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!!

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Felo De Se, by Shaun Hupp

Short Take: Shaun Hupp has feelings, and they are all over the page.

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I’ve followed Shaun Hupp on Facebook for some time, where he’s the class clown of a group of authors. He never fails to be entertaining, and has made me giggle-snort in my cubicle on more than one occasion.

I also reviewed his first book a couple of years ago, and at the time, I was impressed not only by his willingness to Go There with regard to some of his more extreme scenes, but also his deft touch with pace and character. For every flying body part, there was also an undercurrent of genuine humanity that set the Collection a little apart, a little above most “gore for the sake of gore” books out there (and those books frankly bore me). In that review, I suggested that Mr. Hupp consider toning down the blood and guts, and find other ways to mess with a reader’s head.

I imagine that he rubbed his hands together, cocked an eyebrow in a devilish smirk, and uttered a Barney Stinson-esque “Challenge. Accepted.”

Because his latest work, Felo De Se showed me another side of Mr. Hupp. The title translates to “felony of self”, meaning suicide, and the novella that is front & center, “The Suicide of Jeremy Price” tackles the topic head-on. In this book, the demons are not supernatural beasties, but the real-world villains of depression and grief, and the scariest part of all is that any one of us could experience a very real loss of love or psychological balance at any time.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some light supernatural elements, particularly in the first story, which picks up after the titular character has already killed himself. Instead of just vanishing, or being sucked into any religious version of the afterlife, he’s left to wander for no apparent reason. He is able to observe his wife, children, friends, and family as they try to make sense of a senseless death. It’s heartbreaking and the end…. Well, this jaded old reader ended up sniffling a little and blaming allergies for my watery eyes. When Shaun Hupp decides to twist a knife, by golly, that knife stays twisted, and in Jeremy Price, he aims it straight for the crying organs.

There are six other short stories included, but I’m not going to try to describe them here, because it’s best if you just dig in. They all follow similar themes – love, loss, and the occasional bright spark of redemption. “Poor Man’s Coat” is probably my favorite. As a former kid who believed that my stuffed animals had feelings, I love the idea of that the items we possess become imbued with bits of our lives, and that eventually, someone will see the meaning in them, and value them for that.

While reading Felo De Se, I kept waiting for the author to sneak in a horror element, an evil twist, or even a severed limb or six, but there was none of that to be found. Which isn’t to say that the book was lacking in any way, but it was definitely not what I expected from someone whose output paints him more as “Evil Puck” than “guy with a lot of insight on depression”, but never underestimate Mr. Hupp’s capacity to surprise.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a Costco-sized box of Kleenex. For obvious reasons.)

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Caged, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: Welp, my gob is thoroughly smacked.

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My last review focused pretty heavily on comparing a new book (Pretty Ugly Lies) to a previous bestseller (Big Little Lies), and the fact that it tried to copy a successful book, and left out everything great about the original. Today, I’m looking at the flip side of that coin: Ellison Cooper has brought Clarice Starling into the 21st century, and oh my sweet nerdlings! She. Freaking. Killed. It.

Caged begins with a bang – two Washington DC cops are called to an abandoned house with a report of a foul odor, and as they begin searching the house, well, something pretty awful and unexpected happens that I’m not going to spoiler here even though it’s the first chapter. Just trust me.

Eventually, a young girl’s body is found in a cage in the basement of the house, along with a living puppy and evidence that the killer may have another girl locked up somewhere else. It’s going to be a race against time to find the girl, and the killer is really, really smart, y’all. I mean scary-smart, in the Hannibal Lecter way, not the cheesy super-villain who spends a half hour explaining everything way.

Enter Sayer Altair. She’s an FBI agent and a neuroscientist, who works cases and also is using various brain imaging techniques to try to figure out if psycopathy has a physical cause in the brain. She’s also biracial, rides a motorcycle, and is a little (or a lot) damaged and isolated since the death of her fiance.

