Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Bye Bye Baby" by Lauren Crow/Fiona McIntosh

Confused by the title of the review? Well, it would have been simply "Bye Bye Baby" by Lauren Crow if I hadn't been to the bookstore just yesterday. While there, I noticed a book also called "Bye Bye Baby", except this time by Fiona McIntosh. I picked it up to have a look, especially since I'd just finished reading the one by Lauren Crow. At which point, I noticed the synopsis on the back was exactly the same! Flicking through, especially to the end, it seemed that both books were identical, except for the name of the author. I don't know why there was a change of name, and I can't say for certain that there are no differences between the two, but if there are, this review is based on the book with Lauren Crow as the credited author.

DCI Jack Hawksworth is put in charge of a serial killer enquiry in which somebody is killing men, removing their lips and their genitals and painting blue on their faces. His second-in-command is DI Kate Carter, whose relationship with her fiance hits a rocky patch when she realises she has the hots for her boss. Making this worse is the fact that Jack only has eyes for his new neighbour Sophie Fenton, a beautiful wheelchair-bound woman. The investigation eventually determines that the killer is a woman and that she is seeking revenge on those involved in her rape and the death of her baby some thirty years earlier. The killer's own loss of a child from SIDS is the stressor that has caused her to become a murderer.

"Bye Bye Baby" isn't a bad debut crime novel. Although mostly a police procedural, Crow doesn't get bogged down in the minute details like most other authors - the detectives here figure things out at about the same pace as Crow reveals plot twists to the reader, so the novel thankfully never devolves into a case of the reader simply waiting for the detectives to catch up. Insights into the killer's mind are another benefit here, gradually outlaying the motive behind the killings. This is probably the most absorbing and interesting element of the novel - my sympathy was fully behind the murderer. The victims deserved everything they got, really. The main problem here is the fact that nothing is new. The rape-and-revenge plotline is as hold as the hills. There are very few plot twists, and the most major one is easy to spot from a mile away. Crow has talent as a writer, as the book keeps you involved, but originality is not a strong point. And she's good enough that I want to track down the follow-up - which I might never have known about, because it's under Fiona McIntosh's name.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Tess Gerritsen Books Are Becoming A TV Show

One of my favourite series is the one featuring detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles in the books written by Tess Gerritsen. Here's a series that keeps delivering consistently original, suspenseful and fast-paced crime novels, some of the best in the genre. A trip to the Internet Movie Database revealed that Angie Harmon has been cast as Rizzoli (she's already played Lindsay Boxer in the TV version of the Women's Murder Club novels by James Patterson) and Sasha Alexander (NCIS) has been cast as Maura Isles. I'll be looking forward to this one. It should put some more money into the bank for Gerritsen, who'll hopefully return her attention to writing again (perhaps for the TV show as well), instead of providing endless quotes for other books and releasing endless omnibuses of her previous romantic suspense novels from before she hit it big.

And let's hope this show is better than that "Sex & The City" meets "Law & Order" meets Lifetime TV version we got that was "The Women's Murder Club".

"Beneath The Bleeding" by Val McDermid

The fifth book in the series featuring detective Carol Jordan and loopy psychiatrist Tony Hill begins with the death of a popular football player. It's particularly difficult to determine whether the death was accidental, suicide or murder. Another subplot that carries along with this involves a young man as he goes through all the stages of preparation in order to commit an act of terrorism - in this case, detonating a bomb. As for the football player, when another mysterious death occurs, Tony Hill uncovers a possible link between both victims to a particular high school, but his theory is one that Carol dismisses as unlikely. Tony sorts through the clues in both cases, all while stuck in a hospital bed after getting hit in the knee by an axe, thanks to an escaped mental patient.

"Beneath The Bleeding" is a decent addition to the series, if slowly paced. The plot twists that finally pop up towards the end of the book are well done, particularly in regards to the bombing subplot, where nothing is quite as it seemed. The problem with reviewing the book is the lack of information I can give about the plot without summarizing two thirds of the whole thing - something the back cover of the book does itself. That's what I mean when I say "slowly paced". Then you have Tony's injury, which seems to be included simply because McDermid had knee surgery herself and knew what it was like and wanted to write about it. It adds little to the plot, often in fact slowing it down. What's worse is that both plot strands have nothing to do with each other - McDermid had the chance to pack all sorts of action, suspense and twists into the separate storylines, but instead is happy to let them both coast along while Tony and Carol spend a large amount of time arguing with each other and internally analyzing their unusual relationship. I've never been a fan of authors who try to do the whole "CSI" thing and have two or more disparate crime storylines running concurrently. It generally means there's not enough "meat" to fill just one story. I don't care that in real life detectives investigate several cases at once. This is fiction - I'm sure poetic licence would allow for one great, juicy story instead of two, three or four mediocre ones.

