Monday, December 12, 2011

"Twice Kissed" by Lisa Jackson

Maggie McCrae has a tumultuous relationship with her twin sister Mary Theresa. Her sister now goes by the single-moniker name of Marquise and is a talk show host whose fame is slowly on the decline. When she receives a telepathic message from her sister stating that she is in danger, Maggie begins to worry. The worry is confirmed by the arrival of Thane Walker, Marquise's first husband - and Maggie's first true love. He says that Marquise is missing - possibly dead - and that the police suspect he had something to do with it. Despite not trusting him, Maggie agrees to pack her teenage brat of a daughter off to Los Angeles to stay with her aunt, and go with Thane to Denver to dig into Marquise's life to solve the mystery of her disappearance.

I know I vowed never to read another book by Lisa Jackson after the truly atrocious double-whammy of "Left To Die" and "Chosen To Die", but I happened to already own this (purchased at a sale quite cheaply), so I figured I had to get it out the way. While not nearly as awful as those previously mentioned books, it's still not very good. There is very little plot to speak of here, and all suspects are introduced so briefly that we don't get to know anything about them, so we don't really care if they had anything to do with Marquise's disappearance anyway. A fair amount of time is spent with Maggie's daughter Becca, but there's no point behind it. She's never in any danger and has no impact on the central mystery. She should have been packed off to Los Angeles and stayed there, not to be heard from for the rest of the book. That would have been nice, as she was quite an odious character.

The romance angle is typically overwrought and melodramatic, though at least partly believable. A lengthy flashback - that does nothing to illuminate the central mystery, mind you - shows how Maggie and Thane first fell in love, and the circumstances that broke them apart. Therefore, the tension between them in the present doesn't feel as forced as it might have done. You do have to wade through a lot of "I can't trust him/her!" to get to anything interesting, though. The explanation behind the mystery is very pat and silly, and the villian's motivation ill-defined at best. There is no way to figure out the answer to the mystery - the revelation is through a completely random plot development raised late in the book. Look at it this way - if converted into film/TV form, this would barely take up an hour-long television show. It's that thin. A look inside the book reveals this was originally published in 1998. Even more than a decade ago, Jackson was writing plotless drivel. This hasn't done much to sway me from my decision to no longer read her books.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"The Stalker" by Joan Lowery Nixon

When Bobbie Trax is arrested for the murder of her own mother, nobody is more shocked than Bobbie's best friend, Jennifer Wilcox. She is convinced that Bobbie is innocent, despite the police claiming the case is closed. Despite being an immature, melodramatic pain-in-the-ass, she manages to convince ex-detective Lucas Maldonaldo of her theory, and they team up to find the real murderer. Of course, this puts Jennifer herself in the real killer's sights.

"The Stalker" came out in 1985, just a year before the teen thriller genre was revolutionised (for lack of a better term) by R.L. Stine with "Blind Date". It's scary to lay such claims on a mediocre author like Stine (although admittedly his output was a lot better before he was releasing four books a month), but his content was certainly edgier than what had come before it. There isn't much to be found within the pages of "The Stalker". The plot is very thin, the culprit identifiable the moment they are introduced and the main character is truly detestable. If I thought some of the wilting flowers found in romance novels were bad, Jennifer Wilcox really takes the cake. She's supposed to be eighteen years old, but spends most of her time complaining "It's not fair!" whenever something doesn't go her way. You almost expect her to cross her arms in front of her chest and stamp her feet. She snipes at everybody around her and generally behaves like a complete buffoon. Every moment spent in her company was a total chore. And since the whole story is told from her point of view (third person), it makes the whole, thankfully short, novel much the same. Avoid.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Every Move You Make" by Carla Cassidy

Annalise Blakely is the owner of a company that creates handcrafted dolls. One day she receives a package that includes one of her dolls and a cryptic message. Little does she know, a woman has been murdered and her body displayed just like that of the doll. It seems like somebody out there with mother issues blames Annalise and her dolls for the horrors they suffered as a child. Luckily for Annalise, she has started a romance with detective Tyler King, and he is investigating those very murders. Her estranged father and half-brother have also come back into her life. Could her new happiness be threatened by the psycho on the loose?

As far as romantic suspense novels go, "Every Move You Make" sits at the top end of the scale. It was very refreshing to have two main characters who didn't want to make me reach into the pages of the book and slap them both silly. Annalise isn't some fragile wilting flower, and Tyler isn't some melodramatic alpha-male. They both seem to have their heads about them, lending some credibility to their developing relationship. Annalise's issues with her dead mother, her desire to continue her mother's legacy (she inherited the doll company from her) and her bitterness over what she feels is her father's abandonment of her is believable and provides a good context for her reluctance to fully embrace a relationship with Tyler. No, it's not the stuff of deep intellectual literary drama, but it makes Annalise a much more rounded character than what this genre usually provides. Yes, her heart flutters whenever she's around Tyler, but he's not all she thinks about. Following her journey of personal enlightenment isn't nearly as tiresome as it could have been.

Just to be clear: there's nothing new here. It's probably a little slower-paced than your typical romantic thriller. The killer's motive is as hold as the hills and his identity rather arbitrary (my excuse for when I'm not able to pick it). But all in all, there's not a lot I can really complain about here. I'm a huge fan of TV movies featuring a B-list actress playing a damsel in distress. "Every Move You Make" was like a TV movie in written form. I could easily see this tale nicely fitting a 90-minute midday movie. Take from that what you will, but from me it's a pretty high endorsement. A pleasant surprise.

"Eyes" by Felice Picano

Stu Waehner is a social caseworker, in a deteriorating relationship with girlfriend Jennifer. He is also the object of obsession for Johanna Poole, who lives in an apartment building opposite him. She can see into his apartment, but he can't see into hers. She keeps a detailed, extensive journal on him, noting every step in their progressing "relationship". She starts to call him, but refuses to meet in person. At first, Stu is unsure about the calls, but is soon drawn to the woman he knows as Joan. In fact, he comes to rely on Joan's presence in his life, even after he begins a relationship with Johanna herself, unaware they are one and the same.

The front cover of the book proclaims this as "The Shattering Novel of Love and Terror". I wouldn't go that far, but it certainly is an intriguing and compelling little character study. Originally published in 1975, this one holds up extremely well, and could conceivably occur in any time period. Picano gets deep inside his characters' heads, so that we know their every weakness, insecurity and character flaw. Johanna obviously has more than a few screws loose, but she is not portrayed as some over-the-top loony. She is a pretty, intelligent woman....who just happens to be a voyeur with a demented, idealised view of true love. Her reasons for keeping a journal about Stu are completely rational - to her. This sort of strong character development helps to make proceedings remain believable when a romance does actually develop between Stu and Johanna.

It made for quite fascinating reading as Stu refused to let go of his phone relationship with Joan, despite having the real thing with Johanna. Likewise, Johanna just couldn't let go of her alter ego despite landing the man she had been longing for. Their mutual self-destructiveness leads to risky, poorly thought-out character actions that can only end badly.

Although the book cover and blurb try to sell this as a suspense thriller, I wouldn't really categorise it as such. It is a little too leisurely paced to ratchet up the tension you would expect from the genre, and there are no real twists to the plot. However, it is certainly never dull, as the complex relationship between Stu and Johanna/Joan is explored so deeply. "Eyes" was a change of pace from what I normally read, and a welcome one.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"Taboo" by Casey Hill

Reilly Steel is a forensic investigator who has come to Ireland, home of her father, to help bring Ireland's lab into the twenty-first century. Haunted by a mysterious past that has driven her father into alcoholism, Reilly channels her issues into her work, and is highly regarded in her field. Her skills are put to the test by a series of murders in which victims are forced to enact societal taboos before being killed. Brother and sister forced into incent, a husband forced to suicide, a young man forced to eat human flesh....the murders are quite grisly and shocking. Reilly notes that Freudian clues are being left at each crime scene, impressing Chris Delaney, the detective on the case. However, it isn't long before the murderer drags Reilly into things on a personal level.

Although the serial killer in this novel likes to commit murders that shock society, shock is hardly an emotion likely to be experienced by anybody who reads the book. "Taboo" plays it extremely safe with characters straight out of central casting, non-graphic descriptions of crime scenes and standard forensic-investigator mumbo jumbo. Although too much descriptive prose in novels can irritate me, here I could barely even tell the events were happening in Dublin, Ireland. It could have been "CSI: Miami" for all I knew. Hill at least, for the most part, doesn't fall into that tiresome trap of a character saying "real life isn't like TV and crimes can't be solved in neat one-hour packages" blah, blah, blah. That's usually the justification an author will throw out because they secretly know their plot is dull and not going anywhere. The plot here moves along at a decent pace, so events are thankfully never boring.

Unfortunately, "Taboo" is just too routine and familiar to even really get out the starting gate. There is a decent twist regarding the true nature of the event from Reilly's past, which I didn't see coming. However, it renders everything that comes after it as completely ridiculous. I can't give anything away, obviously, but it took me right out of the book and I struggled to finish the last fifty pages. Idiotic revelation, ludicrous motive and silly climax. It dragged down even further what was already a below average crime novel.

