A Stranger On The Beach, by Michele Campbell

Short Take: When your mama says “don’t talk to strangers”, FREAKIN LISTEN.

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Good morning, duckies, from the land of the massively sleep-deprived! I took a much-needed road trip to attend a book launch for one of my favorite authors about four hours away yesterday. I was going to drive, but while I was all about “not wasting time” the Spousal Unit kept going on about “speeding” (to-may-to/to-mah-to, right?), so we switched spots and I was able to finish reading Stranger from the comfort of the passenger seat which may or may not have been my intention all along.

But I digress. 

Caroline Stark Has It All. She’s got a gorgeous face and body, mega-rich also-gorgeous husband, multi-million dollar beach house, and of course, the envy of everyone around her. So when her husband Jason brings another woman to Caroline’s extravagant housewarming party, then takes off with said woman, Caroline is devastated. 

Distraught, she spends a night drowning her feelings in vodka and Aidan Callahan – bartender, Brad-Pitt-lookalike, and Man With A Dark Past who’s a little too fixated on Caroline and her house for someone she’s just met.

But after that steamy night, things get… complicated. Caroline wants to reconcile with Jason, but Aidan believes that he and Caroline are meant to be together. What follows, for the next two-thirds of the book is a strange, hallucinatory narrative, in which Caroline and Aidan give contradicting accounts of every interaction, until it’s impossible to tell what’s real, a lie, or a delusion.. 

Of course, in the end, All Secrets Are Revealed, and there’s a big twist followed by a happy ending for the person who deserves it.

A Stranger On The Beach is a serviceable thriller. The pacing is decent, the characters are fairly developed, but it just doesn’t work. I’ll admit, it could be my own form of cynicism, or that I’ve read too many of these types of books, When it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s often a safe assumption that it’s a chicken. 

Ms. Campbell has a great feel for an interesting story, but lacks subtlety. There are several points when a revelation should have been shocking, but the author tries too hard with the red herrings. It’s like a stage magician shouting “Look over there!”. Sure, it’s a type of misdirection, but not a particularly effective one, and most audiences will figure out pretty quickly what the actual trick is.

And when it’s a trick you’ve seen many times before, it’s that much harder to be excited by it.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice long nap!)

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Buried, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: This author is a sadist and I kind of love her.

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

You guys. You. Guys. Something seriously major has happened here, possibly for the first time ever. Y’all might want to sit down, and if you’re one of my more faint-hearted nerdlings, you may want to put your head between your knees, or just stop reading right here, because I know you will find this shocking and upsetting.

*Deep Breath*

Ok, here goes…..

I was WRONG about a book. 

I know, I know, it’s impossible to believe, right? I will be the first to admit that I’m wrong about a lot of things in life but books are the One Thing that I can usually pontificate about with great certainty, at length. 

So when I first grabbed a copy of Buried, I braced myself for that most heinous of author maladies: the sophomore slump. There is no way, NO POSSIBLE WAY, I thought, that Ms. Cooper could match the brilliance that was Caged. And by that, I mean that Caged was fantastic, not that Ms. Cooper isn’t. But all of my preconceived notions went right on out the proverbial window, and I am happy to admit it one more time: I was SO WRONG.

(*Warning!! If you haven’t read Caged, ((and just why haven’t you??)), there may be spoilers here!!!*)

It’s been a few months since the events of Caged, and Special Agent Sayer Altair is mostly recovered from both the physical and mental wounds she suffered. Her shoulder and heart still ache at times, but her new ward Adi, goofy-puppy-turned-goofy-dog Vesper, and Zen Master/downstairs neighbor Tino have done her a world of good. Although she still has questions about the death of her fiance Jake from years before, she’s ready to get back to Real Work. I mean, studying psychopaths and dodging political punches from a desk is fun and all, but it can’t compare to chasing down an active serial killer.

So she’s in luck (sort of?) when Agent Max Cho, taking a hike on his day off, stumbles into a whole pile of dumped bodies, ranging from the skeletal to the relatively fresh and gooey. 

Cue a Getting The Band Back Together montage, in which some of my favorite characters from Caged (YAY EZRA!!!) and a couple of equally charismatic newbies join the hunt,. And oh my darling nerdlings, what a hunt it is! 

Ms. Cooper has a definite flair for contrasts: combining real-life cutting edge science with the myths of the ancients, or pitting the very personal struggles of Sayer and her group against the backdrop of a Congressional investigation that has implications for the safety of the entire nation, or flashes of humor brightening a story that isn’t afraid to go very, very dark. But most of all, I especially loved (read: hated) seeing the struggles of one particular character who suffered a devastating injury in Caged – their fight for recovery and some kind of normalcy had me simultaneously cheering and tearing up.

