Preordained, by David L. Wallace

Short Take: Readers are stupid, and editors are for sissies.
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Man, y’all, I wanted to love this SO MUCH. There are valid comparisons to some of my favorite things, like Devil’s Advocate, and Seven, and after reading it, I can even see some echoes of Angel Heart (am I the only one who still remembers and loves that one? Anyway…).

But in the end, the author took the seeds of a fantastic story and suffocated them in layer after layer of fertilizer (if you know what I mean). The basic premise of the story is that detective Art Somers has a serial killer running amok in his small South Carolina county. The killer only targets 12 year old boys, which it just so happens is the exact age of Art’s son. There’s a lot more to this tale than just a straight murder mystery, however, there are also loads of supernatural elements and some sci-fi technology, and there may be more to Art than just luscious long but manly hair and a bitchin’ Camaro.

There are even some really fascinating historical elements, from ancient Israel to the Geechee/Gullah people. I could’ve loved this book, and raved to the heavens about it.

But the writing, y’all. The writing was so bad. Instead of a great book, I just spent hours reading a VERY rough first draft. A few examples…..

In one scene, we’re given a very graphic, disgusting description of the reason that Art won’t eat red sauce, and hasn’t for years. But just a couple of chapters before, his fiancee Angela was sexily feeding him shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce.

This sentence: “Her eyes seemed as if she didn’t recognize him and he sure as hell didn’t know the ones glaring back at him. They were all blue and her pupils had dilated to the point where they covered the whites in her eyes.” Are the eyes blue, or pupil-black? If you can’t see the whites, how do you know where they are looking? Just, what?

Or this gem: “Angela’s flashlight shined on tall blades of sea grass intermixed with cattails, which were wetland plants that looked like a smoked sausage impaled on a long green stem.” I think that most people know what cattails are, but really, slowing down the action of a tense scene to compare common plants to barbecue meat is just…. Ugh.

There is so much of that. Awkward phrasing, blatant contradictions, weird descriptions shoved onto lumpy misshapen sentences.

Art, our “hero”, is a moron. He repeatedly fatally shoots people who could give him information to solve the case. I wanted to pull a Lethal Weapon Danny Glover and implore him, “couldn’t you just shoot them in the leg?”  Upon being the only first responder on scene when not one, but two people who have critical information on the killer are bleeding out, Art takes the time to do a little light reading, followed by a power nap and a few phone calls. I’m sure the ambulance will get there eventually, right? Plus, any half-witted cop would’ve handcuffed the bad guy before taking some me-time, so he couldn’t get away while said cop is chilling…. Oh. Never mind.

When his grandmother is attacked by a supernatural entity in a way that could have killed her, he decides to take the heroic action of…. Calling her twice a day to check her emotional state. Which is ridiculous enough on its face, but then he doesn’t even do that. Poor Grandma.

He finds his fiancee (who is also his partner at work, aka A COP) cutting herself while injecting illegal drugs and his reaction is a shrug of the shoulders and business as usual.

And can we talk about Angela?  Look, I get that it’s hard for straight dudes to write women. They are mysterious and kind of scary, and like, all of them act different, and some of them smell good and some are kind of tall and whatnot. But the casual, rampant misogyny in Preordained is some next level male gaze grossness. For example, a slave girl is raped by a demon, but it’s cool, she likes it eventually.

Going back to Angela, she and Art’s ex-wife have some kind of history that could be interesting, but nope.  They’ve always fought over men, of course, because that’s all women exist for in this book. Like, Angela is supposed to be Art’s equal, she’s also a cop, a PROFESSIONAL FREAKIN COLLEAGUE (when she’s not cutting herself and shooting up, I guess?), ostensibly a talented one, but she calls him Daddy and begs to move in with him. Oh, and Art takes pride in “standing by her through her addiction” and “keeping his engagement vow to be there for her always”. Note – the drug reveal & engagement happened early in the book, and those things lasted for the entirety of the book – about two whole days days. In a row. Ladies, are ya’ll swooning yet?

