Friday, December 31, 2010

"Cross Country" by James Patterson

Alex Cross, police officer and psychiatrist, is called to the scene of the massacre murder of an entire family. He's shocked to discover that the mother of the family is a former sweetheart of his from university. It seems she was working on a story about the atrocities being committed in Africa, crimes in particular by a psychopathic gang leader known as The Tiger. When more families are murdered, Alex takes it upon himself to head to Africa and bring the killer to justice once and for all.

"Cross Country" isn't so much a thriller as it is a series of vignettes in which Alex encounters various dangers in Africa while pursuing The Tiger. The adventures themselves are certainly never boring, and do highlight - on a superficial level at least - the turmoil occuring in that country. However, the plot is almost an afterthought. The journalist that Alex meets in Africa - Adanne Tarsi - seems to hold the answers that Alex seeks, and was the one who provided the material that got Alex's sweetheart killed. If that's the case, why is Adanne still alive? She's a reporter and a public figure and holds far more threat than some university professor! Inconsistencies such as these ensure "Cross Country" is little more than a chase-filled travelogue, rather than the conspiracy thriller the book cover would have you believe. Did James Patterson take a trip to Africa himself and figured he could get a little tax write-off over the experience?

As usual, there's a cameo by Kyle Craig, Alex Cross' arch-nemesis. Does anybody else find Kyle Craig a little underwhelming? I kind of wish Patterson would be done with him and move this franchise in another direction. Every new book seems to end with Craig promising some distant future mayhem. Yawn.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Awakening" by S.J. Bolton

Clara Benning is a wildlife vet who has settled in a small village that allows her to hide from the world. She has severe scarring on her face and doesn't like dealing with people too much. All this changes when houses in her village find themselves under siege from an influx of snakes. The area is home to harmless grass snakes, except now dangerous adders are showing up too. Then, in one home snake invasion, Clara finds a taipan, considered to be possibly the most dangerous, venomous snake in the world. To coincide with this, one by one, elderly citizens of the village are showing up dead, apparently the victims of deadly snake bites. Adding to the mystery, Clara is pretty sure she is being stalked by Walter Witcher, a man she was friends with - but who is supposed to be dead! Looking further into these events, Clara discovers links to a church fire in her village in 1958 which killed several people, various religious cults, and the messy history of the Witcher family.

"Awakening" gets off to a terrific start, with many creepy, suspenseful sequences as snakes, both harmless and deadly, invade various homes. There's also Clara's run-ins with a possible zombie, who seems to be able to get into her house at will. Unfortunately, it pretty much dies in the ass after that. What starts off as scary, suspenseful and original eventually becomes silly, contrived and tiresome. Bolton begins to take her sweet time setting up scenes and describing them in excruciating, minute detail. I don't know about other readers, but I have enough imagination to conjure up in my mind a spooky setting simply through being told the character is in a church graveyard as night falls. Here, we get pages upon pages of description - what the church looks like, what the trees look like, what the night looks like. It actually detracts from the atmosphere she's trying to achieve. This extends throughout the book. In later chapters, Clara walks through a seemingly empty house. We're told EVERY SINGLE INTRICATE DETAIL OF EVERY ROOM, even though it has nothing to do with what she's looking for or what she eventually finds. This doesn't create suspense. This creates frustration and boredom.

For a supposedly intelligent woman, Clara comes off as a too-dumb-to-live damsel-in-distress from gothic Victorian chillers. Why is she gallavanting through church graveyards at nighttime without a mobile phone? Why does she act like an adolescent girl any time a man so much as looks at her? We're supposed to believe Clara is highly emotionally damaged from a lifetime of carrying around horrible facial scars, but it seems very odd (and convenient) that two men should suddenly find her highly desirable despite her massive "fault". Clara's distrust of other people and her unwillingness to interact with them don't exactly make for a likeable main character. Plus, if she hates people so much, why is she even investigating this mystery? More than any other novel I've read, I never quite understood Clara's motivation for uncovering the truth. She had no real stake in the proceedings. If she just walked away, it would have no effect on her life.

The method in which it all ties together falls short of satisfaction. Too much of the story is a back-and-forth mystery over Ulfred, one of the Witcher brothers. He's dead and then he's not. He's dead and then he's not. Over and over again. It results in the novel achieving this sort of holding pattern until the author decides to jack proceedings up for the finale. Unfortunately, her insistence on down-to-the-last-detail description derails most of the suspense she's trying to achieve in these chapters. I should be gripped by every word, not skimming entire paragraphs trying to reach a page where something actually happens!

"Awakening" is a thriller twice as long as it needs to be. It has genuinely creepy moments to recommend it, but the mystery underlying the whole thing is quite feeble, which is only reinforced by the haphazard way the author links it all together in the finale. It's all too elaborate to be believable. I can't deny this is original and occasionally scary - all the more reason why ultimately it's so disappointing.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Sitter" by R.L. Stine

Ha, I found it! The recent parity of the US and Australian dollar made me venture onto Amazon to grab some books I'd been wanting to purchase. "The Sitter" was on there from some alternative seller for $0.01, but postage and handling costs ensured I paid far more for it than it was actually worth. Nevertheless, it made me once again appreciate the Internet for providing me with the opportunity to get hold of material that simply isn't available in this country.

"The Sitter" has Ellie Saks abandoning her life in the city to escape from her ex-boyfriend Clay, who has become a creepy stalker-type dude. Despite the fact she sleeps with him just a couple of chapters into the book. Anyway, encouragement from her friend Theresa has her searching for jobs in The Hamptons, and luck has her landing a job as a nanny for Chip and Abby Harper. They are parents to two-year-old Heather and creepy four-year-old Brandon, who has mysteriously stopped speaking. As Ellie tries to connect with Brandon, she finds herself the victim of a campaign of terror. What does it have to do with the curse of the Harper guest house, as told to her by former Harper nanny Mrs. Bricker? As Ellie searches for the truth, she must contend with Clay's repeated attempts to get her back, as well as her repeated sightings of Will, an ex-boyfriend whose death in a car crash she feels responsible for.

Golly. This one is all over the place. On the one hand, there's Brandon's creepy and violent behaviour, and whether he might be possessed by the ghost a young boy in love with his nanny. But it doesn't explain why he doesn't speak or why he tries to kill his own sister. On the other hand, there's the nasty gifts that Ellie keeps receiving and who might be sending them to her. The novel presents Clay and Chip as the main suspects, but even the book points out they have no actual motive. Is there a connection between the two. Finally, the subplot of dead ex-boyfriend Will just gets in the way. We know it's going to figure in the proceedings at some point, otherwise why include it?

The end result is a thriller that's more effective than Stine's "Eye Candy", but yet falls short of any sense of satisfaction. Basically, all these disparate threads serve to expose Ellie Saks as the most idiotic, inept, stupid, frustrating, infuriating moron ever put into the pages of a novel. I've never come across such a numbskull in all my reading years. She's too stupid to live! She keeps running off to chase after any blonde boy who resembles her dead ex (or is he?) - whether she's supposed to be looking after her charges, or getting intimate with a nice new boy she's met - nothing matters except chasing after this guy. Tiresome. Then there's the fact she just doesn't get the hell out of dodge while the going is good. For Christ's sake, leave it in the hands of the police and hightail it out of there! Finally, she just has no common sense. If you were babysitting a boy who had already killed TWO birds and tried to drown his own sister, would you ask for somebody to drop off your beloved pet cat to come stay with you? She actually seems surprised when the cat winds up decapitated.

These faults only serve to highlight Stine's other main inadequacies - simplistic writing and chapters that end on false scares. Just like "Eye Candy", I couldn't find much to differentiate this from the "Fear Street" books other than heightened sexual situations and coarse language. I recently read on the Internet that this is being considered for big screen treatment! Other than one genuinely effective plot twist, I can't see this making its way to cinemas without some MAJOR rewrites.

"The Devil's Garden" by Richard Montanari

Michael Roman is a rising star in District Attorney's office, with an amazing win rate. His personal life is also going swimmingly, with beautiful wife Abby and four-year-old adopted daughters Charlotte and Emily. However, his life is about to thrown upside-down, because his daughters' natural father just happens to be Aleksander Savisaar, a survivor of the Chechyan Army and all-round psycho. Michael's methods to adopt his daughters wasn't entirely above-board and now Savisaar is back to claim what is his.

The plot here reminded me a lot of a movie I saw called "The Tie That Binds", in which Keith Carradine and Daryl Hannah play a psychotic couple who terrorise the nice middle-class couple who adopted their daughter, after social services took her away. It was a typical stranger-from-hell thriller from the mid-90s, which saw such entries as "Single White Female", "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle", "Unlawful Entry" and many others. What made those movies - and many of their ilk - mostly effective was that the threat came from a person who seemed to be ordinary. Police officer, roommate, nanny - all people we would normally assume we can place our trust in. In "The Devil's Garden", Savisaar is portrayed as an intelligent, ruthlessly cunning and highly efficient killing machine. He makes himself a known threat right from the get-go. There's no dramatic irony as he works his way in from the inside (the psycho nanny from "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" could teach him a thing or two), he simply executes his plan, even utilising outside help (never a good idea).

And that's where this one falls apart. Despite being repeatedly told that Savisaar is efficient and deadly, we're never shown. If he's so smart, why does he bring people into his plan when he already seems to know it will lead to further clean-up down the track? If he's so smart, how can he obtain an illegal passport for himself so easily, yet has to do it the legal way when it comes time to get passports for his daughters? If he's so smart, why does he attack and injure police officers in plain view of hundreds of witnesses? It doesn't add up.

Then we have a bizarre supernatural-lite aspect involving the twins - when they were born, they were originally a set of three, but one of them was stillborn. They like to do everything in threes. They always pick three lollies at the supermarket. They always have a third chair at their tea party table. Similarly, they seem to know their father is coming for them - telling Michael "he's coming" in Estonian, despite never learning the language. They're mysteriously drawn to Estonian myths in the public library and hum strange foreign tunes. Savisaar believes he is "deathless", as per a popular Estonian myth, but these metaphysical ideas are never believably elaborated upon or properly explored. Is this a thriller about a psycho ex-soldier on a mission to get his kids back, or a supernatural allegory of some kind?