And even with that little part of me that missed that fun, getting-to-know-you buzz of first meeting Sayer, being able to skip the niceties and just zoom off on her Silver Hawk to kick some [censored] was great too. For all the personal and emotional elements of Buried, there are still plenty of twists, turns, fights, chases, and a bombshell or two. We even get a new dog friend, who’s Vesper’s opposite in every way, and is it weird that I’m looking forward to the two of them meeting? (Confession: I may have watched way too much Lady and the Tramp as a kid.)

Guys, I even liked the cliffhanger ending, and you all know how I feel about those. For real, just read it. After you read Caged, of course, because did I mention how much I love that one?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS! (and something sweet that isn’t lava cake. Because gooey is NOT good right now. Also, I need a hug. And maybe a puppy.)

Loved this book!!

Lock Every Door, by Riley Sager

Short Take: A brilliant homage to a well-known classic. With a twist.

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

Y’all, my birthday is next week, and my family decided to celebrate this weekend, so I have had WAY too much food, booze, and sun to be anything approaching functional this afternoon. I regret nothing (yet). 

But being a total overindulgent hedonist for a couple of days has reminded me of the necessity of the occasional rule or boundary. Moderation is your friend, and extremes are NEVER good – just ask Jules.

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Young, naive-ish girl (Jules) moves to the Big Apple to pursue her dreams, or maybe to escape a troubled past involving dead parents and a missing sister. She’s offered a job that seems too good to be true (apartment sitting in one of the most exclusive buildings in the city for a VERY generous salary), but something seems Not Quite Right.

Despite enough red flags to outfit a platoon of matadors, Jules takes the job. The rules are highly rigid – no visitors, no leaving overnight, and DO NOT bother the other residents. Of course Jules has a bit of trouble following that last one. She soon learns that some of the residents are quite friendly, others extremely antisocial, but all of them seem to have some secret that they aren’t willing to share. 

As Jules tries to unravel both the building’s bloodsoaked history, and more recent disappearances, it soon becomes clear that Nobody Can Be Trusted, and that Jules herself may be the next victim.

Lock Every Door is a fantastic piece of mood and atmosphere building. The Bartholomew –  small and narrow, adorned with capering gargoyles, vintage fixtures, and Rohrshach wallpaper that could resemble flowers or screaming faces – is both oppressive and alluring. The other residents are a fun mix of eccentricities, ages, and professional pedigrees.

However, there’s a major chunk of the story that seems to be a throwback to another horror classic, and it’s kind of distracting and at times, infuriating. I don’t want to spoil anything, but for a solid third of the book, my poor over-sugared brain was screaming DUDE STOP STEALING IDEAS YOU’RE BETTER THAN THIS!! The only thing missing is a certain iconic haircut.

But just when I was getting ready to quit, the twist happened, and oh my nerdlings: It. Is. Delicious. So stick with it, even when you start getting mad, and it’ll all pay off in the end.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and probably some kind of cleanse or something, cause it’s been a seriously GREAT weekend.)

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Temper, by Layne Fargo

Short Take: Frailty, thy name is woman!! (or not)

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

Y’all, this is where I would usually say something catchy, followed by a super-clever segue into whatever I’m reviewing, but you know what? This book has left me with my mouth hanging open and my usual sparkling wit has left the building. It’s that freakin good. So… uh… let me just tell you about the book, k?

Malcolm Mercer has a Reputation. He’s known in the Chicago theater world for two things: making incredible art, and driving his cast members to nervous breakdowns. That’s not an exaggeration. He believes that in order to portray a character most effectively, the actor needs to feel the anger, pain, humiliation, or whatever other awful emotion the character feels, and if the actor doesn’t already have issues, Malcolm is more than happy to give them some.

His biggest supporter/enabler is Joanna Cuyler. Their relationship is… complicated. She’s obsessed with him, but they aren’t lovers. They are equal partners in the business, but he makes all the major decisions. They have a shared living space, but separate lives. It’s an intensely combustible situation, needing only the barest hint of a spark to explode.

Enter Kira.

She’s a cliche struggling actress when she auditions for Malcolm and Joanna, for the starring role in their upcoming production of Temper (more on that in a minute). But she’s also a deeply hurt and angry person, an expert at keeping people at arm’s length even while she’s seducing them, in making sure anyone who loves her hates her a little too.

In other words, she’s like catnip to Malcolm.

And when these three come together, it’s more like waves of boiling oil than sparks flying – sometimes unintended targets are hit, and the scalding burns just keep deepening. Each of them has their own ends, their own means, their own secrets, and their own detonation switches. Each of them wants to destroy and/or overpower at least one of the others. And I am wildly in love with all of them.

