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Robert Crawford (Hudson, MA)

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At The Stroke Of Madness
At The Stroke Of Madness
by Alex Kava
Edition: Hardcover
45 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1.0 out of 5 stars At the stroke of badness, Oct. 10 2003
Sharon Kava started out promisingly with A PERFECT EVIL then just got worse and worse as the series dragged on. Whether it's through a diminishing lack of native talent or the time constraints imposed by Mira (six months for every draft, is my understanding), ATSOM is a worthless piece of garbage that's about as tedius yet tragic as watching a brain tumor grow.
More nauseating than the embalmed corpse with the missing brain was Kava's feeble attempt to drum up awareness for her old pal Patricia Sierra's now out-of-print book, THE PRETTIEST FEATHERS by rather ineptly trying to insert it organically into the narrative. In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST'd) version of OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK, Mike Nelson notes the playing of CASABLANCA in the movie and shrewdly says that an inferior movie should never have a better movie played in it. This is the literary equivalent: A marginally-gifted author should never make mention to a superior book. Making this even more irritating is that she mentions no fewer than six other authors, all her betters, in numerous further attempts to go shoulder-to-shoulder with thrillers that, unlike the last two or three O'Dell entries, are actually worth the money to buy.

Don't waste your money on any more Kava books, especially if they have O'Dell's name on the cover, unless they reach their inevitable destination, which is the bargain bin at the book or drug stores at 3/4 off list price. Proof of its efficacy on the reading public is that this book, which has been out for over two months, has earned exactly two reviews.

24 Hours
24 Hours
by Greg Iles
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
106 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars 24 HOURS will kidnap you., June 6 2003
This review is from: 24 Hours (Mass Market Paperback)
When I'm in a bookstore, one of the determining factors that often influence my choice as to whether or not to buy a certain book is to read the opening lines. If the book has a good enough "hook", then I'll take a chance on it, considering that the concept hasn't already grabbed me. Iles did a masterful job in setting up a cinematic prologue that details the safe return of a kidnapped child to his frantic mother. It's an anticlimax that works to the story's advantage.

Joe Hickey, his cousin Huey and a woman have perfected an ingenious system for kidnapping children of prominent Mississippi physicians and for not only eluding capture but to even make their existence unknown to the authorities. But when they kidnap Abby Jennings, the small daughter of Will and Karen Jennings, Joe Hickey and his accomplices have picked on the wrong family.

Impeccable research into the intimate details of families like the Jennings make their master plan foolproof and not knowing that Abby Jennings had juvenile diabetes strikes me as something that a criminal genius like Hickey would've known. When they spirit the child out of the house only to subsequently discover that she's been separated from her life-saving insulin, Hickey is forced to alter The Plan.

But the family's will and resourcefulness make the carefully laid plan spiral more and more off course until both sides are adlibbing in a deadly game of chess, with Abby being the most important piece.

The Jennings, however, are targeted for reasons other than money and Hickey's motive for revenge is rather generic and uninspired. What *is* inspired and unique is the thrilling climax that takes place in the interstate, a denouement that has cinema written all over it.

24 HOURS has pacing and suspense that's as smooth and sharp as a scalpel on flesh and the characterization is as topnotch as Dean Koontz's. The relationship between the ringleader Joe Hickey and his giant cousin Huey has a feel reminiscent of OF MICE AND MEN, a dynamic used by other authors such as Scott Smith and John Gilstrap but without as much skill. Iles, however, pulls it off and one of threads of tension that runs throughout the book is the question of which force has more control over the gentle giant, the one who's watching Abby- Hickey or Huey's own conscience. Cheryl, a cynical, hard-assed former stripper, comes across as a solid, living woman and the reader can't help but sympathize with her as well as Huey.

Iles is indeed a master storyteller at the top of his game and, if he isn't, it's only because he has yet to peak.

