Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Halloween Party" by R.L. Stine

Terry and his girlfriend Niki, who is deaf, are invited to the Halloween Party of Justine Cameron, a girl who has only recently transferred to Shadyside High. They are puzzled that just nine people have been invited, and none of them seem to have much in common. Some are jocks, others are deemed "wimps". A competition soon develops between the jocks and the wimps, spurred on by the rivalry Terry has with former close friend Alex, ever since Niki dumped Alex for Terry. Yep, that will end a friendship.

The attendees discover that this Halloween Party has a lot of surprises in store. To say much more could possibly be considered spoilers, but a dead body does pop up at some point, just to reassure us this is actually a thriller.

It's difficult to be too hard on a "Fear Street" book. They are products of a different time. A simpler time. I still remember running off to Myer after school with the $5.95 I'd saved up with parental money that was supposed to go towards lunch and buying each new monthly release. It was always exciting to settle down in my room and read for the rest of the night. Of course, reading "Halloween Party" today only took me 80 minutes, while I was at work.

This came out before Stine started dumping ridiculous, last-minute supernatural twists into his tales, so the plot is relatively well-constructed, and a believable motive is given for all the mayhem. (Revenge, baby!). However, it just takes too long to get there. A lot of time is spent on your typical he's-dead-oh-now-he's-not-dead "surprises" and a largely pointless subplot involving two bullies annoyed that they weren't invited. It's very obvious who the culprit is, but at least nobody turns out to be a fucking ghost.

Of note - this entry has a male protagonist! Girlfriend Niki is well-developed, much more so than what is usually found in these books.

I much prefer these Fear Street books of old. The reboot needs to look at returning to this familiar format, otherwise I don't see it lasting much further than its initial six-book order.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Pop Goes The Weasel" by M.J. Arlidge

Detective Inspector Helen Grace is still haunted by the events of the previous book "Eeny Meeny", in which she had to shoot dead her serial killer sister. Now she's head of a new investigation, as men are turning up murdered, with their hearts removed, and the hearts later delivered to either their home or work. It is soon established that the men all visited prostitutes, so the team must figure out if they have a violent, vigilante prostitute on their hands.

Meanwhile, Helen must face off against a new chief who (of course) wants her head on a platter, and a journalist who has some sort of bizarre obsession with bringing her down. She is also following around a young man named Robert Stonehill, determined to keep watch over him.

I read "Eeny Meeny" and thought it was cliched and silly. It was gross just for the sake of it, and came with a ridiculous Cop-With-A-Haunted-Past subplot that resulted in one of the stupidest twists I've come across in a while. Quite similar, in fact, to "Taboo" by Casey Hill, even further rendering it unoriginal. It also had the distinction of giving us a heroine who enjoyed participating in S&M as a way to release tension and escape demons. Yes, really.

Most books end with some sort of hope on the horizon for its main character, along with personal growth etc. "Eeny Meeny" was no exception. I can't say I was terribly surprised that Helen Grace had regressed entirely by the start of this second book, but I was still disappointed. She's still going to see Jake, her "dom", and getting whipped whenever the stress gets to be too much, despite the first book suggesting she was ready to move on from this.

Sorry, I just can't get on board with the main character being into S&M. It's such an obvious, see-through ploy to try and make our heroine tough and gritty, when it's simply not needed. The fact that Helen had not grown at all since "Eeny Meeny" and we were once again back to this ridiculous subplot started this book on the negative.

Not much improved from there. Although the James Patterson-style short chapters enable faster reading, it can't hide the pointless extraneous material. We get lots of chapters that simply don't need to be there. Points of view from characters who are largely superfluous to the plot. In particular, we get a chapter from an unnamed "thief" as he breaks into a tenement. We already know his only point of existence is to find a dead body - except he doesn't. He opens the door to the room where the body is, and that's where the chapter ends.

The person-who-finds-a-dead-body trope is one I can't stand, and this is a particularly asinine example of it.


Cliches fly thick and fast from there. Helen has a new boss, who also happens to be out for glory and has a grudge against Helen. Her reason? I think simply because she can.

And if Helen's misery wasn't enough, we learn the sad backstory of her colleague Tony Bridges, whose young wife is confined to bed thanks to locked-in syndrome after a stroke.

Arlidge just lays it all on so thick.

While this isn't as ridiculous as "Eeny Meeny", it's all rather flat and boring. Lots of internal angst amongst the main characters - and a few minor ones as well - but not enough twists and turns in the plot. Much like the first novel, Helen conveniently notices an important fact, and our killer is uncovered. I'm not sure I get her reasoning, either. She figures it out because the first heart was delivered to the family, and the other hearts were delivered to work. No, not quite. Simon Brooks' heart was delivered personally to his own poor son. So the book doesn't even have its own internal logic.

The less said about the journalist subplot the better. It irked me from start to finish.

Why did I read this? Well, it was on special offer on Kindle, and I'd already read the first one, and thought this might be a step up.

Sigh. I never learn. Maybe that's why the characters in these books never do, either.

Monday, November 9, 2015

"Citizen Vince" by Jess Walter

Vince Camden works at a donut shop in Spokane, Washington. What the people in Spokane don't know about him is that he is in the witness protection program after testifying against members of the mob. Even with his new identity, he hasn't changed his ways much, running a credit card scam, and gambling.

When he receives a card to say he's registered to vote, it ignites within him a desire to go straight and turn his life around.

