Nightmare, With Angel by Stephen Gallagher

Short Take:  So much book, so little story.

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I think I need to stop reading “best of” lists.  Last time I was jonesing for something really good to read, I started googling “psychological thrillers” to see if there were any great authors out there I was missing out on.  Lo and behold, I found a huge list, hundreds of books that all looked really good, many by authors I had never tried.  I narrowed it down to about 25 or so that looked like the most fun, and dove in.  Nightmare, With Angel was my second one, and I am starting to think that the list writer never actually read the books they recommended.

Nightmare, With Angel (why does that comma in the title annoy me so much?) started to go down some interestingly dark paths, but consistently stopped short.  I don’t generally seek out mystery/horror novels just to read drawn-out descriptions of murder or torture or whatever, but I think that if you’re going to introduce the elements of murder or some kind of sadism into a story, you should at least explain what happened.  Especially if the book is over 600 pages.

The entire book can be summed up in just a few sentences.  I’ll avoid spoilers (even though everything is pretty telegraphed).  Ten-year-old Marianne lives with her father (Patrick) along the English coast.  Patrick’s days are spent trying and mostly failing to build a business that will support them.  He doesn’t care to spend too much time with his daughter, anyway.  Marianne spends most of her non-school time exploring the beach with her dog Rudi.

One day, Marianne and Rudi are exploring a sandbar when the tide comes in, stranding them and putting their lives in jeopardy.  The local junk-picker, Ryan, happens to wander by, and rescues them.

Ryan has A Secret Past, and so he tries to avoid Marianne, as he doesn’t want to be accused of anything.  But when things finally come to an ugly head with Patrick, she persuades Ryan to help her find her mother in Germany.  What follows is a long, drawn-out chase that takes place all over Germany.  Jennifer, an English police officer trying to make her way up the ranks, and Patrick, who suddenly realizes that Marianne is pretty much all he has, both go to Germany and join the police there in the hunt.

There are some revelations, some interesting twists, but Stephen Gallagher just couldn’t commit.  We learn that Marianne’s mother, Anneliese, was involved in some pretty twisted stuff, but we never really get into her head to see how she got from point A to point WTF.  Apparently, Ryan was accused of murder, and spent quite a few years in an institution, but we never get his explanation of what transpired, and never know for sure if he was the killer.  There’s also a human trafficking subplot that adds almost nothing to the story.

There’s little to no tension in the chase.  Ryan keeps Marianne safe from all of the horrors that might befall a young girl on her own.

The characters were also just bad.  Marianne is precocious almost to the point of absurdity.  Not only is she able to dig through her father’s private papers to figure out where to start the search for her mother, she’s also able to out-think virtually every adult around her.  She makes plans that are pretty meticulous, but when she has trouble meeting up with her mother, it never occurs to her to look for other relatives she remembers.

Her father, Patrick, is a first-class a-hole.  The minute he finds out that his wife is involved in something that he doesn’t understand and can’t accept, he grabs Marianne from school and leaves the country with her.  No trying to talk to his wife to find out what is going on exactly, if she was being coerced or forced in some way, no trying to get her away from these awful things.  Nope, just take the kid, run, and proceed to neglect the kid for years on end.  He nurtures his grudge far more carefully than his daughter.

I think we’re supposed to think that Ryan is some kind of saint who just really really wants to atone for his past mistakes, but he lets a ten year old talk him into running away to another country.  He then spends weeks on the run with her – despite his frequent indications that he only has her best interests at heart.  He’s resourceful enough to get information from seemingly impossible situations when the plot calls for it, but not enough to make sure they have a decent place to sleep or enough food.

Nightmare, With Angel seemed to be trying to be about a broken family that goes through a crisis and is able to heal itself, but all I could think when reading it was that all of these people would be much better off if they just stayed far, far away from each other.

The Nerd’s Rating:  ONE HAPPY NEURON

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Night Visions, by Thomas Fahy

Short Take:  A book about insomnia that is also a cure for it.

