In The Darkness, That’s Where I’ll Know You, by Luke Smitherd

Short Take: “You got your horror in my sci-fi!”  “No, you got your sci-fi in my horror!”   “Hey, did someone order a love story?”

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You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. No, seriously, most times, covers are crap when it comes to actually showing you what’s in a book, let alone if it’ll actually be good or not, and the same thing goes for titles. C’mon, you know I’m right. Look at some of the best books ever that have absolutely garbage titles. Don’t believe me? I can give you a perfect example, in three letters or less: IT. Which is why it was surprising that when I saw “In the darkness, that’s where I’ll know you” I mentally took a step back, and really thought about the title. It’s… kind of gorgeous, you know? Evocative, yearning, and somehow poetic.

And really, it doesn’t do justice to the absolute crazy-pants insanity of this book. The plot is deceptively simple. Charlie Wilkes wakes up inside the brain of a girl with the unfortunate but hilarious name of Minnie Cooper. He is in a room that is completely black, with the exception of a screen – her eyes, through which he can see what she sees. He can hear what she hears, and when he talks to her, she can hear him. They need to work together to figure out what happened, why it happened, how to fix it, and so on, and as they do, they get to know each other better than some long-married couples.

My sugar-doped brain kept wanting to make comparisons to the 1987 Dennis Quaid comedy classic, Innerspace, but Smitherd, clever little monkey that he is, wasn’t about to let that happen. Because for all the surface humor and outlandishness of the situation, this is one seriously dark and twisted tale. Nobody is quite what they seem, and one severely screwed up individual can hurt if not destroy an infinite number of people without leaving a trace.

So here we have a combination of a really terrific title, and a ridiculous but intriguing premise and okay, FINE, even some pretty awesome cover art that actually represents the book pretty well. It’s a delicious combination. And for the most part, In the Darkness follows through on that early promise. The story winds through some twists that I would never have seen coming, and a lot of the dialogue is pretty sharp as well. Minnie is a lovely character, so vulnerable and human, and Charlie is… complicated.

I can’t really go into what I loved about this one without getting all spoilery. Suffice it to say, that everything comes together in a beautifully satisfying way. That is not to say that it’s necessarily a happy ending, or a predictable one, but it is a fairly perfect one.

But somehow, Darkness didn’t quite fully click with me. I’ve asked myself repeatedly why, if I loved pretty much everything about it, I can’t just start throwing happy neurons at it like Mardi Gras beads.

I think that the answer lies in the pacing. I feel like too many parts of this book got dragged down in speculation about what is happening/why it’s happening/who are you/who am I/why am I here/what is happening/why is this happening and so on. Don’t get me wrong, a fair amount of all that was necessary, especially in the end, when it all came together and was fully explained. But I don’t tend to have a lot patience with sci-fi-type world-building, and I think that some of that could have been trimmed down in ways that would have made Darkness even better.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a flashlight. Because damn the darkness can be scary.)

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Girl in the Dark, by Marion Pauw

 

Short Take: Transcends its flaws.

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Hello, all both of you who are reading this! Sorry for my absence lately. I’ve been on a true crime reading binge, and for some reason, I find it nearly impossible to review non-fiction books. To me it’s like trying to review a newspaper article (hands up, who fondly remembers newspaper articles?) in that so long as the writing is minimally competent, it’s way more important to get the facts down. You can’t really critique the storytelling when the story is something that’s already really happened, you know?  

Throw in me being the obsessive information junkie that I am, I frequently google the cases I read about, just to see how accurate the book I read really was, and finding lots of dissenting opinions from various people involved in whatever the case was, and it becomes harder to even evaluate whether the author got the real facts right.

ANYWAY.

I think that after reading a bunch of accounts of real-life investigations, my reading of fictional crimes and how the characters go about solving them may be a bit skewed.

Girl in the Dark is actually a really good book, but the main character’s ineptitude was killing me. Maybe they just do things differently in the Netherlands? I should back it up and explain, huh?