However, the arrival in town of Ray throws a spanner in the works. Vince recognises Ray from his days in the mob - and Ray is a well-known hitman. While in town, Ray soon hooks up with Lenny to muscle Vince out of the credit card scam. Vince must go to New York to find out if Ray has been sent to kill him, or whether this was just a coincidence. While there, he sets about righting some of the wrongs from his past.

Vince also winds up in the sights of Det. Alan Dupree after the murder of Doug, another member of his credit card scam.

Set against the backdrop of the 1980 presidential election, Citizen Vince is a highly entertaining hybrid of droll comedy and tough noir crime. You genuinely find yourself on side with Vince as he strives for something better in his life, such as opening his own restaurant and settling down with Beth, his sort-of girlfriend. He sees his right to vote as an indication that his thoughts and beliefs actually matter, and that one vote can make a difference.

Strong characters combine with a plot that delivers some nifty twists.

There were some weaknesses. We get an entire chapter from the view point of one of the presidential candidates. It adds nothing to the central story. Vince himself never reveals who he voted for, because it is largely irrelevant. It's what being able to vote symbolises for Vince that is at the crux of the book, not who he actually votes for. This particular chapter from the candidate is pointless and, frankly, dull.

Alan Dupree's interactions with Det. Donnie Charles are interesting and entertaining, but also pertain little to the central plot. If they were removed from the narrative entirely, it wouldn't make any difference. It was possibly included for length - this one only clocks in at under 300 pages.

Otherwise, it was very refreshing to read something a little different and offbeat, that doesn't throw out the same old cliches. I really enjoyed it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"Watch The World Burn" by Leah Giarratano

Miriam Caine is having dinner with her son David at Incendie, an up-scale restaurant, when she seemingly spontaneously bursts into flames. Restaurant manager Troy Berrigan is first to assist in putting out the flames, but Miriam later dies of her injuries.

Other mysterious attacks occur. A woman is shoved off a platform in front of a train. Acid is thrown onto several teenagers at a shopping centre. And a cop is killed when a Molotov cocktail is thrown into his car and he crashes into a bus.

This cop happens to be Scotty Hutchinson, partner at work and in bed, of Sgt Jill Jackson. She has a complete meltdown at the news of his death, and is sent to a retreat to recover. She asks that Federal Agent Gabriel Delahunt keep her in the loop in regards to the case's progress.

The main suspect seems to be Troy Berrigan. An ex-cop, he's hated by the police force after turning whistleblower, and they're all eager to pin it on him, despite lack of evidence. Whilst coping with family issues of his own, he sets out to find the truth and clear his name.

Which is more than Jill Jackson can do, and she's supposed to be the main character in this story. I barely remember a thing about "Vodka Doesn't Freeze" (I read it more than six years ago), which was the first book in this series. I mentioned in that post that Jill wasn't a particularly cluey detective, and nothing seems to have changed here in book number four. (I haven't read parts two or three). There certainly isn't a thing she figures out for herself, unless you count who was stealing lollies at the private retreat. Yes, really.

What is the point of having a central protagonist in your series if said protagonist is going to sit most of the story out, behaving like a hot mess? When I read "Vodka Doesn't Freeze" I had a lot of trouble believing Jill Jackson could even get in to the police force considering she had not recovered from a horrific childhood that involved being kidnapped and raped for three days when she was twelve. Here, while in the squad room discussing Scotty's death, she begins to imagine her boss calling her a whore, at which point she starts screaming non-stop, and crawls under a desk.

She then self-destructs completely and behaves like a belligerent child when concerned friends and family try to get her psychological help.

Grief aside, this is not the sort of person you want running about the city while licenced to carry a gun.

Therefore, we have an okay mystery thriller padded out to an extreme length thanks to Jill's stay in a psychiatric retreat. It has nothing to do with the rest of the story. I'm sure it's accurate, as Giarratano is a psychologist, but it's not terribly exciting or suspenseful. It doesn't add to the main plot, and it further makes me wonder how the f*** Jill manages to remain employed when she's clearly a childish, selfish basket-case (yes, I know she suffered horrendous abuse as a child, but she knows she's behaving like a douche and just uses this past as a way to excuse it).

Don't the police require some sort of psychiatric review in order to become and remain a cop?

HOW DOES JILL PASS THESE TESTS? She flips out completely at work and nobody seems to bat an eyelid.

Troy Berrigan is a decent protagonist. He at least takes charge of his situation, and I felt bad for him trying to do the right thing all the time, and only getting in strife for it.

There aren't many suspects in the crime, the motivation given is pretty lacking, and the story doesn't offer many surprises. Probably because we spend too much time with Jill in meltdown mode, rather than beefing up the storyline. Too much time was also spent with the character of Erin Hart and, although she's not unlikeable, it should have become clearer sooner what sort of importance she had in the story. Lots of chapters about the ins-and-outs of her life with little clarification as to why I should care.

It wasn't awful (close), and was reasonably diverting. It also looks like the last of the Jill Jackson series. Giarratano (like a lot of other authors), has seemingly moved on to young adult supernatural/dystopian stories. I guess you need to go where the money is.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"What The Dead Know" by Laura Lippman

A woman leaves the scene of a car accident. When police catch up with her, she claims she is one of the "Bethany girls". It's suspected she's suffering minor head injuries, so her claims need to be investigated further.

The Bethany girls were Heather (11) and Sunny (15), who disappeared without a trace thirty years earlier after going to the mall on their own. The complete absence of any clues had an obviously devastating effect on their parents, Dave and Miriam.

