Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier

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

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The New Neighbors, by Simon Lelic

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

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*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!!

Yesterday, When We Died, by Chad A. Clark

Short Take: Delicious horror with a heart.

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You know that feeling, when you pull on a pair of jeans or a coat you haven’t worn in a few years, and when you stick your hand in the pocket, you find a $20 bill? Or maybe, you’re kind-of thinking about something sweet, and morosely looking through the fridge for the fifth time, not seeing anything you want, and suddenly, you happen to notice half of a Symphony bar stuck way in the back. Maybe it’s been a long day, and your feet are cold and achy, and there’s that exquisite moment when you put on your favorite thick puffy slippers.

In other words, that feeling when a half-realized craving suddenly shoots to the front of your brain at the exact second that it is blissfully and completely satisfied. That, my friends, was the feeling I got when reading this book. I’ve been seriously jonesing for a good haunted-house story for SO LONG, and had practically given up hope, when this little gem came across my “free horror ebooks” feed. I downloaded it, then grumpily sat on it for a bit, having decided that haunted houses were dead, and not in the good way. But one night when idly flipping through my nook to find something that wouldn’t tax my brain too much, I figured, well, why not, it couldn’t be much worse than some of the stuff I’ve read lately.

What a savory surprise I got! In short, Yesterday, When We Died is the story of Kyle, and his two best friends Grant and Shannon, who decide to spend a bro-bonding week at a remote cabin. Kyle has not been the same since his ex-girlfriend Cheryl’s suicide, and the others think that it would do him some good to spend some time drinking, fishing, farting loudly, peeing outside, and whatever else it is that guys do when bro-bonding.

What Kyle doesn’t tell the others, however, is that shortly before killing herself, Cheryl also spent some time at the cabin to get some distance from the breakup.  But she came back…. different. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, and when she spoke, nothing made sense. Her family and Kyle tried to intervene, but eventually, she had to go into an institution, where she leapt from the roof and died.

So, here we are, a year later, with Kyle, Grant, and Shannon digging into the aforementioned bro-bonding in the aforementioned Cabin Where Something Is Very Wrong, when things start getting crazy. And crazier. And creepier. And really freaking scary.  Threatening figures seen out of the corner of an eye that disappear when examined more closely. Horrific dreams that might not be dreams, and visions that could drive any one of them to murder the others. And of course, the obligatory car that won’t start in the middle of nowhere.

Let me tell you all, for such a short work, Mr. Clark does an impressive job of packing in the atmosphere. The earthy smells, the shadowy woods, the isolation – I could seriously FEEL the place.  And the final climax hurt me in a good way, because despite the many fantastic fear elements in this book, ultimately, it’s a story about friendship, love, redemption, and sacrifice.

All horror should be so loving.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a Symphony bar. I could swear I stashed one somewhere around here….)

Loved this book!!

The Touch: A Trilogy, by A. G. Carpenter

Short Take:  I can only say wow so many times, people.

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*Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

I do love me some good Southern Gothic. Give me the moss, the humidity, the accents, the witchy women and rawboned men and we are in BUSINESS. Alas, my reading adventures have been sorely lacking in any kind of tasty home-fried creepy southern goodness lately, to the point that it had been so long, I didn’t even realize how much I missed it.

Until today.  The opening of this book is a harrowing, attention-getting, where-are-my-socks-oh-they-are-blown-off, unexpected treat. I was hooked from that very first snippet.

The Touch Trilogy is (as the name implies) a collection of three sequential novellas, combined here into one juicy delicious book. The book takes place in various locations in Georgia, in a world that’s basically ours, but with one glaring exception: Some people have The Touch, which allows them to see and affect the future, go through flames without being burned, and a whole bunch of other fun things that I won’t spoil here.

The problem with having the The Touch is that it frequently drives people to murderous insanity. Enter Delaney Green: as a child, her mother attempted to burn her alive (see murderous insanity), and she spent most of her formative and young adult life in an institution, where the people in charge used electroshock therapy and drugs to suppress her powers.

There are different levels of magic though, and while Delaney has the strongest, others, such as FBI Agent Percival Cox are known as Sensitives. They can see/hear/feel things that the rest of us can’t, but it doesn’t seem like their powers can affect others, nor are they known for losing their minds and going on homicidal rampages.

When Percival is investigating a series of gruesome murders that seems to have supernatural elements, the clues lead him to Delaney. And from there, the story goes to a few of the places I expected (c’mon, you just KNOW there will be some kind of voodoo in the back of a dusty old shop), and at least one place (not spoiling!) that I absolutely did not see coming.  

Percy and Delaney are great characters, and their eventual meeting and partnership in trying to stop the murderer made for a fantastic story. However, that story is only the first third of the trilogy. Part 2 did not hang together as well for me, and this is where I almost gave up. It felt like a completely different story, like it didn’t quite match the beginning. Half of it takes place in a setting far removed from the familiar ones. There was one character who was grotesque in a way that I would assume was unintentional, as she was supposed to be one of the Good Guys, but I cringed every time she was on the page.

