Third Degree: Crazy Town

December 7, 2008

I am beginning to wonder if Greg Iles is having marital problems because his last few novels have involved serious marital and custody issues. Third Degree focuses on one horrible afternoon in a couple’s life when a husband discovers his wife’s infidelity and snaps, holding her and their children hostage in their home.   The husband’s behavior had been erratic lately, which Laurel, the wife, had chalked up to his concern about the audit of his medical practice for billing irregularities.  Tipped off to incriminating evidence planted in his house by his business partner, Warren, the husband, instead finds evidence of his wife’s infidelity.  Warren demands the name; Laurel won’t give it to him and the madness intensifies as police–including trigger happy members holding a grudge as well as Laurel’s former lover–gather outside the house, preparing for action.  Will anyone emerge alive from this situation?

Set again in Mississippi, Iles is great at painting a picture of small-town life.  I like that he uses the same area for most of his novels.  Unfortunately, I found this novel to be only mediocre.  I think my biggest complaint is that we were expected to be sympathetic to Lauren and her lover’s situation.  Why should we reward their infidelity?  Why do they deserve a happy ending?  Warren (despite taking her hostage) was not a horrible husband to her.  I felt like Iles was rather one-sided with the story.  He paints Warren and Danny’s (Laurel’s lover) as one-dimensional, horrible characters, and maybe they are, but why should I sympathize with infidelity?  It seems that Danny’s major saving grace is that he loves his autistic son while his wife does not, and I think it’s despicable to use that as a characteristic.

I was also a little frustrated by the constant going back and forth about who Laurel’s lover is and her denials and the fact that Warren won’t listen to her.  Iles put in one too many scenes like that, and I was ready for the action to move on.  It seemed that the rescue team took forever to finally move.

In short, it seems like Iles cranked out this book in as little time as possible with scant attention to character development.  He’s written far better books.

Recommended (also by Iles):


Left for Dead: Me after finishing this book

December 2, 2008

Ha ha.  My poor attempt at a joke.  Kevin O’Brien’s purported thriller Left for Dead begins with a serial killer known as Rembrandt (for his lovely makeup skills) on the loose, preying on women of a certain age.  The focus shifts abruptly when one of his victims, Claire Ferguson Shaw, is found alive.  Once Claire regains her memory and reunites with her family, she begins to wonder what is really going on.  Her friends and husband seem evasive.  Considered troublemakers in their small town, her son has run away, and his best friend has left on a sudden backpacking trip.  Claire’s memory of what happened the night of her abduction remains stubbornly hidden.  And it appears that someone is watching her.  Is it Rembrandt coming to finish the job?  Why are there so many disappearances in her town?  And what’s up with the “civic club” her husband belongs to? Claire must find the answer to these questions…they could save her life.

I think I made the description of the book sound better than it actually was.  The book started off promisingly enough from the victims’ perspective as each encounters Rembrandt.  Even as you were introduced to Claire and learn her backstory, there is still hope.  Unfortunately, what O’Brien appears to lack is nuance.  He is heavy-handed with dialogue and plot.  The comments Linda, Claire’s supposed “best friend” make are so obnoxious and intrusive that it’s hard to imagine any real person not replying, “Mind your own effing business.”  However, these comments serve to let us know that Linda is hiding something and advance the plot.  Obviously this plot advancement could have been handled better.  I also found Claire’s derogatory thoughts about Linda somewhat offensive.  Granted, Linda is evil, but there was something about the way O’Brien had Claire talk about Linda’s food and hair that seemed a little too much.  We get that she is a pitiful, evil, vengeful cow, but come on.  There was a level of meanness that threatened to push my sympathy towards Linda at times.  I think a better writer could have handled that relationship better. All the relationships actually.  The young, handsome detective is treated like crap by everyone except for poor damsel-in-distress Claire for no real reason.  Claire’s husband talks to her and treats her like she is a 4-year-old.  It’s like O’Brien wanted to make as much progress as possible writing his novel and just sped through.

And the plot itself was muddled. I’m still not clear exactly who was responsible for what because it seemed like certain people had certain plans that other people who had been involved in other plans didn’t know about.  Are you confused?  I was. 