Our leading ladies, Joanna and Kira, are our narrators, and it’s definitely been a minute since I’ve been treated to such incendiary female voices. Ms. Fargo’s characters are perfectly imperfect, passionate even in the ugliest of ways, and so very real. Joanna, in particular, is an accurate (if stinging) reflection of the ways women frequently make unkind snap judgments of one another, and how wrong and hurtful those things usually are.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unofficial fourth main character – the play itself. Temper, a two-person production about a toxic marriage, is a debut work by a playwright nobody’s heard of. Its scenes of raw vitriol are a catalyst and a catharsis for all three of them, their own most deeply buried impulses on display for the world to see.

And oh, my darling nerdlings, what an incredible ride it is. These beautiful, passionate, talented people are stripped down to their ugliest, most primal core, raging against the man pulling the strings even as they are destroying themselves to win his approval.

I still don’t have anything clever to say. Just read this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a ticket to my local community theater, cause hoo boy, I’m craving some drama right now!)

Loved this book!!

A Nearly Normal Family, by M.T. Edvardsson

Short Take: A family drama trying to be Nordic noir.

Female cyclist riding without lights on a dark, foggy road.

I know I complained before about the lack of truly summery weather, but seriously y’all, WHERE IS SUMMER?? How am I supposed to read in the pool, or drink vodka on the patio, or do whatever else people do when they go outside (not super clear on that)?

I seriously want a do-over. This is road apples (keepin’ it clean for the Amazon censors).

There is one thing that was OK about this lousy weather though, and it’s that as I was reading A Nearly Normal Family, with its rich descriptions of Sweden’s autumn weather, I was legit pulling my own blanket tighter (in freakin JUNE for cryin out loud), and it made a somewhat difficult book a little bit better.

Eighteen year old Stella is a handful – drinking, smoking weed, sneaking out to party, and of course constantly fighting with her parents, well-respected defense attorney Ulrika and well-loved pastor Adam. But it’s still shocking when she is arrested for the murder of a wealthy businessman nearly twice her age.

What follows is a delicate balancing act, as Adam and Ulrika struggle with the most basic, primal impulse parents have: protect your child at all costs. And for Adam and Ulrika, the choices they will feel compelled to make are the hardest of their lives. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, what would happen if the pastor lied? Or if the hotshot defense attorney destroyed evidence?

And at the center of all the swirling turmoil is Stella, who won’t see or speak to either of them, who holds her own secrets and catastrophic choices.

The story is told in three parts, with Adam, Stella, and finally Ulrika each taking a turn telling their story. It’s that narrative structure that presents the first real issue I had, which is the glacial tempo of the story. At a hefty-ish 400 pages, I expected a slow burn, but it feels like a lot of padding with not much story. Every character is keeping secrets which is usually A-OK in my book, but there are just too many descriptions of one character wondering what another character is doing, and not enough of things actually happening.

Also, it could just be that the translation isn’t as effective as the original, but there’s a sense of reserve, a kind of formality and stiffness throughout the narration.  Even when someone was recounting something traumatizing and painful, I never really felt what they were feeling. There were no moments of levity, of these people who love each other just having fun and enjoying each other, making it hard to appreciate the importance of their relationships. Every interaction is ponderous and loaded with subtext, and drawn out just a few beats too long. Each major scene is repeated from different perspectives

In the end, All Is Revealed, but much of it was telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the book. I can’t help but feel that the author wanted to write only about the tension in this family, and someone convinced him that it should be a murder mystery, so he quickly sketched that out & threw it in at the last minute.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cider. I’ve decided to give up on summer, and go straight into autumn drinking.)

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The Rumor, by Lesley Kara

Short Take: Great story messed up by a weird editorial choice.

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

You guys, this summer is the gift that keeps on giving. First the cicada swarm, then a whole bunch of not-very-summery weather, and lastly, finding not one but TWO dead bloated raccoons in the pool. I want a do-over, but will have to settle for some fun twisty thrillers instead. Like The Rumor.

Joanna is a single mom who’s recently returned to Flinstead, the small town where she grew up. Having left the city to raise six year old Alfie in a safer, quieter place, she’s beset by a whole new set of stressors.

There’s the much smaller income of a real estate agent in a very limited market, and her complicated on-again, off-again relationship with Alfie’s journalist father Michael. And speaking of Alfie, he’s having a hard time making friends in his new school, much as Joanna is among the adults.

So when Joanna happens across a juicy piece of gossip, well, that’s the richest kind of currency for a certain type of mom group. There are whispers that Sally McGowan, notorious for killing a little boy at the tender age of 10 in the 1960’s, is now living in Flinstead under an assumed identity.

The moms aren’t the only ones who are enthralled by the rumor. Michael finds the idea of an exclusive sensational story (and by extension, Joanna) irresistible, and begins spending more and more time with Joanna and Alfie. Joanna’s acceptance into the “cool” mom clique means that Alfie is being invited to parties and playdates.

