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.