Finally, there's the dreaded cop-on-the-case subplot. Plenty of chapters get dedicated to Detective Desiree Powell tracking Savisaar's crime spree - she's continually playing catch-up on a series of events the reader is already fully aware of. Powell could be removed from the proceedings entirely and not affect anything. It smacks of a cheap way to pad out a plot that doesn't really have much going for it to begin with.

With too many plot inconsistencies, undeveloped, underdeveloped and blatantly non-developed ideas, and pointless extraneous material, this garden could have done with a lot more watering and more than a little pruning. Seeds are seemingly planted for a sequel, though I doubt there will be many digging around for it. Chuck this one in the recycling bin with the weeds.

There, I'm done with the gardening metaphors.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Still Missing" by Chevy Stevens

Annie O'Sullivan has nearly finished an open house (she's a realtor) when the last arrival kidnaps her at gunpoint. She's taken to a cabin in the woods, where she is abused, raped and humiliated on a near-daily basis for a year, before she manages to escape. The investigation into who kidnapped her and why reveals further secrets that shake up Annie's already-quite-shaken world. Her abduction, escape and the investigation is detailed in sessions with a therapist.

These days, books often like to skip between points of view. Some chapters will be in first person, other chapters will be in third person etc etc. One thing "Still Missing" has going for it is the consistency of the writing style. The entire story is laid out through Annie's visits to her shrink. Everything is seen through Annie's eyes. We get to know Annie quite well, and she's a believably-drawn character.

While undeniably an involving read - I got through it almost in a single sitting - it is not the masterpiece the publishers, other authors and Amazon readers would have you believe. The point of view - one of the book's plusses - is also its biggest drawback. Since Annie is having these sessions with a shrink, we know from the get-go that she escapes her captor. We read on to see how she manages it, but there's not a lot of suspense when you're waiting for something you know already is going to happen. Instead, the book becomes more of an endurance test as Annie is repeatedly raped, physically and emotionally abused, and physically and psychologically tortured. I found myself hoping she'd escape simply because I was tired of reading about the sickening things being done to her. I can handle nasty material in a book, but it seemed somewhat pointless and redundant because we already know the outcome.

"Still Missing" then caps itself off with an out-of-place romantic hook-up and arbitrary plot twist regarding the who-why-what of the kidnapping. It's almost as if Stevens felt the story should have some kind of twist to it and randomly chose one. It doesn't ruin the story per se, but it really could have been anybody, for whatever reason.

Not for those with weak stomachs or sensibilities (or even those with strong stomachs and sensibilities, in my case), "Still Missing" is well-written and draws you in, but the end doesn't justify the means.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Sworn To Silence" by Linda Castillo

Police Chief Kate Burkholder is thrust into a murder investigation in which women are showing up brutally murdered, numbers carved into their stomachs. They are identical to murders from sixteen years ago. Kate is plagued by the question posed by about 90% of crime thrillers these days - same killer or a copycat? Kate is inclined to believe the latter, as she shot and killed the murderer after he attacked and raped her when she was a teenager - and still Amish. When she is too slow to call in outside help, she also gets caught up in police and council politics, all while the killer continues on his spree.

There's a lot actually working against "Sworn To Silence", so I'm surprised I didn't hate it. For one, we have the utterly unoriginal and predictable storyline. Then we have the Amish angle (Kate used to be Amish, but left the lifestyle behind after rumspringa). I've read a couple of books with Amish characters, and they tend to be fairly dull, with the author at pains to describe how honest, hard-working and kind they are. Finally, a little research showed that Linda Castillo is usually a romance/suspense writer. Fears of Lisa Jackson-style inanity rose up inside of me. However, "Sworn To Silence" works in spite of itself. Firstly, while a romance does develop between Kate and FBI Special Agent John Tomasetti, it doesn't occur until well into the book, and the two thankfully don't spend too much time pining over each other. Secondly, while the Amish are portrayed as honest, hard-working and kind (yeah, that's why they shun family members who abandon the faith), we're not beaten over the head with it. Lastly, despite an extremely over-familiar plot, with each of the crime genre elements neatly and predictably covered, the pacing is solid and sometimes exciting. These days, I'm happy simply if the book isn't boring. Castillo delivers a police procedural that appears accurate but doesn't get bogged down in the mundane details.

However, it does have negative points. In particular, the whole book is based on Kate's belief that the original killer is dead, as she shot him in self defence. It's mentioned that the killings stopped after her attack, but that's it. Kate and her family never discovered any momentos from the murders, never heard a confession....nothing. No solid, concrete proof that the man she killed was really a serial killer and not an opportunistic rapist. A pretty naive belief for somebody who's SUPPOSED TO BE A POLICE CHIEF!!! Much time is wasted on this highly obvious red herring and it hurts the novel a great deal. Similarly, the identity of the killer is poorly handled. Tomasetti gives a profile and just pages later a character is described as having many of those characteristics. Was it even supposed to be a surprise?

"Sworn To Silence" really shouldn't get a positive review. A stunning lack of originality and a groan-inducingly obvious red herring are not good ingredients for a solid, memorable thriller. But as I said, the real crime for any crime thriller is to be boring. This certainly isn't. It moves quickly and capably and crime readers will enjoy it, even if they can predict every that happens.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"No Way Home" by Peter Spiegelman

Private investigator John March's latest client is Nina Sachs, who wants him to look for her ex-husband, Gregory Danes, who hasn't been heard from in a while. She doesn't want the child support and alimony payments running out. Danes is a rich equity analyst, but troubled times on Wall Street have seen his credibility and career plummet. March's investigation eventually reveals that other people are looking for Danes as well, gradually making his work harder - and more dangerous. He must try and discover if something sinister has happened to Greg, and whether it was related to his family life, or the colleagues he worked with in the last days of his troubled career.

Notice how I used words like "eventually" and "gradually"? That's because this book is in no hurry to get anywhere. It's one of the most boring thrillers I've ever read. 200 pages in and March barely knows more than what he started with. The narrative basically consists of him tracking down anybody who might provide him with a clue, only for that person to respond with something along the lines of "f**k off, I don't want to talk to you". Over and over again. It was repetitive and unexciting. I imagine P.I. work is exactly like this, but it sure doesn't make for enthralling reading.

Another drawback is the description. Sure, you need to set the scene, but this one takes it to absolutely ridiculous proportions. Sometimes, if March has to wait five minutes to speak to somebody, he'll take a walk. We're then treated to minute detail about the street he walks down and what's in the shops he looks in, etc etc. Similarly, anytime he enters an office, every little thing is described, right down to the photos on the desk. Acceptable maybe if they're going to have relevance later, but that's certainly not the case here. The positive that came out of this was that I was able to skip up to two and three pages at a time - without missing a thing.

The slow-moving plot and the wordy writing style also serve to expose John March as a fairly unsympathetic character. He comes across as a self-involved, immature putz. The plot has several diversions involving his interactions with his family, which only serve to slow down an already almost-immobile plot, and paint him as being even more unlikeable. Nobody much likes spending time in his company, and hey - neither does the reader! His romance with neighbour Jane Lu is also a casualty of his badly-drawn character. I couldn't understand why she would put up with such a misery-guts. In the previous book, "Black Maps", there was detail about the murder of John's first wife, but it's only touched upon very lightly here, and I can barely remember a thing about the first book. So it doesn't quite justify him being a childish asshole all the time.

Plot revelations, when they do come, aren't terribly earth-shattering, and aren't enough to make trawling through this bore worth the effort.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Harvest" by Tess Gerritsen

Dr. Abby Di Matteo is a surgical student who is on the verge of being accepted into the hospital's elite organ transplant team, courtesy of her lover Dr. Mark Hodell. However, her career hits rocky ground when she teams up with resident Dr. Vivian Chao to ensure that the heart of a car accident victim goes to a dying teenage boy, rather than Nina Voss, the wife of a millionaire. Her attempts at holding onto her job are further jeopardised when Nina becomes the recipient of another healthy heart, and Abby discovers that its procurement wasn't exactly above-board. No traces of the donor's details can be found.

Things only get worse. Nina's husband Victor, furious at Abby over her involvement in the original heart switcheroo, uses his considerable wealth to tie Abby up in law-suits. One of the transplant team members seemingly commits suicide, but a detective finds the death suspicious. As Abby uncovers a conspiracy, attempts to discredit and silence her step up a notch.

Published in 1996, this was Gerritsen's first thriller after many years writing romantic suspense tales. It's no surprise this catapulted her into the big-time, as it's an enjoyable fast-paced read. Poor Abby really does through all seven levels of hell to uncover the truth about the organ harvest conspiracy at Bayside Hospital. Her determination to proceed despite everything that's thrown at her makes her an engaging heroine, one you want to see triumph against adversity. The conspiracy itself it quite intriguing, revealed in bits and pieces. There are some nice action set-pieces as the novel nears its conclusion.

The weaker elements involve the plight of Yakov, a young Russian boy on board a freighter bound for America. The reader can quickly surmise that he and the other youngsters on board are the unwitting donors for those wealthy enough to pay for the organs they want. I found the book pretty much ground to a halt every time the story went back on the boat. I'm guessing Gerritsen wanted to put a human face to the victims of such a conspiracy, but not much interesting ever really happens in these chapters, and maybe I'm a cold-hearted bastard, but I never really found myself caring about what happened to Yakov. He was just too much your stereotypical strong-but-cutesy child. Also, as the book races to its finish, it does leave a few questions unanswered. Why did Elaine disappear - how much did she know about what was going on? Who exactly was Tim Nicholls and what happened to him? Who put the offal in Abby's car? Why were the other transplant members killed? Did they want out? Does Abby ever get cleared and get her job back?

