The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

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

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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.

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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)

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Missing Parts, by Lucinda Berry

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

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**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.)

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How To Be A Vigilante, by Luke Smitherd

 

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

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(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!)

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Until Her Darkness Goes, by Rana Kelly

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

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(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.)

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Of Foster Homes and Flies, by Chad Lutzke

Short Take: Weirdly gorgeous.

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*Note: I was given a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review*

Every so often, a jaded old reader likes me gets smacked right in the gob with something entirely different. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s both a delight and a burden. A joy, because how often have I read the same-old, same-old, the tired tropes and the telegraphed twists, the scares that aren’t scary, and the “emotional” scenes that read more like soap operas performed by nervous middle schoolers?

Far too many.

And it’s a burden, because how can I explain my delight in something when I don’t even fully understand it? Oh, not the story itself, that is actually pretty straightforward. Denny, a highly precocious if profoundly neglected sixth-grader has decided that this is His Year. He will compete in the school spelling bee, and bring home a ribbon that would make his deceased father proud.

There’s one flaw in the plan, however. A few days before the competition, his extremely alcoholic mother dies in her sleep, right in the middle of the living room.

What’s a very smart kid who wasn’t at all close to his mother to do? Well, he could report her death, and run the risk of being sent to foster care or an orphanage and miss the spelling bee, or he could just hold off for a few days, keep it a secret, and finish what he set out to do. Needless to say, Denny opts for the latter choice.

For such a short work, less than 200 pages and covering only a few days, there’s a surprising amount to unpack here. For one thing, Foster Homes doesn’t quite fit into any simple category.

I see several descriptions calling this book a “coming of age” story, and while I suppose that’s true (Denny’s experience over those few days would be a pretty fast innocence killer), there’s both more and less to it than that. For one thing, it seems as though Denny ends the book pretty much the same person he was at the beginning. I’m not going to say if he gets a happy ending with a new family, or wins the spelling bee, or goes to foster care hell, or any of the obvious outcomes as far as plot. It’s obviously a life-changing few days, as once the truth comes out, his outer life is going to be changed.

But Denny is the same self-sufficient, basically good kid at the end of the book that he was at the beginning, and that’s not really a bad thing. SHOULD Denny lose it over a person who never really cared about him? For Denny to be OK in the beginning of the book, and the same OK person at the end is more than acceptable. In fact, it’s kind of revolutionary.  Mad props to the author for that one. Hollywood (and yes, most books) have taught me and everyone else that a major experience has to change a person on a fundamental level, that they should be wiser or stronger or braver or whatever. But what if that person is, seriously, fine the way they are? Maybe it’s about time that we recognize that not every big experience has to have a Deeper Profound Meaning.  Bravo, Mr. Lutzke.

But that DOES kinda shoot the whole “coming of age” thing in the foot.

There’s also a strong element of drama, the sense of how much the terrible secret is weighing on Denny, that his young shoulders are probably not up to the task of carrying it for five days. And when everything goes down, his genuine emotional breakdown is not only understandable, but a welcome release.

And finally, at a quick glance, Chad Lutzke seems to be mainly a horror author, and while the descriptions of the mother’s body are horrifying, I don’t know that I would consider this one a horror novel per se. That said, I also would emphatically not recommend reading this while eating.

And I also just want to throw another neuron at this author for some absolutely beautiful bits of writing throughout Foster Homes. For example, there’s a paragraph describing a chair, early in the book, that evoked a shocking amount of feeling. Yes, a chair.

But mostly, I just loved that for as tight as this book is, as narrow in focus, and as wonderfully simple as it is, it’s also kind of a messy, genre-defying amazingly human story. It doesn’t fit neatly into any bookstore category, it doesn’t aspire to be more than it is, and it’s so powerful for that.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some incense. And a long shower with lots of soap. Because seriously, VERY graphic descriptions!)

Loved this book!!