The rest of the cast is also well-rounded and interesting: Vik Devereaux, a laid-back Cajun who’s a perfect yin to Altair’s yang; Andy Wagner, a hot-shot profiler with arrogance aplenty; Joan Warren, medical examiner who’s the closest thing Sayer has to a girlfriend; Ezra, an evidence tech with hidden talents; Janice Holt, battleaxe boss extraordinaire; and Tino, her downstairs neighbor who’s just a really cool guy and first-rate dog-sitter.

The extra-awesome thing about all of these characters is that there’s some degree of growth and change in them, but not in a stupid way. There’s no romantic subplot (and how nice is it that for once, a strong female character can be just that, without having to grab a man to round out her story), just people who start out with a common goal (GET THE BAD GUY!!!!) and start to find a bit of introspection and camaraderie.

The plot is even more compelling than the characters. As I mentioned above, this killer is miles beyond just about any I’ve ever seen, and there are twists, turns, red herrings, and lots of science that sounds crazy, but is actually A Real Thing, along with splashes of mythology, psychology, cool forensics tricks, and a distinctly charming puppy. In other words, it has everything.

I realize I’m not saying much about how the story unfolds, but trust me when I say, this is one that you just want to jump onto and enjoy the ride. I had pegged the killer as one of two people, and although I got it half-right, I was totally off on the motivation side of things. But listen, do yourself a favor, and when a certain medical condition is mentioned, no matter what, DO NOT google image search it. Seriously, it’s too late for me, but you can still save yourselves.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some brain bleach, because OMG CAN NOT UNSEE!!!)

Loved this book!!

Pretty Ugly Lies, by Pamela Crane

Short Take: Like a bad knockoff Michael Kors bag.

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

It might be a sign of impending old age, but I find myself getting more and more annoyed with books that try to piggyback on the success of previous bestsellers, instead of just being themselves. I mean, with a title like “Pretty Ugly Lies”, this author is obviously trying to appeal to readers who enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies”. The comparisons are pretty obvious on the surface: Take four main female characters who are all moms living in an upscale neighborhood, add some drama, and bam! Success. Maybe. Probably not.

Pretty Ugly Lies opens with a gruesome scene – an entire family has been slaughtered. It’s not revealed whose family it is, but then we meet our leading ladies.

  • Jo – Queen Bee with the best house, most handsome husband, and prettiest kids, one of whom is kidnapped right off the bat, leading to a whole lot of torment. See, she has a Deep Dark Secret that could destroy her perfect life.
  • Shayla – Jo’s best friend, bipolar, two kids. She has a nice husband who she cheats on with a really awful guy, making herself deeply unhappy.
  • June – mom to four kids including an autistic son with a lot of specialized needs. Wife to a husband who doesn’t like to work or parent when he could be watching tv. Also miserable 24/7. Best friends with Ellie.
  • Ellie – sick of being a mom to two demanding kids (really, are there any other kind?) and wife to a cheating husband. Utterly miserable, all the time, and prone to writing melodramatic journal entries full of self-pity and purple prose.

So you have a couple of interesting plot points, and a lot of misery. And angst. And sadness. And anger. And pain. And tears. And so on and so forth, spelled out in the most overwrought language possible. Like “Lies piled on top of lies. Secrets smothering secrets. I was beginning to feel bound by the web of deceit I had woven”, and much more in that vein.  No joke, even the letters from the bad guy/kidnapper read like a teenage girl’s livejournal, the ones with sparkling black rose gif’s and crying wolves all over them.

And that’s the problem. Because where Big Little Lies also had murder, infidelity, abuse, and other awful things, it managed to include fun, and levity, and happy new relationships (both friendship and romantic) and the ways that being a parent or spouse can be the best part of a life. Pretty Ugly Lies focuses only on the negatives. Everyone is so bitter that their lives aren’t some sparkly sitcom paradise, the entitlement and self-pity is infuriating.

Seriously, who thinks things like “Not once did the kids ever thank me for my servitude”?? Are you kidding me?? Kids are kids, they need things, and no, four kids under eight are not going to thank you for your servitude for providing those things. If you’ve genuinely tried to teach them some manners, you might get a “thank you” when you give them a glass of milk, but that’s about it. You have kids, you make sacrifices, and no, it’s not always butterflies and unicorns, but it’s what you chose. Correction: What you chose FOUR TIMES.

