Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Dead Ringer" by Lisa Scottoline

Bennie Rosato heads up the law firm Rosato & Associates, overseeing three younger associates. It looks as if she is facing bankruptcy, as her latest client cannot afford to pay her. But salvation comes in the form of Robert St. Amiel, who wishes to start a class action suit against eye-lens manufacturers in America who are illegally trying to freeze out international competitors. If she can be lead counsel on the matter, the money would roll in.

However, strange things are happening, with Rosato being accused of getting drunk and kicked out of a restaurant, when she only had one drink and left on her own accord. Then she is arrested for stealing diamonds from a jewellery store. She realises this must be the work of her estranged twin sister, Alice Connelly, whom she defended on a murder charge two years earlier. Alice is back and seemingly wants to destroy Bennie's life one aspect at a time.

There's also a murder thrown into the storyline to tag this as a "crime" thriller, but it comes late in the proceedings (the book is more than half-way through), so to divulge any details would possibly be a spoiler.

Suffice to say, Dead Ringer is exceptionally dull. And for a lawyer who runs her own firm, Bennie often comes across as exceptionally dense. She's being questioned over a crime she didn't commit and doesn't seem to have the common-sense to stay quiet? Instead she keeps on digging a deeper hole for herself with her behaviour and answers. I mean - really? I certainly wouldn't want Bennie as my lawyer - I'd probably wind up in jail, guilty or innocent.

Characterisations are so cutesy it makes your teeth hurt, or else they're straight out of central casting. Bennie's best friend Sam is not just gay, he's flamboyantly gay. Her associates aren't just quirky, they're flamboyantly quirky. Mysterious potential love interest David Holland is a stoic, ex-Navy SEAL, who knows just what to do to make a woman melt, and offers bodyguard protection at no cost. Bleccccchhh.

The murder mystery aspect is practically throwaway. A couple of red herrings and then Bennie magically figures out the culprit in the most roundabout, ridiculous way that you can imagine. Who needs detective work? All murder mysteries should be that easy to solve. I still can't figure out why this book needed to be 444 pages long when, really, barely anything actually happened.

Having several subplots floating along with each other with no real depth might be okay if this were a television series - and the hackneyed characterisations certainly suggest these folks would make good TV fodder - but not in book form, and not when there is no suggestion that the plots in this book would even carry over into the next.

Dead Ringer is crime fiction-lite, and not one I would recommend.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"Killing Cupid" by Louise Voss & Mark Edwards

Siobhan McGowan has had one novel published, but not much success since, and is now running a writing class. One of her students is Alex Parkinson, and it doesn't take long for him to fall desperately in love with her. Unfortunately, it's a one-sided love and Alex begins stalking Siobhan. His obsession is so overwhelming that it results in the death of another member of the writing class, a woman named Kathy, who had the beginnings of a close friendship with Siobhan, one that Alex was quite jealous of. But just how much did Alex really have to do with the death?

I've read some truly terrible psychological thrillers, such as "Hanging Hill" by Mo Hayder and "Bloodprint" by Kitty Sewell, and some underwhelming ones like "The Executor" by Jesse Kellerman. So it was great to read a psychological thriller done right, as it is in "Killing Cupid". I hadn't been too impressed with these authors' other book "Catch Your Death", so I was very pleased that I really enjoyed this one. Once again, it just goes to show that you shouldn't write off an author based on one misfire.

The strong point here is the characterisation. The book is told exclusively through the point of view of Siobhan and Alex as they write in their journals. While I've never understood how people could remember entire conversations word-for-word to put in their journal, it was something I was able to gloss over because Siobhan and Alex came across as real people. People I could actually meet in real life. And even when they were doing outrageous things, I still liked them.

I really must emphasise how well-drawn the characters are. They are so clearly defined that you understand and believe their actions. This is particularly important in the second half of the book when the fortunes of the characters begin to change and Siobhan's behaviour descends into stalker-like territory of her own. Since she seems like a real person with real feelings and insecurities, her actions make sense.

And perhaps that's one of the books failings - it works so well as a character study that it never quite ratchets up the tension you would expect in a really good thriller. Don't get me wrong - I would highly recommend this as a psychological thriller that's done right - but there's just not a sense that things will go terribly wrong, especially after Siobhan's behaviour goes more-and-more off the rails. The idea that Kathy's death may or may not have been a murder isn't explored enough to have much impact, and therefore there's not a feeling that any of the main characters are in potential danger.

It's hard to explain why the book works so well despite the lack of genuine suspense. I liken it to "Eyes" by Felice Picano - the events are extremely fascinating, but not as exciting as they could or should be. The appeal here is getting inside the heads of two interesting characters and understanding their actions, even when those actions go against what is acceptable in society. The fact they both remain likeable is a real testament to the skill of the authors. After all, there are a lot of books out there where I've truly detested the hero or heroine.

If you enjoy a good psychological thriller, "Killing Cupid" should be right up your alley. There's no random murder thrown in like most in this genre to pass it off as a psychological thriller. Rather, the crime elements (or even lack thereof) arise naturally out of the characters and the proceedings. I've already downloaded "Forward Slash" (love the title) onto my Kindle to see what else these authors have in store for me. It's always good to have a second chance pay off.

Monday, September 2, 2013

"Have You Seen Her?" by Karen Rose

Special Agent Steven Thatcher is on the case of a serial killer who is abducting and murdering cheerleaders across the state. Making things difficult is his home life - youngest son Nicky is still traumatised after being kidnapped (which happened in Rose's previous "Don't Tell"), and oldest son Brad is misbehaving, and his grades are dropping.

Jenna Marshall is Brad's teacher and concerned about his failing grades. She organises to speak to Steven. Of course, the attraction is immediate. Complicating things for Jenna, however, is the fact that she has failed student Rudy Lutz and gotten him kicked off the baseball team, angering his father and friends, and she is now the subject of a campaign of terror in an effort to make her back down and let Rudy back on the team.

Although the book cover states that "finding the (killer) is Steven's over-riding objective", Steven spends most of his time acting like a complete moron in his romantic pursuit of Jenna, who may wind up being the next victim of the serial killer.

A better title for this pile of shit would be "Have You Seen The Plot?" Because there is none to be found here, folks. I hated this book. I really, truly hated it. To call this "romantic suspense" is a stretch, because suspense is at a complete minimum. The complete and total focus here is the romance between Steven and Jenna. And the multitude of issues that prevent them from getting together.

The cause of most of these issues is Steven. He is a complete imbecile. If you want to read a romance about an emotionally-stunted, tantrum-throwing manchild, you've come to the right place. If you want to read a romantic suspense thriller, you're better off throwing this piece of junk into the fire and picking up one of Rose's other novels. While all her novels contain a somewhat exasperating degree of emotional and romantic angst, they generally all contain complex, interesting plots.

Not this one. The serial killer murdering cheerleaders is very much in the background. More focus is actually given to the terror campaign mounted against Jenna by Rudy and his friends. The rest of the book consists of Steven being a complete juvenile prick towards Jenna and Jenna constantly forgiving him because she just can't resist him. I have detested more than a few book characters in my time, but Steven Thatcher earned a new level of contempt from me. What an appalling, disgusting, pathetic character. I quickly grew sick of his childish antics and melodramatic behaviour. Grrrr. I spent most of the book wanting to throw the book across the room because I hated Steven Thatcher so much.

"Have You Seen Her?" is worthless. It's shit. There's no other way to describe it. It's Rose's worst novel, and easily tops my list of worst books I've ever read. I'm angry that an author can dribble 500 pages of shit like this. Good thing I've read and enjoyed so many other novels by Rose, because if this was the only book of hers to go on, I'd never, ever read her again.

Avoid like the plague.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Identity Theft" by Anna Davies

Hayley Westin is a high-achieving high school student who has turned her back on friends and popularity in a bid to gain a scholarship to university and basically get the most out of life. Things slowly start to unravel when she sees a Facebook page in her name, with pictures of a girl who looks just like her, doing the sorts of things a scholarship-seeking student shouldn't be doing. And Hayley has absolutely no memory of doing these things.

She's sure it's the work of either Adam Scott, her main competitor for the scholarship, or Jessica Adamson, a popular girl who wants to be editor of the yearbook, a position currently held by Hayley herself. However, some clues by her mysterious tormenter makes her look into her own past, in which she discovers she is actually a twin. Could her twin - whom her mother claims died at birth - still be alive and out to take over her life?

I was very excited to read Identity Theft, as it signalled the launch of a new wave of Point Horror, the books I read voraciously when I was a pre-teen and teenager. The genre teen horror line created by the likes of R.L. Stine, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike and Caroline B. Cooney. Maybe it was the heightened sense of anticipation that led me to be highly disappointed by this book, but I don't think so. Simply put, Identity Theft just isn't very good.

Even more disappointing is that the subject matter was so ripe for exploitation. A Facebook page popping up with pictures of yourself you don't remember that threaten to undo the careful persona you've created for yourself? What a great idea! But Davies completely blows it - the Facebook page pops up every now and then, only to get taken down again. Meanwhile, Hayley just bitches and moans endlessly about the turmoil she's embroiled in.

And it's pretty lightweight turmoil. Identity Theft is an exceptionally slow-paced book, literally crawling from one plot point to another. The psycho-twin explanation finally provided could almost be considered a spoiler since it is so late in coming. Most of the book is taken up with Hayley's difficulties in trying to keep her hold on her carefully ordered life. She bitches and moans. She treats everybody around her like shit. She bitches and moans a bit more. She is distracted by a romance with fellow student Matt Hartnett, who is very thinly drawn, making it hard to understand why Hayley would be so enthralled by him. Probably because, at the end of the day, Hayley is pretty stupid. And annoying. I really didn't like her.

The book - and this could be definitely be considered mild SPOILERS - finally hits its stride when Hayley finds herself committed to an institution with everybody believing she is really her twin. It's the sort of nightmarish scenario that would be exploited to much better effect in a much better book. It's certainly the highlight here, and unfortunately over almost as soon as it begins. At this point, Identity Theft launches into is lacklustre, underwhelming finale.

