Little Secrets, by Jennifer Hillier

Short Take: OH. EM. GEE.

45046683

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

Well, my duckies, it seems as though the world truly has gone mad. When I turn on the news, it’s all pandemic, all the time. There have been earthquakes in Utah and floods and tornadoes close to me and even a plague of locusts in the Middle East. My state is on lockdown, schools and many businesses are closed and people are strongly encouraged to stay inside and keep to themselves as much as possible.

And I feel like I’ve been training for this my whole life. I can binge-watch shows and play with string to my nerdy little heart’s content, and do I even need to tell you that I’ve been reading some fantastic books? Does the pope poo in the woods?

In that vein, let me introduce you all to Little Secrets.

Marin and Derek are a successful, beautiful, self-made power couple. She owns a string of successful beauty salons and he also runs a lucrative business. They Have It All – the impeccably decorated house in the suburbs, the cars, the clothes, and an adorable five year old son named Sebastian, or Bash as he’s affectionately known.

Until the day Marin and Sebastian are Christmas shopping, and in the blink of an eye, Sebastian disappears. 

Living every parent’s worst nightmare for over a year, Marin hires a PI to keep working the case when the police run out of leads. But instead of finding Sebastian, the PI instead learns about Derek’s Other Woman – the MUCH younger, beautiful, and carefree Kenzie, the anti-Marin if ever there was one. 

Marin can’t track down and get revenge on the person who took her son. Terrified at the thought of any more loss, she can’t rail against her husband and take out her rage on him. Her best friend Sal is always there for her, she would never push him away.

But Kenzie is a different story, and Marin will be only too happy to get her out of the picture permanently.

You guys. YOU GUYS. This book is insane, and by that I mean freakin incredible. I’ve read a lot of thrillers about kidnapped children (I really shouldn’t do that to myself, I know) and I’ve read not-nearly-enough thrillers about cheated-on spouses Out For Revenge, but I’ve never seen the two combined, and oh my sweet nerdlings, this is chocolate and peanut butter to my sugar-addicted brain.

We get both Marin and Kenzie’s point of view, and for two such different women, they are both great characters – somehow sympathetic and unlikable at the same time, in different ways and for different reasons, both driven to similar ends by questionable means. And even as they focus on each other, Sebastian’s absence is ever-present, like a soft weeping from another room – you can’t forget, ignore, or fix it, all you can do is listen and maybe feel a cramp in your own tear ducts.

I could go on and on about the addictive pacing and fascinating cast of supporting characters and the brilliant twists (one I saw coming, others not so much), but I’m just going to urge y’all to read it. 

I mean, what else are we doing right now? Stay home, stay safe, and happy reading (and snacking, of course) nerdlings!!

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some Reese’s peanut butter eggs, because now I can’t quit thinking of chocolate & peanut butter.)

Loved this book!!

 

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

Short Take: Horror that hurts in the best and deepest way.

52180399._sx318_sy475_

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

Hello lovelies, and welcome to my least favorite week of the year. I lost an hour of the weekend,  plus there’s a new virus running around that sounds like it’ll be targeting me and my crappy lungs personally. It’s all the makings of a Mostly Miserable Monday, and my body is convinced that I absolutely should not be awake right now.

Spoiler alert: I’m awake. And not terribly happy about that.

But if there’s one thing that can always lift my mood, it’s digging into a delicious book by an author I hadn’t read before. The thrill of discovery is second only to the marvelous sensation of being completely consumed by a story, and oh my sweet nerdlings, this is one that will swallow you whole and leave you shuddering for days.

Ten years ago, four young Native American men did something stupid, and careless, and wasteful, as young men of all ages and ethnicities do. But these four young men were spitting in the face of forces they didn’t fully understand and now, they are going to Pay The Price for their actions. 

I’m not going to elaborate on the story, because although it’s great (seriously, the plot and pacing and characters were all spot-on), the story itself is almost secondary to the world Mr. Jones has created (or maybe re-created?) on the page.

(I’m going to add some personal context here that might elicit a “well duh” from more than a few, but I really do live in an extremely culturally isolated place, so bear with me, k?)

I have always lived in an area where the Native population is virtually zero. Sure, some people may be part Cherokee or whatever, but that’s meaningless here. It’s like being part Irish – it’s met with indifference or an “oh that’s cool” and the conversation moves on. Which means that in this part of the US of A, we aren’t exposed to any of the Native heritage, the myths and tribal customs, the language and the dances. But we also don’t see the ugly parts of being Native today that are too common elsewhere – the discrimination, addiction, and poverty.