I read this book in a few hours and stayed up way longer reading it than it deserved, but I wanted to finish it.  It’s a mediocre book, and I admit to skimming the last few pages because I just didn’t care.  I had an idea where the book was going about halfway through, and it took its precious time getting there.   Thankfully I spent only 50 cents on it at the booksale.

Fangland: Not as much bite as I had hoped

October 26, 2008

So continues my Halloween reading (finished before Halloween but not posted until afterwards). Fangland by John Marks is yet another variation of the classic Dracula tale with network news as one of the targets. Evangeline Harker is an assistant producer on The Hour, a successful, venerable network news show that resembles 60 Minutes (with good reason since Marks used to be a producer on that show). Newly engaged and disliking her job, she heads to Romania on an assignment to vet the mysterios Ion Torgu, supposedly a major Eastern European crime lord. Once there, Harker meets Clementine Spence who tries to warn her about evil in the area by telling her about her former experiences as a type of missionary.  Harker meets Torgu and goes off with him and is infected by his virus-like type of vampirism.  She disappears and reappears months later with little recollection of what happened.  Meanwhile, the virus appears to be infecting the offices of The Hour (that happen to overlook Ground Zero) back in New York when people and equipment begin behaving strangely and mysterious deaths and suicides start to occur.

I think that this book would have been better if Marks had stuck with one idea and developed it.  In addition to the Dracula adaptation, he tries to make statements about NYC in a post-September 11 world as well as pointed, insider jabs at documentary news shows and network politics.  The storylines don’t blend successfully.  The biggest failure is that he leaves crucial details vague.  I assume he did this deliberately, but it was the wrong decision in my opinion.  We never quite find out what happened to Evangeline when she was with Torgu.  There is mention of some “obscenity” that she does that protects her from him, but what Marks describes doesn’t seem that obscene, so I’m unsure what the obscenity was.  The end is vague as well.  Something happens…but what is unclear.  This vagueness is a problem when Torgu doesn’t use fangs and turn people into vampires the “traditional” way: what he does with the string of words he constantly chants (locations of horrific massacres throughout history) is unclear.  Marks is trying to say something about terrorism and the allure of death and biological agents (I think), but honestly, I’m not sure what. 

The format is a bit confusing as well.  The story is told from multiple points of view through diary entries, email and narrative.  The story is framed by the account of someone who is entirely peripheral to the story.

This novel has gotten really good reviews, which baffles me.  Readers hail it as the best adaptation of Dracula ever and laud Marks for the profound things he is saying.  What book did I read?   It was hard to get into, hard to follow and took me longer than I thought to read.

Read Stoker’s Dracula instead or some of Anne Rice’s first few novels about Lestat (I personally was always more partial to The Vampire Lestat over Interview with a Vampire.  But that’s just me).

Dirty: the librarian fantasy

October 5, 2008

Who knew I had erotica on my shelves? It’s October and more importantly a mere 7 weeks until Bibliophilia’s idea of heaven: the local library book sale. Noting that I still had several unread purchases from last year’s book sale, I decided to make some room and picked up Dirty by Megan Hart. Mon Dieu! Now you would be justified in asking exactly what I thought the book would be about being titled Dirty.

Dirty is the story of Elle Kavanagh, seemingly uptight corporate accountant whose self-imposed celibacy is tested when she meets Dan Stewart.  Elle is that rare woman who is more comfortable with casual sex than relationships.  Though she wants to see him but not date him, her feelings for him and unexpected desire for a real realtionship soon cause an awakening within her that forces her to face events from her childhood that keep her from having a normal relationship.

This was a pretty well-written book.  It had a plot and while sex was central to it, the relationship between Dan and Elle was the main point.  I’ve read one of Hart’s other books (there goes my carefully-crafted story about just picking a book randomly from the shelf), and Hart has an interesting and distinct voice.  Elle is very cerebral and reflective, yet you don’t feel like you know her all that much.  You know only what she reveals.  I was a little frustrated by how long it took to reveal what Elle’s issues were because I was beginning to think that she was just crazy or that the revelation wouldn’t be worth the hundreds of pages it took to get there. It was pretty grim, so I suppose it was worth the wait.

