The Breakdown, by B. A. Paris

Short Take: Beep boop, the formulaic plot generator has completed your request.

51Va0R3MSWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

I have been hearing about B. A. Paris for a while, mainly with regard to “Behind Closed Doors”, the author’s first novel, which got a lot of buzz as a pretty intense thriller. I opted to skip that one, not because it looked bad, exactly, but because a lot of reviews said that it featured a lot of graphic domestic violence, and that’s not really my jam. I mean, I’m obviously not averse to pain and gore, but it just didn’t look like something particularly enjoyable.

Still, it seemed like this author would be one to watch, so when The Breakdown came out, I jumped. Even though, by now I should know that when the Amazon title reads like a sales pitch (“The 2017 Gripping Thriller from the Bestselling Author…”) it’s usually a lot of hype to mask a disappointment. Seriously, Amazon, QUIT IT. I have decided to make it a Very Strict Personal Policy to not read any book with that kind of garbage in the title. I might even circulate a petition or something. Who’s with me? We must stop this madness!

Ahem. ANYWAY.

The Breakdown has a really, really good premise. Cass Anderson is a young woman with a lovely life ahead of her. The last few years have been rough, caring for her mother as she slowly disappears into dementia before dying, but things are great now. She has inherited quite a bit of money, married a total babe named Matthew, started a teaching career she really enjoys, and even has time to spend with her best friend Rachel on occasion, sipping wine and gossiping. Cass has everything just right.

But one dark and stormy night (dun dun DUUUUNNNN) as she’s driving home, she sees a woman pulled off to the side, possibly broken down. After hesitating for a few minutes, Cass drives on, planning to call for assistance for the woman in the other car when she gets home. The next morning, however, she finds out that the woman in the car was brutally murdered as she waited there.

Cass is understandably crushed with guilt, and fear – what if the killer saw her, and now knows who she is? As if that weren’t awful enough, Cass seems to be slipping into the same illness that claimed her mother – she forgets small things, then larger ones, and can’t trust her own thoughts or perceptions anymore. It seems as though the killer is stalking and harassing her. Nobody believes her, and even she has to admit that it might all be in her head.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? It probably would have been, if the ending hadn’t been so ridiculous. The very important clue that made everything fall into place was revealed by such a huge, extremely improbable coincidence that I am facepalming just thinking about it, which makes it very hard to type. (But seriously, why were the French students speaking Spanish?)

The Breakdown also does the tired, stupid thing where the bad guy spills everything about what they are doing and why for pages and pages. Not out loud, mind you, but through text messages, which makes it even dumber. Like 90% of the text messages are about how careful they have to be to not get caught, but they don’t delete that stuff as soon as they get it? How can these people leave the house with their pants on right side up, never mind carry out a crazily convoluted plot?

And in the end, it’s all so predictable. Most people who read a lot of mysteries will have it figured out in the first few chapters. It’s like the book version of a paint-by-numbers piece of “art”.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a cup of tea. And by tea, of course, I mean vodka.)

twohappyneurons

The Method, by Duncan Ralston

Short Take: DOH!!! Ya got me!!

35098642._UY500_SS500_[1]

So I snagged a copy of this one recently, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to like it very much. From what I had seen of some of the author’s other work, he’s an extreme horror kind of guy, and although I’m not bothered overmuch by the occasional gory scene, it’s not something I really seek out. I tend to go more for psychological horror – the thing that just might be hanging out in the closet always affects me more than the dripping decapitated head.

But I found the concept intriguing. As someone who’s pretty familiar with the various ways that marriages and long-term relationships can die, I wanted to see if the author could effectively make me believe in this couple. Could he really show how it feels from the inside when partners start drifting and stop connecting, and could Mr. Ralston make me care if they ever got it together?

More importantly, could he freak me out quite a bit while doing so?

The answer, my friends, is yes, yes, and oh hell yes.

We meet Frank and Linda Moffatt when they are on a walk in the woods, bickering in the way that married couples frequently do. On the surface, they are arguing about directions, and if they are lost, but underneath, the conflict is about everything that’s wrong in their marriage. So walking, fighting, and BAM! Something so awful happens that I seriously wanted to cover my eyes while reading, which is a skill I have yet to master.

From there, the story jumps backward to where Frank and Linda first hear about The Method, a super-exclusive couples’ retreat where friends of theirs were able to save their marriage. We see them check into the Lone Loon Lodge (a uniquely perfect name, given future events), and meet the only other couple there, Neville and Teri.

