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.