Thursday, March 17, 2011

KnockOut: In-depth Book Review

Coulter, Catherine. KnockOut. New York: Putnam, 2009. Hardcover. +417 pages. $26.95

What's this? Another post when I should be studying/grading/doing something probably more productive? This does not speak well of this book that my outrage is so bad I will put off French homework.

Well, maybe not. My French class is pretty bad.

And I should note, to be fair, I was kind of irritated when I started this book because I discovered that instead of managing to buy Whiplash (which apparently comes after KnockOut) on a steep markdown...I'd managed to buy, somehow, two copies of KnockOut. Granted, I did not pay $26.95 for either copy ($6.99, thank you B&N discount bin). Still, one will be going to Half Price Books. Possibly both.

So here is my open letter to Catherine Coulter.

Dear Ms. Coulter,

Please stop watching the X-Files.

your fans.

Seriously, I've enjoyed Catherine Coulter's FBI thrillers from the beginning. They're typically well-paced, exciting, and, referencing my previous post on Elizabeth Lowell's romantic suspense novel Death Echo, have had just the right amount of romance, given that Coulter started her career as a romance writer. And there has been weird stuff happen in Coulter's books before, but they were typically just things that had no real explanation--weird stuff that could probably be rationalized away, especially in Double Take.

But this has gotten a bit much. Now, one of the recurring characters, Dillon Savich, is flat out telepathic.


Anyway. The book opens with a bank robbery. Savich, of course, is in the bank and saves the day, killing one of the robbers. Unfortunately, her daughter is also one of the robbers, and the daughter's way over-age boyfriend is the driver, and the daughter eventually escapes from the hospital and is a recurring threat throughout the book as she really, really wants to kill Savich.

Savich, having gone home after a hard day's work, then receives a telepathic call from a scared little girl, Autumn, whose father's family is after her because of her psychic abilities, which they want to add to their cult.

Switch over to Sheriff Ethan. He's looking for a missing little girl. Turns out, she's been in his house all day, because she knows that he can protect her and her mother, Joanna, from the batshit insane family members who are after her.

So. Lots of running around, lots of trying to get all of the pertinent, unbelievable information from Joanna and Autumn, and finally, a call from Savich, which confirms their completely unbelievable story. Turns out, one of the crazies after her, Blessed, can take over people's minds, and when they finally get hold of him, he "stymies" everyone and gets back loose.

Lots of chasing around. Savich and Sherlock come to Virginia to help and to record the psychic phenomenon and let Savich's wonder computer, MAX, loose on stuff. The crazies take Joanna, Ethan and Autumn hostage, and Autumn does an acting job that deserves an Oscar for playing her crazy uncle to do what she wants.

In the mean time, Savich and Sherlock return to Washington to deal with the bank robber crazies, who they catch, of course, but partly because Autumn "calls" Savich and then psychically pummels the bank robbers for him. Back in the podunk cult town, Ethan and Autumn manage to throw down, which ends up with Autumn, who the cult leader calls the strongest psychic power he'd ever seen, shot.

At the end, Ethan and Joanna are together (which still boggles my mind. Even though Joanna's husband, Autumn's father, had been in prison for three years, he'd died two weeks before. That's a little fast, not to mention the fact that we barely see any kind of relationship developing), Autumn is alive, and they're wondering about whether or not she psychically burned herself out. After all, that kind of power's dangerous. Of course, the book ends on her psychically reaching out to Savich.

All of this could have easily been done in half the amount of pages by cutting out a tremendous amount of unnecessary scenes, and the bank robber plot really wasn't needed. Instead, the bank robbers seemed added in because the book couldn't pin the entire plot on just the psychic aspect. By the time I got to about the last third of the book, it was midnight and I was really wishing it was over already.

Here's my beef with KnockOut, and to be honest, with Death Echo as well. If I've read a series, I expect it to continue in the same vein. I don't need psychic intervention to make it fresh. I like the same kinds of adventures that we've seen before. And here's the other thing: when you go into a paranormal novel, you have a certain level of suspension of disbelief that you don't necessarily have when you're talking about an FBI thriller. To have that suddenly introduced to you, Pow!, shakes things up too much to ever really get your proper frame of mind back. I realize the need to keep things interesting and fresh for the reader, but you do that through your characters. You don't do this by adding an unbelievable plot device into a book where it doesn't belong.

KnockOut= D+

Right. I'm going to go be productive now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Death Echo: In-depth Review

Lowell, Elizabeth. Death Echo. New York: Avon, 2010. Paperback. +423 pages. $7.99

What's this? Two posts in three days? Say it isn't so!

But it is so, thanks to a cold front, believe it or not. After it started raining last night, my knee started giving me problems, so I put away everything else (studying, WoW) and settled down to finish Death Echo in the bathtub.

