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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Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

Short Take:  You know the high wire act where the guy rides a unicycle while juggling bowling pins that are on fire?  Ania Ahlborn did that.

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It was with great sadness that I heard of Ann Rule’s passing.  Her books were my first dip into the true crime genre, and The Stranger Beside Me is still one of the only books ever to actually keep me up at night.  So why am I writing this review instead of reviewing one of her works?  Because the main character of Within These Walls is also a true crime writer, and Ania Ahlborn has created a fascinating study of the writer’s relationship with his work.

To non-writers like me, telling a great story is a kind of magic, and I’ve heard many fiction writers say that part of them lives in the worlds they create.  So the logical conclusion becomes, what if the world you are writing about not only exists, but is terrifying and violent?  Can you live within that, and still keep your “real life” neat and orderly?  What if you feel like you have no alternative?  How far would you immerse yourself in that world to tell a great story, to write a career-making book?

Lucas Graham’s life is hitting the skids.  Once a best-selling true crime author, he’s watched his relationship with his wife go the way of his sales ranks: right into the toilet.  He can see his twelve year old daughter starting to drift away as well, and when he gets a letter from a death row inmate, it looks like just the rope that could save him from drowning.

And in pure horror-fiction tradition, Mr. Graham pays no mind to the idea that rope can hang you just as easily.

The letter he receives is from Jeffrey Halcomb, an enigmatic Charles Manson wannabe.  Thirty years ago, he formed his own little “family” consisting of neurotic rich girl Audra Snow and eight other people.  They all lived in Audra’s house, and they all died there.  Audra was murdered by Halcomb, and the rest of the family appeared to have committed suicide.  Halcomb was sent to death row, and kept his silence for decades, never revealing why the atrocity happened, until he writes to Louis.

Louis of course jumps at the chance to revive his career and possibly his relationship with his daughter.  He doesn’t think much of the catch, that they will have to move across the country to Pier Pointe, Washington, and live in the house where the deaths occurred for two months while he interviews Halcomb and writes his book.

But even when strange things start happening in the house, and more people involved in the case begin dying, Louis has to choose between his real life and his book.

This is another one of those books that’s hard to review, because I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s nearly impossible to say what was so cool about it without adding some detail.  So I’ll start by saying, I thought for sure that it would be a kind of predictable thriller, a Silence of the Lambs knockoff in which the criminal genius toys with the mind of the earnest person just trying to do their job.

And it wasn’t really like that at all.

I considered that it might go the way of the typical haunted house book, in which everyone makes it out alive and OK with maybe some nightmares.

Nope.

Don’t get me wrong:  there was some cat and mouse with Halcomb, and some haunting, but there was a lot more.  For one thing, Louis Graham is kind of an a-hole.  Yeah, I said it.  He’s self-absorbed and self-pitying, and that never looks good on anyone.  He’s too weak to be an antihero.  He seems to really want to fix his relationship with Virginia, but the siren song of his work never goes away.  What’s great is, even when you want to slap the hairs out of his nose, you still understand his choices for the most part.  He’s desperate, and that desperation is clouding his judgment badly.

We also get some really great characterization with Virginia, and especially with the tragic Audra Snow.  Interspersed with the present-day chapters, we see the events leading up to her death through her eyes, and the chapter names of these sections create an eerie countdown to her murder.

But the biggest surprise of all is in how Ms. Ahlborn handled the character of Jeffrey Halcomb.  I wanted so much more of this man, but we only get bits and pieces.  It’s a daring move, and one that could have failed and tanked the whole book.  But somehow, it works.  I wanted more, yes, but at the same time, I felt like I had seen almost enough, and sometimes, that’s plenty.

That’s not to say that Within These Walls is flawless.  The last few scenes before the epilogue felt a little messy and overcrowded, and pretty much every woman in this book is a victim or a villain.

But overall, this was a great surprise, and I did NOT see the end coming, which is my favorite kind of book.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some incense. Crazy cults love their incense.)

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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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Bonus Review: Tumble, by Allison M. Dickson

Short Take:  I’ll be sending the author my therapist’s bill.


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**Note:  I was given an advance copy of this story for review purposes.

Allison M. Dickson must be stopped.   I’ve followed her works for nearly two years now, and her powers are only growing.  Sooner or later, world domination is inevitable, and I shudder to think of what she will do then.

Tumble is the perfect example.  It’s a short story.  Oh, you may ask, how much damage can an author do in 8500 words?  The answer, my friends, is PLENTY.  Bah, you scoff (that is how you scoff, right?), it’s only a story, and not a very big one at that, surely it can’t inflict much damage to your psyche or emotions.  And you would be so very, very wrong.

Miranda is a housewife who is going through a quiet kind of hell.  It’s coming up on the 1-year anniversary of the death of her son,  Aaron, who died of a hideous, prolonged illness when he was thirteen.  Her husband, Tru, has dealt with the loss mainly by avoidance.  He’s always at work or some community activity, leaving her alone with their two-year-old son, Sam much of the time.

It’s bad enough, trying to be a mother to a child who’s still mostly a baby, while dealing with crushing grief.  But then something very strange begins to happen when Miranda is doing laundry.  Some of Aaron’s things start coming out of the dryer with the rest of the clean clothes, despite the fact that she had long since packed away, donated, or thrown out everything of Aaron’s.

Knowing that Tru will never believe her, Miranda begins obsessively watching the washer and dryer, documenting every item that goes in and comes out, even buying a Nanny Cam to make sure that every bit of evidence is saved.

And it is.

Tumble is a genre-buster.  It’s a horror story, no question, and the ending is as terrifying, sick, and shocking as anything I’ve read before.  But it’s also a story of a family collapsing in on its grief, of the black hole of loss that sucks in everything that matters.  When I read the part about the comic book artist, I actually teared up.

And that’s why Allison M. Dickson can not be allowed to continue writing.  I’m sorry, I understand that she’s immensely talented, and that not having any new AMD stories would probably leave a hole in the world of literature.  But my heart just can’t take the trauma she can inflict when she chooses.

Eventually, everyone will read her works, and we’ll all be crushed into emotionless shells of the people we were.  There will be hushed conversations by people with pale faces and watery eyes.

“Hey, did you read the new – “

“Yeah, man.  Yeah.  It was intense.”

“And the part where she….”

“Dude, don’t talk about it, ok?  It was rough.”

“Yeah, I hear you.  I don’t know if I can sleep tonight.”

“Me either.  Call me if it gets too bad.  We can watch The Exorcist or something to calm down.”

I fear for the future if she continues.  Horror is one thing, bring on the ghosts and gore, but when you take a scary story and use it to utterly break the reader’s heart, nothing good can come of it.  That kind of power can’t go unchecked.  Mark my words, this is the beginning of the end of life as we know it.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a Valium)

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