Saturday, May 1, 2010

15-25: The "Bones" series

Goodness, am I behind on updating the list of books that I've been reading! Here are reviews for the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs, which is the basis for the popular T.V. series "Bones." If you go into the series expecting something similar to "Bones," you'll likely be disappointed, but these books are engaging and readable on their own merits.

Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who splits her time between Montreal and North Carolina. She's a middle-aged woman with a daughter in college; estranged from her husband; and has a rocky relationship with alcohol. She's also determined, smart, and absolutely unwilling to compromise her professional integrity. Seeing her work as a scientist is one of the highlights of both the books and the TV series for me - I don't think we have enough female scientist role models, and Temperance is gutsy and smart and fun.

These books are in general, quick, absorbing reads, although as I said, they bear little resemblance to the T.V. show. Temperance Brennan is the only character who makes an appearance in both the show and the book - so if you're looking to read more about other favorite characters, you'll be disappointed. (Seeley Booth, Bones' FBI partner in the TV series, seems to be more or less similar to Andrew Ryan in the books, but the name has been changed. The other characters don't really make any appearances at all.)

The forensic details are fascinating (although occasionally much too gruesome for my taste) and the science in general seems to be sound. The long-winded and usually pointless descriptions of the meals that Temperance eats and her flirtation with Andrew Ryan ... not so enjoyable. Overall, I'd say that it's a good thing that these books are quick reads - I'm not sure I could stomach them for too long. Temperance is still an interesting character, if not as much so as her television series counterpart.

15. Deja Dead

When Temperance recognizes a pattern in several corpses that are found in Montreal, she suspects that a serial killer is at work - and has to work hard to convince the police of her suspicions. Of course (because it wouldn't be a good murder mystery otherwise), she ends up going on to investigate on her own, which (again, of course) leads her and her loved ones into danger.

16. Death du Jour

This one starts with real atmosphere - in a cold churchyard in the middle of winter, where Temperance is exhuming the bones of a nun who's been proposed for sainthood. (She will, by the end of the book, discover something about the nun based on examining her bones, but I won't spoil the surprise.) Temperance also ends up investigating the mysterious disappearance of a college student, the killing of a family in a horrible fire, and the activity of a seriously creepy cult. It's fast-paced and easily readable, just as the first book in the series was, but the interconnected plots seem a little too coincidental at times.

17. Deadly Decisions

In the third installment of the series, outlaw motorcycle gangs are the focus - running amok in Quebec and causing the death of innocent bystanders. The descriptions of children who are the victims of senseless violence are particularly heart-rending; at least, Kathy Reich's descriptions are, but the reaction of her main character reads a little false to me. It feels like Temperance has a studied reaction - she knows that she ought to feel a certain way, but it's described so clinically it doesn't come off as heartfelt. (This is perhaps where the social ineptitude and discomfort with emotions of Temperance from "Bones" comes from, I think.) Again, there are perhaps-too-coincidental links between Montreal and North Carolina - in this case, some parts of a skeleton are found in North Carolina, and the missing skull turns up in Montreal. Still, it's fascinating to watch Temperance make the connection between the two and puzzle out the mystery based on the forensic evidence.

18. Fatal Voyage

In the fourth Temperance Brennan book, the main investigation revolves around a plane crash. Temperance ends up finding some bones that aren't part of the official site, though, and she gets into trouble when she insists on investigating. Lots of exciting plot twists plus a thickening love interest make this a fun, fast read.

19. Grave Decisions

One of the things I like best about "Bones" is the fact that Temperance is always determined to use her forensic expertise for good - she can use skeletal remains and other forensic evidence to unravel the story of how a victim was killed and thus gives a "voice" to those who cannot tell their own stories. In this novel, Temperance goes to Guatemala and helps with the excavation of a mass grave from a bloody civil war. As if that's not enough, though, she also gets caught up in a case involving several missing young women - a body is found, and the police are afraid that a serial killer may be at work.

There's an interesting setting, plenty of intrigue, an additional love interest ... all the ingredients needed for a page-turner. There's also lots of risk-taking and thrills and a lot of improbable-seeming coincidences, but overall, I thought it was a good read.

20. Bare Bones

Temperance is "fortuitously" on site when a body is discovered at a summer barbeque (for "fortuitously" read "as necessary for plot development"). She ends up linking the dead body to two other bodies that are found in a plane crash, and discovering the Reason Behind It All. There are a lot of concurrently running subplots, and it's sometimes hard to stay focused (much of my attention stayed with the initial scene, and the dreadful news that Temperance has to break to a coworker at the university), but overall, it's another enjoyable mystery.

21. Monday Mourning

The coolest part about this installment in the series is the use of radiocarbon dating as part of forensic science - apparently there's a rather significant difference in the ratio of "hot" to regular carbon in the bones of people who died before or after atmospheric testing of atomic bombs. The science is very cool (though the fact that Temperance needed to explain it to her boss was less cool - he should most certainly know about it, and Kathy Reichs should most certainly be able to use a less clunky vehicle of exposition for her readers). In this case, Temperance uses it to show that skeletons recovered from the basement of a pizza parlor are from modern, not ancient, burials, and to convince the cops to investigate.

22. Cross Bones

This book made me happiest in one way, scientifically, because there are no cut and dried answers (as a scientist, I find the percentage of cases that Temperance Brennan is able to resolve successfully to be impossibly high ... it just doesn't work that way in real life!). However, I was pretty uncomfortable with the subject matter - bones from two milennia ago that may or may not have been of Biblical significance. Temperance comes pretty close to the side of weighing in on the "may have been" side of the debate, and on some evidence that is pretty sketchy (at best), which really undermines her credibility as a scientist in my opinion.

23. Break No Bones

Temperance finds a recently buried body on an archaeological expedition that was supposed to be routine - classwork, in fact, but the students are shuffled off to the side once it's clear that there's a real investigation needed. More bodies are found, Temperance finds forensic evidence linking them together, and there's complications in her love affair with Booth - her estranged husband is in town. At this point in the series, it's unfortunately feeling pretty formulaic - a fun read, nonetheless, but I wouldn't recommend it for anything more than fun.

24. Bones to Ashes

I thought that this one was fun purely for the virtue of showcasing one of my favorite pathogens. Temperance's past also comes to light, as she's forced to revisit childhood memories after finding a skeleton that could potentially belong to a friend of hers who disappeared years ago. This is fun not only for the appearance of the fun pathogen, but there are also bonus Longfellow quotes! Apart from that ... yeah, it's very formulaic at this point. There's enough derring-do and danger to keep me up reading past my bedtime, but that's really not that hard to achieve, honestly.

25. Devil Bones

As you might have guessed from the title (or perhaps not), this time the main topic of the book is Satanism and pagan religions. It's interesting in some ways, although after having read "Cross Bones," I wonder how any practitioners of paganism would feel about this book... At any rate, some bones are discovered in a setting that makes it look like they were used in a Satanic rite, Temperance rushes off to investigate, and then she solves the mystery. Throw in some alcohol abuse, some complications in her love life, and there you have the novel in a nutshell.

All in all, I clearly think that the books get a little formulaic and trite, especially as the series goes on. Kathy Reichs' writing style is not my favorite - she can be very didactic at times, and she has this incredibly annoying habit of ending every single freaking chapter with a cliffhanger. However, even with those caveats, I have to admit that I enjoyed reading these books - the same way I would enjoy cotton candy at the state fair.