Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig

Short Take: The big meaty horror novel you’ve been craving.

45833143._sx318_

Good morning, my darling nerdlings, and Happy Almost Back To School! I’ve loved spending my days with the Junior Nerd, but I am definitely looking forward to having some uninterrupted reading time.

I have learned a valuable lesson though: If a book is really great, and if that book is an 800+ page behemoth of awesomeness, well, I’ll have to resort to alternative means to finish it. No kid ever died from 9 straight hours of Minecraft, right?

Anyway.

The book in question is Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, in which a comet passes overhead, and a young girl named Nessie goes for a very long, very strange sleepwalk. Unresponsive and impervious to weather, road debris, and the pleas of her sister, she’s only the first. As the miles and weeks pile up, Nessie is joined by other sleepwalkers who become known as the Flock, and their loved ones (the Shepherds) who try to care for them. The “care” is more for the benefit of the Shepherds, though, as the sleepwalkers don’t wake, eat, or drink, and any attempt to stop them results in something terrible happening.

Of course the media gets involved, and of course the paranoid right-wing and religious lunatics have conspiracy theories that get the militia gun nuts foaming at the mouth, and of course a faded rockstar sees a way to get an easy hit of his favorite drug (fame) by joining the Shepherds, and of course the CDC is struggling to find a cause and/or a cure, and of course the Internet is blowing up all of this and amplifying everything, for better or worse. 

Wanderers is a small personal story of one family struggling with the inexplicable, and it’s a massive universal tale of how humanity responds to something terrible and unknowable – hiding, helping, or hating. 

Our narrators are a nice cross-section of the factions mentioned above. Benji is a disgraced CDC doctor, Shana, Nessie’s sister and the first Shepherd, Pete, the hedonistic rock star, and Matthew, a mediocre pastor moved to fire and brimstone (and a whole lot of notoriety) when he begins preaching against the Flock. 

The main characters have a gorgeous level of depth and realism (and in the case of a certain Neo-Nazi gun nut, a far too realistic amount of insanity), and the pacing is impressive, but what really smoked my anchovies was the sense of immediacy Mr. Wendig created. Each chapter starts with a quote, which isn’t unusual, but the sources firmly ground the story in the USA of the late 2010’s. There are bits from the bible and classic literature, but also twitter, tumblr, and CNN. The author has effortlessly covered all of our contemporary sources of information.

I feel like I should bring up the Stand-sized elephant in the room. Many reviewers have already drawn the obvious comparisons, so I’m not going to elaborate on the similarities. There are a few, of course, because there are similarities in all the stories that involve something terrible happening on a global scale. And although Wanderers gave me marvelous “Stephen King in his 1980’s cocaine-fueled prime” vibes, Mr. Wendig’s writing is more disciplined and less meandering (although I think we can all agree that The Stand’s “No Great Loss” chapter is unmatchable, right?), with an ending that sticks the landing in a way that The Stand didn’t quite manage.

Yes, I know that’s blasphemy in some circles, but it’s true. Big books are hard to end, with so many characters, subplots and settings that inevitably, a ball or three gets dropped, or the author has to resort to something completely out of left field and awkwardly shove it in there. But Wanderers managed to hit the sweet spot, and wind up all of it in ways that may not have always been happy, but fit perfectly.

And I have to include what may be the best line I’ve read in years, with some light censoring for Amazon’s benefit:

Benji lifted the box. “The world was an odder place than I knew.”

“[Shoot], Benji. Have you MET America?”

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big bowl of ice cream, which I understand enhances virtual reality experiences).

Loved this book!!

Advertisements

Buried, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: This author is a sadist and I kind of love her.

40996209._sy475_

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

You guys. You. Guys. Something seriously major has happened here, possibly for the first time ever. Y’all might want to sit down, and if you’re one of my more faint-hearted nerdlings, you may want to put your head between your knees, or just stop reading right here, because I know you will find this shocking and upsetting.

*Deep Breath*

Ok, here goes…..

I was WRONG about a book. 

I know, I know, it’s impossible to believe, right? I will be the first to admit that I’m wrong about a lot of things in life but books are the One Thing that I can usually pontificate about with great certainty, at length. 

So when I first grabbed a copy of Buried, I braced myself for that most heinous of author maladies: the sophomore slump. There is no way, NO POSSIBLE WAY, I thought, that Ms. Cooper could match the brilliance that was Caged. And by that, I mean that Caged was fantastic, not that Ms. Cooper isn’t. But all of my preconceived notions went right on out the proverbial window, and I am happy to admit it one more time: I was SO WRONG.