First, let me get this straight. I love Elizabeth Lowell. I've loved Elizabeth Lowell since I started reading her books, probably back in 2005 or 2006. The Donovan books (Amber Beach, Jade Island, Pearl Cove and Midnight in Ruby Bayou, mentioned in the last post) were absolutely awesome, and I could not put them down. Maybe if I went back and read them now, I wouldn't be as impressed, but I doubt it. They were really interesting, dealing with the world of gems and gem-dealing, something that has always fascinated me (Dear National History Museum, you rock).

Generally, I like two genres of romance novels. I like historical romance, generally Regency, and I like romantic suspense. When you can get the two of them together, you get Stephanie Laurens (most of the time). The point is, I'm not reading romance novels for the man candy, necessarily. I like my romance novels to have a plot that is not the hero and heroine falling in love. The romance should be a happy side effect, and the book could go forward with out it if necessary.

But I want you to know where I'm coming from when I say that, well, I'm disappointed with Death Echo. Yes, I want my romances to have a plot. But I expect anything published by Avon to, well, have a romance!

Here's the plot. Emma Cross, former CIA agent, works for St. Kilda Consulting, who's been called in to help the U.S.'s intelligence agencies track down a yacht that has been stolen and renamed that may be carrying weapons of mass destruction and stop an imminent attack on Seattle, carried out by Georgian (the country, not the state) terrorists trying to blame Russia. Really, I got a little confused by the plot and the motivations of the terrorists, but it had to do with Georgia-Russia-US relations and trying to upset the status quo with old USSR nuclear material. And something about counterfeit money. Anyway.

Our hero, Mac Durand, is former special ops, who lost his entire unit in Afghanistan when the CIA gave them bad intel and hung them out to dry. Now he works in the Pacific northwest piloting boats for various and sundry purposes. He brings in the yacht to the U.S. without knowing what's up. Emma recruits him to St. Kilda, and they go undercover to continue taking the boat to where it goes. Their cover? Basically, Mac's pre-Kilda job, and Emma's arm candy. Really, really stupid arm candy. There's also something about a former KGB agent who kills one of Mac's friends and who makes far too many appearances with very little actually happening.

Anyway. Mac and Emma take the boat up the Inside Passage, get stonewalled by Canadian customs because the FBI and the CIA are having a pissing contest, then parts of the CIA that aren't talking with the part hiring St. Kilda get involved and the yacht ends up sunk. Come to find the main bad guy has sunk it so he can swap it out with the yacht that everyone thought was stolen and renamed, but is actually a completely different boat. Confused yet? In the meantime, our intrepid heroes are running against the clock, as they have seven days before the shit hits Seattle.

Being a romantic suspense novel, you expect some romance in all of this suspense (which, incidentally, has some pacing problems); the kind of desperate, we've got to save the world, there's nothing to do on a stake-out but wait, fighting against the darkness, life-affirming (add whatever other metaphor you like here) romance that fits into most suspense novels (see Catherine Coulter's FBI thrillers for examples of this done well).

Yeah, no. There's some kissing, mostly for show when their undercover, and no internal monologue about how this might actually be making either of them feel. There's an implied happy ending, but no real wrap up that yes, they'll be living happily ever after working for St. Kilda and preventing other terrorists from trying to do more terrible things.

And shouldn't Mac have had some serious work in trying to learn to accept and trust Emma, the former CIA agent, rather than to simply ask, "Did you work in Afghanistan?" When she says no, apparently all his feelings about the CIA go back into remission as far as she's concerned. I mean, this is a classic romantic suspense set up! You let the lack of trust on a vital mission interfere with the romance until the hero and heroine are at each other's throats. Then the untrusted does something to save the other person's life, and ta-da! We are back into romance land, as the saved person shows how grateful they are.

I can't speak to the plausibility of the plot. Maybe it's possible, and to be honest, her assessment of the cooperation, or lack thereof, between intelligence agencies in the United States? Probably not far from the truth. And she did pick something that worries the intelligence community--old nukes from the Soviet Union that have been unaccounted for. But there were some things that bothered me, like this line, for example. "After all, the Georgians had left a nuclear calling card--a rudimentary dirty bomb--in Moscow once, simply as a warning" (422).

It's near the end of the book, so suspension of disbelief is maintained up until then. But...really? That snapped me out of it, because, well, plausibility is a bit much here. And something stated that factually in a debrief by a CIA agent in the book--well, I expect it, in a book that has stuck with facts about border defense post-9/11 the whole book to stick to the facts! And let's face it, if this had actually happened, we'd have seen it out of the WikiLeak cables by now. Also, Vladimir Putin would have wiped Georgia off the face of the planet. Probably Georgia the state too, just because it had the same name.

