Clint was best remembered in his Gentle Ben outing. He had likewise appeared as alien Barok in an early ep of Star Trek. Like many other child actors, the roles dried up as they reached adolescence. They had to attend real schools.  

Later on, Ron found a home in Happy Days. He lasted for seven years as one of the leads on the show. However, castmate Henry Winkler (Fonzie) often overshadowed him. The network bigwigs had tried to change the show’s title to Fonzie’s Happy Days, which did not sit well with Howard. Howard’s biggest film role was in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). By working with high-calibre directors, screenwriters, and talent factories, Howard was able to make the transition to directing. It wasn’t always easy and it didn’t happen overnight, but he realised and surpassed his dreams. Furthermore, his days as an amateur basketball coach also proved beneficial. Anyhow, Clint’s path was rockier. With his big brother graduating to the big leagues, he found vices instead. However, he was surrounded by people who cared, and he found a passion for writing.

The book is around four hundred pages long and included a foreword by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s eldest daughter). There is an intro by the brothers, twenty-five reasonable chapters, and an epilogue by the coauthors. Since I wasn’t familiar with their credits, much of the book wasn’t easygoing. However, the duo’s celebrity and star power ensure that this text has mass appeal. There were parts that were easy, but others that weren’t. More than a text on their childhood and Hollywood, The Boys captured the feel of the 60s and 70s. The Vietnam War, free love, the hippie movement, and JFK were some of the themes explored. Ron Howard tackles the things that shaped him, his early struggles and successes. Don’t expect him to go at length about his blockbusters. In this sense, this represents a different kind of read. Well worth a look.

Rating: 4.15/5

Helmer Ron
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