Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Killing Britney" by Sean Olin

Britney Johnson used to be a geek at high school, but now she has transformed herself into one of the "Hockey Wives", the girlfriends of the players on the highly successful high school hockey team. She's dating Ricky Piekowski - at least until he is viciously run down by a killer in a red pick-up truck.

This isn't the first time Britney's life has been touched by tragedy. A couple of years earlier, her mother died during a family rafting trip, her body never recovered. Britney went through a really rough period after the death, which seemed to prompt her change from geek to chic.

Adam Saft is a friend of the family, staying with Britney and attending high school with her. He learns from Britney's former friends Bobby and Melissa that Britney isn't all she's cracked up to be. More people begin to die and it looks like Britney might be the final target.

Even though it clocks in at 234 pages, this teen thriller - with slasher undertones - has less depth than a 160-page quickie from R.L. Stine. Just what was the author aiming for with this? Despite being called "Killing Britney", there never really seems to be a discernable threat against her. Sure, some of the people around her are dying, but why? Some of the links between victim and Britney are really tenuous. A couple of characters are identified as disliking Britney, but that's also very undercooked. Both Adam and Bobby, presented as suspects, seem more in love with her than wanting to kill her.

The book decides to remain vague for a large part of the proceedings, seemingly in the hope that you won't guess the highly obvious twist ending. As for the twist ending, all it really does is leave you with a huge pile of unanswered questions.

I also wonder about the "Killing Britney" title. Is it a coincidence the main character's name is spelt the same way as the famous singer Britney Spears? I've heard that "Britney" is an uncommon spelling of the name - usually it's Brittany. Is it also a coincidence that the book's cover has a picture of a girl that vaguely resembles the singer? Were the publishers hoping that Britney Spears fans would see the cover and the title and pick it up over the possibility it was about the singer?

It turns out that Britney killed her own mother with the help of Karl, Melissa's older brother. Britney and Karl then murdered anybody who got too close to the truth. The problems here:

Why did Britney suddenly decide to become one of the popular kids? If anything, it exposed her to more people who could learn her secret. In particular, Ricky!

Why was she acting suicidal after her mother's death? It only made Melissa and Bobby scrutinise her, when the last thing she wanted was any scrutiny!

Who wrote the love letters to Karl? Britney's mother? Or Britney herself? It's brought up, and then never mentioned again, nor explained.

Was there any connection to the couple of deaths mentioned in the early part of the novel?

Did Bobby murder Britney's father? Or did Britney? And if it was Britney, at which point did her father ever get anywhere near to figuring out she killed her mother? If it was Bobby - um....why?

Why did she sleep with Adam?

There's no suspense, no believable plot twists, and no guilty pleasure that you would typically find with a teen thriller. Guess I'm back to hunting down the popular 90s teen thriller again.

"Charley's Web" by Joy Fielding

Charley Webb is a controversial columnist for the Palm Beach Post who lives in the shadow of her two younger, more successful siblings. Anne is a bestselling novelist and Emily is a highly regarded journalist. She spends a lot of time looking out for youngest sibling Bram, who can't seem to get his crap together. She is also re-establishing a relationship with her mother Elizabeth, who walked out on the family when Charley was eight (she's now thirty) to live in Australia with a lesbian lover. Her father now refuses to speak to Charley because of this relationship, and the other siblings are also resistant to letting their mother back into their lives.

Charley is a single mother whose children both have different fathers. However, she is a very, caring protective mother, so she's understandably shocked when she starts receiving e-mails from somebody dubbed "a person of taste" who threatens both her and her children.

She sees her chance at respect in her own field when she is contacted out of the blue by Jill Rohmer, a young woman on death row for the vicious sex murders of three young children she used to babysit for. She is a huge fan of Charley and wants her to write a book about Jill's life. Although hesitant at first, she does see the career possibilities and starts meeting with Jill.

Jill is a strange woman, and obviously unbalanced. Charley doesn't like Jill's insistence that the two of them are alike. However, Charley keeps getting drawn back into Jill's story as she investigates Jill's past. Jill also eventually drops a tidbit about a man named Jack who supposedly coerced Jill into committing the horrendous deeds. Charley feels herself losing control in her relationship with Jill and with the other people in her life. Meanwhile, the threats against her and her children continue to come in via e-mail.

