Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Think Of The Children" by Kerry Wilkinson

DS Jessica Daniel witnesses a car accident. When she gets to the scene, the driver is dead, and she discovers the dead body of a boy in the trunk. The driver had a map to a specific location. When Jessica and her team arrive there, they discover some old clothes. They eventually learn the clothes belong to a boy who disappeared without a trace fourteen years earlier. Another lead takes them to an allotment shed, where they find a list of boys' names. What could link the two crimes, and is the list an indication that more boys will become victims?

It's another British police procedural. That should tell you everything to need to know, really.

It avoids some cliches. Jessica thankfully doesn't come with a traumatic past, just some mild romantic angst. There wasn't an evil, conniving journalist waiting in the wings to try and character-assassinate Jessica. There wasn't any internal team conflicts with somebody out for Jessica's job. There was that, at least.

However, the rest of it wasn't much to write home about. I thought the various elements to the plot were interesting, and wanted to see how they would all link up. But it was pretty thin. This felt very padded out. As it typical of the genre, there are false leads and dead ends.

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER When another boy goes missing, we get a few chapters from the point of view of Lloyd, the kidnapped boy, who refers to his kidnapper as "the person". It is then revealed his kidnapper is his grandmother, and has nothing to do with the case. Why the fuck was he referring to his grandmother as "the person" and not "grandmother"? It's cheap, lazy writing that treats the reader like an idiot. END SPOILER

I was about ready to throw the book across the room during an endless 17-page chapter in which Jessica makes dinner for her boyfriend and some friends. SEVENTEEN FUCKING PAGES. Why was that necessary? It doesn't add anything to the story or characterisation, as we're repeatedly told it's completely out of character for Jessica to do that! Grrrr.

Although Jessica approved somewhat towards the end, I had difficulty liking her character. She's a miserable bitch most of the time.

By the end I was skimming. I grew tired of the author's habit of telling us that Jessica had figured something out, but not actually letting us (the reader) in on it. This was particularly painful in the home stretch, where Jessica undertakes all manner of schemes to bring about a resolution to the case. I was so bored by then, I was mostly skimming, only to be rewarded with the revelation to be exactly what I expected it to be.

I won't be visiting any of Jessica's other adventures. She was annoying, the plot was slow and predictable, and the writer employed cheap, lazy tricks to try and obfuscate any plot surprises. There are too many good books out there to waste more time on a series that brings nothing new to a genre that I'm increasingly beginning to dislike.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Keep Your Friends Close" by Paula Daly

Natty Wainwright hurries to France when daughter Felicity is hospitalised after a burst appendix. She has husband Sean stay behind to look after the hotel they own and manage. Her friend from her teenage years, Eve Dalladay, is visiting and figures she will be able to provide some support. Oh boy, does she ever. In Natty's absence, Eve gives Sean a blow-job and in the space of just ten days he's decided he's in love with Eve and leaves Natty for her.

Natty is understandably quite shocked by this turn of events and has trouble coping with what has happened. She rams Eve's car in a fit of rage, and finds herself in trouble with the police, as Eve has sustained significant injuries and is pressing charges. As the days go on, she finds her life being slowly derailed by Eve's shenanigans, as she moves in on Natty's family. Then Natty receives a note saying Eve has done this before....

My biggest issue with Keep Your Friends Close was Natty Wainwright herself. She's a COMPLETE FUCKING MORON. The sequence in which she rams Eve's car seems to be the driving element that kickstarts the story. Natty claims to know that Eve is lying about her injuries, as she was wearing a seatbelt when Natty rammed the car. So? So what? That makes it okay? That means it wasn't a completely stupid immature thing to do? On top of that, it makes no sense. Did Eve somehow psychically know that Natty would do this sort of thing, setting her up with  the perfect opportunity to make Natty look mad and dangerous? As the story wears on, Natty can't seem to remember to bring her wallet to places with her, or do any of the things a normal, educated person would do. She at one stage lets Eve in on where she is and what she's doing. Smart move, Natty! Just give away your whole strategy! It was endlessly frustrating. Basically, many of the situations Natty finds herself in are of her own doing. She deserved what she got.

