Once Gone, by Blake Pierce

Short Take: Hello, Clarice. These are the Days of Your Life.

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

Once Gone is the first book in a series of thirteen (so far) starring FBI Agent Riley Paige, and as far as serial killer thrillers go, it’s pretty straightforward. Women are being killed, then mutilated and arranged to look like dolls. The investigation begins with Riley’s former partner, Bill, flying solo, and wishing that he had her brilliant mind to help on the case.

And why, you may be asking, is Riley, our ostensible heroine, not at the crime scene putting her extraordinarily intuitive mind to use? It’s because she is at home, not-recovering from a serious case of PTSD and major depression brought on by her previous case, in which she was held captive and tortured by a different serial killer.

Bill manages to get Riley back in the saddle, but she is definitely not OK. She is prone to horrific flashbacks, too much alcohol, and a need to prove herself that generally results in situations that cause more harm to her career. Meanwhile, more bodies are turning up, and Riley’s personal life is spiraling further out of control.

There is a lot to love about Once Gone. Mr. Pierce did a bang-up job in creating real characters in Riley and Bill, mainly by showing us what the people surrounding them are dealing with. Bill’s wife Maggie is fed up with his “marriage to the job” and is about to divorce him and take their two young sons with her. Riley’s fourteen-year-old daughter April is angry all the time and experimenting with drugs, torn up over her inability to help her mother heal. And of course, Riley herself is obsessed with bringing down a killer regardless of what it might cost her.

The pacing and structure are exceptional, with the story of Riley’s ordeal being dribbled out over time.  Essentially, the first story (Riley’s previous case) is told last, which makes for quite the page-turner, and although Riley’s profiling abilities border on ESP levels, her conclusions read as logical, not ridiculous or over-the-top.

The problem is that for all the devotion to the main characters’ lives, the story that should be front and center (the doll-killer-dude) is shoved in around the edges, a paint-by-numbers police procedural. There are a few obvious red herrings, and the obligatory higher-ups who are pursuing their own career-driven agendas and inadvertently sabotaging the investigation.

What I’m saying, in my usual long-winded way, is that when you strip away the soap opera elements of Once Gone, you’re left with an episode of Law & Order SVU. Clues are gathered, leads are followed, bad guy is caught. It’s an OK story (I like SVU, personally), but I feel like the author could have done more with the actual investigation, or told us more about the killer. We get a couple of chapters from his perspective when he’s doing his serial-killing thing, but we’re never really inside his head in a way that makes him frightening. His motivations are rather clumsily spelled out in the final confrontation, but for most of the book, he’s just generic serial killer #15,487.

And of course, because Once Gone is the first in a series, it ends on a cliffhanger, which is where the personal-life-drama hit the “too much” mark for me. With easily three books’ worth of over the top situations heaped onto Riley in just the first book, the thought of a dozen more is plain exhausting.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cozy supply closet, cause man, I could use a nap.)

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Stay Hidden, by Paul Doiron

Short Take: Wait, who was that guy?

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*Note – I received a free advance copy of this book to review.*

Living on an island seems like it should have a lot of perks. I mean, you have 360 degrees of beach, right? Unfortunately, according to Stay Hidden, that’s about the only thing going for island living (at least islands off the coast of Maine), because it sure does seem to be pretty miserable for everyone.

Newly minted Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch is on his first case. A woman has been shot to death outside her rented cabin on a small remote Maine island, and although it appears to be a simple hunting accident (excuse me, INCIDENT, this is Very Important and repeated many times), things quickly take a turn for the complicated.

First off, when Mike takes the call, he gets the impression that someone has already confessed to the shooting, but of course that isn’t the case. Secondly, although the corpse is identified as super-famous journalist Ariel Evans, she turns up the next day, alive and well and ready to dig into another juicy story.

It’s a very intriguing setup, but it just doesn’t work.

I can’t exactly say that Stay Hidden was bad, but there were just so many things that could have made it better. For example, all of the descriptions of the book online state that Ariel is not the woman who was murdered, and to me, that would have much for a much better surprise-reveal.

There’s also far too much of a lecturing tone to many passages. I’m sure that Mr. Doiron knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, but long sections on minutiae of forensics, or what happens when deer are overpopulated, or meteorological trivia and so on just slow the pace. Throw in adding a new character or five every couple of pages, and my brain just wanted to quit.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with this one  – the massive cast of characters. The book takes place on an island with a population of eighty-nine, and I swear, over the course of a slim 300 pages, we are introduced to every one of them, and also given their relationships to everyone else on the island, which is especially fun when it’s a prominent family whose names all sound alike. I got tired of having to stop and try to remember or flip back to where I first encountered that character, to the point that I gave up and just trusted that whatever they were doing/saying in any given scene would be sufficient to jog my memory eventually.

