Tell Me No Lies, by Alex Sinclair

Short Take: When Hell overflows, the dead shall walk the earth. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

It’s beyond a cliche to say that life can change in an instant, but it’s also very true. Every major event has that one pivotal second: the plus sign appearing on a pregnancy test, the mugger pulling out a gun, a gurgling sound from the lower abdomen.. We can all point to that one moment in our own lives just before everything takes a drastic turn and there’s no going back.

For Grace Dalton, that one moment comes when she and her beloved husband John are walking to their car after a lovely dinner celebrating their fifth anniversary. A pickup truck comes flying out of nowhere, and in seconds, John is dead in her arms.

The following weeks are a blur of grief, but eventually, Grace begins to return to her world, and that’s when things start getting weird. She sees John watching her, she passes out at inconvenient times, and sometimes does things that she has no memory of doing.

It also becomes increasingly obvious that John was involved in Something Shady.

Now, this all sounds like a really cool setup for a supernatural horror novel, in which John was a member of a Satanic cult and is currently screwing with Grace from the afterlife. However, this is not that book.

Tell Me No Lies is a paint-by-numbers thriller. The one major revelation is pretty easy to guess, and the rest of them aren’t really consequential.

Twisty plots are difficult to pull off.  I love them, but I’m the first to say that I’m not a writer, and the main reason is that I can’t think of any good ones myself. A swing-and-a-miss plotwise isn’t the worst sin an author can commit, but unfortunately, once Mr. Sinclair takes a turn to BadBookTown, he floors it.

One of the biggest issues I had was the barely-sketched characters. Grace is pretty meh, passive and dull through most of the book. Her best friend Jennifer is, quite simply The Worst. She swings wildly between “Let me be your friend and be there for you and do whatever you need me to do” and “You’re not grieving like I think you should, I’m going to take my metaphorical toys and flounce dramatically out of your life”, back and forth, sometimes in a matter of hours or even minutes. John is a cypher, of course, since he dies in the first chapter, but as information is dribbled out about his life, there are still a lot of major pieces left out of the picture.

There’s also another issue I had that I am hesitant to post, because it would probably be construed as a major spoiler. So I will just say that [spoiler] a crucial scene just doesn’t work. It’s too drastic of a change in tone, and doesn’t fit with anything that’s been shown to that point.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a coffee and a BLT, because after hearing them mentioned so many times, I am craving them.)

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The Darkening, by Chris Sarantopoulos

Short Take: It doesn’t work, until it almost does.

The Darkening: A post apocalyptic horror novel by [Sarantopoulos, Chris]

(*Note: I received this book directly from the author.*)

Hello my beloved nerdlings! I’m a bit behind schedule for a whole bunch of not-very-interesting reasons but believe me when I say I’ve missed all of you terribly. Seriously, all of you. Well, except that one guy. He knows who he is. Anyway, let’s dive in, shall we?

I’ve said before that post-apocalyptic stuff isn’t my usual jam. I think it’s because I get bored when stories get bogged down in the mundanities of keeping life going – food, water, shelter, and so on. YES, I know that if something cataclysmic happens these things are going to be super-important but I am also about 98.736% certain that in such an event, I’ll be devoured early on. Being a pasty book-obsessed nerd doesn’t generally go hand in hand with being a good runner, you see.

But I digress. I was contacted by Mr. Sarantopoulos and the premise of his book got my attention, despite my general aversion to “multiple chapters of basic survival stuff” outlined above. In The Darkening, the enemy isn’t zombies, vampires, aliens, or the plague. No, in this highly imaginative story, humanity is destroyed by light. Not just sunlight, but ANY source of light results in a gruesome death. So anything – a flashlight, a candle, the flash from a gunshot, the teeny nightlight in the bathroom so you don’t kill yourself trying to pee at 2 AM – any tiny scrap of light means, well, lights out (heh).

As if that wasn’t bad enough, humans in the face of danger do what humans since the dawn of time have done, and turn on each other. And this is where we find our protagonist, John Piscus. He spends his days hiding in a very smelly basement and his nights scrounging for whatever scraps of food he can find while dodging cannibals, thieves, troopers who are rounding up the last humans for some nefarious purpose, and a dog who is far more suited to this life than he is.

John (not to be confused with another character named Jonathan – WHY would an author do this?) is a fairly helpless coward of the highest order. He would rather eat bugs, soil himself, and argue with the voices in his head in the stinky comfort of  his basement than venture out in search of resources most of the time.