I liked how Hart took the idea of casual sex and flipped so that it was the woman who sought it while the man ended up wanting a relationship.  I did think there was a bit too much sex and that she could have made her point with less.  It got to the point where it seemed like she was throwing it in there because this was a “naughty” book and expected of her.  After several encounters, it started to detract from the plot (here I am dissecting the amount of sex in a book.  how bizarre). 

Sometimes I wonder what the point of books like this are.  I am no stranger to smutty romance novels with their heaving bosoms and quivering manhood, and it is tempting to dismiss this as only a contemporary romance novel.  It’s not.  Romance is most definitely secondary.  Maybe even tertiary. Is it to write a book filled with lots of sex and craft a plot around it?  There is something rather detached and mechanical about the book.  It’s like you know it’s a naughty book and are reading it only for its naughtiness.  Is there a book that melds both hot, wild action with a really, really good plot?  I’d say Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be a good choice (feminist revulsion notwithstanding); after all, they both involve men “awaking” repressed women.  But Lady Chatterley’s Lover is considered a classic. Dirty is what…”adult” fiction? Erotic fiction?  

I wondered how I would post about this book.  I planned a quick post to acknowledge that I had read it, but I surprised myself by having a lot to say.  So yes, dear reader, I knew exactly what I would be reading when I pulled it off the shelf 🙂

The Wedding Machine: Appalling

October 5, 2008

My wasting time with, er, reading, The Wedding Machine is the result of a recent “dash and grab” trip to the library on a Friday afternoon on my way home from work.  I thought it sounded cute:  4 Southern women responsible for planning proper events for the births, marriages, and deaths in their community and how this “machine” breaks down as they plan their children’s nuptials.  What’s not to like?  I thought it would be a light, sweet book.  A quick, easy read.

First of all, the South of South Carolina and further south must be very different from my experience in North Carolina (and I was born and raised in a small town–cue John Mellencamp).  Ray, who has inherited the propriety mantle from the previous generation deplores change whether it be Northerners, changes to her church, her free spirited daughter, etc.  Ray classifies everything that is not the way she wants or thinks it should be as deplorable.  Through her eyes, difference is seen as something abhorrent.  Hilda, the princess, has driven away her husband through her inability to connect with him by not revealing her childhood sexual abuse.  She reacts to his leaving her by locking herself in her house and not coming out (and this is a woman in her 50s!).  Kitty B, whose wedding in the late 60s opens the novel, has come to despise her husband for what she believes are fabricated illnesses while he apparently despises and blames her for the oft-mentioned death of their infant 25 (or 27–we’ll get to that later) years ago.  The sad thing is that they have two other living children and it is apparently their dead infant who is always on their mind.  And Sis, poor Sis, lost her fiance in Vietnam and has never married.  And apparently remains a virgin still. 

WTF?  These women were pathetic.  The narrative is set in the present, yet jumps back often to various points in the women’s past.  And speaking of the timeline, frankly, I didn’t understand it.  Hart referred to certain spans of time but then things like the births and ages of children didn’t make sense.  Could she not do the math?  I was confused about when things actually happened. 

I confess that I never would have touched this book if I had noticed that it was considered “inspirational” fiction.  It’s just not a type of fiction I enjoy.  However, I gave it a chance and finished it, and I was perplexed where the “women of faith” designation came in.  Yeah, sure, these women went to church and considered their church important to them, but they did not act remotely Christian.  Ray was busy judging everyone around her, and their church showed up only when it was a plot point or setting for a wedding or baptism.  Honestly, if the book hadn’t had the “inspirational fiction” label provided by my library system, I would have never known.

The only good thing I could say about this book and these hateful, sad women is that it was a quick read.  I read it in a couple of hours.   Maybe it’s a generational difference: I am over 2 decades younger than the women in the book.  Maybe my mother would be able to relate.  But I just didn’t think these women were good characters.  There was little to like about them.  Why must books–even modern books–set in the South be so pathetic?  I felt the same way about Girls in Trucks.  I fully believe that there are ways that an author can depict Southern traditions and quirkiness without making Southerners seem so pitiful and one-dimensional. Surely?

Panic in Level 4: Passionless Tales about Science

September 20, 2008

Richard Preston’s Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science reads like Preston decided he needed to publish another book and threw together a bunch of old essays.  Preston is well-known for his science writing, including his thriller Hot Zone.