Iris has a plate that is so full, the slightest shift could send everything tumbling. She is a single mom of a very difficult son, Aaron. He’s only three years old, but his tantrums and violent outbursts towards other children are nearly impossible to deal with.  She’s an attorney, a career that isn’t exactly known for lots of free time to deal with personal issues. And her mother, the only person who can help out with Aaron at all, is cold, distant, and highly critical of her.

So everything in her life is in a very precarious balance when she finds out something that throws it all out of whack: she has an older brother, Ray, who she has never met. Ray is autistic, and resides in a mental institution for the criminally insane after being found guilty of the brutal murder of his neighbor, Rosita, and Rosita’s young daughter several years ago.

Iris begins a two-part investigation, first, to prove Ray’s innocence, and second, to understand how her mother could have had him institutionalized at nine years old and kept him a secret for decades afterward.

The book is told in alternating chapters, from the perspectives of Iris and Ray. With Ray, we get a heartbreaking look at just how much difficulty he has understanding the world around him, and how painful it is when others take advantage of that. We also frequently hear about his genitals. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Iris’s chapters are where the book almost lost me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great writing here. Both Iris and Ray are fantastic characters, very realistically drawn and relatable. But too much of our time with Iris is spent with her trying to figure out who Ray is, and how he might be related to her. I found myself yelling at my nook “SERIOUSLY?!?!?! FOR THE LOVE—JUST GOOGLE IT ALREADY!”

As I mentioned before, Girl in the Dark takes place in the Netherlands. It took a bit for me to get a handle on the time frame, but it appears that the murders occurred in 2003, and Iris’s involvement came eight years later, which would make it 2011-ish. There are some obvious differences in the way the Netherlands and the USA investigate and punish crimes.. But I found it flat-out impossible to believe that in the Netherlands, in 2011, there was no internet access. Or that in a country with a relatively low crime rate, there wouldn’t be some media coverage that would include at least a brief biography of the murderer.  It’s also hard to believe that Ray’s autism would’ve gone undiagnosed for as long as it did in the 21st century, or that the possible causes of Aaron’s behavior wouldn’t dawn on anyone.

I understand that if these things were immediately solved, we would’ve lost a significant chunk of the book, as well as a lot of insight into the main characters. But the end result is that we got a really great story that, at times, felt like a lot of unnecessary filler. And all of this frustration could’ve been completely avoided had Ms. Pauw just set the time period slightly earlier – say, in the early to mid nineties. Doing so would not have affected one scrap of the story, but would have vastly improved the reading experience.

But the thing is, despite the nook-yelling and google-grumbling, I really couldn’t put this one down. Iris and Ray are some of the best characters I’ve seen in awhile, and when the truth comes out…. Well, I completely, honestly 100% did not see it coming, but the pieces fit flawlessly. It’s one of the very few perfect shocker-twist endings I’ve ever seen.  So definitely give it a read, but pretend it’s happening twenty years earlier.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a croissant. Because now I am craving one like nobody’s business.)

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Annie’s Room, by Amy Cross

Short Take: She was the best of Annies, she was the worst of Annies….

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This was another one of those books that I grabbed when it was offered for free. I’ve actually downloaded far more of those than I will probably read in this lifetime, but hey, free books, right? So I tend to download a bunch of them then forget doing so.

In any case, I grabbed a few by Amy Cross, and when I went to put them in my “to be read” folder, I noticed that I already had one of hers in there – Annie’s Room. So being the absent-minded nerd that I am, I was like huh? Where did this come from? I checked on Amazon, and sure enough, it looked familiar, and Amazon told me I had purchased it. So I decided to forego the books I had just downloaded, and read Annie’s Room instead. Which is my long-winded way of saying, sometime in the next few months, I will be wondering why I have all these books by Amy Cross in my folder, and why does the name Annie’s Room ring a bell?

So:  the basics. Annie’s room is about a young girl named Annie Riley, who moves with her parents and younger brother Scott from New York City to an isolated house in the country, for reasons that are never really explained. Annie has just been in a terrible accident, and is confined to bed with both legs in casts.  While they are moving in, a “neighbor” (who lives a couple of miles away) drops in, and shares some very creepy facts with Annie: seventy years ago, another teenage girl named Annie lived in the same house, in the same room, and disappeared. Annie Garrett’s parents were later executed for her murder, despite the lack of a body.

