Please See Us, by Caitlin Mullen

Short Take: So much beauty amid so much decay.

46404191._sy475_

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

Well, my nerdlings, it’s THAT time again, and by that time, I’m of course referring to refrigerator-cleaning time. I have the best of intentions when grocery shopping, and TOTALLY AM PLANNING on eating salads for lunch every day and fruit for dessert every night, but somehow, the burgers and ice cream always materialize, and some portion of fresh produce always ends up a puddle of slime in a bag pushed toward the back of the shelf. Throw in my usual round of late-winter blahs, and it’s truly a wretched time of year.

But during this difficult time, I can take solace in one small thing: that I don’t live in Atlantic City, NJ, aka the moldy fridge fruit of North America. Between the hurricane/superstorm, opioid epidemic, and the economic and spiritual malaise that has affected most of the country for the last few years, it’s the place where hopes and dreams are born in a pile of glitter and die in a gutter pile of cigarette butts and broken glass. It’s also a city of startling contrasts – high rollers parking exotic cars on the street next to decaying pawn stores is a common sight.

And it’s there that Clara, (boardwalk tarot-reader who also has a smidge of genuine psychic ability), and Lily, (art curator who left her NYC career and everything else behind after a traumatic event) become friends. Atlantic City is also where a serial killer is preying on women just like Lily and Clara – the broken ones, the addicted ones, the ones who likely won’t be missed, the ones who have always somehow accepted that they would die young and in a terrible way, the ones whose beauty is being worn away by the ugliness of their desperate lives.

Y’all, I was prepared to not love this book. It’s not a spoiler to say that there are several chapters written from the perspective of the dead girls, the “Janes” (as in Jane Does) as they wait in a marsh for their bodies to be found. And to be honest, beautiful dead girls telling their stories has been done to death (heh) by a million and one Lovely Bones knock-offs. 

And yet.

There’s something so startlingly different about Please See Us. Maybe it’s the setting – there’s nothing picturesque about decrepit buildings populated by bruised and addicted hookers, nothing glamorous about young women with no future, so the flashes of beauty (and make no mistake, Ms. Mullen’s writing is beautiful, even when describing unspeakable ugliness) are that much more arresting.

Maybe it’s the way the reader is forced to stare, unblinking, at awful truths that most of us are used to avoiding. In other books, when [spoiler], there would be some plot twist that would keep it from happening, but not this one. For a book about a beautiful precocious teenage psychic in which we get the perspective of dead girls, the level of realism is astonishing.

But I think that what really flibbered my gibbets with Please See Us is the tiny but powerful thread of optimism throughout the whole thing. Every single person being pulled into the undertow of their own desperate circumstances believes deep down that it’s going to change – this is the last trick, the last hit, the winning ticket, the rose growing in the garbage pile. And isn’t that all of us? Surely I’m not the only one who opens the refrigerator door that I just closed, somehow believing that a nutritious yet delicious low-carb-low-calorie-totally-satisfying meal that I actually want to eat has probably materialized in there in the last five seconds, right?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some fruit – hold the mold, but bring on the fermentation if you know what I mean and I think you do.)

Loved this book!!

The Look-Alike, by Erica Spindler

Short Take: Is Erica Spindler OK?

45046788

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

Hello my beloved nerdlings, and welcome to the space in the calendar where New Year’s Resolutions go to die. It’s bitterly cold, the Christmas lights are all gone, and the only spot of color in the stores is the Valentine’s Day candy. In short, it’s the kind of blah that only chocolate (or a really good book) can fix. 

And unfortunately, I’m all out of chocolate, and this week’s book is… well… not great.

Sienna Scott, college freshman, is walking home one snowy night when she literally trips and falls over a murder victim. Traumatized by the scene, and further distressed by her mother’s paranoid delusions, Sienna goes to London to live (hide?) with her grandmother for the next decade.