(*Warning!! If you haven’t read Caged, ((and just why haven’t you??)), there may be spoilers here!!!*)

It’s been a few months since the events of Caged, and Special Agent Sayer Altair is mostly recovered from both the physical and mental wounds she suffered. Her shoulder and heart still ache at times, but her new ward Adi, goofy-puppy-turned-goofy-dog Vesper, and Zen Master/downstairs neighbor Tino have done her a world of good. Although she still has questions about the death of her fiance Jake from years before, she’s ready to get back to Real Work. I mean, studying psychopaths and dodging political punches from a desk is fun and all, but it can’t compare to chasing down an active serial killer.

So she’s in luck (sort of?) when Agent Max Cho, taking a hike on his day off, stumbles into a whole pile of dumped bodies, ranging from the skeletal to the relatively fresh and gooey. 

Cue a Getting The Band Back Together montage, in which some of my favorite characters from Caged (YAY EZRA!!!) and a couple of equally charismatic newbies join the hunt,. And oh my darling nerdlings, what a hunt it is! 

Ms. Cooper has a definite flair for contrasts: combining real-life cutting edge science with the myths of the ancients, or pitting the very personal struggles of Sayer and her group against the backdrop of a Congressional investigation that has implications for the safety of the entire nation, or flashes of humor brightening a story that isn’t afraid to go very, very dark. But most of all, I especially loved (read: hated) seeing the struggles of one particular character who suffered a devastating injury in Caged – their fight for recovery and some kind of normalcy had me simultaneously cheering and tearing up.

And even with that little part of me that missed that fun, getting-to-know-you buzz of first meeting Sayer, being able to skip the niceties and just zoom off on her Silver Hawk to kick some [censored] was great too. For all the personal and emotional elements of Buried, there are still plenty of twists, turns, fights, chases, and a bombshell or two. We even get a new dog friend, who’s Vesper’s opposite in every way, and is it weird that I’m looking forward to the two of them meeting? (Confession: I may have watched way too much Lady and the Tramp as a kid.)

Guys, I even liked the cliffhanger ending, and you all know how I feel about those. For real, just read it. After you read Caged, of course, because did I mention how much I love that one?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS! (and something sweet that isn’t lava cake. Because gooey is NOT good right now. Also, I need a hug. And maybe a puppy.)

Loved this book!!

Temper, by Layne Fargo

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

42063845

 

(*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!!

The East End, by Jason Allen

Short Take: Wildly implausible, but I didn’t even care.

2019-05-07 - Blog Tour - Allen, Jason - The East End

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

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, my beloved nerdlings, spring is FINALLY in the air. Is it me, or did winter last about forty-seven years? Although I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not much for sports or camping, there are two things that make me crave this time of year: #1, I really, really hate being cold, and #2, I really REALLY love drinking cocktails while reading on the patio.

Speaking of debauched languor, let me introduce you all to The East End, and its fascinating look at two very different sides of the Hamptons (or any playground for the wealthy, I’d imagine).

First we meet Corey Halpern, whose single mom Gina has been working as a housekeeper for the billionaire Sheffields for a dozen years. Seventeen years old, Corey wants nothing more than to get away from the poverty, addiction, and abuse that plague his mother’s every waking moment. He’s a seething ball of resentment, but instead of following Gina’s path, he’s got his sights set on college and keeping his nose clean, as we say around here.

Except for one teensy little felonious habit: he likes to break into the houses of the super-rich, usually while the occupants are sound asleep inside. He doesn’t steal anything, or murder them, as tempting as that may be in some cases. No, Corey just likes to mess with the one percenters’ heads a bit – putting salt in the milk, rearranging paintings, that kind of thing.

It’s fairly harmless, and he’s never been caught, but when Corey decides to do his thing at the Sheffields’ house the night before they are scheduled to arrive for the summer, it all goes sideways.

First, the Sheffields’ rebellious daughter Tiffany (ugh, her name WOULD be Tiffany) arrives with her best friend for a night of drinking and movie-watching, trapping Corey on the property. And then Leo Sheffield, the billionaire himself, shows up with his Darkest Secret in tow.

My duckies, do I need to tell you that Everything Goes Horribly Wrong?

What follows is an absolutely gripping downward spiral, seen through the eyes of Cory, Gina, and Leo as each of them reckons with their own demons while simultaneously trying to outwit the others and save themselves.

As I raced to the end (of the End, heh), my poor oversugared brain was at war with itself. The characters are some of the best in recent memory, and even when I was appalled by their actions, I could understand their motivations and feel sympathy for their various situations (even the ones of their own making). But as plot twist after twist landed, I couldn’t help but think “This is INSANE!!!” more than a few times.

But by insane, I mean audacious. As much as I can’t imagine the final scenes in any real-life way, the story is so lean and tight that I also can’t find any specific point where Mr. Allen jumps the rails into “readers are stupid enough to believe this” territory. He manages to take us into the characters’ heads enough that their actions make sense, without over-explaining, hitting that sweet spot (mmmmm sweets) that many authors strive for and never attain.