Although some strange things happen in the lodge, possibly orchestrated by the mysterious Dr. Kaspar, the story really takes off when Frank and Linda take that walk. And oh, my beloved nerdlings, what a horrific walk it becomes.

I won’t reveal any of the specifics of the story from this point, but I will say that this section of the story is nearly where The Method lost me. The plot seemed to go from an interesting psychological thriller with well-rounded characters into, well, a sophomoric and mostly dumbed-down horror movie that I’ve seen roughly eleventy billion variations of in my life. I actually remarked to a friend that “this book had better have a KILLER ending after putting me through this.” And so I kept reading, even though I wasn’t really feeling it, since I’m a sucker who’s always willing to hope that there is an ending somewhere out there that is awesome enough to make up for a meh rest of the book, although I mostly don’t believe they exist.

Let me just say, I may have found such a unicorn here. The reveals in the final quarter of The Method come fast and hard, and although I anticipated a couple of them, there were still plenty that I didn’t see coming. Which isn’t to say that it was necessarily a 100% perfect ending. Although everything was explained, and it all came together in a way that didn’t seem to leave any loose ends hanging, and it did so in a brilliantly unexpected way, I found it just a teeny bit on the side of “too much”.

Obviously, it’s hard to explain what I didn’t totally love about the ending without giving away the ending, so I’m going to say that there are a lot of moving parts, and although I could believe that a certain number of them could function as they are meant to, it’s a stretch to say that all of them would. Overall though, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re a horror fan, so OF COURSE you’re willing to make that jump), Duncan Ralston is a guy to watch. His characters and dialogue are great, and he definitely has a feel for pacing and setting.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice dip in a cold lake. It’s sweltering out there today!)

fourhappyneurons

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

Short Take:  Y’all can stop looking, I have found the new Gone Girl.

Image result for shari lapena couple next door

Yes, I’m back after a long hiatus consisting of mental misfires, dodgy doldrums, and a dearth of reading material that tickled my giblets enough to make me want to write reviews. Until now. As much as I’ve railed against every publisher blurb that promises me “It’s the next Gone Girl!”, I should have guessed that at some point I would eat my words.

So here I am, choking down my many many MANY statements that no other book could possibly be anything like Gone Girl. I will still sleep with my homemade Gillian Flynn doll, however, because the book gods giveth and the book gods taketh away and I ain’t taking any chances.

On its surface, the premise of The Couple Next Door is entirely different than the aforementioned Gone Girl. Anne and Marco, a lovely, upper-upper-upper middle class couple are at a dinner party at the home of their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham. Cynthia has made it very clear that this was to be an adults-only party, so when Anne & Marco’s sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to leave their 6 month old baby by herself. After all, they reason, we’ll be right next door, we have the baby monitor, we will take turns checking on her every half hour, she’ll be sound asleep the whole time anyway. What could go wrong?

It should probably go without saying that PLENTY could go wrong.

Marco checks on Cora at 12:30, and tells Anne that all is well, but when the couple go home at 1 AM, the baby is gone.  And what follows is one of the most deliciously twisty mysteries I’ve read in quite some time. Everyone wants something out of this case: Anne and Marco want their baby back. Detective Rasbach wants to figure out what happened and to find Cora.  The media wants to salivate over the fact that the baby was home alone and that Anne is being treated for postpartum depression. But above and beyond all other motives and goals, everyone wants to keep their own dirty secrets tucked safely away.

We get point-of-view chapters from Marco, Anne and the detective, as well as the occasional bits from other characters, including Cynthia. All of these characters are portrayed with a surprising amount of depth. My favorite was the detective. He’s seen too much in his career, and it’s made him jaded and cynical, but he still wants to believe that someone, anyone, is telling him the truth in all this. Yet he never lets himself quite believe anything he’s told. You really get a sense of how exhausting it must be to live like that, day in and day out. Beautifully done.

There are a few overused themes in Couple Next Door. Namely, Everyone Has Secrets. Nobody Can Be Trusted. And so on. But I have to add that for every reveal that I saw coming, there were at least three that I didn’t. And although many of the characters were unlikable at times, you also got the sense that their humanity was intact, that sometimes the wrong decision feels like the only one.

And the best part? On the amazon page for this book, NOT ONCE was it called “The Next Gone Girl.” So maybe, just maybe, publishers will stop using that line. Everyone wins!