On a side note, the killer and Reilly are supposed to be familiar with Freud. However, at one point Reilly is carrying on about the subconscious holding far more information than the conscious. Now, I may have only done very simple, brief work with Freud in my university days more than a decade ago, but I'm fairly certain that Freud never used the word subconscious. He always talked about the "conscious" and the "unconscious". I could be wrong (I usually am), but by that time I was already thoroughly unimpressed by the book and likely looking for little extra things I could nitpick about. What would Freud say about that?

Monday, October 10, 2011

"The Colour Of Blood" by Declan Hughes

Ed Loy is a private detective in Dublin, hired by ex-rugby-player turned dental surgeon Shane Howard to find his daughter Emily. She has shown up in pornographic movies, and Shane is now being blackmailed - pay up or the movies go wildly public. It actually doesn't take Ed too long to locate Emily, but that is hardly the end of it. Ed opens up a whole can of worms involving the sordid history of the Howard family. When Shane becomes the prime suspect in the murders of both his wife and a young rugby player behind the porno movies, Ed must dig into the Howard's history, which also seems to be linked to a local crime boss.

To be honest, I'm a little tired of the well-worn cliche in the private detective genre in which the person who hired the private detective actually has the most to hide. Then they go and act all surprised when the private detective goes and does their job properly and detects things. In this case, it is not only Shane Howard but his sister Sandra as well. Considering how things pan out, what the hell are the doing hiring Ed Loy in the first place?

Other than this glaring plot point and some other minor quibbles, Declan Hughes is a pretty damn good author. Sure, the descriptions are a little too lengthy for my taste, but he does a good job of setting up the scene and establishing atmosphere. The characters are extremely well-drawn, feeling like real people. The plot is fantastically structured. While most other authors could write a whole novel about a missing girl and the effort to find her, that is only a starting point here. Seriously, Hughes crams most 400-page novels into about 50 pages here. Each chapter twists the story in a new direction. In some ways, it reminded me of Harlan Coben in his prime.

So what went wrong? Yes, I was bothered by the fact Ed was hired by people who had secrets they didn't want uncovered. It makes no sense whatsoever. But on top of that, the novel was just missing that special something that made me not want to put it down. It took me about a week to read this. Even a bad Harlan Coben novel generally has me reading it from start to finish within a day or two. The constant allusions to the involvement of a local gangster may have had something to do with it. The plot just keeps on returning to former-gangster-turned-businessman Brock Taylor and his possible involvement in current events and the various crimes from the past. I'm simply not a fan of crime gangs in crime fiction. Gang warfare has ruined many a crime novel for me. Also, events come a little convoluted. Everybody has something to hide and is involved in some way. It didn't help that at least three characters all had the name of "David". I got a little lost sometimes, which made it hard to catch up when I returned to the book.

All complaints aside, "The Colour Of Blood" comes highly recommended. Hughes is a talented, literate author. This is actually a top-notch reflection of what this genre has to offer - from a technical standpoint. But, like I said, it shouldn't have taken me so long to finish it. Something was missing. I'm just really not sure what.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Evil Without A Face" by Jordan Dane

Jessica Beckett is a bounty hunter haunted by her past as an abused child. Her obsession with criminal Lucas Baker inadvertently alerts her to the activities of a secret criminal organisation. Meanwhile, young Nikki Archer has sought to escape what she thinks of as a rotten life with her mother in Alaska. Her on-line chats have not been with another teenager, but with a criminal mastermind who likes to kidnap young teenage girls. Nikki's uncle, Payton Archer, who used to play for the NFL, vows to find out who is responsible. This eventually leads to crossing paths with Jessica, and chasing down an evil, global corporation.

There's nothing wrong with "Evil Without A Face" that I can actually put my finger on. But for some reason, it never really gripped me, and it took a long time for me to finish the book. I was never compelled to pick it up during a spare moment and eventually had to force myself to finish it. As far as romantic suspense goes, this falls on the grittier side, as it deals with the young teenage girls who fall victim to online predators. Jessica herself has survived a childhood in which she was kidnapped by a pedophile. The book (perhaps thankfully) doesn't delve into too much detail regarding Jessica's past, but it does give the character a bit of an edge.

In fact, the book is largely plot-driven and action-based, as Jessica and her new employee, the mysterious Seth Harper, get tangled up in far more than they bargained for. The book is more than half-way through before Jessica and Payton even meet, which is highly unusual for this genre. In a way, it's refreshing, but it also makes what follows a bit more troublesome. "Evil Without A Face" suddenly transforms from a not-bad thriller into a typical romantic-suspense bore. Jessica and Payton are attracted to each other. They inherently sense something in one another. Blah blah blah. The cliches come thick and fast, which includes the introduction of a covert alliance that operates in taking out evil global conspiracies. How convenient.

I'm sick of covert operations in this genre. It's tired. It's overdone. The introduction of Alexa Malone, an agent for this operation, clearly screams "sequel!" As does Seth Harper's mysterious past. I imagine they're the central characters for the next two instalments of what the book jacket calls the "Sweet Justice" series. Blech. I appreciated the fact that "Evil Without A Face" was more thriller than romance, but would have preferred it continue in one vein, rather than abruptly shifting tones halfway through.

"Cold As Ice" by Anne Stuart

Genevieve Spenser is a snotty, uptight lawyer who boards the boat of billionaire Harry Van Dorn to get some papers signed. Little does she know, he is a maniac bent on world domination (or something). He wants to stage seven tragedies that will send the stock market plunging and allow him to make a few more billion (or something).

Also on board is Peter Jensen, who is supposed to be Harry's personal assistant, but is actually an assassin for The Committee, who want to stop Harry before he can carry out his deadly plans. His directive is that Genevieve become collateral damage so that the mission can go off without a hitch. However, sparks are flying between the two, and he finds himself torn between his duty and his libido.

Considering what a rampaging bitch Genevieve is, Peter would have been better off letting her get blown up in the boat. It's been a while since I came across such an unlikeable, insolent, nerve-grating whinebucket. Seriously, she behaves as if she just celebrated her thirteenth birthday. But she's great in the sack, so Peter is happy to risk the fate of the world to keep her safe and keep on bedding her.

Your book is in trouble when the most entertaining character is your villian. Harry Van Dorn is supposed to be sick and depraved, but he's far more interesting than Peter or Genevieve. I couldn't help but wish that Harry might achieve all his goals and live to fight on in an inevitable follow-up (I believe this is part of a series involving agents working for The Committee). He's certainly preferable to spending time in the company of Genevieve. Then again, getting your fingernails forcibly removed whilst watching a Katherine Heigl movie would probably be better than spending time with a woman like Genevieve.

"Cold As Ice" has no real plot to speak of - Harry's plans are ambiguous at best - but has a few sprinklings of action and moves at an easy enough pace. Better characterisation may have helped in overcoming the serious personality flaws of its central protagonists.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Killer Instinct" by Joseph Finder

Jason Steadman is a sales manager at Entronics, a multi-media software company along the lines of, say, Panavision, who organise contracts to provide their product to an organisation. He's happy doing what he does, but his wife Kate thinks they are falling into a bit of a rut, and wonders why he isn't a little more ambitious. After all, they are supposed to be starting a family.

About the same time as Kate starts pushing him to get up and go, Jason meets a tow truck driver who just happens to be an ex-Special Forces officer. Kurt Semko got a dishonourable discharge, but after helping Jason out, the two strike up a friendship. Jason invites him to take part in a company baseball game, which results in their team finally winning. It soon progresses to Jason helping Kurt get a nice job in security at Entronics.

Kurt believes in repaying favours. So much so that all of sudden Jason finds himself the recipient of extremely good fortune, while others around him fall victim to major bad luck. Jason gets the promotion he is after and his life improves dramatically, but he eventually suspects that Kurt is being not just underhanded - but decidedly ruthless - in ensuring his success. In fact, could Kurt even be committing murder. When Jason tries to put a stop to things, his new best friend becomes his worst enemy.

A solid plot and an engaging lead character help "Killer Instict" deliver the goods. The reader is with Jason Steadman every step of the way, as he tries to navigate his way through a cut-throat corporate world that is out of step with his general nice-guy persona. The suspense begins to build as you wonder just how far Kurt is going to ensure that Jason lands his deals and secures the promotions he is after. Kurt actually comes across as a likeable guy. Who wouldn't want somebody like that in their corner, guiding you to the outcomes you want to achieve? However, Jason isn't too comfortable with some of Kurt's tactics, and his outright horrified when he suspects Kurt has committed murder.

The main problem with "Killer Instinct" is that is eventually reaches a state of static. Another bad thing happens that benefits Jason. And another. And another. Kurt is obviously behind it. This holding pattern is kept in place far too long and the suspense that was previously generated eventually dissipates. There is an okay plot twist at the end, but the climax is underwhelming. This one should have been ratcheting up the tension and surprises, but never quite gets there. Beyond this, a proper explanation as to how Kurt gathers his intel is never adequately provided, nor a tangible motive as to why he goes to such lengths to repay a favour. It's possible there's some corporate-world parable at play here, but it hasn't translated into a fully gripping thriller.

All in all, it's worth the reader's time, if purely for the strong characterisation and initially intriguing plot.

"Heartstopper" by Joy Fielding

Sandy Crosbie is a teacher at a school in Torrance, Florida, a place she moved to with her family shortly before her husband dumped her for the town's resident sexpot. Struggling to raise two teenage children by herself, combined with teaching an English class full of self-absorbed teenagers who couldn't care less about the material, is stretching Sandy to the max. Adding to her worries is the fact that there could be a serial killer operating in the town, as one of her daughter's classmates has already been discovered murdered.