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Sleep and I have had a long and difficult relationship.  There are family legends about three-year-old me getting out of bed to go exploring in the middle of the night.  Every night.  It reached the point that my dad would sleep in a recliner in my bedroom doorway to catch me as I went cruising past.  It didn’t get much better as I got older, and it’s still not unusual for me to get up at 2 AM, read for a while or watch a movie, and maybe, eventually, pass back out for an hour or so before work.

What I’m getting at is that I’m pretty familiar with insomnia, and the havoc it causes with, well, pretty much every aspect of life.  So when I was perusing a list of psychological horror and saw Night Visions, I figured I would love it.

I didn’t.

Night Visions is a big sprawling mess of a book.  There are two stories happening here.  One is the present-day story of Samantha and Frank, two former lovers who are trying to solve a disappearance-turned-murder in the present day.  Samantha has severe insomnia and is taking part in an experimental treatment which seems to have two pretty lousy side effects:  she is having horrific visions of murder scenes, and the people involved in the study are being murdered.

The second plot, interwoven throughout, is the story of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and a curse surrounding its creation? Maybe?  The details are a little vague.  But the gist of it is that the curse is passed on when a cursed person’s blood is mixed with their victim’s, and it causes the person who is cursed (cursee?) to murder people while sleepwalking.  So there were like a dozen scenes of people trying to commit murder and managing to get stabbed themselves. There were so many secondary characters in these scenes, and the time jumped around so much, it was hard to keep it all straight.

There were also a lot of references to the death of St. Peter, but I’m not really sure how it tied in to the rest of the story.  Some of the victims were killed in a similar way, but it seemed really random and meaningless to the rest of the story.   For all it added, the various possessed murderers could’ve been performing a live-action game of Clue.  There’s also the insomnia angle, but again, not sure how that plays in.  Does the curse only affect people who have it?  And does the music make the cursed people start killing, or is part of the curse just that you really really like the Variations?

The present-day stuff wasn’t much more coherent.  The time period seems to be all over the place.  People use cell phones, and it seems like there’s at least one meeting that happens over Skype, but crime scene photographers are still using the kind of flash bulbs that pop.  Sam and Frank are not police officers, have absolutely no authority to be involved in any investigation, but are able to go into multiple crime scenes and poke around.  I’m not a cop, but I watch a lot of SVU, and that seems like a pretty big no-no.

So we have a couple dozen characters, and a lot of murders, and a curse, and a piece of music, and St. Peter, and Sam and Frank and visions that don’t seem to serve any purpose at all other than to provide an opportunity to describe a murder scene twice.  Oh, and an ending that was a pretty obvious sequel set-up, but I don’t know where the author could possibly go from here.

Thomas Fahy clearly had a lot of cool ideas, but I think this book would have been much better if he had used less of them, and developed them more thoroughly.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Above, by Isla Morley

Short Take:  Half of a really great book.

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I saw Above on another reviewer’s “Best of 2014” list, and the premise intrigued me.  I had read both Room by Emma Donoghue and Jaycee Dugard’s autobiography, and really loved both of them.  They stuck with me, and made me really think about what I would do in that situation, made me wonder how many young girls are going through something similar right this minute, and managed to make me feel hopeful and heartbroken all at once.  So of course, I was excited to dive into this one.

Let.  Down.

Blythe Hallowell is just 16 when she’s kidnapped by Dobbs Hordin, a religious fanatic, survivalist, doomsday prepper, conspiracy theorist, and all-around creepster of a guy, who just happens to own a missile silo in the middle of Kansas.  He imprisons Blythe in the silo, and keeps her there for 18 long years.

During that time, she gives birth to a son, Adam, and constantly tries to figure out how to escape.  Also during that time, Dodds gets crazier and crazier.  Whenever he goes into the silo to visit or bring supplies, he rants about the apocalypse that has happened.

Eventually, Blythe and Adam escape the silo, and that’s where the second half of the book begins – Above.

