Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Genesis" by Karin Slaughter

Along with Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Gardner, Karin Slaughter's books are ones I always look out for each year. The interesting thing about it is that her books are both very good - and very exasperating. Most of them follow the lives of medical examiner Sara Linton, her husband police chief Jeffrey Tolliver and his deputy, Lena Adams. In the first novel, "Blindsighted", Sara is still trying to forgive Jeffrey for cheating on her. Other events that transpire involve Lena suffering a brutal rape. The novels that followed explored Lena's psyche after such an ordeal, as well as Sara and Jeffrey's relationship. Most of the books have been of a very high level, with twisty plots, psychological depth and strong characterisation. The exasperating part - the series achieved a state of equilibrium. No matter how much personal growth Lena would go through in one book, by the next one she was the same, bitter rape survivor. Similarly, no matter what sort of new level of trust Sara and Jeffrey would achieve in their relationship in one book, by the next one they were back to bickering and being distrustful. Slaughter admitted just as much on her website when apologising to her readers for killing off Jeffrey in "Skin Privilege", the sixth book featuring the characters.

"Genesis" brings back Sara Linton, three-and-a-half years after Jeffrey's death. But she's really only a side character, as the focus is on detectives Will Trent and Faith Mitchell from "Fractured", Slaughter's last novel. The action this time around involves a naked woman being hit by a car. After being taken to hospital, it's apparent she's escaped from a madman who had been holding her prisoner and torturing her. Clues eventually lead to the underground cave she escaped from, as well as the dead body of a woman who was being held captive at the same time. When another woman disappears, leaving behind her young son, Will and Faith must figure out if the case is related (we the reader know that it is), whilst dealing with evasive witnesses, lying witnesses and their own myriad personal demons.

Slaughter is one of those authors who does their research and likes their novels to be accurate. Whilst never boring, this tale is a little long in the tooth. While I'm certain an investigation is laborious and getting lab results do take time, a little poetic licence to move things along won't make me take the novel any less seriously. This one is over 430 pages in a small font. Luckily, the plot here is a real ripper. Whilst "Skin Privilege" and "Fractured" were quite disappointing, "Genesis" makes up for that with its shocking crimes and frequent plot twists. For me, it was a lot like an episode of "SVU", which is always a good thing. Whilst I spotted the madman the moment they were introduced, getting there was still an absorbing, consuming experience and definitely one of Slaughter's best.

And because it was so good, I was able to forgive the book's one major flaw: Sara Linton herself. She didn't serve much purporse in being here. Each time a chapter is devoted to her, the narrative grinds to a complete stop whilst she pines endlessly for Jeffrey. Seriously, it's ALL she does. And considering that, in all the previous novels, she spent most of her time hating him, all her ruminations about him being a wonderful man and the love of her life and that she'll never get over him (etc etc) don't really come across as believable. To be honest, I thought Jeffrey was a bit of an ass, and was glad when he got offed at the end of "Skin Privilege". Whilst I would have preferred that Lena Adams - the most annoying character ever in fiction (though my mum would tell you that honour would go to Robin Castagna in the Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman) - was the one who died, at least she was nowhere to be seen in "Genesis", probably another reason why it was so good. If you're a fan of Slaughter, check it out. And it's probably a good place to start for first-time readers too.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Deep Freeze" by Lisa Jackson

Jenna Hughes is a former Hollywood actress who has retired after an on-set accident killed her sister and resulted in her last movie never being released. She moves to Oregon for a new life as caring mother, but daughters Cassie and Allie aren't terribly pleased with the decision. It's a decision that Jenna herself will come to regret as she is targeted by a madman obsessed with her and her movies. He's kidnapping women to use as molds for recreations of Jenna's most famous film characters, setting up a twisted shrine for her. When Jenna receives threatening notes and eerie phone calls, it attracts the attention of Sheriff Shane Carter. He's quickly attracted to Jenna while investigating the case, and knows the culprit is somebody close to her.