What was the author thinking? This is how she wants to end the book? Instead of making me read between the lines and trying to figure out what happened, how about telling me what the f*** actually happened? Is it that hard? I'm assuming it involves some sort of car crash, but Davies is extremely vague about what actually went down. It easily kills any chance at suspense.

I won't even go into why Hayley's mother and father thought it necessary to hide the twins from each other. Or why they would supposedly continue to lie about the twin being alive or not. This book is full of holes from beginning to end, painfully slow-paced, and insults the reader by not even bothering to fully explain vital THE CLIMAX, for instance. The main character is a pain in the ass, supporting characters lack believability, likeability or coherent motives, and the rich subject matter is appallingly wasted.

Bring back the Point Horror books of old. They may be dated, a bit dorky and a quickie read, but they were certainly better-paced and more enjoyable than this cynical, gimmicky attempt at a relaunch. Fail.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"Impulse" by Debra Webb

Special Agent Jess Harris is about to take on a new job in Birmingham, working for Police Chief Dan Burnett. However, following on from the ending in "Obsession", Detective Lori Wells is now in the clutches of Eric Spears, better known as The Player. He starts a deadly game with Jess, trying to bait her into catching him. He does this by kidnapping various people tenuously connected to her. Whilst the FBI refuses to acknowledge that Eric Spears really is The Player, since Jess bungled the investigation and helped him walk, Jess must use this chance to correct her mistakes and finally bring an end to The Player's reign on terror. Meanwhile, she still continues to have unresolved sexual tension with Dan Burnett.

Okay, so I lied. With my recent acquisition of a Kindle, I was able to purchase this follow-up relatively cheaply, and I figured I may as well find out what happened to Lori Wells at the end of "Obsession". While I can't say this is any step up from "Obsession", it isn't a step down. Thankfully, the romantic subplot doesn't take front and centre, although it does contain yet another tiresome argument between Jess and Dan about who was responsible for their failed relationship. Enough already! These people are supposed to be adults tracking down a serial killer. If I was at the mercy of a deranged murdered who liked to cut women's nipples off, I certainly wouldn't my life in these two hands'. They can't seem to take their minds off each other and their petty problems long enough to solve the case.

Yes, I know this falls under the romantic suspense category and the leads need some sort of tension between them to up the stakes of their relationship, but it needs to rise believably out of the plot or situation. Here, it simply gets in the way. They simply shouldn't be behaving like bickering teenagers when women are being kidnapped and murdered. I didn't like the fact they couldn't just put it aside and get their priorities in order. Especially since they had already bickered about it enough in the first book.

There is a lot of repetition in this book, perhaps to up the word count. Jess hovers dangerously near being a martyr here, constantly agonising over the fact she feels responsible for the women being kidnapped, tortured and murdered. I couldn't help but feel she was partly responsible, since she couldn't act mature enough to put her romantic woes second and her job first, and stop the killer. I also got seriously fed up with the fact she'd always refer to her high heel shoes as "damned high heels" or "blasted high heels". By the halfway point I was yelling at my Kindle: "If you hate your high heels that much stop f***ing wearing them you whinging moron!"

I can't say I liked Jess Harris a lot this go-round.

The violence and torture here is surprisingly hard-edged as well. Some of the violence made me cringe, and I'm generally not phased by lashings of gore in my novels. Perhaps because the rest of this is such run-of-the-mill lightweight romantic suspense. It was somewhat jarring to go from bickering between the romantic leads to descriptions of a tortured woman with her nipples nearly removed. If Debra Webb wants to consider a move into more crime-oriented material, she needs a more even tone. If her main characters are tracking serial killers, their minds need to be more on their work and less on what happened twenty years ago.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Obsession" by Debra Webb

Jess Harris is an FBI Agent whose career is in the dumps after a botched attempt to nail a serial killer. She returns to her hometown in Alabama to help the local police solve the mystery of four missing women. She has a history with police chief Dan Burnett, and the romantic tension between them is still evident.

When a fifth woman goes missing, Jess must put her unresolved feelings for Dan, and her guilt over her failed career, behind so that she can place all her focus on tracking the abductor. It's personal for Dan, as his stepdaughter, Andrea Denton is one of the kidnapped women. As for Jess, she also has to deal with the fact the serial killer she failed to catch - The Player - is now walking free and seemingly stalking her.

Debra Webb is a romantic suspense author with quite a prolific output. The publishers here seem to want to convince us that this is her "thriller" debut - that is, a straight out crime-thriller rather than a romantic suspense novel. On that front, it's a bit of a fail. This is romantic suspense through and through. There is just as much focus on the unresolved relationship between Jess and Dan as there is into the investigation of the missing women. It actually got fairly repetitive. There is also romantic trouble between Lori Wells and Chet Harper, two of Dan's detectives. So anybody thinking they're picking up a serial killer thriller is going to be sorely disappointed.

When it isn't devoting its time to Jess and Dan's romantic woes, it's not too bad. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the TV show Criminal Minds. You could easily see this plot in an episode of that show. The sequences with Andrea and the kidnapped girls are well-done, generating the sort of suspense that a good serial killer thriller should provide. The motive of the abductor is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, and it was a nice change from what you normally find in crime fiction.

The other big problem is the subplot involving The Player. Having another serial killer lurking around the fringes just detracts from the main story. It's only really around so that Webb can set up the events of the next novel. That's a bit of a problem if you're not totally captivated by the current story and don't plan on getting the next novel. But I'm getting off course here.

Jess and Dan's rocky romantic past just took up too much focus for my liking. Even though there are five women missing, and events are getting crucial as the story speeds towards its conclusion, it stops dead in its tracks so that Jess and Dan can have their Big Moment. A long, seemingly never-ending bicker about who was to blame for their relationship failing. Even though Jess keeps saying throughout the story: "we have to find these girls!" she spends an awful lot of time arguing with Dan or having gooey romantic fantasies about him. Tiresome.

It's not awful. It's a romantic suspense novel. Not a thriller. That should let you know whether you want to read it or not. Kind of like a Harlequin Mills & Boon novel with a bit of Criminal Minds thrown in, Obsession won't have me tracking down the follow-ups, but it was a diverting read.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"The Sixth Soul" by Mark Roberts

Detective Chief Inspector David Rosen is the head of the team dedicated to tracking down a serial killer dubbed "Herod". He likes to abduct pregnant women, and then remove the foetus and dump the body. When another woman is abducted, the pressure mounts.

Rosen is contacted by Father Sebastian Flint, who believes that the current killer is recreating the murders of Alessio Capaneus, who believed that he could revive Satan through gathering the souls of six "untainted" people - i.e an unborn foetus. The latest woman abducted is the fifth, which means that the killer is getting closer to obtaining his goal.

Flint refers to a document known as the "anti-bible", which could provide a solution to the slayings. But just how much does he know and how involved is he? And should Rosen worry about the fact that his wife Sarah has just discovered that she is pregnant?

I don't think there was an original thought, let alone an original sentence, to be found within the pages of "The Sixth Soul", but surprisingly it doesn't mean you should avoid the novel. Events move at a decent pace, and it doesn't suffer the long, drawn-out, waiting-for-lab-results issues that affect most crime novels, or police procedures.

Most notably, this is highly clichéd. The lead detective has a tortured past and a wife/girlfriend who just happens to fit into the killer's modus operandi. He has a boss who seems to want his head. He has an underling who desperately wants to undermine him. So there are a lot of police-force politics as this winds its way to the solution.

 But I did enjoy the novel. Despite its drawbacks, it was tightly-plotted, well-paced and drew me in. If it weren't so bogged down by clichés, it could have been a real winner.

"Unseen" by Karin Slaughter

Will Trent is undercover trying to get the goods on a master criminal called Big Whitey. His way in is through posing as an ex-con and making friends with low-life criminal Tony Dell. They both have jobs at the hospital.

Complicating things is Lena Adams, who is now a police officer in Macon, and is recovering from a recent botched raid to capture notorious killer and rapist Sid Waller, who also has possible ties to the elusive Big Whitey.

Will wants to keep his assignment secret from his girlfriend Sara Linton, because his case will inevitably lead him to become involved with Lena. Anyone who's familiar with Slaughter's novels will know that Sara holds Lena responsible for the death of her husband, Jeffrey Tolliver.

When Lena and her husband Jared Long are the victim of a shooting which leaves Jared - the son of Jeffrey - clinging to life, Will must figure out what happened during that raid that may have led to Lena and Jared becoming targets. He must also figure out if Big Whitey really is the head of a criminal organisation, or just an urban legend.

The fact that I am a long-time reader of Karin Slaughter's novels went a long way towards me forgiving the fact that is largely a dull, under-plotted thriller. Can we please move away from gangs and the like? Please? Please, please, please? It just doesn't generate the tension you would otherwise get if Will, Sara and company are tracking down a dangerous killer. Here, it's mostly just a hunt for the elusive head of a criminal organisation who has his hand in every criminal enterprise.

Another tiresome aspect is how Will hides this investigation from Sara because of Lena's involvement. Sara thinks that Lena is poison to everything she touches. Then we get Lena's point of view, where she comes across these days as fairly together and with-it. I began to get confused as to which side I was on. Did I side with Sara, who is ostensibly one of the main characters to feature in all of Slaughter's novels? Or did I side with Lena, who is clearly out of her depth in a situation in which she has no idea if she's somehow responsible for the mess that follows?

A lot of time in "Unseen" is spent on the relationships between the characters. And I mean a lot. Here, plot seems largely secondary. I've been a huge fan of Slaughter for over 10 years, so it was easier for me to overlook the many things wrong with this novel. If this was the first novel you read by Slaughter, you'd probably never read another book by her again. While there are one or two halfway decent twists, the plot is thin and not very compelling.