Scott Free: A Thriller by the Author of EVEN STEVEN and NATHAN'S RUN
Scott Free: A Thriller by the Author of EVEN STEVEN and NATHAN'S RUN
by John Gilstrap
Edition: Hardcover
40 used & new from CDN$ 0.04

4.0 out of 5 stars A double black diamond thriller, April 29 2003
As his canon develops, Mr. Gilstrap's fiction seems to be edging away from the imperiled-family-on-the-run suspense thrillers for which he was becoming typecast and this is an evolution that Atria Books, Gilstrap's imprint within Simon & Schuster, thankfully encourages.

Scott O'Toole is not Nathan Bailey redux. Nathan, the title character in Gilstrap's incredible debut NATHAN'S RUN, is eluding capture by both the police and some bad men who want him dead. Sixteen-year-old Scott O'Toole is running toward something, namely a cabin in the middle of the Utah wilderness after his plane crashes that is his only shot at survival.

In that cabin is a mysterious man who claims to be in the witness protection program. But as Scott waits out a terrific blizzard, less and less adds up and his savior doesn't appear to be what he claims. The president of the United States is in town and when the bodies start piling up around the cabin like cordwood, Scott puts two and two together and begins a Nathanesque run back to civilization.

Gilstrap is obviously enamored of the movies, and he's tried and failed to make a career as a produced screenwriter. Still, his love of movies prevails and SCOTT FREE would've benefited from less allusions to specific movies, genres and cinema in general that Gilstrap obviously threw in to make producers realize, Look, see how cinematic my book is!

Gilstrap's saving grace is that SCOTT FREE, despite its shameless attempts to cozy up next to and identify with action/adventure films, remains one of the freshest and most captivating concepts since Jan Burke's BONES and Michael Prescott's NEXT VICTIM. Scott O'Toole does nothing that a gutsy, level-headed sixteen-year-old boy couldn't do with the proper training and a few aids. The conflict between his estranged parents is not a mass-produced he said-she said one and once again Gilstrap draws the reader into not only the violence of the story but the human conflicts that help illustrate and even bring about the more sensationalistic aspects. Scott's father is a devoted dad who'd be lost without the younger half of "Team Bachelor" while his mother, a self-help pop psychology icon and a bestselling author, is more concerned with ensuring that local bookstores stock her titles in abundance than with being a mother.

The writing of SCOTT FREE isn't quite as snappy as usual and very little of the humor that characterized Gilstrap's first three efforts are in evidence. The characterization, as stated before, is very good, a cut above what Gilstrap had offered in his next-to-last book, EVEN STEVEN. The mysterious man in the cabin is a creepy guy painted with light brush strokes of pathos, someone on a more human scale than the vicious Lyle Pointer of NATHAN'S RUN.

The thrilling, penultimate chapter that takes place on the ski slopes of Utah fades to black and fast-fowarding months later just before the reader actually sees what happened is a trick that directors have been doing since time immemorial and only reinforces the belief that Gilstrap is once again soliciting Hollywood's attention. His republican bias makes a rare, ugly appearance in the acknowledgements page in which he wishes that he could've researched classical music instead of the Metallica beloved of his title character (obviously Gilstrap hasn't heard of that heavy metal group's incredible work with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra).

Overall, I have to give SCOTT FREE four stars based on the vivid characterization, the ending that's almost as exciting as skiing a black diamond trail and the last-minute twist. Gilstrap still hasn't produced anything nearly as thrilling or heart-wrenching as his debut effort and it doesn't look as if he will. But his subsequent novels have a proven entertainment factor that's all too uncommon in the dull sea of generic books that come out every year.

The White Road
The White Road
by John Connolly
Edition: Hardcover
27 used & new from CDN$ 0.06