It's a pity that so many female crime writers start off in the world of category romance, because while it obviously teaches them how to become good writers, they simply can't shake off the need to incorporate a cliched romance into their story. Lisa Jackson has a unique ability to conjure up a spooky scenario - being stalked in a snowy forest, checking out a dark, empty house - without mincing words. Most writers will spend ages describing every little thing, sapping away the suspense. But I'll admit there were a couple of times during "Deep Freeze" where I got mildly spooked - and for me, that's saying something.

However, when it comes to the romance side of things, Jackson simply cannot find enough words. What could have been a tight, fast-paced story about a woman being stalked is spread out over 500 pages. And, I'm not kidding you, most of the word count is devoted to Jenna and Shane's musings about each other.

Jenna: What was she thinking? She shouldn't be having these fantasies about the rugged, good-looking lawman! She had too much on her plate! She was being stalked by a madman!

Shane: What was he thinking? He shouldn't be having these fantasies about the sexy, vulnerable Hollywood princess! He had too much on his plate! He was tracking down a kidnapper and killer!

The book is permeated with variations of these statements over and over and over again. Did this thing even have an editor? To make things worse, the romance doesn't even come across as genuine. It's more than obvious these two are only getting together because the plot dictates it. We're told over and over again how great these two believe the other to be, but never actually shown. Shane seems to determine that Jenna is an "intriguing" woman simply because she comes into the station to report a stalker. I determined Jenna to be an uppity, judgemental cow. She eyes every single male character with distrust and decides most of them to be weirdos, without sufficient reason (except for Shane, that is). I understand that this would partly have to do with making sure there are plenty of red herrings, but it's a little ridiculous. In the real world people would be telling her to get over herself. And besides, I picked out the bad guy the moment he was introduced.

I'm not going to recommend "Deep Freeze". Thanks to Jenna and Shane being such drips and unable to come to any quick decision regarding their feelings, the narrative meanders far too much. In fact, the same fault can be found in our killer. He's endlessly musing: "I'll come for you soon, Jenna!" Well, buddy, hurry the hell up! What's keeping you? Sheesh.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I'm not smarter than a 5th grader

Last night I was watching "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?", despite the fact I totally loathe Rove McManus. And while I'm not smarter than a 5th grader, I'm certainly smarter than the dumbasses who are contestants. And at least if any 5th grader tries to mock me because I'm dumber than them, I'm certainly a lot bigger than them and can knock them flat on their precocious little asses.

In any case, while trying to restrain myself from throwing something at the TV screen every time some lame joke dropped from Rove's mouth and feeling sorry for poor Dylan (one of the 5th graders), who never seems to get picked, I noticed just how creepy one of the 5th graders, Lilly, was. She's always got this massive smile plastered on her face. But not a happy smile. More the smile you'd expect to see on the face of a child who has just set their house on fire with the rest of the family still inside. It's really disturbing.

But it made me think that the show would be much more entertaining if it were re-named "Are You Smarter Than The Children Of The Corn?". So, instead of some dimwitted "celebrity" swimmer dropping out at the $10 000 point with all that cash to give to their charity, they instead suffered some gruesome fate at the hands of the demonic corn children. In particular, there's a scene in "Children Of The Corn II: The Final Sacrifice" where the cult leader takes his wooden voodoo statue into church and makes one of the church members suffer the most disgusting nosebleed you're ever likely to see. Witnessing something like that would make it much more easier to sit through Rove's dire attempts at comedy. Seriously, does he have a picture hidden away of Channel 10's executive getting down and dirty with a goat? Why is he still on television?

And if you don't know what I'm going on about when I talk of the "Children Of The Corn", shame on you. Part 1 came out in 1984 with Linda Hamilton! Part 2 came out in 1993. Part 3 was the film debut of Charlize Theron (she gets dragged underground by some stop-motion monster). Part 4 gave an early lead role to Naomi Watts and co-starred Karen Black. Part 5 was the film debut of Eva Mendes, and in my opinion the best one in the series! Part 6 was shit, but it did co-star Nancy Allen. I haven't seen Part 7, so shame on me. Luckily, a made-for-TV remake of the original is on its way very shortly.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"The Unborn", "The Uninvited", The Underwhelmed

"The Unborn" stars Odette Yustman as a pretty co-ed with tight underwear (I think her name is Casey) whose world goes haywire when the neighbourhood boy she's baby-sitting knocks her on the noggin and declares: "Jumby wants to be born now". Things get sinister when she discovers that she had a twin who died in utero - and the parents' nickname for him was....oh my God....Jumby!

