Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier

Short Take:  Way more than I bargained for. In a good way.
36315374

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

When is a punishment enough? Like, say you steal a bag of Doritos from the local convenience store, because you’ve had a few adult beverages and you forgot your wallet when you walked over and you had REALLY bad munchies and it was snowing so you didn’t want to walk back home and get your wallet, so you managed to smuggle them out under your coat without being caught.

But then when you get home and start to chow down on some delicious, illicit, chemical dusted fried corn product, you find that you just can’t do it. Oh you still have the munchies, all right, but you feel bad for having taken them, and you just don’t want them the way you thought you would.

Is that punishment enough? Or should there be fines, jail, public humiliation?

It’s an interesting question on a much larger scale in Jar of Hearts, which opens with Georgina Shaw (Geo to her friends), age 30, testifying in court about the role she played in the murder of her best friend Angela when the girls were 16. You see, Geo’s first love was none other than Calvin James, a serial killer who began his career with Angela, and then skipped town and went on to murder three other women, while Geo helped to hide the body and lied to protect them both.

Angela’s remains stay buried, and Geo goes on with her life as best she can, until 14 years later, when both Angela’s bones and the truth about that night come to light. Geo admits to her role in the crime, and is sentenced to five years in prison. Calvin is sentenced to prison for life, but escapes almost immediately.

And shortly before Geo’s release, new victims start turning up, practically in her backyard. It looks like Calvin never forgot his first love either, and is coming back for her.

So…. punishment. Although Geo doesn’t go to prison for well over a decade after Angela’s murder, her life in that time isn’t exactly unicorns and rainbows. Her time in prison is about as bad as you’d imagine. (Worse, if your imagination isn’t as messed up as mine). And when she gets out, well, some pretty awful things continue to happen. Her father’s home is vandalized repeatedly, and mistakes from her past continue to rise up and torment her, plus there’s that whole “being stalked by a serial killer” thing, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all.

I wanted to feel sympathetic towards Geo. Surely, I imagine, this poor girl has suffered for like 20 years for something she did when she was 16. I was an IDIOT at 16, and every day, I’m grateful that there was no internet back then or digital cameras or anything else that would serve as a record of my idiocy. Hell, EVERYONE is an idiot at 16. How long should she be punished for what she did (and just as importantly didn’t) do? The court decided that 5 years in prison was punishment enough. The residents of her small town decided that heaping scorn on her after that was necessary.

And there’s a terrifying man who wants to punish her more than anyone for [spoiler].

Is it enough? Does Geo deserve to have a life with love and happiness and whatever else comes to people who weren’t involved in murder?

The truth is, I don’t know. Jar of Hearts surprised me with how thought-provoking a sexy, twisty, violent little thriller could be. My feelings for Geo whiplashed between pity and disgust, between admiration and contempt.

There’s obviously more to any book than the main character, of course, and although the other characters weren’t fleshed out to nearly the same degree, the pacing was exceptional, and the writing itself was smart and engaging. It says something that although I was able to figure out what was happening about two thirds of the way through, I still couldn’t put it down, and I’m so glad I kept going – the ending is seriously WHOA.

Jar of Hearts is my first book by Jennifer Hillier, but I can safely say that it won’t be my last.

 

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some cinnamon candy. Bring the heat!)

Loved this book!!

Advertisements

After Anna, by Lisa Scottoline

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

34964864

*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)

 

fourhappyneurons

The New Neighbors, by Simon Lelic

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

51e2haask5l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

*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!!

The Method, by Duncan Ralston

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

35098642._UY500_SS500_[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fourhappyneurons

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

Short Take:  Y’all can stop looking, I have found the new Gone Girl.

Image result for shari lapena couple next door

Yes, I’m back after a long hiatus consisting of mental misfires, dodgy doldrums, and a dearth of reading material that tickled my giblets enough to make me want to write reviews. Until now. As much as I’ve railed against every publisher blurb that promises me “It’s the next Gone Girl!”, I should have guessed that at some point I would eat my words.

So here I am, choking down my many many MANY statements that no other book could possibly be anything like Gone Girl. I will still sleep with my homemade Gillian Flynn doll, however, because the book gods giveth and the book gods taketh away and I ain’t taking any chances.

On its surface, the premise of The Couple Next Door is entirely different than the aforementioned Gone Girl. Anne and Marco, a lovely, upper-upper-upper middle class couple are at a dinner party at the home of their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham. Cynthia has made it very clear that this was to be an adults-only party, so when Anne & Marco’s sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to leave their 6 month old baby by herself. After all, they reason, we’ll be right next door, we have the baby monitor, we will take turns checking on her every half hour, she’ll be sound asleep the whole time anyway. What could go wrong?

It should probably go without saying that PLENTY could go wrong.

Marco checks on Cora at 12:30, and tells Anne that all is well, but when the couple go home at 1 AM, the baby is gone.  And what follows is one of the most deliciously twisty mysteries I’ve read in quite some time. Everyone wants something out of this case: Anne and Marco want their baby back. Detective Rasbach wants to figure out what happened and to find Cora.  The media wants to salivate over the fact that the baby was home alone and that Anne is being treated for postpartum depression. But above and beyond all other motives and goals, everyone wants to keep their own dirty secrets tucked safely away.

We get point-of-view chapters from Marco, Anne and the detective, as well as the occasional bits from other characters, including Cynthia. All of these characters are portrayed with a surprising amount of depth. My favorite was the detective. He’s seen too much in his career, and it’s made him jaded and cynical, but he still wants to believe that someone, anyone, is telling him the truth in all this. Yet he never lets himself quite believe anything he’s told. You really get a sense of how exhausting it must be to live like that, day in and day out. Beautifully done.

There are a few overused themes in Couple Next Door. Namely, Everyone Has Secrets. Nobody Can Be Trusted. And so on. But I have to add that for every reveal that I saw coming, there were at least three that I didn’t. And although many of the characters were unlikable at times, you also got the sense that their humanity was intact, that sometimes the wrong decision feels like the only one.

And the best part? On the amazon page for this book, NOT ONCE was it called “The Next Gone Girl.” So maybe, just maybe, publishers will stop using that line. Everyone wins!

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a duffel bag full of unmarked bills. Cause who couldn’t use one of those?)

Loved this book!!