I'm hoping that "Unseen" signals a final move away from Lena and her legacy. A move away from Jeffrey Tolliver and his legacy. Start fresh with Will, Sara and Faith (who is underused here). Or if Lena has to be around, create something new for her to cause friction. Or just resolve it entirely. Lena seems to have her 'crap' together. Let's keep it that way. Let's hope that the next Slaughter offering has the tight plotting and taut suspense that we expect from her.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Wild Zone" by Joy Fielding

Will and Jeff are half-brothers who have recently gotten back in touch with each other, and the relationship between them is uneasy at best. They are at the bar The Wild Zone with their friend Tom when they see a lone woman drinking at a table. They make a bet as to which one can chat her up and take her home. This is despite the fact that Jeff is in a relationship with Wild Zone bartender Kristin and Tom is married - albeit unhappily - to Elaine. The woman - Suzy - winds up picking Will, much to shock and anger of both Jeff and Tom. They don't go home together, but none of the men can get Suzy off their minds.

Jeff and Kristin have an open relationship, but Jeff's fascination with Suzy starts to come between them. Will has feelings for Suzy, but likes Kristin a lot and doesn't appreciate the way Jeff treats her. Tom's marriage with Elaine begins to fracture and he slowly loses his grip on reality. As for Suzy, she is married to a controlling, abusive husband, and having three guys so interested in her is not making life with her husband any easier. Their lives are destined to collide in unpredictable and violent ways.

As you might be able to tell from the plot description, The Wild Zone is more soap opera than it is a crime novel or thriller. As it is, it falls into that increasingly frequent - and annoying - category of a melodrama with a little bit of random murder thrown in to pass it off as a suspense novel. Admittedly there was some suspense, mainly in waiting to see how badly Tom would psychologically fall apart, but for the most part, this story went nowhere fast. The characters are very well-drawn, however, and that went a considerable way in keeping me involved in the story.

It finishes off with an absurd twist. While you can tell the author didn't simply pull it out of her hat, it didn't make it any easier to swallow. It meant that certain characters would have practically had to have been psychic to know that everybody would do what they did when they did it. Very silly. It did little to justify the slow, measured build-up that came before it.

"The Girl Who Disappeared Twice" by Andrea Kane

Casey Woods runs her own private crime-solving team known as Forensic Instincts. Also on the team is Marc Devereaux, who is both a former FBI behavioural analyst (profiler) and a former Navy SEAL. The third member is Ryan McKay, the tech expert who is also a buff gym junkie. They are contacted by Family Court Judge Hope Willis, whose young daughter Krissy has been kidnapped. Hope wants them on the case because they can apparently cut all the corners that the local police and FBI cannot. However, this doesn't stop a majority of the novel from focusing on the bickering between the various teams over who does what.

As it happens, Hope's twin sister was kidnapped thirty-two years ago and was never recovered. Even more mysteriously, evidence points to Krissy getting into a car just like her mother's car, with a woman who looks just like her mother. Could the two cases be connected? You think? Rather than focusing on the blindingly obvious, the team are sidetracked by babysitter Ashley's affair with Hope's husband, Hope's father's ties to the mob, Hope's resentful ex-bench clerk and the various people who might be angry at Hope based on how she ruled in their case. Everybody must put aside their differences in a race against time to locate Krissy.

From the looks of things, Andrea Kane is a romance writer trying her hand at crime fiction without the romance angle. While I appreciate any author willing to jump out of their comfort zone and try something new, it's hard to get excited when the result is as flat, predictable and boring as this. Are we seriously supposed to be surprised by the identity of the kidnapper? Am I missing something? Was I supposed to be so caught up in the jurisdictional bickering between teams that I never managed to find the time to put two and two together? Because the majority of the novel seems to involve arguments or discussions between Forensic Instincts, the police and the FBI over who goes where and who questions who and so forth. I have no idea if the situation of having so many teams on the same case is portrayed accurately, but it hardly mattered, as it was so freaking dull and repetitive.

This extends to the relationship between Casey and Hutch, one of the FBI profilers. They get snotty with one another whenever they clash over jurisdictional issues. Unfortunately, their characters are so flat it's hard to get involved in their relationship plight to begin with. You'd think a romance writer would have a better handle on creating a believable relationship. However, the flat characterisation extends to pretty much everybody, with the possible exclusion of Hope Willis, who at least comes across as appropriately frazzled but plucky. I often had trouble telling Marc and Ryan apart. They were both hunks and brilliant at their respective skills, and that's about as much as I learnt about them. The other major problem is that we're always told rather than shown. We're frequently told how brilliant Casey, Marc and Ryan are, but it's rarely put into play. An extended sequence where they want to plant surveillance footage in a building (I won't say what kind in case of spoilers) fizzles out because breaking in proves to be really easy because "it's not Fort Knox".

As a minor quibble, the inclusion of psychic Claire just did not work for me. I'm bringing my own personal prejudices to the table, however, as I personally believe psychics are frauds. But there are so many other problems here that it ultimately doesn't matter much. The Girl Who Disappeared Twice is dull and predictable and will likely disappear from memory as soon as you've finished it.

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Eternally Yours" by Cameron Dokey

Mercedes Amberson is viewed by the other girls at Cooper Riding Academy as a poor little rich girl. She certainly feels alone, with parents who don't seem very interested in her. Her only friend is Andrea Burgess, who is poor, but has a loving family she misses.

What Mercy wants most of all is a boyfriend to call her own. She thinks she's found the one in Conner Egan, the lead singer of band Elysian Fields playing at the popular Night Owl club. Little does she know, Conner is actually a centuries-old vampire. He needs a young girl to pledge her undying love to him so that he may turn her into a vampire, allowing him to become mortal again. He thinks he's found the one in Mercy Amberson. It is up to Andrea to step in and save Mercedes from Conner's clutches.

Just when I think I've found the dumbest, most exasperating heroine in a novel ever, something always seems to come along and raise the bar even higher. The latest doozy is Mercedes "Mercy" Amberson, whose too-stupid-to-live behaviour really stretches patience. It is suggested that she is under some kind of spell that Conner has used to bend her to his will, but it did little to generate extra sympathy for her.

It also makes the plot confusing.

If Conner needs a young woman to tell him she'll love him forever and do anything to prove it so that he can turn her into a vampire and become mortal again himself - and has supernatural powers to hasten the wooing process along - why has it taken him over 200 years to find a wet blanket like Mercedes? He mentions he spent at least 100 of those years living like an animal because he was so angry at his vampire state, but that doesn't explain the other 100 years. What has he been doing in all that time? Tending to his garden? Penning the ten-thousand-or-so teen novels about vampire love that have been released in the last 20 years? He's certainly taken his sweet time. Maybe because only Mercedes was the only person in the last century who was enough of a dolt to fall for his bullshit. Who knows?

Conner believes that once he is mortal again, he can have whatever he wishes for the remainder of his life. What exactly is that? How would he achieve that? Will he gain a magic genie who grants those wishes once he's human? The novel doesn't explain why being mortal again is such an important goal for him, especially considering he has not been terribly proactive about the whole thing.

The character of Andrea Burgess is far more tolerable. She's plucky and strong-willed. Why on Earth she would expend so much energy and risk death several times to save a simpering moron like Mercedes is another question that remains unanswered.

Of course, I'm probably expecting too much from a 90s teen novel released when the market was being absolutely saturated by multiple clones. It doesn't stop me from hunting down every single one of them. And I do enjoy reading them. However, the ones involving sappy vampire love are generally the more dire of the lot, indicating that not a whole lot has changed since the early 90s vampire stuff and the Twilight-inspired dreck being released now.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Snakes & Ladders" by Sean Slater

Detective Jacob Striker is upset when he attends the scene of a suicide and realises he knows the victim, Mandy Gill. When he notices a camera set up outside the scene, and then has a tangle with a mysterious lurker, he is pretty sure it was not a suicide at all.

The investigation leads him and his partner, Detective Felicia Santos, to a mental health facility run by Dr. Erich Ostermann. Ostermann is a bit strange, and his family isn't much better. Striker is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare as he tries to obtain information from various sources.

As it happens, a shrink that Striker was seeing after the suicide of his wife is also a patient of Ostermann, after having a mental breakdown of her own. She has now gone missing, and Striker fears that she may be the next victim in the conspiracy he is uncovering.

Striker is contacted by the villian - who calls himself The Adder - who wants Striker to be his latest victim in a ritual he calls The Beautiful Escape.

Snakes & Ladders is an improvement over Slater's debut The Survivor, but still suffers from the fact that Striker is an arrogant asshole. Seriously, it is extremely difficult to spend all my time with a character who thinks he's always right and is God's gift to the world. The fact that he is almost always right kind of nips any suspense in the bud. Maybe if he was a bit more human and less of an over-confidant tool, there might be some drama and mystery over whether he is pursuing the right lead or not. Instead, Striker just marches around everywhere with the knowledge that all his hunches will play out exactly as he predicts.

Another thing I noticed was the fact that nearly every single chapter ends with some reference to where Striker and Santos are headed, or how long it will take them to get there, or that they were running out of time. It gets very repetitive.

The rhyme and reason behind the killer and their motives was much more interesting in this go-round, however. Instead of the inner turmoil of some turd who murders children (as found in The Survivor), we get a killer with a complex history and a motive that is believably derived from their circumstances. This believability kept me involved in the story whenever I was in danger of giving up because of Striker's assholery. The eventual revelation regarding the villian and their associates and their motives was clever and unexpected.

There was also a little more action thrown into the mix to keep things lively between the more routine aspects of the police procedural. Sure, Striker and Santos have to question a ridiculous amount of people, but there is at least a palpable sense of danger lurking throughout the proceedings, as our heroes have a couple of close encounters with death in the course of their investigation.

While the cat is let out of the bag a little early (with at least 100 pages left), Slater actually manages to up the suspense as the possible actions of his characters become increasingly unpredictable. It was nice to be genuinely interested in how things would play out.

A couple of inconsistencies:

The Adder invites Striker to play a game through a sinister e-mail. This is never revisited.

Striker spends the first quarter of the novel complaining about Larisa Logan's hard-nosed, obtrusive manner in his therapy sessions with her and that he doesn't like her all that much. After she goes missing, he's referring to her as a great friend who got him through the toughest period in his life.