Sheriff John Weber tries to gather up clues without having to resort to calling in the FBI, but there doesn't appear to be any motive to the crime. And with so many town members hiding a variety of secrets, it's hard to sort out what might be relevant.

"Heartstopper" is quite a lengthy novel despite the fact that not a lot really happens. There are long chapters from the point of view of the killer, but these do not illuminate exactly why the killer is doing what they are doing. Further to this, I'm not sure if the identity of the killer was supposed to be a secret or not. We learn about the aunt of one character being dead, and then one of the killer's chapters happens to mention a dead aunt. It results in a novel where you know all along who the killer is, but never know exactly why they are doing what they are doing.

Where the novel does succeed is in exploring the generation gap between adults and teenagers. The adults fail to understand what motivates their kids, and vice versa. It also honestly explores the emotions felt by Sandy about the disintegration of her marriage. While this genre tends towards the female protagonist who can take control of her life and not put up with any crap, Sandy is presented as an otherwise intelligent woman who simply cannot come to grips with the fact her husband no longer finds her "worthy" of love. She does get her moment of triumph, but she at least comes across as a believable, relatable character.

However, I'm supposed to be reading a thriller here. I was not thrilled. My heart did not stop. My eyelids drooped a bit, but that's about it. Strong character development is all well and good when you have an involving storyline to back you up. That is not the case here. There is barely a story to be found. Somebody is kidnapping girls and women and killing them. Their motive is never made properly clear. I had to slog through more than 500 pages to a conclusion that I already saw coming. I need these so-called thrillers to stop wasting my time.

"The Cutting" by James Hayman

Detective Michael McCabe is the head of a Maine police force investigating the murder of a high-school girl, whose body has been discovered with her heart removed. Now another woman is missing, and the belief is that the two cases could be linked. Thanks to his convenient photographic memory (or something similar - the novel insists it's something a little different), Michael believes that there are several unsolved murders out there with the same M.O. and that a serial killer is on the loose.

The investigation soon leads Michael to Dr. Philip Spencer, who heads up an organ transplant team at the hospital. Since the killer seems to display surgical knowledge and precision, there is the possibility that the victims are linked to some sort of black market organ transplant scheme. The doctor insists that isn't possible, but as McCabe's team track down leads, it appears that there are more than a few skeletons in the doctor's closet and a black market organ transplant conspiracy isn't out of the question, nor the possibility that the killer is enjoying a few fringe benefits with the selected victims.

"The Cutting" is another so-called serial killer thriller that is happy to coast along on pre-established genre conventions to generate its so-called suspense. There is absolutely nothing here that you couldn't find elsewhere. For example, the idea of an organ transplant conspiracy has already been done to much better effect in "Harvest" by Tess Gerritsen - and that was written fifteen years ago! Obviously, the crime genre is going to revisit material that has been done before, but that doesn't mean the author can't find some way to shock or surprise the reader. "The Cutting" presents a couple of theories and a couple of suspects and then fails to go anywhere else with the premise. Short chapters from the point of view of the latest kidnapped victim do little to amp up the tension or suspense. We know so little about her, and considerably little time is given to developing her character, so you simply aren't drawn into her plight.

The other huge fault here - and a considerable cause for concern - is the ease in which the author links homosexuality with every conceivable sexual deviation. The idea strongly presented here is that if a guy is gay, it's only a short step to rape, murder and torture - of either gender! Once the killer's identity is revealed, absolutely no motive is given to his propensity for raping and torturing women that are to be harvested for organs. He's bisexual, so obviously he's only one step away from being a sick, vicious killer! Don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything - there is never any question that the killer is male. But every single character in this book who isn't heterosexual is presented as a twisted psychopath.

There is little to recommend "The Cutting". It's unoriginal, homophobic and suspenseless. There is no attempt by the author to mix things up or explore new territory. With so much else out there competing for your attention, this one should be cut from any future reading lists.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Ghost Shadow" by Heather Graham

Katie O'Hara runs her own karaoke business in Key West, Florida. She's ready to buy the old town museum, which is the site of Key West's own murder mystery, in which the dead body of Tanya Barnard was discovered. This was ten years ago and nobody was ever arrested for the crime.

Suspicion did fall upon her fiance David Beckett, but he had a solid alibi. Nevertheless, such accusations can never be truly shaken off, and he took off to do what all alpha males in the romantic suspense genre do - join the military and become a wildlife photographer. But he's back now and stopping the sale of the museum, as he believes no good could come of it. He also believes that Tanya's killer is still out there, ready to strike again, and convinces his police detective brother Liam to re-open the cold case.

As for Katie, she has the special ability to see ghosts, and as the body count slowly begins to rise, the ghosts seem to be trying to communicate to her the identify of the murderer. Could it be David, the man she is rapidly falling for?

Of course not! This is romantic suspense genre, remember. The alpha male love interest is the one character you can 100% guarantee will not be guilty. However, as hokey as my plot description makes this book out to be, I actually enjoyed it. God help me, I'm considering getting the other two books in the trilogy. While abundant cliches are present, Graham conjures up a rather appealing atmosphere and back-story for Key West. The mystery is unfolding just as Key West gears up for its annual Fantasy Fest. The town really does come alive, which adds to the story. Graham even has a good handle on the supernatural element. There's no question that ghosts exist or that Katie can see them. Her encounters with various ghosts are even mildly spooky. The murder mystery is fairly feeble - by the very nature of the genre I was able to spot which characters would be getting their own story in the next two books - so that narrowed down the suspect pool quite dramatically. The romance side of things was surprisingly well-handled. The relationship between Katie and David developed believably and both came across as fairly level-headed. I also quite enjoyed the character of Bartholomew, the ghost who watches over Katie. He stole several scenes.

No, it's not a genre-defining piece of work. But it was much better than I expected it to be. I liked the characters, and this is one of the few books I've read in which the locale has just as much personality and presence as the characters. Who would have thought?

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Black Friday" by Alex Kava

College students are planning a stunt at the largest mall in America, carrying jamming devices in their backpacks. Or so they think. They're actually carrying bombs, unwitting pawns in a much larger terrorist plot.

FBI profiler Maggie O'Dell is assigned to the case, where she once again encounters on/off love interest Nick Morelli, who is now the head of the security firm employed by the mall. Further complicating things is the fact her half-brother Patrick Murphy is friends with the college students who carried the backpacks, and has erroneously been identified as a person of interest. He's now on the run, trying to track down another friend - Rebecca Cory - who is being hunted by the real terrorists for knowing too much.

Maggie is contacted by a person connected with the terrorists, who reveals that a second attack is imminent.


Maggie O'Dell is, in my opinion, one of the most useless FBI Special Agents I have ever encountered in fiction. Her track record is terrible. In "A Perfect Evil" and "A Necessary Evil", the killer eluded capture. In "The Soul Catcher" the killer randomly decided to kill themselves, despite Maggie being at their complete mercy. In "At The Stroke Of Madness" and "Exposed", Maggie is knocked unconscious by the killer and nearly killed, needing somebody else to rescue her. Only "Split Second" seems to involve Maggie actually nailing her opponent, as "Black Friday" once again has the main antogonist evading capture.

Can this stupid woman do anything right?

The book fails in almost every other area as well. Plot-wise, it's very thin. Kava suggests the mastermind is John Doe #2, who was spotted by several witnesses during the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing. Several conspiracy theories exist regarding this possible third terrorist. It's an intriguing theory and Kava fails to do anything with it. Despite some rumblings of Government influence and involvement in the terrorist attack, the mastermind - named Robert Asante here - is never given a clear motive as to why he's doing what he's doing. He's just there, plotting an evil attack and - because Maggie is such a tool - getting away with it. A completely uninteresting, personality-free villian. Furthermore, no definitive answers are given as to the how and why of the attack. Just a lot of suppositions.

Romance-wise, it's a washout. I'm not terribly bothered by that, but this is published by MIRA, who specialise in romantic-based suspense. It also begs the question as to why Nick Morelli is even here. He started off as a small-town sheriff when the series began, became a prosecutor and is now the head of a security firm! It's ridiculous! These job changes are solely to keep him in the series, but his relationship with Maggie is never explored, resolved or moved along.

I don't want to read about an FBI agent who can't sort out her lovelife or do her job even halfway competently. I don't want to hand over my money to an author who clearly doesn't care about what she's writing. Underplotted and confused, this is the final black mark against this mediocre author's name.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"You Belong To Me" by Karen Rose

Lucy Trask is a medical examiner - and now the target of a serial killer, who is leaving his victims for her to find. There is obviously a connection between the victims and Lucy's own past, but Lucy has spent most of her life running from her past, and can't think what she might have done to upset a vicious murderer so much. Detective JD Fitzpatrick is on the case, and there is an immediate spark between him and Lucy. Together they try to find out who hates Lucy enough to make her the centrepiece of his evil plans.