The first half is great.  Every time Blythe came close to escaping, I held my breath, and felt a wave of disappointment and frustration every time it didn’t happen.  She’s a great character – her reactions and motivations are realistic and very little about the first half of the book feels contrived.  Well, aside from that whole missile-silo-with-all-the-trimmings thing.

It’s also kind of wonderful seeing Adam’s reactions to the outside world for the first time, like the way he has to pick up a bit of everything he sees, and his fixation on keys and what they mean.

But once Blythe and Adam got out of the silo, the book tanked for me.  As long as they are being held prisoner, there is hope and conflict and a very realistic struggle.   When Blythe is trying to outmaneuver Dodds, there’s tension and excitement.

Once they go Above, however, the whole thing just takes a turn into the meandering and depressing and purposeless.    I don’t want to give away the main reason it was so bad.  It’s a pretty big spoiler.  Let’s just say, there’s something major, but it isn’t enough. There’s no doubt that Ms. Morley is talented, but I think she might have bitten off more than she could chew.   The main conflict is gone, and no matter how imaginative the set pieces are, there’s just not enough heart anymore.  Blythe and Adam go from place to place, and situation to situation, and none of it really seems to matter very much.

There are some cool chase scenes and the like, and a few interesting characters, but overall… meh.  There’s no really happy ending, no real resolution to the one final question, no real sense of having been through something along with the characters (really good books do that to me).

The second half also suffers from following the amazing first half.  There’s a pretty good chance that most second halves would suffer by comparison.

 

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Short Take:  Mary Kubica should have quit while she was ahead.

So, I saw that The Good Girl was getting a lot of buzz, and a lot of comparisons to Gone Girl, so I figured I’d give it a try.  I kind of wish I hadn’t.

The Good Girl is the story of Mia Dennett, (daughter of prominent judge James Dennett), who is kidnapped by Colin Thatcher.  The story is told through the eyes of Mia’s mother (Eve), Colin, and the detective who can’t rest until he finds her, Gabe Hoffman.  The narrative jumps back and forth in time, taking place both before and after Mia’s rescue.

Colin’s job was simple.  He was to snatch Mia and deliver her to underworld boss Dalmar, for which he would be paid five thousand dollars.  However, once he meets Mia, and she drunkenly agrees to go home with him, he finds that he can’t just turn her over to the hardcore criminal who will likely kill her.  Instead, he goes on the run with her.  They hole up in a secluded cabin in Minnesota, where they have to fight for survival in the freezing cold.

Mia is eventually rescued, but it’s not exactly a happy ending.  The Mia who is returned to her mother is not the Mia who was taken.  She insists that her name is Chloe, and she has no memory of anything that took place during her captivity.  She’s nearly mute, and terrified of everything.  We gradually learn what took place during the long, cold weeks in the cabin, how it ended, and how it all came about.

Sometimes, I’ll read a story, and immediately dislike it, but as I think about it, it makes more sense, and grows on me.  The Good Girl is the opposite – the more I think about it, the worse it gets.

The last few pages ruin the whole story.  For one thing, a shocker-twist ending really only works if there are some hints along the way (even if they are subtle ones) as to what really happened.  The Good Girl’s final reveal felt tacked-on, and made absolutely no sense in light of all that had come before.  In fact, it was an insult.  It was like “Hey?  You know alllllll those chapters that take place in the freezing cabin, where Mia and Colin were hiding from the boogeyman?  Yeah, just ignore all that, ok?”

Oh, there’s a brief mention of Stockholm Syndrome, but rather than explain everything, it just highlights how far you have to strain to make this story at all credible.  There are other “are you serious?” moments as well.  I mean, how many career criminal mastermind types leave voice mails for their accomplices directly referencing the crime they are committing?  How many upper-class, highly-connected people who commit crimes go immediately to jail, without dragging it out for months or years?  Don’t get me started on Gabe’s love interest at the end and how very little sense it made.