Anyway, I cut McDermid some slack because she is a good writer and the relationship between Tony and Carol is admittedly much more complex than what you find in most other books. If you're a fan of the author or the series, this is worth picking up. Other readers may want to find something a little more exciting, or perhaps go and get "The Mermaids Singing", the first novel in the series.

"Neuropath" by Scott Bakker

Wow. I've got to admit my brain hurt a little after reading this one. My outlook on the world and existence itself was also affected, thanks to the bleak ending. While marketed as being part of the crime genre, "Neuropath" is more of a science-fiction thriller, thankfully abandoning the typical attention-to-detail-and-police-procedure-accuracy that can sink most other crime novels. However, there is an abundance of philosophical debate which can get a little weary.

Professor Thomas Bible is contacted by the FBI because they believe his best friend from his college days - Neil Cassidy - is now kidnapping and torturing people. At first Thomas couldn't believe such a thing. But this killer seems to be using methods based on something they called The Argument, which was a frequent topic of conversation between them at university. Essentially, it's an argument about physiology versus consciousness - we are merely extension of our brains, reacting to the environment and other stimuli. Any decisions we make aren't really based on our own free will, but merely our consciousness becoming aware of the decision after the brain has already made it. Which suggests that there is no such thing as free will in the first place. So Neil Cassidy is kidnapping people, cutting open their heads and re-wiring their brains to demonstrate this. One woman is rewired to program pleasure as pain. Another is rewired so that he never recognises a person's face - everybody is a stranger. When Thomas discovers that Neil was having a long-standing affair with his ex-wife Nora, he slowly comes to realise that he's at the centre of Neil's lunatic behaviour. With FBI Agent Samantha Logan, he tries to anticipate his former friend's next move.

It's actually quite hard to explain the philosophical theories at the core of "Neuropath" - I'm not entirely sure I grasped it all myself. But it certainly gives you a lot to think about, whilst also delivering the goods as a scary, gruesome thriller. There's a minor subplot about another serial killer called "The Chiropractor", who likes to remove his victim's spines (yum), which ultimately connects to the main plot in a wonderfully twisted way. Like I said, all the philosophical debate gets a little heavy at times, and some of Thomas Bible's inner monologues are really tiresome, but "Neuropath" is a genuinely disturbing, frightening novel with some jarring plot twists that attempts to be a little more cerebral than your typical thriller and generally succeeds. If you're willing to stick with it, I highly recommend it. And I'd just love to see Hollywood put out a movie called "The Chiropractor". I can imagine the tagline now: "He'll send a chill down your spine....before he rips it out!"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Venus Fix" by M.J. Rose

Dr. Morgan Snow is a sex therapist with a 13-year-old actress daughter on Broadway, and a strained romantic relationship with Det. Noah Jordain. He's currently investigating the murders of web-cam girls - they are being poisoned while performing live on-line. It seems their killer taints stuff like oils and lubricants, posts them to the girls as a "fan" and asks them to use it. It does lead to one memorable sequence - a kinky lesbian sex scene that ends in the girls vomiting uncontrollably. There's still some originality left in fiction, folks! Anyway, Morgan herself is treating a patient who only likes to refer to himself as "Bob". It turns out he's a prolific judge with an addiction to on-line porn - and a connection to the girls who are dying. She's also counselling a group of teenagers with on-line porn problems, and a couple of them may also have links to the dead girls.

While that purports to be the plot, most of the book dwells on Morgan's stress over her daughter wanting a television career in Hollywood. Morgan's own mother was a child star whose career crashed once she was a teenager, and she eventually died of a drug-overdose. Morgan doesn't want this for her own daughter, and even contemplates moving back in with her ex-husband to provide a more stable home-life for her daughter. This is turn leads to further tensions with her detective lover. All of this tiresome melodrama detracts from what could have been a very entertaining, trashy thriller. As it is, all the story threads come together really well at the end, something of a rarity these days, it seems. The last third was fast-paced and exciting, with a surprise killer with a thoughtful and believable motive and a solid climax. If they'd excised all the personal problems Morgan is going through, there wouldn't be much of a book left, but the thriller aspects deliver the goods admirably.