Well, as it turns out, this haunting has little to do with the dead twin and more to do with what's called a "Dybbuk", a malevolent entity that is constantly seeking to re-enter the world of the living. Casey's family has had this thing on their tail since the days of Auschwitz, where Casey's grandmother and her....oh my God....twin were subject to Nazi experiments to change eye colour. The grandmother's twin died and the Dybbuk took over his body.

Casey decides the best way to deal with her situation is to have an exorcism, and calls upon priest Gary Oldman to help out. In the meantime, the Dybbuk takes it upon itself to bump off everybody in Casey's life. My biggest beef here is that the Dybbuk seems to possess people at will. It apparently wants to possess Casey - so what exactly is stopping it? I don't think it's explained why it can possess other people and not its main target. Other than that, I have to give "The Unborn" props for at least trying to come up with something original. When 90% of mainstream horror releases are remakes, it's refreshing to see a studio take a punt on a script a little different. While not scary and ultimately not successful, "The Unborn" does boast an original idea, which is more than can be said for most movies.

"The Uninvited" is a remake of the Asian horror movie "A Tale Of Two Sisters". Emily Browning plays a girl who is released from an institution after the death of her mother. She returns home to her father (David Strathairn) and his new girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), who just happened to be her mother's nurse. Along with her sister (Arielle Kebbel), the suspicion is that Banks wants to kill them both so that she can have daddy all to herself. They even believe that she was responsible for the murders of three children from years ago.

This is one of those movies that doesn't have much to say until its "twist" ending, so everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in here to try and make us believe something is actually happening. Scary visions, nightmares and false boo scares make up the running time until the big reveal. And let me just say, it's now been ten years since "The Sixth Sense" and scriptwriters REALLY NEED TO FIND A NEW TWIST ENDING! To be honest, the previews alone were enough to make me suspect what the ending would be and I wanted to see if I was right. I like being right, obviously, but I like an entertaining movie more. I'm going to make a movie where every single character has been dead all along and call it "The Underwhelmed". Or maybe "The Unsurprised". Or maybe "The Unentertained". And so on....

"The Alibi Man" by Tami Hoag

This is a follow-up to "Dark Horse" a surprisingly good private eye novel set in the world of horse-riding. Our main character is Elena Estes, a former narcotics cop now working as a groom, trying to forget the life she used to live (a screw-up resulted in the death of a workmate). While riding her horse, she comes across the dead body of Irina Markova, another groom and sort-of friend. Unable to shake off her cop instincts, Elena decides to do her own investigation, much to the delight/anger of detective James Landry, whom she recently just broke up with. Her plate soon gets very full. Notorious Russian gangster Alexi Kulov wants to get info from her. And her ex-fiance Bennett Walker becomes a prime suspect when it's revealed Irina went to an after-party with him and other rich guys, who call themselves "The Alibi Club", as they like to provide each other with an alibi whenever one of them does something naughty. Bennett and Elena's past is very rocky, since all those years ago he asked her to provide him with an alibi when he raped and beat another woman. Obviously, he looks good for this latest murder.

"The Alibi Man" is a solid crime thriller that holds attention. Good plot twists, edgy violence and a refreshing lack of romance cliches (Hoag used to be a category romance author, and that element could often overwhelm other novels). The main fault here is characterisation and dialogue. The latter is flat-out awful. The former leaves a lot to be desired. Basically, our main characters are really unpleasant! Det Landry is a hot-headed racist, and Elena is a flat-out bitch to everybody she meets. It was hard to understand why everybody found her "intriguing". If I found myself at the receiving end of her snotty attitude I'd tell her to f*** off and bury herself in a deep hole. I don't understand why the criteria for a "complex" character is to have them being world-weary, self-loathing and angry with the world. I'm sure there are plenty of complex people out there with wonderfully sunny dispositions. Why can't I spend 350 pages with one of them?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"The Death List" by Paul Johnston

Matt Wells is a crime novelist in a bit of a career slump. Life gets even worse when he is contacted via e-mail by the White Devil. The e-mails at first seem to be from a fan, until one of them instructs him to go around to his ex-wife's home, where he discovers a murdered dog in his daughter's bedroom. His tormentor wants Wells to turn his crimes into a novel and, in between sending him notes to use in said novel, is also committing several murders. He starts off with people in his own life who have wronged him, before moving on to everybody in Matt's life.

