Temper, by Layne Fargo

Short Take: Frailty, thy name is woman!! (or not)



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

Y’all, this is where I would usually say something catchy, followed by a super-clever segue into whatever I’m reviewing, but you know what? This book has left me with my mouth hanging open and my usual sparkling wit has left the building. It’s that freakin good. So… uh… let me just tell you about the book, k?

Malcolm Mercer has a Reputation. He’s known in the Chicago theater world for two things: making incredible art, and driving his cast members to nervous breakdowns. That’s not an exaggeration. He believes that in order to portray a character most effectively, the actor needs to feel the anger, pain, humiliation, or whatever other awful emotion the character feels, and if the actor doesn’t already have issues, Malcolm is more than happy to give them some.

His biggest supporter/enabler is Joanna Cuyler. Their relationship is… complicated. She’s obsessed with him, but they aren’t lovers. They are equal partners in the business, but he makes all the major decisions. They have a shared living space, but separate lives. It’s an intensely combustible situation, needing only the barest hint of a spark to explode.

Enter Kira.

She’s a cliche struggling actress when she auditions for Malcolm and Joanna, for the starring role in their upcoming production of Temper (more on that in a minute). But she’s also a deeply hurt and angry person, an expert at keeping people at arm’s length even while she’s seducing them, in making sure anyone who loves her hates her a little too.

In other words, she’s like catnip to Malcolm.

And when these three come together, it’s more like waves of boiling oil than sparks flying – sometimes unintended targets are hit, and the scalding burns just keep deepening. Each of them has their own ends, their own means, their own secrets, and their own detonation switches. Each of them wants to destroy and/or overpower at least one of the others. And I am wildly in love with all of them.

Our leading ladies, Joanna and Kira, are our narrators, and it’s definitely been a minute since I’ve been treated to such incendiary female voices. Ms. Fargo’s characters are perfectly imperfect, passionate even in the ugliest of ways, and so very real. Joanna, in particular, is an accurate (if stinging) reflection of the ways women frequently make unkind snap judgments of one another, and how wrong and hurtful those things usually are.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unofficial fourth main character – the play itself. Temper, a two-person production about a toxic marriage, is a debut work by a playwright nobody’s heard of. Its scenes of raw vitriol are a catalyst and a catharsis for all three of them, their own most deeply buried impulses on display for the world to see.

And oh, my darling nerdlings, what an incredible ride it is. These beautiful, passionate, talented people are stripped down to their ugliest, most primal core, raging against the man pulling the strings even as they are destroying themselves to win his approval.

I still don’t have anything clever to say. Just read this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a ticket to my local community theater, cause hoo boy, I’m craving some drama right now!)

Loved this book!!

Sleep Tight, by Rachel Abbott

Short Take:  There are a lot of reasons not to read this book.


I read this book in less than a day.  It’s really a fast read, and not because it’s skimpy on content.  No, you should definitely not read this book if you don’t like a meaty novel.

Olivia Brookes has had a weird life.  When her daughter Jasmine is just two months old, Olivia’s lover (and Jasmine’s father) Danush disappears.  A few weeks later, both of her parents die.  She manages to move on, marry a man named Robert, and have two more children.  Then Robert disappears with the children.

She calls the police, he eventually comes back.  Then Robert has to call the police in two years later when Oliva vanishes with the kids, leaving behind her purse, phone, car, everything that would indicate she had left of her own free will.  Every single picture of her and the children is gone, and there’s been a large amount of blood cleaned up in the house.

Tom Douglas is the detective investigating the disappearances.  He’s smart, driven, and determined to solve this case, as is his partner Becky.  Both are dealing with personal issues, and getting more and more tangled in the complicated trail that the disappearance of Olivia and the children follows.

This book isn’t for everybody.  I mean, if you prefer your characters to be poorly written and lacking depth, then yeah, skip this.