It took me a few days to finish Snakes & Ladders - it was a little too long, the main character was very off-putting, and the "procedure" aspect of the police procedural was a bit too heavy, so I put the book down more often than I picked it up, but it was a more consistant effort than The Survivor, and I am not opposed to checking out another Striker novel. And considering how much I detest the guy, that's quite a feat!

Monday, March 25, 2013

"No Sanctuary" by Richard Laymon

Rick agrees to go camping with his hot girlfriend, Bert (short for Bertha), despite the fact he's still haunted by a camping expedition from his youth. That adventure resulted in the rape and murder of his stepmother. His rampant paranoia threatens to derail their trip, but he appears to be willing to stick around after meeting a hot pair of young campers, Andrea and Bonnie.

Meanwhile, Gillian O'Neill is a rich girl with a strange hobby - she breaks into other peoples' homes while they are vacationing and makes herself at home. Unfortunately, the latest home she's kicking back at seems to belong to a sexual sadist. However, she's too busy trying to score with Jerry Dobbs to worry too much about the home owner's peccadilloes. She should - the home owner likes to kidnap, rape and murder young women and leave them in the woods - round about the same place Rick and Bert are going camping.

No Sanctuary was published in the same year as Richard Laymon's death, so I was holding out hope that this was a completed manuscript from shortly before he died, and not a cobbled-together patchwork released post-humously to capitalise on his popularity. As far as I can tell, No Sanctuary falls somewhere in the middle. While it is definitely more cohesive than The Lake, it still remains not much more than two separate stories loosely linked together in the last couple of chapters.

Rick and Bert's story largely revolves around Rick's belief that three male campers they encounter are actually dangerous rapists. They then run into a maniacal forest-bound preacher. Gillian's story has her hooking up with Jerry and then eventually tangling with the psychotic owner of the house she's broken into.

Unfortunately, it takes nearly 200 f***ing pages for anything interesting to happen.

No Sanctuary gets off to a great start with a chapter involving a young woman hiding under her bed whilst a dangerous intruder makes his way through her home. It then dies in the ass as Rick and Bert go camping, and Gillian and Jerry develop a relationship, with the author's usual fascination with nipples and breasts. I don't mind a generous dollop of sleaze in my thrillers or horror novels, so long as there's something else intriguing or sinister going on to underscore or maintain it. Here, we get nothing. Laymon seems to want to surprise us with who is actually the major threat towards Rick and Bert. But there's not enough going on for me to really want to know what danger they might be facing. When forest madman Angus eventually pops up, it was too little, too late. Even worse, it was a distraction from the serial killer I thought was the real villian of the piece.

There are some decent horror/thriller set-pieces in the last fifty pages or so. But that's really not good enough, especially considering the highly charged, page-turning epics Laymon has turned out in the past. No Sanctuary is a bomb, plain and simple. But I've always loved Laymon's novels and always will, and it's likely no amount of bombs is going to change that. I've still got books from his back catalogue on my shelf, so I'm more than optimistic they'll be better than this sloppy clunker.

"Broken Date" by R.L. Stine

Jamie is deeply in love with her boyfriend, Tom. She's got their whole life planned out for them. So she's understandably upset when she witnesses him shoot a jewelry store manager dead during an armed robbery. Instead of going to the police like any rational, intelligent person, she whines endlessly about how his actions have ruined her life. She also suspects that he's making threatening calls to her and following her around wherever she goes.

Broken Date was written quite early in Stine's teen horror career - 1988 to be exact! His work was generally of a higher quality back then, before he was churning out several books a month. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. Broken Date never really gets past the fact that Jamie never goes to the police after witnessing the crime. There probably wouldn't be a book if she had, but it was extremely difficult to believe that Jamie, who is presented as smart and together, would not do something so logical. When she then proceeds to act like an exasperating moron for the rest of the novel, it only makes things worse.

Like any of Stine's works, this one zips by at a decent pace, so you can almost forget how ridiculous it all is. Almost. The answer as to whether Tom really is the jewelry store robber is genuinely groan-inducing. It only serves to further paint Jamie as a complete idiot. Add to this the thin character development - we don't even learn the main characters' last names - and you have an entry in Stine's ouevre that is largely forgettable. If you have a date with this one, you're not missing much if you break it. Yeah, real original, Paul.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"The Point Of Rescue" by Sophie Hannah

Sally Thorning is a wife and mother who is shocked when she sees a news report about the wife and child of Mark Bretherick being discovered dead. She's shocked because about a year earlier she had an affair whilst on holiday with somebody called Mark Bretherick - and it wasn't the guy she sees on her television screen.

Charlie Zailer has moved to another position after her previous case in which her boyfriend turned out to be a psychopathic rapist (she was never attacked, but she's bizarrely traumatised by it). But she's pulled back into this case when she comes across a note written by Sally regarding her suspicions.

Is Mark Bretherick who he says he is? Were his family murdered, or did his wife kill herself and their child? Is Sally being stalked? Charlie, her sort-of on-off boyfriend Simon Waterhouse and the various detectives must sort through the clues - including the Bretherick wife's diary - to find out what is going on.

The Point Of Rescue is both intriguing and exasperating. The plotting is excellent. Once all the strands were revealed and explained, I was very impressed. This one was extremely well put together. However, getting there can sometimes be a very drawn-out, roundabout experience. When so many characters are behaving so erratically that you need entire chapters to explain why they did what they did, or why they behaved a certain way, there's a problem. It means that the author is deliberately obscuring proceedings to keep the truth hidden just that little bit longer.

For example, this reaches its absolute nadir in a climactic chapter in which Simon Waterhouse reveals what he knows and how he figured it out. Does he come out and explain it in a concise, logical manner like anybody else in the real world? No, he doesn't. He goes off on continual tangents, keeps commenting on the traffic - anything the author can think of to draw it out that little bit longer. That's not suspense. That's cheating. It's infuriating. I was literally saying out loud: "for Christ's sake, get on with it!" It's unnecessary.

The relationship between Charlie and Simon is very tiresome. The fact that Charlie is acting like a victimised prima donna when she was NEVER ACTUALLY A VICTIM is really annoying. They have a sort-of romance that doesn't resemble any sort of romance that would exist in the real world. Even a quaint Mills & Boons heroine would roll her eyes at the way Charlie behaves around Simon. This is the sort of relationship that exists in fiction only because the author obviously thinks it's "unique". Um, no it's not. If anything, it just gets in the way. A lot of plot space gets taken up by their "relationship". Blech. Get on with your complex plot already.

This extends to the rest of the police team. Why are there so many of them? Why do we learn so many unnecessary things about them? Why is it so hard to tell all of them apart? Little Face and Hurting Distance were complex thrillers that didn't waste any words. This one wastes not just words, but entire chapters. Did the publisher instruct Hannah to inject more angst into the relationship between not just Charlie and Simon, but the entire police department?

One character move that took me out of the story and nearly made me throw the book across the room was when Sally managed to escape the house she was being held hostage in, but decided she didn't want to be found in her nightgown and have her secret affair be revealed, so she goes to extraordinary lengths, including injuring herself, to GO BACK IN THE HOUSE to clean up and get changed. What the f***? I suspect Hannah has never seen a horror movie before, because even the girls in horror films rarely do anything that f***ing stupid. Jeez. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

Character-wise, The Point Of Rescue pretty much falls flat on its face. But the plot is great. Lots of little details dropped throughout the narrative that take on importance and relevance later in the book. Very intricately woven. I did enjoy it, but the huge, glaring flaws were highly evident, particularly because Hannah's previous works were so much tighter.

I started reading The Other Half Lives, her next novel, and had to put it down. After an okay start, it proceeded to waste nearly 30 pages on Charlie and Simon's engagement party. It's a very bulky novel, and I simply don't know if I can stand to slog through more than 500 pages of Charlie and Simon's ridiculous relationship troubles. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"Guardian Ranger" by Cynthia Eden

Computer programmer Veronica Lane wants to find her missing brother, Cale. Since Sheriff Wyatt Halliday won't do anything about it, she turns to Jasper Adams, member of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. Actually, no, he's part of the Elite Operations Divison (EOD), which is part of the FBI....but not really. It's better not to examine things too deeply here, folks. In any case, Veronica remembers Jasper from many years earlier, and is under the impression he is actually a mercenary, willing to take on risky jobs for money. She also remembers how swoon-worthy and masculine Jasper was.

Jasper is happy to go along with the ruse, as he is eager to capture Cale himself. Cale is the number one suspect in the murders of several EOD operatives, and Jasper is horrified that a former friend who once saved his life in battle could be responsible for all these murders-for-hire. He is also horrified at the fact he is deceiving Veronica about his identity. He remembers Veronica from many years earlier, but he was told to stay away from her by Cale, who believed Veronica deserved better than a mercenary who was always on a dangerous mission. He also remembers how smoking hot and vulnerable Veronica was.

After foiling an attempt at kidnapping Veronica, Jasper vows to keep her safe. Obviously, by asking too many questions about Cale and trying to prove his innocence, she has angered the real guilty party.

Guardian Ranger is part of the Mills & Boon Intrigue line of books, billed as "secrets and seduction to leave you craving more". To give this book credit, I enjoyed reading it. My plot description may lean on the mocking side, but this is a fast-paced, efficient romantic thriller that crams more plot into its 219 pages than most romantic thrillers manage when they are a full-length 400 pages. The smaller word count means that all the usual extraneous material is cut out and the book gets quickly down to business. Veronica and Jasper act on their naughty urges quite quickly, and when they encounter an obstacle to their relationship, they manage to sort things out like reasonable, intelligent adults.

Who would have thought???

There's the foiled kidnapping, but also an explosion, a car chase, and sex scenes. Much like a B-grade direct-to-DVD potboiler in written form. It may be formula-driven genre nonsense, but it does it extremely well. The plot is wrapped up satisfactorily, with minor strands left dangling for any future installments in the series (this one is part of some mini-series called "Shadow Agents"). Despite not revealing who ordered the hits on the dead EOD operatives, it wasn't necessary for this particular story, and God help me, but I just may get the next one to find out. Translation: I didn't feel cheated.