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a duffel bag full of unmarked bills. Cause who couldn’t use one of those?)

Loved this book!!

 

Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt

Short Take: Came for the promise of gothic spookiness, stayed for the great characters.

23719481

You know what annoys me to no end? Book descriptions that are nothing like the actual book. Not to mention grossly misleading titles. Like this one. You would think with a name like “Mr. Splitfoot”, there would be some devilish trickery, some demonic dealings, some Faustian bargains, right?

Nope.

And with sentences like this in the description, “Mr. Splitfoot will set your heart racing and your brain churning”, you’d expect some serious insanity, some crazy chase or fight scenes, some real adrenalin-firing stuff.

Again… nope.

Mr. Splitfoot is the story of two women. Roughly twenty years ago, Ruth lived in a horrifically abusive foster home run by a drunken religious zealot they call The Father. With her best friend, Nat, and the help of an experienced con man, Mr. Bell, they ran a lucrative service contacting the dead for paying customers while they planned their escape from Love of Christ! (the exclamation point is part of the name), and tried to figure out how to save the other children as well. Ruth and Nat are amazing characters. Both are broken in ways both visible and invisible, and their love for each other is gorgeous.

Cora in the present day is Ruth’s niece. She’s been raised by a single mother, and now works at a job she can’t stand, where she spends most of her days shopping online. Complicating matters, her affair with a married man has resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. She’s at a crossroads when Ruth comes back into her life.

Ruth is silent, never speaking at all, as she leads Cora on a walk that will span months and months, and hundreds of miles.

Mr. Splitfoot goes back and forth between the two timelines, as we see young Ruth’s story unfold, and Cora’s experiences on the seemingly endless walk with her aunt. And I’ll be honest, it was the walk that made me nearly put this one down and leave it down many times. There’s so much walking. Every so often, Ruth and Cora meet up with someone, and there’s some kind of interaction, and then the person is never seen or heard from again. There are overlong pieces of dialog or internal thoughts that meander pointlessly on and on and on.

And so. Much. Walking. And talking. And conversations. And perambulations.

And then the ending happened. I’m not going to spoil it. It was the most delicious ice-down-the-neck shock I’ve read in awhile. It just worked so flawlessly, the pieces all snapped into place without even a speck light in the seams.

I also have to give major props to the style of this one. Samantha Hunt is a beautiful writer. There were a few spots where her descriptions or dialog made me stop and reread a snippet over and over, like a new song that I want to hear until I’ve memorized it.

But talent like that can be a double-edged sword. For every line that took my breath away, there was a serious stretch of nothing happening at all. For every startling scene (the married guy’s plan for Cora’s baby, the truth about the man that The Father wants Ruth to marry), there are many more bloated descriptions of dirty jeans, or old wallpaper, or lists of songs on vinyl records, or how every single person or place smells. There’s an endless barrage of trivia about places in New York, washed up celebrities, even Uncle Sam.

I think that Mr. Splitfoot would have been a better book if there was less of it. There were multiple chapters that could’ve been cut entirely without changing a single detail of the plot, and that’s never a good sign. There was far more telling than showing in the rest, and after a while, the padding grew too thick for me to feel the heartbeat of the story.

But still… those characters. That ending. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this one – did I love it for the awesome parts, or hate it for the draggy ones? I think I’ll let myself land on the love side this time, but I don’t know that I would seek out more of this author’s books.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some reliable transportation. Because no part of walking for months sounds fun)

fourhappyneurons

Missing Parts, by Lucinda Berry

Short Take: I see what you (almost) did there…..

415wpf6ym2bl-_sx311_bo1204203200_

**Note – I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review**

I have been known to dip out of my preferred genres on occasion. Maybe I should spend more time reading Serious Literature, and less time with works that are scary or gory or fast-paced. I think that my tastes are skewed to the point where I might not be the best judge of what is “good”. And the whole time I was reading “Missing Parts”, I just couldn’t get past my own prejudices.

I do want to say, up front, that Ms. Berry attempts to tackle some real, difficult, and timely issues with this book. Societal expectations of mothers are horrifically unfair even to the best of them, and for some women, difficulty in bonding with their children is a genuine issue that most people pretend doesn’t exist. So I have to commend the author for being willing to tackle some very uncomfortable truths.

