Violet, by Scott Thomas

Short Take: A loving ode to housework.

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

Good morning Nerdlings! I recently had a life-altering experience. I have apparently lived a whole lot of adult years without ever making oatmeal no-bake cookies, and now, I’m afraid, there’s no going back. These little chewy chocolate peanut butter flavor bombs may just be the perfect food. Breakfast? Sure! Dessert? Oh heck yeah. Quick energy snack when trying to power through a dull book? I’LL TAKE THREE. Unfortunately, my pants are not happy with my newfound love, but some books require copious amounts of sugar. Exhibit A: Violet.

The town of Pacington, Kansas used to be a tourist destination for one reason: the beautifully named Lost Lake, where summer visitors enjoy fishing, swimming, and boating in its crystal clear waters. However, Lost Lake didn’t always exist – it formed when a worker accidentally broke through an underground spring, and flooded part of the town, killing two workers. In recent years, however, the local economy hasn’t been great, the town is becoming more shabby than old-fashioned, and Pacington seems to be dying.

For Kris Barlow Lost Lake is much more than a pretty body of icy cold water with an odd roof sticking out of it. As a young child, it’s where her family spent idyllic summers until the final one, when her mother died an agonizingly slow death of cancer in the bedroom of their lakefront house. Kris’s father, grief-stricken, never returned to the house, choosing to let it rot rather than relive the memories of that last summer.

Now in her mid-40’s, after the sudden death of her husband, Kris decides to take her traumatized eight-year-old daughter Sadie to the lake house for a summer in hopes that the happy place of her own childhood will help Sadie heal from the loss of her own father.

Duckies, do I need to tell you that living near a drowned town rarely goes well for heartbroken children? 

What follows is a fairly cliche ghost story, told in an excruciatingly slow pace. We get two scenes of actual story, then literally 100 pages of Kris and Sadie cleaning the house. Sanding boards, dusting counters, and for some REAL excitement (I guess) washing windows.

The rest of Violet isn’t much better. Kris’s brain is flooding (see what I did there?) with things she sort-of remembers but would rather forget, but it’s nothing that a big heaping helping of prescription drug abuse won’t fix. Sadie is content to chill with her imaginary (suuuuuure) friend while Kris is mostly passed out in between washing bedding and making grilled cheese.

Whenever Kris and Sadie venture into town and interact with the locals, there are the obligatory hints that Things Are Not Right with Pacington, but these are few and far between. The characters themselves are little more than a loose assemblage of tropes – the eccentric guy, the tragic couple, the elderly woman who knows the local history.  But really, who needs a story when we can read about bracing a railing? 

It all leads up to your generic ghost story climax with flashing lightning and a struggle in the water, but by that point, I just wanted it to be over. Other than the main character being a veterinarian as opposed to a writer (seriously, why are protagonists in ghost stories always writers?) there was not one single aspect of this story that made it different from a few dozen others.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a grilled cheese, hold the Xanax. I will take the wine, however. And maybe one more oatmeal no-bake.)twohappyneurons

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The Hanged Man And The Fortune Teller, by Lucy Banks

Short Take: Existence is futile.

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

It occurs to me that a lot of my reading lately could be summed up with the word “overheated”. I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers in which the stakes are high, the romance is steamy, and the main character’s life is on the line at all times.

So I wasn’t really sure how to feel at first about Lucy Banks’ The Hanged Man and the Fortune Teller, because, for starters, the protagonist is already dead. We first meet The Ghost (his name is never given) in an internet cafe in 2017, as he watches a tortured young man compose email after email, trying to win back the love of his life. The Ghost doesn’t really understand the technology, but he remembers love, and it’s through his no-longer-existing eyes that we experience relationships through the last 140 years – good, bad, and in some cases, very ugly.

He’s accompanied by another spirit, the enigmatic fortune teller Agnes.  She remembers everything of life, while The Ghost remembers nothing – not his name or hers, not his wife or family, and nothing of his death.

Hanged Man is narrated entirely by The Ghost, but in two different timelines. We get to see his life in the last year or so leading up to his death, interspersed with his experiences from the present day backwards, as he finds himself tethered to various living people. He has no idea why or how he becomes attached to them, and as more time passes from his own death, he remembers less and less.

Slow-moving but written in a captivatingly poetic style, the author has pulled off one of the more fantastic tricks I’ve seen recently: a main character/narrator defined by an almost complete lack of traits. The Ghost can feel discomfort or sadness when in close proximity to the living who are feeling those things, but he has no emotions on his own behalf, no memories from which to draw reactions, only a vague sense of the person he was, a faint idea that he had a wife who he would like to find.