All in all, Stay Hidden is a serviceable, although somewhat dull and formulaic mystery.
The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice venison steak. Because I live in an area where deer do a lot of damage, and screw those mangy jerks.)

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Bring Me Back, by B. A. Paris

Short Take: VERY enjoyable, if you don’t think too hard about it.

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*Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for review.*

I LOVE road trips. Especially when someone else is driving, and I can enjoy some delicious books and thrilling unhealthy snacks while the wind is in my hair and the radio is playing. In theory, it’s fantastic. In practice, however, there are less-than-fun circumstances, like GPS sending you the wrong way, sitting for seven hours in traffic, arguments over the radio station, or all that fantastic junk food deciding that it’s not your friend after all.

Or, if you’re a strapping young lad named Finn on a trip with his girlfriend Layla, you could stop at a rest area to use the bathroom, and return to the car to find Layla has disappeared, which would definitely put a damper on the festivities.

Bring Me Back begins with Layla’s disappearance, then jumps ahead ten years. No trace of Layla has been found, and Finn has since become engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen (yes, it’s weird & creepy). With his life finally starting to come together after losing Layla, Finn is thrown back into the nightmare when someone begins sending him and Ellen messages and packages with meanings that only Layla would have known about.

So is Layla still alive? Or has whoever killed her and gotten away with it for ten years decided to play a sadistic game with Finn and Ellen?

I’ve seen similar setups in other books, but I have to say that I did not see the final twist coming. I was caught completely off guard, and that is generally a good thing, but the final reveal was so incredibly implausible that I just couldn’t buy in to it. It’s something that has been done a few times in other books & movies, and much more effectively, I think. And it only works if you assume that one of the main characters is a complete and total moron, more than a little blind and deaf, and self-centered to the point of caricature.

Ok, I’ll concede that last one. Finn was a class-A d-bag, with anger issues and pretty much zero redeeming qualities. And not in the fun, twisted, sociopathic kind of way, either, he’s just the guy that nobody likes having around.

If you’re willing to overlook an unlikable narrator though, and to just go along with the craziness, Bring Me Back is actually pretty fun. The pacing is spot-on, and the writing is engaging enough that I devoured this one like it was a gas station burrito and I was cruising down I-79 with the 80’s station playing.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some Clapton. LAAAAYYYYLLLAAAA!!! has been stuck in my head for days.)

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The Other Woman, by Sandie Jones

Short Take: You can’t see red flags if you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

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Can we all take a moment to appreciate fictional terrible mothers, and all the contributions they have made to modern entertainment? I haven’t done much (read: any) research on the rise in popularity of stories based on horrific mothers who make monsters of their sons, but I think that Psycho was the one that started it all. Although, I suppose I could make a case for the idea going as far back as Oedipus, right? But wait, he didn’t know that the hot queen he was banging was his mom, so maybe not? Anyway, the point stands that crazy mothers make for compelling stories.

Which leads me to The Other Woman, which begins with Emily, our heroine, meeting the man of her dreams, Adam. The pair have a short but intense courtship, with Adam checking every box on Emily’s Perfect Man List (all women have those, right?), except for one teensy tiny little flaw in their bliss: Pammie, Adam’s mother, does not want Emily in Adam’s life.

It doesn’t help that Pammie is much smarter and more determined than Emily. True to the ads, The Other Woman ends with a twist I didn’t see coming. But I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed it very much. The power struggle between Emily & Pammie was kind of cliche for the most part, and without the darker undertones supplied by Adam, could’ve been lifted straight out of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

You know how we all have that one friend, who’s constantly in a state of crisis, and you know that at least 75% of their misery could be avoided if they would just put on their big-person panties and stick up for themselves, but they never do? And so you let them go on and on and on and ON about their latest Awful Thing while you’re washing dishes or playing solitaire and making sympathetic noises, because you think they are genuinely a good person, but you kind of want to tell them to grow up and move on already and stop letting people walk all over them and maybe they wouldn’t be so miserable but you don’t want to hurt their feelings so you just let them vent?

Emily is TOTALLY that friend. Pretty much every time Pammie pulls something shady, or Adam ignores his mother’s meddling or gets angry at Emily for trying to tell him what’s going on, Emily’s response is to whine to her friends “BUT I LOOOOOOOOOOOVE HIMMMMMM!!!!”. It’s just as frustrating to read in a book as it is to live through in real life, only without the option of being able to say “Girl, you need to get the heck out, like yesterday. Ain’t no man worth all this bull puckey.”

