Quiet Places, by Jasper Bark

Short Take: Readers: “You can’t fit this much cool story & history into a hundred pages.” — Jasper Bark: “Hold my beer.”

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*Note – I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

Sometimes, I start reading a book and say to myself “Oh great, here we go again…” I’ve waxed eloquent (read: whined and complained) many times here about how overplayed most horror tropes are. And so I must confess, that when I read the prologue of Jasper Bark’s “Quiet Places”, I groaned inwardly a bit. Zombies, I thought. Here we go again with freakin zombies. I fully expected a rehash of the 1984 movie classic “Night of the Comet”, only probably without a delightful Valley Girl dress-up montage featuring Cyndi Lauper singing in the background (which, let’s face it, just isn’t done enough anymore).

I stuck with it though, because I’m a little OCD about finishing books, and WHOA. I don’t think it’s too spoiler-y to say that Quiet Places is most emphatically NOT about zombies. Or any other beastie that I can remember encountering before.

Quiet Places is the story of Sally McCavendish, and her partner David, who move to the tiny town of Dunballan in the Scottish Highlands after David inherits a beautiful estate and property. There’s more to David’s family legacy than Sally ever could have imagined, however, including a horrific beast, a talking spirit in the hedgerow, and an inter-generational curse, and Sally will have to go up against powerful forces she doesn’t fully understand to keep David’s soul (and their life together) intact.

The story unfolds through Sally’s eyes. As an outsider to the town, the family, and the complicated, conjoined history of both, she is always slightly off-center, never sure who she can trust, or what anyone’s intentions are. Mr. Bark does a fantastic job of giving the reader the same sense of being inside a kaleidoscope, with the ground constantly shifting underfoot. He deftly skips among multiple timelines, with chapters jumping back and forth between a few days, months, decades or centuries. There are delightful contrasts all around – the banality of a Tupperware box, for example, containing a bodily-fluid-soaked lure for a supernatural entity.

Quiet Places is surprisingly coherent for all that, and don’t let its short length fool you – there is a LOT of story here, and all of it is fascinating, especially the history and philosophical ideas. 

There’s just one small flaw that I noticed a few times throughout the book, and I’m honestly not sure if it is a deliberate style choice or an unconscious tic of the author’s, but I found it grating. Occasionally, when writing an otherwise fine descriptive passage, Mr. Bark dips into the second person. An example: “It ruffled the grass, rattled the hedges, and lifted Sally’s hair and skirt, but she couldn’t feel it on her skin, nor could she smell any of the scents that a wind such as this usually carried. It was almost entirely bodiless, you could see and experience its effects, but you couldn’t feel them.”

Something about the sudden appearance of “you” makes the writing feel less like a journey in the hands of a highly competent author (which it genuinely is, otherwise) and more like an essay written at lunchtime by a high school student who hopes the teacher won’t deduct points for the food stains on his paper. It’s a jolt out of the narrator’s head, a sudden shift in voice that interrupts the flow and the mood.

At the end of the day though, a great story is a great story, and it takes a lot more than a few grammatical quirks to keep me from craving more.

The Nerd’s Rating: Four Happy Neurons (and a thick juicy steak, hold the secret ingredients!)

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Yesterday, When We Died, by Chad A. Clark

Short Take: Delicious horror with a heart.

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You know that feeling, when you pull on a pair of jeans or a coat you haven’t worn in a few years, and when you stick your hand in the pocket, you find a $20 bill? Or maybe, you’re kind-of thinking about something sweet, and morosely looking through the fridge for the fifth time, not seeing anything you want, and suddenly, you happen to notice half of a Symphony bar stuck way in the back. Maybe it’s been a long day, and your feet are cold and achy, and there’s that exquisite moment when you put on your favorite thick puffy slippers.

In other words, that feeling when a half-realized craving suddenly shoots to the front of your brain at the exact second that it is blissfully and completely satisfied. That, my friends, was the feeling I got when reading this book. I’ve been seriously jonesing for a good haunted-house story for SO LONG, and had practically given up hope, when this little gem came across my “free horror ebooks” feed. I downloaded it, then grumpily sat on it for a bit, having decided that haunted houses were dead, and not in the good way. But one night when idly flipping through my nook to find something that wouldn’t tax my brain too much, I figured, well, why not, it couldn’t be much worse than some of the stuff I’ve read lately.