"You Belong To Me" is another efficient offering from Karen Rose, once again hampered by overlength, eye-rolling romantic cliches and - this time - a definite feeling of de ja vu. It's established fairly early on that the killer is seeking vengeance over the rape and murder of his sister, with the mystery lying around Lucy's possible connection to the crime. Although Rose's novels tend to blend in to one another, I'm pretty certain the rape-and-revenge angle made up a large part of "Scream For Me". In any case, there was a real sense of been-here-before hanging over the proceedings. There is initially some intrigue over a subplot involving private detective Clay Maynard chasing down a client he had helped fake his death, who now appears to have been lying wildly about his reasons for wanting to fake said death - but the link between this plotline and the main plotline is revealed fairly quickly. Once that happens, there doesn't seem to be much point for Clay to hang around, but he remains present for much of the novel. Unfortunately, you really could cut Clay from the novel entirely and hardly effect the novel at all. Not a good sign.

Rose's attempts at romantic angst are beginning to get quite desperate also. Lucy feels responsible for the death of her fiance, whilst JD feels responsible for the death of his first wife. He even says at one point: "I killed her!" and then fails to elaborate any further. Is this a homicide detective or a theatre actor? The romantic aspect actually feels toned down compared to other Rose novels, but Lucy and JD behave like such juvenile buffoons it becomes really distracting. All I kept thinking throughout the book was - "Grow up!"

As far as romantic suspense authors go, I'd say Rose is one of the best. There is real promise here for the author to break out from the rigid genre formula and deliver something truly memorable. "Silent Scream" showed signs of that. "You Belong To Me" feels like a bit of a step back - the protagonists get tiresome and the plot isn't as complex as it likes to think it is. But the book is well-developed, very well-paced and easy to read. Even with the current flaws (which I somehow doubt will be ironed out any time soon), Rose delivers work of a consistent quality and seems to be improving on some of her earlier work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Chosen To Die" by Lisa Jackson

After the cop-out ending of "Left To Die", in which Det. Regan Pescoli was trapped in the clutches of the still-unidentified Star-Crossed Killer, we now get the hotly anticipated follow-up "Chosen To Die". Although I doubt anybody was hotly anticipating this absolute pile of shit.

When your predecessor is a 400-page cheat, you're not exactly getting off to a stellar start. And "Chosen To Die" doesn't do a single thing to try and amp up the plot strands left dangling by the first book. Regan Pescoli is at the mercy of a killer who likes to injure women, nurse them back to health and then tie them naked to trees so that they die of exposure to the nasty cold weather. Her partner Det. Selena Alvarez and Sheriff Dan Greyson frequently point out that they "need to find this bastard", but don't really seem to do much. We get points of view from ancillary characters who contribute little to the plot. Remind me again the purpose of Grace Perchant, the psychic? Why was she even here?

There is absolutely no plot to speak of here.

Just like "Left To Die" felt like a combination of two unfinished books that Jackson pulled out the drawer, dusted off and slapped together, "Chosen To Die" similarly throws in a random subplot in which psychiatrist Dr. Jalicia Ramsby suspects that her patient Padgett Long is not as brain-damaged as she appears. Especially after her brother Brady Long is murdered, leaving Padgett sole heir to a large fortune. It's made clear that the Star-Crossed Killer murdered Brady, but any mystery behind why he did it is left largely unexplored. And there is no connection to his penchant for tying naked chicks to trees.

Jackson is supposed to be a romantic suspense writer, but here she even bungles the romance angle. Since Regan is a captive for the whole book, Jackson relies solely on flashbacks to explain the deep love between Regan and the rebel cowboy Nate Santana who is ignoring the law and looking for Regan on his own. Another character even refers to him as a Long Ranger. I nearly vomited right there. To convince us that Regan and Nate are in love, Nate is all Regan thinks about and is what inspires her to fight and survive. Um....what about her kids?

After more than 400 pages of this puerile rubbish, Jackson can't even be bothered to give a decent motive or identity to the killer. He's a character that has never been introduced in either book, only referred to a couple of times. As for why he's tying naked women to trees, apparently it's because his application to join law enforcement was rejected. Yes, readers get to suffer through two truly awful books just to be offered that stunning psychological insight.

Yeah, that's a spoiler, but it will save you from wasting any time on this pathetic excuse for a book. It makes me so angry that authors like Lisa Jackson can earn a decent dollar for dribbling shit for 400 pages. I will not read another book by her ever again and urge any reader to do the same. She does not deserve it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"The Surrogate" by Tania Carver

DI Phil Brennan is head of the task force investigating the murders of pregnant women who have had the baby removed. It's only after the third murder (which opens the book) that the team decides upon Ryan Brotherton as their prime suspect, having obviously not looked at anybody for the first two killings. He's the abusive ex-boyfriend of the victim and wasn't too happy at the prospect of becoming a father.

Criminal profiler Marina Esposito is brought into the investigation to provide insight into the killer's motivation. As luck would have it, she and Phil had a romantic interlude that ended badly. Even luckier, Marina just happens to be pregnant....

"The Surrogate" wants to be a provocative, shocking thriller. The book cover invites comparisons to Karin Slaughter and Tess Gerritsen. Unfortunately, the only thing you're going to find here is another predictable, run-of-the-mill police procedural with stock characters and situations. Your plot doesn't need to be original (gruesome baby-stealing has been the subject of just about every crime TV show and Gerritsen's own "Body Double"), but you at least need to do something interesting with it. Not here. There's not a single trick up this book's sleeve. Not one moment to make you sit up and say "wow". It plods along from start to finish, as if ticking off an invisible list of all the requisite elements of a standard crime novel.

Beyond this, the characters are flat and uninteresting. Phil Brennan is mentioned as having had a bad childhood and now suffering panic attacks. It would also appear that it has made him a willing lapdog of a manipulative bitch like Marina Esposito. You really couldn't ask for a more unlikeable character. She ended things with Phil because he wasn't there to save her from a psycho who blamed her for his being caught. Yes, her happiness, safety and well-being is the entire responsibility of another person. She keeps this attitude up right until the end of the book. And Phil just sits there and takes it. Further to this, she's been carrying on with Phil behind the back of her live-in long-term partner. But she's aimless and unfulfilled, not sure where her life is headed, so that excuses it.

Um, no.

So there you have it. Intercut with a predictable serial killer tale is the romance between a pussy-whipped douche and a selfish cow.

"The Surrogate" isn't the worst crime novel you'll find on the shelf. It at least moves reasonably quickly and has enough of a hard edge to maintain interest. But there are many other authors out there able to take material that has been done before and do something a little different with it, or at least populate the story with quirky characters you like or can relate to. Here I was just turning pages to get to the end, not racing towards it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Fallen" by Karin Slaughter

Faith Mitchell is returning to her mother's house from on overlong seminar. She finds her baby, whom her mother was looking after, locked in the shed. Inside is one man already dead, plus two more still-alive intruders. She manages to shoot dead the two intruders without much trouble - but her mother is nowhere to be found. As the investigation gets underway, Faith is suspended without pay and her partner Will Trent takes over - with heavy guidance and interference from his boss Amanda Wagner.

Faith's mother Evelyn Mitchell retired from the police force under a cloud of suspicion when her drug force task members all eventually went to prison for corruption. It happened to be an investigation that Will himself headed, and he is fairly certain that, while her retirement prevented any prosecution, she still had plenty to hide. Could something from that investigation be coming back to haunt Evelyn and her family? As a drug turf war erupts (yawn), Will's relationship with Dr. Sara Linton turns romantic as she repeatedly helps out in the investigation.

All the elements that I picked apart in "Broken" seem to be reversed here, and I couldn't be happier. Slaughter has delivered a twisty, exciting thriller that recalls some of her best work. I was of the belief that Sara would spend this novel still pining over her dead husband, but Slaughter has actually moved her forward to the point where she's actually pursuing a relationship with Will. Even though "Broken" hardly pointed towards a believable union between the two, the author does a pretty commendable job of selling the concept. Maybe I was just really relieved that Sara had stopped being a blubbering pain in the ass. She actually has a purpose in being in this book, both with the romantic subplot and the medical assistance she provides the other characters. And there's no sight of Lena Adams to be found!

Unfortunately, Slaughter has seen fit to replace Lena with Angie Polaski (or Angie Trent), Will's flighty and seemingly mentally unstable wife, who leaves him for months on end and basically treats him like shit. Their past was explored in "Triptych", in which Angie was a damaged but still likeable character, and the main female protagonist. Transforming her into a deranged banshee for the sake of providing a hurdle in Will and Sara's relationship is lazy, and doesn't really gel with the melding of Slaughter's two series. If you're going to carry characters over, at least make it consistent.

Otherwise, "Fallen" is a real return to form for Slaughter, with a very noticeable shift away from drudging forensic and police procedural detail towards plot development and more action-oriented pacing. I was never bored, despite really not being a fan of drug turf warfare plots (which this involves a lot of). It's to Slaughter's credit that she can still generate tension from this scenario, as well as continually shifting the direction of the plot. I enjoyed reading this book, and hope that the next one can continue her tradition of (usually) quality output.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"The Missing" by Jane Casey

Sarah Finch is a teacher haunted by the disappearance of her brother Charlie some sixteen years ago. No trace of him was ever found. The event had a drastic effect on her family, with her father eventually moving out and her mother refusing to move on with her life, to the point where her daughter stopped existing for her. Nevertheless, Sarah continues to live with her selfish, ungrateful alcholic mother in a state of suspended misery.