On the negative side of things - the cliches are often hard to stomach. Veronica is a stuttering, 28-year-old virgin who somehow manages to capture the lust of all the men around her. She's actually quite capable in a tense, life-threatening situation, so for the author to fall back on the virginal damsel-in-distress scenario is quite disappointing. Hey, Cynthia, this is 2013, not 1913! Veronica makes it quite clear she's not waiting for marriage - she's not a bad girl if she's hit the sack a few times.

Despite its obvious faults, Guardian Ranger was actually better than many novels with big international releases that I've read. Provided she can haul her heroines into the correct century, I reckon Cynthia Eden has the tools to easily outdo the likes of Lisa Jackson and compete with Karen Rose, should she choose to enter the field of romantic thriller novels.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"The Executor" by Jesse Kellerman

Joseph Geist is a philosophy graduate who has effectively been kicked out of university because he hasn't satisfactorily submitted his thesis. It is now a work out of control. To make matters worse, he is also kicked out of the home he shares with girlfriend Yasmina.

Salvation seems to arise in the form of a strange job with elderly Alma Spielmann, who wants a "conversationalist" - somebody she can have intelligent conversations with. He does great at the job, and is even asked by Alma to move in with her. Life definitely improves for him.

Until the arrival of Eric, Alma's nephew. She openly admits that he's using her, but Joseph sees a bond between them that he and Alma just don't share, and resents Eric's presence. Eric makes overtures of friendship to Joseph, which culminates in what sounds like a proposal to murder Alma for the estate. However, Joseph's situation spirals out of control in unpredictable ways.

Not long after reading the terrible Bloodprint, here comes another book that seems to think throwing in a random murder towards the end qualifies it as a "psychological thriller". However, The Executor was a much more ambitious and successful tale in which the crime elements are actually the parts that let it down. The main character of Joseph is a self-important douchebag - but I didn't mind being in his headspace. Other writers who want tips on how to make an unlikeable main character interesting should take a few tips from Kellerman. There were a couple of times in which I laughed out loud at Joseph's observations. Seeing the world from his point of view was different and entertaining.

The relationship between Joseph and Alma is well-developed, with the author able to demonstrate in a short amount of time how close they have become. All of Joseph's reactions to the relationship between Alma and Eric, particularly the jealousy, is believable. Character-wise (with the possible exception of Yasmina), Kellerman has created layered people who seem like they would exist in the real world.

Basically, even though I was reading a character study more than a thriller, I was reeled in. Kellerman had me. I was ready to go wherever he wanted to take me. So why did he end up going down such a familiar and predictable path? The murders that set the direction of the second half just seem to come out of nowhere. The leap that Joseph's character takes to reach this point is sudden, as opposed to the careful nature of the proceedings up until that point. Before the murders occured, I was intrigued as to what might go down - particularly some sort of power games between Joseph and Eric. The focus on character clashes seemed to suggest it.

Once the murders occur, it's mostly downhill. We get an excruciating chapter that involves the dumping of the body/bodies, in which the point of view turns to second person. I think that's the term. It is all "you do this" and "you do that" (as opposed to "I did this" and "I did that") and goes on for what seems like a never-ending 40 pages. I imagine it was supposed to reflect some sort of disassociation on Joseph's part - as if he's watching his actions from a distance - but it's awkward and distracting and took me straight out of the novel. Similarly, the wound on Joseph's face that just won't heal is a rather obvious riff on Lady MacBeth being unable to wash the blood off her hands.

So there you have it. I found myself really enjoying the "non-thriller" build-up and not really enjoying the predictable crime-centric way it all panned out. Kellerman's previous effort The Brutal Art was so, so good and I was hoping that success could be matched here. Oh well.

On a side note, I'm not holding out much hope for the next novel, entitled I'll Catch You. The back of the book in the store doesn't give any plot details whatsoever, other than to say they can't reveal a thing because it is so shocking and unpredictable. Do publishers think people don't go on the Internet? I checked out Amazon and found it's entitled Potboiler everywhere else in the world and is an outright satire/parody that hasn't been too well received by readers.

Publishers - please be a little more honest with your product! If the entire industry goes Kindle, it won't be so easy to fool consumers and sales will fall.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Bloodprint" by Kitty Sewell

Madeleine Frank is a psychotherapist still mourning the loss of her husband, although she does have an unsatisfying relationship with a younger man.

Her latest client is Rachel Locklear, a belligerent young woman who wants advice on how to shake her lover Anton, who is the father of her son, Sasha. Anton is a vicious, abusive Russian pimp and Rachel is afraid he may skip off to his home country with Sasha.

The relationship between the women becomes complicated when Madeleine starts to believe that Rachel is the daughter she gave up for adoption decades ago.

Seriously, where do I begin with this pile of crap? It seems to me that these days you can trot out a trite, self-important soap opera, slap a random murder in there and pass it off as a psychological thriller. This book (and perhaps the author) seems to think it is far better than it actually is. Well, all the fancy writing in the world can't make a dull book exciting. If you're trying to pass your product off as a "novel of psychological suspense", it would help if you threw in some suspense. Otherwise, call it a "psychological drama" or a "psychological study", but stop trying to cash in on the lucrative crime market.

Madeleine Frank is an idiot. The opening chapter describes how she and her husband are too busy having a bit of rumpy pumpy to notice that all their neighbours are getting out of dodge because of the APPROACHING HURRICANE. So in our first chapter, along with some tedious descriptions of wild weather, it is established that our main character is a bit of a dumb slut. That the next man she hooks up with is a two-timing cad doesn't do her any favours.

There is a sub-plot involving Madeleine's visits with some sort of hitman - Edmund, who is now in prison. Was the author going for some sort of Clarice Starling-Hannibal Lecter vibe here? It adds nothing to nothing - the last third of the book deals with Madeleine helping Rachel dispose of Anton's body after she kills him. Basically, this subplot provides a pointless revelation that Edmund was able to threaten Madeleine's douchebag boyfriend using outside contacts, and provides minor assistance when it comes time to dump the body.

So it turns out that Rachel knew all along that she was Madeleine's daughter, and acted like a snotty bitch to see if Madeleine would still want to be her mother if she thought Rachel was really repulsive. I include this spoiler because, yes, Rachel, you are pretty repulsive. A repulsive person would do something like emotionally blackmailing their birth mother into getting rid of a dead body. In fact, Rachel, you are the most odious main character I have ever encountered in a fictional novel. You have never taken responsibility for a single thing in your life and spend the entire book blaming everybody else for it. You were utterly insufferable. I couldn't understand why Anton hadn't already bashed your head in with an ashtray.

Then we have the ridiculous subplot involving Madeleine's now-crazy mother Rosaria and her dealings with Santeria, an old religion. The book seems to suggest that Rosaria can see into the future?

And don't get me started on the endless flashbacks. They serve their purpose early on, but just keep coming and coming, long past the point of relevance.

I get angry when a book is sold as one thing and turns out to be something else entirely. And throwing a random murder into your novel does not automatically classify it as suspense. Maybe it is not entirely the fault of the author - perhaps the publishing company saw the horrid manuscript lying on their desk and did what they could to sell it. I'm not sure how successful they were - the author hasn't written a book since. But the disgusting character of Rachel, the dumb-ass character of Madeleine, combined with the rambling, slapdash nature of the plot makes it hard to enjoy this one on any level.

"Touch & Go" by Lisa Gardner

The Denbe family - Justin, Libby and Ashlyn - are kidnapped from their home by three dangerous men - Z, Mick and Radar - and locked up in an unused prison facility built by Justin's construction company. They don't know why they've been targeted, as the kidnappers don't seem especially interested in a ransom, saying they're not doing it for the money.

Several parties get involved in figuring out what has happened to the Denbe family. There are a couple of FBI agents, Wyatt Foster from the Sheriff's department, and private investigator Tessa Leoni, who works for a PI agency kept on retainer by Justin's company. Lisa Gardner fans might remember Tessa from the earlier novel Love You More.

All the combined law professionals need to dig into every corner of the Denbe family life to uncover the mastermind behind the kidnapping and find out where the Denbe family are. Meanwhile, the Denbe family themselves must struggle to both survive their dilemma and their crumbling family unit.

I list Lisa Gardner in my top three of favourite authors, so I have high standards when it comes to one of her books. They are not all perfect, but she has far more hits than misses, and she is one of those rare authors who took the risk to abandon cliched romantic fare and tackle grittier material. Even when her books don't reach the heights they typically do, I still mostly enjoy them.

I enjoyed reading Touch & Go, but it was far from one of her best. If you read something like her previous novel Catch Me, you are aware that Gardner can deliver a fast-paced, suspenseful tale packed with plot twists. That's not what you get here. The plot twists here are very slow in coming, and most of them can be figured out well in advance. Once Gardner reveals that Justin's company had a ransom insurance policy, I was safely able to predict who the kidnap mastermind was and the rest of the novel's obvious twists.

For the most part, Gardner keeps the proceedings in a bit of a holding pattern - law professionals question a person, or the Denbe family experience some mid-level torture, or the Denbe family bicker amongst themselves. It does get a bit tedious after a while - I wanted a game change much earlier than what was finally delivered.

The biggest problem here is similar to the problem found in Love You More. All the chapters involving Tessa, Wyatt and the FBI agents involve dry police procedural cliches whilst they speculate about what has happened to the Denbe family, and question suspects. However, we have multiple chapters from Libby Denbe's point of view telling us exactly what is happening. Waiting for the cops et al to catch up to what I already know is not terribly exciting. I understand we need to know how the law enforcement figure things out, but here it just tends to drag everything down.

And why was Tessa even here? I don't really buy the FBI and the Sheriff's department happily letting her tag along when she doesn't particularly provide any insights they themselves haven't already figured out for themselves. If Gardner is looking for a new character to anchor future novels, I sincerely hope she doesn't stick with Tessa. Tessa herself isn't a bad character, but synthetically injecting a private investigator into FBI/police/sheriff investigations just doesn't work.