If you like your villains to be cartoon bad guys, or horror-movie monsters, this is totally not for you.  The bad guy in this one is frighteningly realistic.  He’s just smart and obsessive enough to carry out his plans, and still seem like an ordinary guy.

And the pace!  There are a lot of people who like their stories to move slowly, to be able to savor all the nuance and detail, to plod steadily to the ending.  They should definitely not read this book.  It moves at a surreal speed, breathless even.

The plot itself is not for people who like straightforward, easily understood narratives.  There are a lot of twists and turns, with new information and revelations hitting from many directions.

If you’re the kind of person who gets emotionally invested in characters, and your heart starts speeding up when they are in danger, and you hate that, skip Sleep Tight.

Some books use over-the-top gore in place of building real tension via small doses of carefully targeted violence.  If blood and guts with no real purpose is your thing, you’ll hate this.  Seriously.

And finally, if you’re the kind of person who has other things to do, you should probably just walk away from this one.  You won’t get anything done until you finish it.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS


Bonus Review: Tumble, by Allison M. Dickson

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


**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)


Rereading a favorite: Mind of Winter, by Laura Kasischke

Short Take:  Beautiful, brilliant, just a little too long.


This review is a little different, as I’m writing it based on a re-read of a book I was blown away by earlier this year.  I wanted to see if it would hold up to a second reading, knowing the final twist.  I have to say, yes it did.  It’s a credit to the author that her ability to build tension (and her style, let’s not forget her breathtaking way with words) still holds, even knowing the truth.

It’s Christmas morning, and Holly and her husband Eric have overslept.  She awakens abruptly, with a thought that keeps pounding in her head and won’t let go:  Something has followed them home from Russia.  A failed writer, Holly wants nothing more than to find a quiet corner, and a pen and paper, and write it down, examine and understand it, but she can’t.  Eric has to rush to the airport to pick up his parents, and Holly needs to get Tatiana to help her make Christmas dinner for the house full of company they are expecting.

Tatiana is their daughter, adopted from Russia at 22 months old.  She’s now a 15 year old beauty, with exotic black hair and eyes.  Her skin is so pale and her lips are so dark that both of them appear to have a bluish cast at times.  In many ways, she’s a typical teenager, angry then sulking then laughing then crying, sometimes in the space of a few minutes.

But there’s more to Tatiana than it would appear.  When Eric must take his parents to the hospital instead of home, and a blizzard keeps everyone else away, Holly and Tatiana are left with only each other – and with whatever may have followed them home from Russia.

It’s a tense, claustrophobic, nerve-wracking day.  Tatiana is helpful one minute, raging the next, and to Holly, she begins to look less and less familiar, and more and more dangerous and out of control.

Laura Kasischke is a poet.  I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, she has written several award-winning volumes of poetry.  You can definitely feel her poetic roots in Mind of Winter.  The first section, when Holly becomes convinced that her family has somehow been cursed since they brought Tatiana home is the most perfect example of incremental repetition I have ever read.  The list of bad things, small and large, that have befallen them in the past thirteen years keeps growing.  It’s brilliant, and sets the mood for the rest of Mind of Winter – the sense that things will keep going more and more wrong, that the bad energy will keep building on itself until there is some kind of explosion.

Unfortunately, the final third or so of this book really dragged.  It could be because I knew what was coming, but there were so many fetishistic descriptions of Tatty’s appearance, and what felt like the same scene being played over and over in terms of Holly’s interactions with Tatiana.

But then the ending happens, and holy hell, is it good.  Even knowing what was coming, the ending was so damned great.  From Holly and Tatiana and the overwrought Christmas they are having, to the horrific heart-breaking truth in just a few sentences…. it’s a slap to the senses.  It’s that “Wait, WHAT??” reaction that makes you go back and re-read the last few pages, then read them again.  And then, when it all sinks in, and you understand, it gets under your skin in a way that (if you’re me), you have to read the entire book again a few months later to see if that really just happened (short answer: yes).  It’s like being submerged in an overheated hot tub, only to be forcefully yanked into a snowstorm.