Upon her return, everything seems to be the same. Her mom is still deeply mentally ill, Madison Robie’s murder is still unsolved, her brother Bradley is still a successful real estate developer, and the kindly cop she befriended the night of the murder is still investigating it.

But beneath that veneer of same-old, everything is different. Her father has died, her brother’s marriage has failed, and there’s a hot house flipper living across the street who may have a few secrets of his own. And as more truth about that night trickles out, it looks like Sienna, not Madi may have been the intended victim.

Before I dive into why The Look-Alike didn’t work for me, I need to digress for just a moment, so please stay with me, ok duckies? 

Did anyone else obsessively read VC Andrews books back in the day? The Flowers in the Attic series blew EVERYONE away, and then there was Heaven and Dawn and Ruby and…. Wait. For some reason, which I only found out much later when the internet became A Thing, all of these series were kind of the same. That reason being, of course, that Virginia Andrews had died many years before, and her name was being used by a ghostwriter who used that first amazing series as a template to essentially write the same series over and over again.

And that’s what leads me back to the question I asked at the beginning of this review – is Erica Spindler OK? Because it’s been a minute since I’ve read one of her books, but from what I remember, they are fun and twisty and unpredictable, and The Look-Alike is a slog through every thriller cliche out there. 

I won’t spoil things, but anyone who’s read more than a few murder mysteries will have it solved by the halfway mark. The title is misleading, there’s no actual look-alike, just two girls wearing the same color coat. Every character except Sienna (more on her below) is a hollow collection of cliches, more worn-out than the seat of my nerd-nest.

And oh, my sweet nerdlings, Sienna is LITERALLY THE WORST. She’s whiny and self-pitying, and so so so gullible. She believes whatever anyone tells her, and spends entirely too much time worrying that she might have the same mental illness as her mother. For real, every single chapter has at least one (and often) several paragraphs devoted to the subject, and if that doesn’t sound too bad, I’d like to point out that there are seventy-one chapters’ worth of repeating “omg what if I’m sick like my mom I think I might be imagining things but I wonder if I’m in danger but if I think I’m in danger then I’m probably sick like my mom maybe I just need to cry some more I haven’t done that in like ten minutes but my mom cries maybe I’m just like her….”

Every single plot point was so predictable, and somehow dated, like an 80’s era soap opera. Even the language felt stilted, like a drunk angry man saying his girlfriend was “stepping out on” him. I’ve spent a bit of time around drunk angry men who’ve been cheated on, and believe me when I say, they word things quite differently. And of course everyone (except the bad guy) lives happily ever after. (spoiler alert?)

Which brings me back to, “Is Erica Spindler OK?” Because it feels like someone else is using her name to sell a paint-by-numbers thriller (one romance, two red herrings, etc.) that isn’t especially thrilling.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old bowl of chili, because the food was the real hero in this book.)

twohappyneurons

 

Good Girls Lie, by J.T. Ellison

Short Take: Get in loser!! (You totally want to go for this ride.)

43193837

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

Hello my lovelies! I am pleased to announce that after drowning in winter doldrums, we had a freakish seventy-degree day here over the weekend, meaning I was able to go out with the Spousal Unit and Junior Nerdling for some much needed fresh air and today I feel MARVELOUS. So I’m here to bring some of that joy to all of you, or, you know, to tell you about the book I just read which is pretty much the same thing, right?

Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the Goode School began a century ago as a boarding school for unwed mothers or other types of incorrigible, socially unacceptable girls, the kind of girls who read novels and had opinions. Now it’s where the best of the best go to work their perfect little hineys off in exchange for a golden ticket – admission to the college of their choice, followed by a lifetime of success in their chosen field.

Of course nothing that fabulous is easy, as Ash Carlisle will soon discover. When both of her parents die suddenly, she leaves Oxford in hopes of Starting A New Life at Goode. Although the dean of the school, Dr. Ford Julianne Westhaven (and omg y’all THAT NAME) is willing to help her with the transition, and Ash is smart enough and disciplined enough to keep up with the work, there’s a whole ‘nother pack of problems in the form of the 199 other girls at Goode.