That said, this book was described to me as a thriller, similar to Gone Girl (we know how I feel about that particular comparison, right?), twisty, fast-paced, and so on.  And I just didn’t see any of that. What I saw was “one terrible woman’s journey of self-discovery in which she learns nothing.”

Celeste has a great life in LA – she’s a force to be reckoned with at work, has a perfect partner in stay-at-home dad David, a great group of supportive friends, and a four year old daughter. It’s quite picturesque. That is, until her daughter becomes deathly ill, and the secret that Celeste has been holding onto for years threatens everything in her life.

On the surface, this sounds pretty good. The problem is that Celeste is, quite simply, terrible. We are assured repeatedly that she is very strong, and has always kept everything together, but in virtually every scene of the book, she’s having some kind of breakdown – crying, weeping, sobbing, tears streaming, eyes wet, and whatever other synonym for blubbering you can name. She also throws up frequently, complete with descriptions of the color & consistency. There’s even a bonus fainting spell.

Celeste is pathologically selfish to a degree I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  A big chunk of the book is long, melodramatic, drawn-out exposition of her life, and I swear, the only part of her entire life in which she was happy is when she & her husband were first married, and she was 100% the center of attention in their little family. (I should add, everyone is miserable in all the flashbacks as well.) We’re talking about a person who joins AA, not because she has a drinking problem (not even remotely) but because hearing other people talk about the terrible things they’ve done makes her feel better about herself. Because it’s totally OK to use people in recovery as props, right?  Seriously… who DOES that?

There is a big reveal towards the end that should probably make her more sympathetic, but because a lot of it was telegraphed heavily early on, it didn’t have nearly as much impact. Knowing the Big Secret, without it being actually addressed for most of the book, rendered it almost meaningless.  Had it been completely revealed up front, it might have made the rest of the story slightly more relatable.

And that’s my other major issue – for all the pages in this book, there just isn’t much story.  In fact, the main issues of the book (her child’s illness, possibly a terrible crime) are barely touched on for most of it. There’s a lot of exposition, and more navel-gazing than anything else.  Celeste’s only thought for anyone, and I mean ANYONE else is “Gee, I hope they don’t think I’m a bad person!” There’s not one other person whose feelings are ever even considered, other than for the possibility that they might see Celeste as not-perfect.

Sociopaths can be fun to watch, and narcissists can be fun to hate. But there’s hard to find much fun in someone who is just so empty of everything but self-pity.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some anti-depressants. Please.)

twohappyneurons

 

How To Be A Vigilante, by Luke Smitherd

 

Short Take: A Confederacy of Dunces, rewritten as a nightmare.

513yoaw-mcl

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

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into here. Yes, I read and reviewed one of Mr. Smitherd’s books a while back, and despite its occasional warts, I enjoyed it immensely. Mentally, I filed him as an author of sci-fi/horror, who amused me a bit, and went on my merry way. This book, however, was nothing like his other work.

The plot is pretty simple, and timely with the current glut of superheroes in the entertainment world. Nigel Carmelite has a life that is astounding in how perfectly ordinary it is. He’s eighteen years old, works in a grocery store, and lives with his mother and brother in a medium sized town in England. What sets him apart, however, is his determination to become the next Batman. The fact that he is physically substandard and mentally not quite all there won’t slow him down.

This book is his diary of everything he does in his quest, including designing his costume, choosing a superhero name, joining a gym and martial arts class, going on a date, and of course, all of his crime-fighting activities.

When I received an email giving me an overview of Vigilante, the description included “Psychological Thriller/Horror” or “Suspense and Mystery”, which of course, is right up my alley.

So there I was, twenty-something chapters in, completely gobsmacked and befuddled that I seemed to be re-reading A Confederacy of Dunces.  There were no supernatural shenanigans, no otherworldly oddities in sight. Now, don’t get me wrong, Dunces is a classic for a reason, and Nigel perfectly channels Ignatius J. Reilly in his inflated opinion of his own abilities, and his weird conflicted relationship with his mother.  It was hilarious. But seriously, where was the horror?

I almost wish I hadn’t asked.

See, it was around the 30 chapter mark that Vigilante started to dip down into some kind-of worrying depths. Nigel really really really wants to do the right thing. He wants justice for the little guy, for everyone who’s ever been bullied or victimized in some way to know that they have a protector.  But eventually, it becomes clear that Nigel doesn’t have a clear understanding of either his own limitations, and grasps even less of the world around him, that his own personal road to hell could be paved and with the very best intentions.