And the characters.  Eve’s a martyr, Gabe’s a saint, Colin is the Bad Boy With A Heart of Gold, James is a heartless power-hungry jerk, and Mia is the poor little rich girl who has everything but love.  They are all one-dimensional.  There’s even a bit of casual racism thrown in.

Mary Kubica had a lot of potential with this one, and I think that’s what frosts my buns the most.  The setup was good, the weird way the first three-quarters played out was almost a brand-new take on the hostage thriller, and I liked the Chevy Stevens-ish way the author mixed up the timeline.  But it was like someone told her that a book wouldn’t sell without a twist ending, so she went “Ok, FINE, here’s a twist ending” and added it without ever editing any of the rest of the book.  What a letdown.

The Nerd’s Rating:  ONE HAPPY NEURON

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Beautiful You, by Chuck Palahniuk

Short Take:  Chuck, you little scamp!

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I’ve been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk for a long time.  I can’t remember which book of his I read first, but I’ve read most of them.  With each book, I got the sense that Palahniuk wanted to tell a good story, but more than that, he wanted to provoke a reaction.  The story was a means to an end, the end being POW!  Gotcha!  I mean, look at Haunted.  On the surface, it was a straight gross-out gorefest, but it was also a satire of pretentious “I must suffer to create greatness” art types.  And in that respect, it was funny.  (I still haven’t forgiven him for Guts though.)

What I’m trying to say is that most of Palahniuk’s books I’ve read have lived on two levels.  There’s the first, obvious, “Hey, check out THIS craziness!”, and there’s a deeper theme.  Usually the deeper part is submerged under some bizarre situation taken to its just-beyond-logical conclusion, making you think “oh, this could never happen”, but when you look closer, there’s this little kernel of the world as it actually is, and suddenly, it doesn’t seem so crazy.  Look at Fight Club.  A bunch of guys bare-knuckle fighting to blow off steam is nothing new.  Having that evolve into an anarchist cult of bombers and arsonists is insane.  But when you think of how far some guys will go to prove their manliness (shooting up schools, running their car into a group of women), it’s something a little deeper.

I had these ideas firmly in mind when I started reading Beautiful You.  It’s a typical Palahniuk tale, starting off with the normal-ish: billionaire C. Linus Maxwell seduces plain-Jane Penny and spends a few months testing out his new line of Beautiful You sex toys for women with her very enthusiastic help.  She has a great time, he ends the relationship but gives her a very generous trust fund to remember him by, and the products are released to the general public.

From there, the story becomes pure CP.  There are warning signs that the toys may be more than just a fun occasional diversion, as virtually every woman in the world becomes addicted to them.  There are riots over battery shortages, the elderly and young children are left to fend for themselves, desperate men roam the streets in search of hot meals and clean shirts.

But it’s not exactly a picnic for the women either.  They are ignoring meals, hygiene, jobs, families, and virtually everything else in their lives.   So it falls to Penny to stop Maxwell, and restore civilization.

I wanted to love Beautiful You.  I read a few other reviews pointing to its misogyny, but I disregarded them.  I mean, most of Palahniuk’s female characters are terrible, but so are most of his male characters.  There was just no getting around it in this one though.  Early on, when Penny is meditating on feminism and how much it sucks, I was actually fairly offended.  Fiction usually doesn’t have that effect on me, but it REALLY annoys me when a man (like CP) feels the need to explain the failings of feminism.  Strike One.

Then there’s alllllllllllll the sexual content.  I mean, sure, a book about sex toys is going to have plenty of naughty content, but most of it wasn’t fun, or naughty, or even sexy at all.  It all felt like it was written by an overheated teenage boy “Hey, watch what this chick will put in her you-know-what!”  I know, it’s just Chuck going for the reaction, but it got old after a while.

In fact, I just realized what it reminded me of.  Most of the plot of Beautiful You revolves around women who are being controlled via sexual arousal.  Didn’t Dirk Diggler do the same thing in one of the movies in Boogie Nights?  That’s it.  Chuck Palahniuk has become Dirk Diggler.