So while I’ve been aware of these things at a civics-class, sort of absently-intellectual level, I never really FELT the beauty of Native culture, or fury at the injustices that are still being done today, and that’s where Stephen Graham Jones kicked my pasty nerd hiney up one side and down the other, because The Only Good Indians is a full-body immersion in both sides of Native life in the 21st century, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.

And it’s that blending of ancient myth and modern-day just-getting-by that makes the horror of the story so effective. I immediately found myself caring so much about these flawed but oh-so-human and sympathetic characters, and peeking over my shoulder in case [spoiler] might be back there and getting closer, and maybe gasping just a little as I felt the heat of the sweat lodge, knowing what was lurking in the shadows.

But the real beating heart of The Only Good Indians is the author’s voice. The story is told in a stream of consciousness style that feels somehow urgent but also like a deeply personal conversation, a late-night sharing of secrets, a heartfelt truth that makes even the fantasy elements feel so real. 

And oh yeah, it’s damn suspenseful and scary and all the other things you want in a horror novel too. Trust me, I’m too tired and cranky to lie.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a gallon-size jug of antibacterial hand soap. Wash ‘em, people!!)

Loved this book!!

 

You Are Not Alone, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Short Take: Should have been better than it is.

45046742._sy475_

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

Hello, my sweet nerdlings! It’s a freezing and snowy morning, and I don’t want to crawl out from either the warm blanket or piping-hot laptop, but alas! That kitchen won’t clean itself, and if I want to eat breakfast at some point, I’m going to have to cut a path through the dirty dishes first. And believe you me, I absolutely plan on eating breakfast. Maybe a couple of times.

So let’s get on with it, shall we?

When Shay witnesses beautiful, young Amanda Evinger kill herself by jumping in front of a subway train, it’s one more lousy thing in a week that’s been full of them. She’s in love with her roommate, but he’s in love with someone else and planning on moving her in, meaning Shay is about to be homeless. Despite being a fairly talented statistician, she’s only able to find temp jobs, so joblessness is about to join homelessness and insurancelessness and all the other -lessnesses that are way too common in this country.  

But even though the list of terrible things is long & ugly, Amanda’s death creates a strange kind of bright spot in Shay’s life. Understandably traumatized by the horrific suicide, Shay wants to learn more about what led Amanda to that point. She attends Amanda’s memorial service and there, she meets Amanda’s impossibly perfect friends, sisters Cassandra and Jane Moore. Super wealthy, incredibly gorgeous, kind and generous, they take Shay under their collective wing and soon, everything is better.

They hook Shay up with a sweet apartment-sitting gig, a better job, and a makeover that will bring all the boys to her yard. 

There’s just one teensy tiny little problem: the Moore sisters are part of a small, tightly knit circle of friends who have one nefarious purpose that I won’t spoil here, and they just might be using Shay for their own reasons.

Although the story is fun & twisty enough, the characters are way too flat. Everyone is super rich (except Shay), a brilliant mastermind & expert in their field (except Shay) and flawlessly beautiful (including Shay). They do a few interesting things plot-wise, but the motivation for those things is a handful of hollow pop-psych cliches.. They have all of the advantages (wealth, a perfect figure) without any of the effort (long hours, never eating a cookie).

And of course, the only imperfect character is Shay. But she’s so whiny & helpless & clueless throughout most of the book that it’s hard to get behind her and cheer her on. Her silent pining over her roommate/BFF is just bad, a trope that needs to die already. If the genders were reversed, it would inspire a thousand moronic “friend zone” memes and encourage creepy “nice guys” to just hang in there, she’ll come around.

Honestly, after An Anonymous Girl, I had much higher hopes for these authors.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some paper plates, because seriously? I wash the dishes, put food on them, and wash them again till I die? That can’t be right, can it?)

twohappyneurons

Please See Us, by Caitlin Mullen

Short Take: So much beauty amid so much decay.

46404191._sy475_

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

Well, my nerdlings, it’s THAT time again, and by that time, I’m of course referring to refrigerator-cleaning time. I have the best of intentions when grocery shopping, and TOTALLY AM PLANNING on eating salads for lunch every day and fruit for dessert every night, but somehow, the burgers and ice cream always materialize, and some portion of fresh produce always ends up a puddle of slime in a bag pushed toward the back of the shelf. Throw in my usual round of late-winter blahs, and it’s truly a wretched time of year.

