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.