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".