And after reading so many great thrillers populated by desperate, passionate characters, there is something soothing about the ghost’s detachment – a metaphysical cool hand on my sweaty little nerd-brow. 

The only less-great part was a scene where our Ghost observes a famous historical event. Sure, the timeline works, and when reading a story whose narrator died 140 years ago, a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary, but Hanged Man really works best when it’s focused on the small private moments that make up a life (or an afterlife). Seeing, for example, the effect of WWII bombings on a family works, but just watching something more tabloid-y, not as much.

Finally, I’ve never seen the Thames, but I hope it’s a lot cleaner now, because if not, I’m sorry, London. I live in the Rust Belt which has its own form of funk, but that stuff going on over there was straight nasty.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a cup of tea, of course)

A Nearly Normal Family, by M.T. Edvardsson

Short Take: A family drama trying to be Nordic noir.

Female cyclist riding without lights on a dark, foggy road.

I know I complained before about the lack of truly summery weather, but seriously y’all, WHERE IS SUMMER?? How am I supposed to read in the pool, or drink vodka on the patio, or do whatever else people do when they go outside (not super clear on that)?

I seriously want a do-over. This is road apples (keepin’ it clean for the Amazon censors).

There is one thing that was OK about this lousy weather though, and it’s that as I was reading A Nearly Normal Family, with its rich descriptions of Sweden’s autumn weather, I was legit pulling my own blanket tighter (in freakin JUNE for cryin out loud), and it made a somewhat difficult book a little bit better.

Eighteen year old Stella is a handful – drinking, smoking weed, sneaking out to party, and of course constantly fighting with her parents, well-respected defense attorney Ulrika and well-loved pastor Adam. But it’s still shocking when she is arrested for the murder of a wealthy businessman nearly twice her age.

What follows is a delicate balancing act, as Adam and Ulrika struggle with the most basic, primal impulse parents have: protect your child at all costs. And for Adam and Ulrika, the choices they will feel compelled to make are the hardest of their lives. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, what would happen if the pastor lied? Or if the hotshot defense attorney destroyed evidence?

And at the center of all the swirling turmoil is Stella, who won’t see or speak to either of them, who holds her own secrets and catastrophic choices.

The story is told in three parts, with Adam, Stella, and finally Ulrika each taking a turn telling their story. It’s that narrative structure that presents the first real issue I had, which is the glacial tempo of the story. At a hefty-ish 400 pages, I expected a slow burn, but it feels like a lot of padding with not much story. Every character is keeping secrets which is usually A-OK in my book, but there are just too many descriptions of one character wondering what another character is doing, and not enough of things actually happening.

Also, it could just be that the translation isn’t as effective as the original, but there’s a sense of reserve, a kind of formality and stiffness throughout the narration.  Even when someone was recounting something traumatizing and painful, I never really felt what they were feeling. There were no moments of levity, of these people who love each other just having fun and enjoying each other, making it hard to appreciate the importance of their relationships. Every interaction is ponderous and loaded with subtext, and drawn out just a few beats too long. Each major scene is repeated from different perspectives

In the end, All Is Revealed, but much of it was telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the book. I can’t help but feel that the author wanted to write only about the tension in this family, and someone convinced him that it should be a murder mystery, so he quickly sketched that out & threw it in at the last minute.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cider. I’ve decided to give up on summer, and go straight into autumn drinking.)

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Man of the Year, by Caroline Louise Walker

Short Take: I kind of hate how much I loved it.

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

Did I just recently say how glad I am that summer is finally here? I’m pretty sure I did, and I’m pretty sure I was, but I’m living right smack in the middle of a massive cicada swarm, and the noise is eating away at what’s left of my sanity. Not to mention the giant bug splats all over my car and being dive-bombed every time I leave the house. For being completely harmless, these things are the worst.  In other words, bring on some escapism, and hellllloooooo summer reading!

Dr. Robert Hart (Bobby to his fri– er, his only friend) is Master of his little universe. He’s just been elected Citizen of the Year in Sag Harbor. He has a beautiful (read: trophy) wife Elizabeth, a son, Jonah, who’s finally starting to make his own mark in the college world, and his assistant, Simone, keeps his lucrative medical practice running smoothly.

But all of Robert’s comfortable assumptions about his life and the world in general are thrown into disarray when Jonah’s friend Nick arrives to spend the summer in their guest house.

Nick – young, fit, handsome and smart – is in many ways the anti-Robert. He’s comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t feel the need to impress others. He’s interested in the thoughts and ideas of the people around him and encourages them to pursue the things that make them happy.

It infuriates Robert to see this interloper influencing Jonah to think for himself, and it’s even worse when it starts to look like Elizabeth may be offering Nick more than clean towels.