Of course, there’s a sex scene between the two of them, and I’m not going to even touch on that one other than to say I may have torn a cringe muscle.

Scenes shift, people randomly pop in and out of them, things happen for no reason and with no apparent results (in one dramatic scene, Art turns in his badge, and thus is no longer a police officer, in the next, he’s working away in his office at the police station). The supernatural elements just happen, there’s no build-up or foreshadowing or even emphasis on how strange something is, it’s just a thing that happens before the next thing that happens. There’s a lot of dialogue that I could quote, but I’m just going to say “painful”, and call it quits with that one. And the ultimate weapon against dark forces is Dumbo’s magic feather.

I think you all get the idea. Mr. Wallace definitely has some great ideas, and seems willing to do research for his books, but what he really needs is a team of tough beta readers and editors.

The Nerd’s Rating: ONE (MOSTLY SAD) HAPPY NEURON. (and some Metallica. Because you can’t throw a Satan party without Metallica.)

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After Anna, by Lisa Scottoline

Short Take: Wait for it….. Waiiiiitttt for it…. Keep waiting…. Almost there…. Waiiiiitttttt…. OMG DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?????

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

I am not as smart as I like to think I am. See, I read the first three quarters of this book in a state of mild annoyance and semi-resigned boredom. I accepted After Anna in exchange for a review, which means I had to read the whole thing in order to write an accurate and honest review. Generally, I that’s not much of a hardship, but that first seventy-five percent of this one was a slog.

It starts when Maggie is reunited with Anna, the daughter she had lost custody of seventeen years before. Maggie went through a pretty rough bout of postpartum psychosis after Anna’s birth, and Anna’s wealthy caricature of a father, Florian, promptly took full custody of Anna, then dumped her with a series of nannies and boarding schools.

When Florian dies suddenly, Anna finally contacts Maggie, and both Maggie and her new husband, Noah, welcome Anna into their lives and home. Six weeks later, Anna is dead, and Noah is on trial for her murder. The book flips back and forth between Maggie and Noah’s sides of the story, and plays with alternating timelines – Noah’s trial, and the events leading up to Anna’s death.

And it’s kind of a pain to get through. It’s long, and drawn-out, and virtually every scene leading up to Anna’s death is played out repeatedly – it’ll be mentioned in the murder trial, and then we’ll get both Noah’s and Maggie’s perspective on it in multiple chapters. There are just too many words rehashing the same scene over and over, when really, anyone who has seen at least a few dozen Lifetime movies (and who here hasn’t???) would know within the first couple of chapters that Something Isn’t Right with Anna.

So there I am, going through chapter after chapter of “didn’t I just read this exact scene?” and “who brings a strange 17 year old home and then just immediately accepts everything they say at face value no matter how ridiculous?” and “there are only a few characters in this book, if Noah didn’t kill Anna, it’s going to be one of like two other people, I am A GENIUS” and so on, when OH. MY. WOW.

Everything turned sideways. I could hardly believe what a fantastic twist I was reading. The final quarter of After Anna moves at a breathless pace as Maggie starts putting pieces together and the absolutely batcrap insane truth starts coming out. I’ve been processing that ending for the last hour, and my gast remains flabbered.

So if you are willing to use a little patience getting through the beginning, the payoff is more than worth it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a Top Gun DVD, because there’s a shortage of shirtless-man-volleyball montages in my life)

 

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Twisted Prey, by John Sandford

Short Take: NANANANA NANANANA DAVENPORT!!!
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*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*

Twisted Prey is the 28th (holy crap) entry in the Prey Series, and let me be right up front in saying that I have read and loved every single one of them, and I will also be the first to say that they are pretty darn ridiculous. In a fantastic way.