All in all, "Harvest" delivers the goods when it comes to medical conspiracy thrillers. Sure, the chapters with Yakov on the boat could have been trimmed, but otherwise this is an entertaining, action-based thriller with a pace that rarely flags. Nearly fifteen years have passed since "Harvest" was released, and I think Gerritsen is still at the top of her game. One of the best authors in the genre, without doubt.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Caught" by Harlan Coben

Wendy Tynes is a reporter who likes to catch pedophiles in the act - and does so live on her TV show "Caught In The Act". Her latest target is social worker Dan Mercer. Haley McWaid is an impeccably-behaved grade-A high school student who disappears without a trace.

Three months later, Haley is still missing, with the case very much cold, while Wendy's less-than-legal shenanigans in trying to catch Dan Mercer sees a judge throwing out the charges against him. The bad publicity results in her losing her job. Nagged by a strong feeling that all is not as it seems, as well as wanting to restore her reputation, Wendy starts to dig deeper into the events that made her and her TV show target Dan in the first place. Inevitably, it opens up a whole can of worms. It seems all of Dan's college roommates have had downfalls of their own. Have they all been set up? When Dan is seemingly murdered and a link established between him and Haley McWaid, things start getting even messier.

Harlan Coben is typically one of the more reliable thriller authors out there. His novels have established their own kind of formula, but they're entertaining and usually much better than most in the genre. Unfortunately, "Caught" is his weakest, clunkiest effort so far. Coben only keeps the truth hidden because a great deal of the novel simply seems to involve Wendy tracking somebody down to talk to them, only for her interviewee to respond with something along the lines of: "I can't speak to you" or "I don't want to talk about it". It happens over and over again and just gets frustrating. Certain characters keep the truth hidden only because the plot demands it, not because it makes any sense. By the end, I didn't feel as if I'd read a thriller with honest plot twists and revelations. It was all very manufactured and artificial.

A recurring theme in many of Coben's novels is how much a parent loves their child and how far they would go to protect them. I'm sure it's a reflection of how close Coben is to his own family, and that's a great thing, but he bangs on and on about it here to the point of nauseum. Okay, you love your child! We get it! You'll do anything to protect them! We get it! Parenthood is a precious, fleeting, special thing! WE F***ING GET IT!!!! Seriously, just about every other paragraph has one of the characters blathering on about how much they love their child, or recalling a special memory, blah blah blah. There are chapters written from the point of view of Haley's mother Marcia, father Ted and sister Patricia, for the single purpose of ramming this viewpoint down our throats, as none of these characters play much a role in the proceedings other than to worry about their daughter/sister. Usually, whenever Coben writes from the point of view of a particular character, it's because they have something to contribute to the plot, or that character will become important later. Not here.

Is "Caught" an anomaly in an otherwise impressive output? Or has Coben lost his touch? It's silly to dismiss him over one bad book. This is nowhere near as awful as "Play To Kill" or "Broken". Despite the endless 'I love my kids' drivel, this travels along at a decent enough pace and I read it in two or three sittings. Yet neither do I think it's unfair to hold a strong author to higher standards than what is delivered here. There's no question I'll be picking up the next Coben offering and hoping for the best.

"Bloodline" by Mark Billingham

Detective Inspector Tom Thorne latest case involves a series of murders in which the only connecting element is a sliver of X-ray found on the bodies. It is quickly discovered that the victims are all children of the victims of serial killer Raymond Garvey, who murdered seven women. He is now dead thanks to a brain tumour, so the suspicion of Thorne and his team is that the murderer must be someone who knew and was close to Raymond Garvey. While looking into the life of Garvey, the team must also try to protect those who are still targets, in particular Debbie Mitchell, the rough, abrasive mother of a mentally handicapped child.

"Bloodline" is almost a return to form for Billingham, after the truly dreadful "Death Message". The first third is tightly paced and enjoyable. Unfortunately, everything that happens is outlined very neatly on the back of the book. Once it's established that a diabolical killer wants to off the children of Raymond Garvey's victims - which happens fairly early - there isn't much else for the narrative to go. Thorne's team do what most detectives in this genre do these days - plod about interviewing folk, waiting for test results and in Thorne's case, find something else to be miserable about. This time, it's the fact that his partner Louise has had a miscarriage. How does he feel about this? How does this affect his relationship with Louise? Was he ready to be a father? Is he ready to try again? It just goes on and on like that before the narrative once again starts gaining speed before the climax. Unfortunately - once again - Billingham botches what could have been quite an exciting ending, with one character's actions coming out of left field and not making much sense. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER - why go to all the trouble of escaping from a killer if you're just planning on committing suicide anyway?

Billingham is a very on-and-off author. He can deliver absolute dreck like "The Burning Girl" and "Death Message", or top-notch thrillers like "Sleepyhead" and "Buried". "Bloodline" has a combination of his best and worst traits. The plot is more interesting and exciting than usual, but gets too sidetracked with the intricate miseries of its central character's life. If Billingham can resist the urge to go back to British gang-turf-war rubbish (which populated his worst novels), I imagine things can only go up from here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Live To Tell" by Lisa Gardner

After an entire family is slaughtered, detective D.D. Warren believes that the father - now in intensive care - is a possible suspect. However, when a similar crime occurs, it's obvious something sinister is going on. The investigation leads to a pediatric psych ward that treats extremely disturbed or violent children. As it happens, one of the workers there, Danielle Burton, was the lone survivor of an incident in which her father murdered her entire family. Could there be a connection? Intercut with all of this is the story of Victoria Oliver, a woman who has had to make huge sacrifices in order to care for and protect her eight-year-old son, who is a budding violent psychopath.

"Live To Tell" is unfortunately another victim of the scenario in which a writer gets too attached to their research. Lisa Gardner is one of my favourite authors, but her latest offering has failed to live up to her previous releases. The most frustrating thing here is that this had so much potential. It's a fascinating premise, one you don't find too often in this genre. Entire families being murdered - both past and present - violent, unpredictable children and the possible connections between them all. For a little while, I was really into the book. But the intrigue fizzled out as it became apparent the plot wasn't going anywhere. Once all the intriguing elements are established, Gardner spends far too much time holding things close to her vest in order to keep the reader in the dark. I like not knowing where a plot is heading, but you need to at least play fair with the reader and drop little tidbits every now and then. Here, the pacing just ground to a halt as we spent far too much time with spiritual healer Andrew Lightfoot. All his mumbo jumbo about "spiritual planes" and what-not wore thin very quickly. The acknowledgments at the end of the book thank a family for sharing their story about their experiences with a mentally disturbed child and that the best help came from their interactions with a spiritual healer, which I suspect is the reason why we learn far more about that occupation than is actually necessary.

Another irksome element is Alex Wilson, a former detective who now teaches at the Academy. He feels he's getting rusty, so naturally he's allowed to insert himself into the investigation tag along to crime scenes and even question suspects. It's the sort of ploy you'd expect from a crime TV show like "Bones" or "Castle", and doesn't seem genuine. He's also a transparently obvious plot device - as a love interest for D.D. Warren. As for D.D. herself, I'm somewhat perplexed that she's become the central recurring character for Gardner's novels. I quickly got tired of hearing about how horny she was. She's not especially interesting, plucky or cluey, and should not be the driving force for a novel. And the Bobby Dodge cameo was gratuitous and unnecessary - either bring him back into the fold, or move on!

It's hard to know how I feel about "Live To Tell". It's certainly not a patch on her best work, neither is it as truly awful as "The Third Victim" or "Alone". It has an excellent premise, an initially intriguing set-up, but blows it with a choppily-paced midsection, an irritating central detective and that bloody spiritual healer. I certainly can't whole-heartedly recommend it, so it's pretty much a case for somebody checking it out and deciding for themselves.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"The Crucifix Killer" by Chris Carter

Robert Hunter is a hotshot homicide detective with a knack for solving crimes. Teamed up with rookie partner Carlos Garcia, he finds his most horrifying case coming back to haunt him when a murder victim shows up bearing the mark of the Crucifix Killer. The only problem is that they caught the Crucifix Killer a couple of years ago - he was convicted and executed. The pair must figure out whether this is a copycat or they caught the wrong guy. They must also contend with pimp D-King, who is out for vengeance of his own when he believes his favourite girl Jenny might be one of the killer's latest victims.

It's amazing how many crime thrillers get released these days about detectives tracking down a killer they thought had already been caught, and trying to find out if they're dealing with a copycat or if they arrested the wrong person. "14", reviewed not long ago, had a similar premise. To "The Crucifix Killer"'s credit, it's quickly established that yes, this killer is the real deal, and the wrong man was executed. That doesn't stop it from being a cliched, badly written entry in the genre, however. Frequent crime readers will comfortably predict the identity of the killer and their motive. Carter attempts to divert attention with the subplot involving D-King and his search for Jenny's killer, and throws in a snuff movie subplot as well, but it does little to hide the fact that this is a weak, pedestrian effort. Characterisation is routine. Hunter is apparently something of a genius, having graduated at a young age, but choosing police work because it is a noble profession. Garcia is a newcomer to the homicide division, trying to juggle his job with his marriage. Unfortunately, neither really has much of a personality, although they're likeable enough. Unnecessary padding is another obvious flaw, most noticeably in a chapter devoted to two guys who wake up after a party and discover a snuff movie, in which one of them recognises the victim. They're never heard from or mentioned again, nor their connection to the victim explained. What was the point?

"The Crucifix Killer" isn't the total train-wreck the review suggests. I didn't put it down in absolute disgust the way I did with "Play To Kill" or "Broken". Carter demonstrates some ability in generating suspense, as evidenced by the opening chapters, which are dangled before the reader as a sign of what's to come. He needs to start writing better - improve the dialogue and not flit between past and present tense (the narrative inexplicably turns to present tense when describing or setting up a scene, before diverting back to past tense once the characters start talking). He needs to tighten up the pacing - either remove those unnecessary chapters, characters and subplots, or beef them up and tie them into the main action more convincingly - in the end, "The Crucifix Killer" winds up almost being two separate stories. It might also help to not make your killer and their motive so glaringly obvious.