Robert isn’t a bad guy, not exactly. He’s not consciously cruel to people unless he feels threatened, he’s not violent or sociopathic, he’s just incredibly self-centered. To Dr. Robert Hart, everyone in his world is lucky to be there, and they are all there to make him look good. He has no theory of mind, it never occurs to him that other people exist outside of himself, that they have their own inner life, their own secrets and dreams, and most of all, that they may not see him the way he sees himself.

He’s a terrible lover, though. Ugh. There is NO excuse for being selfish on that front.

So what’s a man to do, when everything that has always worked for him, stops working? I can almost guarantee that most readers would never in a million years expect the plan he settles on, or the consequences of it.

Man of the Year was a strange read for me. The story itself, and the cast of supporting characters (Nick in particular) are pitch-perfect. The contrast between Robert’s high opinion of himself and the nagging insecurity that guides his actions is especially compelling.

But I loathed being inside his mind. Robert’s smug dismissal of others’ autonomy was infuriating. He was every chauvinist boss I’ve ever had, every grown-up frat-boy coworker, every straight white man who assumes that someone who isn’t all of those three things is automatically less-than. Even when he’s forced to acknowledge that someone like his son has a different view of the world, he chooses to see it as a rebellion against himself, because everything everyone in his life does is somehow about him.

So I’m torn on rating this one. When my biggest complaint is that it’s too realistic, and also impossible to put down, I guess it’s a pretty good book.

THE NERD’S RATING: Four Happy Neurons (and some fancy canapes, just because.)

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Quiet Places, by Jasper Bark

Short Take: Readers: “You can’t fit this much cool story & history into a hundred pages.” — Jasper Bark: “Hold my beer.”

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*Note – I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

Sometimes, I start reading a book and say to myself “Oh great, here we go again…” I’ve waxed eloquent (read: whined and complained) many times here about how overplayed most horror tropes are. And so I must confess, that when I read the prologue of Jasper Bark’s “Quiet Places”, I groaned inwardly a bit. Zombies, I thought. Here we go again with freakin zombies. I fully expected a rehash of the 1984 movie classic “Night of the Comet”, only probably without a delightful Valley Girl dress-up montage featuring Cyndi Lauper singing in the background (which, let’s face it, just isn’t done enough anymore).

I stuck with it though, because I’m a little OCD about finishing books, and WHOA. I don’t think it’s too spoiler-y to say that Quiet Places is most emphatically NOT about zombies. Or any other beastie that I can remember encountering before.

Quiet Places is the story of Sally McCavendish, and her partner David, who move to the tiny town of Dunballan in the Scottish Highlands after David inherits a beautiful estate and property. There’s more to David’s family legacy than Sally ever could have imagined, however, including a horrific beast, a talking spirit in the hedgerow, and an inter-generational curse, and Sally will have to go up against powerful forces she doesn’t fully understand to keep David’s soul (and their life together) intact.

The story unfolds through Sally’s eyes. As an outsider to the town, the family, and the complicated, conjoined history of both, she is always slightly off-center, never sure who she can trust, or what anyone’s intentions are. Mr. Bark does a fantastic job of giving the reader the same sense of being inside a kaleidoscope, with the ground constantly shifting underfoot. He deftly skips among multiple timelines, with chapters jumping back and forth between a few days, months, decades or centuries. There are delightful contrasts all around – the banality of a Tupperware box, for example, containing a bodily-fluid-soaked lure for a supernatural entity.

Quiet Places is surprisingly coherent for all that, and don’t let its short length fool you – there is a LOT of story here, and all of it is fascinating, especially the history and philosophical ideas. 

There’s just one small flaw that I noticed a few times throughout the book, and I’m honestly not sure if it is a deliberate style choice or an unconscious tic of the author’s, but I found it grating. Occasionally, when writing an otherwise fine descriptive passage, Mr. Bark dips into the second person. An example: “It ruffled the grass, rattled the hedges, and lifted Sally’s hair and skirt, but she couldn’t feel it on her skin, nor could she smell any of the scents that a wind such as this usually carried. It was almost entirely bodiless, you could see and experience its effects, but you couldn’t feel them.”

Something about the sudden appearance of “you” makes the writing feel less like a journey in the hands of a highly competent author (which it genuinely is, otherwise) and more like an essay written at lunchtime by a high school student who hopes the teacher won’t deduct points for the food stains on his paper. It’s a jolt out of the narrator’s head, a sudden shift in voice that interrupts the flow and the mood.

At the end of the day though, a great story is a great story, and it takes a lot more than a few grammatical quirks to keep me from craving more.

The Nerd’s Rating: Four Happy Neurons (and a thick juicy steak, hold the secret ingredients!)

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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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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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