Jennifer Hillier is a regular visitor here on The Bimillennial Man -- you may have seen her around a few times. I consider her a very good friend in fact, and have been vicariously following her burgeoning writing career for the past several years. Now, true, I don't review books here on the blog anymore. For one, I simply don't have the time these days. And, two, well . . . see point one. The process is even doubly troublesome when reviewing the published work of a friend, because to be honest I lack the ability to be impartial and objective when it comes to my friends' books--HA!
Needless to say the only reason I'm breaking this rule now is because the book in question is FREAKing awesome! Therefore, I have no need to be impartial here. And, also, I don't have to worry about hurting my friend's feelings. So in other words, you know right off the bat that this book is an amazing read simply by the fact that it's even being reviewed here. I'm so giddily excited for my friend, and so happy that she's getting all the praise and love she deserves from the reader community at large. Alas, consider yourselves properly forewarned of some shameless squee'ing taking place in this blog entry. And if you're okay with that, then continue reading below for the skinny.
Author: Jennifer Hillier
Publisher: Gallery Books
Release: August 7, 2012
Hardcover: 352 pages
Freak is the sequel to last year's debut novel, Creep--a taut, well crafted psychological thriller which took the publishing world by storm. And, no, that's no friendly hyperbole there. Just head on over to the author's book page here and read all the starred reviews for yourself. It's not just me saying it, I swear! Although, if you're interested in just what I did have to say last year, you can head on over to Amazon and read my own brief review of the book right here.
But back to Freak. The story picks up not long after the satisfying conclusion of the first novel. Ethan Wolfe--nicknamed the "Tell-Tale Heart Killer" by the press--is dead, but not forgotten. Seems the whole world is fascinated by his twisted homicidal exploits. Yet it is the people directly affected by his actions who are left behind to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Foremost among these is the protagonist, Dr. Sheila Tao, a recovering sex addict and one-time lover of Ethan Wolfe who barely escaped from his twisted designs. Although responsible for Ethan's eventual downfall, Sheila's pending marriage to her fiance, Morris Gardner, is on rocky ground as she risks not only their relationship but her own career coming to grips with the traumatic experiences of the last year.
Abby Maddox, Ethan's girlfriend and purported Bonnie to his Clyde, is incarcerated for the attempted murder of a former police officer. With an ambitious prosecutor attempting to pin all of Ethan's alleged murders on herself, this beautiful and wily femme fatale has set into motion a plot within plots, with the end game being freedom and total absolution. See, she hasn't forgiven Sheila for shattering her perfect world, nor for coming between Ethan and herself. It's a score that will have to be settled, but for the time being Abby plays the innocent victim of a manipulative sexual predator in the public eye, all the while biding her time . . .
Meanwhile, seasoned ex police detective and grouchy private eye, Jerry Isaac, deals with the repercussions of Abby's attempt on his life. His marriage in shambles and now bearing a hideous scar across his neck, Jerry is called into service once more by his old cop buddy, Mike Torrance, as a copycat serial killer is set on the loose. Dead call-girls bearing a shared likeness are turning up in discreet motels across Seattle, all with chilling messages carved into their bodies: "FREE ABBY MADDOX." Has Ethan returned from the grave? Or is a perverted mind with a penchant for murder following in his idol's footsteps? Not even the cops know who to turn to for this one, but Jerry has a sinking suspicion. If they're going to catch a killer, he knows they'll need to enlist the help of the one person the killer is trying to impress--Abby Maddox!
In a race against time to find the killer before more innocent women are harmed, the lives of these three complex characters are inextricably linked in a game of jealousy, deception, sex, fame, betrayal, and of course--murder! The plot twists are numerous, and just when you think you know exactly how this is all going to pan out--another wrench is thrown into the works to knock you off balance. It's that kind of story; the kind which keeps you up at night gripping the book from both covers as you turn the pages for just one more chapter.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Sheila Tao return. Although she was the protagonist in the first novel, I made the mistake of assuming that her tale was already done. She and Morris would get married and live happily ever after. But, nope! Jen is too astute an author to take the easy way out; too crafty a storyteller to let her characters off the hook that quickly. If anything, the stakes for Sheila are cranked up even higher as she finds herself in escalating stages of danger as the plot thickens. Indeed, by the time you get to the final few chapters of this novel things are looking more dire for our brilliant heroine than they ever did at the hands of the sadistic Ethan in the first book. And that's a pretty tough feat to top, let me tell you. But I truly found myself at the edge of my seat as I read through this wonderful roller coaster ride of a novel, wondering what would happen next.
For me, however, the star of this tale is Jerry Isaac. Fleshed out so well in Creep, I was stoked to discover he would have an expanded role this time around. In fact, he shares equal time with Sheila Tao in the main protagonist spotlight, a bold choice by the author which reveals a maturity and confidence few newbie writers display so early in their careers. I guess, too, that I must have a thing for disgruntled, disenfranchised investigator types (see Watchmen's "Rorschach"), because every scene with Jerry in it rocked my world! I hadn't intended for this to happen, but Dr. Tao's story actually took a back seat while Jerry got his chance to develop into a well fleshed-out character, one who's arc comes to a poignant and heartbreaking apex by the last chapter of the novel. I don't want to give it away, but this guy gets put through the ringer--both emotionally as well as physically. And I love him because of it!
And what about Abby Maddox? The woman is deliciously evil! Described by one reviewer as "the female version of Hannibal Lecter," Abby certainly does live up to the cerebral mastermind killer profile her late paramour, Ethan, is getting all the credit for post mortem. For my money, I find Abby far more sadistic and skilled than Ethan Wolfe ever was. The fact that Hillier gives us such wonderful access into the mind of this chilling psychopath is what truly elevates the book above your standard crime thriller fare. Abby's at once completely sympathetic in her motivations, yet at the same time utterly devoid of humanity in the precise and methodical way she goes about getting what she wants from the unsuspecting souls around her. And what she wants is revenge on poor, ol' Sheila! She gets some surprising help along the way, too, thanks to her equal measure goddess-like charisma and sadistic manipulation. And in later chapters, her story truly kicks into overdrive! But it's perhaps the early scenes where we find her locked away in a maximum security state pen. that the author's knack for placing her reader into the moment really shines. Hillier's use of description to convey short, quick bursts of various sensory data, coupled with the character's unique perspective and emotional state, is what makes the novel such a joy to read. Or, dare I risk dipping my pen in purple for a moment--devour!
Take for instance this passage from page 110, where the shifty minx manipulates a correctional officer into bringing her two slices of pizza from a colleague's party down the hall:
"Abby savored the flavors in her mouth. It was like she'd been eating in black-and-white for the last year, and now she was eating in Technicolor. The only downside to this? Having to go back to bland prison cuisine the next day."
As you can see, the writing is concise and evocative, yet descriptive enough to get the point across. In just one paragraph you quickly get an overview of the world Abby now occupies, as well as how this makes her feel. It's no wonder the pages fly by so quickly! And by the time the last page flew out of my grasping fingers, I knew I wanted to read the very next entry in the series. For I sincerely hope we get another Sheila Tao novel. Maybe it won't be the next book Mrs. Hillier pens, or the one after that and the next one. But someday. I've only known the author a relatively short time, but already I'm a dedicated fan of hers for life!
And if that doesn't scare you, Jen, then you truly have what it takes to make it in the thriller genre!
Rating: 5 out of 5 itchy, scratchy, purply neck scars.
P.S. -- Check out Jen's aptly titled blog, The Serial Killer Files, to catch up on what she's up to these days. She's a hoot! :)