But during this difficult time, I can take solace in one small thing: that I don’t live in Atlantic City, NJ, aka the moldy fridge fruit of North America. Between the hurricane/superstorm, opioid epidemic, and the economic and spiritual malaise that has affected most of the country for the last few years, it’s the place where hopes and dreams are born in a pile of glitter and die in a gutter pile of cigarette butts and broken glass. It’s also a city of startling contrasts – high rollers parking exotic cars on the street next to decaying pawn stores is a common sight.

And it’s there that Clara, (boardwalk tarot-reader who also has a smidge of genuine psychic ability), and Lily, (art curator who left her NYC career and everything else behind after a traumatic event) become friends. Atlantic City is also where a serial killer is preying on women just like Lily and Clara – the broken ones, the addicted ones, the ones who likely won’t be missed, the ones who have always somehow accepted that they would die young and in a terrible way, the ones whose beauty is being worn away by the ugliness of their desperate lives.

Y’all, I was prepared to not love this book. It’s not a spoiler to say that there are several chapters written from the perspective of the dead girls, the “Janes” (as in Jane Does) as they wait in a marsh for their bodies to be found. And to be honest, beautiful dead girls telling their stories has been done to death (heh) by a million and one Lovely Bones knock-offs. 

And yet.

There’s something so startlingly different about Please See Us. Maybe it’s the setting – there’s nothing picturesque about decrepit buildings populated by bruised and addicted hookers, nothing glamorous about young women with no future, so the flashes of beauty (and make no mistake, Ms. Mullen’s writing is beautiful, even when describing unspeakable ugliness) are that much more arresting.

Maybe it’s the way the reader is forced to stare, unblinking, at awful truths that most of us are used to avoiding. In other books, when [spoiler], there would be some plot twist that would keep it from happening, but not this one. For a book about a beautiful precocious teenage psychic in which we get the perspective of dead girls, the level of realism is astonishing.

But I think that what really flibbered my gibbets with Please See Us is the tiny but powerful thread of optimism throughout the whole thing. Every single person being pulled into the undertow of their own desperate circumstances believes deep down that it’s going to change – this is the last trick, the last hit, the winning ticket, the rose growing in the garbage pile. And isn’t that all of us? Surely I’m not the only one who opens the refrigerator door that I just closed, somehow believing that a nutritious yet delicious low-carb-low-calorie-totally-satisfying meal that I actually want to eat has probably materialized in there in the last five seconds, right?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some fruit – hold the mold, but bring on the fermentation if you know what I mean and I think you do.)

Loved this book!!

The Look-Alike, by Erica Spindler

Short Take: Is Erica Spindler OK?

45046788

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

Hello my beloved nerdlings, and welcome to the space in the calendar where New Year’s Resolutions go to die. It’s bitterly cold, the Christmas lights are all gone, and the only spot of color in the stores is the Valentine’s Day candy. In short, it’s the kind of blah that only chocolate (or a really good book) can fix. 

And unfortunately, I’m all out of chocolate, and this week’s book is… well… not great.

Sienna Scott, college freshman, is walking home one snowy night when she literally trips and falls over a murder victim. Traumatized by the scene, and further distressed by her mother’s paranoid delusions, Sienna goes to London to live (hide?) with her grandmother for the next decade.

Upon her return, everything seems to be the same. Her mom is still deeply mentally ill, Madison Robie’s murder is still unsolved, her brother Bradley is still a successful real estate developer, and the kindly cop she befriended the night of the murder is still investigating it.

But beneath that veneer of same-old, everything is different. Her father has died, her brother’s marriage has failed, and there’s a hot house flipper living across the street who may have a few secrets of his own. And as more truth about that night trickles out, it looks like Sienna, not Madi may have been the intended victim.

Before I dive into why The Look-Alike didn’t work for me, I need to digress for just a moment, so please stay with me, ok duckies? 

Did anyone else obsessively read VC Andrews books back in the day? The Flowers in the Attic series blew EVERYONE away, and then there was Heaven and Dawn and Ruby and…. Wait. For some reason, which I only found out much later when the internet became A Thing, all of these series were kind of the same. That reason being, of course, that Virginia Andrews had died many years before, and her name was being used by a ghostwriter who used that first amazing series as a template to essentially write the same series over and over again.