Det. Kevin Infante pulls out the cold case so that he can find out for sure if this woman is telling the truth. However, the woman has now clammed up and won't reveal a thing, making all the medical staff, lawyers and law enforcement run around to dig up the facts themselves.

Hmmm, so what do the dead know? I'd say they know they're bored. This was a pile of shit.

It's biggest problem is its complete narcissistic bitch of a main character. Is-she-or-isn't-she-Heather Bethany has absolutely no discernible reason to stay silent. Instead of putting the insolent c*** in the slammer and making her talk, they indulge her snotty behaviour to a ridiculous degree, laboriously hunting down clues that she could actually tell them outright. The book only exists because Heather insists on acting like a childish bitch at every opportunity. I absolutely detested her, and it made it difficult to keep going.

Kevin Infante isn't much better. He thinks with his dick, has an equally snotty attitude, and after about the fifth time he fat-shamed his former police partner Nancy Porter, I wanted to reach into the book and punch him in the mouth.

To cover up the lack of plot, Lippman likes to pretend she is exploring the slow disintegration of a family after a tragedy. We go back in time at various stages to see how Miriam and Dave are faring. But it adds nothing to nothing. Why do I care about Dave finally finding success with his store? Why do I care that Miriam has decided to learn Spanish. What the fuck does that have to do with anything?

If the only way you can create a mystery is to have your characters act in ways that are completely different to our Earth-bound logic, then you're not doing your job. I hated the characters, the is-she-or-isn't-she mystery is painfully thin, the excessive head-jumping only pads out a story that is already over-padded, and the narrative is just loaded with casual homophobia and nasty fat-shaming.

After this and "Life Sentences", Lippman has just limped off my reading list. Absolute dreck from start to finish.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"The Death Sculptor" by Chris Carter

This rambling about "The Death Sculptor" will contain SPOILERS within.


Det. Robert Hunter and his partner Det. Carlos Garcia are called to the scene of a disturbing crime, in which a popular prosecutor has been murdered. Not only that, he has been completely dismembered, and his body-parts rearranged to display a gruesome tableau. Because the victim worked for the state, the District Attorney gets involved and assigns their investigator Alice Beaumont to the case to help them out.

They eventually discover that the sculpture was arranged so that it could make a shadow puppet - the shadow of the sculpture creates an image against the wall.

The next murder is of a seasoned police officer, so the team quickly set about trying to find a link between the two bodies. They eventually arrive at the conclusion this is the work of Ken Sands, a criminal recently released from prison, having served his full sentence, and the most likely to have a beef with both victims. He is also super-smart, having studied medicine in jail in order for him to have the skills to amputate limbs.

But if Hunter is to catch Sands, he must figure out what he is trying to say with the shadow puppets he creates out of each murder scene.

First of all, it has to pointed out that the killer isn't Ken Sands at all. This is despite the fact we have chapter after chapter of Hunter, Garcia and Beaumont carrying out an investigation and discovering all the different ways he matches their profile. Cunning, nasty and possessing medical-school abilities that allows him to prolong life while cutting off a person's limbs just to torture them longer. They find a reasonable motive that could push him to carry out the murders.

But who cares about all that set-up? The killer is actually Olivia Nicholson, the daughter of the first victim. It turns out she was adopted and previously dropped out of medical school. Her father, and all the other victims, once made up a group that liked to rape and beat prostitutes. Olivia was the daughter of one who died, and they used their knowledge of the law to dispose of the body (they dismembered it and dumped it in the ocean), and her father adopted her. Upon learning he was dying of cancer, he confessed all to his daughter, prompting the massacre.

Which makes chapter after chapter - pretty much the whole book - setting up Ken Sands as the culprit to be caught, completely fucking pointless. Yes, thrillers should have a few red herrings, but this is certainly the longest, drawn-out one I've ever seen. I couldn't help thinking that if they'd dug into the life of the victim and the lives of his family - like most criminal investigations do - this would have all been solved a lot sooner. (And we wouldn't have a book).

I like being taken by surprise. But here I just felt duped, because it wasn't clever enough. Surprise! It's actually this other person who conveniently had a medical background that was never previously mentioned, with a motive that was completely unknown until other facts came to light very late in the novel. I just don't think it's a very fair way to pull a fast one on the reader. If there had been carefully dropped clues throughout the book, I might have felt differently.

For example, the second victim meets up with a mechanic who is actually the killer. I went back and checked, and this person is only referred to as "the mechanic", rather than "he" or "she". So the author has covered his bases there. But it's never explained during the climax how Olivia came to be such a good mechanic she could help fix another guy's boat.

The third victim, a psychologist meets up with the killer, who is only referred to as "the artist". So the author has covered his bases there. However, Hunter later discovers that the killer had a one-off session with the doctor under the alias "David Jones". Which would make one think the killer was male. This is never addressed by the close of the book. Maybe the author thought we would forget this little tidbit?

Then we have the endless, endless pointless dragging out of information. I'll give some examples how many of the chapters end:

Doctor Hove's entire body tingled as if it had been electrified, turning her skin into gooseflesh.
"I'll be damned".

Only to then not explain for a couple of chapters what prompted that response. A later example:

"Wait." Garcia lifted his hand before exchanging a quick, unsettling glance with Hunter. "Why do you say that, Doc?"
The doctor turned around. "Let me show you why."

We're not shown why until a couple of chapters later. Following chapter:

Alice sucked in a startled breath, and it rushed into her lungs like a cold wind. 
"OK, now this is very interesting."

