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.