From there, we get timelines that switch back and forth, between Annie Riley in the present day, with strange things happening in the house, and Annie Garrett in the 1940’s, with terrible things happening in the house. It all leads up to a crazy, rain-and-storm-filled climax where the past and the present collide, with horrific results.

There are a lot of things to love about Annie’s Room. For starters, it’s a haunted house story, and anyone who follows this blog knows that they are my favorite. Annie Garrett’s story is intriguing and brutal. I figured out fairly early on what happened to her, but the story was incredibly compelling just the same. Watching this family unravel in such terrible ways isn’t something I enjoyed, exactly, but I couldn’t stop reading until I understood it completely. And the scene where Annie’s mom can’t stop crying is going to stay with me for the foreseeable future.

The present day scenes with Annie Riley, however, didn’t feel as fleshed-out. We don’t get much of a sense of who Annie is. She bickers with her younger brother, seems to love her parents but still smarts off to them in eye-rollingly typical teenage style, and doesn’t want to leave the city or her friends there. It should be noted that we don’t ever actually hear anything about these friends, other than that she doesn’t want to leave them. Her interactions with her family are pretty minimal before the bad stuff starts happening, so when the terrible things occur, it’s hard to get really emotionally engaged.  We see Annie being bored, some hints that there’s some supernatural force at work, a few brief conversations that consist mainly of “seriously, when will the internet be hooked up?” and… that’s pretty much it.

Ms. Cross would’ve also benefited from a good editor – there were quite a few typos and spelling errors that were distracting from the overall story.

That said, Annie’s Room was definitely enjoyable. I really loved the pace of it, and the intertwining timelines, and the hints of a darker, deeper history than what we are allowed to see.  Check it out if you are looking for a quick, fun, scary read.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some sandpaper. Who knew it had so many uses??)

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The Shaun Hupp Collection, Volume 1, by Shaun Hupp

Short Take:  Shaun Hupp has guts.  And they are all over the pages.51GL5H8xe1L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

 

Note:  I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a little different, in that it’s not exactly a collection of short stories, and not exactly a single story.  There are actually four medium-length stories in The Collection, with a fifth story serving as a framing device.  It’s a clever trick, no question, but it also makes a little difficult to review, as neither of my usual formats (short story collections vs. single tales) quite works.  So I’m going to do a little bit of my usual reviewer-stuff for each of the five elements that make up this book, and hopefully, I’m reasonably coherent.

The framing story begins with a stressed-out, exasperated mother of a teenage girl meeting a strange, sickly old man on the subway.  He tells her a terrible story (“I Will Make You Love Me”) before moving on to other passengers in other cars, telling each of them a tale of horror that resonates with something in their own life.  Although we are shown early on that his intent is probably evil, we don’t understand his true purpose until the end.  And it is FUN.

The first story, “I Will Make You Love Me” is the tale of a young woman being held hostage by a former lover. The flashback sequences in this one were impressive.  The pacing, and jumping back and forth between Megan’s history with Nick, and her budding relationship with Shannon was deftly handled.  I can’t say enough good things about the tempo during one critical scene, where the protagonist is waiting for something horrible to happen, and focusing on happy memories at the same time.  It’s a terrifying, breathless countdown, that I wanted to hurry through and savor at the same time.

The ending was kind of predictable, if you’ve read a lot of horror.  But the story itself was very well-written, and as I said, the pacing was fantastic.

In “The Worst Kind of Monster”, Dustin is a six year old boy with a pretty awful home life who hears a monster in his basement one night and decides to find out for himself what’s going on.  Mr. Hupp really shines when showing us the world through Dustin’s eyes.   He acts like a real little boy, and the dread we feel when following his investigation is intense.