When her twelve-year-old student Jenny Shepherd goes missing, Sarah is the one who discovers the body. Chief Inspector Vickers and Detective Sergeant Andy Blake are at first grateful for her help in the investigation, but as she continually inserts herself into the proceedings, they begin to get suspicious. As for Sarah, she gets the feeling she is being watched. She has an over-eager colleague romantically pursuing her, and a pesky reporter close to uncovering her history. Her romance with Blake further complicates matters.

An okay mystery is wrapped up in this overlong tale. I quickly found myself tiring of Sarah's character. She's another one of those timid, supposedly dowdy, young women completely unaware that all the men around her are completely enamoured with her, and that she is actually a bit of a bombshell. Please. Her devotion to her (frankly) selfish bitch of a mother is explored and explained late in the novel, but it hardly justifies slogging through the constant misery her mother puts her through. Flashbacks to the family's life after the disappearance are effective at first, but soon grow tiresome. Basically, Casey makes the point that the disappearance has had a devastating impact on the family and then just keeps on drawing and drawing it out.

Character actions and motivations are also a bit iffy. The romance between Sarah and Blake in particular is handled in a very cliched manner. Sarah's completely out of left field decision to head over to his house and sleep with him is totally out of character and pretty laughable. It seems to be there for the express purpose of causing tension down the track, not because it was the natural progression of their relationship. And the behaviour of Geoff, her colleague, is clearly stalker-ish and bordering on sexual harrassment, yet she just grins and bears it. As mentioned before, her mother is painted as such a self-absorbed, bitter misery-guts, it's never really clear why Sarah also puts up with this, even despite the last-minute revelation regarding their relationship.

It all wraps up in an okay showdown with the real killer, but the revelation of their identity is pretty arbitrary. "The Missing" aims to be a psychological thriller more than a crime novel, and the lack of reliance on forensic procedure is refreshing, but for me it didn't quite strike home. The mystery was too thin and the characters too hard to relate to.

"Never Say Die" by Tess Gerritsen

Willy Maitland wants to find answers regarding the apparent death of her father twenty years ago. He was reknowned pilot "Wild Bill" Maitland, whose plane crashed in the jungles of Vietnam. However, Willy isn't entirely convinced that he is really dead, and has promised her dying mother she will uncover the truth. She is forced to rely upon the help of mercenary Guy Barnard, who has his own reasons for wanting to find out the truth.

As Willy becomes subject to threats on her life, and the people they interview wind up dead, the two soon realise that there are people out there who want the truth behind the plane crash to remain a secret.

Even going all the way back to 1992, when this romantic thriller by Gerritsen was first released, it was clear that Gerritsen had more talent than her romance novelist counterparts. Sure, the usual cliches of Willy and Guy finding each other "damnably" attractive are present, as are the insecurities both have over what might happen if they gave in to their desires, but Gerritsen also has a sure grip on plotting and pacing. She is able to set the scene in Vietnam quite nicely without going overboard in her descriptions, providing a nice, light travelogue. There is plenty of action as Willy avoids numerous attempts on her life, and even a little genuine intrigue as to the mystery behind the plane crash. It all builds to a pretty decent climax in the jungles of Vietnam. Don't be mistaken - this is strictly romantic suspense fodder, but it comes in at the top end of the scale, and it's not hard to see why Gerritsen went on to much bigger, better things.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Die For You" by Lisa Unger

Isabel Raines believes she has a marriage that is pretty close to perfect. Sure, there have been rough patches along the way, including a miscarriage and infidelity, but all in all things are pretty rosy. Until Marcus Raines simply doesn't return home. Until his office is stormed by a fake FBI team who tear the place up, conk Isabel over the head and take off. Until she discovers that she never really knew her husband at all - he has cleared out their bank accounts and is seemingly up to his head in all sorts of nefarious business. Seemingly driven more by ego than common sense, Isabel shifts heaven and earth to find out WHY this has happened to HER? Why why why? Oh yeah, and one of the cops investigating Marcus is having marriage woes. And Isabel's sister Linda is having an affair with an art critic. And both Isabel and Linda remain haunted by the suicide of their father when they were children.

There's an okay if conventional and unoriginal thriller buried here somewhere amongst the internal musings frequented upon by Isabel and Linda regarding the suicide of their father. Sure, it all sounds psychologically insightful and perhaps provides a reason why as adults they're such absolute numbskulls, but it really does get to be a bit much. If Unger wants to explore the damage done to the psyche when a child loses a parent through an act such as suicide, why is she doing it within the context of a thriller in which a woman eventually globetrots to Prague to track down her treacherous husband? If she wants to explore what drives a successful, happy wife and mother to embark on a sexual extra-marital affair, why is she doing it in a book about that woman's sister embarking on a quest for truth and justice? Linda's affair has nothing to do with Isabel's betrayal at the hands of her husband nor her search for answers. All it really does it take up space and paint her as a selfish whore repeatedly running the risk of needlessly destroying her family.

The fact is, Unger's character development is extremely well-crafted and believable. The characters and their actions make sense in regards to what they have been through. Unfortunately, their actions are constantly bone-headed and stupid. Isabel may be a well-developed character, but I didn't particularly like her. Nothing else really mattered to her except finding out WHY she was betrayed. Why her? How dare Marcus?!? She seems to believe she's far more well-equipped to find answers than the police or anybody else and frequently puts herself into near-suicidal situations, while also bringing danger and suspicion to her otherwise innocent extended family. She's the most egotistical, whining, moronic douche to be portrayed by the author as some sort of strong, moral heroine. Actually, I seem to be saying that a lot about female protagonists, and it makes me sound bad, but it that hard to create a female character with a strong, steady head on her shoulders who isn't prone to endless introspection, ridiculous choices and self-entitled whining? Just asking.

The other annoying trait is having Isabel be an author. We get lots of musings about what the author does, what they see, what they capture, their role, ad nauseum. It makes the author seem highly self-aware and displays an off-putting sense of self-importance. Lisa, honey, you're writing a mass-market paperback about a woman chasing her husband across the world to Prague to find out why he betrayed you and cleared out your bank accounts. If you want to write literature, drop the ridiculous globe-trotting and the conspiracies and sign up with a smaller publishing company and produce books with poetic, meaningful titles that people in turtleneck sweaters read while drinking some hard-to-pronounce latte at a bohemian coffee shop. "Die For You" is one-third standard betrayed-woman yarn, and two thirds psychological and emotional turmoil. Decide for yourself which interests you more.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Chillwater Cove" by Thomas Lakeman

Peggy Weaver is an FBI agent still haunted by an incident when she was ten years old, in which her best friend Samantha was kidnapped by a child sex predator. Peggy managed to get away because she ran for her life While Samantha was eventually returned, it was clear she had suffered greatly, and wouldn't share her experiences with anybody. It's twenty-five years later when Peggy discovers horrifying pictures of Samantha from the time she was abducted, during the course of another investigation. When she learns that Samantha - now married with a child - has received the same set of pictures, Peggy returns to her hometown to discover the truth.

Her return opens up a can of worms. Her father is the chief of police, and they've had a rocky relationship over the years. When Samantha is once again abducted, Peggy's presence in the investigation causes further friction with her father. While it is almost certain that Samantha is once again in the clutches of her original abductor, several other factors complicate the issue. Samantha's rich-boy husband is keeping secrets and hiding facts from the authorities. Samantha's book about the Melungeons, a race of people descended from slaves and who live in the mountains, seems to have made a lot of people uncomfortable, and appears inextricably tied in with current events. On top of that, it's apparent Peggy's own father has secrets to hide.

"Chillwater Cove" is the sort of book that restores your faith that every now and then, a thriller can come along that just completely blows you away. This is one is tightly-plotted, twisty, fast-paced, action-packed, suspenseful and scary, with believable three-dimensional characters, complex relationships and snappy, witty dialogue. I don't think anything you would find within the pages of this novel could be called new or inventive, but then not a lot in this genre is. However, what you will get is a novel where the non-crime, non-action elements are just as gripping as the main narrative. The relationship between Peggy and her father Russell is at the core of the story and it rings true from start to finish. Through their interactions, you understand how Peggy came to be the person she is and how his presence continues to influence her actions. Russell is a character you really want to hate, but is written so well that his unlikeable characteristics actually contribute to the story and the father-daughter conflict. The relationship between Peggy and her colleague-cum-former-fiance Mike Yeager is also explored, and never at the expense of the story. In fact, this is one of those rare occasions where more focus on that relationship would not have hurt the main plot. Mike Yeager is not just some love interest - there isn't even a sex scene! How often do you see that? Even secondary characters get terrific personality arcs. For example, Officer Ripley (I'm not sure we even learn his first name) experiences huge personal growth as the story progresses. It's this sort of attention to detail that draws you into the story and has you caring about everybody involved.

Plot-wise, there are several different strands running concurrently, each contributing to the book as a whole. Since Samantha's original abduction and her current abduction are part of a much larger picture, this leads to numerous interesting plot twists as the story nears its conclusions. Characters are revealed to have varying degrees of motivation. Characters thought to have little bearing on the plot become much more important later on down the track. My only minor quibble would be that the Melungeons too often engage in that hokey Native American Spirit-Speak, i.e. "you're surrounded by men made of lies, Weaver's daughter" etc. They seem civilized enough - would they really talk like that? But it's not enough to really take anything away from the effectiveness of everything else.