At first, I thought I was onto a winner with "The Death List" thanks to a quick-moving plot and some inventive, nasty murders. I was ready to believe that a twisty, exciting thriller was about to unfold. Unfortunately, the above plot description is about it. It would appear the White Devil aka Leslie Dunn really is doing this just for the hell of it, as no real link is established between him or Matt Wells, despite early revelations that they were both adopted. I had just over 100 - 150 pages to go before I simply fell out of interest with this book. The subplot involving three SAS members with their own agenda against White Devil never did anything except get in the way. They tail him, then show up at the end and kill him. Oops, is that a spoiler? Well, why did I plough through 400 pages just for random, undeveloped characters to pop in and save the day? It pissed me off.

Next rant: the police on the case are always two steps behind. The reader knows more than they do thanks to several different view points - Matt Wells, the killer etc. It doesn't contribute anything! Like "The Neighbour" that I read recently, you could remove the police element from the book entirely and lose nothing.

Next rant: Matt's ex-wife is yet another typical bitch-on-wheels without any redeeming features. Why does she hate Matt so much? It's not adequately explained. She's a never-ending stream of bitterness and unpleasantness. To call her one-dimensional is being very generous.

Next rant: with the main character being a crime novelist, there are all sorts of jibes and in-jokes about crime fiction, crime writers, crime readers etc. I'm guessing it was supposed to be clever, but it wore thin to the point where you suspect Johnston has his own personal bitterness about the whole thing. I don't like being told repeatedly that I'm some sort of ghoul for liking the crime genre, or that I'm reading crass commercialism. It's a bit rich, considering I forked out good money to pick up this particular book by this particular author. Get over yourself, buddy!

Next rant: I was under the impression that the situation Matt finds himself in (having everybody in his life threatened, being stalked, being framed for murder etc etc) evokes suspense because how on Earth does one remove themselves from that sort of situation? I mean, if it were me, I'd be well and truly screwed. So, naturally, you'd expect lots of suspense in seeing how Matt - a crime writer but otherwise ordinary guy - manouvers himself out of a very tight corner. Wrong. Matt used to be a rugby player and his former team members include an ex-SAS member, a computer hacker specialist and a guy who owns a high-tech security-laden mansion, each who conveniently pops up when needed. In the final 100 pages or so, amongst tracking White Devil, they sit around and call each other "lad". Blech. Then, as they race from place to place (White Devil owns quite a few properties), and discover victim after victim, we get ten different versions of "this guy's a mad bastard!" and "is nobody safe?" You know, we have spent THE LAST 300 PAGES ESTABLISHING EXACTLY THAT! YES, WHITE DEVIL IS A MAD BASTARD AND NO, NOBODY IS SAFE! Sorry, had to get that off my chest.

Golly, was there anything right with "The Death List"? Well, considering I really had to force myself just to finish it, I guess not. I certainly wasn't bored to begin with, but when you get more and more irritated with each page, it quickly erodes any good-will that had built up before it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Boneyard" by Michelle Gagnon

Ever read a book where there's nothing particularly wrong with it - good pacing, strong characterisation, never boring - but is simply let down by the fact that there is nothing original or surprising to be found within its pages? That's the main problem with "Boneyard" by Michelle Gagnon, which has all the prerequisite elements in place for a good crime thriller, yet fails to do anything remotely interesting or remarkable with them. The plot follows Special Agent Kelly Jones from the FBI being called in to supervise on the discovery of a mass site of bones. Because some of the bones have crossed borders, the FBI gets to be involved. She's up against jurisdictional spats between detectives Bill Doyle and Monica Lauer, a trail that has gone cold, and the fact she's had to give up vacation time to work on this case.