Yes, the author needs to do a lot of work to deliver a memorable thriller. But there is a small glimmer of promise here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Never Look Away" by Linwood Barclay

David Harwood is a reporter with wife and young son. He takes them on a trip to an amusement park in the hope that it might cheer up his wife, who has been hinting at depression and suicidal thoughts. When his wife disappears from the park, he finds himself unable to prove she was even there. As more facts come to light, he finds himself a suspect in his wife's disappearance. While Detective Barry Duckworth collects evidence against him, David must find out what secrets are in his wife's past and whether she's the victim of a conspiracy - or the one behind it all.

I've previously read "No Time For Goodbye" and "Too Close To Home" by Linwood Barclay and found them to be great thrillers, in the same style as Harlan Coben. "Never Look Away" gets off to a good start, but there really isn't enough plot here to sustain the novel for its entire length. This one comes off as something you might see adapted into a TV movie - once the big reveal (which in itself is pretty predictable) is done and dusted, there isn't much else place for it to go. And the further the book goes along, the more David seems like a bit of a nitwit. However, despite the lack of twists in the narrative, Barclay is still able to generate considerable suspense. This is due mainly to very strong characterisation. The characters and their relationships are exceptionally well-drawn, making you care about what happens to them. And isn't this what a good novel should do? Even though the plot wasn't as twisty as I was hoping it to be, I was still hooked by the events because I wanted to find out what happened to the people involved. In particular, the relationship between David and his four-year-old son Ethan was very natural and believable, providing an on-going explanation and motivation for all of David's actions. A subplot involving the owner of a profit-based prison wanting to buy land in David's town takes up more room than it should, considering it really doesn't have much to do with Jan's disappearance, and there is about one ending too many. The saddest thing really is that, while an average thriller, "Never Look Away" is probably a lot better than most of the stuff out there on the shelves right now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Play To Kill" by P.J. Tracy

The Monkeewrench team first introduced in "Want To Play?" is called upon by the FBI when videos of real murders start turning up on the Internet. Also involved are detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, since one of the murders occurred in their jurisdiction. Monkeewrench decide to develop software that can differentiate between fake and real murder videos (yeah, that one didn't ring true with me, either). A link is discovered in that comments were posted before the murders were committed, giving clues as to who would be killed, plus where and when. However, it must be determined whether it is the work of one murderer, or many, and just what connection does an alcoholic judge have to it all?

Let me just start by saying this is the stupidest, most inane, most unsatisfying thriller I have read in some time, and that spoilers are likely to follow. I am utterly gobsmacked that garbage of this nature can not only make it past an editor but also see the light of day as a published manuscript. P.J. Tracy, who is actually a mother-daughter team, took four years to deliver this plotless, suspenseless nonsense, which just boggles the mind.

First of all, while some may enjoy the "quirky" characters, I found them to be either personality-free (Magozzi, Grace MacBride), or cutesy, nauseating caricatures (Rolseth, the rest of the Monkeewrench crew). Everybody spends plenty of time sass-talking, to the point where it just feels like they're killing time. Don't they have a killer/killers to catch? Then we have the endless internal musings. Should Grace trust humanity again? Should Magozzi keep pursuing a relationship with Grace? Should Rolseth/several-other-briefly-introduced-detectives-and-sheriffs throw it all in and spend their days with their families? This sort of thing extends to even the most minor of characters (they show up in one or two chapters and are never heard from again), but we strangely never get a peek into the psyche of Annie, Harley and Roadrunner from Monkeewrench - odd, considering they've been central characters in all five damn books! I kept expecting Rolseth's Cadillac and Grace's dog Charlie to chime in with their thoughts about the universe. As for Rolseth, I don't think I've ever wished so fervently for a character to simply just shut the hell up.

Then we have the utterly lazy plotting. Since the characters are all having such a jolly good time contemplating the way of the world, or exchanging 'witty' dialogue, not much space is left over for suspense or plot twists. It pretty much goes like this: murder videos start showing up on the Internet. Characters find a way to possibly intercept said murders. Two of the potential murders that a majority of the book focuses on have nothing to do with anything. The bomb scare that makes up most of the last third of the book also has nothing to do with anything. Cue quick wrap-up that never identifies any of the killers, but offers a quick motive from the only minor character who appeared in more than two chapters. Conveniently, the whole case is solved before Monkeewrench ever get to use their dodgy real-murder-spotting software.

Go read "Want To Play?", the first book in this series. It's terrific. An absolute ripper. The other three are pretty decent thrillers also. "Play To Kill" is just astonishing in its ineptitude. Where are the plot twists? Where is the suspense? Where is the feeling that even one of our major characters is at risk or under threat? They all just sit around and exchange jokes. Or, in the case of Grace MacBride, sit around being a miserable bitch. I get really angry when I waste time, effort and money on worthless rubbish like this. As good as the previous four books were, I will never read another book by this duo again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"14" by J.T. Ellison

Lt. Taylor Jackson is faced with a case in which a copycat is duplicating the murders of a serial killer dubbed "The Snow White Killer", whose victims were young women with dark hair and pale skin. That killer disappeared some 20 years ago, and the new murderer is recreating his spree with alarming accuracy, although adding a few touches of his own. Taylor receives some help from FBI agent partner John Baldwin, whilst fretting about her upcoming wedding to him. Tension arises in the form of Charlotte Douglas, an FBI agent with the hots for John (not to mention his ex-lover), plus some valuable information regarding their killer. Thrown into the mess is Taylor's missing father, and his link to a mobster.

Wow, what a mess. I don't think Ellison was sure which book she wanted to write. A serial killer thriller about and old murderer and his apprentice? Or a police procedural about a police lieutenant torn between family and duty? So, yep, she simply decides to combine the two. While she manages to draw some links between the two plot strands, it's not enough for this to come off as a cohesive whole. For the first half of the book, Taylor and her team are tracking down a serial killer. For the second half of the book, they're trying to bring down a mobster, with the serial killer plotline wrapped up with little fanfare. In fact, it's hard to find a less exciting way to wrap up a psycho-murderer plotline. And since he manages to elude capture quite easily at the end without even being identified (will he show up in a later book? who knows?), makes you wonder what the whole damn point was.

Another secondary plotline involves Taylor's apprehension at getting married to Baldwin. It never feels genuine, and simply comes across as a desperate attempt to inject a little romantic tension into the proceedings, especially since this is published by Mira, who specialise in romantic fiction. The title "14" in itself bothered me - it has absolutely no relevance to the plot. When the book starts, there is mention of the fact that Snow White had 10 victims in total and the murderer has now reached 4 - but the body count quickly goes up from there, and there is no special significance attributed to the number 14 at any other point in the book. It's just further indication that Ellison seemed clueless as to what to do or where to go with her story. Half by-the-numbers serial killer thriller, half yawn-inducing-catch-the-mobster police procedural, this has no real plot twists, no startling character revelations, zero suspense - in other words, a one-hundred per cent fail.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Last Known Victim" by Erica Spindler

In post-Katrina New Orleans, several severed right hands are found in an old refrigerator. About the same time, Captain Patti O'Shay's husband, also a police captain, is found murdered. Both cases quickly go cold. Two years later, both cases get re-opened when a body is discovered with its right hand missing. Underneath the body is O'Shay's husband's police badge.

The investigation quickly establishes a link to young stripper Yvette Borger, who believes she is being stalked by an obsessed secret admirer who calls himself "The Artist". Along with detectives Spencer Malone and Stacy Killian, O'Shay puts her career on the line to protect Yvette and possibly uncover her husband's murderer. However, Yvette is soon uncovered as a less-than-credible witness, with much of her story not adding up. Is there a killer on the loose, or is Yvette simply just stringing them all along in a bizarre fantasy of her own making?

This is probably Spindler's best work to date. While never an outstanding writer, I've always found her books to be solid, dependable thrillers, if a little predictable. "Last Known Victim" is suspenseful, fast-paced and has many plot twists, keeping the truth neatly hidden. I was quite pleased that I was unable to anticipate the identity of the killer. Keeping matters lively was the antagonistic relationship between Yvette and the members of the police force. She's an insolent brat, no doubt, but I actually really enjoyed the character. I'm sure many readers will find her a pain in the ass, yet I felt Spindler did a good job in juggling her good and bad characteristics. Nothing worse than a cliched, straight-forward stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold. I'm not saying Yvette is a fully-rounded, complex individual akin to something you might find in literature, but her antics were believable under the circumstances, and often amusing.

The only minor quibble I have here is the relationship between Spencer and Stacy (they appeared previously in "Killer Takes All"). Spencer's off-hand "macho" no-big-deal marriage proposal reeks of the sort of synthetic dramatic tension found only in fiction, whether it be book or film. I've known plenty of guys over the years who have gotten engaged (several just recently) and married, and they all took it pretty darn seriously. The resulting fall-out from his ridiculous proposal is tiresome and doesn't ring true at all. Then again, for most of the novel Spencer doesn't exactly come across as particularly cluey, so maybe he really is brain-dead.

Thankfully, however, that only comprises a small part of the novel (most other crime novels these days, it would seem, focus on the relationship aspect more than the crime aspect, yes I'm looking at you, Karin Slaughter). Here, Spindler mostly seems focused on delivering an exciting, twisty murder mystery and she succeeds.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Web Of Evil" by J.A. Jance

Ali Reynolds is heading to Los Angeles to finalise her divorce from husband Paul Grayson, who is set to marry his pregnant mistress, April Gaddis, the day after the proceedings are over. He never shows at the hearing - but that's because someone had trussed him up, slapped him in the boot of a car and left it in the path of an oncoming train. Ali winds up as a suspect in the murder, and things start looking especially bad for her when it is revealed that Paul never had time to change his will and she remains his sole beneficiary. A sense of sympathy results in her getting involved in April's plight, which makes her life even more complicated and ultimately gets her caught up in the web that ended her husband's life.