The other parts work a little better. Eve is definitely an insidious, conniving bitch, and watching her try to destroy Natty and steal her life was quite good on a Lifetime TV-movie level. I would have liked some more antagonism between Eve and Felicity, the daughter who knew she was evil and up to no good. That battle of wills was interesting. I dare say it would have been a far more interesting and suspenseful book if it had been from the viewpoint of Felicity, matching wits with the evil bitch who wants to take over her family.

The detective character of Joanne Aspinall barely needed to be there. That we had two entire chapters devoted to her struggles with her enormous breasts and attempts at a breast reduction were just beyond belief. What the fuck was up with that? Who cares. I remember Joanne also appeared in Just What Kind Of Mother Are You?, Daly's previous novel, but here her presence was superfluous. The deal with her breasts is barely referenced throughout the rest of the book, further rendering it stupid and redundant. What was the point? Urgh.

The wrap-up falls short of satisfaction. Throughout the book we are given glimpses into Eve's apparent previous crimes. This is never followed through. We never learn the full details of Eve's history of fleecing men. Why was Sean a target? Was he particularly rich? Why did she want him??? He's a moron with two bratty daughters - and Eve doesn't like children. It all remains maddeningly elusive. What did she hope to gain?

The very final couple of pages provided a little punch of satisfaction that capped off the story nicely, though.

There were some good parts. Most of it was, however, was reliant upon extreme contrivance, so a lot of it didn't really ring true. The face-slappingly stupid protagonist didn't help much either.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Pretty Baby" by Mary Kubica

Heidi Wood is a bit of a bleeding heart. She takes in stray cats, and works for a non-profit charity helping refugees and those who don't speak English as a first language. Her latest charity case is a teenage mother, Willow. She brings her into her home, much to the dismay of husband Chris and daughter Zoe.

So why is Heidi so intent on looking after Willow and baby Ruby? And what secrets could Willow be possibly hiding that would make Heidi's offer of a helping hand turn out to be a bad decision?


In the end, not a great deal.

I read this book in a day. I have to give it credit for that. It was obviously doing something right. But it really wasn't much of a thriller. Bit by bit, we learn about Willow's past. Bit by bit, we see how Heidi loses her grip on reality. But there are no real surprises. I guess my problem is I keep thinking up much more elaborate, exciting scenarios than what actually gets revealed. I need to stop doing that. "Pretty Baby" is much more psychological drama than it is psychological thriller. There was not enough peril for it to be classed as the latter. I just never quite got the sense that anybody was actually in any danger.

That's a major fail for what is being advertised as a THRILLER.

Seriously, Heidi's neurosis over not having the full family of six kids she wanted is hard to stomach. She has a daughter. Some people don't even have that. Instead, she just bangs on and on and on AND ON about baby Juliet, who had to be aborted, because Heidi had cervical cancer and wouldn't have survived long enough to bring Juliet to term.

Also, isn't it kind of sexist to suggest that women should feel worthless if they cannot give birth? If Heidi wanted a baby so desperately she was willing to take another woman's child, why the fuck couldn't she just adopt? Her husband Chris is shown throughout the book as unable/not willing to object to her do-gooding flights of fancy, so adoption seems like the far more easy, more legal avenue for Heidi to explore. I just find the continuing insinuation in today's society that being "barren" is bad as rather troublesome, a notion this book never attempts to debunk. Heidi is defined entirely by her desire to be a mother, and this is backed up by frequent referrals in the text to Heidi's abortion as "medical waste". Huh? Does Kubica have some sort of pro-life agenda going on here?

In the current boom of psychological thrillers, this is probably the worst I've read. I suspect that's more to do with it being labeled as a thriller, when it clearly never should have been.