The Sister, by Louise Jensen

Short Take:  “A psychological thriller with a brilliant twist you won’t see coming.”  Challenge. Accepted.

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I have yet another shocking confession to make (when did reviews become my own personal tell-all?? Anyway….): I read a lot of “psychological thrillers.” A. Lot. Like, people don’t like to watch mystery movies with me, because I can usually figure out the “big twist” about halfway through. Ok, ok, ok, in the interest of honesty, my “NAILED IT!! NAILED IT!! LOOK HOW SMART I AM!” song and dance might have a little something to do with that, but the point stands.

I can pretty much always see the twist coming. And although it might seem like a superpower to most normal people, this particular gift is also a bit of a curse, in that I tend to not be surprised nearly as often as I would like, and I think that cuts into a lot of the enjoyment that I would get from books and movies.

So, you can imagine my reaction when I saw the subtitle to The Sister, quoted above, but please, let me say it again: “A psychological thriller with a brilliant twist you won’t see coming.” That’s either a bit of marketing genius, or an act of hubris up there with Babe Ruth pointing out exactly where his next home run would land. Either way, with a target audience of people like me, Ms. Jensen made a gutsy move.

But did she pull it off?

Before I give the answer, I’ll explain a bit of the plot of the story (pffftt, and some people think writing suspense is hard!)

Grace’s life is finally getting back on track. After a childhood tragedy that robbed her of her parents, the disappearance and later death of her best friend Charlie, and a slew of other disturbing and depressing incidents throughout her childhood and teen years, she is living with her boyfriend Dan in a lovely little cottage, working in a job she loves, and is even starting to make a kind of peace with her past.

But then things start to unravel. When she tries to find Charlie’s father (something her friend always wanted to do but never managed), she instead meets Charlie’s half-sister Anna. In short order, Anna is living with Grace and Dan, becoming the best friend that Grace has needed since Charlie’s death. But when it seems that someone is stalking Grace, when Dan begins acting strangely, when the past starts colliding with the present, it becomes clear that Anna might not be who she says she is at all.

But Neeeeeerdddddd, I can hear all of you screaming in frustration. Did you figure out the “brilliant twist” or not?!?!?!

To which I would have to reply: which one?

Truthfully, the author has jammed so many twists into this book, that distinguishing one of them as the “brilliant” one is just not possible. A few of them, yes, I saw. Whether it was because they were a little obvious to draw attention from the BIG twist, I don’t know. I’m still not really clear on which twist was supposed to be the main one.

So to clarify a bit, hopefully without spoilers: Anna’s real identity, and the tragedy in her life that set everything in motion were both bits that I did not see coming. The latter event, however, like several others in The Sister, just felt gratuitous.

There were so many red herrings, and so many, many, MANY incidents of Grace being harassed, stalked, toyed with, drugged, poisoned, lied to, assaulted, threatened and so on and so on and so forth. What was at its heart a pretty good story turned into a stage show by an incompetent magician shouting “Look over there! Whatever could that be?!?!” while trying to pull an angry pigeon out of his sleeve. It’s cool when you see pigeon, but by the time you do, you’re pretty much over the show in general.

Grace was so frustratingly passive and meek and just plain stupid at times. Her method of coping with all of the above incidents is to wash a sleeping pill down with wine (seemingly several times a day) and wait for either the problem to go away, or for someone else to deal with it for her. Every time there was a big red flag being practically shoved up her nose, she grabbed her chemical security blanket and opted to ignore it. So it was hard to feel much of anything for her during the book’s final climax and Big Reveal Scene.

There’s also the fact that all of the people who cause the conflicts in the story really aren’t that close to Grace, and it doesn’t make much sense for her to be involved in, well, pretty much any of it. You could cut the character of Grace out pretty much entirely, let Charlie be alive and the main character of the story, and it would make a lot more sense.

So to sum it up: No, I didn’t see the “brilliant twist” coming. But it takes more than a good twist to make a good story.
The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some wine. A lot of wine.)

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