Let me be the cleverest nerd in the world, and point out that although these are Goode girls, they are not necessarily good girls. Despite a strict honor code, there’s drinking, drugs, secret societies whose over-the-top hazing is pure teenage girl sadism and the occasional dalliance with cute townie boys – and not just for the students. Ford also longs for escape (Ford Escape?) from the school, despite a many-years tradition of its leadership being passed from mother to daughter.

Of course, Ash herself has a few secrets of her own that could Cost Her Everything. As both Ash and Ford (seriously FORD) struggle with their place at Goode and in the larger world, keeping each other’s secrets while maybe also hastening each other’s downfall, one student then another is killed, the truth starts to dribble out, and the final set of twists slams it all home.

Good Girls Lie was a seriously fun, twisty book, with incredibly rich characters, a setting I couldn’t get enough of (I read way too much stuff that takes place in suburbia), and a killer (heh) pace. Ms. Ellison has a knack for cranking the tension, bit by agonizing bit, until everything inevitably explodes and I do love me a good tension explosion.

I really have only one complaint with this one, and it’s put me in a bit of a conundrum. There’s a character who is just TOO mastermind-y, too difficult to believe for a lot of reasons that would be spoilers. So I’m going to break one of my most iron-clad rules here, and just say that this character didn’t work for me, without explaining why. I hate to do that, because I like to imagine that I’m important enough for all authors to care about my opinion (by the way, Stephen, CALL ME! I have some very important feedback on that last one!), but this was a book I genuinely enjoyed despite that one little blemish, and I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone else’s good time with it. Because it really IS a good (or Goode)(heh) time!
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a shot of dresser-drawer vodka. Is it spring yet??)

fourhappyneurons

Ghostland, by Duncan Ralston

Short Take: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

48670308._sy475_

Good morning my marvelous nerdlings, and Happy New Year!! I would rattle off a list of impressive sounding resolutions, but I’ve been around the sun a whole lot of times, and I am at the point where my resolutions would fall into two major categories: They are either things I should do but probably won’t (less junk food, more veggies) or things I would be doing anyway (read lots of cool books and write a bunch of hilarious yet brilliantly insightful reviews).

So in the spirit of fun new things, let’s talk about Duncan Ralston’s Ghostland, a marvelous blend of horror, sci-fi, and urban legends, shall we? 

When best friends Ben and Lillian are fifteen years old, construction begins on Ghostland, an “amusement” park made up of actual haunted buildings from around the world, painstakingly disassembled and transported to the park. It also features tech that allows guests to see and interact with real ghosts. Needless to say, the implications of that are vast and horrifying – not only is there definitive proof of an afterlife, but the spirits were once people, who are now trapped and enslaved, forced to relive their deaths over and over for the entertainment of the living.

But there’s a much more personal story at work here too. On the day that Rex Garrote’s house is moved to the park, Ben nearly dies, and his friendship with Lillian is destroyed. Three years later, they return to the park together with Lillian’s therapist, Allison, to put ghosts both literal and metaphorical to rest. But of course, something Goes Terribly Wrong, and a simple visit to a new attraction becomes a Deadly Fight For Survival as the dead take gruesome revenge on the living, and the gates are sealed shut.

Duckies, there is a LOT to this book. I can’t say enough about Mr. Ralston’s ambition, and incredible mix of genres, fact, fiction, and action in this book.  There were three aspects that had me picking my jaw up off the floor.

First off, we need to talk about Rex Garrote. Of all the creations and re-imaginings in Ghostland, the Sutter-Cane-esque madman/horror author is my favorite. Mr. Garrote wrote several books, hosted a TV show, amassed a fortune, and then committed suicide in a horrific way, leaving behind his own haunted house, the seeds of what would later become Ghostland, and maybe a bit more.