"Close My Eyes" by Sophie McKenzie

Geniver Loxley endured a stillborn birth eight years ago, and has never really gotten over it. Her husband Art is eager for another child, so she reluctantly participates in fertility sessions to try and get pregnant again, as it doesn't seem to be working naturally.

Then one day, a woman - Lucy O'Donnell - shows up on her doorstep and reveals that her baby is actually alive. There was a conspiracy to fool Geniver into thinking her baby was stillborn, and her husband was apparently a major part of it. (Lucy's sister was a nurse in on the ruse, and spilled her guts on her deathbed).

Geniver grabs on to this shred of hope and refuses to let go. She obviously begins to wonder if she can trust her husband at all. A TV actor from her husband's past shows up, and he winds up being her support system as she searches for the truth.

It's been a few days since I read this, as I wanted to see how I felt about it after a little time had passed. With the benefit of that time for reflection, I have to say this one is worth reading. I've been sticking with psychological thrillers of late, because I have found the process of reading them enjoyable. While a police procedural has me wanting to throw the book/Kindle across the room because the exact same cliches keep popping up every time, this current trend of female-led psychological thrillers at least offer a bit of mystery. Sure, the final revelations are never as startling as you'd hope they'd be, but they do all suck me in.

My only real complaint with "Close My Eyes" is that I sometimes got fed up with the main character, Geniver. I couldn't possibly understand the trauma associated with having a stillborn baby, but Geniver's grief was just so self-indulgent. It often seemed as if she held on to her pain because she could, not because she should. She absolutely refused to move on with her life after EIGHT YEARS, and it was a bit too much. Why nobody in her life could find a way to gently tell her to process her grief and instead put up with her poor-me bullshit is beyond me.

Other than that, this really kept me gripped. I read it in a single day. It was all a bit outlandish, but I can forgive that, as it was never boring. The fact it had me hooked also helped to overlook some of the predictability. All in all, "Close My Eyes" is a good choice for those who, like me, are voraciously consuming this flurry of psychological thrillers. It hits far more than it misses (although I can't quite figure out the relevance of the title!)

Friday, August 12, 2016

"The Lies We Tell" by Meg Carter

Despite remembering with exact clarity every other moment of her life when she was 15, Katy Parker is hazy about that one day she saw best friend Jude Davies pulled into the bushes by an attacker. When she went to get help, she wound up in hospital (it's never fully explained exactly what happened to her). Jude moved away, and Katy never really found out what happened.

Twenty-four years later, Jude reappears in Katy's life - but is she friend or foe? Her arrival coincides with strange occurrences, such as a mysterious stranger in a downstairs apartment, vandalism of Katy's property, and the mugging of her mother. What exactly are Jude's intentions? And what exactly happened all that time ago?

Psychological thrillers are a dime a dozen these days, but I still get hooked in by them. They're certainly a more preferable choice than the police procedural, which now drive me crazy with their cliches. "The Lies We Tell" doesn't do much to stand out from the pack, but it's a diverting enough read.

My biggest beef is with the "unreliable narrator" element. I'm supposed to believe that Katy can't remember what actually happened one day twenty-four years ago when she can vividly remember every single other f***ing detail of her life, including one incident when she was two! Yes, two! It just suspends my disbelief that one bit too far. Seriously, she was two. Nobody can remember what they were doing when they were two. If Katy has this magical power, why can't she SPOILER AHEAD remember something mildly heroic like rescuing her best friend from someone she believed was a rapist by bonking him on the head with a branch? END SPOILER. It just doesn't make any sense.

The Lies We Tell is a slow-burn psychological thriller, but the suspense did get upped the closer it got to its climax. As is typical of the genre, the revelations aren't as exciting or dramatic as the characters make them out to be, so it's all a bit underwhelming.

The other big complaint here is description. Way too much of it. When Katy runs off in fear after she gets close to gathering an important clue (groan), we are then bombarded with descriptions of the roads and scenery she drives down, the beach she escapes to, and all the different people she sees on the beach.