And in the end (the End) (no I’m not tired of that joke yet), The East End is a breath-holding tightwire act, with more than one fall and also a couple of perfect landings. I’m willing to forgo a bit of realism for a story like this.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a lovely charcuterie platter.)

Loved this book!!

Saving Meghan, by DJ Palmer

Short Take: Ripped from the headlines! But like, not in a lame way.

91pjxk3xwsl
I know it’ll come as a shock to some of you, but I occasionally look at things that aren’t books. Don’t get me wrong, fiction is my longest-running love, but once in a while, I peek out of my nerd cave and get a look at the real world. I’m not going to go into a political rant (although there are PLENTY of topics ripe for a good one), but believe me when I say that some of the real-life stuff I have seen lately is crazier than fiction.

For example, I’ve been following the case of Susan Schofield Cabana for some time. This psycho has been poisoning her kids with elephant-size doses of antipsychotic drugs for conditions they’ve never been diagnosed with, and documenting it on social media for years. Those kids were recently removed from the home, thankfully, although it’s yet to be determined how much permanent damage their little brains have suffered. And everyone’s heard of Gypsy Blanchard, of “Mommy Dead And Dearest” fame, and Lacey Spears, and who knows how many others.

What I’m getting at is, Munchausen Syndrome by proxy is a very real, very terrifying thing, and the medical community and court system are just now starting to get hip to it. The idea that a mother would intentionally harm her children, and in many cases be rewarded with attention and financial gain is shocking, but it keeps happening, and usually is only discovered when the “nurturing” parent goes too far and accidentally kills the child.

Which is where Saving Meghan comes in. It’s a fairly simple story: sixteen-year-old Meghan’s health has been declining for two years, with no apparent cause. Becky, Meghan’s mother, was raised by her own mother Cora to learn all the tricks of medical manipulation. Cora taught Becky how to cozy up to doctors and fake symptoms in order to keep the disability money rolling in

Now an adult with an increasingly ill child of her own, Becky is willing to use every ploy in her arsenal to get Meghan the help she needs. But IS Meghan sick, or is Becky harming her?

It’s not a complicated question, but Mr. Palmer does an incredible job of surrounding Meghan and Becky with richly complex characters. Carl, her father, is aware of Becky’s past, and although he wants to protect Meghan, she has her own reasons for not trusting him. Dr. Zachary Fisher thinks he may know what’s going on, but he has an agenda of his own, making his motivations questionable and putting him at odds with both colleagues and superiors at the hospital.

And as parents, doctors, and attorneys fight it out, Meghan keeps getting sicker.

In order to stick to my “no spoilers EVER” rule, I’m not going to say anything else about the plot. I mentioned above that the characters are brilliantly drawn, but what really makes Saving Meghan a standout is how well the characters drive the plot, and vice-versa. Becky, Carl, Dr. Fisher, and the others are human and flawed, and even when they are doing the wrong thing, they are doing it from a place that I think most of us can sympathize with.

Now for the bad stuff – I couldn’t get a single thing done till I finished this book. My dirty clothes hamper is overflowing, dirty dishes are piled up, and Vincent the cat had to head-butt me like five times to get his food bowl filled.  He will be the first to tell you that’s completely unacceptable. Worst of all, I found myself thinking “unputdownable” and I HATE that “word”, but the lead-up to the final twist demanded it. In other words, this book is so great that it messed up my housekeeping, cat, and brain. Ok, the brain wasn’t in great shape to begin with, but you get the idea.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a snack that is most emphatically NOT chicken soup.)

Loved this book!!

Hunting Annabelle, by Wendy Heard

Short Take: Sing it with me now! “I see your truuuuueee colors shining through…”
91u6EiB-wPL

Hello to all of my nerdlings, and Happy New Year(‘s Eve)!! It’s that time of year, where we make a bunch of resolutions that will be forgotten by February, when the piles of Valentine chocolates arrive to wreak havoc with waistlines and willpower. Or sooner, if you’re me, and there’s still some Christmas fudge hanging around the house.

But at the same time, I can’t imagine a better poster boy for making resolutions than Sean Suh, the star of Wendy Heard’s delicious Hunting Annabelle.

The year is 1986, and Sean has a lot of issues. Like, a LOT a lot. Recently released from a mental institution after committing a horrific crime as a teenager, Sean now lives with his mother, a prominent neurosurgeon who loves, fears, and resents her son in equal measure.

A diagnosed schizophrenic and gifted artist, Sean spends his days at Four Corners Amusement Park in Austin, sketching random people and admiring the beautiful, colorful auras he sees surrounding them. It’s there he runs into Annabelle, and where the fun really gets going.

Over the next couple of days, Sean is charmed by Annabelle and her glittering, copper-colored aura, even as he fights his own worst, most violent impulses. It seems like he might be getting things under control, when suddenly, Annabelle is shoved, screaming, into a strange van and disappears.