4.0 out of 5 stars White road, black destination, April 11 2003
This review is from: The White Road (Hardcover)
The racial double entendre couldn't have been lost on John Connolly, surely one of the most talented new voices to come out in the last four years since fellow British scribe Boris Starling. And it is racial relations that the always-savvy and canny Connolly explores in this book that is reminiscent of Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Grisham's A TIME TO KILL.
No one is perfect and writing great books takes craft as well as skill. However, I believe that John Connolly's almost invisible hubris will never allow him to write a bad novel and THE WHITE ROAD never gave me the impression that he had written it to keep the series going. We're treated to some welcome backstory regarding Angel and Louis, including how they met, and a story told by Louis to Charlie Parker in THE KILLING KIND becomes the basis for the beginning of the book.
However, that's where Connolly's narrative falters. The burning alive of a black man in the 60's does not seem to have any bearing on the main story, which is about a young African-American man charged with the murder of a wealthy white girl. Another thing that does not fit is the paranormal child prostitute who appears a few times and disappears into a car.
But these seeming anomalies notwithstanding, Connolly gives us another Parker mystery that for once doesn't give us a fascinating and ingeniously flawed serial killer like Mr. Pudd, the Traveling Man or Caleb Kyle. Hunchbacked Cyrus Nairn could've proved to be a much more fascinating character than Connolly actually made him but he's creepy enough and the Rev. Faulkner makes an all-too sparing but welcome return.
Reminiscent of THE CHAMBER and Troy Soos's HANGING CURVE, Connolly embroils his detective in a battle of wits with the KKK and the usual assortment of physically deformed henchmen. His humor is as biting as ever (his brief but bullseye take on Fred Durst is priceless and is alone worth the cost of the hard cover).
The plot anomalies are easily overcome by the usual vivid characterization, dialogue and attention to detail in all things that sets Connolly head and shoulders above all but two or three of his peers in the mystery genre.

Hostage: A Novel
Hostage: A Novel
by Robert Crais
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 8.54
85 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Why did Bruce Willis buy the film rights?, April 9 2003
Which is a very legitimate question, since several better hostage negotiation novels have been written in recent years. Such stories are very tricky to write (I know- I've been embroiled in writing one for over four years now) and this is perhaps the reason why fans of this subgenre inevitably have to settle for a trade off- Either they can read a thrilling novel that's badly researched (Deaver's A MAIDEN'S GRAVE) or a serviceable novel that's well-grounded in research. Robert Crais's HOSTAGE falls in the latter category.

Early on, we meet Jeff Tally, a former LAPD SWAT negotiator who, naturally, was knocked almost completely out of the life after a hostage standoff went bad. Tally is chief of a small police department on the California coastline in a sleepy town where a car backfiring is assumed to be a car backfiring. Then three youths rob a convenience store in which the owner is accidentally killed (shades of Sandra Brown's horrendous STANDOFF). All but one panics and flee, eventually settling in the house of a father of two children who turns out to be an accountant of a mob family. This is an intriguing setup but somehow Crais doesn't fully pull the trigger.

The group dynamic in the household is interesting (Crais rightly doesn't allow for Stockholming, since Mr. Smith is seriously beaten early in the standoff), as is the response by the mob bosses who want to retrieve from Smith's house incriminating evidence that could put away virtually all of organized crime on the east coast.

To Crais's credit, he makes the situation even more unstable. One of the three gunmen, Mars Krupcek, is obviously not what he appears to be. The creation of Mars is a welcome one and his eerie calmness in the face of these desperate circumstances is far creepier than the frantic, frenetic brothers who are his accomplices. One can almost hear Crais piling on the building blocks as he constructed this pretentious novel with one stock motivation and plot device after another (a cache is found and this is the motivation that Dennis Rooney, the ringleader, supposedly needs to escape the barricade outside).

Overall, however, the ending was unimaginative and predictable and a fairly sharp reader will be able to tell who the crooked cop behind the barricade is dozens of pages before Crais tells us who it is. His language isn't memorable, the characterization merely adequate (Mars notwithstanding) and I'd give this book only one more star than Sandra Brown's STANDOFF, quite possibly the most inept and boring hostage negotiation melodrama ever penned.

Frankly, I think Mr. Willis's money would've been better spent optioning or buying outright the film property of THE STANDOFF, Chuck Hogan's fictionalized account of the Ruby Ridge fiasco.