After too many books to count in which proceedings went nowhere fast, "Web Of Evil" was a small, but refreshing change. It's by no means a terrific book, and far too many contrivances pile up as it heads towards its finish, but at least SOMETHING HAPPENS. There's no slogging through endless, minute technical detail as evidence is collected from crime scenes, or characters throwing motives back and forth while sitting around on their asses waiting for results to come back from the lab. Jance seems to operate on this outrageous, novel notion that you can have a little action and suspense in your story, and that your climax doesn't need a Scooby-Doo surprise villian popping up to explain their motive that had barely been hinted at in the previous 300 pages (sorry, a direct reference to "Broken", a letdown that still rankles me). In "Web Of Evil" the characters are pro-active in both sorting out their problems and tracking down the source of them. Unfortunately, this is where my big quibble with this book arises.

Throughout her turmoil, Ali counts on help from both her mother and a police officer friend by the name of Dave Holman. Through the latter, they are privy to all sorts of insider information because Dave just happens to be a former marine and several of his marine buddies are now in different areas of law enforcement. When the plot calls for it, Dave conveniently has a friend he can call on for help. Consequently, as the book nears its finish, Ali doesn't so much seem like an independent woman solving her own problems as she does a woman simply being in the right place at the wrong time because Dave and his buddies already have everything figured out and are letting her tag along out of the kindness of their hearts. When she's allowed to accompany them on a major police takedown, I was almost taken - right out of the book.

It seems like a no-win situation in the crime/thriller genre. I hate a police procedural so focused on accuracy that they forget to include any suspense or action or even much of a plot (or in the case of Stuart MacBride and James Patterson, about four or five mini-plots that have nothing to do with each other). On the other hand, I get fed up with the more pacy thrillers which suspend disbelief with the never-ending supply of helpers the protagonist can conjure up at the drop of a hat when the plot demands it. There don't seem to be many books out there that can tread the fine line between the two (my favourite authors Tess Gerritsen and Robert Crais would be examples of those who can). Then there are the crime authors who got their start in category romance, but that's a whole other issue....

"Web Of Evil" did the trick for me after a seemingly never-ending parade of complete yawners. It's not perfect, but the characters are both believable and likeable, the plot moves at a solid pace, and the ending doesn't come out of left field - it's not predictable, but it's an expected outcome from all the clues and hints dropped throughout the story. I'll be interested in taking a look at this author's other works.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Broken" by Karin Slaughter

The body of college student Allison Spooner is discovered in the lake, but despite the presence of what looks like a suicide note, the death is quickly determined as murder, thanks to a stab wound in her neck. It doesn't take long for them to arrest Tommy Braham, an intellectually disabled young man with a crush on the victim. But the arrest goes bad and one of the detectives is badly injured.

Sara Linton is back in town for Thanksgiving, and receives a phone call saying that Tommy is desperate to see her. When she arrives at the prison, he is dead, having written the words "Not Me" in his own blood. Knowing that Lena Adams is one of the detectives on the case and that she has a tendency to screw up everything she touches (plus she blames her for the death of her police chief husband), Sara calls the Georgia Bureau Of Investigation, hoping they might uncover Lena's incompetence and end her career for good. Will Trent, whom Sara worked with in "Genesis", is sent over. He quickly ascertains that Lena and Interim Police Chief Frank Wallace are indeed hiding something. Uncovering a motive for murder, however, proves much more difficult.

It's been a long time since I've read a zippy, twisty crime thriller and unfortunately, "Broken" hasn't broken the drought. This one is excruciatingly slow-paced. We discover in the prologue that Allison is killed at the lake. The detectives take until PAGE 200 to confirm it. If the author had removed the prologue, this revelation might have evoked perhaps an "ok, that's interesting" response, rather than my muttering of "it's about goddamn time". Alas, things don't particularly speed up from there, so I doubt it would have made much difference. This is one of those books where the solution to the crime is rather simple and unexciting, and barely justifies the long wait it takes to get there. Is it wrong to expect just a little excitement and suspense while reading a supposed crime thriller? Everybody is just going through the motions - collecting evidence, speculating about motive or in Sara's case, moping about her dead husband. I'm sure it's all very accurate, but it's also absolutely, stultifyingly DULL. There's no story here! Just 300-odd pages of rambling before the arbitrary identity of the killer is revealed and everything gets neatly wrapped up.

On top of this, Slaughter continues to fall into the same trap that permeated the other novels. She apparently killed off Jeffrey Tolliver to shake the series out of its equilibrium and approaching staleness. Now, instead of Sara spending each book with a different reason to be angry at her husband, she now spends each book moping about his death and their supposedly perfect, wonderful relationship (even though each previous book has clearly discredited this - they were always arguing!). She was a real weak link in "Genesis", and even though she doesn't actually appear much here, all of her scenes typically involve her crying about Jeffrey. As for me, I'm glad Jeffrey's dead. He was annoying. Will Trent is a much more interesting character. The hints at romance between him and Sara also ring false - I mean, how are we supposed to buy this plot direction when Sara is still barely coping with Jeffrey's death nearly four years later and at one point says: "Jeffrey has ruined other men for me"? I suspect that, despite suggestions at the book's conclusion that she's ready to move on, Sara will be spending the next book in much the same frame of mind, not moving the series anywhere.

Anything good to say? Well, Will Trent is probably the most likeable character Slaughter has created. He's complex, the world has dealt him some tough blows, but he's not a pain in the ass. Lena Adams is also not nearly as annoying as she usually is. Even to the point where it sometimes doesn't even feel like we're dealing with the same character from previous books. I never thought I'd see the day in this series where Lena was more tolerable than Sara.

But just because you like a couple of characters is not nearly reason enough to slog through this murky, near plot-less bore. There is zero suspense, a feeble mystery with precious few suspects, meaning barely a plot twist in sight. If you like lots and lots and lots AND LOTS of technical detail and little else, this might satisfy you. I normally look forward to each new Slaughter release, but this is easily one of her worst.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Blood Runs Cold" by Alex Barclay

Special Agent Ren Bryce is chosen to head up the task force investigating the murder of another FBI Agent, Jean Transom. The investigation is hampered by the fact that the body gets swept away by an unexpected avalanche and can't be located. She falls for her informant, which could possibly compromise the investigation.

That's about as much plot that can be described for this deadeningly paced junk. You could easily skip to page 267 (part two) and barely miss a thing. That's how little happens in the first two thirds of the book. Since there is no body, there aren't many avenues for the investigation to take. Instead, Ren gets into a relationship with informant Billy Waites, who works at the Brockton Filly, a local pub. Most of the book is taken up with their stop-start romance and Ren's calls to her shrink to complain about her complicated life. Combine that with Ren and her task force colleagues' constant sass-talking and you'd be forgiven for thinking that nobody involved seems particularly concerned with tracking down a murderer, least of all the author.

The mystery gets wrapped up with little fanfare (there's a distinct paucity of suspects), and then thirty-odd pages are left over for the author to deliver a series of twists related to (very) minor subplots sprinkled earlier throughout the story. But because there has been so little detail or build-up regarding these subplots, said twists evoke little more than a "so what?" mentality. They hardly justify the fact we've slogged through endless pages of Ren's paranoia, insecurities and general whining.

Alex Barclay is the author of two previous novels, "Darkhouse" and "The Caller", both of which I've read - and they're not bad. They featured a different protagonist. It's quite rare for a crime author to abandon a series of books featuring a main character, only to start a new series with another character (a follow-up Ren Bryce thriller called "Time Of Death" has just hit stores at the time of writing, one of the reasons I picked up this long-ago-purchased-but-not-yet-read thriller). One can possibly assume the other series wasn't selling well and publishers urged Barclay to start afresh? But on the evidence of this appalling go-nowhere snoozefest, it's hard to think why. "Darkhouse" and "The Caller" were much better novels and I cannot think of a legitimate reason why anybody should plunk down cash for this drivel.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Superstition" by Karen Robards

Reporter Nicky Sullivan thinks the big break in her career will be a live broadcast of a seance in the house where three teenage girls mysteriously disappeared fifteen years ago. The seance is lead by Leonora James, Nicky's own mother, a famous psychic. Also on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong - his attempts to shut the seance down were unsuccessful - is police chief Joe Franconi, who is haunted by a ghost of his own, literally.

During the broadcast, a woman is murdered, and Nicky also comes very close to losing her life. As more murders occur, she must team up with Joe to discover the truth, while battling her attraction to him.

If the book cover didn't tell me otherwise, I would have thought this was written by Karen Rose or Lisa Jackson. Except even those two provide a bit more plot than what can be found here. The solutions to the two mysteries (the events of fifteen years ago and the events of now) are wrapped up so arbitrarily in the last part of the book that Robards could easily have claimed aliens did it all and it wouldn't have made much difference. Most of this, as can be expected, is devoted to the developing romance between Nicky and Joe. The latter is a yawn-inducing, cliche-ridden typical alpha male, and I could barely remember much about him once the book was finished. The former is okay as far as female protagonists go, but her attitude towards the supernatural quickly gets weary. If anybody dare suggest they are a non-believer, she behaves like a snotty child who thinks her viewpoint is the only valid one. Not the quality one would expect in a REPORTER, for God's sake.

The supernatural element is the other part of this novel that just doesn't work. The fact that Joe has a ghost - Brian Sawyer - haunting him comes across as cheesy. Making it part of what helps him and Nicky connect is even cheesier. Either plant your novel in the real world, or make the "ghosts"/supernatural element a central, non-disputeable part of the plot. I like ghost stories. I don't like stories that dance around the idea to fill up space. The presence of some scary ghosts could have perhaps made this book a little more interesting. I stress - PERHAPS.

Yet another author too scared to abandon the rigid formula of romance novels (does anybody remember the day when the love interest could also be a suspect?), Karen Robards delivers a by-the-numbers romantic thriller with clunky pacing and even clunkier plotting.

Friday, June 11, 2010

"To Die For" by Melanie George

Abby St James is a timid young woman who decides to masquerade as her twin sister Michaela, overseeing the men's magazine that she owns. Why such a wishy-washy wet napkin would believe she could pass for a wild, promiscuous, thrice-married man-eater isn't terribly clear. Anyway, she finds herself overwhelmed by the magazine's publisher, Stefan Massari, who has always been at odds with Michaela over the way the magazine is run. In fact, she faints after their first meeting because he is just so intense. Abby has a deep-seated mistrust of men ever since she was finger-banged against her will in high school. Of course, Stefan manages to break down those walls through repeated seduction attempts that border on sexual harrassment.