Our hero, Lucas Davenport is a cop. No, more than a cop, he’s smarter, tougher, richer, handsomer, and better dressed than you. He’s a millionaire a couple of dozen times over, drives a Porsche, wears fancy Italian suits and shoes, but what he loves more than anything in the world is catching bad guys. So what I’m saying is, he’s Batman. Unlike Bruce Wayne, however, Davenport has worked his way up from the bottom, starting as a lowly detective in Minneapolis. Through a couple of decades of solid police work, a massive body count, and a whole lotta dirt dug up on bigwig political types, he’s risen through the ranks and is now a US Marshall, with all of this great nation as his jurisdiction.

So when United States Senator Porter Smalls is involved in a car crash just outside of Washington DC that just might be an assassination attempt, Davenport is the guy to call. It doesn’t take long for Taryn Grant, Smalls’ biggest rival, and Davenport’s One Bad Guy That Got Away to become the number one suspect. Taryn is a sociopath, but she’s also very, very smart, and super wealthy, and is probably one of the few people who could be Davenport’s Joker….er, his equal.

Davenport knows that Taryn is behind the attempted murder. Taryn knows that Davenport knows that she’s behind it. Davenport knows that Taryn knows that he knows that she’s the mastermind, and that he’ll have to work this case with a large target on his back.

It’s a fun, fast, utterly delicious cat-and-mouse game. Twisted Prey follows the standard Prey template: a crazy crime, Lucas being summoned, Lucas rounding up his posse of bad-guy-catchers, a few more bodies thrown on the pile, some super-smart detectiving and some kind of resolution that may or may not be completely above-board, but is extremely satisfying nonetheless.

For all that, Sandford manages to keep it fresh. Even though Davenport is a man’s man fantasy of masculinity and over-the-top testosterone, the women are just as smart, tough, and wisecracking as the guys. Sandford’s dialogue is some of the best in the game, and every time I pick up a new Prey book (did I mention there are 28 of them so far???), I feel like I’m hanging out with old friends.

As great as that is, it’s also kind of problematic for the author, in terms of moving the series forward. Because Lucas is now a Marshall, he’s not tied to Minnesota. Which is a necessary step (how many psycho serial killers can one small-ish state hold?), but the usual cast of characters wasn’t around, and I found myself missing them. There wasn’t enough banter with his wife Weather, who was back in Minneapolis while Davenport was kickin hineys and takin names in Washington DC. I missed the oh-so-cleverly named Del Capslock, and Sherrill, and Sister Elle, and the rest of the regulars.

But who am I kidding, I’m going to keep reading, because even when new people come in, the cars are still fast, the women are still gorgeous, the mysteries are still smart, and Lucas is still a teensy bit psycho (in other words, just my type).
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a Range Rover Evoque. Because this winter is never-ending, and I’m ready to let my hair blow in the breeze).

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The Chateau, by Tiffany Reisz

Short Take: An erotic thriller? Well, you’re half right….

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Hello my beloved nerdlings! It is I, BookNerd, Ruler of the Dark, armed with a riding crop, a parakeet, and a bag of powdered sugar, here to bring you something entirely different!

Well, not entirely. You see, I received an advance copy of The Chateau to review, and who am I to turn down a free book? The author, Tiffany Reisz, generally writes “adult romance”, to put it euphemistically, and, although I enjoy dipping my…. uh…. toe into some naughty novels on occasion, I have never tried to review one.

So, after much consideration, I have decided to keep my site to USA family-friendly standards, which means that I can discuss as much blood, violence, and gore as I like, but there will be not a hint of a naked [censored].  On with the review!!

(Due to some other life stuff, I’m afraid this one will be a bit of a quickie.) (Heh.)

Although Ms. Reisz is best known for her Original Sinners series, and although the main character in The Chateau (Kingsley Boissonneault) is a character in the Sinners series, this one is billed as a standalone thriller.