"Charley's Web" was particularly successful in exploring the theme of how people see themselves and others. Charley often thinks about her critics and family members: "you think you know me, but you don't". Jill also says this to Charley during their conversations. And to a large extent, Charley spends a lot of her time judging how the people in her life go about their daily business, but resents it when other people do it to her. She sees how much she loves her own children, and can't understand how Elizabeth could abandon her own. She can't understand why Anne would give up custody of her own children and have them live with their father. In this respect, Charley is a very well-developed and explored character, and it made her feel like a real person. More importantly, despite lacking the ability to be truly introspective, she is still very likeable. It was easy to get behind her. I understood her drive to prove others wrong, and to earn the respect that the others in her family have achieved.

The relationship between Charley and Jill is also quite complex and enthralling. Although we don't get to see inside Jill's head - we only see what Charley sees - she is nontheless compelling. How could she have done the awful things she did? How can she possibly justify it? The novel deals with some strong themes, so the story maintains an edge and an undercurrent of suspense even when not immediately focused on the threat to Charley's children or the truth of Jill's murders.

Perhaps less successful is the threat to Charley's children. There are only a couple of e-mails, and the novel isn't clear enough as to whether they are genuine threats or some Internet crackpot messing about, nor whether they are connected to Charley's dealings with Jill and investigation into her past. Nevertheless, the issue is still highly relevant, especially with the likes of Twitter and Facebook exposing just how vile people can be under the supposed veil of anonymity.

I did occasionally get tired of the time devoted to Charley's issues with her siblings and her mother. It is certainly the main crux of the novel, more so than Charley's interactions with Jill. I like my thrillers to be a little more certain about what the threat is and where it is coming from. Here, it is too vague for too long. However, like I said, there is suspense to the proceedings despite this, thanks largely to the psychological battles between Charley and Jill. Also, as I understood where all the characters were coming from, it was easy to relate to their family issues.

Finally, the climax was a bit of a letdown. Fielding was doing a terrific job of building up genuine tension, and kind of blew it with a "oh, that's it?" resolution to the proceedings.

Despite its flaws, "Charley's Web" is the best novel I have read by Joy Fielding. The characters were exceptionally well-drawn, the central themes easy to relate to, and easy to understand. The relationship between Charley and Jill was exciting enough to carry me through the occasionally dragged-out moments of family melodrama.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Bait" by Karen Robards

Maddie Fitzgerald is in New Orleans to land a big account for her struggling firm Creative Partners. Somebody breaks into her hotel room at night and tries to kill her, and she barely escapes with her life. The next day, she discovers that there was another woman by the name of Maddie Fitzgerald staying at the same hotel - and she is now dead.

Special Agent Sam McCabe is on the trail of a killer who leaves him various clues about his next victim. Sam isn't too quick on the uptake, as several people are already dead. Strangely enough, the killer doesn't leave any clues about Maddie being the next victim, but Sam is on the case, trying to figure out what connection Maddie has to the other victims. So far, there are no connections at all.

Sparks fly between the two as Sam decides to keep a watch over Maddie in case the killer comes after her again. Which, of course, he does. However, Maddie has a few secrets in her past she isn't telling him (or the reader, for that matter) and it puts them both in danger.

Golly, was there even a plot here? Actually, what's so frustrating about "Bait" is that it gets off to really good start, with the creepy sequence as Maddie is attacked, and the initial intrigue as to whether the killer was after Maddie, or if it was a case of mistaken identity. The cat-and-mouse element to the relationship between Sam and the killer also showed some promise.

Unfortunately, it's all frittered away on the usual romantic thriller cliches and stupidity. After the first 100 pages, which really got me into the story, it settles into a typical romance plot and the thriller element is abandoned almost entirely. Maddie drops a few hints about her past, but doesn't divulge the full details until the book's protracted climax is already upon us. It might have upped the suspense if I knew a bit more about what Maddie was potentially facing. Instead, the climax was mostly a let-down, as there were no new places for the narrative to go, or plot twists to really throw at us.

There's also the matter of the cutesy subplot involving the dog Zelda, the pet of the lady who's lucrative account she's just landed, over which Maddie takes ownership. It made my teeth hurt. It felt like it belonged in another novel entirely, and further pushed the "thriller" element of the novel into the background. I wanted more intrigue around Maddie's past and who wanted to kill her.