I should add that I thought I had figured out the monster thing would go one of two ways, and I was happy (and more than a little horrified) when I found out I was wrong.  The gore is heavy in this one, bordering on torture porn.  But that wasn’t the scariest part of this story.  The final sentence is going to stay with me for a long, long time.  This is one of those “OH MY GOD THIS IS HORRIBLE I DON’T WANT THIS IN MY BRAIN” but at the same time “OH MAN I NEVER SAW THAT COMING I KIND OF LOVE IT” stories.  But absolutely not for those with delicate sensibilities.  You were warned!

“Last Words” is very similar to “I Will Make You Love Me”, in that it involves a woman being held captive, this time, along with her boyfriend.  The kidnapper, Adam, is kind of an odd character, in that he seems to bounce between serial killer/sociopath cliches and very human oddities and quirks.  Some of the dialogue rang a bit false, but there was at least one twist that I didn’t see coming, and I always like that.   

That said, I just didn’t care for the ending of “Last Words”.  The denouement was unnecessary to the rest of the story, and turned what would have been a fairly complete tale into an introduction to a whole other story that wasn’t included.  I would have preferred either just this story, with the rest of it, as a separate book, or for the final bit to be cut out.  And let me just take a second to say EW EW EW GROSS YUK – there are loads of gore in this one.

The final story, “Pound” is where Shaun Hupp really drops all pretense and shows us what he’s made of.  It’s two completely different stories, one of sudden, shocking violence during a home invasion and one of an overheated, disturbed high school boy who’s home alone when his dream girl knocks on the door.  The narration flips back and forth, and if you’re like me, you’ll be simultaneously following the action, and wracking your brain to figure out how the stories will collide.  When they eventually intertwine, the results are completely unexpected.  

So what did I think overall?

I’m well aware that I’m in a minority here, but to me, gore and horror are two different animals.  Gore is the terrible thing you see, and horror is the terrible thing you don’t.  I always tend to prefer the latter, and so to me, some of the more extreme elements in this book took away from the good stuff.  At times, it felt like the author was going for shock value, instead of using his obvious skills to go for more subtle jabs to the reader’s psyche.  Given Mr. Hupp’s flair for character, pacing, and telling a damn cool story, I feel like he could’ve toned down some of the over-the-top violence and had something just as good, and maybe even more effective.

There were also a few rookie mistakes, such as the occasional tendency to over-explain circumstances, and few paragraphs here and there that felt more like chunks of information which, while they might be relevant, slowed down the action.  But this book is a solid foundation on which to build, and I believe that Shaun Hupp is going to be a horror author to watch.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some carrot sticks.  I think I’m off cheeseburgers for a while.)

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Letter from Hell, by M. Lee Mendelson

Short Take:  Awesome Dude Is Awesome – The Super-Extended Version!

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I snagged this one when it was offered for free (count frugality among my positive attributes).  I thought that the idea was intriguing.  A suicide, an investigator, and a letter detailing exactly how fate works.  

And the first chapter was GREAT.  Little known fact:  I used to work with the police (not as a cop though, I don’t like guns).  And that first chapter was actually pretty true to life, which was cool.  No Dirty Harry heroics, no super-sleuthing geniuses, just Mike the cop doing his job, even when he’s a little freaked out.  Although I never knew a cop on his way to a domestic dispute to take a minute to joke around with a security guard.

Then I started Chapter 2, and the whole thing took a quick dive into the deepest wish-fulfilling Mary Sue depths.  You see, Mike was a fat nerdy kid.  He was bullied & humiliated at school.  Until the day he decides to take his life into his own hands, and start working out and eating right.  Within just a few short weeks, his gorgeous successful parents are suddenly proud of him for the first time, he is the star of the football team, and the hot new girl  across the street – excuse me, ALL the hot girls in school – are all up on his junk.  And he learns martial arts too, and wins the bully’s respect and they became best buds.  College is the same.   After he’s injured playing football, and his father is killed, he becomes a police officer while going to law school part-time.  He graduates and marries a gorgeous ADA.  And everywhere Mike goes, everyone thinks he’s amazing.  (This paragraph is spread out in the book to well over 100 pages.  It’s even more tedious than you imagine.)