There may have been more to it.  It seemed like there was a lot of intended subtext and some more interesting themes, like our consumer-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture, but in the end, it felt like Chuck regressed to a small child, streaking through the house to get a reaction from the adults.

And just as I would say to the naked kid, I feel like responding, “That’s nice dear.  Go put your pants on.”  Beautiful You was a resounding Meh.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Breed, by Chase Novak

Short Take:  Stick with teen romance.


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Chase Novak is a pseudonym of Scott Spencer, better known for his novel Endless Love, among others.  I don’t know why he’d use a pseudonym for a horror novel, as anyone who has read Endless Love can attest to a certain horrifyingly graphic scene.  Be that as it may, I just couldn’t get in to Breed.

Breed begins with a well-to-do New York couple, Alex and Leslie Twisden, who are suffering from infertility.  Neither of them is getting any younger, and although many of the most expensive treatments have failed, they decide to take one last, desperate chance.  They fly to Slovenia to meet with Dr. Kis, a man who has had remarkable success with his unorthodox treatment methods.

It seems fairly pedestrian at first, a couple of injections, and they are free to go.  Leslie becomes pregnant right away, and they are ecstatic.  However, this being a horror novel, there’s a price to pay for their happiness.  Soon, they both begin changing, becoming hairier, angrier, and hungrier.

The second act picks up 10 years later, when their twins finally get tired of being locked up every night (not to mention their disappearing pets, and the awful noises from the basement), and run away.  Most of the rest of the book is the parents hunting their children, and the children trying to escape.  They are aided by Michael Medoff, a teacher at the exclusive school they attend, as well as Rodolfo, leader of a group of “wild children” who live in abandoned properties and Central Park, and have dark secrets of their own.

The final act is the desperate race for a cure, a sacrifice, and a possible sequel set-up.

I just didn’t enjoy this book. The premise wasn’t terribly original – a mad scientist turning people into monsters dates at least as far back as Mary Shelley.  I can’t say that it dragged, exactly, the last ¾ of the book is pretty much one giant chase scene, but it just didn’t feel that exciting.  With the exception of the teacher, Mr. Medoff, none of the characters was particularly likeable, and none of them at all were interesting.  The child protagonists had no real personalities.  So when one of the characters is in danger, the reader’s reaction is along the lines of “meh”.

The plot also felt formulaic.  For example, in EVERY horror novel involving children, the kids have to face the evil alone.  The police don’t believe them, and the only adult who does is usually discredited for some reason (he’s the town drunk, or a veteran with PTSD, or, in this case, gay).  However, this time, an adult actually calls the police from inside the house where the parents have committed the unspeakable acts.  The police show up, and for no apparent reason, arrest the adult who called it in.  That was when the book just broke for me.

Completely disregarding logic and sound storytelling JUST for the sake of upholding a formula that is already beyond tired is ridiculous.  Every single plot point seemed to follow a template that has been done to death.  A bad story can be saved with interesting characters, or some kind of fun, original premise, or a sense of humor in the dialogue.  But when all of that is lacking, you get Breed.


The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Kate Gosselin: How She Fooled the World, by Robert Hoffman

Short Take:  Kate Gosselin is a terrible person.  So is Robert Hoffman.  Both of them are also terrible writers.

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I’m not much of a gambler.  But I do love my Steelers.  So when a friend suggested that they MIGHT lose to the Eagles, OF COURSE I said “I’ll bet you ANYTHING (except money cause I’m cheap) that they win!”  

So the deal was, if Pittsburgh won, I would have to read and review a book I did NOT want to read, let alone review, and if Philly won, my friend would actually read a book.  Congratulations, M., you won fair and square.  Enjoy.

I’ll admit, when Jon & Kate + 8 first came on TLC, I was absolutely charmed by it.  The children were all adorable, Jon was clueless but loving, and Kate was trying to hold it all together and losing at times due to the stress – hey, who wouldn’t??