Secondly, the footnotes and index of ghosts in the park was a brilliant touch. The list ran the gamut from the “real-life” and well-known evil spirits like Annabelle to completely fictional creations, all blended seamlessly to create a beautifully immersive universe. It’s evocative of the newspaper articles and scholarly papers in Carrie, among other classics, and gives a rather outlandish story that extra bit of realism. Seriously, some next-level storytelling.

Finally, I loved loved LOVED that Mr. Ralston didn’t shy away from the backlash to Ghostland, the protests and hashtags (#GRP2, aka, Ghosts Are People Too) that would inevitably result from such a discovery. I don’t like to get too political on this site, but seeing discussions about who deserves to have which rights play out over and over, well… it’s not hard to draw a parallel between the undead and real-world marginalized groups, and very thought-provoking. 

But for all the ultra-ambitious story-telling, well-drawn characters, fantastic pacing, and amazing setting, there’s one bit of sand in my shorts with Ghostland, and that’s the editing. I don’t usually criticize typos or occasional spelling errors because that stuff slips through in every book, no matter how many editors scour it. But there were a few sections in Ghostland that would have benefited greatly from a harsh red-pen wielding jerk doing a thorough read-through. 

For example, there’s a scene where Ben and Lillian both dive into a truck from the passenger side, and it’s not clear who’s driving, but then somehow Ben is working the clutch from the passenger side while Lillian is doing the driving? It’s impossible to follow or visualize and the resulting confusion takes a lot away from the tension of the scene, and deals a blow to the otherwise-amazing world-building and continuity.

But then the epilogue happens, and well, this mean old reviewer might’ve misted up a teensy bit. Just read Ghostland, you’ll be glad you did.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a copy of The House Feeds, it looks really good & I can’t find it anywhere.)

fourhappyneurons

 

The Better Liar, by Tanen Jones

Short Take: She’s a good liar, but not quite good enough.

41719140._sy475_

Good morning, my marvelous nerdlings! I hope that everyone is enjoying the preparations for whichever mid-winter holiday (or holidays) you celebrate, with a minimum of stress and unexpected expenses!

Oh, who am I kidding, we all know that the traditions of stress and financial delirium in December are the green cherries in the fruitcake  We don’t know how they came about, or why, or if they should even exist, but we all just accept it because it’s what we do and have done for as long as we can remember.

And, you know, alcohol.

Speaking of questionable life decisions, meet Leslie. She’s your typical middle-class working wife and mother to a year-old son, suffering from the typical malaise that often accompanies  those cliches. So when her father dies, leaving a hundred thousand dollars to be split between Leslie and her sister Robin, it’s a chance for Leslie to breathe a little. 

There’s one catch though: in order to claim the money, the sisters, who have been estranged for a decade, have to appear together to sign the paperwork. And when Leslie goes to Vegas to track down Robin, she instead finds Robin’s dead, overdosed body.

But fate (or alcohol) intervenes, as it tends to do. Leslie decides to not report Robin’s death, and instead have a drink or twenty-seven. And that’s when she meets Mary – cocktail waitress, stalking victim, and Robin’s doppelganger. In a plan borne of desperation (and maybe alcohol), Leslie persuades Mary to come home with her for a few days and pretend to be Robin long enough to sign the paperwork, at which point they can both go their separate ways, fifty thousand dollars richer.

It seems easy enough, right? But we all know that you should probably not trust your future to that stranger you got drunk with that one time, especially when both of you have secret motivations and plans of your own. And of course it all becomes a Cat And Mouse Game as they plot against each other and the stakes grow well beyond the cash.

The Better Liar ALMOST nails it. The characters are fun in that infuriating way that all thriller readers are familiar with – we have no idea why they are doing the things they are doing until All Is Revealed. There’s some meaty subtext on the pressures women face in society to be a certain kind of wife or mother or homemaker, and how suffocating those roles can be, and the idea that tradition doesn’t necessarily mean “good thing” (green cherries, I’m looking at you). 