It's not needed.

Seriously, why the fuck is it important for me to know the colour of the bathers somebody on a beach is wearing? This character has no name and no relevance to the plot. It's INFURIATING. The author particularly seems to engage in this when she wants to draw out the arrival of a major plot point. If she doesn't have enough plot for a full novel, she should consider a novella or short story.

The Lies We Tell wasn't completely exasperating, and it kept me involved, but doesn't deliver anything you haven't come across before in this genre.

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Black-Eyed Susans" by Julia Heaberlin

Tessa Cartwright is the only survivor of a serial killer who buried her in a makeshift grave, covered in black-eyed susans, with one dead girl, and the bones of two others. This happened when she was sixteen, and she participated in a trial that saw Terrell Darcy Goodwin put away for life.

Seventeen years later, she is now helping a team that wants to score Terrell a new trial. Part of the reason is that she has very little memory of what happened back then, and also the guilt she feels over the death of the caseworker who was working so hard on Terrell's freedom. However, there is also the small matter of the mysterious person who has been planting patches of black-eyed susans at whichever house Tessa has been staying in over the past seventeen years....

"Black-Eyed Susans" did its job in that it kept me gripped. I read the first half while I was at work, and the second half while I was at home. There was just enough being dangled before to keep me interested and captivated. It got suspenseful at times. But it all kind of got frittered away by the end.


When you call your book "Black-Eyed Susans," and have those flowers take up so much significance in your tale, and be part of the mystery that is seeking to be answered, DO NOT pass it off at the end as "well, I may never know". Are you for real??? Those flowers were the whole reason the fucking book existed in the first place! You're not going to say definitively who had been planting them? Fuck off!

Also, the way Tessa kept banging on and on and ON about her childhood friend Lydia Bell, it was kind of obvious she was going to play a part in the resolution. How could she not? I was thinking up all sorts of bizarre and exciting scenarios as to how Lydia would figure into the final explanation, but was highly underwhelmed by the lackluster revelation.

The ending just doesn't work at all. Tessa meets the adult Lydia, there's a bit of chatter - and then it's the epilogue! What the fuck? There's no climax! What is going on here? All that build-up is for nothing. Lydia insists she never planted the black-eyes susans. The first time it was the real killer, but all the other times, Tessa is just happy to figure she'll never know the truth.

Except those fucking black-eyed susans are the reason she told us this story in the first place, aren't they?

Sorry for the swearing. It royally pissed me off.

Otherwise, yeah, I did enjoy it.

"Forbidden: The Sheikh's Virgin" by Trish Morey

Rafiq Al'Ramiz returns to his home country of Qusay because his brother Kareef is about to become the King. He's been away for ten years, and he has since become a successful businessman in Australia. Upon his return, he is shocked to run into Sera (no surname is ever provided in the book). She was the love of his life over ten years ago, but decided to marry another man and told Rafiq she had never loved him. He still hates her for it.

When Rafiq's mother suggests he travel to Marresh to buy some fabrics for his Emporiums, he insists that Sera accompany him so that she can engage in the negotiations. This is his idea of punishing her, knowing how uncomfortable she will be spending several days with him.

Of course, during their time together, the trip is just as much a punishment for him, as he still wants her. As for Sera, she wants Rafiq too, but there are secrets from her marriage (her husband is now dead) that she feels she can never tell him, as it could ruin any chance at a future between them.

Romance novels are a funny thing. The "Sexy" line put out by Mills & Boon just defies understanding. For me, anyway. Every single one of them is essentially about a young woman, naive beyond belief, who becomes the obsession of a rich, arrogant jerk. His attempts at seducing her typically involve outrageous sexual blackmail. He's an asshole to her for most of the book, she decides she loves that, and they have sex, and live happily ever after. The rich alpha male is always a tycoon, aristocrat or - like this one - a sheikh.