What a savory surprise I got! In short, Yesterday, When We Died is the story of Kyle, and his two best friends Grant and Shannon, who decide to spend a bro-bonding week at a remote cabin. Kyle has not been the same since his ex-girlfriend Cheryl’s suicide, and the others think that it would do him some good to spend some time drinking, fishing, farting loudly, peeing outside, and whatever else it is that guys do when bro-bonding.

What Kyle doesn’t tell the others, however, is that shortly before killing herself, Cheryl also spent some time at the cabin to get some distance from the breakup.  But she came back…. different. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, and when she spoke, nothing made sense. Her family and Kyle tried to intervene, but eventually, she had to go into an institution, where she leapt from the roof and died.

So, here we are, a year later, with Kyle, Grant, and Shannon digging into the aforementioned bro-bonding in the aforementioned Cabin Where Something Is Very Wrong, when things start getting crazy. And crazier. And creepier. And really freaking scary.  Threatening figures seen out of the corner of an eye that disappear when examined more closely. Horrific dreams that might not be dreams, and visions that could drive any one of them to murder the others. And of course, the obligatory car that won’t start in the middle of nowhere.

Let me tell you all, for such a short work, Mr. Clark does an impressive job of packing in the atmosphere. The earthy smells, the shadowy woods, the isolation – I could seriously FEEL the place.  And the final climax hurt me in a good way, because despite the many fantastic fear elements in this book, ultimately, it’s a story about friendship, love, redemption, and sacrifice.

All horror should be so loving.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a Symphony bar. I could swear I stashed one somewhere around here….)

Loved this book!!

The Serial Killer’s Wife, by Robert Swartwood

Short Take: Insulting.

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Who doesn’t love serial killers? If you’re a horror fan, then you know how the serial-killer subgenre has evolved over the years:  It started with the guy in the mask, stalking around & killing his victims with a combination of a machete & brute force. Over time, as audiences grew tired of seeing the same moronic teenagers get vivisected over and over, the serial killer became a smarter, more refined gent who preferred to commit his murders from a distance, usually with a combination of over-elaborate traps and psychological manipulation. The latter is my favorite type of (fictional) killer. I want to be kept guessing, to see if I can figure him out.

The problem with a good thing (a bad guy who’s pretty darn smart) is that eventually, it heads into the realm of Too Much Of A Good Thing (aka, the Criminal Mastermind Cliche). And that, my darling duckies, is precisely where The Serial Killer’s Wife lands.

It started with a pretty interesting premise. Elizabeth Piccioni had a nice normal life – devoted husband, teaching job, newborn son. However, it all went to pieces when her husband, Eddie, was arrested & convicted of raping and murdering six women, keeping their ring fingers as trophies.

Elizabeth, panicked and terrified, does the only thing that makes sense to her. She grabs her son and runs, starting a new life under an assumed name. Six years later, she again has a peaceful, ordinary life, until she gets a phone call. Her son has been kidnapped by a man who is obsessed with Eddie’s case, and Elizabeth has 100 hours to find the finger bones & give them to him, or he will kill Elizabeth’s son in a fairly gruesome way.

Oooooo, now this is EXCITING, right? And yes, it totally is at first. Then it takes a hard right turn into You’ve-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me-Ville. See, the bad guy is, as mentioned before, the cliched mastermind. He’s got all these great tech skills, and can follow Elizabeth virtually anywhere, and out-thinks her and out-maneuvers her at every turn. Which is pretty predictable by now, but can still work when you get a real feel for the characters.

Elizabeth’s side of the story, however, is just awful. For starters, she has no interior life at all. Zero. None. Wait, I take that back. There is a description of how she used to punish herself for thinking that her son would turn out to be like his monstrous father, but then she, I don’t know, stopped? For some reason? We’re virtually never given any insight into who she is. The entire book is all Elizabeth, all the time, but it’s just a narration of what she’s doing or saying, not what she’s thinking or feeling. Except for when she’s about to barf, we get detailed descriptions of that a lot.

