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Virals by Kathy Reichs

I’ve watched nearly every episode of American TV show Bones and Kathy Reichs – the author of Virals – was the inspiration for the forensic anthropologist character in Bones and even worked as a producer for the hit series. Now, for those who aren’t familiar with Bones, I’ll quote its Wikipedia entry:
Its title character, Temperance Brennan, is named after the protagonist of Reichs’ crime novel series. Conversely, Dr. Brennan writes successful mystery novels based around a fictional (in the Bones universe) forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.
It all sounds a bit incestuous, really, but nevertheless I absolutely love and adore the TV show Bones. So it’s fair to say that I came to Virals – Kathy Reichs’ first teen novel – with the attitude that I was bound to love Virals too. Bound to.
Wrong.
What a disappointment when I read the first chapter and discovered: a) not much happens b) endless boring exposition c) the most wooden protagonist in a children’s book since Pinocchio.
I couldn’t quite believe it. Kathy Reichs is one of my heroes. Okay, I don’t know her. I haven’t even read her novels for adults, but the things she does! The things she’s seen! She is a world expert in forensic anthropology! She just seems so damn cool!
I read on, determined that the book would improve, which, to be fair it did. A bit of plot got going somewhere around page eighty and my curiosity was a little piqued. But really, nice as it was to have a plot, it was a very unbelievable plot. More on that later.
So the main character of Virals is Tory Brennan who just happens to be the niece of the legendary Temperance Brennan. Like her illustrious aunt, Tory is one smart cookie and she has a massive interest in science. She is, as we are told in the book’s blurb, a Sci-Phile, and so are her friends, albeit to a lesser extent. Tory also shares her aunt’s sense of justice and she is perhaps irrationally motivated to solve crimes, even when it means throwing herself in harm’s way, which she does approximately three times a day. She also goes running, has lovely red hair and is tall and skinny and lots of boys seem to fancy her, even though she doesn’t try to be attractive and doesn’t even think she’s that attractive (yet somehow she still manages to convey that she is). Tory hangs out with three lads that live on Morris Island with her. Their parents are all research scientists at an outpost on another island, and because of this they get scholarships to a posh private school on the mainland where, predictably, they are teased for being poor “boat kids”.
The problem I had with Tory is that she doesn’t sound like any fourteen-year-old I’ve ever encountered. She sounds quite a lot like a fifty-year-old doing a poor impression of a fourteen-year-old. And it really pains me to say that, because I so wanted to warm to Tory, yet this was impossible because for much of the book she sounded so flat and fake.
It occurs to me that Tory is supposed to be nerdy and therefore her way of thinking and talking might be intended to mark her as a slightly dry character, but ideally I don’t want the protagonist of a novel to seem as if her innards are made of papier mache.
Temperance Brennan of Bones comes across as a super-intelligent person who has difficulty expressing her emotions, but her struggle with communication manifests itself as a rather lovable geeky bluntness, followed by complete incomprehension of why she has caused offence. Tory, on the other hand, does not sound like a real person at all and this problem of ‘voice’ means that the narrative often does not feel authentic, and this makes it hard for the reader to stay in the story. To quote a few passages in Tory’s voice from page 11:
I settled for carrot sticks. Old ones. Addicted, I popped a Diet Coke. I know what you’re thinking. But I do try to eat healthy. Just leave me my caffeine, thank you. The heart wants what it wants.
I checked my phone. They were late. No text, either.
I considered my options. Zilch on TV. No surprise. Nothing called out from my unread book pile. The Internet was a snooze. Zero news on Facebook.
No homework that weekend. It was late May, and most of the teachers seemed as anxious as the kids to end the year gracefully.
“To end the year gracefully”? What fourteen-year-old talks like that? “The heart wants what it wants?” That sounds like something my grandmother would have said. “The internet was a snooze.” A snooze? Really, Tory? Then you’re not looking at the right pages, my girl. But best of all, Tory feels bad about drinking Diet Coke?
Anyway, I think it’s time that we considered the plot.
*Spoiler alert*
Tory and her three friends break into a lab to identify the inscription on a military dog tag that Tory found. Whilst pottering around in the lab, one of them hears barking and so they break into another more secret lab to rescue a local wolfdog pup that normally roams wild, called Cooper. Unfortunately, Cooper then infects his human friends with a designer strain of canine parvovirus and the teens all develop mysterious powers and temporary golden eyes, which helps them to solve a forty year old murder, and along the way there are some bad rich people out to kill the teens, some moody scientists and some stereotypical mean girls. Oh, and it turns out that all of this plotting and murdering is because of some bald eagles.
So that’s The Bad, and I admit, it is quite a lot of bad, isn’t it? As I look back over this review, it occurs to me that I’ve never written such a critical book review before. I should balance this piece by pointing out that Virals is four hundred and sixty four pages long. Something kept me reading. And it took me two months to read Virals, so even after dropping out of the novel dozens of times, I kept coming back for more. For all its flaws (and there are flaws) Virals is still a fairly enjoyable read. Okay, it’s spoiled a bit (a lot) by the main character’s flatness and the plot’s weakness, but I didn’t give up on the novel, so there is – there must be – something there that’s quite good.
To consider the strengths of this novel then, I must mention the relationship between the four goodies: Tory, Ben, Hi and Shelton. I didn’t mind Tory nearly as much when she was out of her own head and in company. The friendship of the four and the unspoken attraction between Ben and Tory did generate some tension and keep me interested in their fate, if only a little. Likewise, I enjoyed the rebelliousness driving the plot, even if I didn’t like all of the plot details. Tory and her friends defy a number of adults to do what they think is right, and I liked this adolescent “sticking it to the man” attitude. Finally, there is a nice “eco” theme running through the book, and Tory is fully engaged with environmental issues, which was rather refreshing. Oh, and she really loves dogs, which is always a plus.
To end on a rather damning note, however, I have just recollected that Tory’s mother died in a car crash shortly before the action in Virals begins. The fact that I’d totally forgotten this tragedy, due to Tory rarely mentioning her mother’s death or seeming much affected by it, does indicate to me that perhaps more work could have been done on developing Tory’s character. Still, there are two further books lined up in this series, so perhaps some of these issues will be dealt with then.
Arrow. 464 pages. ISBN-10: 0099543931. Paperback.

"Writing is learning to say nothing, more cleverly every day. "
William Allingham

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Fast fact about writing

Ancient writing (at first pictographic in nature) is best known from clay and stone inscriptions, but the use of perishable materials, mainly palm leaf, papyrus, and paper, began in ancient times.