I actually went on-line to try and find out what the fascination was with a sheikh, and why he was so prevalent in women's category romance fiction, particularly in a world that is becoming more fractured due to rising fear of muslims and Islam (however unfounded it might be). There was a lot of interesting reading to be done on the topic, but I gathered in the end that the sheikh is not that much different to the Greek or Italian tycoon in that the romance book is basically fetishizing the "exoticness" of these men and the fantasy of a white woman, an "other" in his world, being able to tame him.

The difference here is that it is strongly suggested Sera is an Arab woman herself. Her surname is never divulged, but it would appear she has never left Qusay, and her marriage to her husband was a result of her being bound by family and cultural traditions. I guess it lended a more believable aspect to the story, though I have not read enough "sheikh" romances to really provide a full, comprehensive comparison!

However, it is a fascinating thing to explore - more interesting than the book itself, in any case! Why do women want to read books in which the behaviour of the man before the happily ever after is generally the text-book definition of spousal abuse? Why do they enjoy shows like "The Bachelor" in which a man dates (and likely sleeps with) multiple women at once, when that is something they would otherwise loathe in a man? I'm a guy, so there are probably all sorts of questions you could ask about why I would read a Mills & Boon Sexy Romance.

Well, they're short, for one thing. Also, I was sick to death of British police procedurals (they keep advertising themselves as "serial killer thrillers" and I keep getting fooled), and this was about as far away a genre choice I could think of.

Finally, they are books that boil it all down to very simple elements. Two people with differing personalities, emotions and goals, how these conflict and contrast with one another, and how they are resolved. It's a great template for one's own writing.

And, I just like reading. The more I try to understand these books, the more I start enjoying them.

"No Name Lane" by Howard Linskey

Young girls are being abducted and murdered in the North East. The latest girl to disappear is Michelle Summers. A task force is created to locate her. One of the members of the task force is DC Ian Bradshaw, who is disliked by the force after an "incident" from his past. Of course. Because all leading characters in a cop drama have to have a fucking traumatic past. Arrrggghhh.

Tom Carney is a journalist who returns home after being suspended by the top tabloid rag in the country. (A lot of time is wasted on this subplot). Looking for a story that he can use to get himself back in the paper's good books, he hooks onto the case of the missing and murdered girls. He eventually convinces another journalist, Helen Norton, to team up with him. (Helen has taken over the job Tom had before he joined the tabloid).

When a body is found, it turns out to be fifty-to-sixty years old, so obviously has no connection to the girls being kidnapped and murdered. However, Ian, Tom and Helen, in their own capacity, seek to unravel the mystery of both cases.

I am not a fan of crime novels that have two disparate plot lines running parallel to one another, yet having nothing to do with each other. It simply narrows the focus, delivering two mediocre tales instead of one gripping tale. It never works - you need to be able to link your plots! The case of the dug-up old body here is virtually pointless. The characters mentioned as suspects are all dead, so there is zero urgency to the proceedings! The storyline is wrapped up in a rather arbitrary, distracted manner, further making you wonder why the author bothered.

The plot involving the missing and murdered girls works slightly better, but is still largely predictable.

There are flashbacks to the 1930s in regards to the cold-case mystery, and these are portrayed well, but once again, rendered fairly useless by the fact the cold case doesn't amount to much of anything, due to the lack of urgency. If the characters themselves are remarking that it doesn't make much difference if the case is solved or not, why are we to care?

I was very bored by the first 100 pages. After that, it began to pick up. I mostly enjoyed the process of reading it, but suspense was decidedly lacking. I appreciated the fact the journalists were actively pursuing leads in order to solve the cases. Usually, in British police procedurals, the journalist characters are simply out to assassinate the character of the lead detective. Here, their characters were well-developed and the relationship between them believably portrayed and progressed. I actually liked them. I liked Ian Bradshaw as well, despite the tiresome trope of having the "incident" in his past. He came across as a sensitive good guy.

If the author can link his disparate storylines, I would go for another outing with these characters.