It’s this early part of the book that’s the first big obstacle to enjoying it. It takes a dozen-ish chapters to get to any kind of description of what actually happened at the end of the world, and those chapters are repetitive and somewhat off-putting. John is unlikable and not in an anti-hero kind of way, he is just miserable. I grew impatient at the many, many descriptions of disgusting food and smells and the “wheezy voice” that’s mentioned over and over and over and over and over and then a few dozen more times.

I would’ve liked more backstory (although I understand why John was hazy on details of how and when everything went down), or at least more real information about the ruined world early on. “I’m John and I smell terrible and eat nasty stuff and hide a lot from vaguely defined groups of bad guys” didn’t feel like enough to prop up the first third or so of the book both before and after he meets up with the girl.

Ah yes, the girl….

It probably goes without saying that the next-to-last thing John needs is someone else to take care of, and the very last thing he needs is someone who glows, but that’s exactly what he finds. To put it mildly, he is not equipped to deal with this development. Although the glowing girl terrifies him, survivor’s guilt overpowers his fears and he finds himself caring for her.

Eventually, the girl persuades him to try to reach a rumored settlement where there may be friendlier people, who are willing to work together for everyone’s survival.

Once they actually end up in [spoiler], it’s multiple chapters again before there’s any real forward momentum in the story. I don’t want to give away anything, other than to say that there are a couple of really great twists, and some of the more annoying aspects of the early parts (wheezy voice I’m looking at you) are not only explained, they feel necessary.

Which isn’t to say that The Darkening is perfect. I felt like the ending was messy and incomplete, and it seemed like almost every chapter or scene was stretched out just a few beats too long. We’re in John’s head the whole time, and it’s not a fun place to be, and Mr. Sarantopoulos has a real fondness for his thesaurus. Not that I’m against googling unfamiliar words (especially curse words) but I was pulled out of the story a few times by that one.

But I can see some lovely glowing bones, deep inside.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a long, loving gaze into my well-stocked refrigerator. I see it in a whole new light (heh x2) now.)

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Hangman, by Jack Heath

Short Take: So. Much. Cannibalism.

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I’ve mentioned before, probably to the point of “yes, I know this makes me a weirdo” how much I love Hannibal Lecter. Silence of the Lambs had a huge impact on my formative years, and the fascination I have with sociopathic geniuses has never gone away.

So when I saw Hangman on a random best-of list (yes, I know, I KNOW. I’m only human!!), I jumped in with both feet. And, fortunately, all of my not-terribly-athletic parts are still attached.

Hangman features Timothy Blake, a brilliant man who can spot details the rest of us might miss, a talent he uses to help the FBI solve seemingly impossible cases. He works as a “civilian consultant”, and his paycheck isn’t a check. You see, in exchange for every life he saves, he is rewarded with a death row inmate who’s only MOSTLY dead, so that he can kill and consume the poor felon at his leisure.

There are actually two separate stories at play here. First is Timothy’s need, desire, impulse, addiction, or whatever you want to call it, for raw human flesh, and how he acquires it, and the various, occasionally hilarious, ways he conceals his eating habits. It works to a degree, but not always. Putting aside the improbability of the situation, it’s just too heavy handed. Multiple times in every chapter we’re reminded that Blake is a cannibal. In fact, he will ONLY eat human flesh, and so is starving most of the time. If he ever does stoop to eating something non-human, he does everything he can to make the experience more like his chosen form of dining. There are dozens of throwaway lines like “The smell of body odor was making me hungry”, lest you forget that Timothy is a big old cannibal cannibal cannibal always and completely a cannibal, and did you know that he’s a CANNIBAL??

Much of the entertainment or shock value that comes from that part of the story evaporates eventually, through sheer repetition, and by the time we learn the source of his fixation, it’s a feeling of “oh, that explains it” rather than the intense, emotional revelation that I think it’s meant to be.

The other story is the one that runs like a Swiss watch, firing on all cylinders, and whatever other metaphors I can mix in for OMG YES. Timothy is working a kidnapping case, and what starts as a fairly straightforward kidnapping-for-ransom morphs into something far more complicated. It’s a twisty, delicious, meaty mystery that I was only too happy to sink my teeth into (oh crap, now I’m doing it too). He’s partnered with Reese Thistle, a smart, idealistic agent who gives him a whole lot of new feelings, and for me, their interactions were the best part of the book. For all Reese’s smarts, she is pretty freakin clueless about Timothy and his quirkier tendencies, and through her eyes, he starts to see himself just a little bit differently.