Hostage: A Novel
Hostage: A Novel
by Robert Crais
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 8.54
85 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Why did Bruce Willis buy the film rights?, April 7 2003
Which is a very legitimate question, since several better hostage negotiation novels have been written in recent years. Such stories are very tricky to write (I know- I've been embroiled in writing one for over four years now) and this is perhaps the reason why fans of this subgenre inevitably have to settle for a trade off- Either they can read a thrilling novel that's badly researched (Deaver's A MAIDEN'S GRAVE) or a serviceable novel that's well-grounded in research. Robert Crais's HOSTAGE falls in the latter category.

We meet Jeff Tally early in the book, the former LAPD SWAT negotiator who, of course, was knocked almost completely out of the life after a hostage standoff went bad. Tally is chief of a small police department on the California coastline in a sleepy town where a car backfiring is assumed to be a car backfiring. Then three youths rob a convenience store in which the owner is accidentally killed (shades of Sandra Brown's horrendous STANDOFF). Two of them panic and drive away, eventually settling in the house of a father of two children who turns out to be an accountant of a mob family. This is an intriguing setup but somehow Crais doesn't fully pull the trigger.

The group dynamic in the household is interesting (Crais rightly doesn't allow for Stockholming, since Mr. Smith is seriously beaten early in the standoff), as is the response by the mob bosses who want to retrieve at all costs two Zip disks in Smith's house, evidence that, according to Crais, could put away virtually all of organized crime on the east coast.

This is where it gets unrealistic. Somehow, the mob is able to infiltrate the staging area that has since been taken over by the Sheriff's department by kidnapping Tally's estranged wife and daughter and sending over fake FBI SWAT agents to enter the house, although even a local cop would know that the barricade situation isn't a federal matter.

But, to Crais's credit, he makes the situation even more unstable by introducing a wildcard into the mix by telling us that one of the three gunmen, Mars Krupcek, is a serial killer. The creation of Mars is a welcome one and his eerie calmness in the face of these desperate circumstances is far creepier than the frantic, frenetic brothers who are his accomplices. One can almost hear Crais piling on the building blocks as he constructed this pretentious novel with one stock motivation and plot device after another (a cache of over two million dollars is found and this is the motivation that Dennis Rooney, the ringleader, supposedly needs to escape the barricade outside).

Overall, however, the ending was unimaginative and predictable and a fairly sharp reader will be able to tell who the crooked cop behind the barricade is dozens of pages before Crais tells us who it is. His language isn't memorable, the characterization merely adequate (Mars notwithstanding) and I'd give this book only one more star than Sandra Brown's STANDOFF, quite possibly the most inept and boring hostage negotiation melodrama ever penned.

Frankly, I think Mr. Willis's money would've been better spent optioning or buying outright the film property of THE STANDOFF, Chuck Hogan's fictionalized account of the Ruby Ridge fiasco.

Blood Work
Blood Work
by Michael Connelly
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 8.55
122 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Do you have the heart for this book?, March 19 2003
This review is from: Blood Work (Mass Market Paperback)
Based on THE POET, the only other Connelly novel I'd ever read, I never would've given any of his other books a chance were this not a vehicle starring Clint Eastwood. The premise, I had to admit, was intriguing and original. I enjoyed the movie and decided to give the novel a try.

First of all, whether or not you decide to try the movie or the book first, don't let the ending of either deter you from trying the other medium. Let's just say that the screenwriter for the Eastwood production took some liberties. Either way, I believe your patience will be rewarded.

Secondly, while BLOOD WORK has Hollywood written all over it, the premise can't help but engage the reader on a variety of levels and for different reasons. Mystery mavens will buy the book simply because the book has Michael Connelly's name on the cover. Those in the medical or law enforcement fields may want to try this book to see how thoroughly Connelly had researched his subjects. But the language, which isn't as memorable as, John Connolly's, Stephen Hunter's or John Gilstrap's, leaves something to be desired. I enjoy reading novelists who have a good sense of humor and can snap off a sharp metaphor or simile at any time. Unfortunately, Connelly doesn't have the poetic aptitude of his title character in THE POET (to which he refers several times without, thankfully, giving away the ending).