And God save me from female romance authors who over-use the word "damn". Seriously, is there some unwritten rule out there that mandates it gets used every other sentence? Actually, it's not too bad here - Robards is nowhere near the level of Lisa Jackson - but it is noticeable, particularly in the scene where Maddie and Sam finally get it on. I'd really like to meet someone in real life who says "damn" as much as the people in romance novels do. I understand these novels are at least part fantasy, but I'm sure it is possible to have impossibly pretty people spout believable dialogue.

Like I said, the main problem with "Bait" is that it could have been so much better. The plot opportunities are wasted. The romance element is basically the same as every other romantic thriller out there, although thankfully free of the overwrought anguish you might find in, say, a Karen Rose novel. But I wanted more than what I got. Dare I say it, but Karen Robards is a good writer. It would be great to see her applying her skills to something that isn't so routine and predictable.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Don't Tell" by Karen Rose

Caroline Stewart is a secretary at a college and beginning a romance with new professor Max Hunter. But she hides a big secret. Seven years ago, when she was known as Mary Grace Winters, she faked her death to escape from her vicious, abusive husband, Rob Winters, a police officer. Even now, she still lives in fear that he might find her and her fourteen-year-old son Tom.

When her car is pulled out of a lake, the jig is up. Rob quickly figures out that she is still alive, and is obsessed with finding her, and particularly his son. The FBI also get involved, with Special Agent Steven Thatcher eventually discovering Mary Grace faked her death - and that Rob is indeed a murdering psychopath.

Caroline, of course, has no actual idea that her psychotic husband is after her. She's all caught up in her new romance with Max, but both have a mountain-load of issues to work out before their relationship can be successful.

This is Karen Rose's first novel, and clearly not one of her best. The plot is a fairly simple "Sleeping With The Enemy" knock-off that blows out to over 500 pages thanks to a seemingly never-ending supply of emotional turmoil for the characters to sort through. It really is ridiculous, even by the standards of this genre. Caroline, of course, has her past as a severely abused wife to work through. As for Max, he blames himself for an accident in which his father was killed and also ended his hopes for a career as a star basketball player.

And that's just for starters! Max is still bitter over his forced career change from sports star to college professor. He's embarrassed by the cane he now has to use to walk, and the scars he has from his accident. But wait - Caroline has scars too from her abusive marriage and worries what Max might think if he sees her naked.

Caroline never had a family she could rely on, but Max has a loving family he keeps running away from. She can't marry him because legally she's still married to Rob and she would never want to be a bigamist. But is she really just wary of trusting again? Max thinks she doesn't want to marry him because....


There's more where that came from, but this review would blow out to about 300 pages trying to fit it all in. Basically, "Don't Tell" is about 20% thriller and 80% hand-wringing soap opera dramatics. Heck, even Special Agent Steven Thatcher could have been removed from the proceedings entirely and it wouldn't have affected much. There's not much suspense when your main character doesn't even know she's in any danger. There's just lots of padding until - boom! OH MY GOD HE'S FOUND HER! There are far too many characters running around in the book's busy finale, and the cringeworthy moments really build in the final chapters, too.

Karen Rose has gotten much better since this first effort, and her books are usually good enough to be worth slogging through the main characters' anguished backstories. Not so much here. I found myself wishing that Caroline and Max would have heeded the advice of the title "Don't Tell", and spared me all their torturous insecurities.

Friday, November 9, 2012

"Hot Pursuit" by Suzanne Brockmann

When Congresswoman (or rather, assemblywoman) Maria Bonavita starts receiving threats, the Troubleshooters team comes to the rescue. I think it's to teach Maria and her team how to be safe, but I'm not sure. They bring an entire team of Navy SEALS, which I thought was a bit of overkill. They're lead by Alyssa Locke and her husband Sam Starret.

Romance quickly develops between Dan Gillman, one of the SEALS, and Jenn, who is part of Maria's team. Maria herself finds some time to hit on Izzy Zanella. Little do any of them realise, but the threats to Maria are by a psycho who is obsessed with Alyssa, and has used this as a way to lure her to him. I think. Anyway, this psycho just happens to be a serial killer called "The Dentist", who is apparently Alyssa's nemesis.