It is only several chapters later we find out what is so interesting. Actually, not even then:

"Sorry to interrupt." Her eyes circled the room, making sure she had everyone's attention. "But I think I finally got something."

Does she actually? No. She rambles for three pages about what isn't relevant, before revealing:

"And I might have gotten lucky, because a very strong candidate came up."

Does anybody here actually get to the fucking point? Nobody talks like this! Alice is probably by far the worst offender. Later on:

"Wait until you read both files." She sat at the edge of her desk with a satisfied look on her face. "You'll have to read it to believe it."

If I were part of this investigation, I'd want to wipe that satisfied look off her face. I guess at least she was investigating the wrong guy the whole time. Good one, Alice.

Garcia reached for the second file and flipped it open.
"This is Ken Sands' prison file," he explained. "And here is where it gets a lot more interesting."

Yes, it is several chapters later and they still haven't disclosed the contents of both files, despite knowing what is in them.

Alice threw Garcia a surprised stare. "When you read through the list earlier you never told me that you recognized a name."
Garcia smiled. "You never asked."


There are several more examples, but I think I've made my point.

Sure, character development is thin, the narrative is basically one long red herring, and the revelation of facts is ridiculously prolonged, but this is still manages to be swiftly paced and sufficiently gruesome. It isn't like your usual police procedural, in which detectives sit around on their asses and wait for forensic results. This one actually moves. It isn't dull, which I think is probably the worst criticism you could throw at a thriller. So, while I thought there was a lot of stupid to be found here, I wasn't bored.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Lost Girl" by R.L. Stine

Warning that there will be SPOILERS in this entire post. I say SPOILERS because I'm being very, very generous. It is actually my opinion that everything that transpires in "The Lost Girl" is exceedingly obvious and wouldn't surprise anybody.

We start in Shadyside in 1950. Beth Palmieri is excited at the stable her father is opening, believing it is a turnaround for her family. On her way to the grand opening she is attacked by Aaron Dooley, a guy who fancies her. His attempted rape is averted by what Beth calls her "powers", in which she nearly makes him choke on his own tongue. It should also be mentioned that Aaron is the nephew of Martin Dooley, the main rival of Beth's father. It was his stable in which Beth's father got his start before opening one of his own.

Martin isn't too happy about the new competition, and gets two thugs to kidnap Beth's father. She follows them, and witnesses them murder her father (in a very inventive, gross manner involving starving horses). For some reason, she is unable to use her "powers" to stop this. Because she's too scared or something. "The Lost Girl" isn't big on plausible scenarios, I should mention. Aaron also shows up. Beth is spotted by the thugs and must run for her life to avoid being murdered as well. She winds up in a cave.

We jump to the present day in which Michael Frost becomes captivated by a young girl he sees shoplifting at the shopping centre. When he runs into her at school, he learns that her name is Lizzy Walker. He is totally captivated by her, which is quickly noticed by his girlfriend Pepper Davis. Obviously, she's none too thrilled with it.

Lizzy insinuates her way into Michael's life and manages to get herself invited along to a snowmobile outing with Michael and his friends. The group includes Pepper, his best friend Gabe, and two other friends, Diego and Kathryn. While on his snowmobile, Michael becomes inexplicably frozen, and runs right into a man, seemingly killing him. Lizzy conveniently knows who it is - none of the other kids do - and says that his name is Angel and he's a bad guy who probably deserves to be dead. So they all take off.

However, they realise running off is a stupid thing to do, and return to the scene. Of course, Angel's body is no longer there. It isn't long before Michael receives phone calls from Angel, threatening to harm or kill Michael and his friends. Lizzy gets hit on the head at school, Pepper gets all her hair cut off, Gabe is crushed to death in a car accident, and Diego gets all the skin on his back burnt and ripped off. Despite it being entirely obvious that Lizzy and Angel are in cahoots somehow, Michael is still attracted to Lizzy and agrees to anything she says. She wants him to kill Angel for her, and even has a gun for him to use!

Michael goes with Lizzy to kill Angel, and of course finds out that Lizzy is working with Angel, and they plan to kill him. In fact, they are actually Beth and Aaron from the past. That cave Beth hid in was actually a time-travel cave! Michael is actually Martin Dooley's grandson, which is why Beth wants to kill him. Aaron was horrified by what he saw being done to Beth's father and joined her in her trip to the future. Beth realised that attempted rape actually meant that Aaron loved her (note sarcasm) and let him work with her. They try to shove Michael into the time travel cave, but he turns the tables and they wither away and die.

Or something like that.

"The Lost Girl" is a real clunker, and no better than the quickies that got rushed out in the series' hey-dey in the mid-1990s. It borrows its time travel twist straight out of Stine's own "Beach House", and has absolutely no internal logic in regards to its supernatural element. What are Beth/Lizzy's powers exactly? Where did they come from? What are their strengths and limits? We are given nothing in regards to understanding their place in the plot. Beth/Lizzy can just seem to do stuff when she wants, except for that one time she was scared and she couldn't. Huh?

It was appallingly obvious that Lizzy was Beth. I suppose some people didn't expect time travel as the element that linked them, but come on. If I hadn't read "Beach House" already, I would have felt the explanation was completely pulled out of a hat. It really is ludicrous, whether you can see it coming or not. Same goes for the revelation that Michael is Martin's grandson. There really was no other reason for Beth/Lizzy and Aaron to go after Michael and his friends, so it's hardly a surprise.