Unfortunately for Abby, Michaela has an enemy, and this stalker doesn't know they're stalking the wrong twin.

"To Die For" is the sort of 'romantic' suspense trash that gives the genre a bad name. Like many female authors, a clear distinction is made here between 'good' and 'bad' girls. Only the nice, well-behaved, near-virginal woman is worthy of the swarthy Italian's desire and love. On the other hand, the outspoken, ball-breaking, sexually active woman, by the book's end, has been raped and beaten, presumably for her sins. She even gets to donate a kidney to her 'better' sister so that she can repent. As a male reader, I found these portrayals offensive, and I'd be very surprised if a woman didn't as well. This extends to the character of Stefan, described as the typical exotic, masculine protector of fragile woman. Though it must be said, 'fragile' doesn't even begin to describe Abby. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more weak, irritating and helpless female character anywhere in general fiction.

Perhaps worth a browse just to see how bad it is - open up to just about any page and you'll get a nice dose of florid dialogue or lurid sexual descriptions (usually involving fingering of some type) - "To Die For" is real bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Freddy Krueger's Tales Of Terror #2: Fatal Games" by Bruce Richards

Chip Parker, his mother and his adopted brother Al are moving to Elm Street, where the mother hopes to make a go of it as the owner of a donut shop. Al is a bitter, angry teenager and resents his adopted family. Tensions only increase when both brothers try out for the position of quarterback on the football team at their new school.

Chip meets and falls for a strange beauty named Alicia, and learns of her connection to the history of the house he now lives in. She was having eye surgery when she discovered the dead bodies of several local teenagers stuffed into the boiler in the basement. The eye surgeon's nephew had hung himself nearby, apparently guilty of the crimes. However, she confides to Chip that she thinks the killer was Johnny Murphy, now locked up in an insane asylum.

Other strange things occur. Alicia's ex-boyfriend Scott Miller thinks that she was possessed by some sort of evil spirit while been operated on in that basement. As for Scott, badly injured in the same car accident that blinded Alicia, his grotesquely maimed face can inexplicably not be cured by plastic surgery, and only seems to get worse as time goes on, so he hides from the world. Meanwhile, Al is getting progressively nastier, and is having mysterious conversations with an unknown person in the basement. Suspicious accidents start occuring at school. What on Earth is going on?

To be honest, I really have no idea. Just reading that synopsis back to myself makes me think I possibly imagined reading this book. Back in the heyday of teen thrillers, which ran for about ten years between 1986 and 1996 (R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike were the big names), just about every publisher flooded the market with their own versions. There were about three different series based on hororscopes, while both Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers (from the "Halloween" movies) had a handful of books released. I was quite happy to pick this one up for curiosity value, and would certainly love to get my hands on more.

Because "Fatal Games" isn't actually half-bad. Sure, the plot is all over the place, but there is the germ of a good idea here. Disappointingly, it all turns out to be the work of Freddy Krueger himself, which didn't make much sense. Either the author couldn't figure out a way to hang this all together, or there was a mandate by the publisher that Freddy Krueger had to be the villian. After all, this is one of his tales of terror. I suspect it's a mixture of the two. Once the story is over, there are several questions left unanswered. What was the deal with the voodoo doll Chip found in the backyard? Why did Johnny originally murder those cheerleaders and run over his football teammate? Why is he seemingly helping Al injure his current teammates? What's the connection to eye surgeon Dr. Hawke and the fact several of the dead bodies had the eyeballs removed? How was Alicia's blindness miraculously cured? You're probably getting the idea by now. So, with a little fleshing out of his ideas, the author really could have been onto something with this book. Not bad for an obscure relic from the teen-thriller era before "Twilight".

Monday, May 31, 2010

"One False Move" by Alex Kava

Melanie Starks and her son Charlie have got through life by being low-level con artists. When her brother Jared Barnett reappears in her life, they step into the big leagues with Jared's proposal of a bank robbery. He's been in jail for the last five years for rape and murder, but his shady lawyer Max Kramer has gotten him out on a technicality. It doesn't mean he's innocent, but Melanie is willing to trust him, while Charlie looks up at him as some sort of idol.

The bank robbery goes horribly wrong, with four people winding up dead. The crime spree continues as the three of them go on the run, eventually taking crime writer Andrew Kane hostage. On their trail is Detective Tommy Pakula, a friend of Andrew's and one of the original arresting officers of Jared Barnett. Helping out is district attorney Grace Wenninghoff, original prosecutor of Jared Barnett, who assumes that he's possibly stalking her.

"One False Move" gets off to an okay start, but pretty much falls apart by the end. Everybody's motives aren't entirely clear, and the climax is a joke. By the end, you're wondering what exactly the point of the whole thing was. Adding insult to injury is the "who cares?" minor twist that caps this underwhelming effort off. One main fault is the lack of a central character to anchor us in the story. The chapters flip between view-points so often that there is nobody for us to identify with. Andrew Kane is given a lame scared-of-commitment backstory, but it doesn't really make us care about him, even though he's the hostage and we're supposed to worry about his safety. But he's got a flat personality, plus it's never clear even why the trio bother to keep him around.

Grace Wenninghoff's chapters have her convinced that Jared Barnett is stalking her, since he keeps showing up wherever she goes, may have stolen one of her daughter's toys, and left a calling card in its place. However, it's hard to understand why this element was included in the novel. Jared Barnett is running from the law, so there is no suspense in wondering if he'll come back for Grace. Of course he won't. As for Melanie Stark, she's so wishy-washy and oblivious that she quickly becomes tiresome. Not great traits for a character you're supposed to also care about. Her son Charlie fares even worse. He's portrayed as some sort of innocent victim, but nobody's forcing him to commit all these crimes. He does it because he likes it. Detective Tommy Pakula is a good character, but is short-changed by all these varying view-points. And the book itself is seriously short, clocking in at only 300-odd pages, with large font, short chapters and five (count 'em - five!) parts.

"One False Move" lacks focus and energy. I never felt compelled to go back to it after finishing a chapter. Not a good thing to say about a story involving bank robberies, murder and hostages. Plot elements are raised and then never mentioned again (what was the deal with the ceramic gnomes again?). There's no build-up to any sort of exciting ending - it simply feels as if Kava had run out of ideas and interest and had to finish it as quickly as possible. Disappointing because it had the opportunity to be so much better.

"Skin" by Mo Hayder

Picking up almost where "Ritual" left off, Detective Jack Caffery's latest case involves a woman found near railway tracks, which looks like a suicide. Police diver Flea Marley's latest case involves a skinned dog brought up from the depths. As it turns out, the dog was the woman's pet. Is there more to the woman's death than initially thought? Both appear to lose interest, however. Jack is convinced that he is still being stalked by the Tokolosh, a myth-based creature that featured in "Ritual". As for Flea, she finds the dead body of footballer girlfriend Misty Kitson in the trunk of her car, realising she was the victim of a hit-and-run when her irresponsible brother borrowed her car. Now she's preoccupied with disposing of the body and saving her brother's skin, even though he's resolutely ungrateful for it, conspiring with his girlfriend to make it look like Flea was the driver who killed Misty.

"Skin" is awful. Like so many crime thrillers these days, this one crams three disparate storylines into its narrative. So instead of one decent plot, we get three mediocre ones. This book abandons the plot of the dead woman and dead dog so that Jack can investigate the Tokolosh (leading to one admittedly very creepy sequence), only for him to promptly abandon that investigation to go back and probe into the woman's death. Meanwhile, Flea's adventures in trying to get rid of Misty's body doesn't have much to do with anything. Attempts to tie everything together at the end are underwhelming and contrived, to say the least.

It's sad to see an author who could release a genuinely frightening thriller like "The Treatment" put out something as disjointed and unexciting as this. She tries to have it both ways as well - we're expected to have read and to remember everything that happened in "Ritual", since so much in this book is linked to what happened in the previous one. Yet she never reveals the name of the killer in that book! So if you happen to read this one first and can't understand what's going on, you're expected to go back and read the previous one. Very cheap tactic. I'd say neither are worth forking out your cash for, anyway. "Gone", the next Jack Caffery thriller, is already out, but I've got serious reservations. Perhaps if someone lets me know that Flea Marley is nowhere to be found I might give it a go.

"Abandoned" by Cody McFadyen

FBI agent Smoky Barrett and her team are back, this time drawn into the mystery of a woman thrown out of a car at the wedding of team member Callie. The woman is eventually revealed to be Heather Hollister, a police officer who went missing eight years ago. She shows evidence of being tortured and held in a place with no light. She is too traumatised to give any information. As the team investigate the link Heather's remarried husband Douglas Hollister might have to the initial disappearance, they learn that other people have been abducted under similar circumstances - except these folk are showing up with homemade labotomies....

There's a good thriller buried somewhere in "Abandoned". There are some interesting glimpses into the villian's past, and their motivation for and execution of the kidnappings quite captivating. Later in the novel, an exploration of anti-feminism raises plenty of interesting points - the kidnapper often trawls through the websites of bitter, cuckolded men who hate their wives, hoping to find their next collaborator/victim. Whether or not you agree with some of the fictional characters' viewpoints, there are some intriguing insights into what is acceptable behaviour for the sexes.

However, you have to wade through a lot of tiresome crap to find it. This book is not in any hurry to get anywhere. Heather Hollister's inability to provide the feds with any information seems a convenient excuse for McFadyen to do what he does best with these characters these days - let them focus on and ruminate about anything and everything that doesn't have anything to do with the case they're investigating. They have to ponder their futures when the FBI director announces cutbacks and relocation. Smoky has a couple more secrets she has to reveal. Yawn! I'll save you the trouble: she has secretly gotten married to Tommy, and is now pregnant. McFadyen spends an inordinate amount of time on Smoky and Tommy talking about their relationship and how "cool" it is. Smoky has to step up to the plate as a parent when surrogate daughter Bonnie kills a cat. Yes, you read that right.