Anyway. It's a rather disappointing read, but not so bad that I'll give up on Elizabeth Lowell completely (it's not like she's Troy Denning or anything).

Death Echo = C-

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three months later....

1. I apologize to John Ruskin for my last post. I'm now in a pre-Raphaelite class, and he's actually pretty cool.

2. Important book news: Jim Butcher's Ghost Story has been pushed back to July. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, what's this? Chapter one? My husband has some interesting theories about who the captain is.

3. In school related reading, I've recently read Tennyson: An Unquiet Heart. Very interesting, very informative. It's neat to look at Tennyson as a real person, rather than the poet laureate who was the be all end all of Victorian poetry. He was cranky, often slovenly, painfully shy, and a chronic, clinical depressive who had little ability to manage his money and who worked on his poems until, some claimed, he'd polished all the shine off them. This might explain why "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is one of my favorites--it was written in one sitting and published approximately ten days later after the Light Brigade was delivered a resounding defeat during the Crimean War.

Of course, the fact that it was quoted in an episode of Deep Space 9 ("Sacrifice of Angels") doesn't hurt either:

O'BRIEN: Cannon to left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon in front of them, volley'd and thunder'd

BASHIR: Storm'd at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well into the jaws of death. Into the mouth of hell rode the six hundred.

NOG: Whatever it is the two of you are reciting, I wish you'd stop.

4. While on vacation, I picked up Nora Roberts' Happy Ever After and Elizabeth Lowell's newest, Death Echo. I read Happy Ever After first, since I was really looking forward to Death Echo more. It's good enough, and I suppose a good enough end to the quartet, but I can't help but feel that Nora Roberts needs to perhaps focus on quality, not quantity. The woman has published more than 190 books. The used bookstore where I picked it up had one entire (big) shelf devoted to just her books.

In any case, it certainly wasn't worth sixteen dollars, which was the retail price on the cover. Part of this is the fact that the book itself is larger, dimensionally speaking, I feel sure. The other is that I'm sure Nora Roberts can command sixteen dollars for one of her books, rather than the eight most other romance novelists can get for their (longer) novels. It's still a bit frustrating, and why I don't buy her books new anymore.

I will say that the first Yahoo! game based on the quartet, Vision in White, is pretty fun (though I've only played through the free trial), and it seems to follow the book pretty closely.

I'm halfway through Death Echo, and I hope to have time to read it this weekend, after I take a midterm in my pre-Raphaelite class and in French (which I hope to have done before this weekend), and after I grade papers and put together midterm grades for my students. It's a bit implausible (okay, a LOT implausible, and I would have thought that before my husband, the international security expert, had begun schooling me on what does and does not actually happen in that field), but it's entertaining, and it's fairly fast-paced, though not enough that I couldn't put it down (which we can see happened).

Still, if you're looking for an Elizabeth Lowell book to read, you can't go wrong with Amber Beach, Jade Island, Pearl Cove, and Midnight in Ruby Bayou. The Rarities Unlimited books are also good, but Death Echo is probably the weakest of the St. Kilda Consulting books.

5. I did manage to pick up two books on the to-read list at Barnes and Noble, on sale, even! Sherrilyn Kenyon's No Mercy and Catherine Coulter's Whiplash. Of course, I still need to read Coulter's Knockout, which I haven't gotten to either, but is around here somewhere.

6. I'm also halfway through a weird little book called Einstein's Dreams. It's quite curious, going back and forth through different conceptions of time in the same 1905 Swiss towns. Very definitely postmodern, and very definitely weird, but I understand why it was titled the way it is. The interludes, a fictionalization of Einstein's conversations with a friend while he contemplated the theories of relativity, give it a frame that makes all the odds and ends fit together.

7. In other news, I am so glad that my brother doesn't live in Japan anymore, even though the prefecture where he studied abroad was okay. Episcopal Relief and Development is taking donations to their disaster relief fund to help over there. In the meantime, I will leave you with the prayer for Japan, added to the Daily Office for the foreseeable future.

Prayer for Japan after the Earthquake
from the Church of England

O loving Creator, bring healing and hope to those who, at this time, grieve, suffer pain, or who have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We remember those who have died and we pray for those who mourn for them. We pray for those who may be affected as the tsunami spread across the Pacific. May we all be aware of your compassion, O God, which calms our troubled hearts and shelters our anxious souls. May we pray with humility with our troubled and struggling brothers and sisters on earth. May we dare to hope that through the generosity of the privileged, the destitute might glimpse hope, warmth and life again. Through our Savior Christ who lives with us, comforts us and soothes us. Amen.