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.