"Black Out" by Lisa Unger

Annie Powers would seem like the typical upper middle-class woman, with her husband Grey and daughter Victory (ugh), and pampered lifestyle, except for the fact she can't remember much of her past. When she is followed by a mysterious stranger on the beach outside her home one night, it is the beginning of a strange upheaval in her life. She starts suffering migraines and bits and pieces of her former life begin to return to her. She remembers her life as a teenager, when her mother decides to marry a death-row inmate. This incident brings the inmate's son into their lives, which eventually leads to disaster. Intercut with this are chapters set in the future, where Annie is stuck on a boat, attempting to escape an unknown threat.

The biggest disappointment in "Black Out" is that it could have been so good. As the plot slowly unfolded, I occasionally felt as if I had come across a winner. Unexpected twists, a story that keeps you guessing as to what is really going on, the whole deal. But eventually the twists start becoming a little the point where Unger writes herself into a corner and has no choice but to completely cop out. Events in the last part of the book would seem to totally contradict events that had happened earlier. When a story leaves you unsure as to what did or did not really happen, that's not good writing. It's not good story-telling. I did not come away from "Black Out" feeling satisfied. One option would be to read the whole thing again, knowing the outcome from the beginning, but I don't think there would be much to gain from that. Of course, it's hard to explain my disappointment without ruining the story, so be warned that there is a SPOILER below.

My first SPOILER! Yay!

Final warning: SPOILER AHEAD

Throughout the story, Annie relates the activities of a detective. He initially blackmails her when he discovers that she changed her name, and is using the identity of a dead woman. However, he realises something untoward is going on, and uncovers many unsavoury facts about Annie's husband and his parents, and their possible involvement in what is going on now. At the end, though, he's revealed as nothing more than a figment of her imagination, conjured up whenever she suffered a migraine. This is despite the fact he interacted with other characters, and that Annie supposedly interacted with his wife. Therefore, everything that happened before is thrown into doubt. Did Annie's doctor really get murdered? Did she really locate her believed-to-be-dead lover from her teenage years and finally kill him? What exactly happened on that boat and who killed them all? And how exactly did Annie obtain all the information she needed if the person who discovered it never existed? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

"Almost Dead" by Lisa Jackson

"Almost Damn Dead" is probably a more appropriate title here, as "damn" is about the third most used word after "the" and "and". It's not that I'm a prude or anything - have you seen some of the stuff I read? - but the use of the word is so frequent and so obvious that it's really distracting. How could it get past an editor? Remove "damn" from here and you can cut the book by about 30 pages. Seriously.

The plot has Cissy Cahill spooked by the fact that her evil mother has escaped from prison. Suddenly, members of her family begin to die. We the reader know that the mother has an accomplice, but as for Cissy and her ex-husband Jack Holt, they are clueless as to who might want to off the entire Cahill clan. As for Cissy's mother, we're never actually told what she did to get into prison in the first place, nor the intricate details of how she managed to escape, either. The plot makes some very lame attempts to cast suspicion on Cissy and Jack themselves, but this book sticks so rigidly to the romantic suspense formula that you know nothing is ever going to come of it. About the only saving grace here is that Cissy and Jack already know each other (they are on the verge of divorce), rather than having them meet and fall in love simply because the author wants them to (the problem faced by Jackson's "Deep Freeze"). However, Jack doesn't have much of a personality, and Cissy is so unpleasant and self-centred it's hard to figure out why anyone would want to spend time in her company, personality or not. At the funeral of her grandmother, whom she admits she didn't even like much, she behaves as if she's the only person who has a right to the mourn the woman, dismissing everybody's condolences. She ultimately snubs her neighbour, who while at times is a little overbearing, has never been anything but nice to her. Cissy concludes that her neighbour is a catty bitch who wants to steal her husband away. Then there's the babysitter Tanya, who does a bang-up, professional job, whom Cissy simply dislikes because she can. When Tanya tells Cissy that she's quitting because she doesn't like working for her and thinks she should see a shrink, I was going: "Right on!" I kept hoping it would be Cissy that wound up with a bullet between the eyes rather than most of the ancillary characters.

I always try to say something positive about a book, because there's no fun in constant negativity (or is there?), but I'm struggling here. While I managed to finish the damn thing (ha ha), the whole product was hugely damaged by having such an odious main character. Combine that with a flimsy plot (someone remind me again exactly what Cissy's mother went to prison for), a writer seriously short of adjectives (maybe try "old couch" instead of "damn couch"), and a romance that feels like it's there simply because it has to be, and you have a damn stupid book that takes too damn long to read and DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!!!