It also seemed that there were a few threads left hanging in the end, possibly with the intention of adding to the series. A very important file that’s negotiated for, smuggled out, and never mentioned again. Some missing bones that might be used for a nefarious purpose, or might not. Some potential for rebounding magic that could do a lot of harm in the future, or maybe no.

Overall though, just about everything else came together beautifully in Part 3. Ms. Carpenter’s writing style is exactly the kind of poetic that I like. It’s evocative, letting a few sentences create a mood you can almost touch, but not so far into the realm of purple prose as to be distracting. That’s a tough line to walk and the author does it well. The ending was exquisite, a yummy cocktail of beauty, pain, loss, and love. Despite its flaws, this one is worth savoring.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some salt. You never know when you’ll need it!)

Loved this book!!

Stingy Jack And Other Tales, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: Even the tricks are delicious.
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Note: I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hello all you lovely internet people! I come bearing some seriously spookalicious stuff from one of my favorite masters of mayhem. If any of you have been following this site at all, you’re already familiar with my fan-girly squeals over Mr. Greene, and you may have already read my reviews of a couple of these stories, from other collections. Most of them, however, are new to me, and I can say without reservation that each one of them is exactly the ooey gooey (and slightly oozing?) Halloween treat you’ve all been jonesing for.

As most of you know, I am not super into short stories, but Mr. Greene’s shorts somehow manage to satisfy my craving for something big & meaty. (Did that sound dirty? I feel like that sounded dirty). The author manages to describe a decade of backstory in just a few sentences, and can make you see a complete character with just a brief snippet of dialogue. And as for the plots, well… Besides loads of good, old-fashioned, bloody terror in each and every one, there are also liberal doses of heartbreak, redemption, and humor.

I can hear all of you howling and gnashing your teeth, imploring me, “yes, Nerd, the stories are great, but what are they ABOUT??” So without further ado, here’s a brief overview of each one.

Stingy Jack, Ol’ Scratch, and a Head Full of Fire:  A medieval-era fire-phobic, self-pitying, manipulative, lecherous, turnip-loving drunk makes a deal with the devil (is this Nerd surprised that the devil is a fratboy? NOPE). A Halloween must-read.

Unto The Earth: A terribly toxic marriage is not what it appears to be.

Nightbound:  Breaking into an abandoned mansion and finding coffins in the basement seems like a horror cliche, but there’s a whole other story here, about escaped convicts, a heist, bags of money, a sociopath, and a girl who’s prettier and greedier than she is smart.

Gramma’s House:  A trio of methheads breaks into the titular house, only to enter… The Twilight Zone.

The Plagues of Winter:  After a blizzard, an isolated northeastern island community finds itself dealing with much worse problems than no internet.

Guardian of the Orchard: The tale of three brothers who like to sneak into Old Man Peterson’s orchard to steal apples (and maybe have a good old-fashioned rotten apple fight once in awhile), and Old Man Peterson’s twisted, demonic act of revenge on them. Or maybe it’s about something entirely different.

Cinderblock:  Once a world class boxer, always a world class boxer.

Black Cloud:  If you’ve ever done something terrible, you know that the black cloud never really leaves. What you may not realize is that it might have a mind of its own.

3:33 The Bloodbird:  Sibling rivalry is no joke.

How Me and Bozy Became Dads:  A typical day of a group of inmates doing roadside clean-up duty becomes something entirely unexpected.

The Curse of Kirby: So let’s say you have the neighbors from hell.  And you happen to bump into a Goth-ish girl who can communicate with ghosts, and sort-of control a particularly strong one.  What could go wrong?

So to sum it up, this is the Halloween candy you have been craving, minus the calories. You know you want it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a full-size Milky Way bar. Seriously, whoever came up with the concept of “fun size” doesn’t understand fun.)

Loved this book!!

Superstition, by Rana Kelly

Short Take: Vulnerability never looked so invincible.

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Hello, my lovely nerdlings! Today, we’re going to take a little break from my usual menu of murder, mayhem, and mockery, to look at something a little bit different: Poetry. That’s right, the nemesis of non-english-majors everywhere popped up in my inbox, along with a review request, and who am I to turn down a nicely-worded request from a publisher?

My delight at being recognized as A Real Reviewer soon turned to a bit of anxiety, however, when I realized that #1, I don’t know anything about capital-P Poetry, really, and #2, I have no idea how to review it. When I review fiction, I have a few handy criteria that I can fall back on, such as plot, characters, pacing, and so on, to determine if it’s “good” or not. Those things are easy to spot most of the time, and if I’m not certain where I land opinion-wise, the act of writing a review will usually serve as a kind of meditation, with my thoughts crystallizing as I organize them into written words.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m totally out of my depth here, but willing to take a crack at it. I’ve never actually sat and read an entire book of poetry before, I don’t think. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy poetry quite a lot, but to me, it’s best digested in small amounts, letting each piece breathe for a bit, and savoring it slowly. To me, a poem is kind of like a novel, it’s complete in and of itself, and doesn’t really require a bunch of its bros hanging around to be seen as a whole.

So, not knowing what I was for, I dove in. And was immediately assaulted.