The main character of Michael is a putz. Lizzy is clearly a looney-tunes who should be avoided at all costs, but he continues to let her be a part of his life, and can't seem to twig that shit only got weird after Lizzy came into his life and that she was the only person who knew who Angel/Aaron was. The plot argues that Michael was under Beth/Lizzy's spell (more of those mysterious powers), but we all know that Michael was actually a pervy school-boy thinking with his dick.

I had defended "Don't Stay Up Late" against arguments that it was too much in the style of "Goosebumps". The "Fear Street" series was mostly made up of teen murder mysteries, but a few supernatural stories would pop up every now and then. However, we now have 2 out of 3 books in the reboot that are supernatural, and I'm beginning to think R.L. Stine needs a reminder about which series he is actually reviving.

The books of old were typically murder mysteries, written in the third person, with a teenage female as the main character. All 3 new ones have been written in the first person, and now this one gives us a male main character. I understand that 95% of young adult fiction is done in first person these days, but I don't think the kids reading all that dystopian fiction and "Twilight" knock-offs are reading this sort of dumbed-down horror. I think a majority of the audience are actually people like me who devoured the series in the 1990s. I'd like the reboot to actually resemble the series it is rebooting. That's not too much to ask, surely?

I am genuinely befuddled by the idea that anybody who reads this could be legitimately surprised that Lizzy and Beth are the same person and that Beth time-traveled in that cave. Or that Michael was somehow related to Martin Dooley. Or that Angel wasn't dead and was actually Aaron. It shouldn't surprise anybody under the age of 9! Of course, with such gruesome scenes as a man being gnawed to shred by horses, you wouldn't want people under 9 reading this. I've seen quite a few four-and-five star reviews on the Internet - but they all seem to be people who conveniently received an advanced copy for free. I doubt most of them even read it - they refer to Lizzy as Lizzy Palmer, which is her name on the book jacket synopsis, not actually in the story, where she is called Lizzy Walker.

I didn't get an advanced copy for free. I paid $10 for this pile of shit.

The Point Horror relaunch is dead. I suspect "Fear Street" isn't far behind if this is what the reboot has already been reduced to. "Can You Keep A Secret?", due in April next year, sounds depressingly similar to Stine's own "The Rich Girl".

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Most annoying genre tropes - Street Directory

I don't know if this is actually a genre trope, but it really gives me the shits.

I was reminded of it again when I read "No Cure For Love" by Peter Robinson. This was actually a book written in 1995 and re-released to look like a new book to fool unsuspecting customers (that's another post entirely).

It wasn't bad, but I was struck by the sheer number of pages dedicated to recounting EVERY SINGLE ROAD a character would drive down to get somewhere.

I suspect the main motivation behind this is so that the writer can claim their travel expenses on tax. "No Cure For Love" was set in LA, whereas Robinson's books are usually set in Yorkshire in England. So "No Cure For Love" is absolutely riddled with descriptions of roads taken and what all the scenery looks like taking said roads.

Do you know how many people I know who would tell me EVERY SINGLE ROAD they traveled down while telling me a story about something they did?


It is not necessary to their story.

I would also end up slapping them if they did that.

To some degree, I understand. You read a lot of reviews where people said they bought the book because it was set in their home town, and they then point out every single discrepancy they came across that made the book unrealistic. They never mention the plot, just that the geography was wrong. Because that's all that matters in a book, right? So authors at least like to show that they've done their research.

Me? Give me a good story. All of the detail Robinson gave about which street the character was driving down could have been redirected to delivering a more exhilarating thriller.

"Violent Exposure" by Katherine Howell

It must be my old age, but I'd completely forgotten that I'd read and disliked "Frantic", the first book in this series, a few years ago. So it took me a couple of chapters to twig while reading this entry that I'd come across these characters before.

However, like I've said before, it always pays to give an author a second chance, as I quite enjoyed "Violent Exposure". While the horrid Sophie Phillips from "Frantic" is mentioned every now and then, she's never physically present in the storyline. Instead, the focus is on Det. Ella Marconi and her partner Det. Dennis Marconi as they investigate the murder of Suzanne Crawford.

It looks like a domestic violence-related homicide, as her husband Connor cannot be located. However, there are more than a few complications for the detectives to sort out:

- There is no trace of Connor beyond a few years ago. What secret is he hiding?

- The man who found Suzanne's body is not being upfront with the detectives.

- A paramedic, Aidan, who attended to Suzanne the day before her murder, reveals that he had sexual relations with her. And he may not have been her first affair.

- Young Emil from Streetlights - a youth-assistance program that Suzanne's nursery supported - has also gone missing.

There is also a subplot involving Mick, another paramedic (who's training Aidan) who faces a moral dilemma after discovering a lot of cash at the residence of a dead drug dealer. This is the book's only real drawback. It is only tangentially connected to the plot, and could be removed entirely from the proceedings without really affecting anything, with a couple of quick edits. This subplot also contributes to the book's unnecessary, icky sex scenes.

Time wasted on this subplot could have been spent on fleshing out the motivations for the villain.

I found I quite liked Ella Marconi. I related to her worries about her parents' health, and appreciated that she had a close relationship with them. Rather than having yet another cliched detective-with-baggage, Howell gives us a strong, capable heroine whose complexity isn't defined by the tragedies she's endured.

Other than Mick's storyline, this is a tightly-plotted police procedural thriller. In my opinion, Howell largely avoids cliches and delivered a book I read in two sittings. I didn't pick the identity of the bad guy, and none of the characters made stupid decisions to make me want to throw the book across the room.