So yes, Mind of Winter was great, and nearly as strong on the second reading as on the first.  Laura Kasischke is a genius at building and immersing the reader in atmosphere.  My only gripe is that it might have worked better as a slightly shorter story.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS


Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

Short Take:  Oh, you like murder mysteries with a twist?  Hold my drink and watch this….


This review is a hard one to write, namely because I can only say “WOW GREAT AMAZING” so many ways.

Broken Monsters begins with Detective Gabriella Versado at the scene of a bizarre homicide.  The corpse is actually half of the body of a 10 year old boy, and half of the body of a deer, somehow fused together.  It’s strange, and otherworldly, and hideous, and it won’t be the last one.

Assisting her is brand-new-detective Marcus Jones, a touchingly earnest rookie.  After earning the nickname “Sparkles”, Jones does everything he can to go above and beyond in solving the case, and also to provide a spot of comic relief every now and then.

Working the bizarre homicides from a completely different angle is Jonno, a freelance journalist whose glory days are well behind him.  With his girlfriend, DJ Jen Q, he is trying to expose the murders in order to create his own documentary.  He’s a particularly sleazy breed of opportunist, willing to exploit the horrific murder of a dead child for his own career.

Beyond the crime-scene tape, Versado’s 16 year old daughter, Layla, is a good kid who’s starting to play with fire.  Artistic and a bit of an outcast, she and her new friend Cas have been playing To Catch A Predator with an online pedophile.  What starts as a prank turns dark and ugly, and Gabriella is far too preoccupied with the media-intensive case to realize what’s going on until events have started to spiral out of control.

And finally, there’s TK, a homeless man with a gift for resource liberation and allocation that he uses to benefit as many of Detroit’s homeless as he can.

Speaking of Detroit….

Without a doubt, the main character in Broken Monsters is the city of Detroit.  It’s grimy and squalid, it’s run-down, shabby, crime-ridden, and decaying.  The overwhelming feeling rising off the streets like an odor is despair, and it wafts off of every page. For every person trying to bring back art and culture to the motor city, there are a dozen others who would be happy to see it all burn.

What’s fascinating is that, as insane as the murders are, there are other crimes, smaller crimes, that are happening everywhere, not just the Motor City.  There’s a subplot revolving around a drunken high school girl’s sexual assault that has been recorded and put on the internet, in an uncomfortable echo of Steubenville.

There’s a lesson here as well, regarding our own voyeuristic tendencies, the way we make entertainment of the tragedies of others.  It almost reads like a cautionary tale, like Detroit and its misery is actually what the future holds for all of us.  As a species, we’ve become jaded to the suffering of others, and so isolated from our neighbors that other people are often little more than images on a screen.  It’s this tendency that gives power to the worst of the worst.  If terrorists didn’t have a way to televise their beheadings, and an audience to watch them, would they still do it?

There’s a strong element of is-it-or-isn’t-it with regard to a supernatural slant to the killings.  I’m not going to comment on that either way, as I went into it with zero preconceptions, and it made for a damn fine reading experience that I wouldn’t want to ruin for anyone else.  Suffice it to say, the tension of not knowing what’s really going on is FUN.  There’s one scene where the question is settled, and that scene is flat-out insane in the absolute best way.  I can’t say enough without saying too much.

And finally, the characters are, in my humble opinion, what most writers can only dream of.  They are living, breathing, flawed, loving human beings.  Lauren Beukes has mastered the “show don’t tell” school of characterization.  Each person’s dialog and inner voice and choices reveal so much about them.   You understand them, even when you don’t agree with them.

I could go on and on, but I’m just going to say, read the book.  Read it slowly and savor it, even though you’ll want to race through it to see what happens next.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (only because I don’t have a picture with more than that.)