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!!

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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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Abandoned, by Allison Brennan

Short Take: Wake me when something happens.

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

Can we please retire the word “unputdownable?” Please? I mean, it was cute enough the first fifty or so times I heard it, but now it’s a word that gets slapped on far too many books that I’m more than happy to put down. It’s right up there with “The Next Gone Girl!” in terms of false advertising.

Take, for example, Abandoned. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is the fifth book in a series, and I hadn’t read the first four, but other reviews said that it would be cool as a standalone, so I figured, why not? Then again, the description of this book also called it “unputdownable”, so there’s that.

Anyway.

Abandoned is the story of one woman’s quest to do research. Maxine Revere’s mother Martha walked out of her life when Max was nine, sent a few postcards, and completely disappeared when Max was sixteen. Now that Max is an adult with a hit cable show where she investigates cold cases, she’s decided to use her expertise and resources to solve the mystery in her own life – what happened to Martha Revere?

In the course of the investigation, Maxine will talk to a lot of people. She’ll ask questions, and look at old photos, newspaper articles, and tax records. It’s just about as exciting as it sounds.

Max will be fairly rude to everyone she meets, because she’s a tough independent woman who don’t need no man, but it’s cool, everyone around her will be charmed by this. It’s just as nonsensical as it sounds.

We’re also treated to bits of Martha’s life and correspondences, most of which consist of some version of “I like fun. Why don’t you like fun?” It’s just as grating as it sounds.

Eventually, of course, Deep Dark Secrets are revealed, and there’s a climactic fight scene that lasts about three sentences. One hit, one drop, and the bad guy’s accomplices all surrender peacefully, after which, we get a happily ever after ending (presumably until the next book). It’s just as cheesy as it sounds.

So if you’ve read the other books, and are a fan of the series, go for it, I guess? But if you’re looking for something exciting and FUN (you’ll be sick of that word too by the end), look elsewhere.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice big salad. Because the food descriptions made me hungry.)

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The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware

Short Take: Last night I dreamt of Manderley… ahem… Trepassen again……

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

I have always had a weird fixation on houses, especially old ones. I read The Witching Hour by Anne Rice obsessively, not just because of the creepy stuff or hot witch-on-witch action, but for the loving descriptions of the old Mayfair house being restored. There’s just something so delicious about an ancestral home, the one that’s been in the family for decades if not centuries, and the way they tend to become a starring character in some of my favorite stories.

In The Death of Mrs. Westaway, the house is known as Trepassen, and the unlikely heroine of the story is Harriet, or Hal for short. Hal works as a tarot card reader in a somewhat run down beach town, a trade she learned from her mother, who was killed by a drunk driver shortly before the start of the book. When we meet Hal, she’s flat broke, nearly homeless, and about to have her face kicked in by some very serious loan sharks.

So when she opens a letter addressed to her, stating that her grandmother has died, and Hal is  the sole heir of a massive estate, it seems like things might finally be breaking her way. Ok, the grandmother is someone she’s never heard of, and the person named as her mother in the letter is another stranger, and the letter was probably never meant for her in the first place, but if anyone could pretend to be the missing heir, it would have to be an experienced fortune teller.

And so, Hal travels to Trepassen, where she has to pretend to be a long-lost relative of people she’s never met. In order to play the part Hal tries to quietly snoop and learn as much as she can about them, but when her digging starts turning up skeletons that someone would rather keep buried, things take a Turn For The Worse.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but I couldn’t help but feel like Ruth Ware had read Rebecca a whole bunch of times and used it as a template.

Chick with dude’s (nick)name? Check.

Ancestral home with dark secrets being investigated by our heroine? Check.

Creepy housekeeper screwing with our heroine at every turn? Check.

[spoiler] hidden in a [spoiler]? Check.

That last is a MAJOR plot point that I won’t describe, because it would be a huge spoiler and everyone would hate me forever after, but trust me – it was lifted directly out of Rebecca.

Of course, there are still plenty of differences, and overall, Mrs. Westaway is a lot of fun (especially the tarot stuff), but to me, there were just too many similarities, and it was distracting.

 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and an Ace of Swords, just because it looks cool).

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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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