But I feel like Ms.Jones dropped the ball on the plot somewhat. To be a little more specific without spoilers, there was one reveal that I think was supposed to be a major twist that was telegraphed early on, and so the second half of the book wasn’t as exciting as it should have been. I mean, it could just be me, I’ve read so many of these things that my twist-figuring skills are LEGENDARY. (Ok ok ok, maybe closer to slightly above average, but my point stands.)

So in the end, The Better Liar is an OK-bordering-on-meh-level mystery, but a great look at two very well-drawn female characters living with or trying to escape from the choices they’ve made.

THE NERD’S RATING: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a few festive cocktails, and what the heck, toss a few green cherries in there. Happy holidays!!)

threehappyneurons

 

The Kill Club, by Wendy Heard

Short Take: Here, have a supersize twist, with a side order of twist, and an extra scoop of twist on the top.

43599925

Greetings nerdlings! I come to you from the great frozen north…. Err, some bit of Appalachia which is currently freezing its tiddlywinks off for no particular reason. It looks like a snow globe outside, which, while pretty, means that I am not leaving the house for any reason. So it’s vodka o’clock, right? 

Ok, maybe it’s still just a teensy bit too early in the day for booze, but it’s ALWAYS a good time for a revenge fantasy, and believe me when I say that my fevered little nerd-brain always has a few of those kicking around. We’ll start with gathering up all the girls who bullied me in high school, shaving them all bald, and forcing them to work for an MLM for the rest of their lives….. 

Sorry, got distracted there for a second. 

The truth is that just about everyone has a name in mind when they hear “The world would be better off without…”, and in Wendy Heard’s latest, there’s a shadowy someone who can make your wish come true. An abusive parent, a dangerous stalker, an ex who cheats the system in family court – anyone can be targeted, and there’s not even any money involved. It’s a very simple setup – your tormentor will be killed, and in return, at a later date, you’ll kill someone else’s. 

For Jazz, the voice on the other end of the phone seems like a godsend at first. She’s been struggling to get custody of her little brother Joaquin from their horrifically abusive, religious-fanatic adoptive mother Carol. Jazz agrees to kill another abuser in exchange for Carol’s death, but if home renovations have taught me anything, it’s that nothing is ever as simple as it first appears. 

Complications arise and multiply, and I’m not going to elaborate on what those complications are, because The Kill Club is best experienced with as much surprise as possible.

And oh, my darlings, what delicious surprises they are! Even though some of the plot elements are a bit outlandish, the characters are so richly drawn (especially Jazz, my god, she’s so damaged and imperfect and real), the tension is so relentless, I was all-in. And the most awful/amazing trick in the author’s arsenal this time out is the too-mundane ways in which we humans are terrible to each other: A parent abusing a child. A man who will take by force what he wants from a woman. The guy in the office who eats chips with his mouth open. Revenge isn’t a new idea, someone being driven to murder by the callousness of another isn’t a new idea, but a person or persons quietly organizing those crimes so that victims are given justice without ever being directly tied to the death of their tormentor…. Now that’s just brilliant.

And more than a little scary, if I’m being honest, because of how attractive the idea is. It’s kind of a good news/bad news thing, I guess, that in real life, eventually there’d be one moron to bork the whole thing and bring everyone down, as anyone who’s ever had to do a group project at work can attest. 

Which is why even when The Kill Club veers into the implausible, it still works perfectly because I think deep down we all believe that people who have been hurt should get their pound of flesh, and the bad guys deserve to be sent straight to hell. Or an MLM.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a few shots of Fireball, let’s get some heat in here!)

Loved this book!!

The Dead Girls Club, by Damien Angelica Walters

Short Take: Have I mentioned that pre-teen girls are terrifying? Because THEY ARE.