Panic in Level 4 combines essays on the Chudnovskys, genius brothers who built a supercomputer in a cramped NYC apartment in order to calculate pi as far as possible in their quest to discern some sort of pattern; Preston’s old friend Ebola and his visit inside a Level 4 lab and own brush with the virus; the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters and the incredibly difficult attempt to render them digitally for preservation; self-cannibals; Craig Venter’s part in decoding the human genome; and insect parasites destroying huge parts of American forests. 

Some of the essays were more interesting than others.  I enjoy a good killer virus tale, so I liked the Level 4 essay, and the Cloisters one was pretty interesting.  I found the Chudnovskys’ attempt to find over a billion digits of Pi confusing and quixotic, but I’ve stated before that I’m no mathematician.  You can’t argue with how well-written the essays are, but they have little relationship to each other and it’s jarring.  The book isn’t cohesive at all, which I guess is acceptable since it’s not a narrative.  I wonder if the book could have been structured differently.  For example, there was a reference to the self-cannibalism disease in the Venter essay, and then the last chapter of the book was about that disease.  It was jarring to me to read the mention of the disease and then discover the full story later on.

The book simply wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Vigil: Christopher Walken Did It Better

August 30, 2008

I probably should have consigned Robert Masello’s purported thriller Vigil to the “Abandoned” pile but it was just good enough to save it. Barely. Doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel a few brain cells rot away though. 

Vigil is another entry in the sub-sub-genre of fiction dealing with ancient, apocryphal texts of the Bible and the truth that may or may not be contained here.  You could probably consider The Da Vinci Code to be part of this group as well due to its use of apocryphal texts for the Mary Magdalene-Jesus relationship.  But I digress. 

Vigil explores the Book of Enoch and its legend about the Watchers, a group of angels whose responsibility it was to look after the human race.  As they watched, they began to lust after human women and mated with them, violating God’s law. Other accounts say that they began to envy humans their souls, which made them especially beloved to God, and believed humans were unworthy of God’s regard.  A great battle took place with the rebel angels being cast from heaven forever. 

So, in Vigil we have a Jewish scholar attempting to translate the Book of Enoch and a paleontologist working with an amazing fossil that appears to be from before time began and whose DNA makes it almost human but not quite.  And then one night, an accident happens in the lab and the lab explodes, destroying everything in it.  But strangely, people report a glowing form leaving the burning lab.  Soon after, the mysterious Arius appears and he seems to have an especial love for the ladies.  Gee, who (or rather what) could he be? Oh, and throw in an infertility subplot with the main character who is sterile but trying to create a family with his beautiful wife and a strange being who loves the ladies, and it’s just too much.

I can say that this book had a lot of potential.  The idea is interesting, but Arius coming to life is almost ridiculous.  While none of the characters were especially well-drawn, his was really lacking.  Is he evil?  Is he just misunderstood?  His motivations are sort of explained yet seem so mundane (SEX!) for what he is.  I also found it a little preposterous that Ezra, the Jewish scholar, was going to all the effort to translate the Enoch scroll.  Um, the book was written in 2005.  Who doesn’t know what Enoch says by now (or then)?  And if he’s such a great scholar, he should have known already.  I know it was a way for Masello to introduce the legend to us, but really, he wasted a lot of space (and my time) on a legend that would have already been familiar to readers. 

The plot seemed to have a hard time getting anywhere fast.  Have you noticed that the harder a time an author has with a plot, the longer the book gets?  Action happened in fits and spurts but wasn’t consistent.  Say what you will about The DaVinci Code, but at least it was a genuine page turner.  A book like Vigil wants to be should be fast-paced.

I guess I’m just as frustrated with myself.  When will I learn that books dealing with this subject matter are more-often-than-not crap?  Sigh. 

However, if you are interested in the legend of the Watchers, I have a few recommendations:

  • Link (Becker):  In the vein of Graham Hancock and other fringe writers and pseudo-archaeologists, it explores the Watcher legend as evidence of extraterrestrial aid to the human race.  Interesting and fun.
  • The Prophecy : The legend of the Watchers as a movie.  Really, Christopher Walken in leather pants camping it up…what more could you ask for?