And around the 45-chapter mark, I started to dread where this was going. I seriously did not want to finish it. Not because the book was bad, no, because it was so realistic that I could feel the tension in the pit of my stomach. I had a few ideas of what might happen, but I was wrong. The ending was far more traumatizing than anything I could’ve thought up.

Vigilante isn’t for everyone. The first half is a slow burn, and Nigel is a compulsive over-sharer. The endless details of his preparation to venture into the gritty streets, at times, were mind-numbing. I get that it’s the character, and the obsessive attention to detail is because he thinks he’s writing to the massive audience he’ll have one day. He believes that his journal will inspire as well as teach others to follow in his footsteps; therefore, every detail is important. Like I said, I get it, but there were spots that felt repetitive and monotonous. Then again, the lulling effects of all these minutiae made it all the more devastating when the author decided to yank the rug out from under me.

But for all that, there were far more great parts. Despite the rising tension, the cultural differences in the USA and UK made for some fun moments for me. Like, the name Nigel. Seriously, is there like a law in the UK that 40% of male babies have to be named either Nigel or Simon? And the fact that Nigel doesn’t need a bulletproof vest, because the UK criminals don’t have guns. What? That might be enough to make this pacifist nerd overlook the weird food over there.

I definitely recommend this book, but be warned! The Night Man doesn’t play around.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some gaffa tape, for all your crime-fighting needs!)

fourhappyneurons

Until Her Darkness Goes, by Rana Kelly

Short Take: I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying!

51azjbbyv7l

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

I will be the first to admit that Darkness is not my usual jam. It wouldn’t have been my first pick when perusing the shelves, probably not even my second or third.

See, I think that most romance books are ridiculous bordering on abusive towards women. For decades, it’s been the rich or powerful or both and totally gorgeous guy rescuing the poor maiden from her ordinary life of ordinariness. The poor innocent naive girl has no idea what life or passion really means, so thank goodness this perfect specimen can teach her!  And if she’s not initially receptive, then his gorgeous powerfulness will wear her down eventually!

Give me a break. And let me just add that the current trend of clumsy/awkward women who seriously have NO idea, none whatsoever, that they are impossibly beautiful, is not an acceptable substitute for giving them an actual personality.

So when Ms. Kelly offered to send me her book, and told me a bit about her main character Rachel (professional, smart, bipolar, a little self-destructive), and Rachel’s love interest, Nicky (singer, junkie, major family issues), I found myself more than a little intrigued, and agreed to take it for a spin.

I’m glad I did.

Rachel is a music executive who’s on the verge of losing it all due to both a declining music industry and her own tendencies toward the extreme. One night, she wanders into a bar on impulse (which is, really, the way she does most things) and hears a band whose sound could resurrect her career, and make Murder of Crows world-famous. The lead singer is Nicky McCallum, who’s a major talent, a relative hottie, and battling more demons than Jerry Falwell in the 80’s.

Darkness is an earnest, heartfelt exploration of what happens when two people have major sharp jagged edges that COULD line up perfectly, but only maybe.  And a bit of turning and twisting and trying to force it will leave them both bloody and raw. It’s a peek behind the curtain of mental illness, in which not only are emotions heightened by the disease, but every reaction and thought has to be examined in light of it. Is this a “normal” feeling? Is my “disease” making me over-react? Where is the line between genuine grief and heartache vs. “me just being bipolar again”?

It’s exhausting to even contemplate.

This is not to say that Darkness is perfect. Ms. Kelly is a first-time author, and as such, she tends to fall into a few traps. For one thing, there’s a tendency to tell more than show with regards to Rachel’s mental state; that is, there’s a lot of her saying she’s bipolar, and other people referring to her disorder, but not much of her really behaving THAT far outside the lines. For much of the book, she’s dealing with some pretty heavy no-joke for-real trauma, and to be honest, her reactions don’t seem that far outside the pale.

Also, while Rachel and Nicky are interesting and complex, some of the other characters are less fleshed out, more a single personality trait than a real person.

Despite its flaws, however, Darkness eventually pulled me in and kept me in. The first half was a little slow, but once I read the part where (just kidding, no spoilers here), I couldn’t put it down. This book was dark, and sad, and sexy, and messy, and just so human.  It’s a romance for people who think romance is stupid.

It’ll be interesting to see what this author does in the future. Maybe she could write some excellent horror….

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a blistering guitar solo. Because I’m totally craving one right now.)

fourhappyneurons