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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The Crimson Calling, by Patrick C. Greene

 

Short Take: A man’s reach should always exceed his grasp…
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Some of you may have noticed that I’m somewhat jaded when it comes to horror. I started reading Stephen King over thirty years ago, and I think I’ve seen just about everything the genre can do with the basic tropes: werewolves, vampires, ghosts, ghouls, psychotic killers, haunted houses, rabid animals, demonic possession, you name it, I’ve probably read it.

Which is why it’s genuinely exciting (and an absolute rare treat) for me to see a new author developing his considerable talents right before my eyes. Mr. Greene has a genuine gift for taking classic ideas, dusting them off, and displaying them in a way that lets their original beauty shine while still throwing a little something new and bold in with them.

Take The Crimson Calling. Now, vampires are tired, played-out, and have gone the way good music did, which is to say, what used to be a monster (musician) with teeth (guitar) is now a shiny, pretty teenager with a pout who might be a little edgy, but never really dangerous; always camera-ready, and never ever the least bit mean. Not so the vamps in Calling, and let me just give thanks for that from the bottom of my little nerd heart.

Ok, I’ve babbled about the vampires enough, I should probably tell a little bit of what the book is about. The setup is pretty fantastic. As I may have mentioned before, there are vampires in our world, and they pretty much live in secrecy. There are a few tantalizing allusions to The Great Vampire Eradication in the seventeenth century, but that’s about it as far as their history.

Our man character is Liv Irons, a former soldier who trained for special forces and has some pretty sweet fightin’ moves. She’s apparently now out of the service, and looking to start her life over somewhere quiet, working as a waitress in a small-town diner. Little does she realize that she’s going to be pulled into an entirely different direction.

The vampires are led by the Sanguinarian Council (and man I love that name), a group of ancient aristocrats and their queen. Meanwhile an elite, secret, and corrupt unit of the US military led by a woman named Devereaux is capturing vampires in hopes of creating a vampire army.  The council approaches Liv for help, whisking her away to their castle in Europe.

Unfortunately, this is where things get a bit murky. Don’t get me wrong, the vampires vs. military thing is excellent.. And Liv, as a character, is one of the best parts of this book. We get just enough of her story to really care for her, and some beautifully tantalizing hints that the supernatural elements go to other, even more fascinating places.  However, there’s just not enough meat with regards to the other characters, so when the blood starts flying (and oh, does it fly, and flow, and splatter, and spray, and gush, and…) it’s not as engaging as it should be.

The author’s focus is mainly on the conflicts, and in addition to several very detailed fight scenes throughout, the final third (!) of the book is one huge, sprawling battle scene. Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the occasional gratuitous violence in most of my chosen forms of entertainment, but I can’t help but feel as though Mr. Greene’s devotion to the subject is over the top.

It’s no secret that he is a truly gifted author, which is why it pains me to see his gift somewhat squandered here. While The Crimson Calling gets off to a great start, we’re left hanging on a lot of the things that would make the main characters interesting, and instead given a hundred pages of blow-by-blow details of which just-introduced-five-pages-ago character is hitting another character whose name we’ve seen a few times with a flying roundhouse lotus one-eighty or something.

I would’ve liked to see more of why Liv left the service, and I would’ve loved some backstory on Devereaux. The final paragraphs drop some hints about a potential sequel, and it may be one in which All Questions Are Answered.  And of course, since it’s Patrick Greene, I will read it, because at the end of the day even his misfires are pretty damn good, and it tickles me to no end to know that there is probably another great read on the horizon.
The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some garlic. Because even though the garlic thing is one vampire tradition that was never mentioned, garlic is delicious.)

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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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