Also, despite the kidnapper warning her against telling anyone, Elizabeth promptly gets pretty much everyone she has ever known involved. Her friends from before Eddie was arrested, the shady underworld characters who helped her get a new identity, even her current boyfriend. And let me add that the rest of the characters are just as shallow. They show up, serve their purpose, and disappear. The worst was the crime boss guy/fairy godmother, who randomly meets her, then practically adopts her and makes sure she has everything she needs to start her new life. Again, because of reasons, I guess.

Of course, since she’s being hounded by a murderous, obsessive, (but very smart & patient, apparently) psychopath, the bodies start piling up. Everywhere, all the time, character after character.

Which might be fun, in a way, but seriously, no matter how many gunshots are fired, no matter how public the site is (Times Square? Really?), nobody gets caught. Like, ever. And then there are the obligatory half-dozen twists & turns and final reveals that would have been pretty cool if I cared by the time I got to the end, when the “real” bad guy is revealed.  Well, all of the real bad guys, there are multiple people involved who have ALL managed to keep everything secret for over a decade, because sure, that’s something that happens.

In short, if you can read without thinking AT ALL, this is the book for you.

The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and my old Silence of the Lambs VHS tape. Because Hannibal did it with STYLE.)

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The Touch: A Trilogy, by A. G. Carpenter

Short Take:  I can only say wow so many times, people.

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*Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

I do love me some good Southern Gothic. Give me the moss, the humidity, the accents, the witchy women and rawboned men and we are in BUSINESS. Alas, my reading adventures have been sorely lacking in any kind of tasty home-fried creepy southern goodness lately, to the point that it had been so long, I didn’t even realize how much I missed it.

Until today.  The opening of this book is a harrowing, attention-getting, where-are-my-socks-oh-they-are-blown-off, unexpected treat. I was hooked from that very first snippet.

The Touch Trilogy is (as the name implies) a collection of three sequential novellas, combined here into one juicy delicious book. The book takes place in various locations in Georgia, in a world that’s basically ours, but with one glaring exception: Some people have The Touch, which allows them to see and affect the future, go through flames without being burned, and a whole bunch of other fun things that I won’t spoil here.

The problem with having the The Touch is that it frequently drives people to murderous insanity. Enter Delaney Green: as a child, her mother attempted to burn her alive (see murderous insanity), and she spent most of her formative and young adult life in an institution, where the people in charge used electroshock therapy and drugs to suppress her powers.

There are different levels of magic though, and while Delaney has the strongest, others, such as FBI Agent Percival Cox are known as Sensitives. They can see/hear/feel things that the rest of us can’t, but it doesn’t seem like their powers can affect others, nor are they known for losing their minds and going on homicidal rampages.

When Percival is investigating a series of gruesome murders that seems to have supernatural elements, the clues lead him to Delaney. And from there, the story goes to a few of the places I expected (c’mon, you just KNOW there will be some kind of voodoo in the back of a dusty old shop), and at least one place (not spoiling!) that I absolutely did not see coming.  

Percy and Delaney are great characters, and their eventual meeting and partnership in trying to stop the murderer made for a fantastic story. However, that story is only the first third of the trilogy. Part 2 did not hang together as well for me, and this is where I almost gave up. It felt like a completely different story, like it didn’t quite match the beginning. Half of it takes place in a setting far removed from the familiar ones. There was one character who was grotesque in a way that I would assume was unintentional, as she was supposed to be one of the Good Guys, but I cringed every time she was on the page.

It also seemed that there were a few threads left hanging in the end, possibly with the intention of adding to the series. A very important file that’s negotiated for, smuggled out, and never mentioned again. Some missing bones that might be used for a nefarious purpose, or might not. Some potential for rebounding magic that could do a lot of harm in the future, or maybe no.

Overall though, just about everything else came together beautifully in Part 3. Ms. Carpenter’s writing style is exactly the kind of poetic that I like. It’s evocative, letting a few sentences create a mood you can almost touch, but not so far into the realm of purple prose as to be distracting. That’s a tough line to walk and the author does it well. The ending was exquisite, a yummy cocktail of beauty, pain, loss, and love. Despite its flaws, this one is worth savoring.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some salt. You never know when you’ll need it!)

Loved this book!!