Nevertheless, Gardner has a terrific handle on action and suspense sequences - some of the prison sequences later in the novel are genuinely tension-laced. It's a pity there weren't more of them - or some less predictable twists to go with them. All in all, Touch & Go is one of Gardner's lesser works, but it does deliver enough of the goods to be worthwhile for her fans. I am a fan, and will remain one!

"No One Left To Tell" by Karen Rose

Paige Holden is a private investigator who has been asked to look into the case of Ramon Munoz, who is in prison for the murder of a college girl. Just after Ramon's wife Elena hands Paige crucial evidence that could clear him, she is assassinated right before Paige's eyes.

She knows that the evidence should go to the authorities, but Elena's dying words suggested police had pursued and killed her. Therefore, Paige winds up placing her trust in district attorney Grayson Smith. After viewing the evidence, they quickly get caught up in a dangerous conspiracy as they try to discover who committed the murder and set Ramon up.

Meanwhile, a hitman by the name of Silas hurries around, murdering anybody who could reveal any harmful truths. Also thrown into the mix is Adele Shaffer, who suspects someone is trying to kill her, but doesn't know why.

No One Left To Tell is a fairly typical Karen Rose outing, but there's no denying it's an excellently developed story, with a complex conspiracy keeping the pace going at a fast rate. Even at over 500 pages, Rose manages to maintain interest. You certainly couldn't accuse it of being dull.

I even managed to get past the usual trappings - that the two main characters always come with a tortured past that generally involves them not being able to save another person from being killed. It's getting tired, Karen! Find a new problem to haunt your leads.

Another thing that bothered me is that the same conversation seems to get repeated over and over again, despite involving different characters. Basically, everybody in Grayson's life tells Paige: "don't hurt him". Meanwhile, the people in Paige's life tell Grayson: "don't hurt her." After about the third conversation of this nature, I got the hint. It was very tiresome. And who actually does that? I don't think I've ever told a family or friend's potential love interest not to hurt them. It's rude. You have to enough faith in the people you care about that they know what they're doing - and step in if things do get complicated.

On a lesser scale, it sometimes feels like there are too many cooks. On top of Silas, there are many other bad guys who want messes cleaned up, and because they're not identified, it's occasionally hard to keep track of who wants to do what to whom. However, Rose plays fair with her readers and explains everything in the closing chapters and neatly wraps up all the important storylines. You'd think that would be an important element in any novel, but there sure are a lot of authors out there who can't even get that right. You hearing me, Alex Kava?

I think I say pretty much the same thing with every Karen Rose novel. Her plots are excellent. The romance and angst not so much. It could be about one hundred pages shorter.  But No One Left To Tell is one of her best, and ensures that I will continue to line my bookshelves with her novels.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"The Dead Place" by Stephen Booth

DS Diane Fry is convinced that a series of sinister phone calls received by the police - referring to "the dead place" and "flesh eaters" - are the real deal, and that a murder is about to occur. Meanwhile, DC Ben Cooper manages to identify the remains of a woman, only to discover that she died over a year earlier, and was supposedly cremated. Both investigations seem to have links to Hudson & Slack, a locally owned funeral parlour.

Another day, another police procedural. The Dead Place stands out because it is possibly one of the most boring f***ing police procedurals I have ever read. I can't believe I actually persisted through all 597 pages of stunning boredom, only for the villian to turn out to be the person you expected it to be from the start. If it weren't for the intense focus on what happens to people after they die, you would probably mistake this for a quaint British mystery. The character of Diane Fry is particularly unlikeable, rarely coming off as anything other than a narky bitch. If I'm going to spend half a novel with a character, give them at least one likeable facet!

There's not a lot left to really say. Fans of slow-paced police procedurals with the usual focus on the plodding day-to-day mechanics of police work might find something to salvage here. As for me, the only dead place to be found here was the time I wasted on it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"The Strain" by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

When a Boeing 777 lands at JFK airport and then immediately cuts all contact, Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather, head of the Canary team for the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, is eventually contacted to see if there is any biological threat. He and his team board the plane to find that everybody - except for three passengers and a co-pilot - is dead. None of the dead passengers look as if they put up a fight.

Many weird occurences soon follow. A small slit is found on all the passenger's necks. Then the dead bodies go missing from the various morgues they have been taken to. The survivors start displaying strange behaviour also.

As it becomes increasingly obvious to Eph that some sort of vampiric plague is taking over the city, he eventually comes into contact with pawnbroker Abraham Setrakian, who seems to know a lot about these vampires and how they work. He has had encounters with their leader - The Master - before, dating back all the way to the Holocaust, which he survived. They band together to put a stop to the vampire plague.

I really wanted to like The Strain, since it signified a move back towards vampires being creatures of fear and evil, rather than brooding douchebags who sparkle in the sun. And coming from the mind of Guillermo Del Toro, the director responsible for many terrific fantasy and horror movies, there are a lot of good parts to the novel. In fact, the novel reads so well you can picture everything as it happens in your head - and I'm sure that was the intention. I suspect this will become a movie in the very near future.

However, my main issue here was - too many damn characters! Nearly every chapter introduces a new one. Often times they will pop up for that chapter only and never appear again. I understand that this is the first part in a trilogy, so they could possibly appear elsewhere down the line, but I kind of doubt it. The biggest problem with having all these characters is that some of the novel's most effectively eerie and suspenseful moments abound with characters we know little about, and subsequently we care little about what happens to them. Moments such as one guy caught in the back of a taxi as vampires try to get to him, or a woman trying to hide from a vampire trying to get at her through the mail slot in the front door, are technically excellent, but the suspense is severly lacking because they are incidental characters whose fates are not important - we never even find out what happens to them!

As a consequence, we then have main characters such as Nora Martinez, Eph's co-worker and occasional fling, who is ostensibly the main female character, yet we learn absolutely squat about her as a person, her history or anything. This is because every other chapter switches to a new character to provide a further glimpse of the apocalyptic vampire plague. I enjoy the action sequences and horror scenarios as much as anybody, but I would have been more involved in the proceedings if I had a better set of core characters to care about, with some of these excellent action and horror set-pieces actually happening to those characters I cared about, not basic extras.

I suspect there's a lot of padding here to ensure that this can serve as a trilogy. Take the 20-page chapter about the solar eclipse, for example. You could remove that chapter entirely without affecting much of the story. The solar eclipse has nothing to do with turning vampires. They pretty much operate like most vampires - sunlight kills them, beheading them kills them, etc. The novel goes to great lengths to provide medical/scientific explanations behind the plague, before suddenly just settling for typical vampire mythology later in the book. And is it just me, or did the vampires seem to act more like zombies?

I also think Del Toro borrowed somewhat from his movies. The vampires here reminded quite a bit of the vampires in Blade II. And the sequences set in the tunnels beneath New York City reminded me somewhat of the second half of Mimic. Oh yeah, I found the chapters featuring the late-introduced rat-exterminator Vasiliy Fet extremely dull. Thought I should throw that in there.

There's a lot to like about The Strain. It would make a terrific movie, if it excised all the unnecessary characters (which it would likely have to, anyway). But populating a horror novel with too many characters is a trait I have come across many times before, so it's a pity that situation had to significantly drag down an otherwise well-written and executed horror novel that brings some fear and excitement back to vampire stories.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"A Thin Dark Line" by Tami Hoag

Deputy Annie Broussard feels a personal responsibility for making sure that murder victim Pamela Bichon, whose dead body she discovered, sees justice done. That proves difficult when the man arrested for the murder, Marcus Renard, walks free on a technicality.

She speaks to lead detective Nick Fourcade about joining the investigation and finding the evidence needed to finally convinct Renard. That same night, however, she comes across Fourcarde beating the living daylights out of Renard, and subsequently arrests him.

Arresting one of her own immediately puts Annie off-side with her entire department, and she becomes the target of a vicious hate campaign. However, this is not enough to stop her from disobeying orders and trying to solve the mystery with Nick, whom she feels an inexplicable attraction towards.

A series of new rapes with some similarities to the crime against Pamela occur, and the community is on edge. What is the connection between the rapes and Pamela's murder? Is Marcus actually guilty. Annie must find the truth as Marcus begins to display the same obsessive behaviour about her that he did for Pamela.

A Thin Dark Line sets up a decent mystery in the initial 200-or-so pages....and then it just dies in the ass. We have a possible murderer walking free. We also have the possibility that somebody else was responsible. Typical ingredients for a mystery/crime thriller, and reliable ones. But after establishing her set-up, Hoag then beats the same dead horse for about the next 350 pages, whilst also delivering the romantic cliches of her earlier works as Annie and Nick fall for each other.

A pattern is quickly established with these elements happening over and over again:
- Annie gets treated like a piece of dirt by one of her co-workers, often in aggressive, near-violent circumstances.
- Marcus tells Annie that she is the only one on his side, whilst she says she is just doing her job.
- Annie disobeys another order and wonders whether the person she's questioning will dob her into her boss.
- Nick gets angry and beats somebody up.
- A woman gets raped.
- An anonymous enemy tries to kill Annie and she wonders whether it's a co-worker or Marcus.
- Annie thinks to herself what a better investigator she is, and how much more honest she is, than every single one of the men around her.

Eventually, I hate to say it, I got tired of Annie myself and began to sympathise will all the people around her telling her to piss off. She keeps putting herself in the line of danger, and risking her job, because she feels a duty to bring justice to Pamela, simply because she was the one who found the body. I'm sorry, but that just smacks of a me-me-me attitude. She goes on and on about how much better she is at her job than everybody else, and often tells people of this fact too, usually whilst accusing them of being lazy and corrupt. She really became insufferable.

Nick is no better. His use of "chere" as a term of endearment for Annie became very tiresome. If he were Italian in some other romantic suspenser, he'd be calling her "cara mia". Blech. When he's not beating the crap out of somebody, he's got a bee in his bonnet about local developer Duval Marcotte and his connection to Pamela's ex-husband Donnie Bichon. This plot strand takes up a lot of space, despite not really going anywhere and barely even passing muster as a red herring.