There you go. I'm going to check out some more from Katherine Howell, though I hope I never have to call an ambulance when I'm in New South Wales, considering all the trouble the paramedics in these books find themselves in.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"The Secret Diaries" by Janice Harrell

I had to write about this horrendous teen mystery mini-series I've spent that last week or so slogging through, because it was just so mind-boggingly awful that it needs to be recorded for posterity.

"The Secret Diaries" by Janice Harrell would appear to be the teen version of Donna Tartt's "The Secret History". Do a little research on the Internet and check up on the similarities. The story involves dumb, over-emotional Joanna Rigsby, a teenager who decides that the only thing that would make life bearable is to date cool, calm Penn Parrish and be a part of his cool, calm clique. Said clique includes Casey MacNamara, a computer genius, and joined-at-the-hip couple, Tessa West and Stephen Garner. As it turns out, Joanna must be some sort of foxy knock-out, because Penn decides to start dating her. Joanna becomes part of his group, but senses that they're hiding something from her. What could be their secret?

The trilogy is broken down as:

Part 1: Temptation. As Joanna gets closer to Penn and his friends, she learns about Laurie Jenkins, another girl who used to be part of the group. She has gone missing. Due to the group's strange behaviour, Joanna suspects they know more about her disappearance than they're letting on. And she's right. Casey, the computer genius, changed one of Stephen's grades, and also helped one of Penn's speeding fines disappear. Laurie knew and was going to tell the truth. Stephen, with the group, confronted her - conveniently close to a clifftop, no less - and Laurie wound up falling off said cliff. The group then helped cover up Laurie's death. Ooh.

Part 2: Betrayal. Joanna gets drawn in deeper when she helps Penn destroy the typewriter used to write a fake note from Laurie. The group lives in fear of being found out by the police. This is made worse by Casey, who is slowly losing his grip, and shamelessly blackmailing them all. They all wish Casey would just die (they're nice kids, aren't they?) and then they'd all be safe. The group eventually go to confront him, and Stephen winds up shooting Casey dead. See a pattern here? Joanna and Penn realise Stephen is a murderer and they're not safe at all. (Did they see him push Laurie off a cliff or not? Why does Penn only now think that pushing a girl off a cliff might be a bit murderish?)

Part 3: Escape. Despite previously not being overly concerned about Penn and Joanna dobbing him in, Stephen decides now that they could be a threat and starts stalking them. He burns down Penn's precious cabin and shoots at Joanna's car. Penn and Joanna learn about Martha Landen, the teacher who gave Stephen a "C" in year nine (that Casey later changed); she has realised something is up after learning about Stephen's scholarship - there's no way he could have got that scholarship with a "C" in his past. (Really? A low mark from 3 years ago?). Penn and Joanna realise she will be Stephen's next victim, and plan to protect her and put an end to the drama once and for all. However, after his botched murder attempt on Mrs. Landen, Stephen dies in a motorcycle accident, leaving Penn and Joanna free to live forever in teen-romance peace.

Yes, that's right. After 3 books and nearly 900 pages, it's all resolved because STEPHEN DIES IN A FUCKING MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT. To be fair, it was only the final insult in a trilogy that had been insulting my intelligence every chapter since I began reading it. Let's go through what was wrong with it:

The characters. Joanna has a low intelligence (she never has anything interesting to say, or comes up with any good ideas), is over-emotional (her dialogue is characterised by cries, shrieks, yells and screams), and defines her entire personality and world through her relationship to a boy. Throughout all three books, he is the only thing that matters, and she constantly tells us that her life would be unlivable without him. She would appear to have zero external interests or influences outside of her relationship to Penn.

We only see the rest of the characters through Joanna's eyes, but I didn't like any of them. Laurie was supposedly one of their close friends, but you would never guess it by the way they act. They show zero remorse over her death or the fact that they covered it up. They're simply pissed off that they can't live their lives free of guilt and fear in case her body turns up. And when it does turn up, they whinge some more about how terrible it would be if they got caught, rather than show any sort of guilt over their actions. Harrell gets some more anti-feminism in later when Tessa threatens to kill Joanna if she dobs Stephen in. Obviously, having and keeping a boyfriend is more important than the fact said boyfriend is a murderer.

Plot inconsistencies. The group were all together when Stephen and Laurie argued and Laurie fell off the cliff. It was an accident, so they covered it up. Except in part 2, Penn decides that Stephen actually pushed Laurie. Either you see someone push another person off a cliff or you don't. There aren't any grey areas! The group do nothing about Casey's blackmail - but he was there and would go down with them if he told! Stephen's murder attempts make little sense. If Penn and Joanna died, he'd be under even more suspicion. There's more, but my brain is beginning to hurt.

I have done my civic duty as a human being to warn people away from this dreck. It really, truly stinks. What reviews I could find out there all seem to worship it, enjoying the romance and suspense. If only my standards were that low....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Don't Stay Up Late" by R.L. Stine

Lisa Brooks is left with a minor brain injury after a car crash that kills her father. She is warned her condition will lead to strange visions and hallucinations. Her shrink suggests that she get a job to focus on something other than her injury. So she gets a gig as a babysitter for eight-year-old Harry Hart. Pretty soon, she is being stalked by a mysterious demon-like creature.

Is the creature real? Or is she just crazy? When people begin to die, it's clear that something evil is lurking out there, but poor Lisa can't get anyone to believe her.