Maybe it was the fact I've read so many so-so crime novels lately. Maybe it was the fact I bought this for $5 from a discount newsagency and didn't have high expectations. But I think "Chillwater Cove" leaves many full-priced novels by popular, established authors well in the dust. It's one of the best books I've read in ages and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Three Weeks To Say Goodbye" by C.J. Box

Jack and Melissa McGuane are the parents of adopted nine-month-old baby Angelina, since they are unable to have children of their own. However, an unlikely legal snafu has occurred in that the birth father - a snotty over-privileged 18 year old called Garrett - never signed away his rights. Conveniently, his father is the powerful Judge John Moreland, and there's no question of who will get custody. The title refers to the amount of time Jack and Melissa have before handing over the baby, and to find out why the Judge and his son want to get hold of Angelina so desperately, since it's clear that Garrett has no interest in looking after her. They soon find they're willing to go to any lengths to hold on to their child.

The bond that exists between the parents and their daughter is the glue that holds together this otherwise ridiculous thriller. Box seems to be aiming for the same sort of territory as Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay, in which ordinary people go to extraordinary lengths to defend their family and loved ones. However, he seems to lose grip of what would really make for a tense and exciting story and instead lets the narrative veer off into all sorts of bizarre and unlikely scenarios. One of the more intriguing elements involves Garrett basically knowing he has the parents by the balls - they're willing to do anything in the hope he might sign away his parental rights. Garrett is portrayed as a sociopath, and it's not clear why he doesn't exploit this situation to its full advantage. After some juvenile pranking and one nasty act, he pretty much disappears from the plot. A really gripping thriller could have been fashioned from the vise he has Jack and Melissa trapped in. Instead, the writer seems more interested in exploring the moral consequences of good people being forced to do bad things. This is all well and good, but the situations the characters find themselves in to bring them to that point of questioning their actions are so ludicrous that it all becomes rather moot. For example, the sequence in which Jack, Melissa and their detective friend Cody Hoyt call upon Cody's crazy uncle Jeter to "scare" Garrett into signing the papers results in a bar shoot-out that leaves several dead, but has no impact on the plot other than for Jack to question his morals over standing by and watching it go down.

The themes of grief and personal loss are also muddied by the ending in which Melissa is left sedated at home while Jack and Cody gather up the "guys" for some justified vengeance. Rather than using the mountain of evidence they have which would easily put everybody away, it instead becomes a macho gung-ho mission in which Jack can further examine his slide into moral questionability as he shoots and kills a bad guy - simply for that purpose! Putting the focus on the antagonistic relationship between Jack, Melissa and Garrett could have explored moral choices in the same way - what would they be willing to do to both keep a sociopath happy and keep their baby? Instead, we get a convoluted conspiracy mystery filled with non-sensical events and actions (why does Jack keep calling the judge and giving away his game plan?), capped off with a suspenseless, underwhelming shoot-out.

C.J. Box is a good writer in that he creates believable, likeable characters that quickly get you on side. He shows skill in being able to manipulate the reader's emotions. But the situations he creates to do this go too far beyond the realm of credibility and frequently don't make any sense. Which is a pity, since the premise of this one showed so much promise.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Phone Calls" by Ann Reit

Juliet Gibson is an aspiring poet who is in love with Timothy Thornton from afar. She has plenty of other boys in her life, including fellow poet Oliver, who has recently returned to town after four years away. Not to mention philosophical Cliff and sporty Mike. However, none of them except Tim send that special tingle down her spine. Juliet is despairing that she'll never find that special boy when she receives a mysterious phone call in which an anonymous male voice quotes "Did my heart love till now?" from Shakespeare's classic play. Being a poet, Juliet finds this wonderfully romantic, and not creepy the way the rest of her family and friends do. In fact, it gives her the confidence to start growing out her hair and wearing pink sweaters. Her mysterious Romeo calls the same time each week and, as all the boys in her life suddenly start showing romantic interest in her, she must figure out which one of them it is.

"Phone Calls" is one of those treasures I managed to find for just 1o cents during an Op Shop trawl. I was attracted to the so-bad-it's-good cover in which a blandly pretty girl (with what can only be called a mullet) clutches a phone to her ear as if she's just been told she's won the Lotto as opposed to having cheesy Shakespearean sonnets recited to her. I like grabbing these books from decades past to see how far such things as attitudes and technology have progressed since the book was published. Alas, I couldn't find anything outrageous within the pages of "Phone Calls". Even though it was written before the advent of mobile phones, it doesn't change things. And the message the book puts out is largely along the lines of most modest teen romances: be yourself and like you for who you are. It avoids cliches such as the "mean girl", and is actually kind of bland. The identity of Juliet's secret admirer is a foregone conclusion and the resolution is a bit pat and overly convenient. There is some mild humour in the descriptions of Juliet's house and her fashion choices (they're all horrible), but otherwise "Phone Calls" isn't exactly something you should go out of your way to find.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Breakneck" by Erica Spindler

Detectives Mary Catherine "MC" Riggio and Kitt Lundgren are back (after "Copycat"), this time when first MC's fiance Dan and then her cousin Tommy are murdered. Different weapons and methods had been used for both, so they are unsure whether the deaths are related. However, Tommy's murder certainly seems connected to a series of other deaths, most of them impressionable young college students who shirk socialising for excessive computer use. Each have a reputation for being a "cracker" - a computer hacker who uses their knowledge to illegally obtain others' funds over the Internet. Certainly, the victims exhibit wealth beyond their means, including Tommy, even though MC refuses to believe he could be involved.

The detectives' meeting with FBI Special Agent Jonathan Smith alerts them to the existence of a skilled hitman named "Breakneck", whose signature is that he never uses the same weapon twice. Ah, a possible connection to Dan's murder! However, MC must also deal with the fact that Dan might not have been the man he claims he was - the youth centre he worked at with good buddy Erik Sundstrom seems connected to the events as well. So what secret did all these victims share that got them all killed?

Interestingly, this offering from Spindler is not courtesy of usual publisher Mira Books. Was there not enough romance in her books anymore? Because certainly, Spindler is showing a refreshing tendency to move away from "terrifying situation brings about true love" and towards the issues faced by couples once they're in a relationship. The focus here is on Kitt and her partner Joe's relationship and the difficulties it faces after the death of their child and the demands of Kitt's job. Of course, I didn't really give a shit about any of this, especially since I got tired of Joe banging on about it all being Kitt's fault. However, the more Spindler writes, the more she seems to be abandoning the strict genre formula conventions, when the opposite is usually the norm.

Disappointingly, "Breakneck" is not one of her better efforts. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it was never gripping enough, and just didn't seem to hold together from start to finish. Basically, young folk are dying, they were all "crackers", and a deadly assassin was offing them all over some stolen money. There are a few loose strands in which you wait and see how they connect to the proceedings, but it was not enough. Not to mention one strand which seems to exist solely so a gay character can be revealed as a sick pervert, but which has nothing to do with the main plot. He's outed, exposed as a freak, kills himself, and that's the end of that. Never mentioned again. It was so offensive I nearly put the book down right there. The other maddening element is MC's constant hand-wringing over what sort of person Dan really was. He's dead now, honey, it doesn't matter too much anymore! Part of the problem was the forced nature of MC and Dan's relationship. Spindler has to repeatedly ram down our throats just how much they're in love in only a short time before he's murdered for the sake of the plot. At the end of the day, the relationship could have been removed entirely and not affected events all that much. It also presents the problem of how MC stays on the case with not one, but two, people close to her being the murder victims. Despite the chapter in which Kitt effectively blackmails the police chief into letting MC remain involved, it is unconvincing at best.

The book also attempts a subplot over the relationship between MC and Kitt and how much they trust each other. I'm sorry, but their friendship never seemed real enough for me to be invested in the betrayal Kitt felt whenever MC would race off and do something without her. Especially when most said transgressions were pretty damn piddly.

Nevertheless, "Breakneck" provides a bit of mindless entertainment. Despite the shaky, padded plot, there are one or two decent twists along the way, and MC and Kitt, despite minor faults, are fairly likeable. Nice to see two reasonably strong female characters as the leads. And the novel is another example of the evolution of a writer who has enough talent to try something different and move her writing in another direction. It's worth sticking around to follow her progress.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Double Exposure" by Bonnie Hearn Hill

Reebie Mahoney is adrift in life after losing the vineyard she co-owned with her ex-husband. She does a variety of different jobs, but none mean much to her. However, in her latest job as a newspaper temp, she is chosen by the mistress of a dead ex-president to be the recipient of a big exclusive. Unfortunately, the mistress is shot and killed before any juicy interview can take place. Reebie becomes the main suspect, even though it makes absolutely no sense that she could have done it - she had a co-worker witness right with her for f***'s sake.

The president's mistress - Jeanette Sheldon - has actually been presumed dead all these years, so what really happened the night she was supposedly killed? Why has she been living a secret life? Why did she choose an absolute numbskull to confess all her secrets to? Reebie teams up with hunky journalist Leo Kersikovski to find out the truth, but everybody has secrets to hide - Jeanette's best friend Marcus (a closeted TV star), her other lover Ed Palacios (a sort-of mobster), the president's wife, the president's retarded son, the president's former aide and Dorothy The Dancing Donkey. Okay, I'm kidding about that last part.

It's hard to know where to start in trying to describe how awful this book is. How any editor could have slogged through it and thought: "Wow! Let's get this on the shelves, pronto!" is a mystery to last beyond time itself. For starters, the plot is all over the place, despite there not really being any plot. By the end of the book, you're left wondering why everybody went to so much trouble to do what they did. Characters die for very little reason at all. Motives make little sense.