Rana Kelly has lived through a lot: a dysfunctional family, her own struggles with bipolar disorder, and any number of difficult, abusive relationships. She explores all of it through her poetry and a handful of essays in Superstition, and although I am hardly a master of real, artistic writing, I can say with all confidence that it this book not for the faint of heart.

I knew from her previous novel that Ms. Kelly’s writing is like thunderstorms and razor blades, but I was not fully prepared for the the wolves, the whisky, the anguished cries and the incredible power that I found in this little book.  I don’t know many people who could look at themselves so unflinchingly, let alone, put what they see out there for all the world to consume. Yes, the balance does tend to lean heavily on the side of “my lover broke my heart” pieces, but there are also confessions of her own complicity in these things, her own anger and torment when she looks at herself, and sees only herself looking back.

It’s beautiful, and also strangely unsettling and voyeuristic, seeing someone cut themselves open, over and over and over again, performance art displayed in blood and tears and dark waters that go down forever.

So I’m rambling on here, and I imagine that there are hordes of my followers (7-8 could be a horde, right?) clamoring to know, is this book any good? Should I buy this and read it, or what?

And to that I can only say that poetry is one of the most subjective forms of art out there, but in my humble opinion, Superstition is an experience that people need to have. Rana Kelly’s utter fearlessness in looking at herself has affected me in ways I did not expect, challenging me in ways that I think I needed.

To anyone looking for just the highlights, to me, “Whisky”, “Women and Horses” and “Glasgow Is My Mother” were my favorites.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a shot of something dark and smoky. Trust me, you’ll want one too.)

Loved this book!!

Of Foster Homes and Flies, by Chad Lutzke

Short Take: Weirdly gorgeous.

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*Note: I was given a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review*

Every so often, a jaded old reader likes me gets smacked right in the gob with something entirely different. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s both a delight and a burden. A joy, because how often have I read the same-old, same-old, the tired tropes and the telegraphed twists, the scares that aren’t scary, and the “emotional” scenes that read more like soap operas performed by nervous middle schoolers?

Far too many.

And it’s a burden, because how can I explain my delight in something when I don’t even fully understand it? Oh, not the story itself, that is actually pretty straightforward. Denny, a highly precocious if profoundly neglected sixth-grader has decided that this is His Year. He will compete in the school spelling bee, and bring home a ribbon that would make his deceased father proud.

There’s one flaw in the plan, however. A few days before the competition, his extremely alcoholic mother dies in her sleep, right in the middle of the living room.

What’s a very smart kid who wasn’t at all close to his mother to do? Well, he could report her death, and run the risk of being sent to foster care or an orphanage and miss the spelling bee, or he could just hold off for a few days, keep it a secret, and finish what he set out to do. Needless to say, Denny opts for the latter choice.

For such a short work, less than 200 pages and covering only a few days, there’s a surprising amount to unpack here. For one thing, Foster Homes doesn’t quite fit into any simple category.

I see several descriptions calling this book a “coming of age” story, and while I suppose that’s true (Denny’s experience over those few days would be a pretty fast innocence killer), there’s both more and less to it than that. For one thing, it seems as though Denny ends the book pretty much the same person he was at the beginning. I’m not going to say if he gets a happy ending with a new family, or wins the spelling bee, or goes to foster care hell, or any of the obvious outcomes as far as plot. It’s obviously a life-changing few days, as once the truth comes out, his outer life is going to be changed.

But Denny is the same self-sufficient, basically good kid at the end of the book that he was at the beginning, and that’s not really a bad thing. SHOULD Denny lose it over a person who never really cared about him? For Denny to be OK in the beginning of the book, and the same OK person at the end is more than acceptable. In fact, it’s kind of revolutionary.  Mad props to the author for that one. Hollywood (and yes, most books) have taught me and everyone else that a major experience has to change a person on a fundamental level, that they should be wiser or stronger or braver or whatever. But what if that person is, seriously, fine the way they are? Maybe it’s about time that we recognize that not every big experience has to have a Deeper Profound Meaning.  Bravo, Mr. Lutzke.

But that DOES kinda shoot the whole “coming of age” thing in the foot.

There’s also a strong element of drama, the sense of how much the terrible secret is weighing on Denny, that his young shoulders are probably not up to the task of carrying it for five days. And when everything goes down, his genuine emotional breakdown is not only understandable, but a welcome release.

And finally, at a quick glance, Chad Lutzke seems to be mainly a horror author, and while the descriptions of the mother’s body are horrifying, I don’t know that I would consider this one a horror novel per se. That said, I also would emphatically not recommend reading this while eating.

And I also just want to throw another neuron at this author for some absolutely beautiful bits of writing throughout Foster Homes. For example, there’s a paragraph describing a chair, early in the book, that evoked a shocking amount of feeling. Yes, a chair.

But mostly, I just loved that for as tight as this book is, as narrow in focus, and as wonderfully simple as it is, it’s also kind of a messy, genre-defying amazingly human story. It doesn’t fit neatly into any bookstore category, it doesn’t aspire to be more than it is, and it’s so powerful for that.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some incense. And a long shower with lots of soap. Because seriously, VERY graphic descriptions!)

Loved this book!!