The year is 1989, and Kingsley is an agent for a very high-level, secret, “assassinate the assassins” agency in France.  Colonel Masson sends him on a mission to locate and extract Masson’s nephew, Leon. Leon may have been abducted and imprisoned in the titular Chateau, an extremely secretive cult dedicated to [censored]. In the Chateau, men are the servants, women are the queens, and the beautiful, mysterious, and imperious Madame rules over all.

As a work of erotica, The Chateau is way up there. The [censored] scenes are beyond  [censored], and even the dialogue is great. It’s all very dreamlike and surreal, and the “Alice Through The Looking Glass” theme adds to the enchanted atmosphere.

There are Dark Secrets, to be sure, and some allusions to bloodshed, but I don’t know if I would classify this one as a thriller. You see, for all the violent [censored], at no time did I feel that anyone’s life was in any real danger. During his time in the Chateau, Kingsley was handled with silk gloves. Literally.

I don’t want to give away much of what he learns in the last couple of chapters, because the revelations ARE fun, but there was very little in the way of a thrilling climax, at least as far as the mission (rescuing Leon) is concerned. There are plenty of other [censored] [censored] [censored] throughout the rest of the book, however.

Overall, if you want a bit of steamy [censored] fun, you can’t go wrong with Ms. Reisz. In her books, it’s the quality, not the quantity of bodies that matters.

The Nerd’s Rating: Four Happy Neurons (And a bottle of lotion, because this long winter has my skin really dry. What?)

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The New Neighbors, by Simon Lelic

Short Take:  Come for the story. Stay for the narrators.

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*Note – I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

Sometimes, writing the description of the book is the hardest part of reviewing. Let’s see…

Jack and Sydney are a young couple, just starting out in life, and have been trying for some time to buy their first home in the overpriced London market. Despite working hard, scrimping, and saving, and all the other boot-strappy cliches that Boomers love to trot out, they have been outbid at every turn, and have all but given up when they stumble upon The House. It’s old, and creepy, and full of the previous owner’s hoarded possessions, including dozens, if not hundreds of taxidermied dead animals, but they are in luck!! The owner has a soft spot for young couples, and chooses them to buy the place, despite many higher offers.

It’s a great opening for a haunted house story, but this isn’t that kind of book, so let’s try this again.

When Jack and Sydney first met, they knew they belonged together. She has had a horrible childhood, and is still carrying loads of baggage, and he’s a social worker, kind and patient, who lives to make people’s lives better. Sydney has a hard time believing in his altruistic motives, and he’s so afraid to scare her off that he keeps large parts of his life hidden from her. Can they build a future together, or will the weight of their secrets tear them apart?

Which is a great start to a romance, but New Neighbors isn’t that kind of book either. Back to the drawing board!

After finally buying and moving into their dream home, Jack and Sydney find themselves thrust into a tangled web of deception, confusion, lies, and secrets. When their neighbor is brutally murdered, Jack quickly becomes the number one suspect, and it’s a race against time to prove his innocence before he is sent to prison forever.

….is how the blurb would read for a twisty murder mystery, and although that’s the genre that probably comes closest to fitting The New Neighbors, it’s not all there is to it either.

The New Neighbors has elements of all of the above – a house that’s haunted, a romance between two people who really don’t know how to handle fragile things like love, and oh yeah, a dead guy who could have been killed by one of them, or both of them, or someone else entirely.

The story is really, really, REALLY good, but let’s face it – twisty murder mysteries are the Pringles of the literary world. You eat them, they’re kind of tasty, you may toss a few more down the hatch, but they’re mostly forgettable. Hell, I’ve read three twisty mysteries in the past week, and I’ll probably devour another half-dozen before the month is out, and I don’t bother reviewing most of them, because while some of them are quite good, most of them aren’t very special.