But then again, I suppose that would have something to do with how terribly the characters are written and conceived. As is typical for the romantic suspense genre, the main character is the main culprit. What. A. Moron. The absolute nadir for me was when she asked the hitman who's trying to kill her to help out the other lady he's just whacked over the head. Sure honey, the hitman will put away his weapon and check to make sure she's okay. Then again, the hitman isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. Instead of killing a witness, he's happy to crack them on the noggin and provide them with the opportunity to later escape. Savvy.

When Reebie isn't being a total tool, she's being an exasperating whinger. How dare her ex-husband take possession of the winery in the divorce! I mean, it belongs to him and his family, but he had a moral obligation to hand it over to her because she did such a great job running it! She bangs on and on about this, and it often gets to be too much to take. What planet is this idiot from? I would have been rooting for the folks who wanted her dead, but considering they were all too stupid to successfully off such a dippy drip (I'm really running out of adjectives for "stupid person"), that was also difficult.

The icing on the cake is the terrible writing. Check this out: "his polish-black hair was so silky that my first impulse was to stroke it. That's what beauty does to us. Our first thought is that of the child. Touch it. Make it mine. But the child grows up and learns what happens when you reach for those bright balloons bursting with colour." Okay. Sure. What the f*** does that mean? Either my brain can no longer register metaphors and similes through too much exposure to romantic suspense garbage or....I'm reading romantic suspense garbage.


What really sealed the deal was when we learnt that the ex-president's aide shot and killed Jeanette. Interestingly, he also bit her on the ankle. Right down to the bone, apparently. WOULD THIS NOT BE OF INTEREST TO THE CORONER AND DETECTIVES WHO COULD MAKE A TEETH MOLD AND IMMEDIATELY RULE OUT THEIR PRIME SUSPECT????? Hands down, "Double Exposure" wins my award for the stupidest book I've ever read, so now I'm actually looking forward to see if anything can top it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Cutline" by Bonnie Hearn Hill

Geri LaRue is a partially deaf journalist who arrives in San Francisco for a new job, only to find that her roommate Leta Blackburn has gone missing. Leta is also a journalist, and was secretly working on a story involving the death of a priest. She'd recently interviewed troubled film star Harry Miller, and was researching the topic of "erotomania", the psychological problem that affects stalkers - they believe the person they are pursuing is in love with them. The psychiatrist helping Leta with her research is Dr. Malcolm Piercy, so both he and Harry are first on Geri's list of people to question.

With Leta's disappearance now big news, and its possible connection to the priest's murder - and some other murders, Geri is able to score some decent jobs thanks to the fact she knew Leta personally. As she quickly develops feelings for Malcolm, he reveals that he believes the killer is a woman, and that the victims are all men she thought were in love with her - an erotomaniac! Geri soon discovers that when her colleague told her everybody has secrets, he was more than right. Everybody in her life has some sort of connection to Leta, all with a possible motive to want her to disappear. On top of that, the killer is still out there, offing more men that she believes want to be with her forever.

Trying to write the synopsis for this romantic thriller reinforced just how ridiculous and nonsensical the whole thing was. Just how the Razor Killer, as the book dubs her, manages to find the time to develop intense relationships with several different men over just a few days is never really explained. Why was the killer trying to establish a link between their killings and the suicide of another of Malcolm's patients? It plays heavily in the story and is also never explained. Why was she going after all these men and not the man who caused her to snap in the first place? I won't reveal the identity of the man, as that would be a spoiler, but once again - never explained! It would seem the author threw all these disparate threads together and didn't really care if they tied up adequately.

The other main issue is the protagonist herself. I really couldn't stand her. She has a real chip on her shoulder about being partially deaf. The author tries to explain her stinky attitude, but can't really pull it off. Geri keeps claiming she wants to be treated like a "normal" person, so never tells anybody about her condition. Yet she gets all pissy when people take her to be cold and standoffish when she doesn't respond to them. It's because she can't hear them - but how the hell are they supposed to know that? Her overuse of the words "crikey" and "cool beans" was similarly irritating to the point of distraction. Her romance with Malcolm never once comes across as being genuine or believable. He seems far too, well, stupid to be a psychiatrist and Geri is far too immature (and she's supposed to be twenty-eight for God's sake) to hold any sort of job with even a modicum of responsibility. She would be more believable as an empty-headed party girl heiress. A romance between her and colleague Steffan Kim would have been far more credible, as there is some actual chemistry between them, but God forbid a romantic suspense thriller feature a relationship between its heroine and a non-white man!

"Cutline" is a clumsily plotted mystery with ill-defined characters. It took me a long time to finish because I didn't much care for anybody or what happened to them.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Dirty Secrets Club" by Meg Gardiner

Jo Beckett is a forensic psychiatrist called to the scene of a traffic accident in which several are dead or injured. One of the dead bodies is Callie Harding, a tough prosecutor with the word "dirty" written on her thigh in lipstick. She's the driver of the vehicle, which she drove off a bridge and into an oncoming mini-van. Lt. Amy Tang gives Jo free reign to get the why behind Callie's actions. Was it suicide or something much more sinister. The word on Callie's thigh soon leads Jo to the club of the title, in which privileged high-rollers divulge their worst sins seemingly just for the thrill of it. Members of the club are dying at an alarming rate, and it would appear to be linked to the actions of a couple of participants, who double-crossed and brutally beat an aspiring member. He wants the names of all the members so he can get revenge. Things get dicy when the killer and his lackey - nicknamed Skunk - believe Jo has the names he wants.

It's hard to believe this mess came from the same author who delivered such outrageous and thrilling action-suspense novels like "Crosscut" and "Kill Chain". Gardiner has dumped the Evan Delaney series to start anew with a different protagonist. I'm assuming it's because the book covers can include the lucrative word "forensic" in the heroine's job title and sell a few extra copies. Because really, there's nothing Jo accomplishes or uncovers that couldn't be done by, oh say, A DETECTIVE INVESTIGATING THE CRIME! It makes very little sense. Neither does the club that sets the whole book in motion. Sorry to state the obvious, but once you start telling people your secret, it's not exactly a secret anymore, is it? Despite the old saying "two can keep a secret if one of them is dead", none of the supposedly intelligent and successful club members seem to take that on board. And if the secrets are bad enough that the possible exposure would drive them to suicide, why the hell divulge anything in the first place? Gardiner attempts to provide reasons, but they ring false. I mean, one character jumps off a bridge to prevent his secret - he participated in a gangbang in which the female participant later went crazy and drowned herself - from becoming public knowledge, only to write about it in his bloody suicide note! Huh? And a secret of that nature wouldn't hurt his career - here in Australia you can get your own television show out of it.

The killer and his accomplice and the reasons for their revenge are revealed early on, further killing most of the suspense. Gardiner demonstrates her skill with action sequences through car chases, on-foot pursuits and the like, but is continually frustrated by the confines of working within a conventional crime thriller framework. Couple that with a gratuitous and unnecessary cameo from Jesse Blackburn, a character from the Evan Delaney novels, and it would appear that Gardiner isn't quite willing to leave the more action-oriented books behind. However, there being two more Jo Beckett novels, I'm guessing they're selling well and it could be a while before we return to the more interesting and thrilling Evan Delaney series.

As for Jo Beckett, like I said, there seems to be no good reason why a forensic psychiatrist should be doing something the police can do just as well. And she comes from the school of female protagonists with Haunted Pasts (dead husband) and Debilitating Fears (claustrophobia), seemingly to give her personality, but serving only to make her tiresome. She bangs on about her dead husband to the point of tedium and the book takes its sweet time in revealing how he died and why she feels responsible. And her developing relationship is straight out of romantic suspense hell. Gabe Quintana is a pararescueman who used to belong to the Air National Guard and is always around to provide a solid shoulder for Jo to cry on and help her to absolve her guilt. He was so unbelievably perfect I expected wings to grow out his back at any moment.

"The Dirty Secrets Club" was mildly diverting while I read it, but the more I thought about it after I finished it, the more I disliked it. A ridiculous premise, an author seemingly out to score points with the lucrative forensic crime market crowd and an abundance of cliches and contrivances combine to deliver one of the more cynical, derivative and silly novels on the shelves. Just wait until you get to one villian's confession - it's straight out of Scooby-Doo!

"Don't Look Back" by Scott Frost

Lt. Alex DeLillo and her partner Dylan Harrison are called to the scene of a dead body that has been discovered at a sports stadium. The body belongs to the daughter of a high-powered lawyer who went missing several years ago. There is a painting at the scene, copied from the work of Spanish artist Goya. When more bodies start to show up, each with some sort of reference to Goya, it is obvious a serial killer is on the loose. It appears the murders are likely connected to the cover-up of child abuse in the church. When the chief of police confesses his own participation in the cover-up, he becomes a target as well.