Did I mention how awesome Mike is?  Cause the author sure does.  All.  The.  Time.  I mean, when he goes to meet with a DA regarding a criminal, the book actually reads: “Unknown to Mike was the fact that all the ladies at the District Attorney’s Office spoke very highly about him. Every time he would go there for a deposition, they would secretly gather to drool over him.”  But the thing is, Mike’s kind of a terrible person. His sole purpose in life seems to be basking in the glory of being himself.

Then when we finally get caught up to the present day with the incomparably perfect Mike, the narrative switches to his wife Meredith, who’s also gorgeous and perfect and we get another 100 pages of her life story including getting ready for the wedding, which is ANOTHER total snoozefest of perfect perfection.  And also another way to elaborate on how flawlessly perfect Mike is.  

I’m not going to dwell on the dialogue other than to say it was painful.  Ridiculously stilted, every character sounds the same, none of it sounds natural, and all the guys call each other Bro or Brother.  All of the characters are completely flat.  None of them has a distinct voice or personality (with the sole exception of a really racist – and thankfully brief – depiction of an Asian man).  All of the women are decorative and worship Mike.

The language of the book is weird. Mr. Mendelson just randomly throws adverbs in there, in ways that make no sense at all.  For example, when the main character is asked if he was THE Michael Carson, college football star, we get this gem: “Mike favorably responded, ‘Yes, sir, that’s me.’”  I…. don’t even know how to parse that one.

The worst though is the unending list of ridiculous details.  When they are dating, Mike sends Meredith flowers.  That’s nice.  Do we need to know the significance of different colors of roses, or the thought process that leads to his final choice of flower?  (Pink roses, should you wonder.  Should that have a spoiler alert?  I don’t even care anymore.)  And reciting dates and times for everything is completely mind-numbing.

And the author somehow manages to not say that the cop investigating the suicide is a different Mike.  For the entire book.  I have no idea what the purpose of that was, other than to be “clever” and mislead the reader. I don’t even know if that’s a spoiler, as I have no idea what the relevance of it was.

I could probably go on for quite a while, cataloging this book’s flaws.  But what it all comes down to is that the author has a story to tell, but no depth at all in his writing.  It’s like reading a book written by an alien who observed earth for a few weeks, wrote a story, then ran it through google translate in a few different languages.  It’s a glimpse inside the mind of someone who’s never had an actual conversation, or a relationship, or spent any time at all with a human person.  

The actual story (the cult investigation) was shoved in a little here & there.  And by the time I reached the last 40 pages or so, when bad things started happening to Mike & Meredith, I couldn’t muster the energy to care.  They had zero personality and no redeeming traits whatsoever.

I have to give credit where credit is due, though.  There WERE some creepy aspects to this book – for example, the author’s fixation on the bosom of a fifteen year old girl.  And his obsession with how hot Mike’s mother was.  So if that’s your thing, go for it.  Otherwise, skip this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: ONE HAPPY NEURON (and a big vodka drink.  I seriously need one right now.)

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The Heroin Diaries, by Nikki Sixx

Short Take: Yeah, it’s the same old, same old situaaaaaaaation…..

Give your brain a snack!

Man, I love 80’s hair metal.  I’m probably revealing myself as an Old Person, but back in the day, I couldn’t get enough of Poison, Whitesnake, Winger, Warrant and all the rest of them.  C’mon… Kip Winger?  RAWR.  Jani Lane in white leather pants?  Yes please.  

But all of those guys, as sexy but “dangerous” as they were, were tame compared to the boys in Motley Crue.  And during my naive-but-headbanging youth, I had no idea exactly how wild those Crue boys could be.

Usually, in this part of a review, I describe the plot of a book, but do we really need it for this one?  Rock star recovery books have become so common at this point that they are a cliche.  I’ve read more than a few of them, heck, even some written by other people who are in Sixx’s book.  In a nutshell, every one of them follows the same pattern:  the downward spiral of addiction that mirrors the upward climb of superstardom, increasing tension within the band and disintegrating personal relationships, a rock bottom moment, followed by a long recovery with a few setbacks and ultimately triumph over the demons of booze and drugs.

