The Perfect Daughter, by DJ Palmer

Short Take: Kind of like me – hot in the front, smokin in the back, but a little flabby around the middle.

(I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.)

Hello, my lovely nerdlings!! This is the spot where I usually write a hilarious but insightful intro, generally involving the weather, my state of mind, or world events, but today I’m actually going to leave the house for once, so let’s get straight to the good stuff, hmmm?

Widowed mom-of-three Grace is just finishing up her shift at the pizza place the family owns, when she gets the call no parent ever expects: her adopted sixteen-year-old daughter Penny has been found at the scene of a murder. Penny is holding the knife and covered in blood, and has no memory of committing the crime, but just in case there is any doubt, she also has a very, very good reason to hate that person, and was even arrested for threatening them the year before.

But there’s more to Penny than meets the eye – namely, Chloe, Ruby, and Eve, her alternate personalities. See, Penny has DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder). Penny herself probably didn’t kill anyone, but one of her alters may have, or there may even be other violent personalities hiding deep inside her mind. 

With the clock ticking down to her trial, and Penny et al confined to a mental hospital, her family and Dr. Mitch McHugh (who has some issues of his own) must figure out a way to convince a jury of a whole lot of things that probably seem impossible to most people: DID is real. Penny has it. Penny’s body may have committed a crime, but Penny herself did not. And finally, Penny needs help, not prison.

It’s a tall order, and a fascinating journey. Grace is understandably desperate to keep her daughter out of prison, but what will her obsessiveness do to her relationship with her sons? Dr. McHugh wants to save Penny to get some kind of redemption for his own failings in other parts of his life, but as we all know, it doesn’t really work that way. 

And at the center of it all is a teenage girl who has a whole lot of hideous secrets locked in her mind.

Overall, The Perfect Daughter is a fantastic read. Mr. Palmer has done his homework, and he breaks down complex psychological concepts in a way that’s easily understood without being dumbed down. The story itself, the central mystery of Penny’s life and her victim’s death is brilliant, and the ending caught me completely by surprise. Trust me, whatever you think you know, you don’t. Just go with it.

My only gripe is the pacing. Between the sudden-death opening and the OMG ending, there’s quite a bit of flab. Grace’s visits to Eve in the mental hospital, and Dr. McHugh’s attempts to draw out her memories and help Penny to become whole are interesting, but start to feel a little repetitive, and most scenes seem to play out just a little too long. 

Now, I’m off to Do Things today. What the heck is that giant yellow thing hanging over the horizon?

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old slice of pizza, duh).

When The Stars Go Dark, by Paula McLain

Short Take: Well, that was a thing that happened.

(*I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.*)

Hello my beloved nerdlings!! It seems like spring has finally decided to come & stay for a while, and I’ve emerged from the winter blahs and an Easter candy coma to get my both shots of the covid vaccine. Which is all to say that this is one of those periods of time when the world just feels good, you know?

Not so much for Anna Hart, the driven detective at the heart (heh) of Paula McClain’s latest offering. Dealing with a personal tragedy that would destroy most people (and not for the first time), she has returned to Mendocino, where the only truly happy memories from her childhood took place. 

But instead of finding reflection and inner peace, Anna lands smack in the middle of a missing child case. And missing children just happens to be Anna’s specialty. 

When The Stars Go Dark is…. A lot. There are a lot of characters, for starters. Anna was adopted as a child, so her first family is mentioned quite a bit, plus the couple who raised her, plus her circle of friends in Mendocino and their families, and the (mostly forgettable) citizens of the town, and the [spoiler] she left behind. The result of the large cast in an average-size book is that I frequently had to flip back to remember who this person is, and the more people were introduced, the less interesting each of them was.

There are also a lot of missing girls in this book. Starting with a crime that affected child-Anna and probably set her on her current path, and maybe a few related ones at that time. Then there’s a few others, including a famous case, occurring at the same time as Anna’s current case, and another girl who is maybe-missing, maybe a runaway. And each girl has a family and friends and so on. 

Finally, Anna is just not someone I cared to spend a lot of time with. She obviously can’t be faulted for her difficult childhood, but her adoptive parents seemed to give her every path to be the best version of herself. Instead, she is obsessive about her job to the point of blindness to everything else. And it’s that obsession that kind of ruins the book. It destroys her family, causing pain beyond comprehension. It leads her to alienate colleagues, chasing leads and running on theories that could help, or could damage an investigation beyond repair. 