It’s their interplay that really gives Hangman its heart. Although Timothy has no desire to stop eating people, that doesn’t necessarily make him a MONSTER, does it? I mean, he’s capable of liking and wanting to protect someone, and that counts for something, right? And he only eats bad guys, mostly. Maybe he could be a good guy, maybe not. I think that Timothy is a Rorschach test of a character, where every reader will have a different picture of him, as either the unrepentant animal or a guy who’s had a lot of tough breaks & is trying to find his way.

He’s a different kind of anti-hero, and although the pieces don’t always fall in a successful way, I have to give Mr. Heath points for originality and gutsiness.  There were a few points where I could see the character developing in a familiar way, but the author opted to go in a different direction. It’ll be interesting to see what he does in the future.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old cup of coffee, hold the salt!)

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A Measure of Darkness, by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman

Short Take: Interesting, but not exciting.

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I’ve seen a lot of memes that end in “…there are two kinds of people”, and I have found a new one to add: People who like mysteries, and people who like thrillers. There’s a TON of overlap in the genres, of course. They’ve practically become synonymous over the years, to the point that “Mystery/Thriller” is one category, and many readers don’t even realize that they are, in fact, two entirely different things.

Which is where A Measure of Darkness comes in. The book opens with the charming Hattie preparing dinner for her visiting grandson, Isaiah, in a part of town that used to be a neighborhood, then became the bad part of town, and now is starting to undergo gentrification, with all the problems that tend to follow.

Problems such as eccentric new neighbors, who have bought and renovated an old Victorian, and now throw parties that feature loud music and a parade of people in varying degrees of altered consciousness in and out at all hours.

Isaiah goes across the street to ask them politely to keep it down a bit, for his grandmother’s sake, and then we jump ahead a few hours to when it’s all gone wrong: several people have been shot and killed, a person trying to get away runs over another partygoer, and oh yeah, there’s another dead body in the gardening shed, which may or may not have anything to do with all the other carnage.

Enter Clay Ellison. He’s a sheriff’s deputy who works with the coroner’s office, and it falls to him to identify the various bodies, and notify the families. He also volunteers to help the detective who’s actually investigating the murders find the killer(s).

In the end, all Secrets Are Revealed, and some of them are pretty good, including a strange cult-like “school”. Watching Clay work through the various puzzles and clues is interesting, and it seems like a pretty realistic depiction of how investigators do what they do.

The problem I had is that there are no real stakes for Clay. He doesn’t face any danger or threats, or even an argument with his girlfriend. There’s a bit of tension between him and his brother, but nothing out of the ordinary. The worst thing he personally comes up against is that other cops think that he tends to get involved in investigations that aren’t assigned to him, which, well, the whole book is him working an investigation that wasn’t assigned to him. And his job isn’t threatened or anything, it’s merely an observation by a colleague.

So while it’s satisfying to see a puzzle get solved, it’s hard to get deeply invested in a story where a guy goes to work, does his job well, and goes home. Most of us read to escape that kind of thing.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a sweet pair of extendable angel wings. For all my party needs!)

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The Criminally Insane Trilogy, by Douglas Clegg

Short Take: When it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad…. Ugh.

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There are certain words or phrases that give readers an instant reaction. As soon as we hear “throbbing manhood” or “disembowelment” or “moist” there’s a mental knee-jerk that happens, and it’s sometimes cool as all heck.

For me, “asylum” is one of those words, and when you toss “criminally insane” on top of it,… dude. I am SO IN. I’ve mentioned many, many times how much I love haunted house stories, and places like asylums and prisons have the potential to be haunted houses on a WAY bigger scale. And they don’t even need a supernatural aspect to be terrifying – living humans are quite capable of atrocities for any or no reason at all.

Which is to say that it doesn’t take much for me to start salivating when I hear the magic words mentioned above. I had read a few of Mr. Clegg’s works back in the day when ebooks were a new thing, and wondered what he had been up to, so obviously, a WHOLE TRILOGY featuring one of my favorite concepts should’ve been a slam dunk.

The Criminally Insane books (Bad Karma, Red Angel, and Night Cage) are tied together by the Darden State Hospital, where the worst of the worst sociopaths in California are housed, and by Trey Campbell, a lowly psych tech (NOT a psychiatrist), who works closely with them.

Although the books are a series, with a few supporting characters popping up in more than one, there’s no real overarching story or character arc. Trey is a bland sort of Everyman, with a wife and a couple of kids he loves and wants to protect. His job is managing sociopaths, and he does it well, with a level of detachment necessary to keep his own humanity, but enough insight to also have a deeper understanding of his patients.  

There are many other available reviews and blurbs focusing on the plots of these stories, so I’m not going to take up valuable review space on those this time. Weighing in at nearly 900 pages, this collection gave me a lot of material to have opinions on, so I’m going to focus on what I think worked and didn’t work.