"Don't Stay Up Late" takes the Fear Street series in a supernatural direction. That has lead to accusations that this story is more like Goosebumps, which could be apt, but it doesn't detract from what is a fun, fast-paced and appropriately cheesy B-grade horror tale. The Fear Street books of old usually weren't supernatural, but a few of them were. Several of the mini-series, such as "Cheerleaders", "99 Fear Street", "Fear Park", and "The Cataluna Chronicles" all had supernatural storylines. So it's not out-of-the-ordinary for this Fear Street entry to go that route.

There was a lot that irked me about the book, but I had to remind myself to let it go, and not approach the material as an adult, but as the 13-year-old who initially got hooked on this series. I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep, and wound up devouring the entire book on my Kindle until the sun came up. Just like I used to do as a teenager. (I still remember the time I stayed up all night reading "The New Boy", way back in 1994). Stine is a little more careful with his chapter cliffhangers. There are several silly ones, but it's nowhere near as bad as the ludicrous cliffhangers found in "Party Games". It was done just well enough to keep me from taking a break.

I didn't like our main character, Lisa Brooks. Head injury aside, she was really insufferable. She spent a lot of time shrieking at people and flying off the handle, especially if they didn't believe her stories about the demon she was seeing. She knows that people won't believe her, but keeps on telling them, and keeps on getting upset and histrionic when they continue not to believe her. She made me roll my eyes several times. Her intelligence could be questioned as well:

1. Instead of shrieking at people who don't believe her, she could grab her phone and get some evidence to force them to believe her.

2. Despite knowing that boyfriend Nate will be making a horror movie at his house, and that he collects horror masks and memorabilia, she goes to his house and immediately thinks she's being attacked by an actual monster (obviously, it's Nate in costume). I mean, duh.

Stine's writing hasn't gotten any better since his 90s heyday, and the material is all pretty silly and juvenile, but it once again captured the spirit of what it was like to read a cheesy, scary story when you're young, which is pretty special. This is a big step up from "Party Games", and should hopefully see the Fear Street relaunch for a few years to come.

(RIP Point Horror Relaunch).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Most annoying genre tropes - the unreliable female narrator

I didn't tap Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" until after the movie came out. I downloaded it onto my Kindle, read the book, and then watched the movie. Even after all the hype, the book "Gone Girl" was terrific. I spotted the initial twist, but the book spread out in many different directions afterwards that I was just rapt. It was a terrific read, with excellent characterisation. The movie was pretty much exactly the same, but still highly engaging. I believe that the character of Amy will be remembered as a classic character for some time to come.

Around about the same time, "Before I Go To Sleep" was released to similar fanfare. It was an obvious story, contrived and highly unlikely. The movie was similarly stupid. It was like a bad Lifetime TV movie, except with some bad language and Nicole Kidman's bare butt.

Because of the success of these two novels, there is now a neverending flurry of "thrillers" and "suspense" novels in which the main female character can't entirely be relied upon. In "Before I Go To Sleep", it was because the main character woke up forgetting everything from the day before. I read some piece of rubbish called "Look Behind You" by Sibyl Hodge in which the main character had conveniently forgotten her memory. Now there are books like "The Good Girl", "The Girl On The Train", "Remember Me This Way",  "The Girl With A Clock For A Heart" (really?), "The Headmaster's Wife"....the list just goes on and on. Most titles invariably manage to fit "Girl" into the title, hopefully to latch on to readers who thoroughly enjoyed "Gone Girl".

Even worse, even the established authors are getting in on the act. "Crash & Burn" by Lisa Gardner has a central female protagonist who had a bad, unreliable memory because of three bumps to the head throughout her life. She claims to have a daughter that doesn't exist. The awful, diabolical "Cold Cold Heart" by Tami Hoag also has a main female character who has suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Even worse that that, because of whatever it is that makes them unreliable, they are usually utter and complete drips.

I'm over it. What was once a fresh take on the genre has now become the norm.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Poppet" by Mo Hayder

A.J. LeGrande is the senior nurse at the Beechway High Secure Unit, which houses mentally ill patients. There have been power cuts that have coincided with the deaths of patients. Staff are frequently calling in sick. Patients and staff alike fear the legend of "The Maude", the ghost of a dwarf nurse who sits on their chests. He must figure out who or what is really behind these sightings, and ultimately calls upon Detective Inspector Jack Caffery to help investigate.

Holy heck, what a pile of absolute shit this is.

I have no idea why I keep persisting with Mo Hayder's work. "Birdman" was impressive, and "The Treatment" remains one of the best, most terrifying thrillers I have ever read. I really should have stopped after the dreadful "Hanging Hill", but just couldn't seem to help myself. I keep thinking of how good "The Treatment" was and wonder if she'll magically deliver a good thriller again.


I read "Gone" and this back-to-back, and what a dreary task it was. The Jack Caffery series has become nothing more than a soap opera involving the case of Misty Kitson. She was killed by Flea Marley's brother way back in "Ritual" when he ran into her while driving Flea's car. Flea covered the whole thing up. Jack knows what Flea did and has reopened the case of the disappearance in the hopes she'll come to her senses and help him close the case. He also has unresolved feelings for her.

I have to confess I don't know why Flea keeps roadblocking him, because frankly I just completely skipped any chapter that featured the stupid bitch. This absolutely fucking stupid Misty Kitson subplot has been going on for FOUR BOOKS NOW. It's waaaaaaaaaay past time to drop it.