"Abandoned" is probably about one-third of a good book. I don't dislike these characters, but focusing so much on their personal lives at the expense of the crime element is boring! Unless McFadyen is going to go in a wild direction and write about a thirteen-year-old female serial killer, I don't care that Bonnie killed a cat! What a RIDICULOUS diversion! Is this guy just cashing his cheques or what? When I buy a book in the crime genre, I'm buying it for what I hope will be an exciting, suspenseful thriller. Not a tedious soap opera about a traumatised woman rebuilding her life with a so-perfect-he-barely-resembles-human mercenary and a wise-beyond-her-years girl. Because that's mostly what I got here. After two misfires in a row, I'm not sure this author is getting another chance.

"Lost Souls" by Lisa Jackson

Kristi Bentz has survived a serial killer twice, but will she be lucky a third time? She's re-enrolled at trendy university All Saints, where lately co-eds have had a habit of going missing. She wants to be a true-crime writer, and figures digging into this story is the perfect way to start out. The room she rents also just happens to be the former room of one of the girls who has gone missing! Distracting her from her mission is ex-lover Jay McBride, who conveniently happens to be filling in as a lecturer in one of her classes. He has links to the police, which can only be beneficial.

Another student - Lucretia - who was Kristi's roommate when she first attended the university, comes to her with news that there is some sort of cult on campus. Many girls are a part of it - including those who have now disappeared. Since the missing girls are considered runaways, with families who care little about them, the police aren't interested in any connections between them or any supposed illicit shenanigans at the college. Still in love with Kristi, Jay agrees to help her figure out the truth.

I read "Lost Souls" a little while ago, but thought it would be the decent thing to do to review it, since it wasn't too bad, and I so thoroughly trashed "Almost Dead" and "Left To Die". Yes, like most of Jackson's novels, it features an anonymous killer who is finely muscled and likes to do everything in the nude, with female victims that typically find themselves waking up naked and at the killer's mercy. Once again, there is the continued, seemingly pathological overuse of the word "damn". I don't know why it bothers me so much, but could she PLEASE expand her vocabulary, especially when it comes to the use of adjectives? That aside, "Lost Souls" is a surprisingly decent thriller, with plenty of suspects, all with a motive. There are a couple of plot twists that are well done, too. The romance between Jay and Kristi feels like it's there because it has to be, and their dismissal of the consequences of a student and faculty member hooking up is glossed over with lame justifications you typically wouldn't expect from supposedly intelligent people. However, Jackson manages to achieve a nice balance between the thriller elements and the standard "I have no time to be falling in love with so-and-so" internal monologues Jay and Kristi frequently indulge in. As for Kristi, I liked the character, but found it hard to believe that she was supposed to be twenty-seven-years old. She behaves like she's just turned eighteen, and she's disappointingly passive in the book's finale.

Lastly, just to demonstrate why "Left To Die" was such manipulative garbage, "Lost Souls" ends with a cliffhanger, but one that doesn't cheat the reader. In the epilogue, Kristi's father John has a vision of his dead first wife. It doesn't affect the story we've just read, but certainly garners interest in his story, to obviously be continued in another book. There's a difference between a cliffhanger and an out-and-out cheat, and I think Jackson knows that difference. Which makes her and the publisher's cash-grab in "Left To Die" even more inexcusable. Just check out Amazon's reviews of "Left To Die" to see how many of her fans have vowed to not only never buy the follow-up, but never buy another book by her again!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Left To Die" by Lisa Jackson

Jillian Rivers receives mysterious pictures of her first husband, who has been presumed dead fore more than a decade. Suspecting it may be work of her second husband whom she is now divorced from, she heads off in search of the truth. But a psycho stalker blows out her tires somewhere in Montana and her car crashes horrifically. She is rescued from certain death by Zane McGregor, who tends to her wounds in his isolated cabin. Since she was actively targeted by a person who wants her dead, Jillian isn't sure she can trust Zane. Especially since there is a madman out there who enjoys causing pretty women to have car accidents, at first helping them to recover, before tying them naked to a tree and letting them die of exposure.

Detectives Regan Pescoli and Selena Alvarez are the ones responisble for catching this killer. Not that they do much detecting amongst the fifty-thousand-or-so times they say something along the lines of: "We have to catch this mad bastard soon!" Also, Regan is more than a bit preoccupied with her churlish and ungrateful teenage children, Bianca and Jeremy, and her ex-husband Lucky, who is suddenly showing an interest in being a full-time carer for said children. Now, what could possibly be the connection between the psycho tying naked chicks to trees, and the psycho who used pictures of Jillian's presumed-dead first husband to lure her to Montana?

As it happens, nothing. I know it's not cool to reveal too much about a book's plot, but this piece of junk is nothing but filler. About half-way through the detectives surmise that Jillian's psycho is simply a copycat who uses the other killer's M.O. as an opportunity to try and off her - Jillian survives, of course. So much of the book is devoted to the demented activities of the psycho who is called the "Star-Crossed Killer" that by the time it is revealed Jillian Rivers and Zane McGregor have nothing to do with him, there is little room left for their own story to go. The solution to the mystery of Jillian's tormentor is very simple and utterly stupid. To add insult to injury, the identity of the "Star-Crossed Killer", which we were lead to believe was the main element of this novel, is never resolved. No, we have to wait for "Chosen To Die" before we get to find that information out! It's been a long time since I've been swindled like that in a book, and this is certainly one of the worst cases I've come across. Combine Jackson's contempt for her audience with her continued bizarre over-use of the word "damn" (at least three times a page), and you have a pile of shit like "Left To Die" that should be left on the shelve, to die a long and painful death of its own.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Cry Wolf" by Tami Hoag

Laurel Chandler is a prosecutor who has returned to her family home in the bayou after disastrously losing a child abuse case in which she pointed the finger at several big names. She reunites with her aunt Caroline and older sister Savannah, who is now a rampaging slut thanks to the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather when she and Laurel were young. Laurel was never subjected to any abuse, and still feels guilty for that fact all this time later. Although she wants to leave her lawyer past behind her, she unwittingly finds herself standing up for the Delahoussaye's, the owners of a bar that is being targeted by sham televangelist Jimmy Lee Baldwin, who decries it as a place of sin.

And what would a bayou tale be without a cliched gothic romance to go along with it all? Laurel falls for Jack Boudreaux, a former-lawyer-turned-horror-writer haunted by the suicide of his wife and subsequent death of their unborn child. He calls her many Cajun endearments whilst also declaring himself as somebody she can't rely on, despite popping up EVERY SINGLE TIME Laurel finds herself in even the smallest bit of bother. You'd think he was stalking her, but she just eats it up. Most of the time. Oh yeah, there's also a psycho lurking about strangling women and dumping their bodies, and the victims appear to be women with "loose morals". Uh oh. Could slutty Savannah be a target?

The back cover description of this plotless drivel concentrates mostly on the crime element of the women being strangled. I can tell you now that the strangler is barely even mentioned in the first 300 pages. The killer only seems to be included so that there can be an "exciting" ending, in which Laurel is abducted, stripped and molested. Otherwise, you would be VERY hard-pressed to call this a crime novel at all. Most of the 528 pages are devoted to Laurel and Jack as they talk, talk, talk and talk some more, and brood about their mutual haunted pasts. The revelation of the killer is pretty arbritrary and boring and there's no real motive given for his penchant for murdering "loose" women. "Cry Wolf" is an unmitigated bore with characters straight out of Romance-Cliche-Central that fails to entertain in any way whatsoever.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Close To You" by Mary Jane Clark

Eliza Blake is a popular news correspondent who has moved out of the city for a more steady lifestyle with her daughter. But instead of tranquility she finds terror - 140 people suddenly become obsessed with her! Actually, it's far less than that, but you get the drift. Problems begin when she is continually bothered by the previous owner of the new house she has just bought. Larson Richards won't give her the combination to the safe, inappropriately buys her daughter a puppy, and bugs her to invest in his latest venture to create a pizzeria franchise. On top of this, his parents - who lived in the house - died from a mysterious gas leak. Then there's Keith Chapel, one of her producers, who's coping with an unhappy pregnant life and dreams of starting an affair with Eliza. Abigail Snow is in charge of promos and is a stereotypically predatory lesbian also wanting to get down and dirty with the correspondent. Cornelius "Meat" Bacon is a bat-obsessed weirdo who thinks Eliza wears inappropriate attire for a news reporter. Jerry Wasilowski likes to spend his time making phone calls to her office and anonymously declaring his love. There's also Samuel Morton, whose daughter has recently died of cancer. Eliza tentatively responds to his overtures of romance after her lover, Mack McBride, cheats on her while on assignment in London. Intermingly with all this is August Sinisi, a car mechanic who is copying the keys of rich folk and breaking into their homes....

So Eliza has many obsessed admirers. But which one actually wants to kill her? The answer is slow in coming in this laboriously plotted thriller. The short chapters are a big advantage, making this one easy to read in nice bite-sized pieces. But the convoluted nature of Eliza conveniently having so many admirers at once drags this down - whose to say that once the story is over she isn't going to have another big bunch of pyschos declaring their love for her? The introduction of so many secondary characters is another negative factor - I resorted to writing all their names down so I could keep track of everybody - and it left little time for many of them to be adequately developed. "Close To You" is far from the worst suspense novel I've come across - the romance element is refreshingly low-key and not dwelt on too much. But don't go rushing to hunt it down.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"What To Do When Someone Dies" by Nicci French

Ellie is understandably shocked when she is informed her husband Greg has died in a car accident. Even worse, there was another woman in the car with him - a woman by the name of Milena Livingstone that she has never heard of before. She begins obsessively detailing every moment of the last month of Greg's life in an effort to prove that Greg and Milena were not having an affair. The police and her friends think she is acting crazily out of her grief, but nothing will stop her in her mission to show that there was something fishy about Greg's death.