However, Connelly gives us a very likable and sympathetic hero in Terry McCaleb, the heart transplant recipient cum unofficial investigator. It's to his credit that Connelly didn't constantly put McCaleb and his new heart in peril every hundred pages or so as Marvel did with the old Tony Stark/Iron Man character in the 60's. And, while Terry's precarious medical condition didn't allow him to even drive, it's notable that Connelly was still able to make McCaleb interesting without many action opportunities.

The identity of the killer in the book and the denouement was anticlimactic, at best. No chapters are told in his POV, we didn't get the chance to meet him until the very end and that robbed the reader of the catharsis that Aristotle promises us. The screenplay's solution was more ingenious.

All the same, I've bought and am currently reading the followup, A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT, which is a crossover that's sure to make ecstatic fans of McCaleb and Connelly's main series character, Harry Bosch.

The Stone Monkey: A Lincoln Rhyme Novel
The Stone Monkey: A Lincoln Rhyme Novel
by Jeffery Deaver
Edition: Hardcover
74 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Jeffs rocks the boat but not my world, March 12 2003
I find it hard to suspend my disbelief when the INS would go to an outside, civilian source to capture a smuggler and finding ways to get Rhyme involved in case after case while he has no official standing must be one of the hardest things that Deaver has to do, given Rhyme's lack of mobility and official standing.

That said, THE STONE MONKEY, the fourth in the Rhyme/Sachs series, gives us an interesting glimpse into the labyrinthine world of Chinese society. A snake head (or human smuggler) known as The Ghost, has deliberately scuttled a ship containing dozens of Chinese emigrants before reaching New York's shores. Two families escape and The Ghost methodically begins tracking down the last survivors who can link him with the disastrous voyage.

The book begins with Lincoln Rhyme monitoring the Coast Guard's progress at intercepting the ship while members of the FBI, INS and NYPD are comfortably sitting with him in his townhouse. The shooting begins and Rhyme immediately dispatches Sachs to look at the crime scene, even though her involvement is sanctioned through the NYPD through official channels, it's done so through abnormal procedures.

Over the course of the book, we find out that some of the ship's inhabitants aren't who or what they seem and The Ghost's alter ego was a genuine surprise for me. As the bodies pile up, Rhyme sends Sachs in her muscle car all over New York and Chinese cop Sonny Li (a wonderfully quirky character) to collect evidence in order to divine The Ghost's whereabouts. As always, microscopic grit left in his footprints virtually leads the investigators right to the snake head's front door.

For me, the best part of the book was when the claustrophobic Sachs is given the daunting task of processing a crime scene submerged in icy cold water, the sunken Fouzhou Dragon, in which she, incredibly, finds a survivor. What she discovers there is somewhat reminiscent of the scene in which investigators are exploring the wreck of the barge in Boris Starling's STORM.

The scene at the airport, in which the captured Ghost is about to be extradited back to China, was a bit too much like the classic whodunits of the Christie era, in which the suspects are gathered together to hear the detective pontificate about the evidence and to whom it leads.

About the only real departure for Deaver in this so-so book is the fact that there's no accomplice to endanger our heroes in the penultimate chapter, even though there's the inevitable red herring. The operation that was a central theme in THE EMPTY CHAIR is mentioned time and again, which gives some added human dimension and poignance to Rhyme's and Sach's relationship without providing distraction.

Overall, I'm giving this book three stars because I don't think it's up to snuff with Deaver's better efforts such as THE BONE COLLECTOR and A MAIDEN'S GRAVE. Still, it was good to see the supporting characters back in full force, stalwarts like Dellray, Selitto, Bedding & Saul, etc. I'm hoping that THE VANISHED MAN, which came out yesterday, will give the reader some genuine twists, in memorable language, without straining credulity.

Next Victim
Next Victim
by Michael Prescott
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
32 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Next!, Jan. 29 2003
Sometimes, in the course of reading the work of a talented author who thinks up good concepts, knows the mechanics of good storytelling, writes interesting dialogue, and creates compelling characters, one has to wonder how much creative control they actually have and how much better they could've made their book if left to their own expert devices instead of being comprised by editorial micro-managing. I got an inkling of how Alex Kava's light was obscured by the editorial bushel while reading SPLIT SECOND and I couldn't help but speculate on the same thing while reading Michael Prescott's latest thriller (he'd wanted to name it WIPEOUT but the publisher choose the breathtakingly bland NEXT VICTIM).