It’s almost like Anna, by trying to save missing children and restore families, brings about the exact thing she runs from. It could probably be framed as some kind of modern-day Greek tragedy, but it doesn’t quite work. The misdirection around what exactly happened to send her running back to her home serves no purpose, other than to add yet another mystery to the pile. And despite all of the real, tangible, terrible results of Anna’s actions, she doesn’t seem especially inclined to tone it down at all. It feels, in the end, like a waste of an epic journey.

The Nerd’s Rating – TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and allllllllllllll the open windows, outside smells amazing right now.)

[Snack-Size Review] Every Last Fear, by Alex Finlay

Quick Bite:  Twisty novel or true-crime doc? Uhhh… WHY NOT BOTH??

What It’s About: When Danny Pine was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his high school girlfriend, it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse for the Pine family. Then Netflix made a series about Danny’s case, turning the family into pariahs. Then the other murders happened.

A Word From The Nerd: This book could have been a kind of cookie-cutter family-drama-mystery-thriller, but if you’re as addicted to true crime on Netflix as I am, you’ll appreciate it on a whole ‘nother level. Every Last Fear is fun and twisty, but I would have liked more depth from Matt Pine, the main character. He seemed to just kind of wander around, going wherever others told him to, and randomly stumble on important pieces of information at convenient times. And his friend group, while fun, felt like a carefully curated collection of stereotypes straight out of a Cheerios commercial. 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a margarita the size of my head. Because I ALWAYS want a margarita the size of my head.)

[Snack-Size Review] He Started It, by Samantha Downing

Quick Bite: BRB, screaming into my pillow.

What It’s About: Adult siblings Beth, Eddie, and Portia are the heirs of their newly deceased and fairly wealthy grandfather. There’s just one catch to claim the millions: They have to recreate a cross-country road trip their grandfather took them on as children – what could go wrong?

A Word From The Nerd: Oh. Em. Gee. Duckies, I once went on a road trip with one of my besties to take her father’s ashes where he wanted them to go, and that trip was awesome and hilarious, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what Ms. Downing has given us. So many secrets, and twists and turns, and sibling and spousal squabbling, and hidden motives and backstabbing and even dearer to my heart, SO MUCH JUNK FOOD. Not to mention the kind of weird roadside attractions that are scattered throughout Middle Of Nowhere, USA and skeevy hotels that those of us on a budget will instantly recognize. And THAT ENDING, which will not be discussed here or ever again, because everyone I know is already sick of my howling about it. Just get this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some chips, and chocolate, and soda and music, because ROAD TRIP.)

Loved this book!!

[Snack-Size Review] The Burning Girls, by CJ Tudor

Quick Bite: How many crazy things can happen to one tiny village? Uh… ALL OF THEM.

What It’s About: Jack Brooks (along with her reluctant teenage daughter Flo) is assigned to be the new vicar of Chapel Cross, a small community with a long tradition of murders, martyrs, and disappearances. But Jack has a complicated past of her own as well, and Chapel Cross could either be a lovely, quiet new beginning for them, or their worst nightmare come to life.

A Word From The Nerd: I have some seriously mixed feelings on this one, y’all. The pacing in the first three quarters was just too draggy for me, especially the chapters from Jack’s POV. She had an annoying habit of dropping hints at tantalizing hints at truth, then just leaving it till the very end of the book, which borked the pacing and made it difficult to engage. But that ending!! I loved the is-he-or-isn’t-he [spoiler] with Flo’s new friend Luke, and the relationship between Jack and Flo was teenage-daughter perfection. 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some twig dolls, because they will look awesome on my shelf.)

The Lost Village, by Camilla Sten

Short Take: Thought I was getting [spoiler] but instead it was [spoiler] and I am not complaining.

Note: (*I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.*)

Good morning, duckies, and welcome to spring! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and although I don’t really do the “outside” thing, I can appreciate a fresh breeze from an open window just as much as the next guy. Although, I must confess, the confinement of the last year has put me into a more exploratory frame of mind, and I am considering the possibilities of real-life adventures as opposed to just literary ones.

Which is not to say, of course, that I plan to ease up on the literary side any time soon. I mean, have you MET me?? And it’s that spirit of adventure and exploration that leads Alice Linstedt and a few of her fellow filmmakers to the abandoned mining town now known as The Lost Village. 

It’s not just about the creepy mystery for Alice though – in 1959, her grandmother’s whole family were among the 900 or so people who just vanished one day, leaving behind uneaten meals, laundry on lines, and precious few clues as to what may have befallen them. As Alice and her crew explore the town, things begin to Go Terribly Wrong, and of course Secrets Are Revealed.