A visit to Milena's business partner Frances is initially out of curiosity, but she winds up offering her services to help clean up the business, which is in disarray after Milena's death. She gives her name as Gwen (one of her closest friends), and this new "job" allows her more personal access into Milena's life, which only exacerbates her obsession with making everybody believe that her husband was not an adulterer. Is she simply crazy? Or is there something more to Greg's death than the police investigation or inquest revealed?

For the first 100 pages or so, the book really lives up to its title. Ellie mourns, attends the inquest, organises the funeral - all the details one would conceivably attend to after the death of a spouse. It doesn't exactly make for exciting reading. Things pick up somewhat after she deceptively gets the job at Milena's old business. There's an effective undercurrent of suspense as we wonder just how much of a hole Ellie will dig for herself, and whether the new people in her life should be trusted or not. Although not a lot ever really happens, I was quite drawn into the story - more than I thought I would be after the very slow start. French takes us into every corner of Ellie's psyche, delivering one of the more fully-rounded main characters I've come across in a suspense thriller. Ellie isn't always likeable - often quite exasperating - but she feels real, which is why I kept reading to find out what happened to her.

"What To Do When Someone Dies" isn't for those who like their thrillers zippy and twisty, that's for sure. But through perserverance I was totally sucked in and ended up quite enjoying the experience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Evidence" by Jonathan Kellerman

Psychologist Alex Delaware and detective Milo Sturgis arrive at a crime scene in which two dead people are entwined in a lover's embrace. They are quickly able to ID the male, but the identity of the female remains unknown. The male - Desmond Backer - was recently employed at a now-defunct architectural firm based on being environmentally friendly. Most of the females there had a relationship with Backer at some point or another, except for one of the partners, Helga Gemein. She's a rich Swiss who believes that humanity is a blight on the environment, and therefore didn't like anybody too much. Of course, the other partners in the firm aren't too happy with Helga either.

Alex and Milo interview the females who dallied with Desmond but, obviously, there's a lot more going on than originally thought. The investigation manages to pull up links with the brother of a sultan from the Indonesian island of Sranil who appears impossible to track down - and may have been involved in a murder. There's Desmond's own murky past which seems to have involved some amateur eco-terrorism. And trying to identify the female gets them involved with the FBI, as she was one of their informants. I'll leave it there, as to reveal much more would defeat the purpose of reading the book.

Jonathan Kellerman on auto-pilot is usually better than most of the stuff out there and this is no exception. The whole thing seems almost formulaic, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find another crime novel on the shelf with as many twists and turns as this one. Some little factoid dropped early on gains significance later. A minor character you wouldn't think twice about turns out to be much more involved than you would have guessed. It's the work of a writer who knows what they're doing - and doing it well. Fans of Kellerman will know what to expect, and new readers will undoubtedly be thrilled at discovering of the genre's best.

What I've yet to figure out is why Alex Delaware is even around? He doesn't get paid for tagging along with Milo everywhere, yet he's allowed to sit in on interviews, visit crime scenes and generally participate in all sorts of police matters that no civilian would ever be allowed to join in on. Yet he doesn't really contribute much other than to speculate with Milo about theories as to whodunit and whatnot. That's the other big problem with Kellerman's novels of late - Alex and Milo bounce around all sorts of outlandish scenarios and hey presto! They're right! It lacks credibility, and seems a cheap way to move the story onto the next point. The other minor quibble is the one-word titles he's been giving his novels - "Rage", "Obsession", "Compulsion", "Bones" etc and now "Evidence". I'm not sure why the title "Evidence" is more appropriate here than any one of his other books; it seems the title choices are just as generic as the plot structures. But at the end of the day, Kellerman is still one of the few authors you can count on to deliver an unpredictable and enjoyable crime mystery - every time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Little Face" by Sophie Hannah

New mother Alice Farncourt comes home from a session at the health club, only to claim that the baby in the cot is not her own. Her husband David thinks she is insane, and tells the police as much. Her mother-in-law Vivienne sits on the fence, unwilling to believe her son or his wife is lying. Intercut with these current events are chapters set one week later, in which David has reported his wife and baby missing to detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer. As the two storylines merge, the detectives must figure out the mystery behind the baby-swap and whether there is any connection to the murder of David's first wife, Laura, which was thought to have been solved, as well as Alice's current disappearance.

There's no denying "Little Face" is a very well-written, well-constructed mystery. Even though the story keeps jumping back and forth in time, it never becomes confusing. The suspense is solid as several different scenarios are dangled in front of us as to the reason behind all the mysterious events. Hannah doesn't attempt to pull the wool over our eyes with any out-of-left-field plot twists - you either figure it out yourself or you don't. Very refreshing. I had my suspicions, but could never come to any firm conclusions, so I let the story carry me along. There was also strong characterisation, giving credibility to various characters' actions and behaviours. For example, I thought the main character of Alice was a bit of a wet napkin, but Hannah gets you inside her head so skilfully that you understand the reasons behind the decisions/actions she makes, even if you don't agree with them. And, ultimately, I wanted her to triumph against adversity. I felt the solution to everything a little pat, and the motives behind some actions pretty far-fetched, leaving this one sometimes feeling like a quaint Miss Marple mystery.

However, if you're after a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing, with well-defined and believable characters, "Little Face" is the one to get. My quibbles with it are minor, and the good points certainly outweigh the bad. Hannah is a talented writer that I will be reading more from.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Precious Blood" by Jonathan Hayes

Dr. Edward Jenner is a forensic pathologist called upon to act as a private consultant by the father of a murder victim. She had been found nailed upside-down to the wall in her flat. Although he's not a part of the medical examiner's office (having retired after post-traumatic stress disorder related to recovering bodies from 9/11), the detectives investigating the case are happy to have him around. After checking with other departments for similar crimes, Jenner comes across a crime scene in which the decapitated victim's head was placed in some spilled milk. Examining both bodies reveals that a weird script has been etched on the backs of their necks, indicating a serial killer at work.

On top of this, the roommate - and witness - to the most recent murder has been advised by her uncle to take refuge with Jenner, since said uncle lives in the same building and trusts him. This roommate, Ana de Jong, is quite traumatised by her experience (she narrowly avoided also being killed), which leads to feelings developing between her and Jenner, despite her being nearly half his age. Further investigation finds a link between the deaths and the dates in which martyrs were killed. Jenner and the police must use this information to possibly predict the next potential victim and the day that they will die, all while facing the possibility that Ana is still a target.

"Precious Blood" is a standard serial killer thriller, maybe just a touch above average. Hayes thankfully manages to display his research and knowledge without getting too dry, technical or boring. And the police investigation angle is also well-handled - even if one of the clues they track down is a dead end, it usually leads to a new direction in the story. The pacing is tight, and the finale has some solid suspenseful moments. So why am I not urging crime fans to rush and hunt this one down?

Basically because of the character of Ana de Jong. She is an absolute pain in the ass. She spends pretty much the whole book on a "poor-me" crying jag. She doesn't display one iota of wit, strength or crackling personality. Sure, perhaps her behaviour is a realistic portrayal of a twenty-one-year old university student after witnessing a murder and only just escaping with her life, but it sure gets tiresome with her constant juvenile attitude and bouts of sobbing. Jenner's attraction to her - and bedding of - can only be described as some sort of middle-aged male wish-fulfillment, as I doubt many guys would put up with such high-maintenance. As for Jenner himself, he makes for a very bland protagonist, and his sudden transformation into superhero during the climax is not very believable, especially considering he had broken ribs. But he is at least smart, which is what keeps the plot moving.

So, while this does deliver as a serial killer thriller, the unappealing main characters and their unrealistic relationship does rob if of some suspense and credibility. I'll happily revisit this author again, so long as Ana de Jong is nowhere to be found.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Eye Candy" by R.L. Stine

I'm pretty sure this was never actually released in Australia - I was never able to find it in any bookstore. But I managed to get hold of a copy for just $7 through Book Depository. I was intrigued because this, along with "The Sitter" (which I've yet to track down), was a short-lived attempt by former teen/tween thriller writer R.L. Stine to re-tackle the adult suspense genre. His initial attempt - "Superstitious" - was apparently not very successful. These two books came out around 2003/2004, and I'm guessing they weren't terribly successful either, because he hasn't tried another adult thriller since. Last time I checked, Stine was back in "Goosebumps"-style territory, though I don't know how much luck he'll have since the teens and tweens are only reading the "Twilight" books these days. I refuse to have anything to do with "Twilight" - I liked vampires back when Buffy and Angel were on TV and the teenagers actually had witty dialogue and vampires didn't bloody sparkle.....but I'm getting totally off-topic here.

"Eye Candy" has Lindy Sampson heading into the unpredictable world of Internet dating a year after the death of her fiance. She sets up dates with three guys who are all really into her, as well as another guy she happens to run into at a bar. However, the fun world of dating is short-lived when she receives a phone call telling her to "never say no to me!" She also receives a threatening note, and somebody steals all her panties! Of course, from this point on, all her dates act as suspicious as all get-out, leaving her unable to tell which one is mentally unbalanced. Heck, even the police detective she calls upon for help (he used to be partners with her dead fiance), acts funny around her. Oh yeah, and her roommate Ann-Marie's boyfriend Lou has a thing for her and likes to sexually harrass her when he's drunk. In any case, Lindy has to go on a lot of dates she doesn't want to, all the while wondering if the next date will end up with her being murdered.

It's not surprising that R.L. Stine's foray into thrillers aimed at adults didn't last. His writing style will simply never cut it. Flowing over from the days of "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street" is the simplistic writing style and short chapters, many of which end on a false scare. There's a few F-bombs chucked in, a couple of sex scenes and stronger violence, but it still felt like I was reading a "Fear Street" book from the early 90s. It's very under-plotted, and I could figure out pretty easily where everything was headed. I think if even James Patterson attempted to hand in a thriller with these sorts of twists, the editor would give it back to him. But it was engaging in its own trashy, empty way, and there was a certain comfort in reading an "adult" book that took me back to my own teen/tween days. And I'll read 100 more books like this before I'll go anywhere near "Twilight"!