Superstition, by Rana Kelly

Short Take: Vulnerability never looked so invincible.

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Hello, my lovely nerdlings! Today, we’re going to take a little break from my usual menu of murder, mayhem, and mockery, to look at something a little bit different: Poetry. That’s right, the nemesis of non-english-majors everywhere popped up in my inbox, along with a review request, and who am I to turn down a nicely-worded request from a publisher?

My delight at being recognized as A Real Reviewer soon turned to a bit of anxiety, however, when I realized that #1, I don’t know anything about capital-P Poetry, really, and #2, I have no idea how to review it. When I review fiction, I have a few handy criteria that I can fall back on, such as plot, characters, pacing, and so on, to determine if it’s “good” or not. Those things are easy to spot most of the time, and if I’m not certain where I land opinion-wise, the act of writing a review will usually serve as a kind of meditation, with my thoughts crystallizing as I organize them into written words.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m totally out of my depth here, but willing to take a crack at it. I’ve never actually sat and read an entire book of poetry before, I don’t think. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy poetry quite a lot, but to me, it’s best digested in small amounts, letting each piece breathe for a bit, and savoring it slowly. To me, a poem is kind of like a novel, it’s complete in and of itself, and doesn’t really require a bunch of its bros hanging around to be seen as a whole.

So, not knowing what I was for, I dove in. And was immediately assaulted.

Rana Kelly has lived through a lot: a dysfunctional family, her own struggles with bipolar disorder, and any number of difficult, abusive relationships. She explores all of it through her poetry and a handful of essays in Superstition, and although I am hardly a master of real, artistic writing, I can say with all confidence that it this book not for the faint of heart.

I knew from her previous novel that Ms. Kelly’s writing is like thunderstorms and razor blades, but I was not fully prepared for the the wolves, the whisky, the anguished cries and the incredible power that I found in this little book.  I don’t know many people who could look at themselves so unflinchingly, let alone, put what they see out there for all the world to consume. Yes, the balance does tend to lean heavily on the side of “my lover broke my heart” pieces, but there are also confessions of her own complicity in these things, her own anger and torment when she looks at herself, and sees only herself looking back.

It’s beautiful, and also strangely unsettling and voyeuristic, seeing someone cut themselves open, over and over and over again, performance art displayed in blood and tears and dark waters that go down forever.

So I’m rambling on here, and I imagine that there are hordes of my followers (7-8 could be a horde, right?) clamoring to know, is this book any good? Should I buy this and read it, or what?

And to that I can only say that poetry is one of the most subjective forms of art out there, but in my humble opinion, Superstition is an experience that people need to have. Rana Kelly’s utter fearlessness in looking at herself has affected me in ways I did not expect, challenging me in ways that I think I needed.

To anyone looking for just the highlights, to me, “Whisky”, “Women and Horses” and “Glasgow Is My Mother” were my favorites.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a shot of something dark and smoky. Trust me, you’ll want one too.)

Loved this book!!

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The Grip Of It, by Jac Jemc

Short Take: Like reading someone else’s acid trip.

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I’m pretty sure I may have mentioned it once or twice, but I love haunted house stories. I really do. I’ve read horror for decades, and can laugh off most frights, but once in awhile, there’s a book that keeps me up at night, and it’s almost always a haunted house story. So needless to say, when I came across The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc, it looked to be right up my alley.

Grip is the story of James and Julie Khoury, who buy their house and move under less than ideal circumstances. James, you see, has been struggling with a gambling addiction that is threatening to wipe them out financially. They decide to take a chance on buying a fixer-upper that is within their budget, and moving to a small town where temptation is a lot harder to find.

The weirdness begins before they even move in, when they notice a strange, deep humming noise with no apparent source, and a creepy neighbor watching every move they make. Once they are actually settled, the strangeness becomes overwhelming. Julie is covered in mysterious bruises, the neighbor who might know something disappears, and then the whole thing dissolves into incoherence.

On the surface, this book should have had all my neurons buzzing in delight, but it just didn’t. It was nearly impossible to follow. For one thing, the story is told by Julie and James, in alternating chapters. The problem is that the chapters aren’t labeled as such, so it’s not always apparent who is talking. There was one section where a character explores a cave, and I thought for sure it was one of them, but it turned out to be the other one. Then later on, somehow, they had both been in the cave? No idea.

Telling the entire story in the first person (or first people, as the case may be) also made it harder to understand what was happening. See, as the house takes hold of Julie and James, their thinking changes, and everything that is going on is now some kind of normal to them. So when Julie wakes up seemingly trapped inside a wall, or the events follow them to a friend’s house, their reaction is along the lines of “That was a thing that happened. Oh well.”

It’s hard to be drawn into a character’s predicament when they don’t seem overly concerned with it themselves.