And the epilogue was pretty awful. Anything I say will be a spoiler, so I’m just going to say it was lousy, and go find some vodka.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a chocolate digestive, because I have no idea what that even means, but hey, it has chocolate in the name, so it has to be good, right?)

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The Favorite Sister, by Jessica Knoll

Short Take: Infuriating. Depressing. Delicious.

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*Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for review purposes.*

I think there’s something wrong with me, at least by society’s standards. You see, I’ve never watched any of the reality shows that The Favorite Sister seems to be modeled on. I have never kept up with a single Kardashian, and I have no idea who any of the Real Housewives are, or why there’s a show about cooking, cleaning, and wiping toddlers off (that’s housewife stuff, right?). I’m not trying to be snobby, I think I’ve amply demonstrated (many, many times) just how lowbrow my tastes really are, but the “women being nasty to each other in front of cameras” thing has never interested me.

So it was with a kind of anthropological fascination that I began Jessica Knoll’s newest book, The Favorite Sister, which is centered around the five women who make up the cast of a reality show called Goal Diggers. Diggers is supposed to be the anti-trash show, featuring women who are smart, business savvy, hip, young, and successful. Its mission statement is full of grandiose feminist ideals, in which the women support each other’s endeavors and celebrate their own successes instead of downplaying them.

So far, so good, right?

The problem, it turns out, is that awesome strong women getting along makes for boring TV, and probably boring reading. Which is why The Favorite Sister is so freakin’ good, but at the same time, so deeply upsetting.

There are two levels to The Favorite Sister. The first is the plot itself, which is FANTASTIC. The sisters are Brett and Kelly Courtney. Kelly was always the favorite, the golden child who received endless love and attention from their mother, and went on to become a single teenage mother to Layla, who is now twelve. Brett, on the other hand, went her own way. She founded a chain of spin gyms that also benefited charity, and was the first one cast on Goal Diggers.

It’s a really brilliant dynamic. Which sister had it worse – the one who was so smothered by parental adoration and demands that she never really became a functional adult, or the one who felt unloved her whole life, but went on to do great things? Clearly, that kind of dysfunction can be reality show gold, so a few seasons in, the producers added Kelly and Layla to the show.

The book opens with Kelly being interviewed about Brett’s murder, which is, of course, the huge central mystery. But there’s really so much more to everything. There’s also Stephanie, who wrote a best-selling memoir, and Jen, the Vegan Guru, and Lauren, the heavily alcoholic founder of a hot dating site. Toss in a couple of producers who just want to blow up the ratings and get lots of on-air drama and are willing to pull some nasty tricks to that end, and you have a deliciously twisted soap opera that I could NOT. Stop. Reading.

There’s another level to The Favorite Sister, however, and that’s the message that it sends. For all the feminist rhetoric spouted by the various characters, these women are exactly what the more awful corners of Reddit claim that all women are: they are shallow, catty, materialistic, status-obsessed, fighting over men, hurting each other for attention, lying about abuse, and turning every interaction into a zero sum game. There’s not a single speck of loyalty, caring, or any genuine support for anyone else, ever, at all, by any of them. Any seemingly kind gesture is for the benefit of the cameras or career only.

It’s horrifying, but not in a good “disembodied head floating around the room and cursing everyone” kind of way. I’m left wondering if Ms. Knoll meant for Favorite Sister to be kind of a satire, but it just doesn’t read that way.

Overall though, I couldn’t put this book down, and read through it in a single night, and now it’s three days later and I’m still obsessing over it. So I would say, read it, enjoy it, and don’t internalize a word of it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and carbs. Lots of carbs.)

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Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier

Short Take:  Way more than I bargained for. In a good way.
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*Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for review.*

When is a punishment enough? Like, say you steal a bag of Doritos from the local convenience store, because you’ve had a few adult beverages and you forgot your wallet when you walked over and you had REALLY bad munchies and it was snowing so you didn’t want to walk back home and get your wallet, so you managed to smuggle them out under your coat without being caught.

But then when you get home and start to chow down on some delicious, illicit, chemical dusted fried corn product, you find that you just can’t do it. Oh you still have the munchies, all right, but you feel bad for having taken them, and you just don’t want them the way you thought you would.

Is that punishment enough? Or should there be fines, jail, public humiliation?

It’s an interesting question on a much larger scale in Jar of Hearts, which opens with Georgina Shaw (Geo to her friends), age 30, testifying in court about the role she played in the murder of her best friend Angela when the girls were 16. You see, Geo’s first love was none other than Calvin James, a serial killer who began his career with Angela, and then skipped town and went on to murder three other women, while Geo helped to hide the body and lied to protect them both.