And that’s what leads me back to the question I asked at the beginning of this review – is Erica Spindler OK? Because it’s been a minute since I’ve read one of her books, but from what I remember, they are fun and twisty and unpredictable, and The Look-Alike is a slog through every thriller cliche out there. 

I won’t spoil things, but anyone who’s read more than a few murder mysteries will have it solved by the halfway mark. The title is misleading, there’s no actual look-alike, just two girls wearing the same color coat. Every character except Sienna (more on her below) is a hollow collection of cliches, more worn-out than the seat of my nerd-nest.

And oh, my sweet nerdlings, Sienna is LITERALLY THE WORST. She’s whiny and self-pitying, and so so so gullible. She believes whatever anyone tells her, and spends entirely too much time worrying that she might have the same mental illness as her mother. For real, every single chapter has at least one (and often) several paragraphs devoted to the subject, and if that doesn’t sound too bad, I’d like to point out that there are seventy-one chapters’ worth of repeating “omg what if I’m sick like my mom I think I might be imagining things but I wonder if I’m in danger but if I think I’m in danger then I’m probably sick like my mom maybe I just need to cry some more I haven’t done that in like ten minutes but my mom cries maybe I’m just like her….”

Every single plot point was so predictable, and somehow dated, like an 80’s era soap opera. Even the language felt stilted, like a drunk angry man saying his girlfriend was “stepping out on” him. I’ve spent a bit of time around drunk angry men who’ve been cheated on, and believe me when I say, they word things quite differently. And of course everyone (except the bad guy) lives happily ever after. (spoiler alert?)

Which brings me back to, “Is Erica Spindler OK?” Because it feels like someone else is using her name to sell a paint-by-numbers thriller (one romance, two red herrings, etc.) that isn’t especially thrilling.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old bowl of chili, because the food was the real hero in this book.)

twohappyneurons

 

Good Girls Lie, by J.T. Ellison

Short Take: Get in loser!! (You totally want to go for this ride.)

43193837

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

Hello my lovelies! I am pleased to announce that after drowning in winter doldrums, we had a freakish seventy-degree day here over the weekend, meaning I was able to go out with the Spousal Unit and Junior Nerdling for some much needed fresh air and today I feel MARVELOUS. So I’m here to bring some of that joy to all of you, or, you know, to tell you about the book I just read which is pretty much the same thing, right?

Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the Goode School began a century ago as a boarding school for unwed mothers or other types of incorrigible, socially unacceptable girls, the kind of girls who read novels and had opinions. Now it’s where the best of the best go to work their perfect little hineys off in exchange for a golden ticket – admission to the college of their choice, followed by a lifetime of success in their chosen field.

Of course nothing that fabulous is easy, as Ash Carlisle will soon discover. When both of her parents die suddenly, she leaves Oxford in hopes of Starting A New Life at Goode. Although the dean of the school, Dr. Ford Julianne Westhaven (and omg y’all THAT NAME) is willing to help her with the transition, and Ash is smart enough and disciplined enough to keep up with the work, there’s a whole ‘nother pack of problems in the form of the 199 other girls at Goode.

Let me be the cleverest nerd in the world, and point out that although these are Goode girls, they are not necessarily good girls. Despite a strict honor code, there’s drinking, drugs, secret societies whose over-the-top hazing is pure teenage girl sadism and the occasional dalliance with cute townie boys – and not just for the students. Ford also longs for escape (Ford Escape?) from the school, despite a many-years tradition of its leadership being passed from mother to daughter.

Of course, Ash herself has a few secrets of her own that could Cost Her Everything. As both Ash and Ford (seriously FORD) struggle with their place at Goode and in the larger world, keeping each other’s secrets while maybe also hastening each other’s downfall, one student then another is killed, the truth starts to dribble out, and the final set of twists slams it all home.

Good Girls Lie was a seriously fun, twisty book, with incredibly rich characters, a setting I couldn’t get enough of (I read way too much stuff that takes place in suburbia), and a killer (heh) pace. Ms. Ellison has a knack for cranking the tension, bit by agonizing bit, until everything inevitably explodes and I do love me a good tension explosion.