And after 500 pages of the same thing over and over again, do we get a surprise revelation? No, we don't. The rapes aren't connected to Pamela Bichon at all and were committed by a character we'd never even met up until that point. The solution of Pamela's murder is similarly arbitrary - basically, pick a character who is never mentioned as a possible suspect and you'll be close.

A Thin Dark Line obviously represents a move for Tami Hoag, away from romantic suspense and more towards the grittier crime thrillers that she is now well-known for. Yes, Annie still finds it hard to swallow when she sees Nick's rock-hard abs, but it thankfully is not the focus of the story. As a part of the history of an author's evolution, this one might hold some interest, but I found it excruciatingly dull and unsatisfactory. In the words of Cajun French: c'est ein affaire a pus finir! (It's a thing that has no end!) Or that's what it felt like, anyway.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Still Waters" by Tami Hoag

Elizabeth Stuart has settled in the town of Still Creek with her angst-ridden teenage son Trace in an effort to escape a nasty divorce that painted her as a loose woman. When she discovers the dead body of local businessman Jarrold Jarvis, she believes it is the perfect fodder for her to up the readership of The Clarion, the local newspaper that she has purchased. It also leads her to cross paths with Sheriff Dane Jantzen, and their "snappy" exchanges are straight out of Romantic Suspense hell.

Elizabeth believes that Jarrold's mysteriously-missing "black book" might hold the clues to his murder, whereas Dane is more interested in sexually harrassing Elizabeth, whilst pinning the murder on Carney Fox, a trouble-maker who has rolled into town. As the murder "investigation" continues, the two continually wind up in each other's company, but can't resist the sexual attraction that lurks beneath their outward contempt for one another.

The only reason I put up with Still Waters' preponderance of cliches and stereotypes is that I know Tami Hoag made her start in romantic suspense before moving into grittier territory in later novels, becoming quite a reliable thriller author along the way. Still Waters was published in 1992, early in her mainstream career, so I was prepared for something underplotted along the lines of 1993's Cry Wolf. Thankfully, Still Waters is the much better novel (comparitively speaking), with the murder mystery angle remaining in play for the entirety of the story.

That being said, it's a pretty weak murder mystery, with only a handful of suspects and the mysterious "black book" that conveniently only shows up as the book is drawing to a close. Of course, the focus here is mostly on the antagonistic relationship between Elizabeth and Dane. This is one of those dreaded romance novels in which the two leads despise each other most of the time, with their fiery exchanges covering the hankering they feel for each other lurking in their loins. I swear, despite the 1992 publishing date, you'd think this was straight out of the 70s. Seriously, how can any author - romance novel or otherwise - not cringe when delivering lines like: "it was too damn bad she was nothing but trouble"? How can any reader not gag when stumbling across such a sentence?

Character-wise, Elizabeth didn't annoy as much as I thought she would, despite her overuse of the term "sugar" to address others, or the fact she's clearly a terrible mother, more interested in her itch south of the navel for Dane, rather than concerned for her wayward son's whereabouts. She's the typical wilting flower in some circumstances, but does show pluckiness in other situations, so she's not a total washout.

Dane, on the other hand, is a pathetic loser. Everybody else sees him as "all man" and "respectable". I saw him as a clueless dolt who refuses to grow up. He goes on and on about the investigation wearing him out because he's spending so much time on it, but I saw no evidence of that. He questions maybe two people and that's it! The rest of the time he's treating Elizabeth like garbage and being rewarded by her throwing herself at him. It takes a trashy Southern woman for him to think: "Hey! An incriminating black book could be a good motive for murder!" Real quick on the uptake, Dane.

When he's not being an incompetent sheriff, or displaying behaviour around Elizabeth that strongly resembles misogynist sexual harrassment, he's bitching and moaning about his divorce - which happened TEN YEARS AGO. Time to move on, Dane, and take some responsibility for your life. I detested the fact this belligerent, brain-dead, misogynist moron had his behaviour validated by the love of a woman and the respect of a whole town. Ugh, I really couldn't stand him. I suppose it was a nice change that I wanted to throttle the male character instead of the female character.

Still Waters is romantic suspense drivel from an author who has frequently demonstrated that she can do much better. It's an acceptable time-waster, I suppose, and you can't really hold it against Hoag, since it was written more than 20 years ago.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Kiss Of Evil" by Richard Montanari

Det. Jack Paris is still aggrieved by the murder of his colleague and friend, Michael Ryan, two years earlier. His killer - Sarah Weiss - was acquitted, but is now dead from an apparent suicide, which Paris admittedly isn't too upset by. Ryan is viewed as a dirty cop, something which Paris refuses to believe. However, he has got plenty of his plate, with a series of vicious murders being committed. The victims are unconnected, except for carvings on their bodies that are linked to a religion known as Santeria.

Meanwhile, a conwoman known only as Mary is carrying out a series of scams in order to raise enough money to regain custody of her daughter. For some reason, she has caught the eye of the murderer, who wants her to be a part of his plans. As for Jack, he begins to realise that the murders are possibly linked to the death of Michael Ryan, and that he himself is squarely in the killer's sights.

It was very, very difficult to get into Kiss Of Evil. It is written in a present-tense format, and flips continually between first person (for the killer) and third person (for Mary and Jack). I found it too easy to put the book down and go do something else. There is the germ of a good thriller here, but it gets lost amongst the impenetrable writing style and the author's too-obvious attempts to obfuscate what would otherwise be an exciting, straight-forward revenge tale.

An intriguing backstory is set up regarding the killer, detailing events of his life from when he was a young child, explaining how he has gotten to where he is. Unfortunately, that's the only element that really stands out here. The rest - for me, anyway - was a bit of a jumbled mess. I actually hopped on line to find other reviews to see if they could explain some of the unanswered questions that I felt were left dangling by the book's end. Some people seemed satisfied that it was all nicely wrapped up by the end. Maybe they read a different book?


What was the point of having reporter Mercedes Cruz in the story? She seems to only be around so that the author can throw a tiny red herring into the proceedings regarding her brother the photographer (it turns out it was the killer pretending to be her brother).

Why do Jack and Carla go to the swinger's party? It's established as some sort of major lead, and then never really followed through with. 


I also was left unsure as to why the killer blackmailed Mary into helping him. Why her? And the killer's plan seemed to be all over the place. First he appears to be framing Jack for the crimes, but a mere couple of chapters later we're jumping straight into the finale where he apparently wants Jack dead. What exactly did he have planned? Then we have the ridiculous amount of alternate identities for our killer. One is mentioned in the spoilers. However, we also get a multitude of chapters from the killer's viewpoint. In some chapters he goes by a particular name. In other chapters he goes by another name. There doesn't seem to be any effort from the author for us to assume they might be different people, but neither does he confirm it. It becomes very frustrating, adding to the difficulty of trying to follow the story. This difficulty also extends to keeping track of where our killer is. Sometimes it seems like he's in three different places at once.

I like my thrillers to hang together from chapter to chapter. I like a clear idea of who the killer is, who they're after and why they're doing it. Kiss Of Evil has its moments, but a hard-to-follow writing style and a frustratingly obtuse approach to the storyline keep it from being the exciting thriller it should be.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"The Savage Web" by Sharon Whitby

Ellen Farrell inherits a country cottage from the godmother she never really knew. The will stipulates that Ellen be single and that she live in the cottage for three months. She arrives in the small town of Mortcombe and quickly makes friends with a few of the locals.

Her attention is drawn to the stained glass window in the church of three women - described as the Three Marys. She decides to create a tapestry recreation of the window. Meanwhile, she discovers a strange scrapbook in the house. She eventually learns that the scrapbook wields the strange power to grant wishes or destroy lives. It appears that she is in line to become part of a long-standing evil legacy.

The teen horror novels of the late 80s and early 90s had more plot complications than this undercooked supernatural story. Not a lot really happens as Ellen goes about meeting the people in her new neighbourhood and learning about its history. The idea of a scrapbook with the power to bring good fortune or instant death to others is an intriguing one, but not explored well enough in this 190-page novel. The book was half over before the proceedings really started to kick into gear.

Playing a lot like a minor supernatural morality play, The Savage Web isn't too objectionable as it barely takes any time to read, but there's no scares or suspense to really make it worthwhile. Heck, even R.L. Stine can conjure up a more thrilling tale than this.

"Night Of Error" by Desmond Bagley

Mike Trevelyan is an oceanographer shocked to learn that his younger brother Mark has been killed overseas. He comes into possession of some of Mark's belongings, including a coded diary and some seabed rocks called Manganese nodules. When he is promptly burgled and attacked, he realises something fishy is going on.

Firsty, Mark's death certificate cites complications from appendicitis as the reason for death - but Mark had his appendix out years earlier. Secondly, one of the manganese nodules (which are usually worthless) contains a high percentage of cobalt and other minerals, which actually makes it very valuable. Along with his father's friend Geordie Walters, he convinces millionaire Jonathan Campbell to fund a voyage to find where these highly valuable nodules may be located.

However, it involves decoding Mark's diary. And staying one step ahead of Ernesto Ramirez, who has previously sabotaged Campbell's ventures, and is aware that Mark was onto something big.

Night Of Error reminded me a lot of one of those 1960s adventure movies you might see on television on a weekend afternoon. There is perhaps more talk than action here, and I was able to anticipate most of the plot twists, but it was diverting and managed to keep me reading. Although set in 1962, I didn't get much of a feel for the period, but that wasn't much of a drama. There was a refreshing absence of sex - the romance between Mike and Campbell's daughter Clare is very quaint. Author Bagley is actually more interested in making sure his facts are correct and that the plot is moving forward, and he manages to do this without proceedings getting too dull.

This genre isn't quite my cup of tea, and I prefer thrillers with a little more action, but I enjoyed the opportunity to once again read something a little different to what I usually do.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Morningstar" by Peter Atkins

Journalist Donovan Moon is contacted by wealthy businessman Jonathan Frost, who claims that he is the feared Morningstar Killer. Several people have been brutally murdered by this killer. However, Frost reveals he killed them because they were vampires. He recounts the events that led him to this life.