Angela’s remains stay buried, and Geo goes on with her life as best she can, until 14 years later, when both Angela’s bones and the truth about that night come to light. Geo admits to her role in the crime, and is sentenced to five years in prison. Calvin is sentenced to prison for life, but escapes almost immediately.

And shortly before Geo’s release, new victims start turning up, practically in her backyard. It looks like Calvin never forgot his first love either, and is coming back for her.

So…. punishment. Although Geo doesn’t go to prison for well over a decade after Angela’s murder, her life in that time isn’t exactly unicorns and rainbows. Her time in prison is about as bad as you’d imagine. (Worse, if your imagination isn’t as messed up as mine). And when she gets out, well, some pretty awful things continue to happen. Her father’s home is vandalized repeatedly, and mistakes from her past continue to rise up and torment her, plus there’s that whole “being stalked by a serial killer” thing, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all.

I wanted to feel sympathetic towards Geo. Surely, I imagine, this poor girl has suffered for like 20 years for something she did when she was 16. I was an IDIOT at 16, and every day, I’m grateful that there was no internet back then or digital cameras or anything else that would serve as a record of my idiocy. Hell, EVERYONE is an idiot at 16. How long should she be punished for what she did (and just as importantly didn’t) do? The court decided that 5 years in prison was punishment enough. The residents of her small town decided that heaping scorn on her after that was necessary.

And there’s a terrifying man who wants to punish her more than anyone for [spoiler].

Is it enough? Does Geo deserve to have a life with love and happiness and whatever else comes to people who weren’t involved in murder?

The truth is, I don’t know. Jar of Hearts surprised me with how thought-provoking a sexy, twisty, violent little thriller could be. My feelings for Geo whiplashed between pity and disgust, between admiration and contempt.

There’s obviously more to any book than the main character, of course, and although the other characters weren’t fleshed out to nearly the same degree, the pacing was exceptional, and the writing itself was smart and engaging. It says something that although I was able to figure out what was happening about two thirds of the way through, I still couldn’t put it down, and I’m so glad I kept going – the ending is seriously WHOA.

Jar of Hearts is my first book by Jennifer Hillier, but I can safely say that it won’t be my last.

 

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some cinnamon candy. Bring the heat!)

Loved this book!!

Deep Zero, by V.S. Kemanis

Short Take: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

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

What’s with publishers mislabeling books? Deep Zero popped up on my recommended reading shelf under “Mystery and Thriller”, but honestly, it was neither. It was the story of two female attorneys who have long discussions with their families and other attorneys about legal issues.

Seriously.

The basic premise of the story is that DA Dana Hargrove is investigating a case in which a high school girl committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates.  (Note: there are only a few paragraphs dedicated to the actual investigation. Followed by long discussions as to whether the mean girls can be charged, what can they be charged with, what is a jury likely to convict them of, etc. Long, tedious discussions.)

It would appear that Dana’s case is jeopardized when a party thrown by another kid in the school gets out of hand, resulting in injuries and property damage. See, both of Dana’s children were barely, tangentially, kind of remotely involved in the incident, which led to them being subjected to long discussions with their parents on legal technicalities, as well as long legal discussions with other attorneys in the DA’s office regarding questioning the kids and so on. The incident also results in like 37 other cases being opened, each one complete with its own series of discussions.

There’s a subplot regarding Dana’s husband, who’s handling a case regarding a convicted killer who wins a medical malpractice suit, and who should get the money from that settlement. It adds absolutely nothing to the main story, other than more lengthy legal discussions.  There’s also another main character, Vesma, who occasionally works as a criminal defense attorney. She thinks that kind of work is beneath her, however, so we don’t get to see her in action. Most likely because that might have been kind of interesting. Vesma’s daughter is friends with Dana’s son, which, thank goodness for that, because otherwise, we might have missed out on a few legal discussions about the possible conflicts in all these cases.

As for the multiple cases themselves, there’s no mystery. It’s spelled out pretty clearly who did what. There’s no nuance or buildup or any real tension. There are no contentious courtroom scenes (except for the speeches lifted right out of an 80’s movie slow clap climax. It’s worse than you think.) Deep Zero is a Law & Order episode where all we see are the attorneys sitting around talking to each other.

Oh, and it’s written like a children’s book. Consider this snippet, and keep in mind, this is straight narration, NOT, as you would think, dialogue from a very young character: “Well, the whoops and cries were so loud that Judge Jones had to bang the gavel over and over again! The hammering was forceful, but the judge really didn’t look mad. A big smile was on his face.” (See? 80’s movie slow clap, in book form.)

The Nerd’s Rating: One Happy Neuron (and caffeine. Please send caffeine ASAP.)

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