I’m shocked, SHOCKED I tell you that the kids don’t have hearts overflowing with love and gratitude for these moms who treat them like so many unwanted burdens. In the end, the only surprise is that just one of the moms went on a murder spree.

It’s also kind of annoying that we have four main characters, but basically two entirely separate plots. You have the two pairs of best friends, and nobody ventures outside their clique in any meaningful way. Part of the fun of Big Little Lies was when the new, single, young, broke mom came to town, seeing her form friendships and become part of the group despite all of her differences.

Maybe I’m being unfair, and maybe Ms. Crane wasn’t just trying (and failing) to copy another author’s work. Then again, maybe her next book will be called Vanished Girl.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a re-read of Big Little Lies. The original one.)

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With You Always, by Rena Olsen

Short Take: Like a fun-size candy bar – tasty for a minute, but unsatisfying.

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

Mega-churches are skeevy, aren’t they? I mean, you have the pastors with their shellacked hair and blinding veneers, hopping around doing their darnedest to convince their congregation that God wants them to have a private jet. It’s no secret that Joel Osteen and his ilk prey on people who are desperate for some kind of help, and scam them out of what little they have. But as disgusting as I find their behavior, I have to acknowledge that behind the spotlights and designer choir robes, there might be worse crimes than stealing from the poor.

Enter Julia. She’s at a bit of a crossroads in life, just coming out of a bad break-up, and trying to get a promotion at work when Bryce Covington blows into her life. He’s rich, gorgeous, and treats Julia like a queen, lavishing her with attention and gifts. He’s also mysterious – he will not speak of his family, insisting that the only family that matters to him are the Reverend and his wife Nancy, leaders of the Church of the Life, who took him in as a teenager. Although Julia has never been into religion, she begins attending church with Bryce, gradually abandoning her own life in order to be accepted into his.

Julia gives up her job, contact with her family, hanging out with her friends, and pretty much everything that mattered to her before Bryce, and do I even need to tell you what a Bad Idea that is? Because of course Bryce is not the Prince Charming he appeared to be, and the church is way more sinister than Julia could’ve imagined.

As much as I love a good takedown of a religious huckster, With You Always didn’t do that. It didn’t even try. The first three-quarters of the is nothing but Julia mooning over Bryce and ignoring everyone who tries to talk sense to her. She’s That Girl, the one who will change everything about herself and turn her back on everyone who’s been there for her throughout her life to keep a guy. It’s pathetic. When Julia finally starts to wise up and realize YOU IN DANGER GIRL, there’s exactly one scene, one character getting what they deserve in the space of a single paragraph, and Bam! Over.

Ms. Olsen gives readers a lot of tantalizing mysteries to gnaw on, then ignores them.  For example, who in the church’s inner circle was responsible for [spoiler], and did they get any kind of punishment for that?  Were there any consequences for anything on the church’s end? We don’t find out what happened in Julia’s life after all this, at all. The epilogue is literally like 20 minutes after the climax, and it amounts to “and she lived happily ever after”, which, uh, NO. There’s absolutely no way that [spoiler] wouldn’t be out for revenge, or that she would just walk away and go back to her old life after burning so many bridges, not to mention the whole police thing.

And honestly, with the way Julia treated everyone around her, it’s really hard to care what happened next. I’m inclined to think the author agreed.
The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and a full-size candy bar. Because whoever invented “fun size” clearly doesn’t understand candy bars.)

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The Last Time I Lied, by Riley Sager

Short Take: There’s whoa, and there’s WHOA. This is a WHOA.

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

A while back, I read and reviewed Riley Sager’s first book (Final Girls), and I wasn’t overly impressed. In fact, I was downright mean. I still stand by my opinion on that one, so it was with some trepidation that I agree to dig into The Last Time I Lied.