Stingy Jack And Other Tales, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: Even the tricks are delicious.
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Note: I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hello all you lovely internet people! I come bearing some seriously spookalicious stuff from one of my favorite masters of mayhem. If any of you have been following this site at all, you’re already familiar with my fan-girly squeals over Mr. Greene, and you may have already read my reviews of a couple of these stories, from other collections. Most of them, however, are new to me, and I can say without reservation that each one of them is exactly the ooey gooey (and slightly oozing?) Halloween treat you’ve all been jonesing for.

As most of you know, I am not super into short stories, but Mr. Greene’s shorts somehow manage to satisfy my craving for something big & meaty. (Did that sound dirty? I feel like that sounded dirty). The author manages to describe a decade of backstory in just a few sentences, and can make you see a complete character with just a brief snippet of dialogue. And as for the plots, well… Besides loads of good, old-fashioned, bloody terror in each and every one, there are also liberal doses of heartbreak, redemption, and humor.

I can hear all of you howling and gnashing your teeth, imploring me, “yes, Nerd, the stories are great, but what are they ABOUT??” So without further ado, here’s a brief overview of each one.

Stingy Jack, Ol’ Scratch, and a Head Full of Fire:  A medieval-era fire-phobic, self-pitying, manipulative, lecherous, turnip-loving drunk makes a deal with the devil (is this Nerd surprised that the devil is a fratboy? NOPE). A Halloween must-read.

Unto The Earth: A terribly toxic marriage is not what it appears to be.

Nightbound:  Breaking into an abandoned mansion and finding coffins in the basement seems like a horror cliche, but there’s a whole other story here, about escaped convicts, a heist, bags of money, a sociopath, and a girl who’s prettier and greedier than she is smart.

Gramma’s House:  A trio of methheads breaks into the titular house, only to enter… The Twilight Zone.

The Plagues of Winter:  After a blizzard, an isolated northeastern island community finds itself dealing with much worse problems than no internet.

Guardian of the Orchard: The tale of three brothers who like to sneak into Old Man Peterson’s orchard to steal apples (and maybe have a good old-fashioned rotten apple fight once in awhile), and Old Man Peterson’s twisted, demonic act of revenge on them. Or maybe it’s about something entirely different.

Cinderblock:  Once a world class boxer, always a world class boxer.

Black Cloud:  If you’ve ever done something terrible, you know that the black cloud never really leaves. What you may not realize is that it might have a mind of its own.

3:33 The Bloodbird:  Sibling rivalry is no joke.

How Me and Bozy Became Dads:  A typical day of a group of inmates doing roadside clean-up duty becomes something entirely unexpected.

The Curse of Kirby: So let’s say you have the neighbors from hell.  And you happen to bump into a Goth-ish girl who can communicate with ghosts, and sort-of control a particularly strong one.  What could go wrong?

So to sum it up, this is the Halloween candy you have been craving, minus the calories. You know you want it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a full-size Milky Way bar. Seriously, whoever came up with the concept of “fun size” doesn’t understand fun.)

Loved this book!!

Superstition, by Rana Kelly

Short Take: Vulnerability never looked so invincible.

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Hello, my lovely nerdlings! Today, we’re going to take a little break from my usual menu of murder, mayhem, and mockery, to look at something a little bit different: Poetry. That’s right, the nemesis of non-english-majors everywhere popped up in my inbox, along with a review request, and who am I to turn down a nicely-worded request from a publisher?

My delight at being recognized as A Real Reviewer soon turned to a bit of anxiety, however, when I realized that #1, I don’t know anything about capital-P Poetry, really, and #2, I have no idea how to review it. When I review fiction, I have a few handy criteria that I can fall back on, such as plot, characters, pacing, and so on, to determine if it’s “good” or not. Those things are easy to spot most of the time, and if I’m not certain where I land opinion-wise, the act of writing a review will usually serve as a kind of meditation, with my thoughts crystallizing as I organize them into written words.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m totally out of my depth here, but willing to take a crack at it. I’ve never actually sat and read an entire book of poetry before, I don’t think. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy poetry quite a lot, but to me, it’s best digested in small amounts, letting each piece breathe for a bit, and savoring it slowly. To me, a poem is kind of like a novel, it’s complete in and of itself, and doesn’t really require a bunch of its bros hanging around to be seen as a whole.

So, not knowing what I was for, I dove in. And was immediately assaulted.