So, what worked really well? First off, the asylum itself. It’s a deliciously creepy setting, and its residents are so over-the-top evil that even the more outlandish plotlines still feel logical. To give an example, in Bad Karma, a crucial plot starter involves an employee who has fallen in love with one of the residents, and as someone who has fallen victim more than once to the “they’re not REALLY bad, they just need someone to understand them” school of romantic thought, it’s totally plausible.

But the author undercuts his own brilliant creation. Most of the action in the first two books doesn’t even take place in the asylum, and the fantastically shudder-inducing basement and tunnels below the place aren’t even mentioned until the third one. The series also suffers from a kind of wishy-washiness in that it hints of supernatural elements (reincarnation, mental telepathy) but never lands solidly on either side of “is this really happening, or is it this character’s imagination?”. I’ve read and reviewed other books with the same ambiguity, and I can’t exactly pinpoint why it works sometimes and not others, but it just kind of fizzles in this particular work.

Finally, the elephant in the room: the errors. Mr. Clegg has been writing for a long time, but reading Criminally Insane, you would not know it. The basic grammatical errors are ridiculous – dozens of your/you’re mix-ups, using apostrophes in plural words, missing or extra words. That’s enough to make me wonder what his editors were thinking, but when a character with his hands tied behind his back scratches his nose then chokes someone out, I question whether he even had an editor, or even any semi-competent beta readers.

It was, frankly, shocking to see in a work by an established author, and distracting, and frustrating in the way these things kept pulling me out of the stories. And that’s the most annoying part – the stories themselves were pretty good, especially Night Cage, but I just couldn’t enjoy them the way they deserved.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big red pen. I’m twitching to use one right now.)

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Red Harvest, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: Addiction is terrifying.

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(*Note – I received a free copy of this book for review.*)

Yes, I KNOW that it’s still August (it’s so crazy-hot that my buns are perma-toasted) but today, I have an extra-special Halloween treat for y’all. Try, if you can, to imagine a world that’s pretty much our own. It has the same traditions, music, and movies, but with a few teensy little changes – cell phones and computers aren’t used, ghosts and psychics are real, and OH!! My darling nerdlings, the nerds rule the school! Ok, they are absolutely terrible people, but they are still MY people, and so that last one tickled me purple.

On the surface, Red Harvest is Our Town on a nightmare acid trip. You see, the town of Ember Hollow itself is one of the main characters, in that there’s a strange, possibly dark and pagan history to the town’s founding, and traditions such as the annual Pumpkin Parade, and a lot of people with only a degree or two of separation. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone, but nobody really KNOWS what goes on behind closed doors.

Take for example Everett Geelens, a freakishly strong Michael Myers-ish young man who has a child-like obsession with all things Halloween, especially the blood and death. He’s kept locked up by his family, but when he gets loose on Devil’s Night, well, I don’t have to tell you that nothing good will come of it, do I?

Or Ruth. She has recently discovered religion, and has decided that it’s God’s will that she do whatever it takes to put an end to all the “satanic” Halloween festivities. And if “whatever it takes” involves some decidedly un-Christian acts, well, the ends will justify the means, of course.

Then there’s Dennis Barcroft, lead singer of the Chalk Outlines, a punkabilly band with a spooky sensibility. He’s tried to channel his demons into his music, and his thirteen year old brother Stuart is only too happy to tag along, especially if it means the chance to impress Candace Geelens, who is Everett’s younger sister and the object of his first real crush.

I could list another dozen or so really great characters, but you see, all these fascinating people, and the beautifully complex web of alllllll their relationships isn’t what Red Harvest is really about. Neither is the high-octane plot that swings effortlessly between the strands of Everett’s violent spree, Ruth’s growing madness, a haunted church, a minister with his own difficult past, all the trials and tribulations of high school, and a zoot-suit wearing music agent.

What Red Harvest is REALLY about is addiction. Every one of the characters has their drug of choice, whether it’s Halloween, booze, religion, music, or power, and that’s what makes this book so amazing. It’s easy to make bad guys bad and good guys good. But by showing us how thin the line really is, and how even good people can do bad things for the sake of what they value most, or how bad people can genuinely believe they are doing a Good Thing, Mr. Greene has brought a brilliant level of complexity and humanity to a horror novel.

Don’t get me wrong – the horror elements are flawless in this one, but for me, the real horror is how believable so much of it is. Except maybe for the nerds who are drunk with power. That just seems needlessly cruel. 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a pumpkin spice anything, because I’m so ready for fall now!)

Loved this book!!