A woman on the run from the FBI is carrying a canister of VX nerve agent and is intercepted by a serial killer, who then absconds with it and plans to use it on an unsuspecting Los Angeles. This is the best concept in recent fiction since Jan Burke's BONES (2001).

Not all the book's flaws can be blamed on editing, however- as one reviewer rightly posits, Mobius suffers from the talking villain syndrome, whereas the pieces could've come together in a more organic way, through skillful exposition or having Special Agent Tess McCallum, the book's heroine, tell the reader in her POV. Also, in the ATSAC HQ, Tess is actually relieved when it turns out that Mobius has VX in his possession, instead of the ebola that Tess had feared. I don't know of a single human who would ever be relieved to be dealing with VX, surely the deadliest substance ever engineered by Man.

But NEXT VICTIM'S virtues far outweigh its flaws and the characterization of the principals is good enough to garner sympathy for both antagonist and protagonist. and, while it's obligatory for the heroine to engage the villain in the Endgame in which the heroine (of course) wins, Prescott thankfully was able to break away from his usual DIE HARD-esque ending that involves a tall, abandoned/unfinished building to give the reader a more novel denouement.

As usual, I'll be on the lookout for the talented Prescott's next outing, hoping for both a hardcover deal for him and less editorial interference.

The Straw Men
The Straw Men
by Michael Marshall
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
54 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Practice random acts of violence., Dec 19 2002
The Straw Men by Mike Marshall

Two men walk into a McDonald's in Pennsylvania and kill dozens of people with automatic weapons. A youth walks into a school and kills over a dozen classmates and faculty with a similar weapon. A man in England goes berserk and kills dozens. Sound like your typical latter-day headlines? They are but they're incidents in Mike Marshall's timely debut novel, The Straw Men, a story about an international cabal of mass murderers led by a serial killer self-named The Upright Man.

This premise was used to lesser effect in the Sylvester Stallone thriller COBRA and is therefore not a new one. However, an intriguing storyline adds heft and some coherency to this novel, one in which two widely divergent storylines are finally united in the thrilling climax.

Former CIA analyst and professional slacker Ward Hopkins returns to his hometown in Dyersburg, Montana after the abrupt and violent death of his parents. Ward finds a note in his father's chair containing the short but cryptic message: "We're not dead." Upon further discovering a videotape made by his father, he begins to investigate his parents' deaths and immediately comes up against stiff resistance from a shadowy faction that is concentrated in the ultra-exclusive housing development known only as The Halls.

Meanwhile, former LAPD homicide detective John Zandt is called out of retirement by FBI agent Nina Baynam, with whom he'd had an affair after Zandt's own daughter was abducted and presumably murdered by the Upright Man. Another girl, Sarah Becker, has been snatched from a mall in California and all the clues point to the fact that the Upright Man is back in action.

Marshall, in my opinion, took too long in finally intertwining these two different storylines, in which Zandt and the underachieving Hopkins, aided by Ward's close friend, CIA operative Bobby, attempt to take down the man or men responsible. Marshall's characterization is vivid and his dark humor is only slightly less sharp than that of a John Connolly. The Upright Man, a keen student of paleontology, hence the moniker, is until the end someone only seen in glimpses through the eyes of his latest abduction, the fourteen-year-old Sarah Becker, whom he keeps hidden and trapped under his floorboards, one of which created entirely out of matchsticks struck by other people and varnished until it matched the real ones. Such patience and deliberation, in artificially crafting something more easily made through mass production, is one of the most chilling facets I've ever read of a serial killer's psyche.

This book cries out for a sequel and those who have read it will see why. It is an intriguing study in duality, with the timely message that perhaps the random acts of violence that make the headlines virtually every day are perhaps not so random, after all.

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