Shelley Masterton is a young woman whose close friend Chris Tempest becomes a victim of the Morningstar Killer, though her death was largely collateral damage. Chris then visits Shelley in a dream and reveals to Shelley that she will be a vital part of events that will end Jonathan Frost's reign of terror.

Yes, another horror novel. At the moment I am simply pulling a book off the shelf in the order they are stacked, as otherwise it can take me a long time to pick a book from the many I haven't read. So this was the one I wound up with. I'm getting the distinct impression from the few horror novels I've read that the author feels the need to overcompensate for the genre they're writing in by going over the top with their literary style. Not a lot really happens in Morningstar, and by the end of it I came away with the overwhelming opinion that it was wanky nonsense.

I'll readily admit that I don't have high-brow tastes in fiction. I don't read books for the joy of prose. I likely never will. I like books with fleshed-out characters interacting within an interesting cohesive, plot. An author with a wide-ranging vocabulary doesn't impress me. Being able to toss out metaphors, similes and long, descriptive phrases is similarly lost on me. Morningstar didn't so much feel like a novel than it did an exercise in fancy writing. I wasn't scared. I was bored. Not a lot happened. There was no suspense. A couple of gruesome moments. If anything, this felt like a handful of short stories woven together to make a book. There are a couple of wanky chapters called "interludes", one of which is not much more than a 17-page dream sequence.

Once again, perhaps I'm not the intended audience for this sort of book. Who knows? All I know is that I didn't enjoy it, and ended up skipping large parts so I could finish it. I think I was also expecting more from the person who wrote the screenplays for such wonderful B-grade exercises in over-the-top gruesome horror like Hellraiser 2, Hellraiser 3 and Wishmaster. I liked those movies. But I didn't like this.

"Full Moon Rising" by Keri Arthur

Riley Jenson is a Guardian Liaison for the Directorate of Other Races, a government organisation that overlooks the supernatural element of the city of Melbourne. She is mostly werewolf, but she also has vampire ancestry, so she has several of their abilities as well. Her boss Jack Parnell wants her to become a full Guardian, but she is reluctant, as she doesn't think it will suit her - a lot of Guardian work involves assassination.

When her twin brother Rhoan goes missing, it couldn't come at a worse time. She keeps crossing paths with a mysterious vampire called Quinn O'Conor, a friend of her brother. It is also the week known as "moon heat", during which she becomes incredibly horny and compelled to have sex with every werewolf or nonhuman in sight. Also, mysterious clones of her colleague Henri Gautier, and strange nonhuman crossbreeds, keep popping up and trying to kill her. She must try to find her brother and figure out what is going on whilst fighting the urge to bang like a rabbit.

Although I'm a huge fan of horror movies, it has never transferred across to horror novels. I don't know why. Then again, this one can't really be labelled as a horror novel. It has supernatural elements, and a couple of action sequences, but the focus is squarely on the sex. Despite being told from the first person viewpoint of Riley, I didn't get to know a whole lot about her other than that she likes to have sex. A lot of it. She also isn't particularly bright. When she has a glass of champagne, and then wakes up to find her lover Talon having sex with her - and is then informed they've been having sex for eight hours, none of which she can remember - she simply thinks that one glass of champagne has gone to her head. If your heroine is too stupid and sex-obsessed to realise she's been drugged and raped, it's kind of hard to get on side with her.

Every time Riley has some sort of task ahead of her, she is constantly thinking about banging someone. It never ends. If the book isn't describing some sort of torrid sex scene, it's a brief fight scene or action sequence in which Riley gets injured and experiences "white-hot pain". That's how the author describes it every single time Riley is hurt. However, we don't need to worry if she gets hurt. She can just change into a werewolf and speed up the healing process. Never feeling like your heroine is in any sort of danger doesn't help too much when it comes to building suspense.

Sex, sex, sex. That's what you get here. Even the sequence in which Riley and Quinn go to break Rhoan out of the facility he's captive in doesn't bother to actually tell us how they manage the feat. Riley mindwarps two of the male guards into having sex with each other, and Quinn simply shows up with a rescued Quinn. There is no continuity over who Riley can mindread, either. Some foes can conveniently be read, whilst others can't. It only seems to depend on where the author wants to take the narrative at that particular time.

Keep in mind I'm probably not the target audience for this type of book. I suspect a lot of paranormal "action" series focus strongly on sex, and this is no exception. There are plenty of plot strands left dangling at the end of this one. They might have been resolved if everybody wasn't having sex every five pages. As it is, I can't say they'll compel me to pick up any further entries in this series.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Fear" by Jeff Abbott

Miles Kendrick is a mob informant currently in Witness Protection, haunted by scattered memories in which he believes he shot and killed his best friend Andy in an FBI sting. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and keeps seeing Andy's ghost wherever he goes. His life only gets more complicated when he receives a mysterious note from his psychiatrist, Dr. Allison Vance, requesting his help, and asking him to meet her.

Before he can, Allison is killed by a bomb planted in her office. Miles vows to uncover the reasons behind her death, and soon has all manner of shady characters on his tail. Chief among them is former FBI agent Dennis Groote, and the mysterious James Sorenson. Miles discovers that Allison visited the home of former reality TV star Celeste Brent and borrowed her computer. When he meets up with Celeste, they discover she uploaded secret files to a hidden server. These files relate to a wonder drug called Frost, not yet approved by the FDA, which can cure PTSD.

Frost has a sketchy development history, and it appears it is currently being illegally tested. Miles and Celeste are soon joined by young Iraq vet Nathan Ruiz, an unstable young man who has undergone extensive testing. They must figure out the motives of the various dangerous people who are chasing them.

From an action standpoint, Fear is a solid example of the genre. The plot zips by, with one confrontation or chase after another. Unfortunately, action sequences need a solid context to exist within, and Fear is way too convoluted to ultimately succeed.

First and foremost, Miles Kendrick only gets himself into the mess because he feels it is his duty to avenge Allison, as he "failed to do right by her". Huh? He didn't even trust her enough to reveal his full history. Now he's fiercely determined to risk life and limb over her memory. His continued anguish over Andy, of which everybody can clearly see he shouldn't feel guilty about, sends his character veering dangerously close to martyrdom. Plus, for a PTSD sufferer who is constantly visited by the vision of his dead friend, he's awfully clear-headed when the need arises to get out of a difficult situation.

Secondly, we have the character of Dennis Groote. He's gone a bit mad in his quest for vengeance over the death of his wife, which consequenly caused his daughter Amanda to also suffer severe PTSD. Several chapters are needed to constantly explain away why Groote is even in the story. He blindingly accepts Frost's validity in curing his daughter. Doesn't ask a single question. He tangentially connects Miles to the people who murdered his wife. He thinks one person is doing one thing. He thinks another person is doing another thing. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of what exactly his current motiviation is.

This back and forth over motivation eventually extends to the rest of the novel as it gets more-and-more convoluted as more players with their own motivations are introduced. Proceedings get further murkier trying to figure out who wants to do what to whom, and whether the theories or motives expressed by characters are fact or speculation. Basically, by the end of the novel, it's all a bit of a mess.

I really liked the character of Nathan Ruiz. I actually found his fidgety, snappy manner quite humourous, though it will undoubtedly annoy others. His unpredictable nature was one of the more successful subplots to be found here. He also came across as a more believable sufferer of PTSD.

I read and really enjoyed Abbott's novel Panic. This outing isn't boring, with the action sequences all perfectly handled and realised. But I prefer my action to be grounded in a more coherent plot. Fear would make a heck of a movie (provided the screenwriter can have it make a little more sense). I will certainly be picking up further novels by Abbott, as it is fun to read a book focused on action and excitement as opposed to dry police procedural.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Dark Lady" by Richard North Patterson

Stella Marz is the Assistant County Prosecutor, with a firm eye on landing the role of County Prosecutor should her boss Arthur Bright be elected Mayor. He's opposed to the construction of Steelton, a ballpark stadium that the current Mayor is assuring people will bring money back into their depressed city.

When she is assigned the homicide of high-profile lawyer Jack Novak, who represented known drug users and pushers, she is determined that there will not be a conflict of interest because of the fact she had an intense sexual relationship with him over a decade earlier when she worked for him. But even after all this time, the relationship has left its mark on her, and the nature of his murder is especially gruesome and kinky. Her other case involves the suspicious drug overdose of clean-cut Tommy Fielding, who was a project manager on the Steelton construction.

Stella begins digging into Jack's old cases to see if there are any potential enemies who wanted him dead. She stumbles across several cases that were never successfully prosecuted - evidence went missing, witnesses were murdered - and suspects that Jack was involved in some sort of conspiracy headed by mob kingpin Vincent Moro. Even worse, it seems that there could be a connection between Jack and Tommy's deaths. Her investigation puts her own life in peril.

If you can stick with it, Dark Lady is a fairly involving political conspiracy thriller. Unfortunately, you have to wade through a lot of city history and plot exposition to get to the good bits. The opening chapters are especially dull. Patterson spends waaaaaay too much time describing history (how the city was founded, who founded it, how it's changed etc) rather than jacking up the intensity of the plot. For far too long, I didn't feel any sense of urgency or suspense to the proceedings. Patterson also goes into lengthy details about finances, dummy corporations, political ploys, character motivations, without tagging them to an exciting, fast-paced storyline.

The other big drawback is the fact that no secret is made over Vincent Moro somehow being involved in the conspiracy, yet he is conspicuously absent from pretty much the entire novel. How are we supposed to be in fear of a character we are barely ever introduced to and never get to know? The story becomes more of a "how-dunnit", as there is a surprisingly small number of characters populating the novel. This also results in few plot surprises as the true culprits and the extent of their collusion are revealed.

Nevertheless, Dark Lady is a bit of a welcome departure from dry police procedurals and dopey romantic thrillers. The plot, despite the lack of true suspense or surprises, is complex and well-constructed. Events all tie up reasonably well at the end. Despite the excess of exposition and history, I kept going back to it to find out how it all finished.