Rana Kelly has lived through a lot: a dysfunctional family, her own struggles with bipolar disorder, and any number of difficult, abusive relationships. She explores all of it through her poetry and a handful of essays in Superstition, and although I am hardly a master of real, artistic writing, I can say with all confidence that it this book not for the faint of heart.

I knew from her previous novel that Ms. Kelly’s writing is like thunderstorms and razor blades, but I was not fully prepared for the the wolves, the whisky, the anguished cries and the incredible power that I found in this little book.  I don’t know many people who could look at themselves so unflinchingly, let alone, put what they see out there for all the world to consume. Yes, the balance does tend to lean heavily on the side of “my lover broke my heart” pieces, but there are also confessions of her own complicity in these things, her own anger and torment when she looks at herself, and sees only herself looking back.

It’s beautiful, and also strangely unsettling and voyeuristic, seeing someone cut themselves open, over and over and over again, performance art displayed in blood and tears and dark waters that go down forever.

So I’m rambling on here, and I imagine that there are hordes of my followers (7-8 could be a horde, right?) clamoring to know, is this book any good? Should I buy this and read it, or what?

And to that I can only say that poetry is one of the most subjective forms of art out there, but in my humble opinion, Superstition is an experience that people need to have. Rana Kelly’s utter fearlessness in looking at herself has affected me in ways I did not expect, challenging me in ways that I think I needed.

To anyone looking for just the highlights, to me, “Whisky”, “Women and Horses” and “Glasgow Is My Mother” were my favorites.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a shot of something dark and smoky. Trust me, you’ll want one too.)

Loved this book!!

The Grip Of It, by Jac Jemc

Short Take: Like reading someone else’s acid trip.

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I’m pretty sure I may have mentioned it once or twice, but I love haunted house stories. I really do. I’ve read horror for decades, and can laugh off most frights, but once in awhile, there’s a book that keeps me up at night, and it’s almost always a haunted house story. So needless to say, when I came across The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc, it looked to be right up my alley.

Grip is the story of James and Julie Khoury, who buy their house and move under less than ideal circumstances. James, you see, has been struggling with a gambling addiction that is threatening to wipe them out financially. They decide to take a chance on buying a fixer-upper that is within their budget, and moving to a small town where temptation is a lot harder to find.

The weirdness begins before they even move in, when they notice a strange, deep humming noise with no apparent source, and a creepy neighbor watching every move they make. Once they are actually settled, the strangeness becomes overwhelming. Julie is covered in mysterious bruises, the neighbor who might know something disappears, and then the whole thing dissolves into incoherence.

On the surface, this book should have had all my neurons buzzing in delight, but it just didn’t. It was nearly impossible to follow. For one thing, the story is told by Julie and James, in alternating chapters. The problem is that the chapters aren’t labeled as such, so it’s not always apparent who is talking. There was one section where a character explores a cave, and I thought for sure it was one of them, but it turned out to be the other one. Then later on, somehow, they had both been in the cave? No idea.

Telling the entire story in the first person (or first people, as the case may be) also made it harder to understand what was happening. See, as the house takes hold of Julie and James, their thinking changes, and everything that is going on is now some kind of normal to them. So when Julie wakes up seemingly trapped inside a wall, or the events follow them to a friend’s house, their reaction is along the lines of “That was a thing that happened. Oh well.”

It’s hard to be drawn into a character’s predicament when they don’t seem overly concerned with it themselves.

Another recurring problem is the extreme sentence structures. I get that the author was going for a feeling of dreaming surreality, but when a single sentence goes on for half a page, or when a character spouts page after page of short choppy sentences unrelated to anything else in the book, my mind tends to drift. There are lengthy passages noting mundane details, and the discovery of a gooey body part is an afterthought, barely mentioned.

I would have to say that In The Grip Of It is a series of interesting vignettes, but not really much of a story. The ending felt like a cop-out (especially after one shockingly brutal act that, were there actual consequences, could’ve redeemed the whole thing).  There is no resolution, no true explanation of anything, no lingering ill effects.

So in conclusion, I will echo the sentiment of the main characters, with regard to this book: That was a thing that happened. Oh well.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and maybe a new faucet for my bathroom. I hear you can really make an old place look new again with new hardware!)

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