Thursday, 19 June 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2014

Midnight Crossroad, by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris needs no introduction.  Author of the famed ‘True Blood’ series, she also has produced a number of minor heroines, i.e. Lily Bard, Aurora Teagarden and Harper Connelly, to name a few:  now, she is introducing us to a whole raft of new characters in Midnight Crossroad, and whilst most readers are regretting the end of Sookie Stackhouse’s adventures – especially as (in my opinion!) she ended up with the wrong man – I am not sure if the denizens of Midnight, Texas will prove as endearing and as deliciously creepy as those of Bon Temps, Louisiana.
Ms Harris initially makes a good fist of it:  we have Manfred Bernardo, internet Psychic, arriving in Midnight to rent a house from Bobo Wishart ( a handsome character from a previous series) who owns a Pawnshop.  Manfred could be a conman, but he does have ‘the vision’ inherited from his grandmother.  He is fascinated by the locals that he meets:  Fiji (I’m named that because my parents liked to travel) Kavanaugh, his neighbour across the street who is a genuine witch - she even has a talking cat as a familiar;  a gay couple, Joe and Chuy, who have an antique shop and nail salon  (why?  There are so few permanent residents in Midnight that Manfred is at a loss to understand why they are there);  Lemuel, the resident vampire – well, you couldn’t have a new set of stories without one – and various other characters that excite his curiosity.
All well and good, but Ms Harris seems to tire of her characters before she has even established them properly in the reader’s imagination – which is a shame:  at her best she is the mistress of the ‘Bonk and Bite’ genre;  therefore a lot more is expected of her (at least by me!) than is shown in this first story.
We have a lot of minor characters that will probably feature more in the coming books:  a rabid group of White Supremacists led by someone who should have been dispatched with in Book One;  a mysterious Reverend who preaches the word of the Lord – but only now and then:  in between times, he maintains and runs a pet cemetery.  (But what else is buried there?)
Yes, all the characters are here to whet our appetites for the books to come, but the attendant excitement is missing.  There is a murder to be solved by all, (including a flinty-eyed Sheriff who will probably have a romantic involvement with someone in the future) but when the villain is eventually unveiled, my response was ‘Oh yeah – So?’ 
I’m perfectly prepared to accept some blame – reader overload, etc – but I have to say that I did expect better from Ms Harris.  The reader should not have to take a slow stroll through her story.  That’s not what we are used to!
The inhabitants of Midnight, Texas will have to lift their game – and reveal more secrets – to get me through Book Two.

Hangman, by Stephan Talty

Detective Absalom Kearney returns to do battle with yet another serial killer in this disappointing sequel to ‘Black Irish’, (see 2013 review below)Mr Talty’s first introduction to Ms Kearney and the mean streets of Buffalo, New York.  This time the action centres at the opposite end of town, the monied suburbs, those leafy, manicured boulevards with the big stone mansions, supposedly inviolate from the nasty crimes inflicted upon lesser, poorer beings:  well, not any more.
A man who killed four teenage girls from the affluent Northern end of the city five years ago is on the loose again:  Marcus Flynn, imprisoned for his heinous crimes, has escaped from jail and has the whole state in a panic – will he strike again, and what action is the police force taking to protect its citizens?
The doughty Ms Kearney is designated the lead detective, and she is predictably clever, teasing out clues from the initial investigation with ease, not to mention dealing with that tired old chestnut, sexism in the PD:  oh, really?  But just in time, Mr Talty decides to show her human frailty. 
In her zeal to get the killer off the streets, Absalom is willing to do a deal with the devil, in this case a shadowy ‘network’ of corrupt ex-cops, happy to make things happen for which she would normally have to get warrants and subpoenas – but all that help comes at a price, presumably to be paid for in Book Three.
And there’s the rub:  I have not the remotest interest in reading any more Absalom adventures. 
Once again, sloppy writing takes over:  the serial killer’s long-suffering wife has more than one name (what, again??) and  hair-raising grammatical errors reign supreme -  much like Book One, but that story, for all its faults, had pace and atmosphere:  This opus has none.  The plot is pedestrian, with countless dead ends before Ms Kearney says ‘Bingo!’ and the characters are leaden and unconvincing, even when the supposedly action-packed denouement and shoot-out takes place:  it’s a crying shame, but I have to say that Mr Talty’s mojo, along with his grammar and style, has disappeared out the window. 
It may return in Book Three, but I won’t hold my breath.  I am sad that I cannot endorse either of these June reads, but I cannot tell a lie:  I didn’t enjoy these books.   

Black Irish, by Stephan Talty

It is hard to know where to start with this book:  should I list its virtues first (many), or its faults (enough to make me shout ‘AAAAARGH!)?
I’m a fine one to talk about correct grammar – but even so:  wouldn’t the most casual and uncritical of readers balk at the fact that one of the murder victims (for this is s novel about a serial killer) starts off being called Gerald, then Gregory, then George before he reverts to being good old Gerald again.  WHAAAT???   Are proof readers now extinct in Stephan Talty’s publishing house? 
As if that weren’t bad enough, a descriptive sentence was repeated verbatim IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH;  what a shameful lack of attention to the most ordinary detail  - I mean, this is why authors supposedly submit drafts before the finished product is finally unveiled.  In my opinion (and you know how perfect that is!) it lessened the impact and pace of Mr. Talty’s story:  having said that, he still winds up the tension of his plot in a very satisfying manner, and his characters – even though they have so many aliases – are credible and well-drawn, particularly the main protagonist, Detective Absalom Kearney.
She is the adopted daughter of a retired police detective, and has followed him into the Buffalo NY police force after a glittering Harvard education.  Her stern father is now suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and his condition is also a metaphor for the city of Buffalo – it has entered a decline, especially in its once-great steel industry, and people are leaving in their droves.  Typically, those who stay are those who cannot afford to move away, and more than once Abby asks herself why she has returned.  Looking after her father is a thankless task, for he has never been an affectionate man and his condition only exacerbates his aloofness.
Fortunately, Abby’s job with the Buffalo PD is very challenging and gives her many chances to show her brilliance – until a series of murders attributed to a particularly clever serial killer show enough evidence to incriminate her, the main investigator. 

Mr Talty ramps up the action very competently in all the right places and his depiction of  the societal foundering of a big city and its insular and tribal communities is evocative and well written;  what a shame his publishers didn’t attend to the groundwork.  It would have transformed this good suspense novel into a great one.           

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