What makes The New Neighbors different is the voices of the narrators. Jack & Sydney switch off, which isn’t unusual, but THEY ACTUALLY RESPOND TO WHAT EACH OTHER HAS WRITTEN. The first chapter belongs to Jack, and his narration is about what you’d expect. He’s articulate and literary, and maybe just a bit stuffy, but then in Chapter Two, Sydney jumps in with an eye-rolling, are-you-kidding-me reply, and that, my friends, is a trick I’ve never seen before in fiction. The narrating characters have a new kind of life and energy, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

The one negative in The New Neighbors is a lack of well-rounded supporting characters. There are a number of them, but they are all pretty flat – a bad person is just evil, a victim is just pitiable, a tenacious cop is just stubborn.  After the richly drawn, smart, funny, sometimes frustrating interplay between Jack and Sydney, the lack of nuance in everyone else is that much sharper.

But in the end, I want to just throw all the happy neurons at Simon Lelic for giving me something I have never seen before, because that’s really, really hard to do.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a taxidermied seagull, because I have got to see my cat’s reaction to that).

Loved this book!!

Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage

Short Take:  A beautifully written but not-very-unique take on the “disturbed child” story.

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

I may not be the most qualified person to write this review. See, I like kids (quite a lot, actually), but to me, they are ALL insane. A clear danger to themselves and others. They ALWAYS want to touch the hot stove, to see if baby sister’s eyes will pop out like Mr. Potatohead’s, and to find out once and for all if the lights on the Christmas tree taste as good as they look. It’s damn near impossible to keep them alive for any length of time, and even harder to maintain your own sanity while you do so. So psychotic kids, to me, read as “kids in general, any and all kids.”

Fortunately, there’s a lull between the “Agent of Chaos” toddler stage and the “I’m Invincible And Will Try To Prove It” adolescent stage, and for most children, the ages between five and ten are the calmest ones. It’s when parents can start reasoning with them, instead of just hanging on for dear life and waiting for the next calamity.

That is, unless the child in question is Baby Teeth’s Hanna, the precocious, mute six year old monster locked in a dance of mutual destruction with her mother, Suzette. You see, Hanna wants Alex, her daddy, all to herself, and the only way to make that happen is if Mommy disappears. Suzette and Hanna are our narrators, alternating back and forth and giving us their perspectives and a lot of richly worded backstory on how exactly they got to this point.

Mad props to the author – Hanna is a great creation. She’s smarter than any of the adults around her give her credit for, willful enough to withhold her voice for her entire life (until she decides to scare the you-know-what out of Suzette with a few creepy words), manipulative enough to act like two entirely different children depending on which parent she’s with, and emotionless enough to scare even a jaded old horror reader like me. Her inner thoughts are richly drawn, her imagination breath-taking.

Suzette, on the other hand, is where Baby Teeth fell apart for me. One of the central plot points is Suzette’s Crohn’s disease, and the horrific struggle she went through as an adolescent with an abusive mother who wouldn’t get her the treatment she needed. We’re told (SO. MANY. TIMES.) how much her husband prizes her strength and resilience, but we see none of that. She is completely helpless when challenged by Hanna. It makes sense to a degree – she’s afraid of becoming her own mother, and afraid that if she tells Alex about all of Hanna’s tricks, he won’t believe her, and it will destroy their marriage.

But seriously, you’re telling me that an upper middle class, stay at home mom has never heard of a FREAKING NANNY CAM??? I feel like roughly 95% of the awful things that happened in Baby Teeth could’ve been avoided if Suzette had said “you know, Hanna doesn’t act right, and I want people to believe me so I can get her help, if only there were some technology available that would record her actions so that I could show them to her father, or a therapist….”

That’s pretty typical of horror protagonists in general, though, they always go in the basement alone or answer the phone or whatever. It’s dumb, but many fans have learned to settle for some dumb if it means they will get a new scary story.

And that right there is where the second shoe falls. Because for all the advance buzz, all the revved-up reviews, and the undeniably poetic style of Baby Teeth, it’s not very original at all. I kept waiting for the Gone-Girl-esque twist, the OMG DID THAT JUST HAPPEN moment, and it just never came. There are some shocking moments, to be sure (Hanna’s brilliance and creativity in torturing Suzette are downright impressive), but many of them were pretty clearly telegraphed.