I genuinely enjoyed a lot of The Lost Village. The characters were flawed in the truest way (especially Alice) and the changing timelines and perspectives gave the book a hint of the surreal, of ground shifting underfoot that kept me on edge the entire time. But there were a few major plot points that felt a little TOO cliche, such as the “guess we can’t leave” thing that happens in EVERY story that takes place in a creepy setting, the reconciliation of estranged characters just before tragedy strikes, and even a convenient (for the plot) twisted ankle. For all the freshness of the setting, there were too many things I’ve seen before.

That said, there were still a few things I didn’t expect, and the ending was as satisfying as an extra-large Snickers.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a handful of granola bars, because you never know when you might need them.)

[Snack-Size Review] Good Neighbors, by Sarah Langan

Quick Bite: Suburbia is hell. And I LOVE IT.

What It’s About: Less-rich family moves to nice neighborhood, and although they are friendly as can be and mean well, they still do everything just a little bit wrong. It all comes to a head after tragedy befalls the neighborhood Queen Bee, who just so happens to be a raging narcissist looking for someone to punish.

A Word From The Nerd: You guys. YOU GUYS. Good Neighbors is, at its heart, a story we’ve all heard before: Neighborhood feud escalates to murder. BUT. BUT BUT BUT. It’s one of the most enthralling versions of that story I’ve ever come across. Ms. Langan intersperses the narrative bits with faux-scholarly dissertations on the Maple Street Murders dated fifteen years after the fact, news articles, interviews, and so on, giving the story a weight and importance it might not have had otherwise. The author also alludes to a lot of current societal issues, like climate change, or how many people believe outrageous lies if they are just repeated often enough, or how easily a hysteria can spring up when adults who want to protect their children are willing to go way too far, regardless of the actual facts. I could write a thousand words on why this book is great, but trust me – you’d rather read it yourself.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some nice red wine, for all your reality-escaping needs.)

Loved this book!!

[Snack-Size Review] Up For Air, by Christina Berry

Quick Bite: The hit of heat that we’ve all been craving.

What It’s About: Ari has always lived her life in safe mode – she’s married to her high school sweetheart, has never done drugs or been drunk, doesn’t even risk driving. But when she turns 29, she realizes that she is craving all the adventure she’s never let herself have, so she does the obvious thing: she asks her husband to open their marriage. 

A Word From The Nerd: I don’t usually read romance, so I don’t have a lot to compare this book to, but let me just say that it is definitely some heat in the middle of the current deep freeze. Ari’s escapades range from the steamy to the scary to the side-splitting. It’s mostly but not all hearts and roses, is what I’m saying. Although I expected some scenes to go way darker (Ari regularly gets drunk while out on the town by herself), the scenes dealing with her marriage felt very real. And I must add that I’ve never been or wanted to go to Austin, but this love letter to the city has me rethinking my position. 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a polvorón, because they sound freakin delicious.)

[Snack-Size Review] Horrid, by Katrina Leno

Quick Bite: Come for the gorgeous cover, stay for the delicious story.

What It’s About: When Jane’s father dies suddenly, she and her mom Ruth are forced to uproot their lives in California and move back to Ruth’s family home in Maine. Where, of course, Terrible Things have happened and many Dark Secrets are buried.

A Word From The Nerd: Y’all, this book owns bones. Despite a few semi-cliche-ish turns, and several characters that just weren’t very fleshed out, Horrid was one of the more enjoyable haunted house books I’ve read in a minute. Ms. Leno has a great way of setting up “gotcha” moments that most long-time horror readers expect, but then she does something completely unexpected – instead of making us wait till the final few pages, she rather quickly confirms what we thought we were seeing, then jerks the rug out with twists that we don’t see coming. It adds to the sense of vertigo and unreality that make this one such a treat. 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some more tasty books, but remember!! Books are friends, not food.)

[Snack-Size Review] Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Quick Bite: Heavy on the Gothic, not so much on the Mexican.

What It’s About: After Noemi gets a desperate letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, she must travel to Catalina’s new home to help her. There she finds a whole lot of seriously spooky weirdness with both the house and Catalina’s new in-laws. 

A Word From The Nerd: Mexican Gothic ticks pretty much every box on the gothic scale, and duckies, I loved that – the crumbling manor hall, the menacing husband (Virgil) and dictatorial housekeeper. But I had been looking forward to a lot more Mexican culture, and even though the book takes place in Mexico, the manor is populated with English people. Aside from a few racist comments by Virgil’s elderly uncle (which is something that happens at EVERY FAMILY GATHERING IN THE WORLD), Noemi’s heritage is barely acknowledged other than “not related to us”, and the story ends up lacking much originality. The food sounded amazing, though. 

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and some delicious Mexican food, because MAN do I have a hankerin right now.)