The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.

Killing Maine, by Mike Bond ***

killingmaineNote: Usually my blog is reserved for books I recommend, that merit 4 or 5 stars. Once in awhile I review a galley and find that my obligation to the author and publisher have bumped up against my blog policy. This is one of those times.

Killing Maine is a thriller, and like the one other book by this author that I’ve read, it’s a tale of grief, alienation, and grave concern regarding environmental degradation. Thank you once to Net Galley, then again to Mandevilla Press for the DRC. This novel can be purchased July 21.

The story starts out in high gear. Our protagonist, Pono Hawkins, has been called from his home in Hawaii to Maine. A man who saved his life during his years in military service has been jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Pono has done time twice, and both times he was innocent. He’s been exonerated, and yet still has a criminal background that comes up when cops run him through the system. And as he talks about the ways in which America’s so-called justice system is broken, I hear him loud and clear.

From there, however, he takes the plot all over the place. There are three different women, and he falls madly in love with one named Abigail, but there is so little of substance about their first meeting that instead of engaging, I’m left scratching my head. Seriously?

Most of the plot, which takes wing when someone is shooting at him out in the frozen Maine hinterland, is built around the wind power industry, which is referred to here as the “Wind Mafia” and “Big Wind”. But instead of using it to move the plot forward, there is so much repetition that it seems to bog us down. He lays it on thickly enough that at the beginning I wonder what can be done about problems involving the use of wind energy and the environmental problems he tells us it creates. We have to have some form of energy other than fossil fuels, right? Coal is a bad solution. Hydroelectric power can only take us so far, especially with global warming causing some water sources to dry up, or nearly so. And so I am on board, and I am thinking about the problems with wind (politicians being corrupted by big businesses, be they wind or something else, seems like a given these days, and didn’t particularly move me), and wondering what alternatives we might have.

Bond uses the novel to address about half a dozen social and political issues—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; lousy medical treatment of veterans; Agent Orange and Vietnam; and of course, environmental despoliation—and for ninety percent of the book, I am in complete agreement with him on all the issues he raises. How will a reviewer that disagrees with some or all of it see this novel?

Because when we come back around to Pono, the plot has so many holes in it. Pono doesn’t like Bucky, the man he has come to rescue, and Bucky will no longer see him when he drives to the jail to visit. The local heat is starting to harass him, and if he doesn’t leave the state soon, they’re going to tell him he can’t leave. Meanwhile, he is due in Fiji in a few weeks for a tsunami; he’s been hired to do a job there. And since there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of anything—the guy he doesn’t like that won’t see him; an old flame is one he’s decided not to rekindle—I can’t figure out why the protagonist wouldn’t just get on the plane and head for Fiji early. Surely he doesn’t genuinely believe that one man can derail the entire wind industry, along with the governor, senators, and other heavy-duty politicos, by himself and with the law hot on his trail.

Meanwhile, the writer continues to rail against “Big Wind” until I just want to throw up my hands and call it quits. And to be honest, were I not obligated to review the book, I probably would have just abandoned it at the point where the environmental concern turned into a diatribe. Enough, enough. I get it.

But I do read it, and so we continue, and there is one scene that seems real and is wonderfully done, in the midst of all of this other stuff, and that is the farewell scene between Pono and his dying father, which is poignant and moving; entirely authentic. It’s hard to see what schism makes it possible to write that scene so well and yet have so many plot problems elsewhere.

Had I still been on board at the point where he speaks about Gone With the Wind as if it is historically accurate, and paints General Sherman, one of my own greatest heroes, as a man who went in and wrecked everything, using the whole thing as a misbegotten metaphor for Maine, I think I would have stepped back a bit. If a novelist wants to be accurate with his real-world facts, then get all of them straight. But the fact is, after about the first half of the book I wasn’t really on board.

Readers of Bond’s who have grown fond of his writing style may have a good time here. For me, it seemed like a good opportunity lost.