Baby Teeth is yet another by-the-numbers entry in the Disturbed Child playbook: Kid is a monster. Adult who could fix it doesn’t believe it. Kid does something said adult can’t ignore. Screechy climax. Sequel setup. The end.
The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and a potato, because you never know when you’ll need a new best friend).

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After The Woods, by Kim Savage

Short Take: Not at all what I was expecting. It was better.

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I’ve been on kind of a lady-thriller kick lately, and I haven’t been writing reviews, mainly because most of them tend to travel similar paths, and they all kind of blur together after a while. It was the scheming best friend, and/or the husband/boyfriend, always. I guess I’ve been craving some literary comfort food, not to mention that when I figure out the ending, I can congratulate myself on my mental superiority, no matter how obvious the clues were. I’m quite clever that way.

Except for the book that actually had a “they were dead THE WHOLE TIME!!” ending twenty years after that stopped being surprising. Seriously, that “shocking twist” is neither shocking nor a twist anymore and that particular trend in fiction needs to die out already.

But I digress. After The Woods looked to be more of the same – two girls go into the woods, and one comes out. The second girl emerges days later, traumatized, and unable to fully remember what happened.

It’s a familiar story on the surface. The prologue shows us Liv and Julia, best friends, out for a run in the woods. When Liv pulls ahead, she is grabbed by Donald Jessup, a sex offender with a huge knife and some very strange fixations. Julia catches up, tackles Jessup, and is taken hostage while Liv runs for help.

The book then jumps to nearly a year later.  Julia is in therapy, trying to remember what happened during the time of her captivity, and Liv is self-destructing with a violent new boyfriend, drugs, and an eating disorder. The press is gearing up to hound Julia for more juicy sound bites on the anniversary of The Event. And another girl’s body is found in the woods, but Donald Jessup has committed suicide months before, taking all of his secrets to the grave.  Julia is left as the one to try to figure out exactly what happened, and more importantly, why.

Adhering to my strict “no spoilers unless the book was really terrible and deserves it” policy, I’m not going to elaborate on the final outcome, other than to say that it caught me completely off-guard. I expected to be angry at [redacted] but ended up feeling pity and sorrow, along with hope for their future. That’s…. unusual for a genre in which the bad guy is always a nasty schemer with no conscience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s at least one of those (and oh what a piece of work they are!) but the humanity and empathy the author gives even her “bad” characters is unexpected, and quite lovely.

The opposite, yet equally compelling side of that is that the “good” characters have plenty of unlovely moments. Julia’s trauma often comes out as bitterness, anger, and sarcasm, and her mother, trying to protect her from further upset, usually just looks clueless and out of touch.

Another tasty little surprise was the author’s willingness to kill off her bad guy early on. It’s hard to build tension when the immediate threat is neutralized for pretty much the entire book, but Ms. Savage handled it so smoothly that Jessup’s absence was barely felt. It was a gutsy move that could have tanked the whole thing, but it worked.

My only real complaint with After The Woods was its large cast of minor characters. I get that the author was going for a claustrophobic small town vibe, but there were just too many students, teachers, parents, neighbors, newspersons, police, and even members of the clergy for a smallish book. Many of them only appeared in a scene or two, and could probably have been edited out or consolidated in some way. My sugar-soaked brain can only handle so many imaginary people in it before it rebels, especially right after the holidays.

All in all, however, After The Woods is a wonderfully layered novel. There’s the obvious surface mystery, but also so much more in the depths. I wasn’t expecting to see such nuanced examinations of friendships between high school girls, and mother-daughter relationships, and the ways in which we see and don’t see the people close to us.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and an old-school composition notebook. Great for nostalgia AND organizing one’s very dark thoughts.)

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