As it turns out, the discovery of the bones is largely thanks to a man by the name of Dwight, who has a grudge against the real killer (whom he calls Captain) and wants him to be caught. He's dispersing the bones so that they'll be found by the authorities, and even trying some murders of his own to pin on Captain. How he actually discovered who the real killer was is never actually explained. And the reason for his grudge is only ever touched upon very lightly and very briefly, and therefore falls short of satisfaction.

"Boneyard", to its credit, zips along quite entertainingly for the most part, but starts piling up massive contrivances as it limps to its unsatisfactory conclusion. Halfway through, Kelly's lover Jake shows up to provide light romantic tension. Then, for some reason, he's allowed to come along on official FBI business - being let into crime scenes, bashing into suspects' homes - the whole deal! WTF? It's utterly ridiculous. Without trying to spoil anything, he's then largely responsible for the capture of the bad guys, while Kelly - the character we've been following for most of the book and supposed to believe is an intelligent, take charge woman - sits around on her ass.

As for the main killer - Captain - was his identity supposed to be a secret? It's perfectly obvious who he is the moment the character is introduced. It doesn't seem like Gagnon even tried to make it a mystery. And his actions at the end don't make a lot of sense. Why did he kidnap that particular person? What was he trying to achieve? Gagnon attempts to give a motive, but it's pretty thin and unconvincing.

If "Boneyard" had made an attempt at something just a little different, a little surprising, the outcome would have been enormously different. But Gagnon seems happy to deliver a crime novel pretty much indistinguishable from the hundreds that have come before it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Bad Things" by Michael Marshall

Before I thoroughly trash this terrible novel, please don't let that dissuade you from picking up Michael Marshall's "Straw Men" trilogy - "The Straw Men", "The Lonely Dead" (aka "The Upright Man") and "Blood Of Angels". It's a terrific trio of novels - well, the second one is a bit all over the place - packed with action, genuine creepiness and thrills. So it's a pity that he's never matched those books since. "The Intruders" was okay, but the book cover itself tried to sell it as a crime novel, when it was actually more a supernatural/sci-fi story. I'm a big fan of most genre writing - crime, horror, sci-fi - so I don't understand why the publishers couldn't simply be upfront about their product.

It happens again with "Bad Things", which the book cover describes this time as a psychological thriller. Yeah, right. It's another supernatural story. I say "story" because there's absolutely nothing thrilling about it. Marshall can't even be bothered to fully explain what exactly is going on. It's basically 300 pages of metaphysical rambling with some attempt to tie it all up at the end. Not one of the more exciting books I've come across.

The plot has John Henderson returning to the town of Black Ridge some time after the death of his son, Scott, who died under very mysterious circumstances. Despite having another son, John headed off into a life of feeling sorry for himself, leaving said son and wife behind, which didn't make me like him a whole lot. Anyway, John returns to Black Ridge after receiving an e-mail from a woman who says she knows the mystery behind Scott's death. The woman is Ellen Robertson, and she appears to have more than a few screws loose, never actually revealing much about what she knows at all. Nevertheless, John hangs around in town and notices that many of the residents behave very strangely indeed. Amongst endless internal monologues, John finds the time to help out Becki, the daughter of a friend, who is having trouble with her drug-dealing boyfriend, Kyle. A deal gone bad has resulted in some thugs on their tails. And what does this have to do with the main plot? Nothing! I would give an example of just how ridiculously rambling the narrative is, but I don't want to get penalised for breaching copyright over a piece of junk like this. Just take my word for it.

So what are the bad things? I'm not sure even the author knows. In the end (SPOILERS), it appears all the strangeness is a result of the townsfolk being indebted to Brooke Robertson - Ellen's stepdaughter - who acts as a broker for a witch. But since the witch (as far as I can tell) is the owner of the town's motel, I'm not entirely sure why people who want spells done just couldn't go straight to her. This is a stupid book where nothing much really happens, and what does happen is never adequately explained. The only "Bad Thing" around here is the time you'll waste reading it.