Emma Davis is thirteen years old when she goes to Camp Nightingale for the first time. Due to a late arrival, she is put in a cabin with three older girls: Natalie, Allison, and Vivian. At first, it’s all great fun. Although Vivian is the alpha she-wolf of the camp with a truly vicious bite, she “adopts” Emma as a sort of little sister-slash-protege for the summer, and Emma, neglected at home and far out of her depth socially, is only too happy to play along.

Of course, there are warning signs that Vivian might be toying with Emma as well, but none of that matters when Emma wakes up one morning, and all three of her bunkmates have Vanished Without A Trace.

The story is told in alternating timelines, as Emma recounts what happened that summer fifteen years ago, and also returns to the camp as an art teacher, seeking some sort of redemption, or at least some answers.

Both storylines are a lot of fun, populated by a semi-creepy rich old lady who owns the camp, her hot son, and SO MUCH teenage girl snarkiness. These girls (from both timelines) are straight savage, y’all. I would have been terrified of them as a little nerdling, but man, do they make for some great reading.

The plot is deliciously twisty, and the final revelations left me legit speechless. And anyone who knows me will be happy to tell you how rare that really is.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some s’mores. Because I STILL haven’t gotten any!)

Loved this book!!

Tamer Animals, by Justin Woodward

Short Take: I’m just gonna hang out in the not-woods, thanks.

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

I’ve never been a big fan of the outdoors (unless drinking vodka while reading on the patio counts? Oh who am I kidding of course it does) and let me tell you, it’s probably for the best. I mean, I have very sensitive skin, so poison ivy and its ilk are a real menace and don’t even get me started on the bugs. I’m allergic to bee stings, and when you go into a forest or someplace like that, those jerks are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

And of course, there are all the horrible things that happen to people who go camping. So no, you probably won’t get me to go to your charming, rustic cabin. I’ve seen Evil Dead, and I’ve read The Ruins, and thanks but no freakin way.

The boys at the heart of Justin Woodward’s Tamer Animals clearly have not been watching or reading the right things. Because when Dean, John, Patrick and Tim (along with an unexpected guest) head out to the Coheelee Creek Covered Bridge to spend a weekend camping, smoking the old jazz cabbage, talking about girls, peeing on trees, and whatever else teenage boys do in the woods (I’m no expert), they definitely don’t anticipate the various evils they encounter there.

See, the Bridge has a deeply upsetting history involving lynchings, hauntings, and a few other nasties that I’m not going to spoiler here. Let’s just say that no matter how bad you think things can get for the boys, it’ll be a lot worse before it’s all over.

And oh my dear nerdlings, what lovely boys they are! The biggest strength of Tamer Animals is its early focus on the characters. Dean is biracial, cerebral, and prone to phobias, but he’s not a nerd cliche. Instead he’s sensitive and smart and interesting. John is the Product of a Broken Home, but under the anger, he’s protective and compassionate. Patrick is the all-American boy who is trying to help his younger brother deal with an extreme trauma, sacrificing his own popularity. And poor Tim… he has this condition where he… well, it’s extremely embarrassing, and could be played for cheap laughs, but instead, we’re drawn in to how difficult and stressful his everyday life really is.

So when the boys arrive at the campsite, and the sun goes down, and things start getting scary, well, I might have kept my lamp on just a teensy bit longer than I really needed to. And when the [spoiler] in the forest made themselves known, I decided to wait till morning to finish this one.

Mr. Woodward has a way with horrifying imagery. There are multiple scenes from the final act of Tamer Animals that I can guarantee aren’t going away any time soon. But for me, that final smorgasbord of savagery was the weakest part of the book. I loved the characters, and the earlier, more subtle horror elements were perfection. The setting was a perfect blend of beauty and isolation, and the dialogue (usually pretty bad in teenage boy horror novels) was way better than I expected.

The ending, though, seemed derivative. I felt as though the author set up all these gorgeous, original pieces like a beautifully carved marble chess board, then draped a B-movie poster over them, obscuring what was unique and interesting with a whole lot of gore.

At the end of the day, though, I’m always a sucker for great characters. And I still won’t go camping.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some s’mores fixin’s. I could MAYBE be persuaded to go outside if there are s’mores involved.)

 

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