I've previously read "Never Fear" by Scott Frost, but you wouldn't know it from reading this book. Usually when I pick something up featuring characters I've encountered before, I can recall character traits and relationships, but absolutely nothing registered here. There is absolutely zero character development. None whatsoever. I'm assuming that Frost is relying on familiarity from previous installments to do the work for him, but why would he be so....well, arrogant to assume that a reader has read all the previous books? Despite occasional references to previous books, DeLillo and Harrison are merely figureheads as the plot races from point to point. And from a purely technical standpoint, "Don't Look Back" really scores. The pace is consistent across the board, with new twists and plot info thrown at the reader at every turn. But with so little emotional investment in the characters, it's hard to get drawn into the story. I simply didn't care. And when one character proclaims: "they were murdered by the Vatican!" my interest dwindled completely. It's like a switch flipped in me and the book lost me completely. This is more a personal preference that a plotting flaw. I just don't care for religious conspiracies. They don't interest me. At all. I encountered the same issue with Kathy Reich's "Cross Bones". I finished it merely because I had started it. That was the case here, also. When DeLillo managed to have a personal conversation with The Pope himself, that was all she wrote. I managed to make it to the end, though.

Other issues arise. Why does DeLillo keep making claims along the lines of: "I know this killer", only to be surprised by each new thing he does? And what exactly was Goya's motive? Was he systematically slaughtering those covering up the abuse or those seeking to expose it? The plot wasn't entirely clear on that, as some victims were doing one while others were doing the other.

Scott Frost's skill with pacing and plotting means he's an author that can't be immediately dismissed. I always complain about too much time being spent on trivial romantic and character interplay. The fact that this one dispensed with that element completely was one of it's biggest drawbacks. If you don't care one iota about the main characters, you're kind of lost. At least in other books when I want to shake the drippy female lead out of her whining inertia I'm invested in the character (albeit through revulsion and irritation). Here, despite the consistent action and plot twists, I simply couldn't muster up any enthusiasm for the proceedings.

"Silent Scream" by Karen Rose

A "protest fire" is lit by four college student activists who want to stop construction on an environmental site. Unfortunately for them, a girl was inside the building at the time and winds up dead. Fortunately for somebody watching from the wings, it is the perfect opportunity for him to blackmail the four students into doing his bidding.

Firefighter David Hunter is on the scene to put out the fire and discovers the body. He also finds a mysterious globe. Police detective Olivia Sutherland soon finds out that similar globes were placed at protest fires more than ten years ago - which also ended in somebody dying. Could there be a link between these fires?

Conveniently, David and Olivia have a Past. They had a one-night stand in which David cried out another woman's name while Olivia was giving him a blow job. David knows he's in love with Olivia, but she doesn't trust him. Good thing there's a murder investigation going on that involves the both of them so that they can work things out, right?

Karen Rose's novels are over-long and spend too much time on trite and boring romantic misunderstandings. They way David and Olivia behave might be somewhat acceptable for a couple of sixteen-year-olds in a new relationship, but for two supposedly mature adults in careers like firefighting and homicide investigation? A little bit of a worry. On top of that, Olivia and David are otherwise painted as being utterly selfless to the point of sainthood. Sure, they have Demons In Their Closets, but once revealed, they're quite mild. So much time is spent on these two, their romantic insecurities and their collective pasts that the thriller and mystery element sometimes gets lost - despite the story taking place only over a few days!

Another tiresome element is the continued referencing to other books. Just about every character is somehow tied to another character from another book who has found love and sanctuary through a Terrifying Experience. It borders on the ridiculous.

The disappointing thing about these flaws is that it detracts from the fact that Karen Rose is otherwise quite a good author. The pacing is constant, and the killer is always active. A nice change from the usual killers in romantic suspense, who typically skulk around in the shadows doing everything in the nude and masturbating frequently, while continually promising: "I'm coming for you soon!" but never actually doing anything. In fact, this killer was quite pro-active and business-minded. Sometimes I found him more interesting than the bland main characters and their romantic to-and-fro. This killer got things done and I appreciated that. Also, this one delivers some solid suspense and actions as it races towards its climax, along with some genuinely decent plot twists. But it shouldn't take SO LONG to get to them! Shave 150 pages off this thing and you'd have a top-class, suspense thriller. As it is, it's still well above-average for the genre, and I think Rose has the talent to break out of the romance formula and deliver something truly memorable along the lines of Tess Gerritsen or Karin Slaughter (pre-Broken, of course). I'll keep reading to see if it happens.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"The Murder Bird" by Joanna Hines

When famous poet Kirsten Waller is found dead in her bathtub, only her daughter Sam Boswin refuses to believe the verdict of suicide. Her mother's journals are missing, and so is her latest poem - titled "The Murder Bird". When she discovers the journals are in the possession of her stepfather Raph (Kirsten's ex-husband), a well-known lawyer, Sam must go to extreme lengths to obtain them, eventually seeking help from Raph's clerk, Mick. Despite Sam being a highly-strung, high-maintenance pain in the ass, Mick is strangely attracted to her and risks his professional career to help her.

Sam believes "The Murder Bird" poem might relate to an actual murder, and that Kirsten was killed over what she knew. Raph, his sister Miriam and their mother Diana certainly have quite the checkered past, and Raph seems particularly intent on keeping the journals away from Sam. What exactly do they have to hide?

"The Murder Bird" is the sort of book that requires its characters to behave like they belong in some alternate universe in order to move the plot along. Absolutely nothing here makes any sense whatsoever. What sort of moron, believing that a murder has been committed, WRITES ABOUT IT IN AN OBSCURE F***ING POEM INSTEAD OF GOING TO THE POLICE??? What the f*** does that achieve? The event that sets the whole plot in motion is just too ridiculous for words. Therefore, it was just about impossible to buy into any of the events or character actions that followed. These don't feel like real people at all. They're merely puppets to serve the pathetic plot. It makes no sense for Kirsten to write a poem about a suspected real-life murder. It makes no sense for Raph to steal Kirsten's journals. It makes no sense for a killer to be worried about an obscure poem in the first place - exactly how many people do they expect to read it and immediately connect to an event they would know nothing about? It makes no sense for Mick to help Sam when she's such a pissy, ungrateful bitch. What a stupid, stupid book.

"Don't Be Afraid" by Rebecca Drake

Amy Moran is a real estate agent trying to hold things together as a single mother caring for her young daughter Emma. Her life becomes complicated when dead bodies start showing up at the properties she is trying to sell. The detectives on the case - Mark Juarez and Emmett Black - have opposing opinions on the case. Black is eager just to close the case, first trying to pin it on the first victim's ex-husband, then trying to pin it on Amy herself. Juarez, who is battling both professional and personal issues, is more keen to look at the case from all angles. Of course, we the reader know that the real killer is a madman with a twisted past and a deadly fixation on poor Amy.

"Don't Be Afraid" is a comfortably predictable thriller that neatly checks off all the requirements of the genre. Innocent, overly naive female protagonist. Main detective with a personal issue affecting his personal and professional life. Psycho with mother issues who likes to masturbate and kill people (though not necessarily in that order). Bigoted other detective too lazy to investigate the case properly. Lightly developed ancillary characters who serve to either be potential victims or potential suspects. I easily predicted each new step the story took. On the positive side, the relationship between Amy and her daughter is believably developed. I even laughed a couple of times at Emma's comments and behaviour. It seemed real. It made for a nice change - young children in books can often be irritating.

Similarly, I was impressed by the restrained tackling of the romantic subplot. Amy actually seems more concerned by the sinister events surrounding her rather than focussed on whether or not a hunky guy likes her. And while I easily figured out Mark Juarez's personal issue, it was something you don't usually find in a thriller of this sort. Despite the familiarity of much of the plotting, the author should be commended for at least trying not to always go the most obvious route.

At the time of reading this, I had put my back out and was in quite a lot of pain. When I wasn't unconscious due to a myriad of different painkillers, I would pick this up and read a couple of chapters and momentarily forget how much pain I was in. Sometimes, that's all you need from a book.

"A Cold Day In Hell" by Stella Cameron

Eileen Moggeridge is a single mother to Aaron, but in a rapidly progressing romantic relationship with Christian "Angel" DeAngelo. He's got some sort of mercenary past (like most blokes in these sorts of romantic thrillers), and is the legal guardian of Sonny, a protected witness. Eileen's life becomes complicated when first her ex-husband Chuck shows up, wanting to reunite the family and spend more time with his son. Then Aaron is injured in a mysterious shooting. And then both her and Angel are seemingly the target of a mad shooter.

Other mysterious events are occuring in their town of Pointe Judah. Heavily pregnant Emma Duhon is attacked by an anonymous stranger in the parking lot. A local worker goes missing. Could all these events be linked? And how?

Stella Cameron is another romantic suspense novelist who likes to link all her novels together, with just about all the characters having had a story of their own. It sometimes gets hard to keep track of all the characters and their histories. For example, the parking lot attacker seems to be aggrieved by a club that a few characters were once members of, but it's obvious that club and the story behind it is from another novel entirely. So what is it doing here? Coming into the story cold, we don't know enough about it to understand who it affects - or why. There are continued references to experiences the characters have had, and we're simply left to assume that it's from another connected book. To me it seems to be a cheap way of dispensing with character development - the author can simply assume the reader has read all the other books in the series and is already familiar with the characters' various traits.

Sorry, no dice.

I'm probably being too picky on something I bought for $2 from an Op Shop, but the original selling price was $16.95, which is absolutely outrageous for a product with such shoddy, threadbare plotting like this. In the end, the biggest issue is indifference. It's not good enough for me to recommend, nor is it bad enough for me to rip it to shreds. I simply read it and promptly forgot about it.