"Hot Pursuit" is actually book number fifteen in what is known as the Troubleshooters series, and it is basically plotless drivel. The back of the book goes out of its way to describe the novel as being about a former FBI agent going up against a deadly serial killer called The Denist.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

The Dentist plot takes a backseat to the author catching the reader up on what is going on in all of the characters' personal lives. I guess if you've read the previous fourteen books, that would be okay. But publishers, in their neverending quest to cheat readers out of their money (okay, so this one only set me back $5, but still....) try and pretend that you're reading the blurb of a stand-alone thriller. I could still follow what was going on - believe me, this is one of the less complicated books you're ever going to read - but it hardly made me want to go and track down any of the other fourteen books. Especially not if they're as transparently plotted as this.

The identity of The Dentist is completely arbitrary - barely any of the characters outside of the Troubleshooters and their gang get any dialogue, so nobody is built up as a potential suspect. Most of the book is devoted to the developing romance between Dan and Jenn, and it made me slightly ill. She's constantly described as being plain and big-boned - but much prettier if she put some effort in, of course. And of course, Dan is a complete hunk and she just can't believe he wants to be with her and blah, blah, blah. Actually, Dan just wants to get laid. He's a bit of a prat.

The author does have a refreshing attitude towards gay couples, with one gay partnership fairly prominent in the plot, and another secondary character identified as gay. And none of the SEALs, even in that macho sort of environment, could care less. It makes a pleasant difference from the usual representation, which is either totally flamboyant, sexually deviant or as outright perverted murderers. Here they're just normal guys.

But still not enough for me to hotly pursue the fourteen-or-so other titles in the series.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"The Price" by Alexandra Sokoloff

Will Sullivan is a district attorney in the race to become the next governor of Massachusetts. His political ambitions and his perfect life with wife Joanna and five-year-old daughter Sydney come to a crashing halt when Sydney is diagnosed with a cancerous tumour.

She is treated at Briarwood Medical Centre, where Will soon starts seeing a mysterious man in the endless hospital corridors. He appears to be some sort of counselor, helping those who are dealing with having seriously ill loved ones.

Except some people who are surely at death's door miraculously become better - an AIDS sufferer, a cop with a nasty bullet wound to the chest. And the hospital insists that this counselor - whom Will knows as Salk - does not exist. When Sydney, also at death's door, suddenly has a new clean bill of health, Will suspects something not quite right is going on.

As Joanna's behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, he fears she must have struck some sort of bargain with Salk to get Sydney better. Is this the case? Or has the stress of his campaign and Sydney's illness sent him a little crazy?

I think "The Price" is what you call a metaphorical horror tale. The question of how far you would go to save a loved one is timeless, but this novel takes a long time to put forward it's relatively simple hypothesis. Instead, imagine 100-odd pages of a guy walking down hospital corridors and seeing something strange and then wondering whether he saw it at all. It got very dull very quickly.

The book also never explains what is really going on at Briarwood Medical Centre. Maybe the author thinks it's spookier if the truth is left up in the air, but most of the book is based on Will seeking answers. Spending an entire novel following a guy trying to find out the truth, only to find out absolutely nothing, is very frustrating. I think it would have been more interesting to explore what prices various characters are willing to pay to save another person. It's a fascinating concept, but this book leaves it mostly unexplored, despite it seemingly to be the point of its bloody existence.

I also felt a disconnect with the character of Joanna, who is the one who seems to have made a bargain with Salk. Since the book is told only through Will's eyes, I never got to understand what was driving Joanna. I only knew that Will loved her and wanted to save her.

I admit I am not a fan of ambiguous horror stories. So I'm likely not the intended audience for this novel. Nevertheless, I was never scared. There was no suspense. I didn't feel any emotional connection to the characters or the situation - Will seems far more concerned with his wife's health than his daughter's. An exploration of the bond between Joanna and Sydney would have made much more sense and given me a stake in the proceedings.

If you like your horror full of symbolism, descriptive prose and half-explored supernatural themes, there might be something for you here. I cottoned on to the central concept early, only to have to wait until the end of the book for it to be confirmed, with far too many unanswered questions along the way. It really wasn't one of the more thrilling books I've read.