The plot surrounding this, involving The Maude, is dead in the water. Despite being set in a mental institution, Hayder is completely unable to generate a sense of unease or creepiness, which you would think would be pretty fucking easy when IT'S A MENTAL HOSPITAL. There are no real twists and turns, with the focus mostly on the developing relationship between A.J. and the unit director Melanie Arrow. Because every other chapter jumps back into the completely pointless Misty Kitson case, it doesn't leave time to build many characters, so it's pretty obvious who the culprit is.

Because I read the two books back to back, I was able to pick up a big inconsistency - in "Gone", Jack is 38. "Poppet" is set nine months later, and he's suddenly 42.

And what was up with all the bloody dream sequences? They're endless.

I really hated this book. I'm both amazed and ashamed that I finished it. It is plotless, aimless, boring and stupid. And the worst thing is, I'll probably end up reading "Wolf", the next one, since it's only $7 on Amazon Kindle.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Point Horror relaunch already dead?

Back in 2013, I was quite excited by the announcement that there would be a new generation of Point Horror titles released. Point Horror basically got me reading when I was primary school and high school. I've got a very heavy Nostalgia Fondness for them. I have collected just about every teen horror book from 1986 to 1996, so I like to consider myself something of an expert on the genre, even if I still have over 100 (!) I haven't read yet. (Seriously, the publishing companies really churned them out. I'm still conducting internet searches for any that may have possibly slipped through the cracks).

So yes, the Point Horror relaunch had me bouncing off the walls as if I was 12 again. (I'm now 35). The titles published would be:

"Identity Theft" by Anna Davies
"Followers" by Anna Davies
"Wickedpedia" by Chris Van Etten
"Defriended" by Ruth Baron

As it turned out, they were all riffs on current popular technologies. Ironically, this will date them even more than the 80s and 90s entries.

The problems were quickly apparent. Once you read the actual book (or e-book), you discovered that half the events described in the book description were not actually in the book! Did the publishers write the plot summary before the writer wrote the book? Seriously bad publicity there. The "Wickedpedia" description even got one of the main character's names wrong!

The first one I read was "Identity Theft". It was shit. My review is on this blog. The next one I read was "Followers". It was shit. Possibly worse than "Identity Theft". If Point Horror is indeed dead in the water again, much of the blame should go to Anna Davies, who is a terrible writer.

"Wickedpedia" was quite decent, but with the usual problems - villain is ridiculously easy to figure out, main character spends inordinate amount of time pining over a girl who's clearly not worth it, etc. But it did manage to capture just a little of the spirit of the original thrillers. I haven't read "Defriended" yet.

The other problem - for me personally - was the use of first person in all three that I read. First person was used in the Point Horror titles occasionally, but third person was the norm. I think this reflects the style that is used in young adult fiction nowadays. They're all first person. And usually dystopian.

The first couple of books in the relaunch came in 2013. The next two came in 2014. I haven't seen any signs of more to come in 2015. So is Point Horror dead again? Thanks, Anna Davies.

Fear Street has also been relaunched! But if the inane and simplistic "Party Games" is anything to go by, I don't see that lasting very long either. Sigh. I'll wait until I read "Don't Stay Up Late" before I make any final assessments.

Most annoying genre tropes - secondary cop characters On The Case

And another one.

This doesn't apply to your typical police procedural. Those ones are all about the police characters investigating the crimes. And are usually really boring.

This applies to a thriller in which the detectives/police are not the central characters, and much of the action is happening to another main character. That main character is telling us, the reader, everything that is going on - what happened in the past, why it's happening, what might happen in the future. They're usually aware of some/most of the events surrounding the murder/crime and their relation to it. We primarily follow them as they try to solve it, or find a way out of their predicament.

However, we'll also get the odd chapter from the police officer/detective investigating the same murder/crime. They'll find clues, and they'll share theories with co-workers about what they think has happened.

The problem is, the reader already knows. The main character has already told us. But we still get pages and pages of the secondary cops On The Case chasing around clues and delivering theories. I suppose it's to get us to understand how they arrive at the right conclusion and help to save the day, but it's basically just repetition to bolster the word count.

This happens ALL THE TIME in Lisa Gardner's books. She may be one of my favourite writers, but sheesh! The books are always divided between a main (usually) female character caught up in a terrible situation, and the (usually) female detective investigating the terrible situation. In the past, the detective has usually been D.D. Warren. She is always five steps behind the other main character in figuring out what is going on. Why do I need D.D. Warren telling me what she thinks is going on, when the main character has already told me what is actually going on?

Lisa Gardner's lastest - "Crash And Burn" - thankfully managed to subvert this trope by having the main character not even really know who she was. So we, the reader, were as much in the dark as everybody else was. Unfortunately, it was one of her weaker efforts. The first 40% was literally just an investigation into a motor vehicle accident. A bit too much Research On The Page there.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Most annoying genre trope - the person who discovers a dead body

What's the most annoying crime/thriller/mystery/romance/suspense trope?

It's hard to make a list, but I thought I would list one of my pet peeves. For me, it's the entire chapter devoted to the life of a character who happens to discover a dead body that our main character (cop, medical examiner, etc) is eventually tasked with solving their murder.

9 times out of 10, they discover the body, have an interview with the police, and are never heard from again. Except we get a whole chapter about what's happening in their life, how they feel about their current circumstances, and all sorts of other information about them that is completely useless - because they disappear from the rest of the book! Why is this being included? It's not necessary! I suspect the big reason is to boost the word count. Secondly, the author may want the reader to think that this character will become important later on down the road. But, as I've said, 90% of the time this is not the case, and we're left with 15-20 pages that contribute nothing to the plot.

I see it in nearly every crime book I read and it drives me nuts.