So yeah, the story here is nothing new.  What sets this one apart, however, is the WAY it’s told.  

As I said, all of the rock star recovery books follow the same story, but also, most of them are told the same way.  It’s a single person’s point of view (said rock star), probably with help from a professional writer, and it’s invariably a look backwards, with the narrator trying to gloss over their behavior a bit (“yeah I was a jerk and I beat my girlfriend and set the hotel room on fire, but I was really messed up and never meant to HURT anybody sheesh”), and at the same time, grab their chance to air all their complaints about their former bandmates, crew, managers, whoever.  No matter how “uplifting” the story is meant to be, they almost always come across as self-serving, one more chance to be the center of attention now that the spotlight has faded and the stadiums aren’t packed anymore.

Not so much with The Heroin Diaries.

For one thing, the book is made mostly of actual diary entries that Nikki Sixx wrote during the year between Christmas 1986 and Christmas 1987.  So instead of “I was really high and hallucinating”, we get things like “There are little people with guns and helmets in my trees.”  Instead of “I was really depressed”, we get “I hate myself and what I’m doing to my life”.  It feels much more immediate and honest.

The other thing that really sets Diaries apart is its format.  Nikki Sixx is the ostensible author, but throughout the book, the other people who were involved weigh in.  So we might see a diary entry of a fight that Sixx had with Vince Neil, but we also see Neil’s present-day take on the incident.  Sixx writes extensively about his turbulent relationship with Vanity (only people who were around in the 80’s will recognize that name), but the evangelist now known as Denise Matthews also gets to tell her side of it.  Her slightly deranged, rambling, mostly incoherent side.  

The end result is sort of an oral history of that year that ended in Sixx’s death and resuscitation, followed by a bulleted summary of the past twenty years.  It’s a really fascinating story, told in multiple voices and with many different perspectives.  It’s visceral.  You see Sixx’s actions, and you also see the wounds they left on the people around him.  And sometimes the stories contradict each other, but still, everyone has their say.  I can’t say I’ve ever read anything quite like it, although, at its core, the story is (sadly) nothing very new or original.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some Aqua Net)

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Guardian of the Orchard, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take:  I hate this.

Give your brain a snack!

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

I’ve reviewed a few of Mr. Greene’s works here.  By now, most of you have probably figured out that I’m a fan.  And yeah, sure, he’s talented, yadda yadda yadda.  His works are pretty near flawless, blah blah blah.  He’s an incredible author, but you know what?  I’m getting pretty darn sick of awesome, amazing work.  The reviews are just too hard to write.  WHY WON’T ANYONE THINK OF THE REVIEWER??

Guardian of the Orchard is the tale of three brothers who like to sneak into Old Man Peterson’s orchard to steal apples (and maybe have a good old-fashioned rotten apple fight once in awhile), and Old Man Peterson’s twisted, demonic act of revenge on them.  Or maybe it’s about something entirely different.  I don’t want to give the ending away, but man, it’ll stay with you.  

Patrick C. Greene is fantastic at creating a mood, or a character, or a whole universe, with just a few sentences.  The dialogue between the brothers, little Simon’s heartbreak at losing a favorite toy, the bossiness and bravado of big brother Dale are so gloriously, heartbreakingly real.  I mean, even a bit of dialogue towards the end that seemed really awful turned out to be completely spot-on when another reveal happened.  So what am I supposed to do with that?  

I mean, here’s where I, as the person writing the reviews, SHOULD point out what’s good and not good about this story.  But when an author keeps hitting it out of the park, what am I left with?  I’m left looking like a 10 year old girl at a Justin Beiber concert, and let me tell you, that doesn’t look good on ANYONE.  (Which reminds me – whoever finds my body when I die, please make sure to hide my Dukes of Hazzard poster.  You’ll know the one, it’s got some weird smudges on it.  Don’t judge.)

So all I can say is yes, everyone who likes horror should read this story, and Mr. Greene, THANKS AGAIN for making my job impossible.  You jerk.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big Gala apple, because they are the best kind.)

Loved this book!!