But this particular rumor isn’t just a bit of harmless fun. The people of the town, especially the mothers, are horrified that a child killer might be living among them – no matter if the crime occurred over 50 years ago, and the ten year old who committed it is now a senior citizen.

With no real information on who Sally McGowan might be now, paranoia ramps up to Salem Witch Hunt levels, and oh my nerdlings, do you need me to tell you that everything quickly Spirals Out Of Control? Because it does, in spectacular fashion.

I really loved the twists, and the fictionalizing of the Mary Bell case, which is still one of the most captivating stories I’ve come across. That the porcelain-doll looking child with extraordinary dark eyes could do something so horrific… well, I can understand why the people of Flinstead freaked the heck out. And the final scenes had me breathless.

But there was one glaring problem with this book: its nationality. It’s my understanding that it was originally written and published in the UK under the name The Rumour. But for some reason, upon being published in the US, someone made the decision to change the setting of the book to the US.

This is problematic on a couple of levels. First, I’ve read plenty of British books, and as a US citizen, I’ve never had an issue with it. Sure, calling fries “chips” is weird, but eventually, lifts, flats, lorries, telly and so on is no big deal.

The real obstacle to enjoyment of The Rumor is that the Britishisms keep creeping in. I understand that my version was an uncorrected ARC, but when the name of the town changes between Flinstead (American) and Flinstead-On-Sea (British), it’s pointlessly distracting. Why not just leave the setting alone?

Have publishers decided that Americans are so intolerant of ANY cultural differences that they assume we’ll reject works that come out of ENGLAND of all places??? Frankly, it’s a little insulting, not to mention annoying.

But man, that final reveal, when we learn what REALLY became of little Sally McGowan… just whoa.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some American-type chips. Because while British slang doesn’t twist my knickers, the food could definitely be problematic.)

 

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Man of the Year, by Caroline Louise Walker

Short Take: I kind of hate how much I loved it.

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

Did I just recently say how glad I am that summer is finally here? I’m pretty sure I did, and I’m pretty sure I was, but I’m living right smack in the middle of a massive cicada swarm, and the noise is eating away at what’s left of my sanity. Not to mention the giant bug splats all over my car and being dive-bombed every time I leave the house. For being completely harmless, these things are the worst.  In other words, bring on some escapism, and hellllloooooo summer reading!

Dr. Robert Hart (Bobby to his fri– er, his only friend) is Master of his little universe. He’s just been elected Citizen of the Year in Sag Harbor. He has a beautiful (read: trophy) wife Elizabeth, a son, Jonah, who’s finally starting to make his own mark in the college world, and his assistant, Simone, keeps his lucrative medical practice running smoothly.

But all of Robert’s comfortable assumptions about his life and the world in general are thrown into disarray when Jonah’s friend Nick arrives to spend the summer in their guest house.

Nick – young, fit, handsome and smart – is in many ways the anti-Robert. He’s comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t feel the need to impress others. He’s interested in the thoughts and ideas of the people around him and encourages them to pursue the things that make them happy.

It infuriates Robert to see this interloper influencing Jonah to think for himself, and it’s even worse when it starts to look like Elizabeth may be offering Nick more than clean towels.

Robert isn’t a bad guy, not exactly. He’s not consciously cruel to people unless he feels threatened, he’s not violent or sociopathic, he’s just incredibly self-centered. To Dr. Robert Hart, everyone in his world is lucky to be there, and they are all there to make him look good. He has no theory of mind, it never occurs to him that other people exist outside of himself, that they have their own inner life, their own secrets and dreams, and most of all, that they may not see him the way he sees himself.

He’s a terrible lover, though. Ugh. There is NO excuse for being selfish on that front.

So what’s a man to do, when everything that has always worked for him, stops working? I can almost guarantee that most readers would never in a million years expect the plan he settles on, or the consequences of it.

Man of the Year was a strange read for me. The story itself, and the cast of supporting characters (Nick in particular) are pitch-perfect. The contrast between Robert’s high opinion of himself and the nagging insecurity that guides his actions is especially compelling.

But I loathed being inside his mind. Robert’s smug dismissal of others’ autonomy was infuriating. He was every chauvinist boss I’ve ever had, every grown-up frat-boy coworker, every straight white man who assumes that someone who isn’t all of those three things is automatically less-than. Even when he’s forced to acknowledge that someone like his son has a different view of the world, he chooses to see it as a rebellion against himself, because everything everyone in his life does is somehow about him.

So I’m torn on rating this one. When my biggest complaint is that it’s too realistic, and also impossible to put down, I guess it’s a pretty good book.

THE NERD’S RATING: Four Happy Neurons (and some fancy canapes, just because.)

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