Book review: a star is born with Carrion Safari

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Jonah Buck's book about Denise DeMarco, who want to retire from the big game hunting business, but she gets an offer she can't refuse

I read a lot of novels about monsters on the attack.  Carrion Safari (2016) is the best one published since James Patterson’s Zoo (2012).  If Jonah Buck, its author, were a stock, I’d advise my clients to buy as many shares as possible, because he has a great touch and potential for growth.

Denise is a South African big game hunter and safari guide in the 1920s.  After being sickened watching a group of Belgian dentist clients mercilessly shoot a herd of elephants, she hangs up her elephant gun and quits.  But Herschel Hobhouse, representing the research arm of deep-pocketed corporation named Yersinia, offers her $100,000 to capture a specific animal.  She agrees, and travels about the Shield of Mithridates toward Malheur Island, an island of natives under vaguely Dutch colonial influence.  She finds that nine other hunters have been enlisted on the mission too.  It’s difficult to say too much more about their expedition without giving plot spoilers.

The reason that it is difficult not to reveal plot developments is because this is a well-crafted book that reveals significant developments in chunks over time.  I wouldn’t necessarily call the developments “surprises” or “plot twists”; more like miniature mysteries that are solved incrementally as the book progresses.  It makes for a nice atmosphere of uncertainty, anxiety, and even wonder.

Through pithy comments and crackling soundbites by colorful characters, Buck exhibits a great sense of humor.  Carrion Safari includes vivid and grizzly descriptions.  Buck could easily write horror if he wants to.  The plot and pace of the novel are good, so he could write thrillers if he prefers.  I’d read more of his work either way.  If this book were made into a movie, and it certainly could be, I’d be there on opening night.

Before reading this book, I read a review or two somewhere complaining that Carrion Safari has too many anachronisms.  But the thing is, the whole premise is obviously made up.  It’s about a mysterious island with actual monsters.  Readers accept that, but somebody is upset that words and traits from the 2000s being used by characters in the 1920s?  Lighten up!  Check out blockbuster contemporary movies like “The Legend of Tarzan” and tell me that transplanting our values and catchphrases a century or so is that serious of a problem.  The anachronisms are designed for entertainment purposes—the modern-sounding comments and sarcasm are funny!—they are not for the purposes of rewriting history, and should be understood as such.

My one complaint is that there are too many characters.  Each of the nine or ten hunters has his or her own traits and backstory, and it’s way too much to keep track of.  I confused a couple of them and never really understood who some of them were, which impaired my ability to follow certain plot developments.  I wish there had been a way to condense the number to five or six, tops.  That would have made things tighter, clearer, and would have earned this book a fifth star.

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Book review: Island 731 delivers non-stop chills

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A 2014 bio-thriller

In Jeremy Robinson’s thriller Island 731, an ecological expedition in the Pacific runs aground on an unknown island.  A crewmate flees and Hawkins, a hero who earlier survived a grizzly bear attack, sets out to find him.  Hawkins and his love interest, the risk-taking Joliet, plunge inland despite initial signs of danger.

Why their geeky but likable crewmate Kam would have run away makes no sense at first.  Hawkins and Joliet speculate that Kam went into hiding after killing another crewmate:

“That’s my best theory.”

Joliet sagged.  “I came up with the same thing.  Do you really think Kam would run?  If it was an accident—”

The search is complicated as Hawkins and Joliet quickly learn that the island is teeming with dangerous lifeforms that are blends of more than one species.  The discovery of an island with previously undiscovered creatures makes this thriller reminiscent of The Land That Time Forgot.  And like Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic, the threats to the protagonists aren’t only from the island’s beasts, but from frictions within the marooned crew.

An island full of chimeras is exciting, foreboding, and mysterious.  It creates a great, dark atmosphere.  That being said, some of the chimeras have so many progenitors that they are difficult to visualize.  For example, one chimera has a face with features from a bat, goat, tiger, and crocodile.  Tough to picture.

The search leads the main characters into more danger and closer to the truth of the island.  Without giving any spoilers, Robinson’s work shows a broad familiarity with biology, history, and conspiracy theories.  Island 731 delivers plausibly on these themes.  There is some background and technical information that must be conveyed for the story to make sense, but Robinson handles those passages economically without retarding the action.

The characters are engaging.  Larger-than-life villains and bald faced evil make for an ambitious book, but Robinson pulls it together.  Hawkins’s jovial sidekick Bray is fun, and the romance between Hawkins and Joliett is well done.

Parts of the book are gruesome:  one character is crucified hanging from his own entrails.  “Patients” are dissected alive.  If you didn’t like the bloody, gross-out scenes of the movie “Saw,” this may not be the right book for you.

Some thrillers have great beginnings and the action falls apart toward the end or doesn’t pay off.  That’s not the case with Island 731.  The action builds throughout and the stakes get higher toward the end.  Robinson has a good sense for plot, pace, tension, and momentum.  The characters are always on the move and run into one obstacle after another.

For readers who are drawn to thrillers because they enjoy non-stop thrills and chills, look no further.  If you’ve got a dark streak, you’ll want to bring this apocalyptic island adventure on your next cruise.