Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: "Dead Eye: The Skinwalker Conspiracies" by Jim Bernheimer

Mike Ross is a man with two problems: the ghosts he can see and the girlfriend he doesn't have.

Mike is a Ferryman -- a person with the ability to see (and affect) dead people and to help them cross into the next world. That ability helps him on his quest to track down the ghost who possessed his father and ran off years ago, leaving Mike and his mother on their own. Ghosts like those are called Skinwalkers for their ability to steal a person's body and use it to rejoin the living, and they play a dominant role in this installment of Bernheimer's "Dead Eye" series. As you probably guessed from the name.

(I should add a disclaimer: "The Skinwalker Conspiracies" is the second book in the "Dead Eye" series. I intended to buy the first, but, well, I didn't. I haven't read the first book, obviously, so I'm making allowances for questions that arose relating to backstory.)

Accompanying Mike on his journey to find the ghost running his father's body are a Civil War-era ghost named Amos and a blind preacher named Silas, who can see ghosts, Mike and anything Mike touches. Along the way, Mike and his companions meet various spirits, many of them people you'll recognize: Virginia Poe (cousin/wife of Edgar Allen), Lee Harvey Oswald (with a different backstory than you might expect), Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto ... and, you know, they all fit nicely into the plotline. (The concept of skinwalkers made keeping straight who was whom -- and when -- a bit complicated, but I'm not sure how that could have been avoided.)

More mundanely, Mike is lonely. With his life constantly in danger from his paranormal obligations, he wonders, what kind of woman would want to be with him? Considering the glimpses we get into his past romantic attachments, it's a valid question. That's not to say this is a touchy-feely book, just that Mike returns to the idea of companionship throughout his adventures.

We spend a lot of time watching as Mike kicks various ghosts' butts, picks up a few new nifty tricks and builds a new life for himself in the process. He helps several random ghosts find peace and even ensures that a criminally neglectful mother comes to justice, with a little help from the ghost of her son's father. Basically, he's a good guy caught up in a not-so-good situation.

I especially liked the ability he learns from honeymooner ghost Tabitha, though I have questions about exactly why that ability works. Highlight this paragraph if you don't mind mildly spoiler-ish information: Tabitha can pull "ghost" copies of objects from anything in the real world, and she helps Mike figure out how to do the same. It's immensely helpful, as it means he can equip himself with weapons that ghosts can feel.  But ... do inanimate objects really have "ghosts"? I mean, Tabitha creates copies of magazines. Are we supposed to believe that, say, U.S. Weekly has a soul?

Nitpicks aside, my only real complaint with this book is that it reads like Bernheimer's editor worked on it the day before he was supposed to retire. Typos? Check. Text in the wrong font? Check. There's even a sentence that looks like it either lead into or ended a paragraph that got cut. I wouldn't go as far as to say there were errors on every page, but if you care at all about the quality of writing, it's prevalent enough to drive you nuts.

I wasn't able to find any information on a sequel to this book, so I'm not sure whether that's in the offing, but at this price point -- I paid $2.99 for the e-book -- I'd read a third entry in the "Dead Eyes" line. I just hope Bernheimer finds a new editor.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Review: "The Fourth Awakening" by Rod Pennington and Jeffrey A. Martin

I was predisposed to like "The Fourth Awakening." I like thrillers, I don't mind the religion angle hinted at in the blurb, and as a journalist, the protagonist's career -- investigative reporter -- caught my interest. It’s too bad the book didn’t live up to its promise.

Pennington's heroine, Penelope, is a woman adrift after her marriage ends and her children have left home. Years ago she was a hotshot investigative reporter, winning a Pulitzer for her work and then choosing family over her career. With no family life to speak of now, she's regretting that fact. When an old buddy from the Washington Post offers her a dangerous but potentially prize-winning story, she barely hesitates before jumping right in. The government has detained a billionaire, Michael Walker, for mysterious charges related to a project he was working on. Penelope interviews him and, in short order, has helped him break out of a high-security prison and gone on the run with him to his group's compound. Along the way, he tells her of his group's discovery of the coming Fourth Awakening, which will introduce a sea change to the way humanity lives. He wants Penelope to break the story of the awakening to the world. Of course, there are those who don't want that to happen.

It sounds good. The supporting facts Pennington brings into play are convincing enough that suspension of disbelief wasn't difficult. Through Walker, he details the first three "awakenings" -- the emergence of homo sapiens, man's realization of mortality and the ascendance of science over religion -- that mankind has already experienced. Walker's group has found a way to speed individuals through the fourth awakening, which he explains as akin to reaching enlightenment. This aspect of the story is the strongest and, by extension, the most interesting. Pennington ties the historical details together much like Dan Brown did in the "Da Vinci Code" -- you know it's not true, but there's enough truth there to make the read enjoyable.

If only I could have gotten past Penelope.

She's a superjournalist. Pulitzer Prize-winner extraordinaire. “The best damned investigative reporter in the world,” as she’s toasted at the end. We hear it over and over again, but there's no evidence of it, anywhere, aside from the Pulitzer. This amazing story that she breaks was handed to her by an old friend -- well, actually, by Walker, as we later find out in a discussion between Penelope and Walker:

"How did you know I was coming?"
“Because I needed you and I asked you to come.”
“You needed me and you asked me to come?”

Aside from the initial effort it took her to get into the prison, she doesn't do anything to break the story. Walker and his group hand her everything she needs -- up to and including pre-written background articles on their work -- for her stories. Now, I'm a journalist myself, so I probably come at this from a different angle than the average reader, but it's ridiculous how much Penelope is praised and idolized and congratulated for sitting there and writing what she's told to write.

Not to mention the way she lets Walker control her, even picking out her clothes on several occasions. What the?

And then the story just ... ends. There's no dramatic confrontation with the bad guys (heck, I'm not even clear by the end of who the bad guys were), and the most-dramatic, most-foreshadowed arc culminated with Walker and Penelope dancing the tango in front of the rest of the supporting cast.

“The Fourth Awakening” was a quick, fun read, but I’m not rushing out to buy the sequel (“The Gathering Darkness”), and I doubt it’s a book I’ll pick up for a re-read.