45701350

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

Happy Sunday my sweet nerdlings! I come to you from the depths of post-Halloween malaise and an unrelenting chocolate hangover. I don’t know about all of you, but I am not a fan of the “Halloween is over, bring on Christmas now now now!” thing that’s been taking over November for the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas, but I would kind of like to catch my breath and maybe have Thanksgiving in there somewhere? 

So what I’m saying is that I’ve been working myself into a righteous funk and the only cure for that, as we all know, is a delicious book. So it tickles me right down to the giblets that The Dead Girls Club landed in my lap.

Heather Cole is a child psychologist, going about her usual daily routine, when she gets an unexpected delivery in the mail – half of a “Best Friends” necklace that was worn by Becca, Heather’s preteen BFF. But Heather hasn’t seen Becca since they were twelve, and never expected to hear from her either, because Heather killed Becca way back then.

(This is not a spoiler by the way, it’s revealed very early in the book. Feel free to complain about anything else I say however, I can be pretty irritating.)

From there, the story flips back and forth between present-day Heather, who keeps getting unwanted souvenirs of that last night with Becca, and almost-adolescent-Heather, who doesn’t quite grasp all the undercurrents in her friend’s life or why Becca is so obsessed with morbid stories. What starts as Becca, Heather, Rachel and Gia getting together to give themselves the giggly shivers talking about gruesome crimes becomes something much darker when Becca fixates on the story of the Red Lady, a woman killed for witchcraft whose vengeful spirit still works spells but always exacts a horrific price. As Becca’s obsession deepens, fear and friendship are the irresistible force and immovable object – pulling tighter together even as they destroy each other, leading up to that final, tragic night.

The Dead Girls Club is a fun, twisty, tightly-plotted exploration of a society-wide phenomenon that almost nobody talks about: we are all fixated on dead girls. If you look at some of the most sensational news-making cases, from JonBenet to Laci to Nicole, there’s usually a girl or young woman with a sunny smile at the heart of it. Look at our fascination with serial killers like Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy who gleefully destroy female bodies.  And let’s not forget the cop procedural shows that almost always open with an artfully framed shot of a female corpse – manicured fingers tinted blue, a hint of thigh with a carefully centered scrape, full lips and perfect teeth being gently pulled open by gloved fingers to reveal a clue.

Even our undead, like the most recent incarnation of The Mummy or any and all vampire or werewolf movies that include the fairer sex make them WAY fairer – perfect bodies, skimpy clothes, long glossy hair, a kind of dark allure that signals seduction far more than terror.  

So is it any wonder that young girls fixate on the morbid? Deep down, they internalize from a very early age that being a Dead Girl is something special. They’ll be forever beautiful and young and immortalized in a dozen different ways in the media, a weird form of celebrity. Never mind that everyone remembers the names of the killers but rarely the victims. 

(There’s also a whole dissertation to be written on the idea that by venerating Dead Girls we’re conditioning young women to accept violence toward themselves as inevitable and even glamorous, but I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to look too closely at that one this morning.)

Going back to the book (I swear I’m making some kind of point here), Becca’s single minded obsession with the Red Lady – victim-turned-victimizer – is beautifully, tragically, hauntingly perfect.. As the girls chant her name and their lives grow stranger, as Heather-of-today sees everything important in her life being threatened by the stalker who knows her darkest secret, well, let’s just say Vincent the cat is feeling somewhat neglected as I couldn’t focus on anything until I finished reading.

And oh duckies, the final twist left me speechless, for reasons that had nothing to do with the Milk Duds I was eating at the time. I’m not going to elaborate, but WOW. 

I did have one complaint.  I’m not sure if it would be considered a spoiler, so I’m just going to say that young girls are not always reliable narrators, and I found some of their story problematic. But overall, Ms. Walters delivered.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some mini Twix bars, I need to get the rest of this Halloween candy out of here to make room for pumpkin pie!)

fourhappyneurons