Needless to say, Sean’s life quickly takes a turn for the desperate. Unsure at first if Annabelle is even missing, it doesn’t take long for the authorities to focus their attention on Sean, and he himself can’t even be sure that her kidnapping actually happened, or if it was another one of his delusions.

What follows is a somewhat by-the-book thriller, as Sean must Search Annabelle’s Past to find out Who She Really Is, and to try to save her (and himself) Before It’s Too Late.

But then…. Well, then there are a few really great twists and an ending that is absolutely dizzying. And while my curmudgeonly side is trying to poke holes and find alllllll the ways it would never ever work out that way, I’m smacked upside the jowls over and over again by Ms. Heard’s one brilliant, simple, perfect plot device:

She set the book in 1986.

Seriously, I caught myself repeatedly thinking things like “Why doesn’t Sean just Google Annabelle?” Uh, 1986, ya stupid nerd. “Wait, you’re telling me the FBI databases don’t show a pattern of [spoiler]?” Hello, 1986, lunkhead.  And so on and so forth. Simple, but extremely effective.

And the author maintains the illusion perfectly. From the color scheme that every home had (peach and aqua) to the fashions (shoulder pads, slouchy socks with snow-white Keds), to the music on the walkman (SO MANY FLASHBACKS!!), the mullets, the white pages and rotary phones, smoking indoors in public places, and a thousand other details, it’s seamless.

But the juiciest treat of all is that ending. THAT ENDING. I had guessed fairly early on who was behind Annabelle’s kidnapping, but the why of it, and the aftermath, well, chalk up another jowl-smack. Of course I won’t give it away here, but trust me, you are not prepared for where Hunting Annabelle takes you.

Now, time to break out some booze and snacks, cause it’s midnight somewhere, and I want to get a head start on my resolution-breaking.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a New Coke. Seriously, SO MANY FLASHBACKS.)

Loved this book!!

Caged, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: Welp, my gob is thoroughly smacked.

caged-feat

My last review focused pretty heavily on comparing a new book (Pretty Ugly Lies) to a previous bestseller (Big Little Lies), and the fact that it tried to copy a successful book, and left out everything great about the original. Today, I’m looking at the flip side of that coin: Ellison Cooper has brought Clarice Starling into the 21st century, and oh my sweet nerdlings! She. Freaking. Killed. It.

Caged begins with a bang – two Washington DC cops are called to an abandoned house with a report of a foul odor, and as they begin searching the house, well, something pretty awful and unexpected happens that I’m not going to spoiler here even though it’s the first chapter. Just trust me.

Eventually, a young girl’s body is found in a cage in the basement of the house, along with a living puppy and evidence that the killer may have another girl locked up somewhere else. It’s going to be a race against time to find the girl, and the killer is really, really smart, y’all. I mean scary-smart, in the Hannibal Lecter way, not the cheesy super-villain who spends a half hour explaining everything way.

Enter Sayer Altair. She’s an FBI agent and a neuroscientist, who works cases and also is using various brain imaging techniques to try to figure out if psycopathy has a physical cause in the brain. She’s also biracial, rides a motorcycle, and is a little (or a lot) damaged and isolated since the death of her fiance.

The rest of the cast is also well-rounded and interesting: Vik Devereaux, a laid-back Cajun who’s a perfect yin to Altair’s yang; Andy Wagner, a hot-shot profiler with arrogance aplenty; Joan Warren, medical examiner who’s the closest thing Sayer has to a girlfriend; Ezra, an evidence tech with hidden talents; Janice Holt, battleaxe boss extraordinaire; and Tino, her downstairs neighbor who’s just a really cool guy and first-rate dog-sitter.

The extra-awesome thing about all of these characters is that there’s some degree of growth and change in them, but not in a stupid way. There’s no romantic subplot (and how nice is it that for once, a strong female character can be just that, without having to grab a man to round out her story), just people who start out with a common goal (GET THE BAD GUY!!!!) and start to find a bit of introspection and camaraderie.

The plot is even more compelling than the characters. As I mentioned above, this killer is miles beyond just about any I’ve ever seen, and there are twists, turns, red herrings, and lots of science that sounds crazy, but is actually A Real Thing, along with splashes of mythology, psychology, cool forensics tricks, and a distinctly charming puppy. In other words, it has everything.

I realize I’m not saying much about how the story unfolds, but trust me when I say, this is one that you just want to jump onto and enjoy the ride. I had pegged the killer as one of two people, and although I got it half-right, I was totally off on the motivation side of things. But listen, do yourself a favor, and when a certain medical condition is mentioned, no matter what, DO NOT google image search it. Seriously, it’s too late for me, but you can still save yourselves.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some brain bleach, because OMG CAN NOT UNSEE!!!)

Loved this book!!