But then it morphed into something darker and uglier.  Like the rest of America, I watched as this sweet family story began to unravel.  Jon was cheating, Kate was an overbearing, nasty, joyless shrew who didn’t really like her kids that much, they were getting a divorce, and all of it played out on TV, in the tabloids, and across the internet for all the world to see.   It was morbidly fascinating and depressing at the same time, the proverbial train wreck we couldn’t look away from.  Were it not for the kids caught in the middle of all of it, it would’ve been just another all-American freak show, where ordinary people are granted some degree of fame and fortune, spiral out of control, and become another reality-tv cautionary tale.

But the unfortunate fact is that there were eight (EIGHT!!) innocent children at the heart of all of it, eight beautiful kids with broken hearts and a broken home.  Their mom was in ever more desperate pursuit of new ways to hold onto her fame, and their dad was an overgrown adolescent too busy partying and getting laid to deal with them.  How did this happen?  I was more than a little curious to see exactly what had unfolded behind the scenes, so I thought that this book might actually be a little bit interesting.

I was wrong.

For starters, I thought this would be a biography.  There is an opening chapter or two briefly outlining Kate’s early life, then it’s just paraphrased journal excerpts, and the author’s opinions of them.  Yes, Robert Hoffman got a hold of Kate’s private journals by going through her trash.  I suppose there’s something poetic about Kate’s trash being turned into this trash.

Robert Hoffman’s editorializing is horrendous.  Reading a grown man repeatedly say nasty things about a woman (even if she is no saint herself) just feels icky.  Some examples:

(after a list of entries in which Kate claims that God has provided this or that to her family) “No wonder the whole world is so screwed up. God is spending all of His time taking care of Kate Gosselin.”

“Kate called her kids boring because they didn’t do anything interesting like the trained monkeys they usually behave like apparently.”

And so on.  There’s a lot more, but I can’t bring myself to skim back through it.  Why not just state the facts & let readers sort it out for themselves?  If she’s that bad, it’ll be obvious, no need to add your own sarcasm to it.  This is a 500+ page burn book written by a teenage Mean Girl.

Hoffman writes quite a lot about his gut feeling that Kate is lying about trying to conceive sextuplets because she “protests too much”, in other words, she says over and over again that she wanted JUST ONE MORE child.  Meanwhile, he states over and over again that he has no interest in damaging Kate’s reputation, and that he verified everything he wrote over and over again, that he’s only telling the truth for the children and that even though Jon’s a good friend of his, he would tell the truth even if it made Jon look bad.   I couldn’t help but wonder if he was protesting too much.

For example, there were lots of words devoted to the fact that Kate didn’t try to stop her Twitter followers, fans, etc. to stop insulting Jon.  However, there’s not one sentence stating that Jon asked people to stop insulting Kate.  Robert Hoffman wrote a good 80 pages about Kate going tanning & getting her nails done, but barely mentioned Jon sleeping around and partying in Vegas.

The whole book is a mess.  It’s not organized in any coherent way, whole chapters seem to have been repeated several times, and the misspellings are plentiful.  For a man who mocked Kate Gosselin’s spelling (in her private journals no less), you’d think Hoffman would’ve learned the difference between roll and role at some point.   

There are long, drawn-out descriptions of the abuse Kate inflicted on her kids and pets.  There are painful recaps of the scenes in the show where the children’s privacy was violated over and over when they were sick, on the toilet, exhausted, upset, and so on.  It’s painful to read.  The worst part of all is that apparently it’s bad to exploit the Gosselin children for money, unless you are Robert Hoffman.  I must’ve missed the part where he took all of this information on child abuse to CPS, or pledged the profits of the book to child abuse charities.  How exactly does this book help the kids AT ALL??

Seriously, I wonder if Robert Hoffman and Kate Gosselin conspired to write this book together, drum up some controversy, and split the profits.  


The Nerd’s Rating:  One Happy Neuron.  I really need to get some sad ones, this might be the worst thing I’ve ever read.

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