Another recurring problem is the extreme sentence structures. I get that the author was going for a feeling of dreaming surreality, but when a single sentence goes on for half a page, or when a character spouts page after page of short choppy sentences unrelated to anything else in the book, my mind tends to drift. There are lengthy passages noting mundane details, and the discovery of a gooey body part is an afterthought, barely mentioned.

I would have to say that In The Grip Of It is a series of interesting vignettes, but not really much of a story. The ending felt like a cop-out (especially after one shockingly brutal act that, were there actual consequences, could’ve redeemed the whole thing).  There is no resolution, no true explanation of anything, no lingering ill effects.

So in conclusion, I will echo the sentiment of the main characters, with regard to this book: That was a thing that happened. Oh well.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and maybe a new faucet for my bathroom. I hear you can really make an old place look new again with new hardware!)

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Final Girls, by Riley Sager

Short Take: I’m guessing this is a setup for the sequel…..

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We’ve all seen her in every horror movie… Her hair is matted with sweat and blood, but her lipstick has nary a smudge. She’s breathing in gasping sobs as she tries to outrun (insert generic horror movie villain here), but her eye makeup is still flawless. Her shirt (probably white) is artfully torn so as to expose a hint of skin, but nothing too risque. She’s built like someone obsessed with fitness, but her weak dainty ankle gets twisted on the first small obstacle in her path.

She’s the girl who didn’t sneak off to drink and smoke weed and have sex. And at the end of the movie, she’s the only one who survives to fight (generic horror movie villain), at least until the sequel. And the next sequel. And the one after that. And the reboot.

So even though her name and face will change, the Final Girl is a cliche set in stone. She’s a joke among jaded horror fans (read: all of us). So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Riley Sager’s Final Girls, a novel exploring the lives of the girls who survive the massacres. Truthfully, whichever way the book went would have been unsatisfying – the shiny happy fairy tale ending is always a load of bunk, but if the author went for dark and bleak, well, hasn’t this poor girl suffered enough? Does she really have to go through it all again (before the sequel)?

Hats off to Riley Sager, you did not give me exactly either of those things, and for a story that’s as out-there as this one is, the ending for one Final Girl is relatively satisfying.

Final Girls’ plot centers around, well, three Final Girls, although we only get the perspective of one of them:  ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter was the only person to make it out of Pine Cottage alive, when an escaped mental patient went on a killing spree at the cabin where she was staying with several of her friends from college. The maniac is shot by a conveniently nearby cop, and Quincy attempts to move on with her life. She can’t actually remember what happened at the cabin that night, but despite the nightmares and mood swings, staunchly pursues normalcy.  She starts a baking website, pops a Xanax (or a couple) every day, and has a bland but peaceful relationship with her fiance Jeff.

Quincy is in phone and email contact occasionally with another Final Girl, Lisa, who survived a Ted-Bundy-ish slaughter at her sorority house. Lisa revels in her role, writing a book about being a Final Girl, counseling other victims of violent crime, doing interviews, the whole thing. Quincy keeps her at arm’s length as she tries to put Pine Cottage behind her and stay out of the spotlight.  And although both Quincy and Lisa know of the third Final Girl, Samantha Boyd, Samantha has gone off the grid, and so, despite Oprah’s attempts to get them all together, the Final Girls have never met.

That is, until Lisa’s apparent suicide hits the news, and Samantha shows up on Quincy’s doorstep. She needs a place to stay, and is also deeply upset about Lisa’s death. Samantha only wants to get to know Quincy, to make sure that she’s OK – or so she claims. Her intentions become much murkier as she persuades Quincy to join her in dangerous, violent situations and hounds her relentlessly about her missing memories of Pine Cottage.

In the end, there are a few decent-ish twists, followed by a final reveal that was… well…

Stupid.

Yes, stupid. Lame. Dumb. Bordering on ridiculous. As bad as, if not worse than, any scene of a Final Girl staggering through the mist, gasping, sobbing, hair a mess but makeup flawless, etc.

Final Girls attempted to elevate the idea, to take a deep, hard look at what it would be like for the survivor of major trauma to live in the aftermath, which was a really fresh, clever idea. Then it decided to dive headfirst into another sophomoric cliche and stay there.

Because the only trope more worn-out than the Final Girl is the Criminal Mastermind, the guy who’s able to commit heinous crimes, repeatedly, without leaving a shred of evidence, let alone getting caught. The guy who, at the end of the story, wastes screen time/pages revealing his Brilliant Plan just before getting shot or stabbed in some way that a true mastermind would’ve seen coming. That guy annoys the bugdirt out of me.

So I’m betting that Final Girls is just the first book in the series, and the inevitable sequel will be called Masterminds or something similar, and it will focus on what happens to the bad guy after he gets shot or stabbed in some ridiculously improbable way once he’s confessed all of his misdeeds to a Final Girl.

And everyone knows that sequels are never as good as the original.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a Xanax, hold the grape soda).

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The Breakdown, by B. A. Paris

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

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

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

Ahem. ANYWAY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Method, by Duncan Ralston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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