I really have only one complaint with this one, and it’s put me in a bit of a conundrum. There’s a character who is just TOO mastermind-y, too difficult to believe for a lot of reasons that would be spoilers. So I’m going to break one of my most iron-clad rules here, and just say that this character didn’t work for me, without explaining why. I hate to do that, because I like to imagine that I’m important enough for all authors to care about my opinion (by the way, Stephen, CALL ME! I have some very important feedback on that last one!), but this was a book I genuinely enjoyed despite that one little blemish, and I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone else’s good time with it. Because it really IS a good (or Goode)(heh) time!
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a shot of dresser-drawer vodka. Is it spring yet??)

fourhappyneurons

Ghostland, by Duncan Ralston

Short Take: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

48670308._sy475_

Good morning my marvelous nerdlings, and Happy New Year!! I would rattle off a list of impressive sounding resolutions, but I’ve been around the sun a whole lot of times, and I am at the point where my resolutions would fall into two major categories: They are either things I should do but probably won’t (less junk food, more veggies) or things I would be doing anyway (read lots of cool books and write a bunch of hilarious yet brilliantly insightful reviews).

So in the spirit of fun new things, let’s talk about Duncan Ralston’s Ghostland, a marvelous blend of horror, sci-fi, and urban legends, shall we? 

When best friends Ben and Lillian are fifteen years old, construction begins on Ghostland, an “amusement” park made up of actual haunted buildings from around the world, painstakingly disassembled and transported to the park. It also features tech that allows guests to see and interact with real ghosts. Needless to say, the implications of that are vast and horrifying – not only is there definitive proof of an afterlife, but the spirits were once people, who are now trapped and enslaved, forced to relive their deaths over and over for the entertainment of the living.

But there’s a much more personal story at work here too. On the day that Rex Garrote’s house is moved to the park, Ben nearly dies, and his friendship with Lillian is destroyed. Three years later, they return to the park together with Lillian’s therapist, Allison, to put ghosts both literal and metaphorical to rest. But of course, something Goes Terribly Wrong, and a simple visit to a new attraction becomes a Deadly Fight For Survival as the dead take gruesome revenge on the living, and the gates are sealed shut.

Duckies, there is a LOT to this book. I can’t say enough about Mr. Ralston’s ambition, and incredible mix of genres, fact, fiction, and action in this book.  There were three aspects that had me picking my jaw up off the floor.

First off, we need to talk about Rex Garrote. Of all the creations and re-imaginings in Ghostland, the Sutter-Cane-esque madman/horror author is my favorite. Mr. Garrote wrote several books, hosted a TV show, amassed a fortune, and then committed suicide in a horrific way, leaving behind his own haunted house, the seeds of what would later become Ghostland, and maybe a bit more.

Secondly, the footnotes and index of ghosts in the park was a brilliant touch. The list ran the gamut from the “real-life” and well-known evil spirits like Annabelle to completely fictional creations, all blended seamlessly to create a beautifully immersive universe. It’s evocative of the newspaper articles and scholarly papers in Carrie, among other classics, and gives a rather outlandish story that extra bit of realism. Seriously, some next-level storytelling.

Finally, I loved loved LOVED that Mr. Ralston didn’t shy away from the backlash to Ghostland, the protests and hashtags (#GRP2, aka, Ghosts Are People Too) that would inevitably result from such a discovery. I don’t like to get too political on this site, but seeing discussions about who deserves to have which rights play out over and over, well… it’s not hard to draw a parallel between the undead and real-world marginalized groups, and very thought-provoking. 

But for all the ultra-ambitious story-telling, well-drawn characters, fantastic pacing, and amazing setting, there’s one bit of sand in my shorts with Ghostland, and that’s the editing. I don’t usually criticize typos or occasional spelling errors because that stuff slips through in every book, no matter how many editors scour it. But there were a few sections in Ghostland that would have benefited greatly from a harsh red-pen wielding jerk doing a thorough read-through. 

For example, there’s a scene where Ben and Lillian both dive into a truck from the passenger side, and it’s not clear who’s driving, but then somehow Ben is working the clutch from the passenger side while Lillian is doing the driving? It’s impossible to follow or visualize and the resulting confusion takes a lot away from the tension of the scene, and deals a blow to the otherwise-amazing world-building and continuity.

But then the epilogue happens, and well, this mean old reviewer might’ve misted up a teensy bit. Just read Ghostland, you’ll be glad you did.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a copy of The House Feeds, it looks really good & I can’t find it anywhere.)

fourhappyneurons